Articulate Silences

Tacet / Tacet / Tacet

Category: Avant-garde

Recitativo oscuro, Salvatore Sciarrino

Kandinsky Composition VIII

The music of Salvatore Sciarrino doesn’t just interrogate our strictly musical expectations, it probes the very boundaries of aural and temporal perception. Conjuring cavernous voids punctuated sparingly by fleeting outbursts of instrumental colour, the Italian composer confronts the listener with stretches of inactivity so vast that the sheer absence of event begins to imbue a near-excruciating sense of tension and urgency to his music. Such prominent use of silence is intended, in Sciarrino’s own words, to “put pressure on the ear”, ushering us into an almost meditative state of awareness in which all sounds, even those of our bodies, take on a revelatory significance. And this acute attunement to the corporeal is mirrored in the textures of the music: often centred around a heartbeat-like throb of a bass drum, Sciarrino’s sound-world seems as tied to the natural and the physical as it is to the ethereal.

Completed in 1999, Recitativo oscuro traverses the shadowy soundscapes common to the composer’s orchestral work: the music remains veiled and elusive throughout, rarely rising above a hesitant pianissimo. Yet, the piece is perhaps one of his least esoteric; a piano concerto of sorts, Recitativo oscuro avoids complete abstraction by virtue of the focal point provided by the instrument which sits in the foreground of the musical texture. The accompanying orchestra is largely used to create a sonic context for the piano’s music, cloaking its angular motifs in an intoxicating, translucent gauze of sound; as such, the piano serves to signpost the journey through Sciarrino’s amorphous sound-world, transforming the hushed textures of the orchestra into something remarkably approachable.

Recitativo oscuro is bestowed with further drama in live performance; the spectacle of such a large orchestra exuding only the most tentative, muted sonorities provides a fitting visual counterpoint to the music. Constantly threatening a climactic resolution that remains tantalisingly unrealised, this piece is haunted by ominous absences, defined as much by that which goes unheard – the spaces between and around its clusters of sound – as by the sounds themselves. Recitativo oscuro courses with colossal yet dormant power: a static and expansive piece that seems perpetually to point beyond itself – to other sounds, to other ways of listening.

Below is a recording of Recitativo oscuro accompanied by a brief listening guide.

Recitativo oscuro is cast in a single, slowly unfolding movement; however, for the purposes of this brief guide, it will be helpful to break the piece down into three sub-sections. The first passage (until 2:37) is dominated by the piano with tentative interjections from the orchestra. The piano’s music in this section, whilst erratic, is centred around the two chord motif heard at the opening of the piece. At 2:37 a low, rumbling beat enters – a bass drum skirted by the tapping of the keys of woodwind instruments – which forms the basis of the second section (2:37-11:41). This passage has a simple construction: howling woodwinds rise and fall atop the continual beat with the piano appearing only fleetingly, seemingly disconnected from the orchestral backdrop. A particularly striking moment comes when an outburst from the piano and brass (10:44) leaves the beat distorted, almost frayed (first heard at 10:50). The final passage begins as 11:41, following another eruption from the piano. In this section, the bass drum is stripped of its adorning woodwinds, receding to the edge of audibility, whilst the piano becomes increasingly agitated. The piece closes with a passage of call and response between piano and orchestra (beginning 14:45), perhaps the only instance of sustained interaction between the two, culminating at 15:45 with the orchestra’s insistent repetition of a single chord as the piano plays frantic, circling figures.

The fine recording above is performed by the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI, conducted by Tito Ceccherini and with Daniele Pollini at the piano. The performance is available on the Kairos label as part of a comprehensive 3 CD set of Sciarrino’s orchestral works.

To delve further into Sciarrino’s shadowy sound-world, the early orchestral work Variazioni (1974) and the flute concerto Frammento e Adagio (1991) are both highly recommended. A more expressive side to the composer’s music is revealed by Macbeth (2002), an operatic adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy. The music of German composer Helmut Lachenmann is similar to Sciarrino’s in its sparse textures; the skeletal Mouvement (– vor der Erstarrung) (1982) is a fascinating, if somewhat unforgiving, listen.

Artwork: Composition VIII, Wassily Kandinsky

by Thomas May

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

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

Momente, Karlheinz Stockhausen

“He who kisses the Joy as it flies / Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.” William Blake’s aphorism was in Stockhausen’s mind when writing Momente from 1962-69, a work which is at the forefront of one of the most notoriously radical oeuvres of all time – and one which has become a byword in popular culture for the laughably avant-garde. Indeed, with Momente, Stockhausen began to build the violently hostile reaction to his work into the music itself; much of the piece’s dramatic effect derives from the suggestion of open confrontation between composer and his public detractors.

The concept of “moment-form” on which the work is modelled is best described as consisting of something followed by a completely different thing. Momente is designed to explore the “feeling” rather than the “thinking” aspects of music, in contrast to the composer’s earlier works, which were based on mathematical formulae. This is not to say, however, that it resorts to artistic debasement – it rather achieves an eerily familiar feeling through new means. The successive “moments” are not even delineated by harmonic or rhythmic change but rather by timbre and colour, which are made to function structurally. The four choirs not only sing but also laugh, whisper, murmur, speak, exhale, and play strange musical instruments, including drinks cans and Volkswagen spanners (which kept disappearing leading up to the premiere, since most of the chorus drove Volkswagens). This exploration of previously uncharted musical waters means it would be misleading to call Momente “atonal”, since its approach to harmony is as if tonality had never existed.

The new ideal of form explored in Momente implores us to lose ourselves in each little island of sound without worrying about large-scale repetition. The libretto is a surrealist collage of Biblical passages, literary quotations, fairy tales, letters to the composer, and nonsense, which all explore the subject of love in a linguistic tapestry of sensory pleasure rather than contribute to any linear narrative. Stockhausen’s delicate structure of inter-“moment” associations answers a need to break free from what he saw as an illusory causality in music, an approach not worlds away from the “total serialism” of Boulez and Babbitt. Both give the impression of a higher order controlling the musical narrative as opposed to the traditional cumulative processes.

Most of Stockhausen’s music seems to be a direct comment on the musical condition itself, in that he aims consistently at metaphysical questions embodied by music’s temporal dimension. One of the most striking aspects of Momente is that it sounds like an opera in its heartfelt insistence and dramatic contrasts, but does not depend on chronological sequence for its effect. Indeed, in its amorphous mix of genres it attacks the passivity induced by conventional opera, and rebels against the concept of a unified and integrated “work”. In this light it reveals itself as a musical corollary to its clear literary analogues, which include the stream-of-consciousness novel and the Theatre of the Absurd, thus expressing not universal truths, but rather the overriding postwar sentiment of man’s tragic dislocation and alienation.

Below is a recording of Momente followed by a brief listening guide.

Considering its emphasis on visceral sonic impact, Momente is best suited to immersive listening. However, several “moments” are worth pointing out as an introduction.

The structure is built around “K”, “M” and “D” (Klang, Melodie, Dauer – Sound, Melody, Length) moments, which orientate the music towards timbre, melody and polyphony respectively. Broadly speaking, “K” music tends to resolve, “M” music to evolve, and “D” music to sustain.

The use of a solo soprano, shielded from the abrasive choirs surrounding her by electronic organs and percussion, indicates that Stockhausen has something personal and subjective to divulge. This dichotomy is noticeable from 4:58 to 8:15, interspersing the solo’s ravings with pillars of assertive, masculine, Gamelan-like music in the choirs, percussion and brass.

The passage at around 14:55 is an interesting “KM” moment, mixing together the salient features of both categories, including soprano solo and male chorus, in an enigmatic and meditative coalescence of sound.

31:10 is a clear “D” moment – female voices and otherworldly electronic organs eventually drop out into a bottomless void before an “MD” section, which mixes pitches and noises equally.

In spite of the work’s claims to anti-causality, the ending (55:41–) at first seems to transcend its antecedents, at least in terms of sheer volume, before disappearing into ephemerality. Momente ultimately becomes a victim of its own cliché.

This authoritative recording comes from the Cologne Radio Broadcasting Choir conducted by the composer. Stockhausen has conducted (or heavily assisted in) every subsequent recording, meaning that the aleatoric nature of the work has been somewhat limited in its interpretational scope. The needed variation has rather come from the several versions of the score available.

Stockhausen’s huge catalogue of 370 individual works can seem very daunting. The momentous Gruppen of 1957 for three orchestras is worth exploring, as is his most celebrated foray into electronic music, Kontakte. 

Artwork: The Persistence of Memory, Salvador Dalí

by Joel Sandelson

Anahit, Giacinto Scelsi

Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi is one of the most enigmatic and intriguing figures of 20th century music. Having suffered a breakdown following the Second World War, Scelsi began to explore the meditative qualities of sound almost as a form of therapy, sitting for hours at a time at his piano playing no more than a single note. This process of discovery constituted something of an epiphanic juncture in his musical development: Scelsi thereafter abandoned the serialism of his earlier compositions, taking this new appreciation of the intricate subtleties of sound as the starting point for all of his subsequent music. Rather than treating individual sounds as isolated, singular points, Scelsi’s music reimagines each tone as a pulsating, multidimensional entity, vibrating with mystical energy and sonorous depth.

Composed in 1965, Anahit is perhaps the fullest realisation of Scelsi’s ethereal vision: oblique in its esoteric sonic explorations yet generous in its harmonic and textural richness. This music is a slow, kaleidoscopic procession of translucent orchestral colour saturated with mysterious, static tension and shimmering timbres. Like most of Scelsi’s compositions, Anahit is shaded with microtonal intervals (those intervals smaller than a semitone) as the various instrumental voices eerily twist and contort, incrementally sliding away from their respective starting points in mesmeric glissandi. Yet, the effect is never that of brutal dissonance. Instead the musical voices seem to circle each other furtively, occasionally coalescing into strikingly lucid harmonies before drifting apart once more: this music is perpetually expanding and contracting, slipping in and out of focus with intoxicating ambiguity.

Scored for chamber orchestra and solo violin, Anahit neither embraces the traditional form of the concerto nor overtly rejects it, inhabiting an obscure position between narrative progression and complete abstraction: the solo violin acts as the focal point of the piece whilst simultaneously being assimilated into the overarching musical texture. Positioned as the central thread around which all other musical material revolves, the glistening incandescence of the violin serves to anchor the intangibility of the surrounding soundscape, augmenting the evanescent pulsing of the orchestra with its metallic luminosity.

Anahit provides a glimpse at Scelsi’s intense feeling of enlightenment as he uncovered the vast potency of sound, discovering the overwhelming expanse of eternity in a single tone. Epitomising his sincere belief in the mysterious power of music, Scelsi chose to reject the term “composer” altogether, instead characterising himself as a spiritual messenger between worlds, channelling transcendent truth and beauty through the terrestrial medium of sound. Whilst this claim may seem somewhat quaint, it is in the ephemeral and iridescent music of Anahit that Scelsi provides his most compelling evidence.

Below is a recording of Anahit followed by a brief listening guide.

[UPDATE 17/05/2013: The recording below has been removed from YouTube. Another recording can be found here via YouTube. Please note that the timings given below may no longer coincide with the recording.]

Anahit is a piece that rewards immersive listening and to dissect it into isolated events would serve only to reduce its mystique. Yet, a few signposts can be useful in grasping the piece for the first time.

Anahit is divided into three sections: the first (0:00-7:07) and last (8:37-end) are scored for the full orchestra along with the solo violin, acting as a frame for the brief central section (7:07-8:37) which is scored for solo violin alone. The gliding motion of the first section is briefly interrupted at 4:16-5:00, and again at 5:58-7:00, as interjections from the woodwind and brass become increasingly volatile. Following the spacious interlude of the second section, the third passage brings the piece to a close with the pulsing of the orchestra supporting strained statements from the violin; as the music draws to a close the violin reaches out for (and finally achieves) the high G towards which the piece has been striving throughout its duration.

The recording above is conducted by Jürg Wyttenbach with violin soloist Carmen Fournier, available on Accord’s essential three disc set of Scelsi’s orchestral works. Another fine recording is available on the Kairos label, conducted by Hans Zender, but the Accord set is more comprehensive.

All of Scelsi’s orchestral works inhabit similar sound-worlds to that of Anahit: the mystical Uaxuctum, which tells the story of the demise of an ancient civilisation of Central America, is particularly engaging. Scelsi’s works on a smaller scale can be equally rewarding: the shimmering Ohoi for strings and the solo cello work Trilogy come highly recommended. Fellow Italian composer Luigi Nono’s later work shares much with Scelsi’s music in its contemplative nature: his epic 1985 piece Prometeo is essential listening.

Artwork: Black Square, Kazimir Malevich

by Thomas May

Terrains Vagues, Per Nørgård

It was nothing special / because everything was special / the mysteries presented themselves / as a matter of course…

Terrains Vagues takes its title from a phrase first used by the French writer Victor Hugo to refer to the indistinct areas of land that sit uneasily on the boundaries between urban civilisation and the untamed expanse of nature; regions characterised by uncertainty, forming sites of conflict as the dominating force of human culture relinquishes power to its irresistible adversary. Taking inspiration partly from Klaus Rifbjerg’s poem of the same name (an extract of which is quoted above), Danish composer Per Nørgård’s Terrain Vagues evokes the lonely mystique that hovers above these forgotten stretches of no-man’s land with vast blocks of sound subtly shaded in translucent clouds of woodwinds and strings. Completed in 2001 and scored for an orchestra of medium size, the work is unusual in its inclusion of an accordion as well as in the prominence afforded to the low brass instruments; as such, this music exists within its own enigmatic aural world, entirely disconnected from any of the more familiar soundscapes of orchestral music.

As Terrains Vagues unfolds, Nørgård explores the conflict implicit in his chosen theme, examining the elusive relationship between the vague and the precise (the wild, natural and the controlled, human) elements of his music with striking dexterity and insight. Rather than perceiving the two as an antagonistic dichotomy, separate and distinguishable, Nørgård presents these qualities as inextricably connected, symbiotically intertwined in dialogic interaction. Midway through the second movement, three metronomes are set off at different speeds, coalescing to form a delicately circling rhythmic texture. Working from the same premise as György Ligeti’s 1962 composition (or Fluxus prank, depending on your view) Poème symphonique for 100 metronomes, Nørgård’s more sparing use of the metronome achieves a clarity distinctly lacking from that earlier work, the admirable vision of which was largely obscured by its irreverence and excess. The binary distinction between the controlled and the chaotic is continually blurred as the unchanging rhythmic pulses combine to form a soundscape that is constantly in flux: the immutable becoming the transient, the certain becoming the unpredictable.

This work is rife with ambiguity: intoxicating and mysterious. Whilst often highly volatile and brutish, tormented throughout by rasping low brass, Terrain Vagues is cloaked in a spectral mist of moaning woodwinds, strings and shimmering pitched percussion. Even the work’s boldest gestures are undercut by a nagging uncertainty: the score dictates that the snarling brass chords at its opening are to be played “vaguely” so that the regimented rhythm and physicality of the music becomes tempered by imprecision. It is as if Terrains Vagues exists only as a shadow of its original self: what was once bright and iridescent has become bleached, eroded by the passage of time. This is a quality most fully realised on the final movement as the elemental procession of the music is haunted by fragments of a playful, jazzy melody which stalk through the soundscape.

Whilst Per Nørgård has certainly written more ambitious and expansive music than Terrain Vagues, rarely has he achieved such a glorious synergy of the earthen and the ethereal: this masterful work transforms the contradiction and conflict of the vague areas of its title into a seductive, mysterious intangibility.

Below is a recording of Terrains Vagues followed by a brief listening guide.

Terrains Vagues is cast in three movements, played without out a break.

The first movement, ‘Terrains’ (0:00-5:09), is built upon an off-kilter rhythmic foundation of low brass, double-basses and the accordion. The anxious central motif of the movement (and indeed the piece as a whole) is first explicitly introduced on pitched percussion at 0:48, subsequently taken up in the piano at 0:55. The motif is then elaborated throughout the movement, notably at 2:28 when it is passed between the pitched percussion and high brass instruments. As the movement gradually loses momentum, with its rhythms constantly derailed, flourishes of percussion and brass bring the music to a temporary resting point at 4:28, leaving only their shadow in the throb of low strings.

‘Vagues’ runs from 5:09-13:37 and contrasts ‘Terrains’’ ferocity with subtly shaded soundscapes. Nørgård’s technique of blurring rhythmically rigid sonic fragments into indistinct clouds of sound is used prominently in this movement: from its opening coalescence of high woodwinds and pitched percussion to the metronomes of 6:47-8:16, cloaked in mysterious, translucent harmonies. Following a tumultuous brass-lead passage from 8:50-10:57, the metronomes return amidst frenetic pizzicato in the low strings. The movement then draws to a close with disconnected statements from various instrumental groups (listen in particular for the playful melody in the brass at 11:40 which will form the basis of the next movement), as well as restatements of the central motif of the first movement (11:59, 13:16).

The final movement (‘Terrains Vagues’, beginning at 13:37) is the most enigmatic of the piece. On a backdrop of moaning winds and strings, the melody initially heard in the brass at 11:40 is restated and elaborated in various fragmentary forms, achieving striking vitality at 14:24. Soon after, the music becomes increasingly dense, with only fleeting glimpses of the melody emerging from the mass. The return of the low strings at 17:50 instils a new momentum to the music, propelling the piece to its conclusion (listen out for the furtive echoes of the movement’s opening melody in the woodwind at 18:46-18:52). By 21:12 the music has completely deflated, replaced by the tentative shuffle of percussion and stuttering statements of the piece’s central motif on piano.

The recording above is played by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and conducted by the piece’s dedicatee Thomas Dausgaard. This fine performance appears on a disc with Nørgård’s wonderful sixth symphony on the Chandos record label and is the only recording of Terrains Vagues currently available.

An informative overview of Nørgård’s compositional development is provided by his cycle of eight symphonies. Particularly recommended are his cosmic Symphony No. 3 (which serves as the fullest realisation of his mathematical technique of composition, the Infinity Series), the brooding, schizophrenic Symphony No. 4 and Symphony No. 6 “At the End of the Day”, which is a companion piece of sorts to Terrain Vagues.

Artwork: Iberia #2, Peter Motherwell

by Thomas May

Como una ola de fuerza y luz, Luigi Nono

Como una ola de fuerza y luz is a nightmarish labyrinth of shadowy dissonance and tactile timbres punctuated with violent emotive outbursts. Composed in 1972 and scored for orchestra, solo soprano, piano and tape, this piece is the fearsome pinnacle of Italian composer Luigi Nono’s middle period: politically charged, furiously expressive and sonically uncompromising. With its title roughly translating as “like a wave of strength and light”, Como una ola de fuerza y luz was composed in memory of Nono’s friend and fellow Communist activist Luciano Cruz, the leader of the Movement of the Revolutionary Left in Chile who died the previous year. Fusing searing anger and heartfelt lament into a warped, volatile elegy, Como una ola de fuerza y luz stretches and contorts the very fabric of the aural space in which it is so precariously confined with wild gestures of passion and despair.

As with so many of Nono’s works, the human voice provides a focal point amidst the stormy chaos of Como una ola de fuerza y luz. Considering the voice to be the most potent medium of expression, Nono often used vocal parts to act as an emotive centre to his music. In this piece the solo soprano takes the role almost of a narrator, contextualising the vast, abstract expanse of colliding sound with anguished cries of “Luciano!”. This work began its life as a piano concerto before Nono decided to include a part for soprano and, as such, the music revolves perilously around two distinct and contrasting nuclei: the stirring articulations of the voice sit uneasily against the almost mechanical pounding of the piano.

Como una ola de fuerza y luz exemplifies Nono’s pioneering work in electro-acoustic composition, seamlessly integrating pre-recorded sounds and noises into the music. Often hovering furtively on the edge of the audibility, Nono’s tape collage of distant voices and pianos cloaks the entire space in an effervescent cloud of half-remembered sounds: as if the music, having been played, is lingering on, still reverberating around the aural space. The tape is heard most prominently when accompanying the solo parts of the soprano, creating an illusion of the singer imprinting herself on the passage of time, overlapping and coalescing with her previous incarnations in a sustained cry of sorrow.

Nono himself described the use of pre-recorded sounds in Como una ola de fuerza y luz as “resembling the opening and closing of a space upon itself, like the extending and receding of a life”. This beautiful and eloquent description is particularly pertinent in illustrating Nono’s striking humanism as a composer; in a time when the classical avant-garde was becoming increasingly intellectualised and esoteric, Nono continued to put his faith in music as a performance art, emphasising it as something to be heard, not simply to be theorised about. It is from this foundation that Nono could create such communicative and brutally visceral aural experiences as this.

Below is a recording of Como una ola de fuerza y luz followed by a brief listening guide.

The piece opens as the orchestra tentatively fades in from silence, subtly coloured by the pre-recorded voices. The soprano enters at 2:29, backed by the recordings of piano and voices, and gains intensity in a series of impassioned outbursts. The next section begins at 6:34 and sees the piano (and its pre-recorded counterpart) battling against interjections from the orchestra. The soprano is reintroduced at 13:30, this time exploring more overtly melodic territory than the earlier angular section. By 14:40 both piano and soprano have dropped out, leaving only their vague memory in the haunting tape part. The orchestra is brought back at 15:21, first with clusters of brass and then, at 17:10, with shivering chords on the strings and the harp. The music then begins an inexorable rise in pitch until it has reached a piercing white noise at 24:48. The orchestra and piano begin the final section at 25:41 which concludes with a tape solo from 28:04, shrouding glimpses of the soprano’s earlier music in waves of noise.

The electrifying performance above is conducted by Claudio Abbado, with stunning performances from soprano Slavka Taskova and pianist Maurizio Pollini, and is available on the Deutsche Grammophon label.

For another of Nono’s politically charged works try his 1975 opera Al gran sole carico d’amore. As a fine example of his latter, more contemplative style, the colossal Prometeo of 1984 is essential listening (if something of a daunting prospect). The music of Giacinto Scelsi, a fellow Italian, shares many aspects of Nono’s sound-world; his 1965 piece Anahit is an enigmatic masterpiece of mysterious, static tension.

Artwork: Untitled (Bacchus), Cy Twombly

by Thomas May

Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, Krzysztof Penderecki

The Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki’s oppressive, malevolent music has screeched through the last half century, fusing avant-garde technique and commercial recognition to reach a kind of traumatized blockbuster status. Penderecki’s bleeding, cavernous soundscapes have long been forced out of the concert hall and put to use in the cinema, from Friedkin’s The Exorcist to Kubrick’s The Shining. Indeed, his searing sonorities have become the hallmarks of film composition itself – the sonic evocation of the disturbed imagination. In many ways this encapsulates Penderecki’s problematic character: the enfant terrible responsible for Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima would end up as cinema’s darling.

While working in a Warsaw electronic music studio in the 50s, Penderecki had started to realise new sounds via unconventional instrumental techniques. Much of his early music is essentially intended as an acoustic transcription of electronic textures; novel combinations, rapid orchestral shifts and new textures marked his early 60s compositions. Articulate Silences opened with an exploration of Ligeti’s 1961 work Atmosphères – and in some senses Ligeti’s and Penderecki’s experiments in sound sculpture during the early 60s shared a similar interest in building an orchestral mass of sound. But whereas Ligeti’s clouds of sound were filled with carefully etched internal detail, Penderecki assumed a much broader, brooding wash of colour.

Threnody is a classic product of the composer’s experiments with sound during the 60s. The piece spans 52 string instruments, melding them together in sonoristic manipulation and counterpoint to brutal effect. Threnody’s sustained clusters, faceless convergences in sound and undulating clouds run the full gamut of extended technique – a riot of varying vibrato, slapped instruments, playing on the tailpiece and behind the bridge – matched by a sinister symbolic notation full of thick black lines. At times Penderecki takes an aleatoric approach, offering the players a choice of techniques or demanding irregular degrees of vibrato, but the piece is also marked by a considerable rigour in its timing indications, notated in seconds, as well as specific note clusters. The use of quarter tones, clustered pitches and sound mass accumulate in a reservoir of hypertonality.

As an experiment in sound and notation, Threnody is not particularly unusual for the period – so why has it attained such a unique place in the cultural canon? The answer lies in its title. Originally called 8’37” (a nod in the direction of American composer John Cage and his 4’33”), Penderecki later settled on the more emotive dedication after hearing the piece performed for the first time; as such, Threnody embodies a pairing of new sounds and public emotion, meeting the horror of mass death with the perfection of extreme musical tension.

It is in such terrifying, physical and uncompromising works as Threnody that one finds classical music’s unceasing taste for extreme drama and liberation of the borders of sounds.

Below is a recording of Threnody followed by a brief listening guide.

Threnody can be split into 3 parts: Part 1 at 0:00 opens with the musicians bowing their highest notes, with the 52 players gradually brought into a mass of sound. At 0:18 slow quarter tone vibrato is combined with fast, regular vibrato in the violins and violas. At 0:52 the playing descends into percussive effects with the musicians offered a choice of “musical patterns” to follow. Sounds overlap, slide apart, and build to a cacophonous cluster at 4:50 before dropping to a single sustained cello line by 5:33 and then a fade into 5 seconds of silence at 5:50. Part 2 at 5:56 marks an abrupt change in texture with a scattered collection of sounds feeling almost improvisatory, and yet bound in the veiled symmetry of a 36-voice canon. Part 3 returns to the music of the opening by 7:30, with overlapping clouds of sound building to a huge tone cluster.

The recording above comes from the National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Antoni Wit for Naxos. The recording made by the Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester Leipzig under Herbert Kegel, available on the Berlin Classics label, is highly recommended.

For those interested in exploring Penderecki’s developing style, the 1971 Cello Concerto No. 1 written for the cellist Siegfried Palm is worth a listen. Based on a work from 1967, it shares the violent sound-world of Penderecki’s early compositions, never descends into superficial virtuosity and displays eccentric instrumentation – the orchestration includes a saxophone, accordion and electric guitar.

Artwork: Painting, Philip Guston

by En Liang Khong

Jeux Vénitiens, Witold Lutosławski

Jeux Vénitiens (or Venetian Games) represents a pivotal juncture in the artistic development of Polish composer Witold Lutosławski. Cited by the composer himself as his first mature statement, Jeux Vénitiens not only anticipates the character of much of Lutosławski’s subsequent musical output but also predicts wider developments in the European avant-garde. Despite employing only a modestly sized chamber orchestra, Lutosławski sculpts a wide array of lofty, vaporous soundscapes over the course of the work’s short duration, hinting at the static textural clouds that would later be conjured by György Ligeti and Iannis Xenakis.

Completed in 1960, Jeux Vénitiens represents the first example of Lutosławski’s radical compositional technique of “aleatoric counterpoint”. Inspired in part by John Cage’s introduction of chance elements to his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Lutosławski developed his own approach to aleatoric music in the late 50s, hoping finally to capture the elusive aural worlds of his imagination. Although specifying the precise melody played by each instrument in a given passage, Lutosławski affords the performers freedom to decide on the tempo of their respective lines, culminating in a blurred coalescence of animated sounds and textures.

Lutosławski’s claim that “the composer remains the directing force” throughout such passages of aleatory may seem somewhat optimistic. Indeed, any concession to indeterminism inevitably diminishes the composer’s role in the realisation of a piece. Yet, with the only unspecified parameter being temporal, Lutosławski maintains strict control over the timbral and harmonic character of Jeux Vénitiens. The elements of chance merely influence the minutiae; independent, disconnected voices vitalise the musical texture whilst simultaneously merging together, subsumed into the wider aural vista. The conductor signals each segue between the successive aleatoric textures – at which point the musicians move on to the next set of melodies and lines – and as such Jeux Vénitiens is at once both minutely disordered and expansively controlled.

Throughout the piece, the dense, energised mass of individual instrumental lines remains constrained within the overarching musical structure in a thrilling synchronicity of order and chaos. By relinquishing influence over the finer details of his music, Lutosławski shifted his focus to the broader interactions which take place within Jeux Vénitiens: from wider structural arcs and harmonic shifts to the relationships between timbres and melodic contours. As such, this music is highly decorative, teeming with evocative and tactile textures; with Jeux Vénitiens’ aleatoric counterpoint, Lutosławski arrived at a new fusing of the traditional and the modern, the concrete and the abstract, opening up hitherto unimagined forms of musical expression.

Below is a recording of Jeux Vénitiens accompanied by a brief listening guide.

In the first movement, Lutosławski sets up a dichotomy between two contrasting aleatoric musical textures; the first to be introduced is airy and rhythmically vitalised, peppered with chattering woodwinds, and the second (first heard at 0:15) is an ominous brooding soundscape of sustained strings. Each of the numerous transitions is instantaneous, signalled by a single strike on the percussion, as if switching between two disconnected musical worlds.

The brief second movement contains no aleatoric music and acts almost as a transition into the more substantial third movement. The collection of fragmentary musical statements gradually builds in density until a piano chord at 1:08 interrupts the development, introducing a sparse and hesitant closing section.

Decorated by restless figures in the harp and a barely audible piano melody, the graceful, fluttering flute line which begins at 0:04 provides the focal point of the third movement. The musical progression is punctuated throughout by increasingly forceful chords in the strings (the first such disruption is heard at 0:39).

At the opening of the final movement the instrumental timbres of the woodwinds and strings interact conversationally, contrasting their strict separation in the first movement. The frenetic musical development – following the introduction of the piano and brass – is cut off at 2:16 by a wildly pounding piano, only to restart at 2:22. The mass of brass and woodwinds is halted abruptly at 2:31 by the introduction of percussion (recalling the transformative power of the percussion in the first movement). The clattering drums and cymbals drop out at 2:48 to reveal a halo of gently rippling piano arpeggios and re-enter a further three times with decreasing intensity. A brief coda, beginning at 3:47, then closes out the piece.

The recording above is conducted by Lutosławski himself and performed by the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra, presented on the out of print (but currently not hard to find) Philips collection The Essential Lutosławski. The composer also leads a performance by the Polish Radio National Symphony Orchestra on a three disc set of orchestral works on EMI.

No survey of Lutosławski’s work is complete without reference to his monumental symphonic cycle; both his Symphonies No. 3 and No. 4 are essential listening. For another chamber work which makes colourful and imaginative use of a limited palette try György Ligeti’s exhilarating Chamber Concerto of 1970.

Artwork: Zeichnung, Adolf Wölfli

by Thomas May

Ionisation, Edgard Varèse

Composed in 1931, Edgard Varèse’s Ionisation is the first piece of Western classical music to be scored for an ensemble comprised solely of percussion instruments. As such, one might expect to be subjected to a one-dimensional barrage of colourless noise over the course of the work’s short duration. Yet what is striking about this piece of music is the degree of sensitivity with which the composer controls the instrumental timbres, achieving an understated grace and eloquence of expression which reaches far beyond more common functional uses of percussion. With only a fleeting contribution from a piano in its dying moments, Ionisation finds Varèse abandoning notions of melody and harmony altogether in order to focus on the minutiae of musical texture, conjuring a diverse array of subtly shaded and intricately detailed soundscapes.

Scored for thirteen musicians and a collection of instruments ranging from bass drums and bongos to triangles and castanets, Varèse assembles and combines this variety of different instrumental timbres with such delicacy that at times the ensemble appears to merge into a single entity. The cavernous opening of the piece is indicative of Varèse’s lightness of touch: at one point the gong and bass drum are struck simultaneously so that the short, hollow sound of the drum appears to hang in the air, cloaked in the metallic shiver of the decaying gong. Throughout the piece, the ubiquitous moans of the sirens (a trademark sound of Varèse’s music) trace long curves through the soundscape, softly shading the atmosphere with an intoxicating air of mystique.

Despite betraying a distinct Futurist influence throughout many of his works, and particularly on Ionisation, Varèse’s music eschews the unrefined cacophony and overt machismo of Luigi Russolo’s “noise intoners” and Art of Noises manifesto. Having moved to America at the age of 32, the French-born composer was deeply affected by the aural experience of living in urban New York. Rather than simply mirroring these sounds however, Varèse incorporates distant echoes of industrial noise into his music in a process of attempting to liberate Western classical music from the tyranny of conventional tuning systems, rhythms and timbres.

On his prophetic quest to compose what he called “organised sound” – which anticipated many subsequent developments in electronic music and ultimately culminated in his 1958 sound collage Poème électroniqueIonisation stands as perhaps the fullest realisation of Varèse’s bold and uncompromising aesthetic vision. This music is at once expansive and intimate, ugly and irresistibly beautiful: Ionisation combines the terrifying cacophony of the industrial world with a profound sensitivity, unlocking the sensuous, human potential of inhuman noise.

Below is a recording of Ionisation followed by a brief listening guide.

Ionisation proceeds as a number of miniature sections, each with a different textural character. The ominous opening of rolling bass drums and gongs gives way at 0:28 to a shuffling passage led by the snare drum and bongos. Following a brief interruption from 0:43 to 0:57, the snare drums continue as new timbral elements are gradually introduced. The next section begins at 2:11 with angular rhythmic statements contrasting the steady flow of the preceding music, continuing until 2:52 when a furtive tinkling of triangles and bells emerges. Agitated figures in the drums punctuate the backdrop of bells and moaning sirens, increasing in resolve until 4:18 when the music unfolds into a spacious texture of stabbed piano chords and chimes. Ionisation then dissolves away in a shimmering mist of decaying gongs, disappearing into the same fog from which it rose.

The recording above is of the ASKO Ensemble conducted by Riccardo Chailly, available on Decca’s excellent two disc set of Varèse’s complete works. I would also recommend Pierre Boulez’s recording with the Ensemble InterContemporain, recently reissued on Deutsche Grammophon.

The similarly percussive Hyperprism and the electro-acoustic magnum opus Déserts would both serve well as entry points for further investigation into Varèse’s sound-world. For other works exploring the extremities of percussion music try John Cage’s 1939 piece First Construction and Iannis Xenakis’ large collection of works for percussion, especially 1979’s Pléïades.

Artwork: Skyscrapers on Transparent Yellow, Josef Albers

by Thomas May