This week marks the 90th birthday of Pierre Boulez, and to mark the occasion i’m going to explore three of his concerto-esque works, beginning with Mémoriale, composed in 1985. Well, that’s not strictly accurate; one of the characteristic traits of Boulez’s output is an ongoing tendency to rethink and recompose previous work. It all began in 1971 with the death of Igor Stravinsky, when Tempo magazine invited various composers to contribute short pieces for a commemorative issue, published late that year. Boulez demured (the request was for canonic works, which he found both a strange and unappealing idea), but it began a thought process that would lead to the first incarnation, in 1972, of a work for three instruments titled …explosante-fixe…. It was soon replaced with another version for flute, clarinet, trumpet, three strings, harp and electronics, but Boulez was dissatisfied with this version too due to complexities with controlling the technology (involving an evidently cumbersome and fragile device called the Halaphone). Some years passed before, in the early 1980s, Boulez began working towards a new version, now collaborating closely with Ensemble InterContemporain’s principal flautist Lawrence Beauregard. When Beauregard died in 1985, Boulez decided to take some of the material from …explosante-fixe… and rework it into a tribute, which became Mémoriale (…explosante-fixe… Originel) for flute and eight instruments.
It was many, many years ago (at the 1993 Meltdown Festival, in fact) that i first encountered the music of Hungarian composer György Kurtág and became instantly entranced by it. Like Webern, Kurtág is drawn to expressing himself in tiny, fleeting musical acts for modestly-sized instrumental groupings, but unlike Webern there’s usually a powerful emotional current obviously flowing through them (that’s not to suggest Webern’s music isn’t emotional; Kurtág’s is simply more demonstrative). During the 1980s, he was commissioned to write a work for large forces for the Berlin Festival, which caused Kurtág difficulties that were only surmounted when he explored the Philharmonie’s chamber music hall, at the time still being built. This led to a realisation that he could preserve his outlook and approach by writing for a number of small groups spatially arranged around the hall; the result, premièred in October 1988, was …quasi una fantasia…, a small-scale concerto for piano and “instruments dispersed in space”.
From the recorder to the flute, and a typically dramatic concerto for the instrument by Australian composer Brett Dean. Composed in 2007, The Siduri Dances, for flute and string orchestra, began life three years earlier in Dean’s work for solo flute Demons. The inspirational scope here is broader, drawing on the mythological goddess Siduri who lives by the sea and, in the eponymous epic, gives advice to Gilgamesh, attempting to make him rethink the necessity of his quest for immortality and focus instead on the here and now:
Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to?
You will never find that life for which you are looking.
When the gods created man they allotted to him death,
but life they retained in their own keeping.
As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things;
day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice.
Dean’s intention seems to be to tap into the spirit of Siduri’s admonition. Read more
A general shift in register now, from low to high, and to a pair of concertos using a reduced orchestra comprising just strings. Dai Fujikura seems to have written his Recorder Concerto despite himself, describing his initial view of the instrument as a pretty negative one. What makes the piece so interesting, i think, is the way Fujikura seems to have overcome that rather awkward starting position. It’s a little hard to articulate, but one’s attention is drawn not so much to the material he has composed for the instrument but to the instrument itself and the way it is behaving. In other words, it feels more a concerto about the recorder than what the recorder is playing. Sort of.
In terms of what actually happens, the setup is pretty simple, with the soloist taking the lead, their articulations serving as a model for the strings. Fujikura makes that very clear at the outset, low flutterings on the recorder translating into tremolandi in the strings; the recorder progresses to a melody made up of fragmented moments, and the strings’ material is equally fractured. Fujikura allows this kind of thing to play out at various points throughout the piece for minutes at a time, enabling two things to happen. Read more
From the cello to the electric guitar, and a curiously strange concerto by Romanian composer Iancu Dumitrescu (husband of Ana-Maria Avram, featured on 5:4 last year). Particularly well-known (and self-described) as a composer with ‘spectralist’ leanings—but not, according to Dumitrescu, in the same way as the French spectralists—his guitar concerto Élan and Permanence seems almost to go out of its way to reduce or at least radically rethink the role of the soloist. Even describing the guitar as a soloist is stretching a point.
Uncertainty reigns throughout the piece, both in terms of the way material is articulated as well as the material itself. Utmost abstract, much of the music takes place as if from a distance which, considering how much energy is regularly displayed, makes for a decidedly weird listening experience. The energy bubbles up to the surface of seething textural masses, punching outwards in the form of brass reports, coagulating into clouds of string tremolandi and unleashing wild percussive outbursts that have a distinctly Varèsian sense of autonomy. This orchestral behaviour, which subsides into glades of middlegrounded repose as much as it lets rip, is curious enough, but the way the guitar interacts with it—if ‘interacts’ is the right word (i don’t think it is)—is downright odd. Read more
Without wishing to appear too biased towards the cello, the next concerto in my Lent series is another work that features that instrument at its epicentre. A few months back, i was enthusing about Davíð Brynjar Franzson‘s radical treatment of the piano; in his new work on Matter and Materiality, he puts the cello into an equally radical but altogether more gruelling context.
If the soloist can be described as not doing much, it’s certainly not for want of trying. It sounds as though Franzson has detuned the C-string down to a bottom D (a similar effect to that in Rebecca Saunders’ Solitude), and this note becomes the unwitting nadir of the cello’s repeated failed attempts to haul itself up or out or along. These attempts are expressed in a dogged series of grinding swells (orchestral colours can be barely glimpsed within them); ostensibly tinged with aggression, the instability of the cello’s timbre coats its pitch with spasmodic harmonics and overtones, exposing it as utmost fragile, all throbs and palpitations, music in dire need of defibrillation. Heavy bow pressure, far from obtaining some kind of solidity (or, considering the title, ‘materiality’), only undermines this fundamental further, causing it to waver and distort. Read more
The next concerto in my Lent series is another involving solo cello, Fata Morgana by British composer Patrick Nunn. Composed in 2007, this short work—for cello, chamber ensemble and live electronics—takes its title primarily from the character of Morgan le Fay (known among many other names as Fata Morgana), who in Arthurian legend was a shape-shifting enchantress. The term is also used for a particular type of mirage effect, where objects at sea, visible just above the horizon, become significantly transformed due to the effects of light bending through thermal layers of air. The cello’s character throughout is or aspires to be melodic, and its role is emphatically in the foreground as an instigator of ideas. It emerges, at altitude, out of a strange and complex opening chord, whereupon its material is immediately resonated and expanded by the electronics. Despite calling it an instigator, there’s a somewhat pensive quality to the cello’s behaviour, placing notes and melodic gestures cautiously; this contrasts with the tendency of both the ensemble and the electronics, which feel highly sensitive to the cello’s slightest sounds, extending them while growing in intensity and pace all the time. Read more