paul griffiths

latest publications

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

Miller Theatre, NYC,  Feb 2 (notes on Beat Furrer program)


Mar 28, 7:30 p.m. :  Music & Literature event (Center for Fiction, NYC)

record of the week

3 Carl Rosman: Caerulean (HCR)
​From faint fumblings of key clicks comes the first clear, thin light in a succession of quiet sonorities – not soft, because the quality is more of transparency and, yes, clarity, a quality of harmonics – through which Rebecca Saunders’s Caerulean slowly steps forward on its steady course of almost twenty minutes, the sonorities and the course being maintained with such fine precision and beauty of utterance by Carl Rosman on his bass clarinet, as recorded on the album of his that takes its title from this piece. One senses that these unearthly glowings, of two notes often spaced about a major sixth apart, have to be carefully coaxed into existence, and Rosman may indicate this by bringing in the second note, upper or lower, after the first has started to shine. Or one note may gently slide until the other begins to come forward. Or both may come into existence right away. Presumably, of course, all this is in accordance with the score, but then the score is in accordance with Rosman’s playing, and in particular with his discovery of these sounds.
    One of the most extraordinary moments, in an extraordinary performance, comes when two notes emerge above the middle-register principal, with a gentle swing between the two that may continue when the lower note is removed – as if reflections stayed in a set of mirrors after the object had been removed. Elsewhere the tremolando between notes may turn air into water. And, lest it all seem just too exquisite, waiting in the wings always are possibilities of tougher blowing that will turn these fragile flowers into thorny fruits.
    The recording represents one ideal of the relationship between the performing musician and the composing musician. One demonstrates to the other some new possibilities of the instrument (Richard Barrett and Aaron Cassidy evidently got the same lesson, on which they drew to different effect), this other then gives these possibilities shape and meaning, which the first can bring into being. What results, in this case, is something that is, in more senses than one, breathtaking.
    With Barrett and Cassidy, the luminescent dyads come at the end, as the destinations of wilder rides. Barrett’s Flechtwerk, similar in length to the Saunders, is the other big piece here, scored for clarinet in A and piano, these two instruments being allied – virtually alloyed – at the start as they skid helter-skelter through each other’s traces. The title, suggesting something woven or else the interweaving of different life forms in a lichen, fits this conception, but there are also places where the two come apart: a piano solo and, before that, an astonishing passage where the interjection of occasional high notes amid rapid lower figuration gives the vivid impression of a second clarinet entering the scene. The piece careers through these and a few other adventures before arriving at what might be exhaustion but sounds more like stymied transcendence. Mark Knoop is the pianist.
    Pieces by Aperghis, Kagel and Chikako Morishita are also included. The Saunders and the Barrett demand to be heard, and the Cassidy, not least for its single quiet notes done in silver-point, where again the achievement is that of composer and performer together, allied – virtually alloyed.

2Richard Barrett: Music for cello and electronics (æon)

​It is apparent from the opening of Richard Barrett’s life-form that something big is coming into existence – and already the metaphor is justifying the composer’s own in putting forward his composition (a term that needs further examination in this case) as a living being, whose forms are not so much of morphology as of growth and behaviour. What makes the scale immediately evident is the sense of a steady unity on the point of giving way to – giving birth to – something more differentiated. The unity is essentially electronic – very low sound, which is rubbed or scoured, like an archaeological find, and high flutings, similarly intermittent and speaking of age. Time is being created here and also space, space within which a cello starts to discover its possibilities. (It will soon be free, only to encounter other electronic environments or partners.) And all this is happening within, what the bass sound provides, E flat.
    The promise is, of course, magnificently  fulfilled. life-form plays for almost an hour, filling one disc of a double album. And, also of course, Barrett’s choice of a cello as voyager is by no means arbitrary. By its register, by its variety of tone and accent, by its phrasing – all aspects of its vocality – the cello is a human presence in what is almost entirely (some recorded cowbells aside) a synthesized world, even if the old human-machine dichotomy is here put under review. For one thing, the electronic music has a richness and depth that extract it from the category of the artificial – indeed, some of the electronic sequences, such as that of the opening or a magical passage that sounds like a forestful of birds at different elevations and distances, have the feel and the appeal of the living. Also, the cello represents not just any old human being but a specific player whose imagination, resourcefulness, expertise and musicality are engaged to the utmost at every moment: Arne Deforce. Whatever the sound – virtuoso scribbling, a pizzicato with a warm reverberation from the body of the instrument, high-pressure bowing released with a gem-pure ping from the string, a long, slowly evolving crescendo, a brushed chord, a microtonal irresolution – it is fully present, fully itself.
    Leaving aside the questions of how much is improvised and how much brought to the table by the player, with and for whom this work of 2011-12 was made, life-form is coming alive before one’s ears through the joint efforts of composer (present at this recording to control the electronics, and of course present as deviser) and cellist. Both of them have their hands grubby. Two earlier pieces for cello and electronics on the second disc – Blattwerk of 1998-2002 and nacht und träume of 2004-5 – possess their own identities and attractions (including the closing microtonally tuned chorale of the former and the latter’s opening, where the second participating instrument, the piano, keeps summoning the cello and the electronic sound back to the starting point), but they also seem like preparations for the majestic thing beside them.

1 ​Vykintas Baltakas: b(ell tree) (Kairos)
A moth trapped behind glass flaps its colours. An unseen bird in the distance is calling out, joy communicating itself to sorrow. Stasis with activity, brilliance and evocative resonance – these are persistent qualities in the music of Vykintas Baltakas, belatedly recognized  in his mid-forties with a portrait disc.
    The release is belated, too, in the sense that most of the works here are a decade or two old. As overture comes an ensemble piece, (co)ro(na) (2005), which introduces some of the composer’s particular fascinations: jubilant high piping from woodwinds zigzagging among a few notes to give an exotic modal flavour that may have to do with Lithuanian folk music, layered textures in which the lower instruments tend to go more slowly, forms that keep returning to certain spots to go off in directions different from before. Another common feature is irregular iteration, insistently pulsed, which with the larger forces of Poussla can produce a heavyweight mechanical sound.
    Far more engaging – and one of the best things on the disc – is the other big piece, which is also the most recent here, rather uneuphoniously though meaningfully titled Saxordionphonics and dating from 2013. This starts out from a sequence of twelve widely spaced staccato attacks that almost fuse the two solo instruments: saxophone and accordion (two outsiders, carrying stray references to worlds beyond the symphony orchestra, which is part of the point). Second time round, the accordion slips out of the straitjacket and so initiates a process of growth that, magically, soon brings in departments of the orchestra. Entropy steadily increases to a point where the music sounds like innumerable flags blowing in the wind, but all of them tied to the same post – related, that is, to the original idea. As the orchestra vanishes again, the accordion is left in its upper register, looking around for where the excitement went. There is then perhaps a lament, at the end of which the soloists are back where they were, together and alone, but now with a memory.
    The other outstanding piece is the album’s title item, a string quartet unlike anything else in this crowded repertory. When it begins, it scarcely sounds like a string quartet at all. Within a lot of silence, a lot of space, the isolated brief harmonics and other sounds give the impression of the high woodwinds this composer favours, and only gradually, as they coalesce (again characteristically), do their sources reveal themselves to be strings. The narrow-register motifs that flicker in and out of existence, pulsing with rhythmic life, once more suggest folk music – or, in an analogy that must surely be coincidental, if not resulting from some shared deep-dredging, the music of Alexander Goehr. Baltakas’s style, though, is all his own. Something else he likes, and uses with particular finesse in this quartet, is the occasional octave or common chord as a turning point, or as a window that is briefly opened and closed. Having come through its own lament, fully stringy, the piece returns to sparer sounds and textures, and ends, poignantly, like an old man trying to remember a dance he once knew.