Articulate Silences

Tacet / Tacet / Tacet

Category: Thomas May

The Well-Tuned Piano, La Monte Young

Ding Yi Shi-Shi

The Well-Tuned Piano unfurls in graceful slow motion. A largely improvised piece for solo piano first performed in 1964 and typically lasting over five hours, La Monte Young’s magnum opus presents an imposing challenge to our perceptions of musical duration and development. Yet, at the same time it permits indulgence in the sensuous, tactile beauty of sound itself. Vast swathes of the piece hang in a frozen stasis as disparate tones coalesce to form pixelated clouds of sound, their droning harmonies static yet tremulous, surging with vibrant internal energy. During its densest passages the depth of the musical texture extends far beyond anything that would usually be expected from a solo instrument: the soundscapes of The Well-Tuned Piano are multi-dimensional and in perpetual, kaleidoscopic flux.

So how are such beguiling timbres evoked from a single instrument? The answer lies, at least in part, in the alternative tuning system employed by Young, a system that the American composer kept secret for over 27 years. This unconventional approach was born out of the composer’s disillusionment with standard Western tuning (or, “equal temperament”) which is actually, for certain practical reasons, slightly out of tune. (For a fascinating in-depth explanation of equal temperament and Young’s tuning system, see Kyle Gann’s two informative articles.) And, whilst our ears have largely become accustomed to the imperfections in equal temperament, the sparkling lucidity of The Well-Tuned Piano demonstrates the potential of correcting the centuries-old errors of the standard tuning system. Free from the slight buzzing and muddiness inherent to Western music, the tones emanating from Young’s piano resonate together, combining to form deep, sonorous blocks of sound.

The timbres of Young’s piano could well be described as crystalline: as glistening and radiant as they are hardened, captivating both in their expansive beauty and their intense physicality. The perpetual tension between these two states – the immaterial and the material – imbues The Well-Tuned Piano with a sense of uncertainty that undercuts the sweeping majesty of its broad washes of sound. Certainly, the earthen density of The Well-Tuned Piano keeps the piece from straying too far into the New Age-isms common to much drone-based composition. Its meditative clusters of sound may well evoke the infinite – the transcendent, the Utopian, even – but, in the end, The Well-Tuned Piano seems to suggest that such lofty ideals will continue to lie tantalisingly out of reach.

Below is a recording of The Well-Tuned Piano followed by a brief listening guide

To accompany a recording of The Well-Tuned Piano with any sort of systematic listening guide would perhaps be somewhat antithetical to the music’s sense of stasis and lack of narrative development. It doesn’t seem necessary to listen to the piece in one sitting (a herculean task) and its steadily shifting textures do not demand – although they generously reward – attentive listening. The piece oscillates, albeit slowly, between sparse inactivity and frenetic activity, with Young conjuring expansive tone-clouds from the piano (the first beginning at around 5:50 in the first video above).

The recording above is performed by La Monte Young in 1981, released on the Gramavision label. Sadly, this edition is now out of print and no recording of the piece is currently available.

La Monte Young is often labelled as a minimalist composer, along with numerous other American composers of his generation. For more conventional examples of minimalism’s repetitive, yet steadily unfolding, musical structures, try Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians (1976) or Terry Riley’s In C (1964).

Artwork: Shi-Shi, Ding Yi

by Thomas May

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

Lichtbogen, Kaija Saariaho

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artwork: Hero and Leandro, Cy Twombly

by Thomas May

Eraserhead Original Soundtrack, David Lynch & Alan Splet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Thomas May

Studies for Player Piano, Conlon Nancarrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artwork: Collection, Robert Rauschenberg

by Thomas May

Les espaces acoustiques, Gérard Grisey

Gérard Grisey’s manifesto as a composer was as unassuming as it was transformative: “music is made with sounds, not with notes.” Whilst this simple statement may initially appear somewhat aphoristic, Grisey’s observation represents a subtle, yet pertinent, repositioning of compositional approach. It was from this starting point that the French composer began to mine the depths of texture and harmony contained within individual sounds. In developing what is now termed “spectral music”, Grisey created an innovative, yet strikingly lucid and accessible, compositional style, simultaneously eschewing the occasionally esoteric tendencies of the European avant-garde as well as minimalism’s increasingly post-modern nature.

Grisey’s largest ever undertaking, Les espaces acoustiques was composed sporadically in the period from 1974 to 1985 and remains perhaps the fullest realisation of his musical vision. In composing the piece Grisey undertook detailed analyses of sound spectra. These are the unique combinations of frequencies that manifest themselves as timbre, accounting for the distinction between, for example, a middle-C played on a piano and the same note played on a violin. Following this process of analysis, Grisey was able to mimic closely various sounds using groups of instruments, a technique that he called “instrumental synthesis”. A prominent example of the technique occurs at the opening of Les espaces acoustiques’s third movement ‘Partiels’; a low E on the trombone is followed by a collection of woodwinds and strings playing the frequencies from the sound’s spectrum, imitating the colour and timbre of the brass instrument in a shivering halo of sound.

During this passage, Grisey prises apart the components of the initial sound, reconstructing the trombone’s timbre in front of our ears in a stunning aural illusion, forming a furtive echo at once both bleached and iridescent. Whilst seemingly little more than a conjuring trick, this passage serves to reveal the wealth of subtle nuance hidden within a single sound. In this sense, Les espaces acoustiques reaches far beyond the superficialities of its compositional ingenuity: this piece opens up new modes of aural perception, exposing the beautiful multidimensionality constituting even the most mundane of sonic events.

Les espaces acoustiques hovers uneasily between the consonant and the dissonant, the placid and the volatile. Through his spectral analyses, Grisey uncovered the dramatic tensions at the centre of apparently stable sounds, drawing out the natural dissonances that lie buried within. As such, this music is at once sensuous and uncertain; the static mass of luminous colours and textures is undercut by a constant threat of rupture as Grisey proceeds to tear apart the very fabric of the soundscape. Part scientific analysis, part mystical exploration of aural sensuality, Les espaces acoustiques simultaneously deconstructs conceptions of the nature of music whilst remaining firmly rooted in the physical, vibrational qualities of sound itself.

Below is a recording of Les espaces acoustiques accompanied by a brief listening guide.

[UPDATE 05/01/2013: The recording below has been removed from YouTube. Another recording can be found here via Spotify. Please note that this is a different recording so the timings below will no longer correspond exactly with the performance.]

Les espaces acoustiques proceeds in six movements with the ensemble increasing in size as the piece progresses.

‘Prologue’ opens the piece in a rather austere manner. A sparse solo for viola, this movement hints at the timbral richness of the remainder of the piece as the instrument traverses a variety of sonorities.

‘Periodes’ is scored for seven instruments: flute, clarinet, trombone, violin, viola, cello and double bass. In the opening passage, the static, pulsating mass of sound occasionally threatens to erupt as the rasping trombone cuts through the soundscape. Listen out for the lilting series of arpeggios beginning at 3:16 and the intense succession of chords from 7:03-8:45.

‘Partiels’ opens with the piece’s most prominent use of instrumental synthesis (0:00-3:40): the timbre of the low brass is imitated by various groups of instruments. Scored for 18 instruments, this movement explores a wide variety of textures; particularly striking is the throbbing cloud of sound at 12:28-15:03, gradually changing in colouration and intensity as different instruments enter and leave.

‘Modulations’ is scored for an orchestra. From 8:10 to 11:05, high strings and pitched percussion cloak the music in a shimmering metallic gauze.

The size of the orchestra increases for ‘Transitoires’. The penultimate movement acts as the culmination of the piece, traversing a kaleidoscopic array of luminous textures. The central section from 4:41 to 9:44 recalls the music from the opening of ‘Partiels’. In a magical passage, the delicate, fragmentary strings which emerge from the gloom at 11:00 are joined by distant muted brass at 12:02.

‘Epilogue’ opens with a solo viola alluding to the ‘Prologue’ before ushering in the full orchestra, this time augmented by four solo horns. The movement forms an enigmatic conclusion to Les espaces acoustiques, the bleached colours of the orchestra punctuated by the jarring sonorities of the horns.

The fine performance above is conducted by Pierre-Andre Valade and available on the Accord record label.

Grisey’s final completed work, Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil (1998), is considered by some to be his crowning achievement and would make for a good entry point for further exploration of his music. Fellow French composer Tristan Murail is another significant proponent of spectral music; his pieces Gondwana (1980) and Désintégrations (1982) both come highly recommended.

Artwork: Cage 1, Gerhard Richter

by Thomas May

The Rite of Spring, Igor Stravinsky

In one of the most frequently recounted episodes of 20th century music, the 1913 premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring ended in an audience riot as the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées erupted in protest. To modern listeners, the most striking feature of the Russian composer’s third ballet is its high level of dissonance; jarring, oppressive chords tear through the soundscape in an unrelenting cacophony of clashing sounds. Yet, for those attending its premiere there were a number of other disagreeable characteristics of the performance. Indeed, Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography, labelled as “uncouth” by one reviewer, contributed as much to the audience’s indignation as the music.

Musically, in addition to its provocative harmonic character, perhaps what was most shocking to the ballet’s early audience was Stravinsky’s abandonment of classical melodic and harmonic development in favour of the foregrounding of the rhythmic and timbral properties of the music. The Rite of Spring proceeds in a series of disjointed miniatures exploring the kaleidoscopic potential of orchestral colour; wildly oscillating timbres contour the ballet’s progression as musty, pungent webs of woodwind are violently ruptured by volcanic masses of brass and searing strings. The music is thrust forward by strident rhythms, perpetually derailed by off-kilter syncopation preventing the establishment of any sense of regular flow. Each musical gesture in The Rite of Spring is nightmarishly exaggerated to form a sinister, uneasily contorted aural world.

Stravinsky’s melodic writing centres around brief interlocking motifs; snippets of Russian folk melodies are densely layered in a fragmentary collage, enacting a collision between the traditional music of his country and the techniques of modernist composition. This juxtaposition of the archaic with the fiercely contemporary imparts a thrilling dramatic tension to The Rite of Spring, bestowing a dialogic depth to its ruthless explorations of rhythm. Equally likely to be described as barbaric or primitive as it is avant-garde or sophisticated, this piece gains as much of its potency from looking backwards in time as it does from forging stubbornly ahead. Remarkable in appealing simultaneously to both the visceral and the cerebral with equal fervour, The Rite of Spring is superficially petulant and temperamental whilst somehow maintaining an aura of austerity.

In his memoir, Stravinsky claimed that the narrative of the ballet had come to him in a horrifying, lucid vision of three years prior: “I saw in my imagination a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death.” Whether the story of the work’s inception is true or merely a case of retrospective myth-making is an interesting question, but the brutal nature of the ballet’s climactic ritual, combined with the pummelling physicality of the music, provoked early onlookers into a state of frenzied outrage. In the time since the piece was written, rhythm and timbre have become primary concerns in much Western music: from the minimalism of Reich and Glass to the hip-hop of J Dilla and Madlib. The monumental break with tradition that The Rite of Spring represents is thus diminished in its impact today but Stravinsky’s ballet remains a thrillingly direct and engaging piece of music.

Below is a recording of The Rite of Spring followed by a brief listening guide.

The Rite of Spring is cast in two main parts, both of which are further divided into smaller episodes.

Part I opens with the furtive fluttering of a solo bassoon in its highest register, soon joined by the other woodwinds. The insistent motif on pizzicato strings first heard at 2:48 brings the introductory passage to a close, ushering in the obsessive rhythms of 3:11-6:20; although the rhythm remains constant throughout this section, a vitality is instilled as unexpected beats of the bar are stressed. Following a brief volcanic outburst of brass, some semblance of order is retained at 7:38 with a short interlude of woodwinds. A creeping figure in the low strings enters at 8:12 and leads the musical progression until 10:23. Following another brief interlude, the music proceeds in a series of fragmentary passages of increasing rhythmic drive until Part I crashes to a close at 15:06.

Part II begins quietly with a passage of mysteriously lilting woodwinds, strings and distant brass (15:10-20:06). After a melodically expressive section dominated by the strings, a pounding rhythm is introduced at 22:44, thrust forward by the driving percussion. Another moment of respite ensues after which the climactic passage of the ballet begins at 28:38. In this final scene, the chosen sacrifice dances herself to death, accompanied by thunderous brass and percussion.

Being probably Stravinsky’s best known work, The Rite of Spring has been recorded numerous times. The recording above is performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Seiji Ozawa, chosen for its fine balance of savagery and attention to detail. For a particularly barbaric, if somewhat scruffy, performance, Valery Gergiev’s recording with the Kirov Orchestra is recommended. Stravinsky himself also conducts a brilliant recording with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, taking the score somewhat faster than most modern performances.

Both of Stravinsky’s other ballets from this period explore similar musical ideas to The Rite of Spring but in a more melodious, late Romantic setting: 1910’s The Firebird is one of Stravinsky’s major pieces and 1911’s Petrushka is awash with rhythmic vitality. Many other composers of Stravinsky’s generation explored the folk traditions of their own countries. In particular, Béla Bartók devoted much of his career to the research of Hungary’s indigenous music, assimilating his findings into his compositions; his cycle of six string quartets is highly recommended.

Artwork: Three Women, Pablo Picasso

by Thomas May

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