Articulate Silences

Tacet / Tacet / Tacet

Category: Joel Sandelson

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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Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Béla Bartók

Bartók’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle ushered in a new period of psychological realism, darkness, and economy of material in his music. Premiered in 1937, Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta was an incredibly compelling step forward in transferring these forces into the abstract realm. An Expressionist engagement with the drama of oppositions meets with a feeling of black comedy to create a highly visceral experience, married with masterful technical achievement.

This extraordinary work adds to Bartók’s assimilation of folk traditions of his native Hungary a sophisticated dialectic between ancient and modern. The movements each caricature a different form whilst adapting them to the precise, shadowy vision of the music. He does not fully embrace these archaic forms but chooses certain features from a distance, with the result of creating 20th century metaphors for the fugue, sonata and concerto, rather than wholeheartedly continuing their tradition.

Bartók’s worldview derived from a deep love of nature, and to an extent, a suspicion of man. This is prevalent in the poignantly restrained third movement, one of his finest examples of “night music”, marked by the interruption of “human” emotionalism of the opening viola theme into music otherwise expressive of purely natural beauty. The rustic Hungarian song and dance of the finale, heightened by Bartók’s exuberant tonal language, feels like the swansong of an old Eastern Europe before it was to be buried two years later.

The two antiphonal string orchestras on either side of the stage echo the Baroque concerto grosso, creating a spatially fascinating interplay of sonorities which Bartók exploits to great effect, employing dense contrapuntal writing. This represents a natural continuation of his blocky, clearly delineated scoring in his earlier orchestral music. The string choirs lie at the emotional centre of the piece, but his addition of the percussion is a perfect example of his use of orchestral colour to shade in the depth of the music at certain moments.

The interval of a tritone (such as C – F sharp) represented the “devil in music” in the Baroque and dark, elemental powers in late Romantic music. Bartók takes advantage of the associations of this interval (like everything else in the piece, derived from the opening motivic cell) but without a hint of cliché or irony; it is woven into its richly evocative yet totally unpretentious fabric. In the same way, the piece represents the culmination of Bartók’s tonally centric writing (certain individual notes act as “pitch centres”) but it is never in a key, so that the structural tension of long-range tonality is present like a shadow throughout without restricting itself to any sort of triad-based harmony. Disparate approaches are made harmonious in this most tightly unified of all works.

Stanley Kubrick’s famous use of the piece in The Shining is a testament to its strange power to enrapture coupled with an unsettling feeling of déjà vu. What makes it remarkable is its totally abstract, universal passion expressed through a rigorously intellectual concentration of thought.

Below is a recording of Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta accompanied by a brief listening guide.

The first movement is an enormous fugue, consisting of a completely unbroken stream of notes producing a compelling, hypnotic power, seemingly infinite in its potential to expand and yet governed by a highly logical system. Starting around the pitch A, it reaches its ensnaring climax at 5:22 (at E flat, a tritone away). The fugue subject proves so powerful that it overflows into every corner of the rest of the piece. The breathless return of the opening is transformed by the cold glitter of the celesta at 7:25. However homogeneous it may be, the movement sets the tone for the whole work, embodying an intense engagement with its own material qualified by a frightened sense of distance.

The second, a boisterous dance movement, is cast in an expanded sonata form, with the opening flourishes oddly contradicted by a hushed, mathematical development at 3:15. The return to the movement’s opening at 5:21 is made the victim of a crude metrical shift enforced by timpani.

The deeply felt yet icy third movement is at the heart of the work. The xylophone’s accelerating then slowing pulse at the opening is a microcosm for the whole movement – it is itself a palindrome, summarizing the ABCDCBA arch-like structure of the movement, as well as being the musical noise of a cricket, introducing the theme of nature which Bartók proceeds to explore. 4:00 is coldly expressive of this natural world, not depending solely on pitch for its effect, and 5:52 presents an uneasy synthesis of the invading, narrative-driven theme and the mystical, nocturnal world of the rest of the movement.

The finale seems to resolve the human problems of its antecedent, embodied in part by a more consonant reworking of the opening motto at 3:22. The movement gathers up the melodic threads of the work and gives them a new depth of meaning with its unbrookable onward flow. Moments such as 5:45 cast doubt on the overriding tone of the movement, but the riotous ending makes it seem like a totally natural outcome of the darkness that it follows.

This clean, precise recording comes from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Levine. Considering its dependence on three-dimensional perception for its spatial impact, live performance will always be preferable. However, Esa-Pekka Salonen’s reading with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, available on Sony, is particularly fine.

For an insight into Bartók’s incredible sense of proportion, the Fourth String Quartet is a particularly astonishing example, while the grandeur of the Concerto for Orchestra shows his exploration of scoring techniques adumbrated in Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Many works of the surprisingly contemporaneous Ralph Vaughan Williams provide a damper, more English perspective on folk music.

Artwork: Fighting Forms, Franz Marc

by Joel Sandelson

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

String Quartet No. 8, Dmitri Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich is rare in the canon of the greats in that he is associated almost as much with politics as with his art. By 1960, having previously been denounced twice by Stalin’s regime for writing unpatriotic music, he was living in obscurity and was blackmailed into becoming a shackled “artist” producing watered-down, placatory works for the Party. Coupled with the death of his first wife and his increasingly suicidal state, the nihilistic tone of the work comes as little surprise.

It was in his chamber music, not his symphonies, that Shostakovich left his most heartfelt and personal musical testimonies and which therefore provide the real key to understanding the man. As one of the works written “for the desk drawer”, String Quartet No. 8 wears its heart on its sleeve, containing no empty sentimentalism like those found in the pages of his public works. Composed in only three days while the composer was visiting the ruined city of Dresden, the work almost lacks the energy to venture out of its own bleak landscape.

Almost every work of his is rich in self-quotation and coded messages. In a characteristically pessimistic move, Shostakovich wrote the work as a kind of musical autobiography, since the authorities had guaranteed that there would be no chance of anyone else being able to publish one. He quotes his own symphonies and chamber music as well as Russian folk tunes, creating a web of allusions which supports several conflicting readings, ranging from a memorial to the victims of fascism to an artist’s suicide note. In a poignant but not isolated gesture, all five movements are ceaselessly imprinted with the motif D – E flat – C – B (or, in the German nomenclature, D – S – C – H): a musical spelling of his own initials.

Along with the overriding tone of loss approaching insanity comes a note of retrospection. The self-conscious modeling of the work on the anguished late quartets of Beethoven adds a historical dimension to Shostakovich’s desperate attempt to be remembered as a great composer, while his labyrinthine narratives of polyphonic writing set the backward-looking musical techniques in an eerily dislocated context. His writing is broadly tonal, but ventures schizophrenically into more acerbic, dissonant territory, especially in the frenzied middle movements. The quartet begins and ends in a minor mode, drained of energy, which is intermittently undermined by the full range of the chromatic scale, contributing to the work’s uniquely unsettling emptiness. The work is incredibly compact and all five movements blend into each other, transforming the conventional movement structure into a dramatic stream of consciousness.

The ambiguity of meaning, coupled with the deep sense of isolation and regret, means that this music, resonating with bitter universal experience, transcends individual suffering to address all of human despair.

Below is a recording of String Quartet No. 8, accompanied by a brief listening guide.

The first movement opens with the four instruments stating the DSCH motif in a slow, breathless canon, before each retreats to the background, which itself becomes riddled with outbursts (0:36). The first point of any definition comes at the cadence at 0:50, before fading back into obscurity with a pensive, winding violin monody over a drone in the cello and viola; this itself is given a mournful, lamenting quality by the addition of a second violin at 1:59. At 3:03, hints of brightness melt back into dissonance in the same veiled texture as the opening, before the beginning is restated. A single note is taken up at 4:29 and we are propelled into the frenetic second movement, a march taken at a ridiculous pace, evoking the sound of anti-aircraft fire (spelt in an inversion of the composer’s name) at 4:47. At 5:26 a buildup strained to breaking point explodes into a huge, quasi-orchestral rendition of a Jewish Folk tune, quoted from the composer’s Piano Trio No. 2. The movement continues with relentless drive, exacerbating all previous sections, before unexpectedly cutting off.

The third movement is a parody of a waltz, punctuated by ill-timed silences (0:14). The instruments mock the simplicity of the harmonic structure of the dance with their own, grotesque version (0:48), breaking down into chaos before the viola confidently asserts its own march rhythm at 1:26. At 1:46 the violin and cello steal each other’s roles, with the former quoting the composer’s 1st Cello Concerto, before the latter plays an ethereal melody that should belong to the violin. At 2:33, the waltzing viola is forced to provide its own accompaniment, in a cruel transformation of the opening, before an unexpected recitative.

The fourth movement is defined by savagery, as the journey reaches its most desolate point. At 0:41 the viola and cello quote the revolutionary song ‘Tormented by Grievous Bondage’ in an intensely sinister manner. At 1:49 the two violins recall the moment of tenderness from the first movement, like two people comforting each other in adversity. A triumphalist finale would be misplaced in the midst of such suffering, so what we get instead at 4:47, realised with more agonising dissonances, is a disappearance back into the barren landscape of the first movement.

The above recording is by the Emerson Quartet whose magisterial cycle of the complete quartets is among the very finest. For a taste of genuine Soviet misery try the St Petersburg Quartet’s reading, available on DDD.

Shostakovich’s 5th and 7th Symphonies represent more public displays of defiance, showcased in a punchy, neo-Mahlerian symphonic style. Prokofiev’s caustic ‘War’ Sonatas for Piano (Nos. 6, 7 & 8) provide a similarly personal insight into political resistance.

Artwork: Babi Yar, Shalom Goldberg

by Joel Sandelson

Music for 18 Musicians, Steve Reich

In 1976, moving on from experimental works and adventures in tape phasing, minimalism grew up. Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, the genre’s austere masterpiece, has since taken its place as one of the cultural watersheds of the 20th century. Writing for his own ensemble, Reich created a minimalist orchestra of sorts, comprising mallet percussion, pianos, strings, women’s voices and clarinets. This combination brought his proto-synthesized soundworld to life in which four interlocking piano patterns seem to fuse into a clarinet descant, or the intensely pure sound of the vibrato-less strings and voices blend seamlessly into one another.

The influence of Reich’s time spent studying gamelan and African drumming can be seen in the visual impact of a performance. The ensemble is reminiscent of an egalitarian African society in which there is no leader (or conductor) – drummers weaving a contrapuntal web of perfectly interlocking patterns, four village women gossiping – transmuted into the immaculate, clear-cut visual and sonic world of the Western concert hall. Reich’s polemics also blur the boundaries between “high” and “low” genres; in the 70s the work was even played as dance music. It has been taken variously as a metaphor for communism, with its egalitarian power hierarchy and loss of individual identity, as well as capitalism, with one musicologist going so far as to relate the repetitive structures of the music to the rows of identical products in the American supermarket. Either way, it matters to people in a way that elevates it above its humble origins in a Manhattan loft.

Its conception is symphonic in scale, consisting of eleven distinct but related pieces (“sections”) each inspired by a single chord, but each taking the harmonic discourse further. The harmony takes cues from French composer Claude Debussy, jazz, and Renaissance polyphony, all polished and updated for the modern age. As a result, the work is uniquely pan-historical – it sets a re-imagining of ancient music alongside a projection of the music of the future. Its beautifully tonal harmonic spectrum and melodic simplicity embody the minimalist rejection of uncompromisingly brutal postwar modernism.

Inspired by a dream in which Reich and his ensemble were drumming on a beach with the waves washing up around them, growing and fading pulse waves are the driving force behind the work. Groups of instruments expose hypnotic melodic patterns adding a new note every so often – the opposite of traditional practice of linear fragmentation and variation. Slowly evolving melodic figures are set over fixed cadences, with the resulting magical effect of varying that which is unchanging. This gradual development of each melodic pattern reconstitutes our sense of time so that we genuinely begin to value each new note; time really does seem to freeze during a performance. No wonder, then, that Reich, rather than Philip Glass, has won a reputation as “the thinking man’s minimalist” – in place of the interminable, meditative scales and arpeggios of his aesthetic colleague, he reinvigorates the emotional potential of tonality and the musical satisfaction of large-scale form within a trance-inducing and crystalline soundscape.

Below is a recording of Music for 18 Musicians followed by a brief listening guide.

The basic cycle of eleven chords itself is played in sections consisting only of pulses at the beginning and end of the work, much like a mediaeval Cantus Firmus upon which all intervening complexity is constructed. Two pulsing marimbas fill in the background throughout, whilst other instruments foreground pulse waves, each the length of a human breath, to illuminate the changing harmonies. Having heard nothing but pure harmony until now, the marimba pattern at the start of Section I (5:40) is both refreshing and intriguing. The vibraphone gives aural cues when it is time to move on to the next phrase, such as at 6:53, which gives each performance a uniquely improvisatory quality. Section II highlights Reich’s process of additive melody – starting at 10:25, the xylophones gradually replace rests with notes, building up to a mesmerising, endless loop. The arch-like structure of each section is particularly clear in Section IIIA (14:38), in which the polarised, energetic harmony cools off in the centre of the section at 15:50. After circling indecisively in Section IV (22:18), in Section V, the midpoint of the piece (28:55), the bass clarinets lower the floor from the sunny major modes of the opening to a chilling minor. From this point onwards the harmony spirals down into darker territory, beginning with a showpiece for the four pianos, who build a rhythmicized wall of sound by playing an identical buildup a beat out of phase with each other, reaching a transfixing climax at 31:45. Section VI (35:44), reminiscent of the earlier IIIA, has been described as ‘the scherzo of the piece’ – hints of fiery dance rhythms with offbeat accents in the xylophone pulses and a surprise entry of maracas underpin a jazzy syncopated riff in the front octet. Section VII, a darker recasting of the first section, sees the cello taking the role of electric bass to support the voices’ stratospheric bursts of melody (41:57). The busier Sections IX and X at 48:33 and 53:58 respectively begin the journey back to brightness, and after a cautiously optimistic section XI (55:48), the opening pulses return at 1:01:50, as if we have witnessed the complete cycle of a day. We have come to the end of the acoustic maze so perfectly built for us.

Not everyone takes kindly to new recordings of older Reich works, but its popularity has ensured that Music for 18 Musicians has been recorded several times. The above recording is by the Steve Reich Ensemble, but undoubtedly the most enthralling version is by Ensemble Modern, available on the RCA Red Seal Label.

Almost every work by Reich marks a turning point in the composer’s style. The most notorious of his radical, early ‘phasing’ period are It’s Gonna Rain and Four Organs. Drumming sounds like a visceral unrefined cousin of Music for 18 Musicians, while Different Trains stands out as one of the most powerful pieces of memorial art ever created. His jazz and rock influences are also evident in New York Counterpoint and the 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning Double Sextet.

Artwork: Broadway Boogie-Woogie, Piet Mondrian

by Joel Sandelson