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1 Evan Johnson: Forms of Complaint
Delicacy. Fragility. Tenderness, even. But all these uncanny. Touching but untouchable. Elsewhere.
Each work is decidedly itself, individual, while all plainly come from the same place, the same elsewhere. Each is lacking in rhetoric, having other business than to tell us, even, why it exists.
Music by Evan Johnson has appeared on records put out by soloists and ensembles here and there, and he makes a generous quantity available on SoundCloud, but now we have a portrait disc tracing the faint but distinct and certainly very intent tracks he places against time.
But which time? The definition of indefiniteness, the certainty in uncertainty – these are of our age. Half-present modal shadows and canonic interplay, however, suggest instruments and voices mumbling from the Middle Ages. Not much of the intervening half-millennium is at issue here – except, of course, where the construction of the instruments is concerned: a pair of bass clarinets in Apostrophe 1, a violin that is by itself in clutch and working with six singers in Colophons, three toy pianos (O.K., malconstruction in this case, their clackety action part of the music of Positioning in Radiography), and a set of crotales, of all things, in hyphen.
This last – metal crystals in ricochet for just a minute, including gaps filled with emptying resonance – possesses intense charm, a sense of bells from a miniature church. The music is quaint, exquisite, but search deeper (the entire one-page sheet music may be viewed on the composer’s website) and it hurts. Part of the piece is played directly with fingers or knuckles; this we can hear, but not feel the pain the performer must endure, striking these honed bronze edges.
Apostrophe 1, offering twenty-three minutes of shuffling sound from those bass clarinets, might appear the most daunting item on the disc, and yet with repeated listening, which its seeming unconcern paradoxically invites, it becomes thoroughly engaging and – change a consonant – haunting. The duo replicates that of Billone’s 1+1=1, but Johnson’s way with it is completely different. At a level where the tones are shadowy brushstrokes hardly emerging from the actuality of fingerplay and intakes of breath, the two players burble to and fro through the occasional small triumphs of ascent, togetherness, or stability. The music is more or less diatonic, smooth but friable-smooth. and wandering. Now and then a tiny squiggle will seize the instruments’ attention - an exotic mordent near the start and then much later, a rising shape (is it Wagner? is it Paul McCartney?) around the halfway mark. “All communication,” the subtitle tells us, “is a form of complaint”; hence the album title, “Forms of Complaint.” These bass clarinets seem to be getting along well enough, but of course their communication is not only with each other but to us, and Johnson seems to be using “complaint” in the medieval sense of “lament.” The piece reaches an apogee – a sustained high note, held in agreement – and seems to end there, fittingly. However, there is a short second movement that, broken by pauses, as Johnson’s compositions often are, suggests nothing has been achieved.
But it has.
(Nightjar Press, September 2019)
April 30, 2020: Publication of Mr. Beethoven (Henningham Family Press)
Reinbert de Leeuw (1938-2020)
Bang on the nail and large-spirited, his recordings matter. Messiaen, Ligeti, Kurtág, Ustvolskaya, Birtwistle, Gubaidulina, Vivier. And going back further, Satie. The irresistible impact of the gestures, the immense scope.
He was a quietly startling conductor, a quietly startling pianist. He was also a quietly startling composer, even if, for a very large part of his life, a composer in absentia. He made his farewell in 1973 with an Abschied for orchestra, and stayed silent for forty years, until making a mighty return with another big orchestral piece, Der nächtliche Wanderer, one of the few great achievements of this little century.
Brussels, La Monnaie, September 20, 2019: As far as the staging was concerned, the most exquisitely and piquantly theatrical note came before Pascal Dusapin’s new opera Macbeth Underworld began, and persisted for as long as the stage lay open in silence, with, right behind a dead forest and within swirls of mist, foot-high letters in white neon – in English, Shakespeare’s English, here in Brussels of all places – declaimed: ‘HERE MAY YOU SEE THE TYRANT’.
After that, the music completely took over. Dusapin’s score, blasting with the full guns of orchestra plus organ from the first bar, moves most often, as usual, in sustained harmonies that shift and emerge from one another, but here they are often quite unusually fierce and loaded. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are doomed to relive their damnable act, and though we witness only one cycle of the black wheel, we understand that its circling is perpetual.
Frédéric Boyer’s excellent libretto, in English, is a voyage among key islands of the original text, interspersed with pregnant but sometimes mysterious lines and others evoking English verse from beyond Shakespeare. In an atmosphere so dark – murders rendered meaningless by repetition, hallucinations withered the same way – light is desperately needed, and Boyer supplies it in his figure of the Child (Naomi Tapiola, with an angelic voice, vulnerable yet strong). At first the Child seems unable to intervene or counteract; compounded out of the witches’ conjurations and from the unseen offspring of the central pair, he/she sings woefully of woe. In the final scene, however, this same character steps forward as the child of the throne, Malcolm, ready to do battle with Macbeth – though not to secure his death, for he is already dead, and it will all happen again as before.
The part of Macbeth is taken by Dusapin’s frequent collaborator Georg Nigl, appearing as a dour and blasted creature who refuses to accept his fate and performs his strength in the vividness of his enunciation, flecked with the tones of speech. Lady Macbeth is, wonderfully, Magdalena Kožena, in whose singing the opera has its lyric centre. She brings to Dusapin’s modal lines a suspended beauty but at the same time a gravity of utterance. In the two nocturnes accompanied by an archlute (magical idea) she is ravishing, in the handwashing scene – with slender organ and walloping backstage percussion, as if the theatre were being invaded from the rear – terrifying. When she sings with the full resources, it is as if the whole orchestra is resonating with her.
Apart from the Macbeths and the Child, the cast is limited to a Ghost (unnamed as Banquo’s), the weird sisters and the Porter (Graham Clark, astonishingly agile both vocally and physically at the age of seventy-eight). The sisters include a high soprano of frightening wildness and power (Ekaterina Lekhina), and in many passages their numbers are increased by the women of the chorus. Bearing also in mind the archlute, these larger vocal ensembles give the piece a faint glimmer of madrigal opera, though Dusapin’s score is almost entirely through-composed, and, in spite of the lustrous moments for the Child and for Lady Macbeth, its heart is heavy, heaving and scarred.
Paris, June 28, 2019:
Mehr Licht…. Less than six weeks after presenting Donnerstag in London, the Paris group Le Balcon was back home to give Samstag, a full half of which had, meanwhile, been included in the Amsterdam conspectus aus Licht. Stockhausen’s hour – Stockhausen’s week – seems to have come, perhaps partly because he is now a historical figure, whose work is beginning to loose itself from his commanding personality, but perhaps also because his vision of human existence as at the peril of hugely powerful, yet in the same measure playful, and totally irresponsible, agencies might appear more plausible than it did in the 1980s. We may want to give those agencies names different from his “Michael”, “Eva” and “Luzifer”, but his figures will do as metaphors.
Luzifer, in particular, is the malignant spirit of ill-luck, contradiction and distortion, and Samstag is entirely his day, all four of its scenes naming him in their titles: “Lucifer’s Dream” (essentially a piece for solo pianist, summoned by the bass-singer Lucifer, who then voices occaional remarks), “Kathinka’s Song as Lucifer’s Requiem” (for solo flautist and six percussionists, an exercise at once in ear-training and in conveying a soul across the threshold), “Lucifer’s Dance” (executed by members of a concert band, vertically staged to represent a gigantic human face and all under the grotesque supervision of the light-bearing Prince of Darkness) and “Lucifer’s Farewell” (a ceremony careering from black mass to fairground entertainment).
This outstanding Paris production has many of the right Luciferian qualities. It is awesome and spectacular, right from when the heavy harmonies and collapsed fanfares of the overture, or “Saturday Greeting”, come weighing down from brass distributed in four choirs high around the auditorium (the Cité de la Musique). “Lucifer’s Dance” is also exceptionally good, the conductor Maxime Pascal giving it full precision and power, carrying us alarmingly into this clockwork gone haywire, with groups of instruments going through their repetitive routines at different pulse rates. It is perhaps a pity that the projections (by Nieto) of the corresponding facial features cannot flicker with similar polyrhythmic virtuosity, but they have one great virtue: wit. This scene benefits, too, from the presence of the bass Damien Pass as Luzifer himself, presiding from the top storey like a debauched monarch and singing with a malign power made all the more unsettling by its lyrical suavity. Hugely impressive as he was in this role in Amsterdam, here he was terrifyingly good. He must be anyone’s Stockhausen bass of first choice.
He was also startling in “Lucifer’s Dream”, though this is very much the pianist’s piece, and it was hard to let the ears and eyes stray from Alphonse Cemin as a shock-haired imp in a black mid-gender gown driven by his purposes – to play (on the keyboard and on the strings), whistle and call out numbers – like a wild escapee from hell. If the temperature then sagged a bit in “Kathinka’s Song”, that was not from any fault in the performance but rather because this rather pedagogical piece, with Kathinka going through her twenty-four motifs, should not be experienced twice in short order.
The finale, as Stockhausen recommended, was given in a sacred building, the mid-nineteenth-century church of St Jacques and St Christophe. This was about a mile away, and the walk, largely along the Canal Saint-Denis, became part of the amiable occasion. Once inside, though, Stockhausen’s religious bricolage – robed monks, chant, sanctus bells and clappers, together with wooden clogs such as the composer witnessed used in Japanese ritual – soon began seeming tasteless and perverse, as if Lucifer were no longer the subject of the opera but its manipulator. Happily, about halfway through, the atmosphere was radically clarified by the appearance of a trombonist (this is Lucifer’s instrument) to send the monks, gamely and thoroughly convincingly enacted by members of the French Army Choir, off in a clackety scuttle. Here was the old bizarre makeshift magic, back from earlier in the show and perhaps originating in the composer’s youthful stint as pianist to a stage conjuror. It held right through to the wonderful and absurd close, when, after four and a half hours, we were all outside the church watching these ersatz monks hurl coconuts to the ground and gnawing on the fragments they were distributing.
Amsterdam, June 6, 2019:
The Holland Festival’s aus LICHT presentation must be the biggest exposure yet of Stockhausen’s opera cycle, offering roughly half the work over the course of three days. All seven parts are represented, but unequally; we get most of DONNERSTAG, MONTAG and MITTWOCH, good slices of SAMSTAG and DIENSTAG, but only a single scene of SONNTAG (the mesmerizing Engelprozessionen for troops of choral angels to complete the occasion) and an electronic element of FREITAG – plenty enough, though, to create a performance that pushes out to the corners of this astonishing, charming, ridiculous, weird, exhilarating, always unsteady colossus.
Just one of the excellent ideas in Pierre Audi’s production is to include, as short interludes here and there, never too much, film clips of elementary-school children painting, describing, acting their own interpretations of Stockhausen’s mythology. Not only is it delightful to see and hear how these youngsters have had their imaginations grabbed, but they also advise us how LICHT challenges us to respond, like them, as children. The work – MONTAG in particular – is full of child performers. It is full, too, of things children like: strange noises, colours and counting, goodies and baddies, helicopters. It is on one level – or perhaps that should be “three levels”, one for each of the principal melodies – a musical conception of vast scope and variety; and hearing so much of it allows us to appreciate how fragments of the melodies are constantly resurfacing in the tidal swell of the music (Michael’s rise of a fourth then a bounce, slowly lost in Donnerstags-Abschied at the end of the first evening, played by five trumpeters stationed in high positions around the former gasometer of the performance, will return many times). But it is also wondrously naive, and if we are to enter into its spirit, as this production very much encourages us to, we have to let down our guard.
We have to forgive it. We have to allow it its stunt of placing the members of a string quartet in helicopters and mixing on the ground what is normally more fastidiously (and more economically) achieved by musicians working together in the concert hall. We have to smile at its bad jokes (the choir member who gets left behind when the others have gone). We have to indulge it in crowding the stage with tots, because we have to be tots, too. “Except ye become as little children….”
If all this will go on making LICHT a challenging experience, the work also has sections of thrilling power and emotional command. In Amsterdam these are densest in the second act of DIENSTAG, the war opera, in which Stockhausen was perhaps not only remembering his experience as a teenage stretcher-bearer in the last months of the Second World War but also taking note of what, in 1990-91, was going on in the Persian Gulf and Yugoslavia. Here squads of trumpeters and trombonists in combat gear, with crumpled music-stands their radio antennae, battle it out amid the audience. Everything is amplified, as the composer intended, but a trombone two metres away can give you a raw earful. This sequence is also helped magnificently by the large video screens, especially in the passages of synthesized sound, one of which had the benefit of swirling indigo smoke through which stark beams of purple fell. Right at the centre of this act is a duet for soprano and flugelhorn where a woman is lamenting a dead warrior, the flugelhorn conveying his spirit voice. This is perhaps the most moving moment in all of LICHT – indeed, in all of Stockhausen – and it is strongly and tensely performed by Pia Davila and Valentin François. Right at its own centre comes a point where voice and instrument coincide on an octave – a shared instant that is alone worth the whole eleven hours.
Somehow Stockhausen gets out of his brass conflicts, his electronic bombardments and his piercing music of loss to end this act with something totally crazy: a solo for electric keyboard played by “Synthi-Fou”, embodied here brilliantly by Ivan Pavlov in a correctly wild costume that made him a cross between Elton John at Las Vegas and a periwigged infant Mozart – a child, again, touching the cosmos.
OPEN LETTER TO BILL HOPKINS
April 1, 2019
It’s been a long time since I wrote you a letter. Forty years. When you left, I didn’t have an address for you.
I remember the shock. Me standing. Just back from a concert. ‘A heart attack.’ Those words.
You were thirty-seven. Half a lifetime ago. For you, a whole lifetime ago.
It was just a few years earlier – how these things gradually collapse together as time goes on! –, when I was visiting you on the Isle of Man, that you showed me your orchestration of Lindaraja. On the transparencies of that era. A2 size, I guess. In black ink. So neat. You had sent it to Leduc. Or you were going to send it to Leduc. Another of those dull disappointments.
It sounded so well, Bill, when at last someone sprang that black ink into coloured sound – Ilan Volkov and the WDR Symphony Orchestra in Cologne yesterday evening. It sounded so well: sparklingly clear, lucid, all that repetition honoured in being moderated. Mi-Debussy, mi-Hopkins, as one could say half an hour later, after hearing – again in its first-ever performance – an orchestral work of your own, the only orchestral work you wrote: Musique de l’indifférence, with its title taken from that writer who held you, whom you held on to, Beckett.
musique de l’indifférence
cœur temps air feu sable
du silence éboulement d’amours
couvre leurs voix et que
je ne m’entends plus
Music of indifference, and then these five elements to which we cannot be indifferent (is this why your ballet, as the work proposes itself, has five scenes, the fourth of them appropriately a ‘tableau rouge’, even if the other correspondences are less exact?), and then of course silence, covered voices, cessation.
The first tableau, you may recall, after all these years – this was 1964-5, and you were in your very early twenties –, the first tableau is for strings only, the twenty-two of them teased out as soloists, sustaining the wonderful delicate harmony that makes your piece such a joy to hear (at last!), such an expression of strong frailty, or else darting as individuals. Elegance = eloquence.
Then the music is faltering, and a roll on the side drum (yes, even the banal you were able to make true again) introduces the brass boiling up to say things have changed. Tableau deux. There’s a heroic trumpet solo, followed by the arrival of the full percussion ensemble, and then the upper strings are back, and from here the music swerves through the families and groups of families, constantly on the move. Maybe this is what makes it a ballet. This is also part of what makes it an orchestral work like no other, with, as in other dimensions, a soul of high sophistication that is also deliberate ignorance. We might be thinking of Nono by now, more than of Barraqué, but, again, there is nothing like it.
One episode spins on from xylophone and harps. The woodwind players all have to wait for a sudden entrance at the start of the third tableau; and of course these gashes of absence also speak. There are a couple of notes in the score here about the stage lighting coming up, but we have to doubt, Bill, if you were really thinking much about the dance – rather than of the music, which comes rearing up to a brusque extinction.
After this, movement becomes, in its gently brushed way (though a brush-stroke can be imperative), more dynamic. The fourth tableau rests the brass, and the fifth is once more for strings only. You marked the curtain to fall not long after this scene has started, so it is largely a ‘solo’ for music, moving through climaxes and forceful gestures but mostly whisper-whirling away to its conclusion.
It works, Bill; it works. But then, you knew it would. You heard it all.
MILAN, November 15, 2018: Kurtág's: Fin de partie, introduced at La Scala, was, as expected, an opera no-one could quite have expected, an opera whose characters, lacking all the comforts of orchestral continuity, express themselves in brief warnings, protests, pleas, howls and broken memories to a trailing clutch of around sixty instruments – these characters' first auditors – that respond with their own abrupt remarks and imitations. Fin de partie plays for two hours and involves sizeable forces, but it feels more like a work persistently small, angled, acute, nervy, shifting, seeking, listening to its words as much as delivering them, while all the time fighting for its life against silence.
We have known for some time that it would be not finished but abandoned. Pierre Audi, directing the première after waiting for this opera, pressing for this opera, for thirty years, estimates that the present version covers 56% of the text (in the original French). Kurtág has announced he will go on until he has set every word, which would give us a work lasting three and a half hours, with no conceivable intermission. Even if the project were indeed to be completed – Kurtág worked on the present score for seven years, so he could have the whole thing done well before turning a hundred – the work seems destined for partial performances, which may well be what Kurtág intends. As in his biggest Beckett endeavour before this, his setting of the late text What is the Word with dispersed instrumental and vocal groups, he places the writer's name in his full title, and adds an indication that this is, like so many of his works, a collection of fragments: ‘Samuel Beckett: Fin de parte: scènes et monologues’.
Like its orchestra, the opera is an assemblage, and Audi honours its status by pulling down the curtain sometimes between scenes. Of course this disrupts a piece that, as spoken drama, goes as one flow, but it accords with the text's new condition, of opera that is, albeit fully and vividly present, in disintegration.
It is, of course, a very Kurtágian disintegration. The short instrumental prologue has not got very far before we hear the cimbalom within typical textures of stranded quasi-vocal urgings, and the vocal writing, as ever, is consistently intense. Kurtág understands the difference, though, of writing for characters, who are addressing each other and only thereafter the audience, both lines of communication tempered or heated by those listening instruments. In his double dedication of the score, he remembers one of his teachers, Ferenc Farkas, who took him through Rigoletto and other repertory operas, and one of his contemporaries, Tamás Blum, who invited him to work at the opera house at Debrecen. All this time, for seventy years or so, he has been in operatic latency.
Now it explodes: the many moments when an instrumental echo of a vocal phrase will skewer it in and even at the same time gentle it, and the many moments when glissandos – in contemplation of the world, for instance – will convey a slow pessimistic fall of the shoulders. Kurtág's writing for the central duo is pretty severe, but lyricism abounds in Nell's part, sung with superb richness and yet purity by Hilary Summers, in a role that, she and her tenor husband Nagg being confined within bins, requires everything to be done with the voice.
There are also terrifying sounds: that of the alarm clock Clov thrusts into Nagg's bin to find out if he's dead or not, or, before that, the long wail on 'Nell!' with which Nagg (a touching, resourceful and thoroughly likeable performance by Leonardo Cortellazzi) greets the evidence of his wife's demise. An illustration in the programme book shows one of the photocopied sheets on which the composer annotated the text in preparation, his remark to himself at this point being: ‘Cri – glissando qui finit en une sorte de gémissement de bête blessée’. Meanwhile, the pertinent instrumental echoes go on, sometimes just in the picking up of the last note, the end note, of a vocal phrase, extending the gloom and turning it into light.
The parts for the central duo are well contrasted: Hamm (bass-baritone) exhausted but muscular, Clov (baritone) muscular but exhausted, one near the end whereas the other is failing to enter the beginning. Again these receive strong performances, from Frode Olsen as Hamm and Leigh Melrose as Clov, the latter projecting clenched energy in his body as in his voice. The shadowplay in the final scene (lighting is by Urs Schönebaum) illuminates, as it were, their stark but ultimately unknowable relationship.
Kurtág has had these people in his head since he saw the play when he was in Paris more than sixty years ago; they have taken possession of them, but also, he has taken possession of them. There is no incongruity in their being thoroughly Kurtágian people, in their immediate urgency and in how this urgency is by no means limited but reinforced by references surveying the whole history of western music. Hamm’s story of the tailor and his client, for instance, sparks memories of the dialogue scene in Pictures at an Exhibition.
The opera is incomplete, but it has a beginning and it has an end. A cracked chorale staggers up in the brass and stops. Footfalls lead away, the cimbalom among those pacing through the dust.
MUNICH, June 8, 2018: Coming a decade after his last major work, the latest piece by Helmut Lachenmann, first performed in Munich on June 7 and 8, had a huge amount of anticipation to satisfy. It did. Its title, My Melodies, testifies to the playfulness that has moved more into the centre of Lachenmann’s art, though this is nothing like the outlash of irony he produced last year in his Marche fatale, in proof of which that absurd-exquisite, overblown-sensitive, totally ridiculous and manifoldly intriguing proposition was included on the programme, with the new piece following after intermission. What we have in My Melodies is a completely serious and yet so light voyage into the hidden corners of the orchestra, playing continuously for well over half an hour.
The work’s subtitle is ‘Music for 8 Horns and Orchestra’, and the golden choir of those stated instruments duly sits in a horseshoe around the conductor (Peter Eötvös here, getting magnificently precise playing), with a large orchestra behind and around them. There are sequences, especially in the early part of the work, where the golden choir is a golden fountain, bubbling up with radiant sound. For much of the time, however, the hornists are blowing into their separated mouthpieces to produce air sounds, or touching in other marginal effects, and abandoning their centrality. Attention shifts to what is happening elsewhere, of which there is a huge amount, mostly taking place in a quietness to draw in the ear.
One might imagine a lightly lit gauze of ever-shifting sounds, sometimes twinkling, sometimes softly rubbing or rasping, sometimes peaking in single events. Two pianos, to left and right, spark each other off. There is a Japanese moment, with evocations of the koto from pizzicato strings and percussion. There is a Tibetan moment, when several cellists play singing bowls. We are often in the faint but persistent light of the composer’s opera. And everything sounds fresh, as well as beautifully and intricately imagined. If the title remains a bit of a joke, we certainly get to hear Lachenmann’s harmonies, and even more so his sonorities. Placing Serynade (a dynamic and exact performance from Pierre-Laurent Aimard) in the first half was a brilliant choice, its veiled sounds, brought forward by pedalling and amplification, a perfect preparation for listening to what floats over larger surfaces in the new work – floats serene, and occasionally catches at us caustically.
Dec 16, 2019: [to be announced]
PARIS, April 10, 2018: Boulez’s compositional output, ring-fenced during his lifetime, is bound now to grow. The prospectus for next season at the Philharmonie de Paris promises an early piano piece, Prélude, toccata et scherzo, to be performed in public for the first time by Ralph van Raat. A much bigger question was answered at the same place when the Diotima Quartet gave the joint world première (with the Arditti almost simultaneously in Berlin) of the fourth movement of the Livre pour quatuor, the work that occupied Boulez for almost a year and a half when he was in his mid-twenties and recovering from – also pursuing – the demolition work of his Second Piano Sonata.
Except in the third and fifth of its six movements, the quartet does not hold still for long. Listening to the Diotima performance felt a bit like trying to keep hold of a large octopus having tentacles studded with diamonds, these being the exquisite sounds and telling gestures produced by individual players in every bar. Or one might have thought here was a quartet shredded, a rushing succession of wonderful moments being played out of sequence. Delight and bewilderment, then. And probably mutually dependent. This is music that is always refusing continuity, a refusal that is essential to its bristling beauty and that ends up achieving the wholeness so adamantly being questioned.
As expected, the fourth movement is not so different from the second (but without the drama) or the sixth (but longer). Quite unexpected, though, and very powerful was the effect it had on the whole, not just simply in extending the work to around an hour but also in separating the two largely slow movements, the aforementioned third and fifth. The fifth, now arriving after the almost unrelievedly fast and spiky fourth, came across as one of the great string quartet adagios: sonorous, finely detailed, expressive. This was the music, more than the fourth movement, one felt one was hearing for the first time.