For the penultimate work in my Lent Series exploring concertos, i’m turning to the innovative Norwegian composer Arne Nordheim, who died in 2010. He composed Spur for accordion and orchestra 40 years ago; the title is a German word meaning ‘track’ or ‘(foot)print’, which here, in part, relates to the sociological connotations that the concerto has for Nordheim:
The history of the concerto as a medium of communication is without any doubt closely interlinked with its role as intermediary between social convention and individual freedom and the process through which individual creativity is absorbed to become common property, leaving behind footprints and signposts in culture.
The programme note also alludes to the footprints made by the soloist on the rest of the players. And this, i think, is what projects most immediately, as the accordion’s very particular timbral qualities—which consistently blur the distinction between acoustic and electronic—make an instant impression on the orchestra, befuddling and inspiring it in equal measure. Low undulating buzzes, eerily static high pitches, wild dissonant scrunches, angular acrobatic leaps, each of these appear in the soloist’s music within minutes and, although they will eventually form the blueprint for most of their activities, the orchestral reaction initially seems not to have a clue what to do in response. They emit a huge burp, but then opt, via the strings, for an ethereal collection of slow-moving lines, providing the context for the soloist to quieten and become pensive. That gear-change was instigated by the orchestra, and as if reflecting on that point, the accordion becomes more forceful, resembling a surly, pocket-sized brass/wind section. Read more
Joyeux anniversaire, Pierre!
Today’s the day, the 90th birthday of Pierre Boulez, and, continuing the concerto theme, the piece with which i’d like to celebrate the occasion is Domaines, for clarinet and orchestra, completed in 1969. Typically, the piece began life a decade earlier (early sketches pertaining to it, tentatively titled ‘Labyrinthe’, date back to April 1959), and also typically evolved via the material for other compositions. During the 1960s Boulez was working on a cantata for baritone and ensemble, setting texts by E. E. Cummings; this would ultimately lead, in 1970, to cummings ist der dichter, but a couple of years prior to that Boulez took material from the nascent work, together with ideas for an opera (never completed) and refashioned it into Domaines, both as a solo work as well as one involving six instrumental groups, with a gradually increasing number of players:
- bass clarinet
- marimba, contrabass
- oboe, horn, guitar (amplified)
- alto trombone, 2 tenor trombones, bass trombone
- flute, alto saxophone, bassoon, C trumpet, harp
- 2 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos
The second concerto-esque work by Pierre Boulez that i want to explore this week is Messagesquisse for cello solo and six cellos. The gestation of this piece was very much more straightforward than that of Mémoriale, being composed in 1976 as a 70th birthday present for that great champion of so much contemporary music, Paul Sacher (Boulez’s Sur incises would be another birthday present for Sacher 20 years later). The title overlaps the words ‘messages’ and ‘sketch’ at the letters “es”, being both the first letter of Sacher’s surname and the German term for the pitch E-flat. This is indicative of the kind of thing Boulez gets up to in Messagesquisse, where Sacher’s entire surname is translated into musical pitches—E♭, A, C, B♭ (H in German), E, D (presumably from the solfège Re)—forming a hexachord that is subjected to considerable serial and motivic treatment. Sixes occur elsewhere too: as well as the ensemble group of cellos, the work is structured with this many sections. Read more
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”.
If there’s one thing that many of the more interesting new releases i’ve heard have in common, it’s doing new and unusual things with conventional sounds, objects and forms. To this end, the most impressive disc of orchestral music I’ve encountered recently is Mark Andre‘s … auf … (Wergo). There’s actually something rather brazen about the piece, Andre rooting it in what is essentially a language of gesture. There aren’t many of them either: huge tutti accents, loud crescendo chords, gentle sustained pitches and extremely soft percussive textures comprise pretty much everything that we hear. Andre makes them the poles of an intense drama played out (in three pieces, both independent and parts of a trilogy) for over an hour, yet which never for a moment seems to tread water. Which isn’t to suggest that it’s relentless; on the contrary, a great deal of the tension arises from protracted periods of semi-stasis; for some composers these would be times of repose, but in … auf … the orchestra feels poised; energy and activity are implicit everywhere. Furthermore, the accents—which, due both to the actual dynamic but also to their contextual contrast, are on occasions exceptionally loud (the hammer blows of Mahler 6 meet the opening of Mahler 1)—do nothing whatsoever to dispel or release this pent-up energy, if anything injecting still more, acts of blunt force provocation like a boxer hitting their own face before a fight. Andre moves back and forth between these gestural poles in a way that sounds inherently chaotic yet—Takemitsu-like—each step forward is entirely convincing.
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