Archives for June 2008

Spatial Explorations

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Spacial Explorations, performed on June 1, 2008 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

This final concert of our 2007-2008 season was inspired in part by the death of György Ligeti, who died two years ago on June 12. His biography can serve as a mirror of the course of twentieth-century history. Ligeti was born in Transylvania, a Jew in a multi-ethnic and polyglot region of what is now Romania but was once part of Hungary. Among Ligeti’s artistic ancestors was his great uncle Leopold Auer, the legendary violinist and pedagogue. Although his parents were sent to Auschwitz, the young Ligeti was condemned only to forced labor by the Nazis. After the war he studied composition and ethnomusicology in Budapest. Having grown up in the unstable and violent context of interwar Eastern Europe, dominated by competing nationalisms and anti-Semitism, Ligeti subsequently experienced the first decade of Hungarian communism in all its Stalinist rigidity. In the wake of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 Ligeti moved to the West and lived long enough to witness the fall of communism and the resurgence of provincial nationalism in Eastern Europe. By the end of his life, György Ligeti had secured a deserved reputation as a great composer and prophetic voice who was able to transform modernism in a way that allowed it to breathe more freely. His music is music of our time, entirely independent of the clichés of both modernism and post-modernism—a truly original voice.

Ligeti’s experience of the volatile twentieth century encapsulates the essential nature of modernity: the reconfiguring of the relationship of the individual to the world. Directly related to the politics and history of the period, and indeed a significant outgrowth of it, was the twentieth century’s transformation of our understanding of the universe and of space and time. It is no coincidence that the unprecedented disorder and destruction of the past that characterized the first half of the twentieth century was accompanied by utterly original thinking about physics and the relative universe, and that many groundbreaking technological achievements were made possible by advancements in modern warfare. Our realization of the enormity of the universe and the absence of any notion of absolute space and time reflected, at least in part, a reaction to our sense of the instability of the modern world, and a fundamental questioning of our place in it. Only the ages of Galileo and Newton witnessed similar fundamental intellectual sea-change in the way we perceive reality.

The twentieth century was marked by the consciousness of an expanding universe and the increasing recognition of the humble place occupied by the earth. Among the seminal events of the twentieth century was the onset of space travel—of satellites, interplanetary probes, and moon landings. These innovations were presented as advancements, and offered a sense of optimism and faith in scientific progress and human imagination that countered the memory of war-time devastation, and offered a sense of security during the Cold War. The conquering of space, the rise of technology, seemed to camouflage the instability of society with a vision of connectedness and collective human endeavor that promised to provide some sort of lucid justification of ourselves. Both optimism and ambiguity were promoted in science fiction: 2001: A Space Odyssey (in which may be heard Ligeti’s Atmosphères), Star Trek and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

But there was (and is) also a pervasive anxiety about the questions raised by our explorations of the universe and of physics. The pondering of our infinitesimally small occupation of space is an uncomfortable notion for many (which has helped inform a resurgence of religion among other forms of conservatism). In terms of popular culture, for all the wonderment of Star Trek, there are also xenophobic wars with the alien species, or the image of the mad scientist with his finger “on the button.” Our curiosity is tinged with a fear of leaving familiar understanding behind for the unknown, of having all our cherished conventions uprooted in favor of something that possibly, once proven, may not be ours to control. Instead of science offering us the comfort of knowing at last exactly what our position is in the cosmos, we are left with the same question that our earliest ancestors asked—just where are we?

This conflicted reaction to the modern world and its ever-changing philosophical and scientific premises deeply informed modern art and music. All of the composers on today’s program were interested in the idea of space—not just outer space but sonic space as well. Their breaking away from a unidirectional construction of sound, the conventional experience of the concert hall, reflects both the liberating spirit of experimentation that characterizes the modern, and an intense self-reflection regarding how we hear, the relativity of our position, and the accuracy of our perception. Their breathtaking parallel between the cosmos and the microcosm of our individual experience conjures the thrilling and disquieting relativity of the modern world. The very concept of space is scrutinized in these remarkable works, and the distance between performers and listeners becomes as speculative as the distance between planets.

If Ligeti’s achievement and originality framed the inspiration for this concert, he himself was inspired by an isolated, early twentieth-century innovator, almost the Charles Ives of Scandinavia, Rued Langgaard. As Peter Laki points out, Langgaard’s Symphony of the Spheres was an important influence on Ligeti. Andrzej Panufnik, like Ligeti, fled communist Eastern Europe (in Panufnik’s case, Poland) during the 1950s. Panufnik is one of the twentieth-century composers whose music should not be permitted in the midst of our anti-modernist enthusiasm, to fall into oblivion. Finally we thought it best to open this unique concert with a composer whose voice, in terms of originality, can be fairly compared to Ligeti. Born in the same generation, Tōru Takemitsu, who died in 1996, helped to reconceptualize sound. Like the other composers on this program, he was inspired by the lone, individual human fascination with space, time, and the universe of which the earth is part. The sonic response to existential contemplation is most brilliantly reflected in this work that bears the title of one of the more famous constellations. The structure of the work reflects the way the constellation appears to the naked eye—from the vantage point of our small planet.

All of these works turn to speculation about the universe, space, and time back into the human experience of music, so that the listener can experience sound on many different planes by restructuring the way sound is produced, where it comes from spatially, and how it is perceived and remembered. This is music that can only be heard acoustically and can never be accurately documented by recording. The multi-dimensional experience of space in the imagination is transformed into the multi-dimensional experience of sound in the concert hall. It is fitting to note that the heavens have long provided inspiration and a structural metaphor for composers. This concert is a modernist version of a tradition that dates to antiquity and the Renaissance: the notion of the harmony of the spheres as an aesthetic ideal for music.

Tōru Takemitsu, Cassiopeia

By Frank J. Oteri

Written for the concert Spacial Explorations, performed on June 1, 2008 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Percussionists have only recently emerged as viable soloists with orchestras. Throughout the twentieth century there have been a few top-shelf concertos for marimba—including works by Milhaud, Creston, and Takemitsu—and even occasional works involving timpani soloists, a format actually dating back to an eighteenth century musical curiosity attributed to Johann Wilhelm Hertel. But polyglot concertos requiring soloists to perform on a wide variety of instruments are a very recent musical development, though they are becoming more commonplace nowadays, thanks in large part to being championed by risk-taking virtuosos. However, the flowering of such concertos over the past generation is not completely without precedent. While technically not a concerto, Helmut Lachenmann’s 1969 orchestral work Air features a very prominent percussion solo, as does Aulis Sallinen’s Symphony No. 2 (1972). But Takemitsu’s 1971 Cassiopeia is the work that deserves acknowledgement as the earliest bona fide percussion concerto by a prominent composer. Unfortunately, as a result of both its legendary complexity and current obscurity, the work is something of a percussionist’s Holy Grail.

Tōru Takemitsu (1930-1996) is arguably the most important Japanese composer of the twentieth century. His output encompasses solo, chamber, and orchestral works, over a dozen of which involve soloists and orchestra, plus compositions for traditional Japanese instruments, some of Japan’s earliest electronic experiments, and over 100 film scores. Among his most important compositions are: Requiem for string orchestra (1957) which Stravinsky hailed as a masterpiece; November Steps, a double concerto for biwa, shakuhachi, and orchestra (1967); In an Autumn Garden for traditional Japanese gagaku ensemble (1979); and All in Twilight for solo guitar (1987). In 1994, he received the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for his 1991 clarinet concerto, Fantasma/Cantos.

Takemitsu composed Cassiopeia as a result of a joint commission from the Ravinia and Tanglewood Festivals to showcase the prodigious talents of Japanese percussion star Stomu Yamashta (b. 1947), who during the heyday of his career worked with everyone from Peter Maxwell Davies and Hans Werner Henze to Al Di Meola and Steve Winwood. Yamashta premiered the work at Ravinia with the Chicago Symphony under the direction of Seiji Ozawa on July 8, 1971, and even recorded the work with Ozawa in Tokyo for EMI shortly before the premiere. However, as a result of a manager double-booking him, Yamashta was not the soloist for the subsequent performance at Tanglewood, and the solo part, deemed unplayable by a single person, was taken up by two Boston Symphony percussionists.

Part of what makes Cassiopeia so daunting is how many things the soloist is required to play—a total of 44 instruments ranging from castanets and tambourine to Trinidadian steel drum and African karimba, to steel sheet, to pedal timpani and two bass drums operated by foot pedals. The orchestration is also somewhat unwieldy. Taking a staging cue from the W-shaped constellation Cassiopeia, Takemitsu surrounds the soloist with four instrumental groups, each containing five or six players plus a percussionist who also requires a significant batterie. Inside of this W, there are two 25-piece string sections. And in back of everyone, there’s a brass choir. Atmospheric sonorities, some of which are indeterminate, waft between the various subsets of the orchestra for approximately twenty minutes. (To further complicate things, the conductor’s score—issued by Takemitsu’s then French publisher Editions Salabert—is an un-engraved manuscript on oversized paper notated vertically on two pages per system but bound horizontally, requiring page-turning pyrotechnics.)

Perhaps because of all of this, Cassiopeia has not yet attained its rightful status in the percussion concerto pantheon. However, the work was a direct antecedent for Takemitsu’s 1990 From Me Flows What You Call Time for five percussionists and orchestra, a work which is slowly entering the repertoire. Robin Engelman, John Wyre, and Bill Cahn, three of the five members of the percussion ensemble Nexus which premiered Takemitsu’s later Concerto, were in the audience for Cassiopeia’s Ravinia premiere and Wyre was a soloist for the Tanglewood performance. According to Cahn, Cassiopeia “beckoned the full attention of every listener.”

Andrzej Panufnik, Sinfonia di Sfere

By Peter Laki

Written for the concert Spacial Explorations, performed on June 1, 2008 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Andrzej Panufnik and his friend Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994) were the two leading figures in Polish music in the years immediately following World War II. After his defection in 1954, Panufnik successfully rebuilt his career, eventually earning a prominent position in British musical life. Sinfonia di sfere—the fifth of Panufnik’s ten symphonies—received its first performance on April 13, 1976, at the Royal Festival Hall, with David Atherton conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. After the premiere, the composer Oliver Knussen devoted a full article to the new work in the journal Tempo.

The “spheres” of the title are globes that Panufnik visualized while working on this half-hour, one-movement work. “I felt,” he wrote, “that geometric shapes could provide my composition with an unseen skeleton within which harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic concepts could be bound together as a cohesive whole, an organized framework out of which both spiritual and poetic expression could freely flow.” Audiences may get an idea of this “skeleton” from the way the music evolves step by step from readily identifiable building blocks. In the course of the composition, one may notice a definite rise in intensity as the music moves from the “lower” to the “higher” spheres. Those spheres may occasionally intersect—in other words, certain elements in one sphere may hark back to the previous one or anticipate the next. Each “sphere” roughly corresponds to an ABA-like structure, with recurrent motifs and tempo levels, but the connections among the different types of musical material are far too subtle to be described by the traditional terms of variation, development, or recapitulation.

Panufnik’s spatial thinking affected the orchestration and the layout of instruments on the stage as well. One of the work’s distinctive features is the presence of three solo drummers, each playing on four drums of different sizes. The drums are placed, respectively, far left, far right, and back center, so that, in the composer’s words, “their sound constantly orbits the orchestra—alternately clockwise and anti-clockwise.” All the other instruments are enclosed within that circumference, with a piano in the middle, next to the conductor.

Each formal section in the work exhibits certain easily recognizable characteristics. The first “sphere” is definitely the lyrical-expressive one; its tone is set by an opening trumpet solo marked sempre appassionato. More instruments are subsequently featured in similarly “singing” roles. After a faster middle section that, by contrast, is dominated by staccatissimo (very short and detached) sounds, the lyricism of the opening returns, ending symmetrically with the initial trumpet melody.

The acoustic novelties in Sphere II are the mysterious col legno, sul tasto and pizzicato sounds of the strings (played, respectively, with the wood of the bow, with the hair of the bow on the fingerboard, and without bow, with players plucking the strings with their fingers). This slow passage gradually evolves into its own faster middle section, introduced once again by a trumpet solo—a vigorously rhythmic one this time, filled with rapid note repetitions requiring great virtuosity. The eerie string sounds return to close Sphere II.

Sphere III begins with a spectacular section for the three drummers alone. The momentum is carried forward as the other instruments join in. In the middle section, which in this case is slower, not faster, than the outer segments, the piano takes the lead, its opening solo followed by some meditative three-part counterpoint played, in turn, by three brass instruments, three strings, and three woodwinds. The ensuing Molto allegro is, in many ways, the summation of the entire work, leading up to the final climax.

Rued Langgaard, Sfaerernes musik (Music of the Spheres)

By Peter Laki

Written for the concert Spacial Explorations, performed on June 1, 2008 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

In the first quarter of the twentieth century, Denmark apparently had room for only one composer—Carl Nielsen (1865-1931). The author of the “Inextinguishable” Symphony completely dominated the country’s musical institutions, and his aesthetic outlook could not be challenged by anyone. That outlook, blending modernist elements with a Romantic sensitivity, was, in Nielsen’s own words, “homespun”: it had sprung from the rural upbringing of a composer who, no matter how much prestige he enjoyed later in life, always remained a country boy at heart.

Rued Langgaard could not have been more different. Born into a musical family (his mother was a pianist and his father a composer, Nielsen’s antagonist in matters of musical aesthetics), he was as esoteric and hyper-refined as Nielsen was robust and down-to-earth. He represented a special kind of Danish art nouveau; while his older contemporary wrote an opera about Saul and David, Langgaard chose none but the Antichrist as his hero (the opera was repeatedly rejected by the Copenhagen theatre). Langgaard remained an outsider his entire life; even though he had been a virtuoso organist since childhood, it took him more than twenty years to obtain a post as a church organist, and then only in the provincial town of Ribe, far from the capital.

One of Langgaard’s most fascinating works, Music of the Spheres, was published in 1919 and performed in Karlsruhe, Germany two years later. Subsequently, it was forgotten for nearly half a century. When it was rediscovered in the late 1960s, György Ligeti reportedly exclaimed: “I didn’t know I was a Langgaard imitator!”

The parallels between Music of the Spheres and Atmosphères are, in fact, quite stunning. The clusters played by the strings at the beginning of Langgaard’s piece, with each musician responsible for an individual part, uncannily anticipate Ligeti’s micropolyphonic technique. But there are other innovations in the Langgaard that are no less radical and ahead of their time: a pianist playing glissandos directly on the strings of the instrument; a small “distant” orchestra whose rhythmic relationships with the larger orchestra follow the ratio 8:18:28; and a polyphonic thunder on eight timpani that seeks to outdo the famous “duel of kettledrums” in the “Inextinguishable.”

In addition to the two orchestras, Music of the Spheres calls for a soprano soloist and a mixed chorus. The soloist sings a poem, written in German by Ida Lock (1882-1951), an amateur poet who had studied music with Langgaard’s father. The chorus sings either without words or with solmisation syllables (emphatically not matching the melody to which they are applied).

Langgaard included a series of verbal notations in the score that allow a glimpse into the composer’s world of ideas. A prefatory note reads: “The celestial and earthly chaotic music from red glowing strings with which life plays with claws of beast of prey—with a rainbow crown round its marble-face with the stereotypic, yet living, demoniac and lily-like smile.” Four successive sections in the first half of the piece are marked:

“Like sunbeams on a coffin decorated with sweet-smelling flowers”

“Like the twinkling of stars on the bluish sky at sunset”

“Like the refraction of the sunbeams in the waves”

“Like the twinkling of a pearl of dew in the sun on a lovely summer morning”

And he described the entire piece as follows:

“In The Music of the Spheres I have, in the darkness and despair of night, completely abandoned any sort of motif, planned structure, form or coherence. It is music cloaked in a black veil and the impenetrable mists of death.”

It is also music the kind of which Langgaard never attempted to write again. There is nothing quite like it in the more than 400 works in his output, which musicologist Bendt Viinholt Nielsen has recently catalogued, assigning BVN numbers to each composition. Music of the Spheres remained an isolated experiment, but one whose day has finally come.

György Ligeti, Apparitions

By Paul Griffiths

Written for the concert Spacial Explorations, performed on June 1, 2008 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

When Ligeti left Hungary, in 1956, he took with him his scores and also his hopes—in particular, his hopes for a kind of music corresponding to a dream he had had as a boy, one of lying in his bed amid a fantastic silken web in which strange creatures and inert objects were suspended. He had tried to realize this dream in sound in Hungary, but lacked the technical means. In 1957 he tried again. Finally, in 1958-9, while working alongside Stockhausen in the Cologne electronic music studio, he produced Apparitions, a nine-minute score whose contents include, in his own words, “sounding planes and masses, which may succeed, penetrate or mingle with one another—floating networks that get torn up or entangled—wet, sticky, gelatinous, fibrous, dry, brittle, granular and compact materials, shreds, curlicues, splinters, and traces of every sort—imaginary buildings, labyrinths, inscriptions, texts, dialogues, insects—states, events, processes, blendings, transformations, catastrophes, disintegrations, disappearances.”

Ligeti had found his way to his dream by way of the orchestral cluster: the static band of sound in which volume and instrumentation change only slowly or not at all, and in which every note of the chromatic scale within a certain range is sounding. That technique had been used by Xenakis in Metastaseis (1953-4), but Xenakis’s work was unknown to Ligeti at the time, and unknown, too, to the audience of pure-stream modernists who responded noisily to the sonic sensuousness, drama, and humor of Ligeti’s composition when it was first performed in Cologne in 1960.

Apparitions is scored for a large orchestra without oboes, because, the composer explained, the work “has fundamentally an ‘unreal,’ ghostly sound, and here the oboes would have been too ‘concrete.’” The first movement is in two sections, related in duration by the golden mean, and is composed largely of homogeneous clusters (though there are also cluster glissandos and abrupt soundbites suggestive of the electronic essays)—phonemes which the music whispers or speaks, until it ends with a high cluster maintained by three violins heard from offstage.

As in several Bartók works, a slow, introductory movement is balanced by a faster and more substantial one, in this case an Agitato which begins with muted and jittery music for orchestral groups in different meters, and which moves wildly to its end with brutal stabs and the sound of a tray of crockery being hurled into a wooden crate lined with metal plates (“possibly wear protective goggles,” advises the score). The earlier great crisis in this generally pianissimo movement comes when all forty-six string players suddenly embark on loud tangled polyphony, each following a separate trajectory through the chromatic scale (with octave transpositions, so that the predominant intervals are sevenths and ninths). This moment in Ligeti’s musical dream gave him the clue to creating his next, Atmosphères.

György Ligeti, Atmosphères

By Paul Griffiths

Written for the concert Spacial Explorations, performed on June 1, 2008 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

What Ligeti heard in his Apparitions was the possibility of composing “a canon so dense that it creates a texture, a static tissue.” Gesture and incident could now fade, to leave textures whose smooth unfolding has only one major discontinuity, when searing high piccolos are cut off and answered by double basses from six octaves below; even here the feeling is that the music has disappeared over the top of the pitch spectrum and reappeared at the bottom. Elsewhere in the work, and more usually, Ligeti achieves the sense of one uninterrupted sound mass by having his textures overlap with no clear divisions—entries are often to be imperceptible and extinctions gradual—or else by having one texture emerge out of another. Also important to continuity is the lack of percussion instruments, except for a piano whose strings are brushed at the end.

This was the first work Ligeti began after his time in the electronic music studio, and, as a composition of sounds and of layers of sounds, the score transfers to the orchestral plane an electronic manner of working. More particularly, the staggered chordal glissandos of his Pièce électronique No. 3 (unrealized at the time) have their equivalent in complex canon, or, to use the composer’s own term, “micropolyphony,” which he said he “would never have been able to develop . . . without the experience of electronic music.”

Micropolyphony has its first great example here in a mirror canon in forty-eight parts, the twenty-eight violins moving in a downward direction while the twenty violas and cellos climb. Hardly audible as a canon, by virtue of its general pppp dynamic level as well as its density, the passage achieves the global effect of a cluster being gradually compressed from three-and-a-half octaves to the space of a minor third. Where Xenakis or Penderecki might have achieved a similar effect with simple glissandos, Ligeti’s canon expresses his philosophy of precision and leaves even on such generalized music a personal imprint—in this case a hint of folk music coming from the canon’s subject. He also valued contrapuntal writing for its probity, for its traditional aura, and for its own sake: “The counterpoint of Palestrina and Bach, which was taught very exactly in Budapest, left a deep mark on me. I love whatever is constructed.”

The chromatic cluster—such as that of the forty-eight-part canon, or the stationary one across almost five octaves with which the music opens—is only one of the possibilities of Atmosphères. The second big cluster of the piece is reshaped by dynamic changes, which bring forward particular timbres (at first that of the strings) or harmonic colors: the “white notes” (A-B-C-D-E-F-G) and then the bright ring of horns, flutes, and clarinets together on the “black notes” (Ab-Bb-Db-Eb-Gb), these diatonic and pentatonic clusters projecting what Ligeti called “a kind of tonal iridescence.” There are also shimmering ribbons produced by many instruments in rapid vibrato, stippled textures in which brief fortissimos are dotted into a continuous pianissimo, and complex wavy patterns of string harmonics in several different metres superposed. These things and others arrive and leave as if of themselves. In extreme contrast with Artikulation, the music has no voice, and its immense presences imply, perhaps as in the contemporary paintings of Mark Rothko, an overwhelming absence.

Ligeti dedicated the score to the memory of the Hungarian-born composer Mátyás Seiber.

Spatial Explorations

06/01/2008 at 08:00 PM – Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center

    Concert Notes