Articulate Silences

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Month: January, 2013

Asyla, Thomas Adès

kush, sunrise

It would be easy to forgive the critics who patriotically claimed Thomas Adès as the next Benjamin Britten, despite the composer’s squeamishness at the honour. By the age of 26, having rebelled against many of high modernism’s inflexible, academic ways of composing, Adès had already forged a highly individual end-of-century mainstream, full of postmodern wit and historical irony. Perhaps Britain’s historical lack of musical genius has provided him with a (not undeserved) fame usually reserved for dead composers. Asyla (1997) encompasses echoes of intoxicating late-Romanticism, a compelling, breathless narrative amid violent contrasts, and a grotesque orchestral reimagining of dance music, all while pursuing a single, elemental figure. The typically Adèsian wordplay of the title (implying places both of rest and for the mentally unstable) neatly captures the subversive tone of the piece.

An almost universal reaction to Asyla and to Adès’ oeuvre in general is his uncanny ability to make something simple sound strange and elusive – a basic interval or chord becomes a mass of possibilities, each pursued to its logical extremes. His music is characterised by the extreme organicism of his approach to development, the magnetic attraction he finds between two notes; notably when the chaconne-like harmonisation of the principal melody of the first movement begins to take on a life of its own, creating a complex, spiralling structure with the theme, or the bass oboe tune in the second movement which reframes the same intervals in an endlessly fascinating harmonic kaleidoscope.

The orchestra itself is here reimagined as a universe of colouristic extremes. Adès’ textural hallmark is being able to “compose in” an acoustic to the fabric of the music itself; the electrical energy of a city seems hard-wired into the potent orchestration of Asyla, just as his string quartet Arcadiana is acoustically infused with the simplicity of another age, making the quartet seem as though they are playing outdoors in an Arcadian country landscape.

There has always been a touch of the anti-establishment about Adès; an ability to be subversive in very public places. His eloquent critique of cliché and suspicion of generic formulae has long been a feature of his work; indeed he often cites his aversion to Wagner and Brahms for these reasons (see his witty “anti-homage” Brahms). He admits that “reality is always going to leak into the work to some extent” – questioning the basic premises of music, exposing the latent absurdity and surrealism of the art form (well suited to the idea of exploring these musical ‘madhouses’) is a key component of his musical mind. In terms of both form and content, the music perceptibly strikes a careful balance between extra-musical, cyclical, worldly experience, and a fantasia-like exploration of the subjective, musical ‘world of extension’. The work’s formal ambiguities and ceaseless musical argument raise many more questions than answers, leaving the listener enraptured by Adès’ unique and visionary world.

Below is a recording of Asyla, accompanied by a brief listening guide.

An ethereal introduction scored for cowbells and a piano tuned a quarter-tone flat prefigures the entry of the spectral, distant theme in muted horns at 0:45. Several intertwining melodic lines fight for attention before a fusion of the introduction and first theme at 2:38, with strands of leftover melody in the piccolo. An apotheosis of the omnipresent theme appears at 4:44, after parallel developments of the opening harmonic sequence supposedly based on Couperin.

The enigmatic second movement opens with a theme that Adès describes as “a knight’s move away from how a melody might normally work”, seductively scored for bass oboe (0:32). These hypnotic, descending two-note cells grow into passage for full orchestra before a magical moment of stasis at 2:43, where memories of the first movement’s emotional language of dissonance intrude. 4:37 looks both forwards and backwards, with an outburst prefiguring the third movement, just as the ‘knight’s move’ theme has lulled itself into the background, before we are left with thematic and harmonic debris to close the movement.

Adès wanted the third movement to “evoke the atmosphere of a massive nightclub with people dancing and taking drugs”, hence the double meaning of its title Ecstasio. Characterised by manic repetition, fragments of techno parody eventually cohere at 1:55. It is not hard to imagine the journey through the club, which is advanced very cinematically at moments such as 2:50 (and in all its glory at 4:20) leading to a climax quoting from the end of Act II of Parsifal. The atmosphere is all the more compelling because it crosses the threshold from the abstract “asyla” of the first two movements into the real (or surreal) world.

The finale is an aerial view of the whole piece, beginning with several frozen tableaux (an expressively dissonant wind duet at 1:11, and a ghostly, veiled piano solo at 1:42). In the footsteps of his hero Janáček, the movement is built on nothing more than a variant of standard ternary form, but richly patterned to form something very personal. 3:37 leads to a final, tempestuous search for the meaning of the opening figure, suggesting a circular resolution – a haven even – but one tinged with harmonic instability, neatly encapsulating the dichotomy at the heart of the work.

This fine recording is a product of the long-standing partnership of Adès and Simon Rattle, here conducting the CBSO. Rattle’s releases of his later music with the Berlin Philharmonic are similarly immaculate.

Adès has so far been influenced by an eclectic range of musics in his relatively short career. Tevot, written a decade after Asyla, is another creative summing-up of his formal inventiveness and ear for orchestral colour, and his Violin Concerto Concentric Paths is a thrilling exploration of the nature of musical form. The work of Julian Anderson, also at the forefront of young British composers, is similarly evocative and open-minded.

Artwork: Sunrise by the Ocean, Vladimir Kush

by Joel Sandelson

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Coro, Luciano Berio

gottlieb Ochre and Black [cropped]

Italian composer Luciano Berio is perhaps best known for his large-scale 1969 piece Sinfonia. Scored for orchestra and voices, the work’s third movement is a post-modern melting pot of disparate musical and literary references; centred around a quote from Gustav Mahler’s second symphony, the movement flourishes into an intricate, and often humorous, collage of musical “samples” that, to the modern listener, eerily foreshadows the dense bricolage of late 1980s hip hop production. Completed in 1977, Berio’s longest concert work, Coro, likewise comprises an intertextual web of references, yet this later piece is an altogether sterner prospect, devoid of the irreverent playfulness that characterised Sinfonia.

Coro is scored for a large ensemble — consisting of forty-four instrumentalists and forty singers — and its libretto comprises a variety of texts, mostly taken from the folk traditions of a range of different cultures. Yet, rather than pursuing the amusing juxtapositions of Sinfonia, Berio integrates this diverse array of source material into a mosaic of abstracted human expression; displaying his fascination with the theories of French anthropologist Lévi-Strauss, Berio constructs, as John Fallas has called it, “a structuralist matrix of words and themes” (“woman, red, dance, song, death…”) which take on increasingly nuanced meanings as the piece progresses. Based as it is around such brief snippets of text, Coro proceeds as a series of miniatures (thirty-one all told) which collide in an erratic and volatile stream of consciousness. Yet, despite the absence of an obvious overarching structure, there are a number of elements deployed to prevent the music from spinning off into incomprehensibility; the piano is often foregrounded, acting as a guide through the work’s labyrinthine design, and a recurring text (“venid a ver la sangre por las calles”, or “come and see the blood in the streets”, taken from the poetry of Pablo Neruda) is used to signpost key moments in the piece. Certainly, Coro is overwhelming and disorienting but never excessively so: there is a communicative thrust lurking beneath its chaotic multiplicity.

In live performances of the work, each of Coro’s forty singers is situated next to an instrumentalist, integrating the traditionally segregated entities of orchestra and choir. As the piece progresses, this blurring of boundaries takes on a symbolic function, a visual representation of Coro’s erosion of the binary categories that frame musical perception. Through the sophisticated interplay of the voices and instruments, intertwined as a single body, Coro glides seamlessly between the intimate and the expansive. At the opening of the piece, an elegant duet for soprano and piano is gradually enveloped in a mesh of competing melodic voices; the once imminent sounds receding into the distance, obscured behind a dense fog of urgent expression. Indeed, throughout the entirety of Coro, singular melodic lines bleed together to form vast harmonic blocks, accumulating into colossal, static clouds of sound as individual voices become subsumed completely, inseparable from the resultant outpouring. As such, this is a piece exploring the viability of intense individual expression within the bewildering chaos and noise of the modern world: a theme that finds little resolution in the midst of Coro’s ambiguous and heady swirl of sound.

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

Coro is segmented into thirty-one distinct passages, although these miniatures can be heard to combine into three larger sections.

The first section (until 18:43) opens with a stately duet for soprano and piano, gradually joined by other vocalists. A sudden orchestral outburst at 4:34 introduces the Pablo Neruda text to which the piece will return on a number of occasions. Only a snippet is heard at this point, but the full text is stated later at 8:40, following another orchestral tutti: “venid a ver la sangre por las calles”, or “come and see the blood in the streets”. The section closes with a hypnotic, rhythmically vitalised section beginning at 14:50, interrupted midway (15:54-16:18) by another statement of the Neruda text.

The second section (18:43-41:13) begins with another statement of “venid a ver la sangre” before opening out into an intimate duet between tenor and cello at 19:07. A melancholic alto, joined by piano and woodwinds (21:35-22:22), introduces another rhythmic section which expands ever outwards from the insistent piano figure at its foundation. Listen out for the eccentric vocal flourishes beginning at 25:20 and the metronomic percussion that anchors the expressive, meandering melodic lines at both 34:46-36:00 and 38:15-39:18.

The final section (from 41:13) closes Coro in enigmatic fashion, allowing the piece to recede into ambiguity rather than providing any sense of closure. Opening with an elegant a cappella passage, the section draws to a close as the almost drunken expressions in the brass (52:00-52:50) melt away into the muted sigh of the Coro’s final moments.

The recording above is available on the Brilliant Classics label, conducted by Berio himself and performed by the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir. Another fine recording is conducted by Leif Segerstam, released on Orfeo D’Or label.

If Coro presents something of an uncompromising introduction to this seminal composer, Berio’s numerous concertos provide more forgiving entry-points into his sound-world; the piano concerto Points on a curve to find (1974) and the violin concerto Corale (1981) both come highly recommended. For another work exploring the simultaneously intimate and expansive potential of different vocal groupings, try György Ligeti’s Requiem (1965).

Artwork: Ochre and Black, Adolph Gottlieb

by Thomas May

Quartet for the End of Time, Olivier Messiaen

Kline Mahoning 1956 [cropped]

The story of the Quatuor pour la fin du temps (1941)’s genesis is widely known, oft repeated, but what is often ignored in the telling is the remarkable nature of what was produced, given what one would have expected in the circumstances. Born in the midst of war, death, frost and famine, the Quartet, though explicitly apocalyptic, is not a fiery Requiem, striving to translate divine wrath, but rather an intensely devotional, transcendent composition, that reaches a realm in which such worldly troubles matter little, or not at all.

Imprisoned in the Stalag VIIIA German prisoner-of-war camp in Görlitz in the winter of 1941, the young and brilliant French composer Olivier Messiaen, then in his thirties but already of considerable reputation, had the good fortune to encounter a guard who lent him paper and pencils and a secluded place to work. Three other musicians – a cellist, a clarinetist, and a violinist, were also imprisoned, and Messiaen thus composed a quartet for those instruments and a piano for him: an unusual combination, but not unheard of. It was the Quartet for the End of Time, where ‘Time’ playfully referred both to the world’s end, but also the end of time as meter: indeed the Quartet does away with strict rhythmic meter almost entirely, drifting as it does in a cosmic stillness.

Messiaen was inspired by a dream of his, drawn from the King James version’s Book of Revelation, which he transcribed in the score’s preface: “And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire… and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth… And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever… that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished.”

Played in the chilly night for the prisoners and the German guards, Messiaen’s meditative chamber suite was received with rapt silence: “Never have I been heard with as much attention and understanding,” he later recalled. So impressed was his guard patron that Messiaen was smuggled back to Paris to continue his work. It is little surprise, for the Quartet is one of the most remarkable compositions of the twentieth century. A deeply committed Catholic, Messiaen composed not a lament of war or death, or a bitter strike at oppression, but instead a paean to the world beyond (and above) of transcendence, redemption, and even, of joy.

Messiaen composed eight movements for the Quartet, seven for the days of creation, with an eighth for the eternity after. The eternal is a leitmotif of the piece: we catch glimpses of its gentle stillness in the first movement (the ‘Liturgy of Crystal’), and the cello and violin solos of movements five and eighth strive for it as a soul might in its ascension. The Quartet cannot but be understood in religious terms, nor would Messiaen have wished it to be interpreted otherwise. And indeed, I doubt even the most worldly of us can endure the haunting sublimity of the final movement (‘Praise to the immortality of Jesus’) without feeling momentarily detached from all that is concrete.

Below is a recording of the Quartet for the End of Time, followed by a brief listening guide.

I. Liturgie de cristal: The ‘liturgy of crystal’, which introduces the full quartet, is intended to evoke both the early morning strains of birdsong (the blackbird of the clarinet at 0:00, and nightingale of the violin at 0:10), as well as a brief glimpse into the sounds of paradise. Notice immediately the rhythm-less suspension of the movement’s sinewy melodies. The cello, meanwhile, plays circular, five-note melody, eternally repeating.

II. Vocalise, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps: The second movement introduces the angel who announces the end of Time. Here, the cascading piano chords of the angel’s presence (at 0:00 and 5:20), brackets the eternal stillness of heaven (0:47).

III. Abîme des oiseaux: At a funereal pace, the clarinet alone here depicts the melancholy abyss of time (0:00), until (at 2:21) the birds are announced, whose playful, jubilant warbles entirely negate the previous mood. Extremely minimalist for its time, much of the beauty here is in the texture of the clarinet’s voicing.

IV. Intermède: For violin, cello and clarinet, the short scherzo interlude is recalls some melodies of the second movement before (0:35) shifting into a rather playful, melodic chamber tune (though not for long). Again, the birdsong in the clarinet part is evident.

V. Louange à l’éternité de Jésus: The first of the two haunting louanges (‘prayers’), the sixth movement reflects on the eternal Word of Jesus, played by the duet cello and piano. The cello’s reverent melodic phrase (0:00) – whose tempo is literally marked as ‘infinitely slow’ – is answered by gentle, reassuring piano chords (0:22). Messiaen wrote that the melody “stretches majestically into a kind of gentle, regal distance.” The cello’s final, fading notes ends with a sense of infinite yearning (7:11).

VI. Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes: Sidestepping harmony entirely, and with jagging rhythms, the full quartet here plays a ‘dance of fury’ in striking unison, recalling the seven trumpets that announce the apocalypse. Messiaen wrote of a “Music of stone, formidable granite sound; irresistible movement of steel, huge blocks of purple rage, icy drunkenness.” Note the growing wrath, culminating in the explosive restatement (at 5:09 and again briefly at 6:03).

VII. Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps: A ‘tangle of rainbows’ announces the reappearance of the Angel, cloaked in clouds, in the seventh movement, recalling the second. The early leading melody is the cello’s, with the swirling cloud wisps of the piano (both at 0:00), though this is interrupted by cascading piano chords and violent string/clarinet interjections at 1:40. The thud of the piano (7:06) ends the movement (and Time?) abruptly.

VIII. Louange à l’immortalité de Jésus: The second louange, this one to Jesus as man and flesh, replaces the cello’s line in the fifth movement with the more delicate violin. Of the melody, Messiaen wrote that its “slow ascent to the acutely extreme is the ascent of man to his god, the child of God to his Father, the being made divine towards Paradise.” Words fail in describing its power, though it might well be the most arresting lines ever composed. The yearning height of the fifth movement is reached in the violin’s ascent at 6:56… and then, at 7:41, transcended into the eternal.

The recording above is superb, arguably peerless RCA edition, recorded in 1989 – another end to another time – by the Tashi Quartet’s Peter Serkin (Piano), Ida Kavafian (Violin), Fred Sherry (Cello), and Richard Stoltzman (Clarinet), which is still widely available. There are some twenty recordings available, another highlight of which is the EMI Classics edition presided by none other than Messiaen’s wife and creative partner Yvonne Loriod.

Messiaen was immensely prolific composer, and any recommended selections cannot be possibly be taken to be representative, but most and justifiably celebrated alongside the quartet is Theme and Variations (1931) for violin and piano. The decidedly more bombastic Turangalîla Symphony (1946-8) provides another side of his work altogether. For a sense of history, another vibrant and near-contemporaneous take on the chamber quartet, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Second String Quartet (1944), is of interest.

Artwork: Mahoning, Franz Kline

by Simon Torracinta