Articulate Silences

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Category: En Liang Khong

Tranquil Abiding, Jonathan Harvey

Xu Bing - Tianshu [cropped]

An obsession with the human voice was a central project in the music of British composer Jonathan Harvey, who sadly passed away this week. It was a preoccupation present right from his first explorations of acoustic and electronic borders at the Paris music research institute IRCAM – the brainchild of Pierre Boulez. Harvey’s 1980 tape piece Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco (I lament the dead, I call the living) delved into the particular sonorities of Winchester Cathedral’s Great Bell and his chorister son’s voice – a soundworld where spiritual boundaries met submerged acoustics via groundbreaking digital synthesis. Nearly two decades later, emerging from a period of intense research at Stanford University’s Centre for Composition Research into Music and Acoustics, Harvey’s ecstatic approach to aural shape-shifting elevated the voice to orchestral grandeur.

The voluminous power of sound crosses from instrumental expression towards the voice at its most primal in Harvey’s pulsating 1998 essay, Tranquil Abiding, written for chamber orchestra and extended percussion. Organic symbolism is given physical life as a backdrop of oscillating chordal movement – inhalation and exhalation blown up to universal proportions – while timbral life flickers across the surface. Fractured melody is streaked through this perpetual breath, before drifting into cathartic resonance. The title, described by Harvey as “a state of single-pointed concentration”, is typical of how eastern philosophy infuses his music.

The seminal influences of Stockhausen’s musical mysticism and the electronic soundscapes that Harvey encountered while at Princeton during the 1970s, combined with a personal and intensified spiritual shift to the East, pushed his music out of the confines of the British canon towards a state of “Gregorian Paradise” – a strange meeting of plainchant and Tibetan ritual. Within Harvey’s interest in rendering emotional issues strange by digital technology was a great paradox. Here the electronic world had become a way of discarding the obsession with suffering inherent to 19th century music, reaching for a pure land beyond.

And yet despite its evocation of transcendent realms, the articulation of chant and intense radiance, Harvey’s music has always been a far cry from New Age escapism or the minimalist oases of Arvo Pärt’s “new simplicity”. Writing tonal music “fills me with dread”, the composer once said. Tranquil Abiding’s elongation of soundscapes and unravelling of facades inhabits a complex environment. Buddhist conceptions make a perfect fit for Harvey’s spectralism, where sound is exposed in all its minutiae: “the materiality of the sound itself…the ‘suchness’ – to use a Buddhist term – the ‘thing in itself’: the grain, the richness, the quality of sound”.

Below is a recording of Tranquil Abiding accompanied by a brief listening guide.

Over the course of its 15 minutes, Tranquil Abiding sustains a continuous inhale/exhale structure of held crescendos and lowered decrescendos. The cavernous string motif emerges (0:00), around which the texture increasingly fills (0:46). The breathing grows in climactic force as the orchestra literally works in organic unison. Across this, independent woodwind (1:20) orbit, come loose and expand into rhythmic flourishes (2:50). Fragmentation over textural passivity builds into sharp frenzied song (3:08). By 4:20, the extended percussion of Harvey’s orchestration, complete with oriental bells and gongs, breaks through. This language of symbolic oscillation and sharp expression is stretched out, in a masterclass of orchestral colour, peaking at 11:55 and closing in radiant catharsis at 13:30 with the sound of plucked strings and rustling bamboo.

The above recording for the NMC label comes from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ilan Volkov, on a Buddhist ritual-infused set that also features the song cycle White as Jasmine and Body Mandala’s exploration of the sound of Tibetan low horns.

Harvey’s opera, Wagner Dream, premiered in 2007, is a work of totemic significance. Its dual inspirations – Wagner and Buddhist philosophy – blur the boundaries of geography and thought, in a spectral drama filled with Harvey’s most oppositional music.

Artwork: Tianshu, Xu Bing

by En Liang Khong

Tabula Rasa, Arvo Pärt

“I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played.” The musical world of the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has long existed in a curious state of tension, balancing the hermit-like aura of the composer himself, and the outstanding commercial success his music has achieved since the 1980s.

In Tallinn during the 50s, Pärt’s subversive serialist experiments attracted the critical eye of the regime. Exhausted by state censorship, Pärt drifted towards writing for Soviet films, but at the same time his personal musical language was undergoing a profound transformation; his music absorbed lessons learned from his study of Franco-Flemish choral music, Gregorian chant and ultimately the sound of the Orthodox Church. Where once his serialism was denounced as decadent, now his new religiosity was in flagrant defiance of state atheism. His music existed in a state of “time and timelessness”, bathed in the sound of fading bells.

Pärt eventually fled the country and settled in Berlin in 1981. But exile was to prove lucrative. The German music label ECM, set up by Manfred Eicher, had for some time focused on championing an austere minimalist aesthetic and its interest in the “New Simplicity” – the term for the 80s wave of spiritual minimalist music emerging from the former Soviet bloc – was inevitable. In 1984 Eicher founded ECM New Series for new composers, with Pärt’s 1977 composition Tabula Rasa as its first imprint.

Why does Pärt’s music continually evoke descriptions soaked in hyperbole? Much of his musical language relies on the simplest of means – silence, the tolling of bells: “The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I call it tintinnabulation [from the Latin for bells]”. 1977’s Tabula Rasa is a blossoming of his new-found style, where kaleidoscopic simplicity and bells are utilised in heightened emotion, both reminiscent of something archaic and yet never victim to Romantic escapism. Whereas early attempts at tonality, such as 1966’s Pro et Contra, were often presented in ironic juxtaposition with atonality, Tabula Rasa represents a fully fledged style. The piece’s orchestration is reminiscent of the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke – 2 violins, prepared piano and strings – and was dedicated to the Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer. The intensity of woven melodic voices and the stylistic absorption of the late medieval and Russian Orthodoxy produces a cathartic, “cleansing” experience.

But Tabula Rasa’s appeal also relied on something more prosaic. The sparse scalic and triadic figuration treads a fine line between modernist critique and banality. Its retrogressive aspects are buried under its “timeless” religiosity. This brand of spiritual music provided a minimalist oasis for the technological over-load of the 80s economic boom, as well as a triumphalist “healing” for the violence of 20th century music’s history of conflict. And yet we should not forget that the same musical language had its roots back in Estonia as a defiant gesture. Tabula Rasa exists in two states – its stylistic birth under the Soviet regime, and its aesthetic appeal under the West’s late capitalist culture.

Below is a recording of  Tabula Rasa followed by a brief listening guide.

The first movement, ‘Ludus’, opens (0:00) with the solo violins searing through at dual register. Silence follows (0:04). Then an orchestral motif (0:12) gradually emerges, around which the soloists orbit. The music pushes towards a climax, furiously closing on the opening’s chord, now in full orchestra (9:20). The second movement, ‘Silentium’, is announced by prepared piano arpeggiation (9:37), and then again reveals a pattern – an orchestral motif over a descending scale. The solo violins continually circle from above, marked by piano chords. The music fades into a whisper (25:37).

The recording comes from the 1984 ECM recording, with Gidon Kremer, Tatjana Grindenko and Alfred Schnittke as soloists.

1977’s Cantus In Memory Of Benjamin Britten, also on the ECM Tabula Rasa record, is a fine example of Pärt’s ability to put a fleeting musical moment to devastating impact, smeared through with Mahlerian peaks and submerged bells. For the UK’s answer to the “new simplicity”, the music of John Tavener similarly marries a familiar transparent sound with popular success – 1988’s The Protecting Veil is a typical example.

Artwork: Black on Maroon, Mark Rothko

by En Liang Khong

L’enfant et les sortilèges, Maurice Ravel

The ornate, nocturnal sound-world of French composer Maurice Ravel has left its indelible stain across the arc of 20th century music, whether sowing the seeds for minimalism in 1928’s Bolero, or finally meeting up with dance culture in 1995 with the release of electronic instrumentalist William Orbit’s Pieces in a Modern Style. In his epic survey of the 20th century, The Rest is Noise, the music journalist Alex Ross described the composer as “something of a cultural mutt” – a reference to the Basque folk music heritage of Ravel’s mother and the engineering background of his Swiss father. Dual identity inevitably appeared in his musical language, encompassing Ravel’s love of folk-song as well as his embracing of frozen harmonies and mechanized texture.

Admitted to study with Fauré at the Paris Conservatoire, Ravel fell under the cathartic influence of the 1889 Exposition Universelle (an experience that had so profoundly inspired Debussy’s music), where he encountered gamelan, Spanish and Russian music. Much like Debussy, Ravel’s new sounds also bridged the maximalism of Romanticism and the modernism of the new century. His music discovered a novel sense of space, encapsulated in the resonance of tolling bells that fall through his 1905 suite for solo piano, Miroirs.

But the comic filth of Ravel’s 1911 opera L’heure espagnole – a tale of adultery and dirty old men hiding in grandfather clocks – explicitly rejected the heightened sexual emotion of Debussy’s escapist opera Pelléas. Ravel’s second opera, L’enfant et les sortileges, had its premiere in 1925 with a libretto by Colette, who later observed how little contact she had with the composer. As such L’enfant stands as a perfect example of Ravel’s singular imagination, with a keen eye for operatic clichés in its sequences involving a ragtime duet for teapot and china cup, a princess’ lament and a chorus delivered by wallpaper shepherds. From its dancing animals through to eccentric instrumentation (including a cheese grater), this opera is pure Alice in Wonderland territory.

In Part 1 a child refuses to do his homework and confined to his room he falls into a rage, attacks his tame squirrel and the cat, breaks the Grandfather Clock and tears up his books. But the room awakes and the mistreated objects find their voices. In Part 2 the child wanders into the garden where he faces further accusations from the plants and the animals, building to a commotion in which the squirrel is injured. The child bandages the wound and seeing this act of reconciliation, the animals sing of his kindness. The opera closes with the child singing “Maman”, perhaps evoking the similar cry of dying soldiers in Colette’s book La chambre éclairée.

L’enfant revels in melodic celebration, balletic focus and pastiche, whether it be an 18th century courtly dance for a couple of chairs, or a duet for cats (which caused a scandal in its Paris premiere). And yet with the narrative’s Freudian tones, the obsession with dance, and the gradual shift itself within the instrumentation from aggression towards a magical, shifting soundscape, L’enfant’s success lies in its ability to be more than a collection of sketches. Roger Nichols describes one Glyndebourne performance ending with “middle-aged men in evening dress and floods of tears”. The opera’s themes of maternal love and natural harmony make for so much more than escapist nostalgia, while all dressed up in Ravel’s jewelled night music.

Below is a recording of L’enfant, followed by a brief listening guide.

At 1:52 two oboes circle, seemingly without direction, in an introduction that prefaces the circularity and symmetry pervading the entirety of the opera. The audience immediately identifies with the child who enters at 3:12, characterized by a vocal line clearly pitched below the instrumentation. A whole sequence of pastiches follows as the objects of the boy’s rage respond, from the 18th century dance performed by two chairs at 6:27 through to the ragtime duet of the china cup and teapot at 9:40. The opera takes a melancholic turn at 18:45 with the appearance of a fairy-tale princess who is left without a future because the child has torn apart the story-book. The first concentrated emotional climax comes with the child’s lament for the departed princess, “Toi, le Coeur de la rose” (23:44) in a nod to French operatic tradition. Musical rupture continues with the arrival of Arithmetic (25:33) and his frantically dancing numbers. The opera’s garden scene opens in a halo of nocturnal sounds (30:10) and tranquil harmonic movement. But the tension increases as the child calls out for “Maman!” (40:29) and the garden’s inhabitants turn on the child. Amidst the chaos, the squirrel is injured. The opera reaches its crux as the child bandages the squirrel’s paw (41:30) in a meeting of reality and magic. The animals sing their hymn of praise (44:00) and the opera closes with the child greeting his mother.

The recording comes from the 1987 Glyndebourne production, but Lorin Maazel’s version with the RTF National Orchestra for the Deutsche Grammophon label comes highly recommended (as does his recording of L’Heure Espagnole).

To take a look at the signature Ravel has left on contemporary music, have a listen to Carl Craig and Moritz von Oswald’s Recomposed project (also on Deutsche Grammophon).

Artwork: Glyndebourne set design, David Hockney

by En Liang Khong

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

Pelléas et Mélisande, Claude Debussy

“The century of aeroplanes deserves a music of its own”, announced the French composer Claude Debussy as he set about creating a new musical language at the close of the 19th century, reaching a sensual ambience in his orchestral rejection of German symphonic form and melodic development. At the Paris Conservatory, he was accused of “vague impressionism”; his departure from rigid tonality embraced timeless modality, chromatic liberation and melodic expanse. Dissonant expression, unresolved chords and whole-tone and pentatonic scales all added to the delicate gauze of sound.

Whilst classical music critic Alex Ross begins his epic survey of the 20th century, The Rest Is Noise, with Richard Strauss’ Salome, Debussy’s only complete opera Pelléas et Mélisande – which received its premier in 1902 – holds equal symbolic weight, standing at the edge of centuries. Debussy took his libretto from the Belgian Maeterlinck’s Symbolist play – an adulterous tragedy where the timeless narrative, open to perpetual interpretation, never makes clear any sexual detail: Prince Golaud discovers Mélisande lost in a forest, marries her and returns to the castle of his grandfather, King Arkel of Allemonde. Mélisande’s attachment to Golaud’s half-brother Pelléas spirals into increasing jealousy with Golaud rushing to kill his brother as he confesses his love with Mélisande. As Golaud repeatedly begs her for “the truth”, Mélisande dies after giving birth to a daughter.

Debussy’s direct setting of Maeterlinck’s prose text, his rejection of set-pieces and use of silent expression – all bathed in half-light – was highly influential on the history of 20th century opera. But even from its premiere, Pelléas has never sat comfortably; the orchestra complained that the score was “unplayable, outrageous” while the audience thought of its abstraction as “celestial boredom”.

Pelléas’ problems have always been rooted in its tortuous relationship with 19th century Wagnerian opera and its heightened drama, orchestral intensity, perpetual melody and use of leitmotifs (repeated musical ideas). Pelléas resonates both musically and textually – in its use of mythic beauty, the fatalistic, the forbidden and the symbolic – with Wagnerian tradition. And yet Debussy’s orchestra is far more shaded, his music pursues natural speech rhythms – reaching almost the negative aesthetic of the modernists.

Auden described Pelléas as “one of the great anti-operas” and in many ways, that’s a perfect description for Debussy’s shift from the maximalism of Wagnerian opera. Pelléas rejects symphonic artificiality and instead seeks the internal musicality and drama of the human voice. Vocal declamation of the text, approaching the fluidity of chant, looks towards clarity rather than high emotion. Debussy’s orchestral diminution above all stressed instrumental colour over volume – at the central climax as Pelléas professes his love, the orchestra is silent with Mélisande’s reply. Interrupted musical lines build a sonic impression of the opera as a shaded surface, fractured only by voice. The discomforting ambivalence in unresolved harmony, modal pull, whole-tone scales and chromatic suggestion all work against the operatic ideal.

Below is a recording of Pelléas et Mélisande accompanied by a brief listening guide.

Stretching to two and a half hours, this five-act opera hardly lends itself to a compressed listening guide. I have picked out a couple of moments to look for in this highly claustrophobic, shadowy sound-world.

ACT I opens with a softly spoken orchestral prelude in muted cellos and double-basses, spinning out a series of themes – sparse, vaporous tones perfectly set up the otherworldly forest scene where Golaud encounters Mélisande, singing in fragmented melody. The act closes as elusively as it begins with 27:15 the first time Mélisande addresses a direct question to Pelléas.

ACT II begins with Pelléas bringing Mélisande to the Blind Men’s Well– floating flute lines and harp arpeggiation creating a liquidity in the texture. This forms the crux of the opera, with Mélisande losing her ring and so setting Golaud’s jealousy in motion – he orders her to search for it, leading to the cavern scene 23:00 where orchestral colour floods in, fed by blooming harp glissandos (in contrast to the claustrophobia of the opening forest scene).

ACT III opens with Mélisande’s song in the tower – the only point where she is alone. The emphasis is on phrase patterns, with her song shaped not by music but by syllabic flow. By 22:15 Golaud’s jealousy is open and through accumulated, unresolved orchestral tension, the music here forms a crescendo into the terrifying passage at 31:20 where the string section plays ‘sul pont’ (near the bridge of the instrument).

ACT IV increases the psychological agitation, with Golaud’s outburst at 8:40, and Debussy’s interlude at 14:58 opening into full orchestral climaxes. 31:58 sees the opera’s culmination as the lovers spot Golaud – achieving musical orgasm in accelerating instrumental rhythm, orchestral release and the ecstasy of vocal phrasing.

ACT V brings the servants’ entrance at 15:24 in muted conclusion, with the emotional flow disrupted by sonic bursts.

The performance above belongs to Claudio Abbado’s recording with the Vienna Philharmonic for Deutsche Grammophon. A completely different performance can be found in Karajan’s post-romantic approach on his EMI recording.

To explore further Debussy’s subtle orchestral hues, his short ballet, Jeux, is seen by many as an even fuller expression of his avant-garde sound-world. Another piece in the Maeterlinck repertoire is Arnold Schoenberg’s 1903 symphonic poem, Pelleas und Melisande – stretching both tonality and texture, the piece originally started as an opera.

Artwork: A set design from 1953, Dmitri Bouchene

by En Liang Khong