latest publications

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

‘The Quiet Pioneering of Jonathan Harvey,’ Mitteilungen der Paul Sacher Stiftung Nr. 31 (2018)

paul griffiths

record of the week

Pascal Dusapin: Item – solo cello music played by Arne Deforce  (æon)
We tend to think of exactness as concentrated, and to that degree confined. An exact point will be as small as possible, an exact line as narrow. But what Arne Deforce discovers here is an exact fullness, a sound that is stretched tight to the far edges of all it can be, with nothing spilling over as accidental. Harmonics will be accompanied by the whisper-rasp of hair on string, but this, too, is part of the sound. Everything is meant. And therefore everything is meaningful.
Coming so soon after his remarkable double album on the same label devoted to a very different composer, Richard Barrett, the achievement is astonishing, and yet it depends on the same control of dynamic envelope and colour, the same fine tuning, the same long breath, carrying right through a movement.
The cello – or, one should say, Deforce’s cello – turns out to be as apt an instrument for Dusapin as it was for Barrett, but in another way, an instrument vibrating in sympathy with its siblings across the Eurasian landmass, and yet separated from those siblings. Immer, perhaps the pinnacle piece, has a first movement strongly evoking North Indian music, in its variation of short modal phrases, its decoration of notes, its colours, its occasional pauses when an avenue has been for the moment exhausted. And yet there is the sense, too, of the written. The music is the perfect image of what it is not.
Slow, the second movement places the emphasis not on variation, and therefore on momentariness, but rather on what persists, revolving through grave double stops in the bottom register, through harmonics, and through low melody that holds fast to its flickering disintegrations in bounces of the bow or noise effects. The finale, again slow, restores the Asian character, but once more under the sign of a question mark. This is music that is absolutely present, but cannot find its place in the world.
Listening through Dusapin’s solo cello music chronologically, as Deforce’s programming encourages one to do (with occasional ventures into pieces with clarinet – Dusapin has two of these – or for clarinet alone, the companion musician being Benjamin Dietjens), one is likely to be surprised by the arrival of Dusapinian modality in Invece, a piece from 1992, after the intemperance of the previous decade’s output. (There is a similar shock in the procession of Dusapin’s first five string quartets provided by the Arditti on the same label.) Go back, though, and the earlier music may be found not so different, in its search for foci that will always turn out to be labile, for an identity that, in being inhabited, vanishes.


Oct 11: public interview (BCMG, Birmingham)


MUNICH, June 8: 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.

PARIS, April 10: 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.