Articulate Silences

Tacet / Tacet / Tacet

Category: Thomas May

Symphonie, Anton Webern

Anton Webern’s Symphonie of 1928 is an enigmatic coalescence of tentative melodies softly shaded in delicate harmonies and textures. Eschewing Beethovan’s notion of the triumphalist symphony, Webern’s sole contribution to the symphonic canon is characteristic of the composer in its brevity and poise, displaying a striking economy in both its emotive content and musical construction. This is a piece of immense, even esoteric, restraint, reaching towards a timeless grace and crystalline beauty through an earnest pursuit of perfection in proportion and symmetry.

Born in Austria in 1883, Anton Webern was a student of Arnold Schoenberg in Vienna. The two composers, along with another of Schoenberg’s students Alban Berg, comprise the Second Viennese School – named after the (first) Viennese School of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. In the early 1920s Schoenberg developed his twelve tone method of composition, known as serialism, which was soon adopted by both Berg and Webern. At the heart of a twelve tone composition is a “tone row”, consisting of all twelve notes of the octave, which dictates the order in which the notes are to be played throughout the piece. As such, each tone is treated equally, removing what Schoenberg perceived to be the archaic hierarchical relationships between the notes of a scale. Schoenberg’s method represents a monumental schism between old and new, completely liberating compositional practice from the long imposed restrictions of traditional tonality.

Whilst the twelve tone method is certainly uncompromising in its formality, the common portrayal of serialist music as unlistenable noise seems rather hyperbolic in light of the elegant lyricism of Webern’s Symphonie. The understated beauty of this music comes from Webern’s highlighting of instrumental timbre, whilst downplaying the roles of melody and harmony: this piece is ornately textured, coloured in subtle, translucent hues. A key technique used throughout the piece is that of klangfarbenmelodie, a method of instrumentation pioneered by Webern and Schoenberg, translating from the German as “sound-colour-melody”. Rather than scoring a melody to be played by just one instrument, Webern breaks his melodies up into fragments and distributes them around the different instrumental groups of the orchestra.

Despite Webern’s rather austere use of Symphonie’s small ensemble, often allowing only one instrumental group to be heard at a time, the prominence of klangfarbenmelodie in the piece bestows it with a broad and sensuous sound palette; this music achieves a fleeting simultaneity of the intimate and the expansive as the musical thread is passed between various orchestral voices in an endless stream of ethereal colours and textures. Listening to this piece is reminiscent of watching shards of light scatter across a rippling surface of water: Webern’s Symphonie is fragile and evanescent, sparkling and mysteriously hypnotic.

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

Movement I runs from 0:00 to 6:27 and features prominent use of Webern’s klangfarbenmelodie technique; the music has a hesitancy as the melody moves between the instruments, exploring a wide and understated palette of colour and timbre. The first section is fragile and melodic, heard from 0:00 to 2:22, and is followed by a contrasting, slower moving section from 2:22 to 3:24. These passages of music are then repeated and reflected in various ways until the close of the movement.

Movement II begins at 6:27 and consists of a theme (heard from 6:27 to 6:45) followed by a series of seven variations (which begin respectively at 6:45, 6:58, 7:08, 7:33, 8:02, 8:15 and 8:36) and closed off finally by a brief coda at 9:00. Listen for the spotlighting of different instrumental groups throughout the variations, bestowing the movement with a variety of colour and texture.

Being one of Webern’s more popular works, there are a number of recordings of Symphonie currently available; the recording above is conducted by Pierre Boulez and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. Another fine performance comes from the Berliner Philharmoniker, also conducted by Boulez, and is available on Deutsche Grammophon’s excellent set of Webern’s complete works.

Along with the Symphonie, Webern’s opus number 10, 5 Pieces for Orchestra, and the expansive late Cantatas No. 1 and 2 are relatively large scale works that would serve well as entry points into his music. In contrast to Webern’s decidedly minimal style, Arnold Schoenberg’s 5 Pieces for Orchestra of 1909 is an example of some of the more expressive music to arise from the Second Viennese School.

Artwork: Color Form No. 26, Michael Loew

by Thomas May

Como una ola de fuerza y luz, Luigi Nono

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artwork: Untitled (Bacchus), Cy Twombly

by Thomas May

Jeux Vénitiens, Witold Lutosławski

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artwork: Zeichnung, Adolf Wölfli

by Thomas May

Ionisation, Edgard Varèse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artwork: Skyscrapers on Transparent Yellow, Josef Albers

by Thomas May

Jonchaies, Iannis Xenakis

Written in 1977, over twenty years after his breakthrough score Metastasis, Jonchaies represents the apex of Iannis Xenakis’ orchestral output. As a trained engineer, the Greek composer spent much of his career experimenting with the application of complex mathematical techniques to the compositional process, implementing ideas from statistics, set theory and geometry to arrive at what he called stochastic music. Whilst Jonchaies is a culmination of many of these compositional practices, it is remarkable amongst Xenakis’ works for betraying a palpable sense of the composer’s personality, augmenting its more cerebral concerns with a prominent communicative dimension.

Scored for 109 musicians, Jonchaies is a piece on an immeasurable scale – even by this composer’s colossal standards – and, despite being cast in a single continuous movement, the score proceeds as a series of self-contained miniatures which explore wildly oscillating orchestral timbres. Devoid of any common thematic thread, the only thing binding the various sections together is their shared level of uncompromising intensity. This is extremely physical music; from the rasping, drunken brass glissandos to the ever-present incisive thrust of the strings, Xenakis magnifies and extrapolates each textural idea until the aural surface of Jonchaies is a teeming collage of exaggerated sounds and timbres. The variety and eccentricity of its orchestration is Jonchaies’ most enduring quality, transmitting the brutality of Xenakis’ musical vision in a vibrant stream of clashing colours and evocative imagery.

The viscerality of Jonchaies is directly at odds with the all too common characterisation of Xenakis’ music as overly clinical and scientific. Xenakis has said himself that his precise mathematical approaches to composition will only satisfy the listener if the composer displays a “certain flair”; indeed, his motivation behind developing these techniques was not to take the composer’s hand out of the creative process by enforcing a strict set of predefined rules. Instead, Xenakis aimed to free composition from the shackles of hackneyed conventions, unlocking a wealth of new possibilities for musical expression.

This ambition is brilliantly realised on Jonchaies. This music is saturated with a thrilling sense of drama and spectacle indicative of Xenakis’ desire to propel his music beyond its rigorous mathematical inception. Jonchaies could broadly be described as a duel between opposing sections of the orchestra, as thunderous clusters of brass and percussion collide with the insistent stoicism of the string section, crashing together in a glorious, elemental cacophony which is far removed from any sort of dry intellectual exercise: Jonchaies is tempestuous, naturalistic and utterly enthralling music.

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

Jonchaies can be divided into five main sections. At 0:30, having opened with one of Xenakis’ characteristic glissandos, the piece settles into a highly lyrical passage comprising a web of strings punctuated by interjections from the percussion instruments. At 3:35 a hesitant figure in the strings introduces the most rhythmically vitalised section of Jonchaies. The momentum of this passage is constantly derailed by various musical lines moving in opposition to the dominant pulse; listen in particular to the segment from 5:10 to 6:40 which is incredibly internally animated but devoid of any forward progression. The fleeting third section runs from 9:00 to 10:38 and sees insistent statements from the strings and percussion supported by a backdrop of wailing wind instruments. The music then abruptly opens out into a spacious passage of glissandos in the brass before the strings re-enter at 13:06 to begin the fifth and final passage of the piece. In this closing section the thrashing mass of musical elements gradually thins to reveal the high tones of the piccolos – as if Jonchaies has completely imploded, its energy compressed into a single piercing screech.

The propulsive performance above is conducted by Arturo Tamayo with the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg and is available on the Timpani record label, either as a single disc with three other pieces or as part of a comprehensive 5 disc set of Xenakis’ orchestral works.

For other similarly stormy works by Xenakis try the excellent piano concertos, Erikhthon and Synaphaï. As something a little more off piste, I would also recommend Terrains Vagues by Danish composer Per Nørgård, a piece written in 2000 which shares some of its rhythmic and timbral identity with Jonchaies.

Artwork: Composition VII, Wassily Kandinsky

by Thomas May

Atmosphères, György Ligeti

Atmosphères is incredibly sensual music. With his second major orchestral score, having fled the cultural isolation of life behind the iron curtain in 1956, Hungarian composer György Ligeti announced himself as a significant proponent of the European avant-garde. Receiving its premier in October 1961, Atmosphères was originally conceived as an electronic piece but the composer was forced to return to traditional orchestral means after becoming frustrated by the still rudimentary technologies of sound synthesis. In the process he recast the orchestra – seen by many in the post-war avant-garde as an irrelevant, archaic institution – as a site of endless potential for contemporary sonic exploration, assembling huge static clouds of steadily morphing musical textures.

Famed for bestowing Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece of modern cinema 2001: A Space Odyssey with that unforgettable aura of glacial grandeur, Atmosphères is so intoxicating and mysterious, as well as synaesthetically visual, that it is ultimately a disservice only to experience it alongside accompanying images – however otherworldly they might be. Devoid of any melodic or harmonic progression, Atmosphères is a kind of atemporal music. Instruments enter almost imperceptibly, rising furtively from the mist before gently receding, and as such there is no concept of beginning or end, only abstracted sounds and textures hanging motionless in time and space.

This radical new musical language was in part facilitated by Ligeti’s recently developed technique of micropolyphony. For much of Atmosphères the instruments of the orchestra are treated individually, following unique, precisely defined paths and coalescing into a shimmering mass of sound from which no single melody can be distinguished. Countless separate musical lines interweave to create a rippling, but homogenous, aural surface minutely detailed and vitalised by the seething activity beneath. The possibility for the micro and macro concerns of a piece of music to be so symbiotically intertwined was one of the major innovations of Ligeti’s music.

On the one hand, Ligeti’s musical language is that of an uncompromising modernist, propelling the listener into uncharted aural territory and challenging accepted conventions of musical expression, and indeed over the course of the second half of the 20th century his was a name synonymous with the European avant-garde. Yet beneath this façade there is a humanism that pervades his entire output; whilst Atmosphères may initially give off a steely air of reticence, every moment of its development is informed by Ligeti’s desire to carry his listeners on a kaleidoscopic auditory journey through alien musical landscapes.

This music is at once both tactile and vague, seductive and esoteric: a mesmerising testament to the intrinsic beauty of sound itself.

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

Following the opening static 59-note chord, Ligeti introduces a second massive cluster of notes at 1:39. Whilst the pitch played by each instrument remains the same for the following minute of music, there is an illusion of harmonic progression as various instrumental groups rise and fall in volume; listen in particular for the striking clarity of the harmony in the brass at 2:10. At 4:20 note the extreme contrast in pitch as Ligeti moves from the highest register of the orchestra to the lowest – as if framing the cavernous aural space into which the piece is projected – before introducing a passage of micropolyphony in the strings from 4:37 to 5:23. After a nightmarish transition through a gauntlet of rasping brass, Atmosphères gradually dies away in a translucent haze of brushed piano strings and tentative flurries in the violins.

As one of Ligeti’s better known pieces, Atmosphères has been recorded a number of times; the sadly out of print recording above is directed by Claudio Abbaddo with the Vienna Philharmonic and in lieu of this performance I would recommend Jonathan Nott’s reading with the Berliner Philharmoniker, released as part of Teldec’s excellent Ligeti Project.

To delve further into this era of Ligeti’s creative development, his pieces Lux Aeterna and Lontano would make good starting points. The music of Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi also emphasised subtle shifts in texture over melodic and harmonic development; Ohoi, a shimmering piece for strings, comes highly recommended.

Artwork: Number 1 (Lavender Mist), Jackson Pollock

by Thomas May