February 15, 2017
Mozart did it with the Rondo a la Turca finale of his piano sonata K.331. Beethoven - with the Thème russe in his Razumovsky Quartets. Boulez's Le Marteau sans Maitre alludes to the sounds of Balinese gamelan music, while Steve Reich's Drumming is a minimalist recollection of his trip to Africa. Fortunately for for art music, its pathetically low profile in today's American society has kept such colonialist-imperialist musical transgressions invisible to vigilant social justice warriors who are always ready to flood social media with indignant yapping about the evils of cultural appropriation - say, when they see a photo of some Caucasian celebrity bimbo wearing an 'ethnic' Halloween costume. Lets hope things stay this way. My Go-Fuck-Yourself List is already way too long to accommodate what must be nearly the entire Twitter-cum-Facebook generation of useless whiny assholes.
As for cultural appropriations, one of my favorite musical examples is Elliott Carter's rather abstract take on North Indian Dhrupad music. During his 1964 visit to Berlin, Carter attended a concert by the Dagar Brothers and was intrigued by the music's continuously unfolding line being passed from one player to another. Twenty years later he used this idea for Penthode, in which a long continuous musical line passes from one instrument to another in an ensemble of twenty players divided into five groups of four (with each group comprising instruments of different types). The piece was commissioned by and dedicated to Ensemble InterContemporain (and its then music director Pierre Boulez); and I doubt a better case can be made for this unusual bit of Carteriana than this ensemble's live recordings from a 2016 Proms concert conducted by Baldur Brönnimann and a 2001 Paris concert conducted by David Robertson.
January 18, 2017
December 31, 2016
Any piece written by a composer past the age of 80 has a good chance of being his last. Which is why I am not inclined to hear a special 'farewell message' in Elliott Carter's Instances for Chamber Orchestra, his last orchestral composition completed a few months before he died, aged 103, in November 2012.
Still, one feature of Instances sets it apart from Carter's earlier orchestral works. Instead of a brief, deliberately perfunctory ending I've come to expect from this unsentimental composer, Instances ends with a 2-minute-long coda of unprecedented emotional openness, in which the slowly and regularly breathing strings use their dreamy, bittersweet harmonies to console a melancholy flute.
Even more remarkable than this coda is the fact that, no matter how hard I tried, I could hear neither its beauty nor its emotional significance in the wooden and lifeless studio recording made by the conductor Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony. These were revealed to me only yesterday when I came across my first live recording of Instances performed by the New York Philharmonic under Matthias Pintscher in June 2014. Talk about a happy New Year!
December 26, 2016
November 27, 2016
This is how long it seems to have taken Paul Griffiths - a very experienced music critic and a perceptive writer on modernist music in the 20th century - to change his mind about one of Helmut Lachenmann's most often performed orchestral works:
Mouvement (vor der Erstarrung) for eighteen-piece ensemble is quite successful in the avoidance [of anything pleasant to listen to]. [It is] a landscape of rustlings, scrapes, electric bells and pointless percussion toccatas. (The Times, July 8, 1986)
[In] Mouvement (vor der Erstarrung) ... there are a lot of whirrings, scrapings, knocks and breathings. But not only are these noises beautifully made in themselves, they also add up to a bracing musical design. ... This omnipresence of sheer sound contributes to the poetry of Mouvement... It comes as if from nowhere, takes you firmly by the hand and will not let go until it has shown you things you could not have suspected. (New York Times, November 4, 2001)
For lack of better things to do, I briefly wondered about Griffiths' long delayed epiphany. After all, Lachenmann's Mouvement is neither intimidatingly complex (compared to, say, Carter's Double Concerto or Concerto for Orchestra) nor aggressively abrasive (unlike, e.g., the music of Xenakis or even Beethoven's Grosse Fuge). For the most part Lachenmann's piece speaks quietly and delicately, and its large-scale structure is essentially that of three superimposed arcs representing gradual changes in pitch content, dynamic levels, and the density of texture. In the manner of Hollywood screenwriters pitching an idea for a movie, one could simplistically describe Mouvement as Ravel's Bolero re-composed by Webern and performed on ingeniously adapted objects from the inventory of a hardware store.