Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Concert Review: Seattle Symphony plays Britten, Knussen, and Bedford; 11/17/11

This is the first of a couple of blog postings that are late being posted, due to my being busy over the Thanksgiving weekend...

Guest conductor (and composer) Oliver Knussen conducted this concert of 20th- and 21st-century British works.

First on the concert was the seldom-heard “Canadian Overture” by Benjamin Britten. This was a delightful, light opening piece, beginning and ending with a “special effect” of fragments of a melody over waves of suspended cymbals. It contained an off-kilter waltz and a racous semi-fugue on “Alouette”. Said Oliver Knussen during a post-concert talk, “Nobody evey does this piece, and I don’t know why… I like to call it ‘El Salon Montreal’”, obviously referring to Copland’s piece about Mexico (not an exact quote).

The orchestra shifted into artistic high gear with Knussen’s own violin concerto. The violinist Leila Josefowicz walked out on stage, looking rather glamorous; she proceeded to play the transparently textured modernist work with verve and emoting reminiscent more of a rock guitarist than classical violinist. It did not distract from the work. The piece itself began with a bell tone (tubular bells) that seemed to dissolve into the violin’s opening harmonics; from there, melodic materials were passed around and variously developed (or not); finally coalescing into a beautifully melodic slow movement and a gigue that retained its dance-like elements despite its atonality. All in all the orchestration and general “sound” of the piece reminded me of “post-Debussyism” as it has been developed by Asian composers (Toru Takemitsu, Isang Yun, even Tan Dun) more than other contemporary European composers – this was due to the ethereal, reverberant textures, bell-tones, sometimes startling use of the harp, and shimmering chords in the strings that seemed to be neither dissonant nor quite harmonious.

The bell-tones and shimmering strings were, however, a feature of this concert – and according to the pre-concert talk, represent a trend in 20th and 21st-century British classical music. Certainly they were there in the two Benjamin Britten pieces, and echoed in the other, more recent, works. (I had actually first noticed Britten’s use of strings on a recording of an “epic” ballet with the unfortunate title “The Prince of the Pagodas”, a little-known but exciting score.) The connections to Asia are probably more obvious to me because I’m more familiar with those particular composers – but in both cases, inspiration has been drawn from Debussy and Ravel.

After the intermission, Knussen presented a short piece by the young British composer Luke Bedford. “Outblaze the Sky” was a meditation on a single chord that grew and expanded (through portamenti, other string effects, and suggested rhythms) into a brief, brassy, “blazing” climax – and then abruptly ended. It was over far too soon, I thought. “It was one piece that was written for a young composers’ project,” Knussen commented in the after-concert talk, “the pieces were to be about six minutes long, and were to be played by a major orchestra. Most of the pieces were just a lot of notes played by all the instruments all the time and very loudly – a “THIS IS AN ORCHESTRAL PIECE!!!” kind of style. One can look over the written scores and see that most of the pieces are like that, and need more work. On the other hand, those that are really good and really bad, or really original in some way, stand out immediately. This is one that was really good, and original.” (Not exact quotes, again.)

(A little aside comment here, from me as a probably controversial critic: “just a lot of notes played by all the instruments all the time and very loudly” is my usual criticism of orchestral works by Johannes Brahms – thick orchestral mud, I call it – but few seem to share my sentiment there.)

The concert concluded with another Britten piece, the “Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia” from the opera “Peter Grimes”. These are too familiar to warrant much of a discussion here (though I always notice the extraordinary orchestrations, such as the use of tubular bells and trombones together to create what sounds like a new percussion instrument to imitate church bells in the “Sunday Morning” section, or the use of overlapping French horns for the same effect earlier in the same piece). Knussen’s particular version of these pieces was to put the Passacaglia in the middle (rather than at the end), as something of an extended development section. This alleviated the usual complaint about the piece that (being excerpts from a longer work) it doesn’t really come to any satisfying conclusion; though it made the following shorter movements sound rather incomplete and undeveloped. That said, the piece did conclude the concert with a blaze of color. An exciting concert, to say the least.

If the reader thinks this blog seems to be shifting away from its "experimental" roots and going too classical, the next postings should be welcome...

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

World's Ugliest Music – Not!

A friend sent me this link a couple of days ago. It’s supposed to be the “world’s ugliest music”, on purpose. But why isn’t it very ugly?

The idea seems to be that it will be ugly because it doesn’t have any pattern. The announcer goes into great detail about the mathematics used to generate these completely random notes before the pianist even plays the first note – and emphasizes over and over again that this lack of pattern will produce intensely ugly music. He states that the reason we perceive the Beethoven Fifth as “beautiful” is that is has that repeated four-note pattern…

Behind the announcer is the mathematical chart used to make the "ugliest music"...

Alas, the music fails. It simply isn’t very ugly. True, it isn’t “catchy”; one wouldn’t walk away from it singing one of its riffs. It would make a very bad pop tune. But it is rather meditative, and I can’t help hearing patterns emerging from the chaos – I can hear it as a slow movement in a piano sonata, surrounded by quicker pieces of more conventional structure. Or, quicker pieces structured in the same way: since it uses all 88 keys of the piano (each one played only once), it could be considered a serialist piece with a very long (88-note) tone-row; it could obviously be developed further. (Keith Eisenbrey has written another piece for all 88 keys of the piano, each played only one time, but with a different aim – his piece, called “N” after Neal Kosaly-Meyer, organizes the 88 keys in a definite pattern and is certainly not ugly, intentionally or not.)

What the composer/mathematician has failed to take into account, I believe, is the aesthetics of the sound. A piano is a resonant instrument, with rich overtones, and playing its notes one at a time and letting them ring, with spaces between them, simply will not produce something ugly (rather, it produces a sound not unlike church bells). Overlapping them with dissonant intervals and percussive attacks (as in the Stockhausen Klavierstück X) would work better if ugliness is your aim (though of course it isn’t the aim in the Stockhausen, which goes through a remarkable transformation by the end). Even “better” would be to use sounds that are intrinsically ugly to the human ear, such as the scraping strings in Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (probably one of the unloveliest pieces ever written, for obvious reasons).

In certain of my own pieces, I’ve used the idea of intrinsic ugliness and beauty of sounds – in the first of the four Ukiyo-è pieces, for example, the pianist is instructed to play the (serialist) tone-row one note at a time, with the fingers of the other hand pressed against the strings in random places, producing unexpected timbres – and to let the “prettier” sounds ring longer and to cover up the “uglier” sounds more quickly with the next notes. Obviously it depends on the opinion of the individual pianist…

But, in the end, what’s the point? Why make intentionally ugly music? My idea: apart from being a novelty, it does make one think about why certain sounds are beautiful and others are not, and perhaps it hints that the beauty and ugliness of certain vibrations goes deeper than merely the human perception of them…

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

“Modern Music” Weekend: Seattle Modern Orchestra 10/28/11 and Seattle Symphony plays Webern and Stravinsky (and Bach) 10/29/11

This has turned out to be a Modernist Music Weekend. I attended two concerts with works by composers from the Second Viennese School, along with other 20th-century pieces (and two by Bach).

The first of these concerts was the Seattle Modern Orchestra led by Julia Tai, at the Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center. This has become a well-known Seattle venue for experimental and classical music.

After a brief lecture about the history of the relationship between text and (instrumental) music and demonstration of Sprechstimme by soprano Maria Mannisto (both probably unnecessary for this audience), they played two song cycles; one by George Crumb and one by Schönberg. Crumb’s “Night Music I” was a reverberant, haunting, nocturnal soundscape of clanging metal percussion and silences (several times I heard echoes of flutes, which were not actually in the ensemble) interspersed with expressive recitations of Lorca’s mysterious poems. I used to criticize Crumb for being “only” effects; closer listening has revealed a great complexity and depth of feeling behind those sounds (and in fact I’ve been composing in a similar vein for several years now). Obviously the phantom flutes were one of the “effects” (created by close, microtonal resonances on the vibraphone and crotales); others were the extended piano techniques, the water gong, and the soprano’s sometimes startling intonations. Though this piece had more instrumental than vocal music, it affected me much the way other Crumb compositions have in the past: after seeing it performed, my impression is of having seen a play rather than having heard a piece of music. Crumb undoubtedly intended this; he has spoken of the relationship between music and theater, and it was supported by the singer’s Sprechstimme, the long (and precisely-timed) silences, and the instrumentalists all moving around the stage doing very strange things to their instruments.

Schönberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire” sounded positively conventional (or “classical”) in comparison. The vocal lines are again mostly Sprechstimme (here a way to make the rhythms of the poetry more deeply felt), though they were accompanied by tight chamber pieces that, despite their “atonality”, seemed to derive their gestures from Mahler and even Richard Strauss. Such are the currents of creativity. All in all this was an effective performance – and (as I commented to another audience member) a profound way to bring the poetry of the text to the front (and therefore related to more recent versions of text-based music such as Beatnik poetry and Rap). The instrumentation included piano, violin, cello, flute, and clarinet – a much more “classical” chamber ensemble than for “Night Music I”.

The second concert of the “modernist weekend” was by the (scaled down) Seattle Symphony under Andrew Manze. Not that it was all modern, of course – much of the concert was taken up by two relatively large-scale pieces by J. S. Bach. The highlight of the two of these was the last piece in the concert, the Brandenburg Concerto #5. This is instrumental Bach at its most scintillating: a trio of flute, violin and harpsichord create a kaleidoscope of interweaving parts over and against the string orchestra; all is based on different lengths of reiterations of the main themes. Sometimes the strings drop out entirely, leaving the soloists in extended cadenzas – the most obvious of these is of course the long harpsichord solo in the first movement, but there are others (such as the fact that the second movement doesn’t use the strings at all!). Harpsichordist Kristian Bezuidenhout played with a lot of verve (making the instrument actually appear to play crescendos – impossible on a harpsichord) and the conductor danced with infectious enthusiasm. It wasn’t entirely an “authentic” performance (whatever that really means) – these were of course modern instruments, in modern tuning, and they were amplified slightly to be heard in the large hall – but the sound was gorgeous. I’d like to hear the same group play the entire set of Brandenburgs…

The “modernist” part came in the form of the Symphony by Webern and Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto. Again, the conductor felt it necessary to give a long talk introducing the Webern – and again, I don’t know if this was necessary, though in this case it served as the pre-concert talk that they usually do at Seattle Symphony concerts. He compared Webern’s dodecaphonic technique to Bach’s counterpoint, had the instrumentalists play examples, and stated that Bach would probably approve. Whether that’s the case, I wouldn’t know – to me at any rate they’re both “classical music” but in a quite different vein for a different century, and I don’t know how I at least would react to something that will be done two centuries in the future. At any rate the Symphony sounded sparse, bare, mysterious, as if carved in musical stone – as far as possible from the Bach while still being expressive and containing moments of exquisite beauty. There was even a little humor: at the end of the second (last) movement, after an intellectually challenging set of variations and dissonant extremes of pitch, all the instruments dropped out one by one, leaving the harp to give a final “ker-plink” – though I can’t be sure if this is an affirmation or negation of all that came before.

(An aside here: I happened to hear another audience member comment that the term for Webern’s style should be pronounced with the same stress pattern as pol-LYPH-o-ny, – so it should be do-de-CAPH-o-ny. I commented that, depending on one’s opinion, this could be close to ca-CAPH-o-ny, but that I don’t hear it as such – to me it’s just a more abstract style of classical – a Kandinsky painting as opposed to a Vermeer.)

Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks”, always a catchy piece, represented the other side of modernism. Again the conductor gave a little introduction, though in this case he merely talked about how he’d fallen in love with the piece when he’d first heard it as a teenager and that recently when he played it (on a CD player) for his toddler son, he’d started dancing around in approval as well. The piece is more like the Bach than the Webern – rhythmic, based on catchy tunes that dissolve into great complexities of counterpoint. It also adds a little dissonant “spice” here and there, and unexpectedly syncopates the melodies (delaying an occasional note by a full beat or more – a decidedly anti-jazz way to syncopate, though jazz was coming into its own around the time that Dumbarton Oaks was written). (The only jazzy use of this same type of syncopation I’ve heard is in a jazz/funk anime soundtrack by Yoko Kanno.) …Unfortunately the performance seemed to lack focus. The three movements were joined together into one long and somewhat unwieldy selection. Presented in this manner it seemed to lag behind itself somehow, as if it forgot where it was going and had to plug along to fill up some stretch of predetermined time. The musicians (and conductor) tried to battle the aimlessness by emphasizing certain parts of rhythms, but all in all it fell rather short. I found my mind wandering, and I waited for the Bach. Judging from the audience’s enthusiastic response, however, not many others felt this way.

A good couple of concerts, well worth seeing (and hearing). But, a question surfaces: what, exactly, is the significance of “modernism” now that it’s no longer modern…? To me, at any rate, it’s another form of classical, no more or less conventional or experimental than baroque or impressionism (all forms of “classical” were modern at one time, of course). One can say that a difference is that recent trends in symphonic and chamber music have tended to completely reverse the aesthetic presented by modernism – in a recent NPR interview, Steve Reich stated (this is not an exact quote) that “It was up to composers of my generation to say ENOUGH! to this kind of modern music…” But, of course modernism itself did the same to impressionism, which did the same to romanticism, and, etc. Presenting “modern” music along with Bach shows more similarities than differences anyway.