Sofia Gubaidulina Premiere and Scary Music

You know those times when you are made viscerally scared by a piece of music? I remember back when I was a big black metal fan, in my teenage years, I found the scariness of the music intoxicating. I’m not sure if the music is intrinsically scary. Certainly, if you listen to it very impassively, the music can sound silly — indeed, the line between what’s scary and what’s silly can be a faint one. But if you listen to black metal conscious of the dozens of church burnings, the numerous murders, the pseudo-ritualistic violent imagery, you’re likely to find the music at least a bit scary.

There is a Norweigan black metal ‘singer’, Gaahl, who infamously tortured a man in apparent ‘self-defence’ by first beating him, then collecting his blood in a cup. He did this while wearing a satanic garb and threatening to sacrifice him. The lenient Norwegian system gave him only a year in jail and a fine. This was far from the only offence he or his fellow band-members committed. In a 2004 show in Krakow a band Gaahl fronted, Gorgoroth, used nude models on crucifixes, some eighty litres of sheep blood, and sheep’s heads on stakes. These violated Polish laws against animal cruelty and religious offence. I’ll let you make your mind up whether it’s scary or silly, or both:

(He’s still a popular black metal figure today, and there’s an interesting, though somewhat over-the-top, half-four Vice documentary on him.)

Now, years later, that music has no hold on me, thank goodness. I have different values and different ears. What frightens me now is Sofia Gubaidulina’s music, whose work, for all the magnificence in it, has a sense of creeping darkness, and of constant battle. Her music is sublime, in the most religious sense — it’s scary because of the mystery in what it represents, and the intimidating musical language she uses to represent it. She is among the great twentieth-century Christian composers from the Soviet Union, from Arvo Part to Schnittke to Penderecki, whose faith was a profound and brave contrast to the totalitarian society in which they lived. Gubaidulina faced opposition from Tikhon Khrennikov, First Secretary of the Union of Soviet Composers, who labelled her an ‘undesirible’ composer for her aesthetic and religious qualities. Offertorium, the 1980 violin concerto which gave her worldwide recognition, had to be smuggled into the West for violinist Gidon Kremer to perform, himself unpopular with the regime for his refusal to return to the Soviet Union.

This is all a roundabout way of getting to the news that a new work by Gubaidulina, her Triple Concerto for Violin, Cello, Bayan and Orchestra, was premiered by the Boston Symphony. One of the odd things about Gubaidulina’s music is how it can be borderline atonal in a way that sounds tonal. In this work, the opening notes on the cello are from the minor pentatonic scale. When she breaks with the scale, it’s by using a major third in a way that sounds faintly bluesy. After that you hear the signature chromatic ascents and descents of Gubaidulina’s music and the long glissandi — attempts to climb towards divinity, perhaps. There’s a terribly exciting bit at 18:19 (video below) on the bayan, a Russian accordion, that sounds like panicked breath exploding into a chromatic scream, with a long but frantic glissando descent. The main chromatic theme, heard frequently, is particularly memorable, perhaps owing to its easy symmetry — 1,2,3 ¦ 3,2,1 — although inverted and ornamented and contorted throughout. And with familiar arpeggios hovering above the dissonance, and familiar melodic leaps of tritones and fifths, the piece is much less incomprehensible than it ought to be. Perhaps this is the benefit of modernist music rooted in something more than abstraction. (Gubaidulina, however, identifies her music as ‘archaic’ not modernist.)

Anyway, those are my meagre thoughts on the piece. Well worth a listen:

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Reinbert de Leeuw — Der Nächtlige Wanderer (‘The Night Wanderer’)

Review of Prom 26 concert with Oliver Knussen and the BBC Symphony Orchestra

The Night Wanderer is a huge nocturnal landscape, with an orchestra of over a hundred. There was even with a small ensemble camped up in the gallery, and a trumpet in one of the boxes. Half way through the work a man with a mallet twice his size started bashing a giant bit of wood. And earlier on there’s a magnificent antiphonal section where four players, on opposite sides of the stage, clapped their slapsticks noisily.

It was quite an experience, needless to say. An immersive, impressionistic symphonic poem that defies comparison. But it’s the kind of thing one can expect from a composer like Reinbert de Leeuw.

He seems to be a typical 60s era rebel, but the kind of equal opportunity rebel one can’t help but respecting, having taken on both the traditionalist and avant garde establishments. No doubt I have some philosophical differences with the chap, but I can’t help but be charmed, especially after reading this by cellist Zoe Martlew:

One of the original bad boys of Dutch new music in the 60s, Reinbert de Leeuw, along with fellow new mu rabble rouser Louis Andriessen initiated a now-famous riot at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam by setting off a bunch of clacking clockwork frogs and other percussive distractors during a concert of Mozart in an attempt to shake up the stultifying musical establishment of the time. Since then, de Leeuw has continued to stoke the flame of musical innovation as pianist, conductor, composer, programme planner and organiser of the highest calibre

I would have wanted to throttle him were I an audience member, but viewed from a good historical distance, I find it really quite amusing.

On top of all that, he’s done some excellent recordings of Erik Satie works alongside soprano Barbara Hannigan. In the late sixties he set up the Dutch Charles Ives Society and co-wrote a biography (sadly not translated) of the great man. Being an Ives partisan myself, I naturally admire him for that.

Anyway, onto the concert. The Night Wanderer is an odd work, based on an enigmatic poem of the same name. The poem is actually read out later in the work. In fact, recordings are used throughout, starting with the opening, faint sound of a barking dog. But the moment when the poem is read is undoubtedly the most effective. A deep, gravelly, whispering voice reads it slowly; the orchestra interrupt once with a screeching, powerful chord. Then after, the orchestra crescendo on these dissonant chords, playing to a steady, throbbing pulse.

But it ends unsatisfyingly, returning to quiet. It is, in a sense, an anticlimactic work. It hits louds moments, for sure, and moments like this imply climax even if it’s never realised. But this is why it’s such a frightening work, an ever weirder walk into the unknown. Anything could happen, even though it never quite does. The piece ends where it begins, with the distant sound of a dog barking.

Listening for a second time, today, via the Radio 3 recording, I found the piece no less tense. The recording is certainly not adequate — it is a challenge to convey the use of space in stereo — but I was surprised not to find the piece irritating on second listen. I somewhat expected to grow weary of the lack of clear direction, the very deliberate ambiguity. I didn’t. I was even surprised at how memorable some of the sections were, particularly a powerful rising violin melody.

(An aside, apparently the work used variation quotations, including by the likes of Galina Ustvolskaya. I suspect, though I may well be wrong, that I heard a partial quotation of Ives’ The Unanswered Question, which is the ultimate statement of uncertainty and ambiguity.)

My hands want to type the word ‘masterpiece’, but being in that fertile stage, wherein one has only recently discovered a love for classical music, I am quite aware of how excitable I can be.

Praise must be given Oliver Knussen for his precise and confident conducting. I tremble to consider how challenging it must be to conduct a work like that, where you not only have a large orchestra in front of you but offstage musicians on the other end of the hall and recordings to play alongside. But Knussen was masterly, of course.

Both Knussen and de Leeuw strike me as wonderful characters too. Knussen with his wintry beard and flame-pattern walking stick (a closet House fan, perhaps?), and de Leeuw, a very slight man, with his floppy hair and drooping moustache.

The audience fuelled my misanthropy somewhat, though. I direct my ire particularly towards whoever started clapping before the piece ended.

But what a place to see it like the Albert Hall — and why on earth can’t there be more like this at the Proms?

James MacMillan — Since it was the day of Preparation…

mi0004072841I’m loath to review music because of how difficult it is to describe, especially as a layperson. Yet in this work composer James MacMillan has taken on the opposite challenge: how to explain one of the most remarkable and confounding texts through music. Somehow, he does so with incredible clarity and majesty, in what is one of the greatest sacred works in decades.

Since it was the day of Preparation… depicts the burial and Resurrection of Christ, and the sightings and miracles that came after. I find it a difficult biblical passage to comprehend. What are we to make of the fact that so many miracles were left untold, for instance? The Gospel of John, from which the words are taken, ends incredibly: ‘But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written’. As if the story up to that point were not mysterious enough.

I say this as someone who is yet unable to believe in God. The Resurrection is perhaps an even stranger story to me, then, as it’s so outside the secular world I live in. But it is through music like this that I find myself tentatively rediscovering Christianity, or at least desiring it, having been born into a kind of limp, undefined Catholicism. This is what music is best at — conveying and compelling one towards the mysterious.

MacMillan has said that it is a stranger narrative than the Passion, and that for this reason the music had to be stranger. But this doesn’t mean the music is weirdly dissonant, as one might expect. Rather, it owes its strangeness to the odd instrument choices, and the beauty that comes from them. 

This is because the ensemble is surprisingly intimate for a story so great. Indeed, it’s the most miraculous of stories, yet the music is the opposite of what you’d expect: a small ten-person ensemble rather than an impressive orchestra. The instruments, performed by the Hebrides Ensemble, are a peculiar mixture: cello, clarinet, horn, harp and theorbo (a type of lute with a longer neck and, thus, a greater range). In addition there are five solo voices. The performance is remarkable, with an especially powerful performance by bass Brindley Sherratt, whose awesome vocals make it impossible for you to mistake them as anything other than the voice of Christ.

There are moments of astounding beauty, more so than any other work I’ve heard by Macmillan. Rather than flood the screen with adjectives, I’ve embedded an excerpt from the work. Christ is singing, telling Mary Magdalene to return to the disciples and tell them of his Resurrection. Notice how Christ is ‘haloed’ by the bells. When he first appears Christ twice sings a minor seventh interval — F to Eb — as he does here. Later, when appearing to the disciples, Christ instead holds a single note — D — but with the accompaniment playing D to G#, a tritone, or the so-called ‘devil’s note’. It demonstrates the Burkean idea that fear and the sublime are bound together eternally. Anyway, here’s the clip:

So few instruments, yet so much sound.

Every other movement of the work is an interlude, sometimes played by the five instruments or, more frequently, by a solo instrument. These are sort of like cadenzas, wild and virtuosic moments for each instrument. But each one is much more than an extravagant solo. The accompanying notes in the CD describe them ‘as monologues, or perhaps soliloquies; at all events, they provide extended points of deep reflection, both musical and theological, on the unfolding of the story’. The most beautiful of these is the harp, which follows when Mary Magdalene sees Christ, alive, outside his tomb. It wrenches at many dissonances, then the confusion and anguish passes and the simple, soothing melody from the last movement is played: Jesus is alive, and the mourning is over.

The piece ends in A minor, what always sounds to me, perhaps superstitiously, as the purest key. I often see it called the ‘natural’ minor, the sixth mode of C major. The music fades on a single note of A. Both mysterious and simple simultaneously.

I’ve listened to it several items this week, and am beginning to see it as a masterpiece. Even if that is too strong, this is undoubtedly MacMillan at his best. Recently he wrote a brilliant essay on the quest to rediscover the sacred in modern music. In this piece, he may have found it.

John Luther Adams: Become Ocean

Perhaps it’s a bias I have, but I while I don’t mind atonal music being melody-less, I struggle with tonal music that doesn’t even have fragments of a melody. Such music is among the most minimal in minimalism, and tends to test even a patient person like myself. Become Ocean suffers from exactly this problem.

Some background: John Luther Adams is a minimalist composer (or post-minimalist or, God forbid, neoconservative post-minimalist — it’s easy to lose track). I am not, I must admit, all that familiar with his work. In an attempt to better acquaint myself, I sat down tonight and listened to Become Ocean, an award-winning work and perhaps his most discussed.

In the work, Adams has created a vast ocean that’s entirely lifeless. A 40 minute palindrome, the harp plucks away arpeggios, and on all other instruments the notes seem to last never less than a breve, with the occasional crescendoing, tidal chords overwhelming it all. In some ways a vast empty ocean is all the more apocalyptic. Indeed, he is quite likely making a political statement about rising sea levels and the loss of ocean life, as he is well known to be a passionate environmentalist. But listening to the music I was overcome less by fear or sadness than by boredom.

Had I written it (and yes, that’s a big ‘if’), I might have included half-melodic, half-textural snatches of sea life. Maybe that’s too much of a ‘simple gesture’, but the piece otherwise feels so empty.  Or alternatively I would have truncated the last two-thirds and compacted the first third. I don’t think shortening the piece would at all detract from its subtle, inter-weaving musical patterns; if anything it would draw attention to them. Compared to Debussy’s much dynamic (and indeed shorter, yet more substantive) musical depiction of the ocean, La Mer, which came over a century earlier, I must say my instinct is to think of Become Ocean as an over-hyped step back.

I was really hoping to find something compelling within its vastness. Maybe you will like it much more than me: