May 6, 12:00 noon : talk on Varèse (Barbican Centre, London)
6 Morton Feldman: Three Voices (hat[now]ART)
Like most creatures on this earth, we possess but a single voice, which is one reason why Feldman’s Three Voices conveys the listener immediately into strangeness. Here is the same voice three times over: once live and twice recorded, at a concert performance, or all three times recorded, of course, for the purposes of a CD, as in the case of the spellbinding new version by Juliet Fraser. Something unique – a human voice – is heard in triplicate.
But there is much more to it than that – and certainly much more to Fraser’s performance. On both levels the experience is made more fascinatingly mysterious, more mysteriously fascinating, by the disturbed repetition. At the opening, for instance, the three voices are singing the same short sequence, but out of synch and bobbing about, thanks to Feldman’s intricate cross-metres, in a restless calm. Out of that calm one voice rises up, to a point higher than will be reached in the whole rest of the piece, which lasts seven minutes under an hour in this realization. Another responds to that initiative, and the process is on, going, with cogent purpose, nowhere.
Elements of from two to four notes, usually repeating over and over, are the norm right through the piece, and Fraser duly honours the repetitions while also disturbing them a little her own way. It is remarkable what variety of phrasing she can bring to a two-note descent, perhaps by just altering the push on the first note – not in the interests of expression, for heaven’s sake, but to bring to the Feldmanesque blankness an equally Feldmanesque randomness. Jolts, of which there are a few, where the motif and the texture suddenly shift, are marked, to similar effect. Sometimes those jolts are accentuated by a change of vowel sound, from the prevalent ‘aa’ to ‘oo’, maybe, and yet we remain in the same, eternal, dimly lit world.
There are two very worthwhile notes with the disc, by Christopher Fox and by Fraser herself. She coolly and unashamedly admits that she has set aside the composer’s ‘non vibrato’ instruction, as well she might. The shake on longer notes – by no means pronounced – only increases the sense of human fragility.
Fox and Fraser both draw attention to the image of the snow-globe that is present in the Frank O’Hara poem, if not in the flakes Feldman selected, and there is certainly something to be said for hearing the circling motions of this piece as trapped in some inner space. Fraser’s performance, however, also brings out echoes from elsewhere, all the way from the female backing group to Gustav Holst’s ‘Neptune’. This is, as Fox justly notes, a very different Feldman piece. Fraser makes it also haunting, rich, and hugely tempting to a relistening, time and again.
5Rolf Riehm: Shifting ~ Archipel Remix (Wergo)
Shriek in the dark. What else can we do? How can we not do this? Shriek in the dark, as the ground tilts under us. Shriek again. And then, with all the quaking and the shrieking, try to sing. Go on: try to sing. You will.
Such is Rolf Riehm’s Shifting for violin and orchestra (1994). Partnering it on this album is his Archipel Remix (1999), both works recorded at their first performances, given by the WDR Symphony Orchestra conducted respectively by Dennis Russell Davies and Peter Rundel, with Guy Braunstein the soloist in the concerto.
Magnificent and scary, Shifting demands to be heard. It plays continuously. So does Archipel Remix, but this is one of those assemblages of Riehm’s in which the story is told in clear-cut episodes of varying length, ranging in this case from a few seconds to nigh on ten minutes. The composer’s image for such a form is, as his title in this case declares, the archipelago, the present one containing eighteen ‘islands’ and ‘islets’ (though it is not clear what distinguishes or characterizes these two types). Since we are moving through time here, and being moved by mighty forces, the metaphor might better be that of a voyage, and there is indeed a sense from the beginning of this piece of being on board ship – on board a vessel whose name on the prow is romantic adagio (maybe bruckner). The solemnity, the high stakes and the low string sound are all there, but there is no captain aboard, no crew. Yet the ship ploughs on.
It visits some strange places. Perhaps most extraordinary is ‘Keil’ (Wedge), where a swelling orchestral rise is taken over by a pair of singing saws. Later comes a tiny burst of song from a female voice, one of many incursions of concrete memory, taken from recordings. We are reminded that the voyage is that of Ulysses, and that this is one of several works by Riehm considering the Sirens, and most particularly the silent Sirens of Kafka’s imagining. Of the many meanings implicated here, perhaps the most fundamental is that music has stopped, and yet the voyage goes on.
The final port of call is ‘Stadt der Geister’ (City of Spirits), where again we meet an astonishing orchestral invention, a fizzing curtain of sound. What lies behind? We do not know. We cannot hear. We both want to know and do not want to know. We both want to hear and do not want to hear. The work substitutes a meek final chord.
By now, but surely long before, we understand that this archipelago does not lie only in the eastern Mediterranean but in our own time, and that this review of missteps and catastrophes speaks of us – not least of us in the eastern Mediterranean and a little beyond. In a world that can admire the rawness, the rage and the monuments to error of an Anselm Kiefer, Rolf Riehm’s work should be better known.
4Marc Sabat: Harmony (another timbre)
There might be radiant upper partials shedding gleam, but Marc Sabat’s music also knows infinite degrees of dissonance. The works on this recording, beautifully presented by the JACK Quartet in its original lineup, venture into what the title of the main item describes as ‘Euler Lattice Spirals Scenery’ – a landscape of subtly or starkly different microtonal gradations of justly tuned untempered intervals in harmonies that emerge from one another by way of strange routes (and strange roots), with often this sheen high in the sky. These harmonies may be spiralling within an ‘Euler Lattice’ – a network of notes defined by ratios using integers up to 5, as described first by Leonhard Euler – but what one experiences is continuous flow, which will very occasionally be startlingly interrupted, or seem to resolve momentarily in an unuaually lustrous common chord, glistening from the concurrence of partials, or through lengthy periods return on itself.
The music is nearly always slow. In an interview, the composer speaks of how we may be living through a musical epoch when ‘dormant properties gently re-emerge in a new light’, and his work seems to actualize this happening, the gentleness, the re-emergence and the light. (The record comes naked into the world; the interview is contained in a separate book supplying similarly informative interviews with all ten composers in this Canadian Composers Series.) Euler Lattice Spirals Scenery opens with a Preludio, subtitled ‘Quintes justes’, that offers a seamless tour d’horizon. That done, the piece moves on to a pair of big homages bookended by a slim pair of ‘Pythagras Drawings’, seemingly inversions of one another. The first homage, to Claude Vivier, has some feeling of fanfare and medieval music, occluded by a curtain; the second, to Ben Johnston, similarly sounds something like a long disguise of Bachian formulae and cadences. In this world, however, you have to let go of your bearings; otherwise, you might miss the music.
Sabat bravely records that it was a critical comment from Johnston that made him reconsider the place of expression in his music. Even so, his quartets – another is included, Rameau, in four movements that seem to be taking the same course in different ways – remain abstract, and welcomely so, with nothing pushing the music, no passion overspent. They speak for themselves, express for themselves an intense calm, a resilient rightness.
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.