On this day, in 1966, Dmitri Shostakovich turned 60, and the evening brought a birthday concert including the world première of his Cello Concerto No. 2. The piece is well worth singling out for celebration, partly because to my mind it starts to resolve the very real difficulties that confront listeners when they engage with his music on anything more than the most superficial level. Put simply, there’s a problem, and it’s one i mentioned in a recent review (on Bachtrack) of his first Violin Concerto, composed over a decade earlier:
The challenge for audiences is to accept the fact that the composer had essentially just two modes of expression: slow, circling clouds of intense anguish and fast, flippant exercises in military precision. The challenge for performers is to find something fresh and vital within this variegated tautology, in order to locate and extract the essence of a man who, on his own admission, felt a compositional need to “resort to camouflage”.
Without wishing to get into an argument with myself, this problem by no means prevents one from enjoying and, more deeply, from grasping the acute intensity of feeling and distress that doesn’t merely underpin the music but burns within it like a molten core. Yet the problem remains, and it’s easy to feel frustrated, even downright annoyed, in Shostakovich’s company, at how entrenched these twin aspects of his compositional personality seem to be. (It would be arrogant, i think, to criticise his circumspection; one suspects he simply wanted to stay alive.) The Second Cello Concerto, though, moves beyond this, into broader and less certain waters, quietening down the grotesque jauntery in favour of an immense dive into the darkest depths of introspection. Through three movements lasting a little more than half an hour, Shostakovich tapped back into some of the radical spirit of enquiry he explored much earlier in his life (from the time of the Fourth Symphony and earlier), and began to develop a new way forward. Read more
Last week saw the centenary of the birth of American composer Milton Babbitt. Babbitt continues to be a neglected figure, and personally speaking, the anniversary served to remind how little i know of his music and how rarely i’ve encountered it over the years. Those in a similar situation will no doubt be interested in the Babbitt Centenary Concert taking place tomorrow evening at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia at Symphony Space in New York. The concert, which will also be video-streamed live, is being given by the NY-based Cygnus Ensemble, and features two works of Babbitt’s – including Swan Song No. 1, written specifically for Cygnus in 2003 – alongside music by students and colleagues of Babbitt, all world premières. There’ll also be a pre-concert interview with soprano Bethany Beardslee-Winham, for whom Babbitt composed numerous works, including Philomel, Vision and Prayer (also being performed in the concert), Du, and A Solo Requiem.
The complete programme is listed below; more details can be found at the Cygnus website and the live stream (which is free) will be available at livamp.com/cygnus. The concert starts at 7:30pm local time, which means a late night for those outside the US who want to catch it as it happens, but for everyone else it’ll be available to stream afterwards at a more congenial hour.
Milton Babbitt – Swan Song No. 1 / Vision and Prayer
Charles Wuorinen – Cygnus
Paul Lansky – Just Once
Konrad Kaczmarek – Toggles and Triggers
Jonathan Dawe – Glass Harmonica
Frank Brickle – Ab nou cor / Piazza Piece / City of Orgies
David Claman – To the Master of the Meteor
An anniversary i wasn’t able to observe due to being engrossed in my Lent series was that of the death of Tōru Takemitsu, who died a little over twenty years ago, on 20 February 1996. i can still remember the day vividly; at the time i was an undergraduate at the Birmingham Conservatoire, and as i was walking to the library someone came rushing over to tell me he had died. It’s fair to say that, among the composers (and also some of the percussionists), the news of Takemitsu’s passing was a profound shock, and the rest of the day felt black and mournful. Just like one of his great sources of inspiration, Olivier Messiaen, no-one sounds like Takemitsu – only an idiot would try to – and few have been able to compose music that so completely and simultaneously embraces austerity and playfulness within a cross-cultural intermingling utterly filled with an innate sense of beauty and wonder. For myself, barely a week goes by when i don’t find myself in the company of his music, and i never, ever experience it as anything less than genuinely miraculous. Read more
It’s the grande dame‘s birthday today, and i’m rounding off my Éliane Radigue long weekend with another work from the OCCAM OCEAN series, one that in some respects combines those featured in the last couple of days. OCCAM DELTA IV, for bowed harp, microtonal tuba and cello, dates from 2013, and initially focusses extremely intently on a low C. Once again, it’s a drone in which assorted partials can be heard to differing extents, colouring its timbre; here, though, the drone is underpinned with some octave lower pedal notes from the tuba, rendering the drone itself essentially an overtone on this occasion (again a parallel with The Hafler Trio’s Trilogy in Three Parts, in this case the final part). Read more
For the second day of my Éliane Radigue long weekend, another work from the OCCAM OCEAN series, and a particularly austere one. Composed in 2013, OCCAM XI is not simply for solo tuba, but solo microtonal tuba, specifically that of British tubist Robin Hayward. Not that that’s immediately obvious from the music, but then it’s not immediately obvious that a tuba is involved at all.
The work’s 13-minute span falls into three sections, the first of which contains a low F, articulated as a series of fragile fragments, air and vocal noise at the fringes, with both its pitch centre and its overtones undulating slightly, moving between different vowel shapes. The sound is a curious cross between throat singing and a kind of ancient reed instrument—almost, in fact, as though the instrument itself had found sentience and was attempting to speak; decidedly fascinating and unsettling. The second section, around the midpoint, shifts up a fifth and becomes more sustained, the tuba’s sounds much less differentiated but suggesting something more ritualistic, its strangely dogged persistence hinting at some higher purpose, as though casting a muffled incantation. Read more
This coming Sunday is French composer Éliane Radigue‘s birthday, so by way of a little celebration, i’m going to devote a long weekend to some of her more recent work. Having spent much of her life creating electronic music (exclusively composed on the ARP 2500), for the last decade-and-a-bit Radigue’s attention has been turned towards acoustic instruments. Her work is characterised by slowly-moving sound materials, often in the form of drones, becoming focussed epicentres of pitch around and about which other sounds are heard, either actually being or at least appearing to be integrated with and/or emanating from those epicentres, resulting in complex beats and harmonic undulations. No doubt informed by being a practicing Buddhist, these intense soundworlds, caught between stasis and movement, continue to fascinate Radigue, as can be heard to good effect in her ongoing OCCAM OCEAN project. Read more
Today is the 82nd birthday of one of my favourite composers, George Crumb. To mark the occasion, here’s a recording of a performance of one of his most well-known and loved pieces, the great and formidable string quartet Black Angels, which received its first performance 41 years ago yesterday (hmm, 82 and 41; Crumb would no doubt approve of the numeric connection). Completed in 1970, Crumb subtitled the work “Thirteen Images from the Dark Land”, and the tone throughout is a profoundly troubled one; Crumb hints at an explanation in an inscription in the score—”in tempore belli” (“in time of war”)—referencing the Vietnam War, and it’s that subject matter, together with allusions to Penderecki’s seminal Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima that form the core of the work. The bedrock is structured with Crumb’s trademark fastidiousness and rigour, in which the numbers 7 and 13 are fundamental. Black Angels comprises 13 short sections, grouped into three parts that parallel the Christian notions of falling from grace (Departure), concomitant spiritual poverty (Absence) and subsequent redemption (Return). Throughout, the quartet is amplified, and are required to do very much more than merely play their string instruments. Alongside extended techniques—many of which are commonplace today but were novel at the time—Crumb employs the most imaginative methods to obtain specific timbral colours and effects. Read more