Daniel Goode

Composer & Performer

Category: Essay

“L’Amour de Loin” opera by Kaija Saariaho in HD screening

Gorgeous, beautiful, moving! Just to start with: the set by Robert LePage represents the sea with wall-to-wall horizontal strings of LED lights flecked with sprays of lighting changes. Glittering minimalism at its best. The characters play in between the rows of lights. The story makes the sea a central character. It separates and then unites the lovers.

I’m going to be able to cut corners on facts because of Alex Ross’s excellent review(s) in the New Yorker. I’m sure the NYTimes has good stuff to google also.

So Saariaho. She’s Finnish and 64. She’s so good it’s almost scary!  Most contemporary opera never gets to this level. And she’s the first woman opera composer at the Met since Dame Ethyl Smythe in 1903. I just learned that Smythe’s  opera was on a double-bill. But this is opera about a troubadour where the love story is actually moving, the physical encounter at the end though limited, is passionate and sexy. The death of the hero—this time, unlike so many opera deaths—from illness at sea is reasonable in Medieval times. She’s a “countess” (Susanna Phillips) and a fabulous, passionate creature who comes alive both to the fantasy of the hero from across the Mediterranean, and the real one in the flesh, The troubadour is a powerful baritone with a tenor upper range (Eric Owens). The Pilgrim is the only other character, genderless, but beautifully sung by Tamara Mumford. She’s the go-between for the lovers.

Yes, Wagner’s Tristan…, Yes, also Debussy’s Palleas…”  and also the neoclassical revivals of “antiquity” by Lully and Gluck and others. The chant-like chorus emerges importantly as a part of the feel of antiquity. But Saariaho is her own person. The libretto in French is syllabic (one note per syllable). That makes it declamatory. It’s delivered almost entirely in a double-gapped scale (larger than one step between consecutive scale notes, like the “harmonic minor” but with a second gap earlier in the scale).

I found this an over-used device that made the singing feel contricted by the scale, though the singers worked against it. And the wonderful mid-views and close-ups possible in the movie theater created so much drama, character and emotion that it hardly mattered in the end. The camera was active without being intrusive. The sound was excellent at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center. This is an amazing medium for opera. What will it do to the Met live performances? Well, that’s their problem. They must reduce Met ticket prices at least.

I’m still bothered and always will be by the opera singer’s vibrato, especially in this case by the baritone. In the close-ups of the Pilgrim, you could see her lower jaw vibrating to create the vibrato. Less so with the lead soprano. Whenever a “straight” tone emerged, I was enlivened. A mixture is what one hopes for.

More has to be said of the cluster-y, drone-using orchestral harmony. Vocal pitches are almost always embedded someplace in the orchestra texture. Sometimes, as in the ending, a very persuasive bass tone underlies a tonal center. At other times the texture with filigrees of solo instruments takes over, and a kind of pan-everything pleasurable sound suffuses us.

Thumbnail Review No. 50

Advertisements

Ostinato Hungarica: Ligeti played by Kigawa at LPR last night

All eighteen of his Etudes for Piano, composed between 1985 and 2001. A tour de force of composition, and of pianism by Taka Kigawa. Several of them played from memory. Most read from huge cardboard paste-ups. No page turns! The notes must be very small and the pianist, very good eyesight. I’ve been an admirer of Ligeti since the days of LPs. I have many. I should look at his notation. But Taka carries away the huge cardboard paste-ups after each of the three sets.

I’m amazed by what I’m hearing. Speechless, but I would like to say something. Rather bland words below. Add color!

Up the piano it went.

Down the piano it went.

In the middle of the piano it stayed. Then up, then down. To the top. To the bottom. Bam! Tonal? No, but something like it. (Schoenberg said there was no such thing as atonal.)

Fast, faster and fastest it went. Then faster. Loud, loudest. Terribly soft. Terrific activity then over, there’s another layer, low, softer, slowly ending underneath. That happened again in another etude. And again. Is there another way of listening to this? Should a “Schenker diagram” be forming in my head? N/A.

Dreamy slower, but never too slow. Suddenly come in some irregular accents. Dream is over. Louder, much. Regular accents, violent, but not for long. Nothing too long. This is Europe, not the U.S.

Why do I think that this piano converts everything into 19th Century music? It’s not the pianist. He’s doing more than just his job. Still, I think: Chopin, Liszt (that other Hungarian). Debussy. But how can this be since the program notes by Taka Kigawa  tell us of the fantastic numerical and rhythmic facts about the pieces. Algorithms gone wild. Or maybe semi-wild—”poly” is just not strong enough a word for these rhythms. Super-Poly? Is my impression of the Romantic era because of the pedaling? and is that Ligeti’s or Kigawa? Seems right for the material. Not too much. Just enough. So, why? Should the touch be more “mechanical?” That seems wrong. So, why?

Poetic titles: L’escalier du diable, Vertige, A bout de souffle, White on White, Automne å Varsovie—is this last an in-joke about the Warsaw Autumn Festival, or composed for it?

I notice the pianist’s frequent use of the soft pedal—for all soft passages. Yes, I can hear the difference. I like the sound. Is it in the score? or is it the pianist’s decisions? (Should I ask him, I think afterwards. But there’s a line.)

I’m in the front row of tables. Across the table is the NY TImes music critic. I ask him if he’s going to write about it (I saw him scribbling in tiny red handwriting). He says: yes.

In Wednesday’s edition. I’ll get it. It’s a big crowd at LPR. They are enthusiastic. So am I. I try my “bravo” whistle at the end, but it doesn’t come out. Wet my fingers?

I’m weary. So much effort by these tours de force dazes me. Maybe I need a drink?… Oh, I already had a drink, Le Poisson Rouge requires it.

Do I like the music? That almost seems superfluous.

And I really don’t  know.

Maybe I’ll know in a week or two. Or more. If yes to like, could it be like a lot  Maybe admire is safe. Respect? No problem. But like? That’s the issue, isn’t it? To have on that desert island with you. And what about love, need? Another thumbnail for that. And another for the issues that lie behind this post.

Thumbnail Review No. 49

 

Polansky’s Three Pieces for Two Pianos

It’s hard to know where to start with Larry Polansky’s new Three Pieces for Two Pianos. There are more than three pieces on the New World CD, and they are not all for two pianos. But let’s say we start in the middle, with the third of the three pieces which Michael Winter rightly calls, in his excellent liner notes, an “epic.” Or, on the other hand, let’s jump in with the next track, Old Paint, a rather sad folk song that was sung to me as a child by Tony Kraber, actor and folksinger, at our school fair.

It is sung softly to us here by the young, talented pianist, Rory Cowal, too soft to hear the words, but with the slow swinging rhythm of the original which acts like a baby’s crib for the song, cradling it in a bath of non-related piano tones. So beautiful! Half-way through I started to sing softly with Rory, even though I don’t remember most of the words. It was more than an exercise in nostalgia—though that is the sentiment of the song about leaving a favorite horse and his home town of Cheyenne. It’s a piano piece that just moves you in a slow triple rhythm.

So on to the epical third movement of the Three PIeces for Two Pianos, played by such sensitive pianists, Marilyn Nonken and Joseph Kubera. Like many of his pieces this one begins softly, poignantly, only to betray that mood gradually with an outpouring of wonderful “cacophony.” Caused apparently by what  I’d like to call Larry Polansky’s “irrational canons.” They quickly stream into a low bass-register stream, and into at least one stream in the treble range. The ear tends to simplify at least in early hearings, so I’m saying one treble stream for now. Larry has used canonic practices in many earlier pieces, typically staggering the voices’ entry times so that they all end together. Here the canonic texture can only be heard as fabulous heterophony. This gluing together of tones into streams that decorate unisons into spikey non-unisons is such an important development in modernist (and beyond) music. One can’t really account for much great music of our times and before without heterophony. You can get there—to heterophony—by many routes. Mike Winter, composer and liner-notes writer can help you with Larry’s!

I sense that his usual canonic practice is not the case here with piece no.3, but rather there is a big bubble effect that starts at the beginning, then continues on with a maximum explosion of energy in the middle, and a soft, again poignant, ending. Not all algorithmic composers do as Larry does, shaping the expressive output along with the notes.

The first of the three pieces starts out almost like a Chopin prelude. But overlays soon obscure a single-minded trajectory. There are dominant seventh chords, and a couple of re-beginnings. You sense that inside of the complexity there are the modules of the earlier material. Only the second of the three pieces and its following “Interlood” feel amorphous. But even here as throughout, the harmony however generated, algorithmically or otherwise, is complexly interesting, and probably immune from chord labels and any simplistic analysis.

There is more to say about the other pieces. The k-toods, for example, which for the composer is about parenting, and for the listener about a set of romps, some of which claim a kind of motoric, ostinato quality that says to me: ‘I’m not a minimalist, but I can repeat and excite!’  Interestingly, much of these latter pieces is based on guided improvisations. So bravo for the two players, Tobin Chodos and Ittai Rosenbaum. Both have backgrounds in improvisation and jazz. Ending the CD is an arrangement with stretched-out harmonies made from a Shaker hymn. played beautifully by Amy Beal.

So what is our conclusion—though none is needed: There is grandeur and quietness, sheer positive energy, and complexity of composition. Ives feels to me like a progenitor, but new algorithmic and compositional ideas have come since Ives. Finally one can only ask the listener to listen. And then, listen again!

Thumbnail Review # 48

Blago bung, anlogo bung, Esa-Pekka done agung!

Esa-Pekka Salone turned the Hugo Ball poem, KARAWANA, into a huge, sumptuous, post-modern orchestra piece so very much like the huge, sumptuous MODERNist orchestra piece he just conducted by Messiaen, his Turangalila Symphony. At the Philharmonic this week and last. I went to open rehearsals both times. Wonderful experiences. But:

Somehow I’m dying from too much chocolate. And yet—the symphony is so sexy; it hardly matters whether it’s sumptuous or not. It glows in the light or the dark.

So, what’s to complain about? Really not much, just that the great Dada master, Hugo Ball’s wonderful nonsense poem with allusions on almost every made-up word, like bung (which occurs three times in the short poem), is not really audible, intelligible in the orchestra piece, or worse, not funny in the declamatory way it is funny if you recite it yourself. Try it in the attachment I’m including.

There’s nothing funny in the Messiaen piece. It’s too beautiful to be funny. So, two non-funny, almost too beautiful orchestra pieces. Then there’s the deflationary Hugo Ball telling you it’s all bung. And he’s telling you in a beautifully collaged sound-text graphic which he designed. Now we’ve got three beauties, and very little satire left.

But Ball will win it back from beauty once we recite his poem in our own voice. And also…let’s get off it about beauty being bad for art. Not true. Even in the most mundane, unbeautiful Fluxus event, presentation can be beautiful: the toy paper boats being blown about in a tub of water. Whose beautiful piece was that, I don’t remember. It might be George Brecht. Bob Watts’s F/R Trace has the performer walk on stage with a French Horn, bell up. He (there was only one female Fluxus artist, Alison Knowles, with Yoko Ono a runner-up), thus he, would face the audience, bow, and out would come from the bell of the horn a myriad bunch of ping-pong balls. They would bounce and bung all over the stage, even into the audience; the sound and the sight was awesome. A one-liner. How beautiful!

So that’s what was missing. We don’t get it all from one artist, and that’s a little complicated to take in. We assemble it from parts made by several people, including from a gigantic, gorgeous orchestra that, nevertheless…leaves something out.

Thumbnail Review No. 47

Mahler’s 8th Symphony at St. John the Divine, February 25, 2016: What was it like?

The “symphony of a thousand.” At the premiere in Munich, 1910 there were apparently 1,0030, counting the conductor, Maestro Mahler. I haven’t counted last night’s forces, swelled by very big choruses, but it might not be a thousand, and of course it often isn’t and it doesn’t need to be. Punkt! Big: yes, very.

I was anxious to have Ann, my wife hear it, and though I didn’t really hear it very well, even though “enhanced” by the big loud speakers a few yards from our seats, still, it communicated a great and fabulous glowing sound.

What was this Jewish composer, who converted to Catholicism before becoming artistic director of the famous Vienna Imperial Court Opera under the Hapsburg emperor, doing in setting, in Part 1 of the symphony, a ninth-century religious hymn, “Come, Creator Spirit” and in Part 2, the final scene of Goethe’s two-part, “Faust” poem? Very god-infested, yes it is!—(and why that from the humanist, cosmopolitan, Goethe? I don’t know.)

Well, Mahler called it an allegory of what cannot be spoken of. A good defense! He was a well-read intellectual, interested in ideas, progressive aesthetically and helpful to, for example, the young composer, Schoenberg who befriended him. That’s a good story.

Back to Ann who, not knowing the music as I do, coming to the event fatigued and ready for bed, was revived and full of enthusiastic appreciation. She said: “A superfluity; staggering, complex; moments when a kind of screaming enters from the side like a blue-note.”

That’s a complex review, probably not what Mahler consciously intended. As Theodore Adorno says in his excellent short book, Mahler, a Musical Physiognomy, “Mahler was a poor yea-sayer.“ So the Eighth Symphony is a kind of anti-phobic answer to a difficulty in his psyche. Fine! It works and the marvelous, doleful, dark shadings, in the beginning of Part 2, and in Part 1 with the verse that begins “Infirma” —“[strengthen] our weak body”—we get the wonderful part of Mahler who can’t say “yes.” And we know that he continued not to say “yes” persuasively in the Ninth Symphony, some of Das Lied Von Der Erde, and the uncompleted Tenth Symphony. We don’t really like false positive-ness! Quite amazing, also, that neither of these three amazing works did he hear in his lifetime.

He was obsessed with death (well documented in marginalia), and in fact, though vigorous and athletic, was struck down by endocarditis at 51, an infection of the heart, now easily treatable with antibiotics. Heart! But there was more to it. He’d lost one of his two daughters to a childhood disease. And he’d also very late in life lost his beloved Almschi to a lover, the architect, Walter Gropius. Lots to cry about. He was bereft, finally, and sick, even while conducting the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera as a European star! At the same time composing his Ninth and Tenth symphonies, mostly in the summer, back home in the Austrian countryside. He was recognizably “modern,” 20th Century even with his rich, opulent, essentially late 19th Century musical language (thank you, Barry Goldensohn, for this accurate adjective: opulent).

So in Mahler-time, he races through a huge amount of material in an hour and a half. It’s efficient, with no lovely dallying as in the “Night Music” of the Seventh Symphony. We get to the last line of text, “the eternal feminine leads us up” sung by the Chorus Mysticus, and that’s it. Terrible pre-feminist politics: masculine is striving, ambitious, heroic; feminine is nurturing, comforting, satisfying. But hey, he sort of lost his loved one. And also, how could he contradict his beloved, German, Goethe (he hated Austrian culture, was a Germanophile)!

At the same time he suffered from the standard anti-Semitism of the time, saying that being Jewish was like going through life with one arm shorter than the other; yet having to identify with the dominant Christian culture which repeatedly hired him to more and more prestigious positions. We are luckier living among the diaspora in New York, not in Budapest and Vienna of his time.

But of the performance at St. John the Divine under its music director and organist, Kent Tritle conducting: what was it like? Well, really not very intelligible to one who knows the music. The cathedral succeeded in muddying the very precise rhythms of the excellent players from the Manhattan School of Music, and making such things as the wonderful bass pizzicati throughout the beginning of Part 2 sound like random dull thuds. A “sound-designer” failure? Probably. And what about the stridently over-amplified, over-vibrato-ed soprano soloists (google the performance for names). It’s a lingering operatic disease from Wagnerian times on: vibrato amplifies the volume of the sound for very well-documented scientific reasons. The justification used to be that the Wagnerian orchestra was always in danger of drowning out the Wagnerian sopranos and tenors. But why now! in a piece of music where Mahler’s superior orchestrational knowledge allows a less strident vocal style? No answer to this persistent question.

And what of Adorno’s disparaging and sarcastic remark about the Eighth Symphony as a “genre chef d’oeuvre?.” (page 138, op. cit.) A genre masterpiece. What’s the genre? Spectacle? Conflation of religion and art? He answers: “To glorify the collective sounding through him as an absolute… That he did not resist, is his offense,” his “false consciousness.” Adorno prefers, and maybe we do too, that part of the composer that looks “questioningly into uncertainty.”

So why given Mahler’s “offense,” and that last night when we couldn’t really hear Mahler in St. John the Divine’s, did we jump to our feet at the end, clapping and cheering with tears in our eyes?

Because we knew he was there! His temporary “Yes” was our temporary Yes.

—Thumbnail Review No. 46

Click Here to Read an Open Response to This Thumbnail  

WARMTH

Somewhere in his ground-breaking book, “The Tuning of the World” R. Murray Schafer wonders aloud why music tends to be an anchor to the familiar, rather than an antenna receiving new exciting information from “out there.” There could by a one-word answer to Schafer’s question: ‘lullaby.’ But instead, let this whole essay be an answer.

           touch
           vibrato – buzzing in the ear (even damage) – low frequency weapon (WWI)
           “meditative making out:” RIP Hayman’s kissing/humming action
           low E on the clarinet vibrates her/his trusting body
           compare sound frequency to light frequency: you can feel one, not the other: the
           scale is different
           rock music is high amplitude, especially the bass which is felt in the body
           visual art is “cold,” pop music is “warm,” what is classical music?
           question of modernism and anti-romanticism
           the pomo reactions
           the mindless neo-romanticism of e.g., “the derriere-garde,”or movie sound
tracks
           the role of tonality in warmth? There may be, but considering tonality’s widest
range from drone music to highly chromatic music in the post-Viennese school or the
new complexity music, there is no correlation to anyone’s style
           tendency of forgetting duplicates of previous styles as if they had never
happened
           serve [as] memory and also mark the spot previously occupied by so-and-so or
such-and-such: in that, we are like a “traditional culture,” that only revives, re-stages,
replays, but doesn’t innovate consciously
           consciousness feels like it is in the head, not the torso or the limbs – is that
because of voice, ears, eyes?
lack of parallelism between sound (music) and light (visual arts)- there is no touch

until infra-red and heat lamps, but then it is not in the visual range

Still, heat rays are too fast to feel as vibration. The warmth of vibrational frequencies is obvious. Both metaphorical and literal. The spectrum of orgastic vibration makes heat.

Vibrating one’s body to keep warm is as rock-bottom as you can get to warmth. Sound begins at the high end of that frequency range. You can get warm by singing. So, harmonic relations probably have warmth encoded within. Quotients (of warmth!) may be measurable. This could lead to a dumb or a very smart critique of serial music (and the “new complexity” type). But not Alban Berg’s, which is why the dumb critique won’t work.

Warmth is not just a direct conversion of physical vibration of something bound into temperature of the receiver’s body. The transmitted, culturally determined melodic/harmonic/rhythmic shapes of a certain tradition (pick your culture) stir the emotions somehow (pick your theorist), and warmth results. Even sadness, maybe especially sadness brings warmth. The constant exercise of emotional organs is what it feels like. Emotional aerobics? Music can stimulate emotional aerobics.

Warmth and tonality:
Given the over-determined causation by both acoustically generated warmth and by historical styles of melodic and harmonic shapes that trigger emotional warmth, it seems an obvious connection to link warmth with tonality. There are strong counter-examples in Schoenberg and Berg, though: that the emotional gestures are there and effective without their being based on tonality. Also strong counter-examples in the “Polish School” of ‘60s tone-color music, and also in the decades of Phill Niblock’s tape music for his films. In both these, and others of similar effect the rubbing of dissonant tones to create “beats” is a source of acoustical warmth not from tonality, though (as Schoenberg might protest these are the result of TONES, so cannot be called “atonal music.”)

Let’s consider what I’d call the “Appoggiatura Mime,” (mime, the short-hand formula, mental “radical” around this musical term). Originating in harmonic practice going back to the Renaissance, and flowering through the Baroque and Classic periods, it emerges in the late Romantics and early 20th Century composers, of Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler, Schoenberg as an increasingly intense, complex, and over-arching phenomenon. In this figuration warmth is both acoustic (dissonances rubbing frictionally) and emotional —made up of layers of association with the music that pushes through to the listener with this mime.

A more subtle emotional mime might be the sequence: the melodic-harmonic repetition at successive pitch levels. Many, many passages from Vivaldi through Bach’s Brandenburg concertos (his 3rd has a doozy one), on through Bruckner have a way of building excitement through varied repetition that can lead the listener into a kind of emotional response I’d call restrained frenzy—sometimes to tears. The sequence is the basis of my long minimalist symphony, Tunnel Funnel. Warmth generated.

The connection of music and mimes is the basis of Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game [Das Glasperlenspiel]. It is the idea that discreet units of culture: music or word-based complexes, visual, mathematical formulae (Hesse is brilliantly vague in describing what these cultural modules are exactly) become the “glass beads” in a chess-like game of friendly competition among the intellectual elite. This is the most seductive use of ideas as palpable serious playthings I’ve ever found. And it contains within it, as the novel shows, an elitism that burns out on its own decadence and self-defeat, told in its last page by the death by drowning of the hero who has become the master of the Game.

But if we extrapolate to Minimalism: I once had an imaginary conversation with Tom Johnson (at least I think it never happened, but maybe it did) in which we agreed that minimalist typology could stay implanted in culture as firmly as traditional genres of composition like the canon or fugue or variation procedure.

Thus:
One-tone composition
Phasing of various parameters
Meditative sound concepts
Pulse composition
“Deductive Music” (Tom’s self-description of his style)
Etc.

These would be on-going genres as confident of continuance as the high Baroque seemed to be.

An aspect of these genres would be their warmth quotient. Not as an evaluative thing, but as one aspect of style.