Of Fricatives and Plosives

Dan Albertson

[July 2009.]

[At the halfway mark of the year, I must remember several deaths among friends, Betty Freeman, Lukas Foss and Henri Pousseur, but most of all, Arlene Dudgeon, a neighbor and mentor who was never lacking in time or advice. Additional gratitude, for his enlightening and literary exchanges, goes to Georg Weis and his young Philine, the new standard-bearer of the Goethe tradition. Walt, too, deserves more credit than usual. He never gets enough! D.A.]

Mark André must be a fearless man, a true frondeur. His 2001-04 stage work …22, 13…, a Musiktheater-Passion in drei Teilen, shows no hesitation either musically or theologically. In using only a snippet from the Book of Revelation’s last chapter (“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last”), one spoken in German and/or Swedish and/or other tongues (I am not always sure!), he is knowingly ignoring the warning that comes soon after. Verse 22:19 reads: “And if anyone takes away from the words of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.”

That a composer of such unflinching austerity would focus on a simple statement of three realities, as opposed to the more numerological (666 / Number of the Beast, the multiple occurrences of septets) or fantastical (death on his pale horse, the legions of sexual deviants) elements of this text is no surprise. In fact, austerity is too slight a word for André; maybe English lacks le mot juste. Certainly, he is a composer with a vision. Rather than attempt to express the ineffable, he seems to acknowledge the inability of art to meet this challenge, leaving his singers for the most part mute, stuttering or gasping for air. His music is as inscrutable as the Book of Revelation itself. He is also unusually learned for a modern composer, with a doctoral thesis on the Ars Subtilior. His music is of the “more subtle” type, yes, and often as tinged with religious underpinnings as that of his forbears almost seven centuries ago, never more explicitly than here.

The present piece, which I suppose has no dramaturgy in the usual sense, requires two sopranos, five contraltos, four spatial ensembles, and live electronics. The overall ensemble consists of pairs of bass clarinets and bassoons, harps and celli and double basses and pianos, as well as a quartet each of trombones and percussion. Not much treble or sunshine are on offer. The ever-present Experimentalstudio der Heinrich-Strobel-Stiftung and André Richard are a factor here and the conductor at the première was Peter Hirsch, helping to ensure that the late world of Nono is never far away. The extent of the live-electronic manipulations seems quite limited, as in …auf… III.

The three parts are, typically for André, given an enigmatic nomenclature, though quite clearly linked to Rev 22:13. The first, das O, is the shortest at 20 mins., heralded by whispers and soft knocking. A growing ration of piano thuds enters the scene, but the music is slow to gain momentum. Later sounds include quasi-gamelan metallic percussion, shades of a fuzzy shortwave radio and drum ricochets, before the section expires in a haze of drums. Next is the core, das letzte, lasting almost 40 mins. and seemingly instrumental, though some whispers or breaths may be hidden. The music is immediately more strident, with the trombones suitably brash and foretelling titanic outbursts to come. I have doubts about the occasional appearance of Messiaenic cowbells, making the sound world too much like Et exspecto. To close is the half-hour das ende, commencing with both voices and instruments. The most wonderful cacophony of the 90-minute adventure is found here, as well as a tantalizing glimpse of textual comprehension: A female whispers a complete sentence, for once, but is soon drowned out by another brusque piano crash. In this work, as in Nono’s Prometeo, the text is marginal. André never requires his singers to sing, or even to speak aloud; their voices are never raised beyond a whisper or a loud breath. A linguistics student could enjoy greatly the process of assembling the catalogue of vocal production required here.

An hour and a half of such stark music could be an endurance test, and the work has its more barren stretches. A mixed success at best, though already it trumps most other contemporary attempts at theatrical music. For this reason, the piece is sure to have no future in our society of happy endings and easy access. Extraordinary in its unity and unrepentant view of apocalypse, it is a work dreamt by an imaginative mind, one not chained to compromises. I am left with more questions than answers, yet am happily befuddled.