Articulate Silences

Tacet / Tacet / Tacet

Month: November, 2012

Lichtbogen, Kaija Saariaho

Lichtbogen opens with the smallest of musical gestures; the flow of air moving across a mouthpiece, a tentative exhalation of breath producing the faintest hint of a tone. From this trembling nucleus of sound, the flute note steadily gains in weight and force, establishing itself within the aural space as its articulation becomes ever more assured. Yet, as soon as the tone appears to have settled into equilibrium it is transformed; its pastel colouration is imbued with a metallic shimmer as bowed strings furtively rise from the periphery, fusing to the flute’s timbre whilst simultaneously altering it. Next, a stuttering piano enters and what was once a pure, unified sound is gradually frayed as the string bowing becomes increasingly erratic, punctuated by the shiver of pitched percussion. Beginning with the intimate, barely audible sound of a breath, this elegant morphing of musical textures serves as a microcosm for the intoxicating soundscapes of the piece to come.

Composed in 1986, Lichtbogen is one of Kaija Saariaho’s earliest successes, scored for a small chamber orchestra including live electronics. Although she would later explore even more mysterious sound-worlds in her larger scale orchestral works, Lichtbogen conjures a stunning array of iridescent, tactile textures with a relatively limited sound palette. The seductive mystique common to all of Saariaho’s music is ever-present throughout Lichtbogen: this music is dream-like and ephemeral, a spectral web of sound that is as evocative as it is elusive. The piece hovers in an elegant stasis, hanging motionless in time and space even as its surface is texturally animated and vibrantly coloured; as such, Lichtbogen is at once welcoming yet subtly nuanced, revealing its vast multidimensionality under increased scrutiny.

As opposed to the pungent, occasionally claustrophobic, atmospheres of some of Saariaho’s orchestral music, Lichtbogen’s modest means affords generous space to the soundscape: this music is transparent and airy without ever becoming anaemic or insubstantial. As in the striking opening of the piece, Saariaho’s orchestration, as well as her subtle use of live electronics, perpetually blurs the lines between the individual instruments of the ensemble until they appear to melt into a single entity; independent voices are subsumed into the unified musical texture, coalescing into a sparkling cloud of sound. Lichtbogen’s abstract nature is balanced by its graceful luminosity: this piece is neither reticent nor austere, only reserved and refined, indulging in the sensuality of musical sound whilst simultaneously retaining a delicate poise.

Below is a recording of Lichtbogen accompanied by a brief listening guide.

Lichtbogen does not demand attentive listening, although it does greatly reward it; its subtlety is belied by its façade of simplicity. Following the majestic opening section described above, a gently lilting texture enters at 1:35 as arpeggios on piano and percussion rustle beneath an amorphous fog of strings and flute. This passage gradually disintegrates and at 4:09 a graceful flute melody rises above the mist. A particularly striking passage begins at around 7:10 as fragments of falling melodies are traced atop a contorting mass of strings, steadily becoming more insistent and culminating at 7:28 when a melody is passed between strings, piano and flute. Having passed through a variety of musical textures, Lichtbogen culminates in a stunning closing section (beginning at around 14:13) as a low throb of sound enters the soundscape. The live electronics are particularly prominent in this section, blurring aural perspectives as exasperated gestures on the flute are cloaked in a shimmer of pitched percussion and electronically manipulated sound.

The above recording is played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen; it is available on the Ondine label, as part of a comprehensive set of Saariaho’s orchestral works.

To delve further into Saariaho’s orchestral sound-world both Graal Théâtre (1997) and D’Om Le Vrai Sens (2010), a violin concerto and a clarinet concerto respectively, are highly recommended. Saariaho’s works for solo cello, in particular Sept Papillons (2000), maintain the same mystique even with a vastly diminished sound palette. Saariaho’s works are occasionally reminiscent of György Ligeti‘s orchestral pieces of the 60s and 70s, in particular the luminous Lontano (1967) and Clocks and Clouds (1972).

Artwork: Hero and Leandro, Cy Twombly

by Thomas May

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Eraserhead Original Soundtrack, David Lynch & Alan Splet

Film soundtracks are often deemed unworthy of serious musical attention. This can be attributed, at least in part, to the belief that sound is subordinate to image in film; within the Hollywood tradition it has been the prevailing view that music should merely enhance the emotional and narrative content of the image without playing any significant role in the construction of a film’s meaning. In contrast to this pervasive ideology, American director David Lynch has consistently afforded an unusually prominent role to the soundtrack, beginning with his enigmatic debut feature film Eraserhead (1977). Working alongside the film’s sound designer Alan Splet, Lynch sculpted an ominous sound-world of industrial noise using the techniques of musique concrète, a form of electro-acoustic composition pioneered by Pierre Schaeffer.

Throughout the soundtrack, Lynch and Splet blur the boundaries between music and noise, the physical and the abstract. On occasion, a haunting glimpse of a jazz-inflected organ, obscured in a cloud of reverb, rises from the claustrophobic fog of noise, hovering for an instant before becoming subsumed again within the surrounding soundscape. The juxtaposition of the fragility, as well as the emotional naïvety, of the organs with the suffocating industrial sound-world serves to deepen the soundtrack’s mystique; in this setting, the fleeting moments of beauty are instilled with a darkly sinister edge. With Eraserhead‘s soundtrack, Lynch and Splet have constructed a foreboding, nihilistic sound-world haunted by vague, half-remembered snippets of music, hinting at a simplicity and innocence that will remain perpetually out of reach.

As such, the Eraserhead soundtrack shivers with a distinct sense of the uncanny: this music is at once alien whilst simultaneously nostalgic, imbued with an elegant melancholy. This effect is only augmented when the soundtrack is heard within the context of the film. The sounds are situated in an ambiguous, liminal space; it is never made clear whether the music is emanating from within the film-world or from some external source. The actors’ voices are intertwined with the soundtrack, punctuating the formless layers of noise with mysteriously musical, fragmentary utterances. Swelling organs disperse into the violent hiss of a radiator and pure, glassy tones appear to radiate directly from the seductive figure of the film’s femme fatale. The elusive positioning of the soundtrack in relation to the images conjures an atmosphere of the surreal, skirting the fantastical boundaries between reality and fantasy.

Therein lies the problematic nature of considering a film score purely as a piece of music. Abstracted from its position in an intricate audio-visual relationship, a soundtrack’s raison d’être is somewhat undermined. As such, the soundtrack to Eraserhead proves that music in film can be as challenging, ambiguous and strikingly creative as any other form of composition whilst simultaneously emphasising the importance of the dialogue between sound and image: perhaps the only way to fully appreciate this remarkable piece of music is in conjunction with Lynch’s equally unsettling, often shocking, images. Yet, this fact does little to diminish Lynch and Splet’s achievements with this score: Eraserhead‘s soundtrack is at once texturally vibrant, disquieting and intensely immersive.

Below is a recording of Eraserhead accompanied by a brief listening guide.

Eraserhead‘s soundtrack moves through a variety of aural environments, whilst remaining remarkably uniform in its brooding atmosphere. Following a claustrophobic opening, the soundtrack unfolds at 4:07 into a more spacious passage scattered with organs playing beneath the grainy surface and the distant sound of a siren. At 6:42, a brief passage of dialogue from the film is included, anchoring the ephemeral soundscape with musical voices. Having twisted through further labyrinthine passages of noise, music and dialogue, the baby’s cry is first heard at 14:12, a sound that will come to torment the film’s characters; in this section the baby’s voice is juxtaposed against a playful organ. Further points to notice throughout the soundtrack include; the blaring organ which melts into the low rumble of a radiator at 20:11-21:23, the strikingly beautiful passage of luminous tones accompanying the seductive, lilting dialogue at 23:05-24:27, and the quivering vulnerability of the song (sung by a woman living behind a radiator) at 24:44-26:14.

The Eraserhead soundtrack was restored and released on CD by Absurda in 2009. A vinyl issue was released earlier this year by Sacred Bones, including some previously unheard material.

Toro Takemitsu’s musique concrète soundtrack for Masaki Kobayashi’s 1964 film Kwaidan also blurs the boundaries between sound that is internal and external to the world of the film, creating a similarly unsettling sound-world. The orchestral film scores of Bernard Herrmann also reach beyond traditional notions of the soundtrack, assimilating a range of styles from late-Romanticism to serialism; his famous scores for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Vertigo (1958) are particularly recommended.

Artwork: Untitled (from the Black Series), Frank Stella

by Thomas May

Studies for Player Piano, Conlon Nancarrow

Studies for Player Piano is a fascinating, albeit utterly uncompromising, testament to the power of one man’s imagination. Indeed, it can be difficult to believe that all of its complexity, vitality and ingenuity is the work of a single musician. Written over a lengthy period from 1948 to 1992, this sprawling collection of pieces represents the lifetime obsession of American-born composer Conlon Nancarrow. Having emigrated to Mexico in 1940 in order to escape potential persecution as a communist sympathiser, Nancarrow lived the majority of his life cut off from the musical community, pursuing his idiosyncratic vision in virtual isolation.

Excited by the potential of mechanical music to achieve levels of speed and rhythmic complexity hitherto unimagined, Nancarrow decided to invest in a player piano in 1947. The instrument had always been dismissed as little more than a novelty, used for light entertainment but untouched by serious musicians; yet, something about the contraption attracted Nancarrow, appealing to his desire for scientific exploration as well as his acute sense of the absurd. In modifying its mechanism, Nancarrow was able to push his instrument’s speed to the absolute limit, almost surpassing the threshold of the human perceptual ability to distinguish between successive sounds.

Nancarrow’s sound-world exists in a state of hypersensuality and erratic hyperactivity: this music launches an assault on the senses with a relentless effusion of sound. Yet, whilst the adoption of the player piano certainly unlocked a wealth of new possibilities to Nancarrow in his explorations of rhythm and tempo, the medium imposed a stringent set of restrictions of its own. Indeed, despite its exaggerated sonic character, Studies for Player Piano can be viewed as a highly disciplined work. The self-imposed limitations of the player piano served to catalyse the composer to come up with ingenious solutions to the unique dilemmas posed by the instrument; Nancarrow incorporates the mechanistic, inhuman quality of the piano as a defining aspect of his music, invigorating its thin, lifeless timbre by constructing dense contrapuntal textures punctuated with jarring glissandi.

As such, there is a seductive tension lying at the core of Studies for Player Piano, a perpetual push and pull between man and machine, the expanse of the imagination and the limits of technology. It might be remarkable that Nancarrow was able to create such a rich and nuanced work isolated as he was from the artistic community, yet perhaps this is precisely the sort of music that can only be made in strict solitude. This work conforms to a logic of its own creation; its gaze is turned perpetually inwards, situated in an entirely distinct dimension. Despite its eccentricity, the music is never esoteric, instead Studies for Player Piano is shot through with Nancarrow’s infectious humour and wit: these pieces are sometimes bizarre, often baffling, yet always endearing and ultimately enthralling.

Below is a recording of the first volume of Studies for Player Piano accompanied by a brief listening guide.

In characteristically enigmatic fashion, Nancarrow organised his Studies for Player Piano into four volumes, each consisting of a seemingly random selection of pieces. To discuss the entirety of this work would be unrealistic in these pages, so the discussion below is limited to the first volume of studies, comprised of Studies No. 3, 20, 44 and 41.

Segmented into five sections and subtitled “Boogie-Woogie Suite”, ‘Study No. 3’ exemplifies Nancarrow’s early fascination with jazz and ragtime, creating vastly distorted versions of well-known forms. Whilst the study might not be as revolutionary as some of Nancarrow’s later pieces, it is certainly one of his most immediately rewarding.

Opening with only two voices in the texture, 3a initially seems like a conventional boogie-woogie, albeit sped up to an searingly fast tempo. However, the music soon leaves the realms of (relative) reality; additional layers are added in as the piece continues, culminating in an ecstatic, hyperactive swirl as a multitude of separate voices vie for primacy.

3b is more subdued with a coalescence of melodic lines winding around a walking bass line.

Like the previous movement, 3c is formed from a web of melodic lines layered atop a consistent bass presence. This music is somewhat more tentative and enigmatic than 3b however; listen for the thinning of the accumulating texture at 0:53 and 1:42.

This bluesy movement is considerably sparser than the preceding music, offering a fleeting point of respite amidst the formidable complexity elsewhere.

The study comes full-circle as 3d recalls the manic boogie-woogie of the opening movement, again increasing in density as it speeds to its conclusion.

‘Study No. 20’ is one of Nancarrow’s more austere pieces, layering successive blocks of single repeating notes to form a gradually shifting cloud of sound.

Subtitled “Aleatory Canon”, this study grew out of Nancarrow’s increasing frustration with his attempts to compose for two player pianos, finding it almost impossible to synchronise the machines satisfactorily. ‘Study No. 44’ is thus composed for two player pianos with the separate parts carefully calculated so that “everything, at any time, or any speed, would go together”. The piece opens with only one piano, joined at 0:54 by the second playing in a higher register.

‘Study No. 41’ is cast in three parts.

41a and 41b are both highly complex cannons for multiple voices; their skeletal constructions are punctuated with Nancarrow’s tradmark glissandi. Both build to frantic climaxes: 41a at around 5:00-6:00 and 41b at 3:45-4:30.

41c employs two player pianos, playing 41a and 41b simultaneously. The study opens with a sole piano playing 41a before the second enters at 1:24. The combination of the two furious climactic sections of the two previous movements (around 5:00-6:00) forms a thrillingly chaotic collision of sound.

The recordings above are available as part of a complete set of Nancarrow’s studies released by Wergo.

With his beguiling set of Piano Études (1985-2001), Hungarian composer György Ligeti displayed his deeply felt reverence for Nancarrow’s music, constructing a similarly labyrinthine network of gleefully playful pieces.

Artwork: Collection, Robert Rauschenberg

by Thomas May