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.


latest publications

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

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


​​June 7, 2019: Keynote address, Stockhausen aus Licht symposium (Amsterdam)

Sept, 2019: Publication of so this is it  (Nightjar Press)

Dec 16, 2019: [to be announced]

spring 2020: Publication of Mr. Beethoven (Henningham)



April 1, 2019
Dear Bill,
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
           me taire
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.

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.

Dec 16, 2019: [to be announced]
Dec 16, 2019: [to be announced]