November Ramble

Grant Chu Covell

[November 2002.]

Antoine BEUGER: calme étendue (spinoza) (1996/97). Antoine Beuger (voice). Edition Wandelweiser Records EWR 0107 (http://www.timescraper.de/). Also http://www.timescraper.de/komponisten/antoine_beuger.html. Distributed in the US by Anomalous Records (http://www.anomalousrecords.com/).

This is a recording of a man reading philosophy. But the speaker says only single-syllable words and spaces them about eight seconds apart. The text is in German, and after every dozen or so words there are long stretches of quiet. The jewel box provides a warning: Die Aufname fängt mit 9 Minuten Stille an” (the recording begins with 9 minutes of silence). I don’t have a precise count, but the entire CD, which lasts 70:15, has around 100 to 200 words.

No, this is not for everybody. I was at first skeptically amused, then entranced. Beuger’s relaxed voice gradually erodes any resistance to the unfathomable stream of words (actually, it’s more like a trickle). It does help that even if one knows German, the text is difficult to understand. Beuger took Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics and meticulously copied out all the single-syllable words. This required close reading, but more importantly, Beuger soaked himself in the text’s “art” and its “life-affirming attitude.” Of course Spinoza’s concrete meaning is lost to us, but Beuger has distilled an essence of Spinoza that he conveys very earnestly. Weighty words like selbst” (self) and “Gott” (God) figure rather frequently, as do trivial words like “die” (the) and “und” (and).

Remarkably, the silences are very silent. I don’t hear someone turning the volume down on the microphone, there is no throat-clearing, and maybe the faintest sound of shuffling paper. Releasing a CD that starts with nearly nine minutes of nothing takes a bit of chutzpah. It’s easy to forget there’s a CD on, and suddenly a gentle tenor voice comes out of nowhere with selbst.

A complete performance of calme étendue (spinoza) takes 180 hours. Beuger actually performed the entire work over 26 consecutive days in August 1997, speaking six to 10 hours per day at the Museum Schloss Morsbroich (in Leverkusen, Germany) while the museum was open. I can imagine him sleeping there after hours, using a tattered copy of Ethics for a pillow.

Would this work be as effective if Beuger were reading a shopping list, or an inventory of Goethe’s collections? That we’re dealing with thorny Spinoza makes this work bearable, and Beuger’s reverence and apparent comprehension of Ethics helps, too. As I’ve said elsewhere, the text contributes more to a setting than does anything the composer might do. With the many stretches of silence, it becomes easy to forget that there’s a CD playing, and when the words do pass by it’s more like Spinoza wallpaper than a concert work.

Another recorded work by Beuger will complete the picture. Fourth Music for Marcia Hafif (3) was presented at the Donaueschinger Musiktage in 1997 and is recorded on col legno WWE 3CD 20026 (Olaf Henzold conducting the SWF-Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg). The notes completely and objectively describe the music: “…60 tutti sounds, of which at least 30 and at most 60 are played. Each sound lasting 3 seconds, 5 seconds of silence between two sounds …” “…90 almost inaudible sounds on 4 big drums …[a]t the beginning drowned out by the orchestra, not audible until after the orchestral sound ends …” In Fourth Music, Beuger plays with our perception of sound. We don’t stand a chance of hearing the drums until after the orchestral chords stop, and even then we’ll only notice them when they’re not there. Both works are challenging and stretch the limits of listening and comprehension.

Alvin LUCIER: Music for Piano with Slow Sweep Pure Wave Oscillators (1992); “On the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon” (2000); Still Lives (1995). Marilyn Nonken (piano); Ryuko Mizutani (koto); Joseph Kubera (piano). Lovely Music LCD 5012 (http://www.lovely.com/). Also http://alucier.web.wesleyan.edu/index.html.

Simple and captivating, Music for Piano with Slow Sweep Pure Wave Oscillators is one of the best compositions to pair electronics with live instruments. The electronics are just two oscillators that emit pure sine waves. One glides slowly up and then down while the other moves down and then up. The piano’s pitches are fixed, of course, but they quiver like the tail fins of darts as the oscillators move around them. The music proceeds unhurriedly for 16-1/2 minutes. (This piece takes me back to my days as a movie projectionist. One of the major film distributors had theme music for their animated logo that started out with a few piano pitches over a drone.)

“On the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon” is for koto and a single oscillator playing just one tone. The sine wave remains at the same pitch throughout, but the koto is constantly retuning. Starting a semitone above the sine wave, the koto gradually descends towards the sine’s pitch, eventually arriving a semitone below. The koto’s delicate plucking contrasts markedly with the sterile electronic sound, but there is a magical moment when koto and sine are perfectly matched and create a new instrument. The title composition, Still Lives, is a collection of eight short pieces similar to Music for Piano, but the time frame has been greatly compressed. In each piece, the two constantly moving oscillators describe shapes that Lucier encountered at his home (e.g., a shaft of sunlight, a lampshade). The beating is much more pronounced, but the overall mood is still delicate.

These works are effective because there’s nothing clandestine about them. The electronics are as simple as you can get. One performer or sound source creates fixed frequencies and the other can change frequencies. We hear notes that gently float in and out of tune. That really is all there is to it, and Lucier has put this together in three different and effective ways.

Michael GORDON: Decasia (2001). Basel Sinfonietta, Kasper de Roo (cond.). Cantaloupe CA21008 (http://www.cantaloupemusic.com/). Also http://www.decasia.com/. Distributed in the US by Harmonia Mundi (http://www.harmoniamundi.com/).

Michael Gordon’s Decasia is a runaway funeral train draped in billowing black velvet, and filled with obsessed undertakers hammering away at a queasy and dissonant minimalism as the train hurtles blindly into the depths. Colossal and unstoppable, Decasia is a writhing and gritty single movement (62:38) for amplified symphony orchestra with detuned synthesizers, saxophones, and electric guitars.

Decasia (pronounced di-KA-zha) is linked with Bill Morrison’s movie of the same name. The project’s Website http://www.decasia.com/ explains it all. We’re led to believe that this is a work about decay: “…the decay of melody, the decay of tuning, the decay of classical music itself …” Except for an extended slowing down at the end, not much decay occurs within Decasia. It’s as if the music actually enjoys the very state of collapse it describes. Decasia is more of a chronicle of destruction already taken place, and we do not actually witness any music being decomposed or deconstructed.

The work opens with a breathy and pulsating ground that outlines a chord progression. Eventually amplified strings enter with a descending scale played in a continuous slow glissando so that one pitch slides into the next. This descending scale suggests religious music by Tavener or Pärt, or even Górecki’s Third Symphony, though we’re in the table-banging land of Andriessen’s De Staat.

When the winds enter, they are reinforced by electric guitars, and the work is saturated with dissonance. Groups of instruments play short figures of repeated notes embellished with microtones, and often slide from one pitch to the next. It sounds like wheezing accordions and sick barrel organs. Eventually the amplified string glissandi return but climb upwards, mimicking the sounds of airplanes. Towards the end the tempo slows like a giant clock winding down. It is a bold and wonderful work.

Decasia is so much more convincing and interesting than Gordon’s 1997 Weather (Nonesuch 79553-2) for string orchestra and synthesizers. The synthesizers in Weather throw in goofy sound effects childishly, and the pacing and material are prosaic, like a minimalist trying to remember Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (though I think Gordon really did mean us to compare his work to Vivaldi). The progression from Weather to Decasia is quite remarkable, and I am eager to hear what comes next.

Douglas LILBURN: Symphony No. 1 (1949); Symphony No. 2 (1951); Symphony No. 3 (1961). New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, James Judd (cond.). Naxos 8.555862 (http://www.naxos.com/).

A New Zealander who studied in England with Vaughan Williams, Douglas Lilburn wrote in all forms instrumental and electronic. Recordings of his electronic works are sadly unavailable, but his three symphonies have been recorded. The first two (1949 and 1951) are romantic and tonal, and the last (1961) is more angular and modern, but all three display a mastery of orchestration, and an expert use of transitions and counterpoint.

Although Lilburn claimed to take his inspiration from the New Zealand landscape, the first two symphonies are clearly influenced by Sibelius and Nielsen. After the noble fanfare that opens Symphony No. 1, the winds emerge with a theme featuring a raised fourth much like Sibelius’ Symphony No. 4. Elsewhere supporting textures use gentle tremolos and trills or long horn and bassoon lines like the Scandinavians. Key to Lilburn’s inventiveness is the way his melodies will contain a grace note, a short trill, or a rapid tremolo spanning a third. For a first symphony, this is a darned fine work.

Despite a short and perky scherzo, the Second Symphony is less buoyant but much wiser than the First. The Second is Lilburn’s only symphony to resemble the traditional four-movement plan: The First is concerto-like with three movements, the Third is five seamlessly connected sections in a single movement . The Second is where a Vaughan Williams connection is most audible, though I want to compare Lilburn’s work to the Englishman’s last and later symphonies.

The program notes say that Lilburn used some aspects of serialism in Symphony No. 3, but the taut single movement sounds nothing like Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra or Copland’s Connotations. Lilburn’s Third has a great affinity with Nielsen’s Sixth, but most obviously, it’s a direct continuation of the romantic and expressive language of his first two. Compared to them, melodic lines now have greater intervallic leaps, accompanying chords are a little more dissonant, and the musical dialog is more abstract. There are also more solos, especially by lone winds.

This disc is a delightful discovery. The New Zealand Symphony plays with great enthusiasm and their devoted performances make these symphonies very alluring. With the Naxos price, this is a surefire must-have. Lilburn’s three symphonies are an unrecognized set, and they deserve to stand alongside the very best of 20th-century symphonies. They can hold their own against the less-familiar symphonies of Shostakovich, and if you have anything by Roussel or Robert Simpson, then this disc should be in your collection.

Priaulx RAINIER: Suite for Clarinet and Piano (1943); Five Pieces for Keyboard (1951-5); Viola Sonata (1945). Sadie HARRISON: No Title Required (1994); Three Expositions (1997); After Colonna (2001). Double Image: Carola Neilinger (flute), Andrew Sparling (clarinet), Philippa Ibbotson (violin), Bridget Carey (viola), Miriam Lowbury (cello), David Carhart (piano). Metier MSVCD92056 (http://www.metierrecords.co.uk/). Distributed in the US by Albany Music Distributors (http://www.uncommonlyclassical.com/).

Sadie Harrison’s No Title Required is the showstopper here. It uses the same instrumental combination as Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano) but bears no resemblance to that groundbreaking work. Harrison’s quintet is in two movements, a form that invites contrasts and surprises. The musical content unfolds as a set of variations. Harrison writes detailed passages where two instruments play as one, particularly in the first movement where the winds and strings pair off momentarily to form a double duo, and in other places the high instruments play in unison against a paired cello and left-hand piano. In the second movement, we get some atmospheric sliding clarinet and flute sounds over a steady piano. Three Expositions are three well-crafted works for solo flute. Alternately dreamy and vigorous, After Colonna is a substantive single movement for cello and piano, based on an esoteric 15th-century mythological romance.

Born in South Africa, Priaulx Rainier spent her student and professional life in London except for a brief period of study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Rainier’s work is engaging and uncomplicated. These three works show a composer who may have been influenced by neo-Classicism, but moved on to an original, more modernist language. The 1943 Suite for Clarinet and Piano, in five short movements, suggests Bartók’s Contrasts, especially in its slowest movement. The clarinet part has a harlequin-like liveliness and is rarely lyrical.

Rainier has a penchant for repeating small patterns or a handful of notes just once or twice, which is very evident in the Five Pieces for Keyboard. The last of the Five Pieces is from 1951 and is the most curious: Short and aggressive with repeated chords, jagged lines and a starkly repeating note pattern, it could be a discarded Stockhausen Klavierstück. The Viola Sonata is my favorite Rainier work here. Viola and piano play as equals with little concertizing bravado, and the viola has much to do in its lower range, a tessitura that seems to scare many composers.

Rainier died in 1986 (aged 83), but Harrison, born in Australia in 1965, is alive and active. Metier has released other first performances of Harrison’s chamber music, and works for larger forces are to be premiered in 2002. The ensemble Double Image has forged a rewarding partnership with Harrison, and their hard work has paid off with exemplary performances of interesting music. I’m looking forward to hearing more.

Pierre BOULEZ: Pli selon pli (1989). Ensemble InterContemporain, Pierre Boulez (cond.), Christine Schäfer (soprano). Deutsche Grammophon 289 471 344-2 (http://www.20-21.dgclassics.com/).

Alongside the Berg Violin Concerto and Messiaen’s Saint Francis of Assisi, Boulez’ Pli selon pli is one of the most luxuriantly orchestrated compositions ever. No two moments sound alike, so rich and varied is Boulez’s command of the orchestra. This recording is Boulez’s newest version of the work, rescored for chamber orchestra, and it is lean and austere compared with the monumental version from 1981 he recorded with Phyllis Bryn-Julson and the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Erato 2292-45376-2). Besides the size of forces, Boulez removed the performance choices from some of the movements, making the music’s sections fixed rather than variable. Be forewarned that this new version is quite different compared to any of the previous.

Pli selon pli is Boulez’s five-movement paean to the great poet Stéphane Mallarmé, whose projected and final unfinished work, a book of poems on infinitely reconfigurable pages, was crucial to Boulez’s development as he tackled the implications of total serialism. In Pli selon pli’s earlier incarnations, Boulez allowed freedom within a set of rigorously defined paths. As a matter of some fascination, a work that was spurred by the possibility of changes has grown to be fixed and immobile.

The two outer movements, Don (gift) and Tombeau (tomb) employ the full ensemble. The interior three are for more concentrated forces centering on percussion. The voice appears in each movement, singing fragments of poems in the larger outer movements and entire poems in the interior three. It’s very hard to tell, but I think the vocal line has remained somewhat constant through all versions. In the last movement of this Pli selon pli, I hear a new fatalistic, almost apocalyptic character: With its intentional and gradual crescendo of activity and content, it’s as if Boulez is dismantling the gestures and underpinnings of the very music style he has come to represent and champion.

Frankly, my ear is used to the larger ensemble and its wide spectrum of colors. The Ensemble InterContemporain plays precisely — it is after all Boulez’s own ensemble of choice — but the performance is less sensual than the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s recording, and has a narrower dynamic range. On the other hand, Schäfer’s voice is more to the fore, smoother and more suited to Boulez’s highly ornamented vocal writing than is Bryn-Julson’s. Of course there are less than a handful of sopranos who could perform this fiendish work.

Improvisation sur Mallarmé I existed in several incarnations before it became the second movement of Pli selon pli. In the version on the Erato recording, there are two miraculous chords whose orchestration has always enamored and baffled me. They occur under the words “le cygne” (“the swan”) at the 4:40 point, and sound like cimbalom with muted horn, harp and strings. I have replayed this snippet many times in a vain attempt to figure out these fascinating sounds. Going back to a 1959 performance of the Improvisation’s original 1957 version for voice and percussion (Stradivarius STR 10028 with Eva Maria Rogner, soprano, and the Orchestra della RAI di Roma under Boulez), “le cygne” appears at 4:35 over a texture of gongs and harp, but there are no distinct chords.

In the new version on DG, “le cygne” is at 4:19: The first chord is obscured, but the second sounds clear and is held longer, though it seems to be played by muted horns only. Of course the composer can do as he wishes, and if he is Boulez then he certainly shall, but this new and possibly final version doesn’t have the same magic and mystery for me. Though I suppose I shall listen to it and wait for Boulez’s final word.

Paul LANSKY: Alphabet Book (2001). Bridge 9126 (http://www.bridgerecords.com). Also http://silvertone.princeton.edu/~paul/index.html. Distributed in the US by Albany Music Distributors (http://www.uncommonlyclassical.com/).

The alphabet with attitude. Inspired by children’s television programming, here are ten tracks of spoken letters and numbers over Lansky’s super-cool and perky computer music. Unlike other Lansky work where speech is distorted so that its message is gone, the Alphabet Book puts A to Z and a whole slew of numbers up front where you can hear them. The pieces are all basically tonal and have a beat, so this music is as approachable as you can get for electroacoustic work. Some might call it goofy or simplistic, but I think the whole package is some of Lansky’s best work in the medium.

Predictability can kill music. If someone says “A,” then “B,” then “C,” you can probably guess what comes next. Maybe you’ll be on the edge of your seat waiting to get to the inevitable Z, or bored to tears. ABC is the first work in Alphabet Book, and Lansky solves the predictability problem by varying the time between each letter. You know what is going to come next, but the distances between letters are vastly different and you’ll be listening to the spaces between rather than following along. The second piece, Countdown, does the same with numbers, but suddenly they start climbing upwards and grow larger for no apparent reason.

Other tracks in Alphabet Book take letters and numbers as a set of source sounds and treat them like musique concrète. Actually, it’s more like alphabet soup taken right from the can. The alphabet doesn’t usually appear in order, and the best Scrabble players will have trouble divining words. Um is one of the few tracks to give us A to Z in order, but the novelty is that the alphabet is spoken by computer, a Macintosh iMac on which this entire suite of works was realized.

In Pattern’s Patterns, we hear tape loops of letters and numbers with varied dynamics and panning. It’s much like observing traffic from a high vantage point and alternately counting all the red cars and then the blue cars. Towards the end of the disc the use of spoken letters and numbers is more abstract — as in Say That Again, where speech has been transformed to a rapid beating noise. As Things Were is a slow-moving lament with letters clearly spoken, but done infrequently enough that the entire string is easily lost.

This disc immediately suggested one of my all-time favorite releases that messed with language and words, Charles Amirkhanian’s Mental Radio (CRI SD 523), an LP from 1985. I hope CRI gets around to re-releasing this on CD, but in the meantime, some of the tracks are available at http://www.ubu.com/sound/amir.html.

Alphabet Book is also an enhanced CD containing three little slide-show programs by Grady Klein that run on Windows, Macintosh, and other platforms (a self-contained Macromedia Flash Player application runs the slide shows). In ABC, artistically drawn letters (a sans-serif display font with an Art Deco touch) appear in synchrony with the first track on the CD. The drawn alphabet is built from circles and lines which pulse and move to the music. Folks without computers (I can’t imagine how you’d be reading this if you don’t have one!) can see the 26 letters of ABC in the illustrated booklet. Pattern’s Patterns uses as soundtrack the same named composition and is an abstract dance of lines and ovals that resolves into coherent images, including a night scene in the woods with lonely straight road and oncoming headlights, and a cup of coffee. As a bonus, we get a short and silly animated piece for a poem by Klein’s grandmother, with Klein illustrations and Lansky music called Hannibal the Cannibal.