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latest publications 

Music & Literature #7 (fiction, criticism, interviews)


Nov 25 : Music & Literature event (Burley Fisher Books, London)
Dec 1-2 : Claire Chase in new work by Richard Beaudoin (Kitchen, NYC)
Mar 24-25-26 : TheJewel Box (Indianapolis Opera)
Mar 28 : Music & Literature event (Center for Fiction, NYC)

record of the week 

Mark Barden
A state of tension, a state of crisis seems to be the unrelenting condition of the Cleveland-born, Berlin-resident Mark Barden’s music, to go by the portrait album produced by the Siemens Foundation under the terms of their Young Composers Prize (col legno WWE 1SACD 40413). In flesh/veil, an octet for pairs of flutes, violins and cellos with electric guitar and piano, the cause is the almost immediate echoing within duos and the frayed sound that sticks around, now and then in the background, like something refusing to be forgotten. In Chamber it is the loss of language suffered by three men, and how their vocal communications so much signal anxiety and distress. In the solo piano piece die Haut Anderer it is obsessive repetition, reaching an extreme in nearly four minutes of intensive chinking on one high treble note, where difference (in how upper partials come forward) serves to keep the sameness active. In a tearing of vision it is again a sound high in the piano, but higher still, a crinkling shiver that activates the other instruments of the ensemble but ignores all opportunities to grow and change, as they grow and change, an element that, by staying infantile, becomes worrisome and has to be drowned out, but cannot be drowned out.
Alam, for a mixed octet, seems to indicate a further, shared reason for the music to be in suspended panic. This piece begins with three recorded male voices successively reciting the same lines by a Palestinian poet, Zakaria Mohammed, in the original Arabic: ‘Pain / My pain is a jug / on the table. / I have no stick to hand / to break it.’ An electronic drone is there, too, and quiet thunder, continuing as the wind and string instruments come to life in long tones, each loudening or persisting like an ache, while the percussionist snaps around them much more actively. The language alone tells us where we are – and this piece, one may note, features three men possessing words, while the three of Chamber, all North American, have none. We know the place, then. And we know the date, 2011, though it could have been any time in the period of these works, ranging from 2006 to 2014 – that is, from the composer’s mid-twenties to his mid-thirties.
The latest of the six pieces is, perhaps significantly, the most depressed and dour, bruised and numb. This is Monoliths, comprising five separate two-minute blocks scored for seven instruments with electronics – five monoliths indeed, that stay or pulse for their due time. Now even the emergency cannot be spoken of, and the work makes an ominous finale.

Rolf Riehm

—— Why is it like this?
—— Because it is broken.
—— Why does it have to be like this?
—— Because the world is broken.

The logic of Rolf Riehm’s music is simple. It is also consistent throughout his output, its implications realized in the diverse works he has been producing for more than half a century. And it is exemplary, in this time of ours when music seems – forgivably, to be sure – to have thrown up its hands in the face of the world.
A Wergo release (6755 2) makes the point baldly: Riehm is the only composer of note to have taken account explicitly of the western adventures in the Middle East that have disfigured recent history. We might wonder why this does not surprise us.

—— Because it is broken.

With Riehm, brokenness beckons a hard engagement with a form music finds difficult: collage. Wer sind diese Kinder (2009) includes elements of a shattered monument – a big, elegiacal symphonic work in G minor, with shades of Wagner and Brahms – in turbulent mix with interventions from a solo piano always at cross-purposes with the orchestra, other solo instruments rising up from within the ensemble, and recordings of speaking voices. What keeps the work going is partly its energy, one might even say its fury, and partly an intermittent echoing of the opening gesture, an initiatory wail of protest. Wholeness, though, is not the point, and is forever being undermined by sudden switches of focus, in a work whose half-hour duration is formed of forty-five segments, none as long as two minutes and some over in ten seconds or so. Brokenness can also be a stammering with rage.
‘Objects and forms are adrift. No anchorings. Violations, to the marrow, of the perceived body. As if from burning sources, whole complexes wash up.’ Thus the composer, with reference to this work, in the indispensable volume of his writings published by Schott. He also reports how, at the radio studios in Frankfurt, he recorded Hölderlin’s ‘Song of Destiny’ recited in Arabic by a speaker whose voice was affected because, as it happened, that was the day of a bomb attack on a crowded Shiite market in Baghdad. The piece confronts the world, and the world punches back.

—— Because the world is broken.

‘Who are these children’, the title asks, with no question mark, because the answer is everywhere. They are there in the ancient text delivered in the final speech recording, from Hesiod’s Theogony: ‘For of all the children that were born of Earth and Heaven, these were the most terrible, and they were hated by their own father from the first.’ Nor have they ceased. This urgent piece stays urgent.
It is coupled with a solo piano work of similar length, Hamamuth – Stadt der Engel (2005), again impelled by the grievous absurdity of the war in Iraq. Though a piano alone cannot command the multifariousness of a big orchestral work questioned by recordings, this is again music of disjunction, and again it begins with a signal of exception – a jangling as if of alarm bells – recurring all through as the effort is made to build with rubble. Nicolas Hodges is the electric soloist in both works, with the soon to be lamented SWR orchestra of Baden-Baden and Freiburg under Beat Furrer in Wer sind diese Kinder.

—— Why is it like this?
—— Why does it have to be like this?

It is like this again in a second Wergo album of recent works (7314 2), including one that again addresses the Iraq war, in a way at once more personal and more distant. Travelling back from India to Germany, the composer and his wife found themselves flying over Iraq, looking down on an expanse of brown-gold. No more could they tell if this was desert sand than that it was a war zone. Aloof they were, disengaged from reality – except that the aloofness and the disengagement were indeed their reality, which is the reality also of all us observing catastrophes, by way of news images, from within an encapsulated security.
Riehm’s response was to compose a piece for solo contrabass clarinet that would convey at once of estrangement and involvement. The instrument begins by pacing out notes one by one – hence the title: Ton für Ton – in its lowest register, creating a kind of labyrinth in shadow sound. Jumping to a middle register and then an upper, and swinging through wide leaps, the bass clarinet becomes vastly more forceful, sometimes imitating a trumpet before ultimately achieving continuous tone, slowly sliding in pitch. Theo Nabicht‘s very ready and completely accomplished performance becomes at this point astonishing. A brief return below suggests a gesture of despair, but the point has been made, if by a kind of geometrical inversion. Where the aircraft was safely above the bombs and the snipers, the bass clarinet’s removal is to its depths, away from all possibility of evoking hostility and damage.
It might be argued that such a piece works as a political statement only by virtue of its composer’s verbal explication, without which it would be perceived as a remarkable essay in virtuosity and no more. The same argument could be applied to the cello solo on the same disc, Im Nachtigallental (2007), which again receives an outstanding, vivid and thorough performance, from Erik Borgir. In this case the narrative is the death of Orpheus, which might be regarded as itself marking a withdrawal from the modern world, were it not that Riehm in one of his essays movingly expresses how, at a time of events we cannot absorb, cannot articulate, cannot address, retelling the desperations of the classics may bring us consolation.
Moreover, we can hardly go on upholding the myth of pure music, addressing us only in sound, when almost any music comes to us now as enveloped in commentary as it is in connections with other music. In such a situation the composer may justly use the programme note as part of the score and expect to be read as well as heard.

—— Because it is broken.
—— Because the world is broken.
—— Because it is broken.

The album affording these two solo stories also offers a compact dramatic two-hander for recorded voices and live instruments, Lenz in Moskau (2011), where text is not only around the work but within, at the core, and where the instrumental contributions are often reactive. This study of the poète maudit is that much less likely to export outside the Germanophone realm.
On the other hand, although Au Bord d’une source (2006) – like the soon-to-follow Wer sind diese Kinder – includes recordings of recitation (with Inger Christensen again present, as elsewhere in Riehm’s output), the continuity here comes firstly from the interplay of symphony orchestra with tenor recorder, a solo instrument chosen deliberately for its outsider status and so for the possibility it creates of a conflict that is, one might say in this instance, purely musical, expressed in sound gestures. But does that make it a greater work? It includes, for sure, some beautiful and affecting passages – none more so than a duet quite early on for the soloist and a high fine line of orchestral sky (drawn by a piccolo?) – and yet it is the obstreperous rough-and-tumble of Wer sind diese Kinder that speaks.

György and Márta Kurtág
At once intimate and astonishing, small and colossal, György and Márta Kurtág’s appearances together at the piano, playing Játékok pieces and Bach transcriptions, were treasures – and one has to write in the past tense, because it seems that the recital they gave in Paris on September 2012 was a farewell. Happily it was video-recorded, and has been released by ECM on DVD (ECM 5508), joining a handful of audio-recordings going back to the mid-1970s. To these may now be added a ninetieth-birthday salute from the Budapest Music Center: an album (BMC CD 233) offering Játékok selections as well as, from prehistory (in terms not only of compositional style but also of recording technique), a 1955 performance of a suite for piano four hands by Kurtág in four short movements, Játék-sized but childlike in a rather different way. This bright, folksy piece from 1950-51 is now the earliest Kurtág available (excepting only a lone ‘Apple Flower’ from 1947 brought into Játékok), and makes for an interesting comparison with what Ligeti was writing at the same time and in very much the same milieu.
Before dismissing this tiny smiling opus, however, one should remember how often traces of folk melody drift across the multitudinous equally small but now open spaces of Játékok – a point made immediately by the BMC compilation in going straight from the suite finale to ‘Hand in Hand (Hommage à Sárközy)’, a Játékok duet the Kurtágs included in their first recording, for Hungaroton, but then dropped from their repertory, possibly because of potential misunderstandings as to the dedicatee. (The name seems to be fairly common; Kurtág was perhaps thinking of the mathematician András Sárközy). Listening to a lot of Játékok, one will be reminded of the folk spring all the time, but also of how Kurtág’s musical mind, mapped in these hundreds of figurings, is replete with the western classical literature. ‘Fugitive Thoughts about the Alberti Bass’, for instance, another piece from the BMC disc and one not otherwise recorded by the Kurtágs (in this case, Márta), has a soft pulsation recalling the sonatina from Bach’s cantata Alle Menschen müssen sterben together with sparks from Debussy’s last prelude, Feux d’artifice, among other intimations. This fullness with history is poignantly addressed by András Wilheim in his note, when he suggests that the album ‘preserves perhaps the last moment of a great period of performing art, when tradition was fully incorporated into the new, showing that history can continue, there is no rupture’ – though one might want to counter that the rupture is indeed there as well, for the Játékok pieces, however perfectly formed and finished, have the nature of drafts, for what can no longer be positively completed.
These two new releases, the ECM DVD and the BMC CD, serve in some ways different purposes. With the latter we may be more aware of listening to messages from the past, whereas the DVD, not only with its living image but also with its consistency of sound and occasion, brings us into the immediate presence of the two artists. Their performance seems to be uncut, allowing us to observe their body language between pieces as well as their interaction at the keyboard. Their tender crossings of arms make the ‘embracing sounds’ version of  ‘Virág az ember’ a love song, but no less touching is the gentle descent of György Kurtág’s hand to depress a key in ‘Hommage à Márta Kurtág’. Sometimes one may wish the director, Isabelle Soulard, had just kept one camera on the keyboard, capturing the play of hands through an entire piece – she happily comes close in ‘Hommage à Christian Wolff’, where György Kurtág’s hands are constantly folding over one another – but then, of course, we need to see, too, the wider view: Márta just behind her husband’s left shoulder, or he just behind hers, each the other’s first listener.
If it cannot provide this eloquent testimony, the BMC CD is full of great things. Right away it offers powerfully intense performances by the composer – some of the sounds hard engraved – of two memorial pieces, recorded when they (and, to be sure, memories of the friends they remembered) were still fresh. The epitaph for György Szoltsányi was recorded four months after it was written; even closer to events is the recording of the piece for the choirmaster Lajos Vass. He died on November 6, 1992; Kurtág wrote the memorial piece for him within the next twelve days; and the recording was made just two months later. Never mind that neither piece was recorded again by either of the Kurtágs; these are moments that cannot be repeated.
The programme continues with a long sequence of Márta Kurtág recordings from 1978, when she was often surprisingly more forceful and angular than in later versions of the same pieces; compare, for example, this ‘Tumble-Bunny’ with that on the ECM DVD, from thirty-four years later. So startling a difference may be ascribed simply to Márta’s age at the time, but again the music may have felt more driven when it was new. In any event, there are welcome lessons here in variety of interpretation. Hardly less valuable are the tracks for which there is no comparison, recordings of pieces to which, once more, the Kurtágs never returned, such as – an item one might have thought irresistible – ‘Bluebell’, a poem in four short lines, the last monosyllabic.
Wilheim’s note tells us that the recordings here were selected by the Kurtágs, but not whether the original sequences have been maintained. However, in the case of the final group, from a recital given in 2001 (before a far noisier audience than the Kurtágs were to have in Paris eleven years later), one guesses at least that the composer did indeed follow ‘Antiphony in F sharp’ with ‘Dirge (2)’, as he did in Milan in 1992 (another joint recital issued on CD) and as he did again in Paris in 2012.
Such a firm liaison may help other pianists in navigating Játékok and finding linkages by contrast. But, to extend what was noted above, the experience of listening to so many of these pieces in a short time is to find wholeness not only in the incorporation of folk sources and the western tradition but also internally, in how the same ideas keep returning in so many forms and combinations: wide-spanning, almost breaking melody (the ‘Virág az ember’ model) and, conversely, constrained chromatic chorale, rises of anger or desolation (and one cannot tell which), emphatic pounces, a sense always of the human body as well as the mechanical instrument, of those hands as they touch.