Archive for February, 2010

I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change

February 19, 2010

Theodor Adorno suggested in his Mahler: A Musical Physiognomy that ‘change is the agent of hope in Mahler’. Mahler’s ideas and syntax are so denuded of synthesis, so locked into dissimulation and fragmentation (especially in the ‘Low’ movements), that the frequent, shocking insistence on sudden change both within and across movements ruptures the pantaphobic glamour with agency, and life. Mahlerian form seems an antigram of integration, yet if one is attentive, shards of hope and joy leap out in the hammer blows and antic tempi of the forms. With harmonic rhythm and accent flowing over bar lines, and scoring likewise bleeding over itself in the deliberate dream-confusion of tone, the finale of Das Lied von der Erdre appears an index of just such hope. Similarly, the confused torrent of its penultimate movement. Change is the quality other composers seek to streamline, or erase, even in their adherence to blind difference across traditional forms. In Mahler, change is made the life-force of the art.

Mahler’s greatest attraction lies in the ineffability that his music creates by suggesting all along in its form and its deliquescence the promise of death, but then delivering it at the close, only curiously alive (cf. the Ninth Symphony). Something cannot tell of death so vividly without paradox. ‘Nothing is truer than allegory’ wrote Catherine Breillart, and in this case the apparent pull of death in Mahler’s muse is indeed betrayed by the vivification of its tale.

Go here to read my full review of Dietrich Henschel and Tom Randle, under the direction of Hartmut Haenchen, just about managing to marshall all these energies into a convincing account of Das Lied this evening in Brussels.

The Young Cricketer

February 12, 2010

“There is this quality, in things, of the
right way seeming wrong at first.”

Performance and Philosophy in Barenboim

February 12, 2010

Daniel Barenboim expounds a compelling vision of performance in his writings. Likewise in his music. Time and event can’t be taken for granted: each arc of melody and fall of chord must have justification within the context of performance, and each swell and sap should exert their power slowly, with conviction. Music is in a constant state of resolving its ontology, in a constant state of Adornian becoming. Musical forms offer the experience of allegorical and aesthetic death. In the rise and fall of each Bach Fugue of the 48, in the kairos and ultimate decay of Beethoven symphonies, in the fragmentation of Boulezian gesture, we are given the opportunity to transcend profane time and experience a higher order of life and death. Human beings can, in Barenboim’s eyes, live a thousand times, learning to die each time in preparation for their real, mortal death.

For Barenboim, music can’t be separated from life: musical discipline and compositional organisation form direct homology with those of the social, in fact cross over from homology into a singularity with the forms of life. Everything is Connected, goes his book, and in his performances each gesture, each inflection, asks anew: why is there not silence in place of this sound?

The Infernal Desire Machine of Mr. Metheny

February 10, 2010

So, the Orchestrion. Pat Metheny — that purveyor of sucrose-tasteful latin jazz/post-bop fusion whom we can’t easily dismiss nevertheless — has recently been auditioning said device to fans and the curious alike on YouTube, on the homonymous album, and in concert. Named for a nineteenth century hybrid instrument which similarly aimed for unilateral orchestral simulation, the orchestrion consists of about fifty separate sound-producing entities, which are operated via electromagnetic solenoids  programmed in different sequences according to trigger. These actuate either a pneumatic or hydraulic valve, which in turn strike or blow, and then dampen, the vessels. Depending on selections made via foot-operated solenoids/DSPs, Metheny can himself trigger loops and/or unison accompaniments (which accords with his favoured style of orchestration). For the sake of pragmatism, these sorts of operations are restricted in concert, being extensively used only on the demonstrative improvisations Metheny performs. The array of instruments is dominated by tuned and untuned percussion, including vibes, disklavier, congas, bass and acoustic ‘botguitars’, cymbals, marimbas, and shakers, but also includes two sets of bottle-organs. These latter are, simply, sets of precisely tuned glass bottles with pneumatic tubing attached at their top to produce sound. The chromaticism and extended resonances of the bottle-organs add flavour and diversity to the tone colour of the array.

The orchestrion feels in practice like an electroacoustic hyper-sampler, seemingly ridiculous for its flouting of digital technology but mechanically and musically impressive nonetheless. The operations of its many algorithms come off without a hitch, with colour and weight precisely calibrated to fit with those of Metheny’s swashbuckling lead. Swing does not, even, stand in abeyance: numerous passages of dextrous play stack up beside lyric moments of rest and convincing passages of build and decay, with machinic rust only in evidence on occasional transitions, in the sometimes heavy plod of bass and piano, and in the obvious lack of balance in vamp-solo for orchestrion-Metheny. The material itself is what one expects: extended tonality and Latinite percussive effects sifted through hints of bop and freebop modernism in the forms and metrics, all of it sweetened by regular diversions into an easy-on-the-ear lyricism which aims for elegy, but often falls a little short. Folk and Reichian-patterns enrich the flow, on occasion.

But, still, why? The digitisation of musical process casts such an endeavour in the light of nostalgia, a charge buttressed by the comparative mildness of Metheny’s muse itself. The achievement is (largely) mechanical in an age of cybernetic advance. Yet the gain that is had from the live, acoustic production of sound as against the electronic reproductions of a backing track are obvious. A strong element of indeterminacy also deepens the palette; jangling shakers do just that in mid-air, whilst the overtones of the marimbas and vibes are often left to accumulate before they are dampened for the next attack. Clearly an actual band of human beings would, in a sense, be more pliant and flexible, but in terms of conception and execution, the orchestrion must be deemed a (whimsical) success. And as a sheer construction, the orchestrion on stage (where it has to be stacked in a bank like a wall of amplifiers, with pianos, vibes, marimbas and bottle-organs just in front), looks amazing. The tricksy visual conceit enabled by the neat ploy of having little neon lights flash on each instrument as it sounds works wonderfully; you watch the dance of lights notate strange musical labours, and wonder at the mad thrill of it all.

Thrills don’t necessarily come separate from folly, though, and Metheny’s orchestrion should be seen in line with the nineteenth century folly; simulacra for ornament’s sake. Like Japanese Bunraku, Metheny’s orchestrion separates out action, gesture, and effect, whilst asking us to believe as much in their unity as in their autonomy. The machine simulates multiplicity just as it celebrates singularity. Metheny’s half-anthropomorphic, half-fetishised stance towards its cogs and its phonics performs the confusion we all feel in its audience. Despite these clashing codes, though, the machine soars in its role as a sound-producing device.  The possibilities of the orchestrion are boundless, particularly, I imagine,  if it fell into the hands of one more inclined to serration than sugar, scrutiny than sustenance. For that’s the greatest disappointment of the thing: Metheny’s method has changed, explosively so, but the music remains the same. You wonder, what was the point of all that? If the end result is largely the same, why use up all that time and money? Perhaps next time Metheny will spring from his desires a more bold future-mechanical music than he has here.

Music as Speculative Realism

February 9, 2010


“A hill without a name, veiled in morning mist”

Distance and Rest, from Japan to the West

February 4, 2010

Toshio Hosokawa’s music — like his countryman Toru Takemitsu before him — fixates on Japanese gesture, but filters Western tensions of form and language, for a potent mix. Glacial time and timbre derived from Noh meet the opacity of haiku on the music’s curving surfaces, whilst Ligeti and Lindberg bubble in the background, thrusting forward at the most unexpected of moments. Meaning is elusive in Hosokawa, as it is in Basho; both are content to state, but not pierce, the syntax of their thoughts. In Hosokawa, though, the ellipses turn just a little, and proffer at least a little art.

Like Hosokawa, Mozart is always supple in his forms and his gestures, always surprising, never rote (or, at least, rote to the point you begin to doubt, and then cunning in revolt). The two, along with youthful Beethoven in a charming mood, made for compelling bedfellows in the concert of wind music I heard this evening at the Royal Brussels Conservatory. Performers were the confident and charged Bläserensemble Sabine Meyer, who, refreshingly, always make a point of commissioning or sourcing new works for wind ensemble, alongside exculpations of long forgotten music from the dusty drawers of composers past. Go here for my full review.