Modernism by Necessity: Depicting the Unimaginable

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A common complaint among many listeners dipping their toes into the avant garde for the first time is, “I don’t understand why it has to be so ugly!” And it certainly isn’t an easy job explaining to them what led the composer of a piece, say, describing a beautiful landscape, or setting some well-loved lines of verse, has chosen to cram it full of dissonance. Of course, an equally common reply would include arguments somewhere along the lines of “ugliness is relative” and “you can train your ear to find beauty in just about anything”; the validity or otherwise of these responses is perhaps best left for another blog entry!

But what if the “ugliness” has been directly inspired, compelled even, by the composer’s subject-matter? What if it’s only by using such “ugliness” that he or she can even begin to process some immeasurable catastrophe or other? And what if, in doing so, the composer is actually straying outside the confines of what had hitherto been considered his or her “language” in an effort to find one that might hopefully fit 0.00001% of the bill?

Such is was the case with Masao Ohki, a composer originally inspired by Tchaikovsky. Yes, that Tchaikovsky, he of the 1812 Overture and The Nutcracker (as well as a considerable amount of more “serious stuff”). The musicologist Edward Garden memorably coined the phrase “Bellini with a Russian accent” to describe the “singing” lines often found in Tchaikovsky’s music; have a listen to the first track of the following album and see whether you agree that, if anything could be described as “Tchaikovsky with a Japanese accent”, it’s this:

Now listen to the very next track. Hard to believe it’s from the pen of the same composer, isn’t it? Upper strings hover eerily, getting nowhere fast. There are discordant interjections from the brass and woodwind that do likewise, culminating in a desolately aimless wander around the chromatic scale from a solo flute. Cellos and basses are, all of a sudden, allowed the space to spin out something that sounds like a genuine melody…but then, just as suddenly, a real cacophony erupts and, in turn, is cut off.

What could possibly have prompted this drastic stylistic swerve? By way of explanation, here are the words of Doundou Tchil of the Classical Iconoclast blog, which are much better than any I could come up with:

We take Hiroshima for granted but in 1952 Japan was still under military occupation and Japanese people weren’t allowed official news of the bombing. News leaked out as small horrible hints: people who knew people who knew first hand…Ohki’s Hiroshima Symphony is carefully constructed, as if “boxes within boxes” can make sense of the chaos…It’s a bizarrely abstract piece, strikingly modern, particularly when considering how Ohki had been cut off from western mainstream music for a good fifteen years since the Japanese regime, allied to the Nazis, suppressed “modern” music.

So modern is it, in fact, that it often seems ahead of its time. The specific movement of the work that Tchil is referring to in his third sentence is entitled Atomic Desert: Boundless desert with skulls, after one of the Marukis’ Hiroshima Panels from which the work as a whole takes both its inspiration and its structure. At the time it was written, György Ligeti was making his very first forays into the “texture” music for which he would come to earn fame/infamy, due, in part, to the soundtrack of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Ohki couldn’t possibly have known this, and yet here are the same tone clusters, glissandi (brilliantly described as “flatlining” by Tchil) and extremes of register that Ligeti counted among his compositional building blocks.

Indeed, as the symphony progresses, more and more seemingly vast acres of music are spent in a kind of stunned dissonance-stasis. Anything “conventionally” emotionally demonstrative is allowed to intrude but rarely, and even then is often callously short-changed. A clear example of this is the climax of the Boys and Girls: Boys and girls died without knowing any joy of human life and calling for their parents movement: the release that the strings have been straining towards seems to come at last in the form of the the work’s one and only unequivocal major cadence, but as it fades out the chord in which they have sought refuge reveals itself to be fatally undermined by minor thirds.

In the work’s concluding Epilogue, the longest movement by far, elements of music we have heard already have the appearance of being trapped on a Moebius band of inexpressible pain: they develop, then are juxtaposed with contrasting material again and again, inching further each time only to be dragged back with an inevitability that makes their efforts seem futile. After the low strings’ melodic “motto” sounds for the final time, what’s this we hear? Is it a low drone, perhaps providing the “closure” that has been kept at bay for over half an hour? No, our ears have deceived us one last time: it’s an agonisingly inconclusive minor second clash, fading out to nothingness, perhaps to indicate the composer’s acknowledgement that even all the “ugliness” he could muster wasn’t enough to depict the unimaginable. And maybe this one-time Tchaikovskian’s riposte if asked why his 5th Symphony had to be this way would be, “How could it be anything other?”

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Nørgård’s 3rd: Beautiful (Yes, Really) Musical Maths

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After three posts about predominantly gloomy music, I feel it’s time to make a move for sunnier climes, albeit via a return visit to Denmark. However, I also feel the need to come clean about aspects of Per Nørgård’s 3rd Symphony that have the potential to make any self-respecting Serialism-ophobe run for the hills: it makes quasi-Spectralist use of the harmonic series, and its themes, and much else besides, are generated using a mathematical formula known as the Infinity Series.

No, come back! First off, atonal this music ain’t. In fact, it never strays far from the shores of tonality – great, glowing globs of the stuff are to be found throughout, even though the symphony’s teeming, often polymetric surfaces can be uncomfortably disorientating to the uninitiated. To aid the latter, I’m now going to provide a short guided tour.


The first movement begins with low notes on two decidedly unconventional (although very important for this work’s textures) symphonic instruments, the piano and organ. Out of this begins to grow arpeggiated music based on the aforementioned harmonic series; this is what passes for the movement’s “first subject”. After a climax, these textures suddenly thin to reveal a “second subject” of sorts, based on the oscillation of adjacent intervals. These are then developed throughout the rest of the movement, swelling to another massive, and this time prolonged and unambiguously ecstatic, climax before subsiding towards quietude once more towards the end.


The concluding, massive (around 25 minutes) second movement begins similarly, with arpeggio-based themes developed for around five minutes, before giving way to an achingly pretty “second subject” introduced by, of all things, recorders. These are then joined by other instruments, and even a solo soprano, until, around the ten minute mark, a choir emerges! What are they singing? Well, a variety of texts in a variety of languages, chosen perhaps more for the effect they would have on the singers than on the listener, because, apart from a (presumably deliberately humorous) excursion into “Ha ha ha, hee hee hee”, Nørgård’s treatment of them renders very little decipherable.

And it doesn’t matter! So euphoric is what follows that the overall meaning is spelt out, and what follows is a series of choral-orchestral interludes, some bizarre (one, beginning at 11:15 in the recording I’ve linked to, will remind listeners of a certain vintage inescapably of the jazzy cantina music from Star Wars, even though it pre-dates that film by half a decade!), but many others simply gorgeous, none more so than the melting (and surprisingly quiet, given the enormous forces this piece demands) final cadence onto an open fifth.

So who is Nørgård, and how did he come to write what I’ve just described? Well, for starters, he’s arguably the most important Danish symphonist still writing today, and can trace his lineage in this respect back through his first teacher, Vagn Holmboe, to the best-known Danish composer of them all, Carl Neilsen. Born in 1932, his earliest work, such as his 1st Symphony, show clear Holmboe hallmarks, and his first move towards true indivdualism didn’t come until his 30s, when he developed the earliest form of the aforementioned Infinity Series.

Now, I happen to know of another blog post that explains said Series much better than I could (and from which I happen to have “borrowed” an image – hope that’s OK!), but I’ll condense the example given in that post down to choosing a starting note, taking a step up, taking two steps down, taking a step up from the second note, inverting the two steps down to make two steps up, taking two steps down from the third note, taking…OK, I think that’s the point where I stop everyone’s head, including my own, hurting! The resulting melody is said to be capable of being spun out to infinity, although personally I can’t see how this could ever be put to the test!

All of which sounds like a recipe for the dryest, most emotionally uninvolving music the world has yet heard, so surely it’s a testament to Nørgård’s vision and technical prowess that that’s definitely not what the listener gets. Since writing his 3rd, Nørgård has produced five more symphonies (to date!), all, to a greater or lesser degree, based around a second building-block for his distinctive style: his fascination with the quasi-fractal, order-out-of-chaos work of the schizophrenic Swiss artist Adolf Wölfli. As my hopelessly inadequate summation of Wölfli’s methods might suggest, this latter preoccuation has rendered these later works’ “message” a much knottier affair. All are well worth exploring despite, or perhaps because of, this, but my pick for the Nørgård novice would still be the work I’ve been discussing in this post, which proves in no uncertain terms that musical maths can be joyous, life-affirming – and beautiful.

Pub Rock? Run, Run, Run!

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Lest the “musical pastures” promised in this blog’s tagline be regarded as too genre-bound already, my third post will be chiefly concerned with a musical offering from an act more commonly associated with the steady-as-she-goes, we’ll-have-no-weirdness-here subgenre of popular music known as pub rock. Except that there will be off-kilter weirdness aplenty, for anyone tempted to click away from this page after reading that last sentence.

Confused? Not as confused as a listener who associates Hunters and Collectors more with such idiosyncratic, but nevertheless earnest and singalong, fare as Throw Your Arms Around Me might be, on hearing the subject-matter of this article for the first time, but, given are that the chances are anyone reading this isn’t Australasian, and therefore doesn’t associate the band with anything, I’d better move swiftly on to a little explanation…

You see, in the “Hunnas'” beginning, there were Krautrock (a rock movement as Teutonic in origin as its name suggests) and American “new wave” act Talking Heads. Now, you don’t really need to know anything about either in order to appreciate the music I’m talking about here, merely to take it on trust that they aren’t the sort of thing one often hears played in pubs. In fact, while this assertion may say more about my own lack of knowledge  (e.g. reasonable familiarity with Neu!, but only passing acquaintance with fellow Krautrock leading lights Can, and in-depth knowledge only of Talking Heads’ “greatest hits”)  than the true state of affairs, I believe that extensive research would both mislead the novice Run Run Run listener and belittle its creators’ individuality, for nothing I’ve yet encountered in any of the other music mentioned above brings with it quite the clangourous intensity with which the song begins, and which is sustained almost without break throughout.


Guitars kick things off with a skipping figure traversing the distance between G and E, followed by a few preparatory drum fills. In different hands, this might be the start of a jaunty C major ditty, but the Hunnas make it clear from the outset that there is something wrong, very wrong, with the picture: the guitars are grating and keening against each other, and if there was a button on the mixing desk where they were recorded marked “savagely sarcastic”, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest. Then the bass clinches the matter: instead of the expected C, completing a major triad, it begins seesawing away on C# and Bb/A#, resulting in an intensely uncomfortable diminished harmony that hushed chords in one of the guitars try but fail to make sense of. The beat that enters with it? Boorish and oppressive.

Once this nightmarish groove has bedded down as much as it can, singer-songwriter Mark Seymour, managing to sound both languorous and hectoring, starts up with three verses of vaguely dystopian gobbledygook, delivered admirably straight-faced; for example: “…Shake up this scribbly world/And run, run, run…He’s laughing like a doctor/But I bit his crazy mouth…Shocked as you prickle me, as you got to know too well/Too gentle you were, wise man, and I broke your holy bell…”. Twice, in the midst of all this, the bass attempts to right itself harmonically, only to undershoot a leap up to C and land in the orbit of Bb, a frantic resulting scramble leading back to C# once more; the second time this happens, the G-E figure drops out, never to return, replaced by incoherent soloing that returns at intervals throughout the rest of the song.

The two-minute-and-fifty-seven-second mark (of a nine-minute-and-fourteen-second track!) brings with it a drastic gear change, albeit one that carries more sense of resolution: the bass, joined by an ominous sounding synth, begins a slow, unceasing circle round B, F#/Gb and Eb. The vocals from hereon in consist entirely of an puzzling, intermittent group chant of “Moto, moto coda”, which in musical terms translates loosely from (presumably!) Italian as “Motion, motion of the ending” (despite this “ending” dwarfing the rest of the song) . At one point in the suddenly hypnotic fug, the beat shifts almost imperceptibly (It happens at around 5:10, by my reckoning) from a swinging 12/8 to a driving 4/4, drummer Doug Falconer soon setting up a steadily halving pattern emphasising every eighth beat, then every fourth, and so on, with mighty snare thwacks, before the texture begins to thin out gradually a minute from the end, leaving just a compressed piano to play the very last note.

What a strange and frightening journey Run Run Run has taken us on! And who cares if the Hunnas quickly moved into more commercial territory? In this they left us with something that is genuinely once heard, never forgotten. And if I ever hear tell of a pub in which music like this gets played, I’ll be there like a shot!

Nightshades and New Tonality

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I hope you will indulge what may appear to be a rapid running-out of ideas just one post into this blog: this second one is going to start out as an article about an article.

The article in question is the Gramophone piece A New Tonality, by the music journalist and improviser-pianist Philip Clark, in which he makes an ardent case for the continuing validity of tonality as a compositional technique. But not just any old tonality: not for Clark the disingenuous emotion-by-numbers “historical tonality” of John Williams, Gary Barlow, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Karl Jenkins, or even James MacMillan (be warned: Clark pulls no punches with anyone he perceives as having the slightest whiff of cynical populism about them). Nor does he have much truck with music that he feels adopts one or two tropes of tonality to keep the punters happy while doing its best to wriggle out of engaging seriously with them (MacMillan again, Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Violin Concerto, the chromatic, will-fit-any-chord-progression runs that many latter-day jazz musicians learn by rote). Instead, he dreams of:

A mad soup of tonal harmony; clear cut but unstable…[which] can express statements that are beautifully simple but also has embedded inside its marrow the seeds of its own inevitable sorry destruction…a tonality that is about tonality and its history; a tonality that looks beyond tonality, a Meta-Tonality that can be raw and demonstrative, that has scope to be filtered and sieved through processes that reveal its inner mechanics.

Clark further argues that…

…tonal music composed after that point in time when tonality hit the buffers, if it is to own itself, ought to be a journey through the ruins. Many composers preaching tonality as their credo run scared from confronting tonality’s tick-tock brink of self-destruct – arguably the most creatively salient thing about tonality – and have only nostalgia to fall back on…

…before concluding:

[we] need to be open to hearing this new tonality. It isn’t going to sound like the old tonality, and that’s fine – too much whining about new music is based on little more than ‘it doesn’t resemble the music I already like’. As mainstream pop, and what continues to pass for ‘New Music’, uses less tonality more cynically, there’s space for a new breed of composer interested in using more tonality, more pointedly to fill that gaping vacuum.

Throughout his article, and particularly at the end, Clark offers suggestions as to the kinds of piece and composer that he has in mind. I haven’t got round to listening to any of these yet (so much online music, so little time…!), but I recently stumbled across music which I felt fitted the bill nicely while revisiting an album that I hadn’t really paid attention to first time around: Nightshade Trilogy, by Poul Ruders.

The name is a reference to Atropa Belladonna, the Deadly Nightshade, although I suspect it was chosen more for the potential it holds for disturbing connotations than because of anything to do with the plant itself. Ruders conceived Nightshade as three separate, albeit related, pieces; it’s therefore best thought of, not as a whole, but in the same way one would regard a literary trilogy: the setting is similar, and many of the characters are the same, but each story is different from the others.

 

From the outset, it’s clear that, while Ruders has a close relationship with tonality, it’s a somewhat tempestuous one. Various instruments may be playing a perfectly consonant major-second oscillation (if the three pieces can be said to share a unifying “motto“, this is it), but what does it mean? Is the lower note the tonic, or the upper, or do both notes have a different function within the prevailing “key” altogether? Contrapuntal blurring of the initial consonance doesn’t help matters, and, gradually, other musical patterns steal in, each seemingly intent on muddying the issue still further: a skittering figure in the woodwinds here, slow chromatic descents or ascents in the brass or strings there, sharp brass punctuations somewhere else again. A preoccupation with each instrument’s extremes of range cements the atmosphere of unease, even dread.

The overall effect is of music constantly oozing, or, to borrow a term from Clark (used in a derogatory way to describe the Salonen, but I don’t see why it can’t also be put to positive use!), slithering between keys, with tonalities allowed to swim into and out of focus. In lesser, more “mechanical” hands, this might quickly become wearing, but Ruders seems to have a Feldmanesque knack for organic, even instinctive timing that constantly wrongfoots the listener, who is left not quite knowing what to expect next.

This is never more apparent than during moments of would-be repose or rumination, such as the brass chorale (whose solemnity is able to withstand the tonal ants in its ostensibly minor-key pants) that kicks in ten minutes and forty-four seconds into The Second Nightshade, and steadfastly insists on all but seeing it out despite the ever-present, disruptive “noises off”, or the quasi-Mahlerian string threnody that forms the Final Nightshade‘s near-obsessive focus. The latter ends in a way that both ties up what has gone before and makes it clear that there is no ready escape from the “mad soup” that Ruders has created, with the harmony caught in the mesh of tonalities that had been suggested by that opening oscillation.

I finish by praying your indulgence a second time: I confess that I can recall no biographical details for Ruders, nor do I have any real knowledge of the rest of his output to speak of; I therefore can’t say how representative what I’ve described here is of the man and his music (and am hoping that someone will post a comment rectifying this state of affairs!). I also can’t discount the possibility that Clark himself would summarily lump it in with the efforts of MacMillan, Salonen and the jazz-by-numbers crew; after all, I may have misconstrued what he was getting at. But for now, at least, I’m satisfied that I’ve found my New Tonality – and it’s Nightshade-shaped!

The Other Boulanger Girl

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It starts, appropriately enough, in the depths. Among the first sounds heard are a bass drum and low organ chords, then a solo tuba and cello pick out a despondent, plainchant-like theme, followed by an eerie horn and organ chord that doesn’t belong in any key, a snarling drumroll, and a double bass, cello and sarrusophone* arpeggio that, likewise, leads nowhere. A solo trombone joins now-massed tubas and cellos for a repeat of the theme, to much the same response, a brief afterthought from woodwinds failing lift the gloom.

* an instrument unknown to me until I happened to examine the score, I must confess!

Violins in canon attempt to take the arpeggio idea and run with it, but false relations mar their progress almost from outset, and, after a brief struggle to establish a key they can agree on, they plunge back downwards to join with other instruments in an irresolute minor/major oscillation. A striving, dotted-note figure in the trumpets leads to the first tutti, at which point the pace quickens and the ideas we have heard so far are jostled between sections of the orchestra for bar after bar, only slowing, with a massive climax and decrescendo, to allow the brass to intone the “plainchant” hollowly and the choir to enter, unison, with “Du fond de l’abîme je t’invoque, Iahvé/Adonaï, ecoute ma prière!” (“From the depths of the abyss I cry to you, Lord/Lord, hear my prayer!”).

All of which intense, but necessary, jargon-fest covers less than five minutes of music, or less than a fifth of the total length of, Lili Boulanger’s setting of Psalm 130, often referred to by its Latin name, De Profundis. These are minutes of haunting power, whose surefootedness in both message and means seems all the more startling when one considers that their composer was barely into her twenties when she wrote them.

 

Actually, tragically, she was not much further into her twenties when she died from Crohn’s disease, then untreatable. In March 1918, the First World War, at the time the closest approximation, in living memory at least, to Hell on Earth, if not the Apocalypse itself, still had months to play out. It was Alex Ross who introduced me to De Profundis, via his www.therestisnoise.com blog, and in his words it “stands as a memorial to the terrible war whose end she did not live to see”.

Anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with mid-20th century American composers (your Aaron Coplands, Roy Harrises and Elliot Carters) will doubtless have encountered the name of the renowned music teacher Nadia Boulanger, Lili’s elder sister, who gives the appearance of having tutored the lot of ‘em at one point or another! But Lili, perhaps owing to her “early death…at the age of twenty-four, [which] was one of the great losses of musical history” (Ross again), remained in her sister’s shadow throughout those decades, most of her tiny oeuvre sinking further and further into obscurity. De Profundis, however, seems to never to have lost its toehold in the repertoire – and with good reason.

Marie-Juliette Olga Lili Boulanger was a prodigy in a way that few other composers besides Mozart have been. She was born in August 1893 in Paris, to musical (and aristocratic Russian, on her mother’s side) parents whose friends included none other than Gabriel Fauré, of Requiem ubiquity. It was he who chanced upon her perfect pitch just two years later. Before seeing five years of age, she had already experienced the inside of the Paris Conservatory, having gatecrashed 10-year-old Nadia’s classes there. Tuition in music theory, the organ, singing, the piano, the violin, the cello and the harp followed in quick succession.

She entered the Prix de Rome as a performer in 1912, but illness cut her attempt on that competition short. Undeterred, she returned the following year, aged nineteen, and won, this time with a composition, the cantata Faust et Hélène. In so doing, she not only became the first female composer-recipient of the prize, but also succeeded where Nadia had failed on four occasions. The latter, who would proclaim her little sister’s compositional superiority over her until her own dying day, subsequently switched her energies to Lili’s musical voice for the latter’s handful of remaining years.

And what a striking voice it was! Echoes of Fauré and Debussy will be heard by anyone listening for their influence, but also plenty that’s iify ndefinably but undeniably Boulanger’s alone. One of her final pieces is a Pie Jesu (Pious Jesus) for voice, strings, harp and organ, a setting of part of the Requiem Mass conceived as a self-requiem. Here, the accompaniment chromatically gropes upwards and sinks downwards, as if itself on its deathbed and marshalling its remaining strength to say what cannot be left unsaid.

 

The prematurity of Boulanger’s own end she seems to have accepted, even anticipated, from an early age. Rather than being crushed by this knowledge, though, she appears to have been spurred on to work and create as much as she could in the time that she had, for the greater good of humanity; this included helping with the running of a charity she and her sister had established for soldiers who were former musicians. Her last words to her loved ones before dying were, “I offer to God my sufferings so that they may shower down on you as joys.”

I’ve sometimes been known to spend an idle moment wondering what she would have made of the fact that the disease which killed her decades before her time can, less than 100 years later, be successfully managed, its sufferers even living largely “normal” lives. Perhaps her response would conform to the French cliché: a Gallic shrug and a wry smile. But maybe that would be to do a disservice to her zeal and generous-heartedness; I prefer to imagine her turning her eyes skywards and offering thanks for her fellow invalids’ deliverance “from the depths of the abyss”.