29 July 2007

Rolf Wallin: How to Build an Audience Through More Iconoclasm, Not Less

Attacca Quartet
CMT: ‘Concerning King’ (2006), by the 50-year-old Norwegian composer Rolf Wallin, was performed last week by Attacca Quartet in New York. This Wallin composition originates in a mathematical analysis of serial time-samples of the acoustic frequency spectrum of a recording of an antiwar speech given by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Riverside Church in 1967. Edgy staccato passages, without much lyricism. Challenging to listeners and performers alike!

DSM: Fractious. A long musical exhortation, like the best of King’s civil rights speeches, for the listener to personally do something to make things better in the world.

CMT: Yes. Wallin’s music has the blunt forthrightness, innocence, and stark beauty that are characteristic of a Norwegian temperament and outlook. It’s music that’s insistent in asserting discordant facts, but simultaneously expansive and optimistic. It strongly indicates reasons for hope, if only you will act! Rolf studied in Oslo at the Norgesmusikkhøgskole (Norwegian Academy of Music) with Finn Mortensen and Olav Anton Thommessen and later at the University of California where he studied under Roger Reynolds and Vinko Globokar. Wallin’s music combines an intuitive gestalt with mathematics, such as his use of fractal algorithms in his compositional technique, which results in music that sometimes resembles Xenakis or Berio. In 1987, Wallin received Norwegian Society of Composers Award for ‘…though what made it has gone’. He currently still resides in Oslo.

Rolf Wallin
DSM: With a performance such as the Attacca Quartet just gave, I think each faction of the audience hears what they already knew about. But they can’t help but learn something new, too. And when they leave the performance venue, they are aware of a whole different kind of music; whole new meanings. Older folks like me can see the art, musicianship and virtuosity that are part of new music at its best. This stuff makes you think, but it also makes you feel! Ideally, it may motivate you to Do, rather than just Consume or Experience. The aleatoric and other effects—they just propel and demand a greater degree of listener ‘investment’ in deriving the meaning than more canonical pieces typically do. The balance between the performers and the audience is more like jazz, that’s all.

CMT: And aleatory and electronica didn’t spring de novo from the heads of Kraftwerk or Brian Eno; they grew out of a century of musical experimentation. That’s part of what younger audience members find out in this. Fifty to a hundred years ago, Varèse was searching for, and finding, new sounds long before electronics could provide them. Cage more or less invented industrial music, using found industrial objects. Those and a legion of less well-known and under-appreciated members of the avant-garde. Wallin and others younger than he are merely carrying that banner forward and innovating entirely new banners!

DSM: Reading the New York Times’ reviewer Vivien Schweitzer’s comments, I wonder whether we were hearing the same performance! Attacca’s performance of Wallin was vibrant and thrilling and unsettling, not ‘long-winded’! And it’s seldom that we in the U.S. have the privilege of experiencing this kind of inspired aesthetic cross-pollination. Marketers and presenters are understandably uncomfortable with crossing boundaries and can hardly risk doing anything other than stick their music, and their audience, in easily identified, familiar, sanctioned categories. They dread offending those touchy patrons who will tolerate nothing that is unfamiliar or unproven, nothing that is uncomfortable. So the repertoire gets constricted—regardless how innovative the performances of canonical works may be. But we need more new music and more category-busting events if we are to evolve a new music that is both artful and speaks to growing audiences looking for bespoke ‘experiences’ rather than shrinking audiences looking for uncontroversial balm.

CMT: Outreach programs and ‘Young People's Concerts’ á la Bernstein clearly don’t ‘work’ in terms of increasing audience and paid butts in seats. The London Sinfonietta’s ‘Ether’ concerts do to a degree succeed in bridging the gap between yesterday’s avant-garde and tomorrow’s.

DSM: But much, much more quantity—and much, much more varied offerings than are currently on offer—are needed. In other words, one solution to an already over-crowded classical music market is not ‘less’ product but ‘more’! Just not necessarily more of the same canon.

CMT: One solution is to leverage the famous Chris Anderson ‘long tailed’ distribution—the economical packaging and wider accessibility and ‘push’ marketing of performances tailored to ever-narrower market segments and ever-more-specialized affinities.

DSM: We’ve talked several times in months past in this blog, about the relationship of musical composition and nonlinear systems—Roger Reynolds, Iannis Xenakis, Milton Babbitt, and others. Is Rolf Wallin using things like strange attractors (Lorenz Attractor algorithms) or Mandelbrot sets to generate his motives—surtout dans la phase “précompositionnelle”?

CMT: Well, go email him! Go to Oslo and ask him!

 [Wallin, ‘… though what made it has gone’, Hilde Torgersen, mezzo;
   Kenneth Karlsson, piano; from CD ‘MOVE’ 1.4MB MP3]

Ondaavstand Fractal

C ette notion que des ‘instructions de travail’ simples peuvent générer une musique imprévisible au niveau des détails, mais qui néanmoins corrèle avec les procédures, m’a beaucoup fascinée, en tant qu’alternative plus ‘liquide’ à la notion d’œuvre, alors que l’œuvre au sens traditionnel est ‘cristallisée’ ou ‘coagulée’.”
  —  Rolf Wallin.

19 July 2007

Shadows Over Grandeur: Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor, Chaconne

Christian Tetzlaff

O  n one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.”
  —  Johannes Brahms, letter to Clara Schumann.

DSM: Christian Tetzlaff’s new CD is phenomenal! And the Partita No. 2—the Chaconne—is gorgeous. Many virtuoso violinists’ gestures aim to arouse the eye as well as the ear. The use of slight detuning of the strings or oddly difficult bow techniques can draw attention to their skill. But Bach’s sonatas and partitas are not conducive to (or tolerant of) such showiness–which tends to support the argument that Bach wrote them for his own use. Tetzlaff’s interpretation of Partita No. 2 is deeply true to the spirit of this composition—this four-bar harmonic progression with sixty-four variations.

CMT: The length of the Chaconne—about 15 minutes—is interesting in itself. Profundity requires time. The artist has to have enough space to capture the audience's attention, plant some seeds, and let them grow. Tetzlaff handles this nicely. Nothing is exaggerated or played merely for ‘effect.’ It is personal and absorbing, poetical yet natural and unadorned. Tetzlaff captures all the tireless circumnavigations around this single idea, making you wonder at Bach’s rhetoric. In Partita No. 2, Tetzlaff evokes the melancholy beneath the Bach’s tribute to his first wife, Maria Barbara. There is pliancy, grandeur, musical freedom. Tetzlaff’s playing displays no desire for ‘show’ but only the desire to engage with the musical core of this piece.

DSM: Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor follows a ‘da chiesa’ “church sonata” pattern, in which the slow and fast movements alternate with each other. And the Chaconne is not a short story or a novella; it is a full-blown novel! A novel has enough space to support introducing and developing a number of characters. This famous Chaconne is positively monumental in its scope and scale.

CMT: The arrival of every four-bar phrase on D is a striking aspect of the Chaconne’s beauty and poignance. It’s an emphatic eternal return, as though it were a physical “law.” The impression is one of inescapability, of inevitability. There’s also the ‘monumentality’ of the sheer variety that emanates from the solo violin as the performer progresses through the 64 variations that comprise the Chaconne. The music and the soloist become an omnipotent force. The piece evokes a transcendent ‘Other’—the Divine, if you wish.

DSM: The sheer diversity of the 64 variations compels us to acknowledge the Other. The diversity is so enormous as to boggle the listener’s mind and cause the jaw to drop. Boggling not in awe at a virtuosic human performer, but in awe at the mysteries of Life, of the Universe.

CMT: All of Bach’s compositions are, in some way or other, variations on a thoroughbass. With the first statement of the four-bar theme, the harmonies first move in halves and quarters. Then they accelerate to quarters at the cadence. Then they speed up to sixteenths.

Bach, Partita No. 2, BWV 1004, Chaconne
DSM: Many of the variations occur in pairs—the second, for example, is similar to the first, but intensified. The opening eight bars comprise the theme and its first repetition, where the first three bars of the second statement are identical to the first. Then it broadens in register and introduces thirty-second-note rhythms. In terms of our cognition, Bach's 'haptic update rate' and the hypermeter of the variations’ cycling are what impart this transcendent quality to the Chaconne. Have a look at Choi and Tan paper in this month’s issue of the virtual-reality journal, Presence.

CMT: This presages the predominant dotted rhythm of the next four variations. The dotted-rhythm variations occur in pairs. The first pair is diatonic; the second pair introduces chromaticism—the descending tetrachord goes from tonic to dominant. And now this! And now this! Layer upon layer! World without end!

DSM: The texture perpetually evolves throughtout the Chaconne as well. As the velocity increases, the texture diminishes from the three- and four-voiced chords at the beginning, to single-line writing later in the piece.

CMT: As the texture becomes thinner, the chromaticism increases—the introduction of F-sharp and E-flat in the eighth statement, for example—and the registral ‘span’ increases, from the tenths in the first two statements, to about two octaves in the eighth statement and beyond.

DSM: This process—where some elements diminish while others grow—adds to the sense that the meaning intended or the theme that Bach is referencing is a commentary on life itself, on Nature, on the Cosmos.

CMT: When the next few variations featuring sixteenths evolve into an ever-expanding array of bowing patterns, wider and wider articulations, my impression is one of galaxies, of a universe that is expanding, of a supernova.

DSM: When runs of thirty-seconds first appear they are slurred (mm. 65-72), then they are separately bowed (mm. 73-76). More and more intensity. More and more and more.

CMT: The changes of mode—to the grand D major and back to D minor—are accompanied by returns to the slower rhythms that we had at the opening of the Chaconne. There is a renewal, another aspect of the eternal return.

Christian Tetzlaff
DSM: But with each rebirth we have the beginnings again of the growing speed and chromaticism and intensity. Inescapable. Inevitable. Changes of changes. Wheels within wheels.

CMT: There’s a tension—for the performer especially, but also for the listener—between the elements of articulation, tempo, affect, bowing, fingering, and other aspects of technque. The variations call upon these in different ways—increasing the importance of one or another of them and diminishing the importance of the others. This is part of the ‘novel-esque’ character of the piece. Obviously, it's also part of why the Chaconne is such a showcase for virtuosic playing.

DSM: But it would be a mistake to dwell on technique. A technically brilliant performance of the Chaconne may be emotionally empty. Instead, the tension between these demands is the source of a cast of ‘characters’ in the composition.

CMT: These are different voices, I think—not the soliloquy of a single voice. The textures of the four strings, how Bach uses the violin's four strings, are, to me, at least four different voices in this Partita.

DSM: The developments in the Chaconne are logical and yet suprising. Its inordinate novelty—novelty begetting yet more novelty—is the source of much of the piece's profundity.

CMT: There’s an inherent urgency to the Chaconne as well. Something like the remark J. Tillman made upon hearing Josh Bell play the Chaconne in the Washington D.C. subway station last January – ‘the kind of music the ship’s band was playing on the Titanic, before the iceberg.’

DSM: In other words, the Chaconne “knows” that it must end. It is anticipating the end of the universe. In the beginning there was the Big Bang. The Chaconne is showing us the approach of the Big Crunch.

CMT: Yes, this Chaconne is not sticking to the script of Church dogma in the way that Bach’s sacred music does. This Chaconne is agnostic, or even atheist in its view. We feel the finiteness of our existence on Earth and are not exhorted to believe in any life hereafter.

T o prepare for a friend’s funeral service, I had been practicing the Chaconne every day—fussing over individual phrases, searching for better ways to string them together, and wondering about the very nature of the piece—at its core an old dance form that had been around for centuries. After the many times I had heard and played the Chaconne, I had hoped it would fall relatively easily into place by now, but it appeared to be taunting me. The more I worked, the more I saw; the more I saw, the further away it drifted from my grasp. Perhaps that is in the nature of every masterpiece. But more than that, the Chaconne seemed to exude shadows over its grandeur and artful design. Exactly what was hidden there I could not say, but I would lose myself for long stretches of time exploring the work’s repeating four-bar phrases, which rose and fell and marched solemnly forward in ever-changing patterns.”
  —  Arnold Steinhardt, Violin Dreams.

F rom the grave majesty of the beginning to the thirty-second notes which rush up and down like the very demons; from the tremulous arpeggios that hang almost motionless, like veiling clouds above a dark ravine ... to the devotional beauty of the D-major section, where the evening sun sets in a peaceful valley: the spirit of the master urges the instrument to incredible utterances. At the end of the D-major section it sounds like an organ, and sometimes a whole band of violins seems to be playing. This Chaconne is a triumph of spirit over matter such as even Bach never repeated in a more brilliant manner.”
  —  Phillip Spitta.

16 July 2007

The Open-Ended ‘Present’: Mahler’s Piano Quartet in A Minor

Christoph Eschenbach

I deology seems to pop up precisely when we attempt to avoid it, while it fails to appear where one would clearly expect it to dwell.”
  —  Slavoj Žižek, in Mapping Ideology, 1994, p. 4.

DSM: This Quartet was written in 1876, when Mahler was around 16 years old . . . when he was a student at the Vienna Conservatory. It was written in A minor, a key Mahler believed symbolized the ‘unconscious anticipation of things to come.’ The melancholy end of the movement is clairvoyant—premonitory of sad things ahead for Mahler, the death of his children, sad things ahead for his country, for Europe, and the world. This quartet is the only chamber piece known to be composed by Mahler. And, as you know, it’s incomplete; only the first movement was finished.

CMT: There’s an intensification of the emotion in this Piano Quartet—an increase in the magnitude of what Žižek would call ‘disturbances of the real.’ The ‘real’ manifests itself in this Piano Quartet as an innocuous cadence whose presence becomes uncanny only when the cadence keeps recurring. Its constant presence disrupts the other motifs and symbolisms, and serves as a continual reminder that these realities are only constructions. The rendering of the ‘real’ seeps into the core of the Quartet, through the ‘leaping’ motif (in the left hand of the piano in this snippet):

Mahler Klavierquartett
which irrupts on the surface again and again, setting into motion the final passage which becomes a materialization of a pure, singular drive. What was abstract in the opening becomes pernicious and concrete motive by the end—a psychological ‘fixation.’ Yes, it’s a ‘fixation,’ monotonously dominating the Quartet. This motive, an empty signifier, represents the kernel upon which Mahler’s modern subject’s reality is grounded. Irruptions of the ‘real’ become an pervasive feature in Mahler’s musical discourse in this Quartet, to the exclusion of most everything else.

DSM: This Quartet may have been written in his young student days, but it isn’t ‘juvenilia.’ It does show some emulation of Dvorak, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. It has a dark consonance that grows denser toward the end. Mahler’s transitions into remote keys occur unexpectedly. This lends a sense of vulnerability and uncertainty to the piece. Uneasiness.

CMT: Look at this tenuto combined with a marcato—a ‘portato’—intermediate note-lengths, detached but not staccato. Accentuated one way or another, more détaché than martelé—it’s played on one bow stroke, but each note is gently articulated, used when a feeling of “carry” from one note to the next is needed. The portati consume the bow—moving from the bow tip back up to the frog, say—running out of time, running out of life. This is emotional writing (violin staff in snippet below).

Mahler Klavierquartett
DSM: The melodic elements sink deeper and deeper into the bass register until all energy is spent and only a quiet malignant evocation of the minor third of A minor is left. Grim pathos here!

CMT: To a certain extent, the Quartet finds its own means of managing and containing the ruptures of the ‘real’ within its constructed musical universe. But with the increase in the size of the ruptures, the ‘real’ affects the Quartet on an more and more ‘pathological’ level. The Quartet’s means of integrating the little piece of the real into the constructed universe is not so pathological. But by the middle of the movement, we have a recapitulation for the sonata form—a kind of ‘payment of symbolic debt’ that brings an end to the pure emotional ‘drive.’ By the end, the emotional devastation wrought by the ‘real’ in this Quartet is catastrophic. The piano’s last two chords are a poignant fatalism. All other meaning has been obliterated by the end of the movement, leaving only an empty husk. In a sense, the Quartet documents an almost complete destruction of the musical universe.

DSM: As such, its drama feels a bit like Barber’s Adagio. But, your qualifier ‘almost’ is important: history is not closed here with those last two piano chords. What was to be a suicide note, a work commemorating something or someone in memoriam, has failed: in the final chords we find that the work is a testament to the author’s, and to humanity’s, resilience and ability to survive.

CMT: Ultimately, the end of the Quartet proves the continued existence of the Quartet’s subjects—the composer; the performers; the listeners—by showing that the subject still remains, despite all that’s happened. So, while the Quartet argues convincingly that catastrophes definitely do happen, the catastrophes don’t bring about a complete end. In Lacanian psychoanalysis no act is ever totally complete: something always remains. For Žižek, there’s always a survivor or survivors, however damaged they may be. As the Quartet pushes towards its final notes, a conclusive End is an impossibility. The End doesn’t come. The exhausted survivors are left to carry on.

DSM: In Lacanian terminology, the survivors of the apocalypse represent the “the excess that cannot be accounted for by any symbolic idealization”—embodiments of the ‘real.’ With the apocalypse, the exhausted survivors, having survived The End, become representatives of a rendering of the ‘real’—they are the ‘ruptures’ in this symbolic reality.

CMT: The devastation pushes Mahler’s apocalyptic narrative to its limit, as the Quartet’s narrative concludes with a catastrophic act. To continue the intensification process of the apocalyptic narrative is, I think, not possible. Maybe that’s why Mahler never wrote other Piano Quartets: how does one write after the apocalypse? How does one compose a sequel to an ‘end’ that does not bring The End?

DSM: Along with the narrative break, there’s also a dissolving of the barrier of the distance created by the apocalyptic trajectory of this Piano Quartet, and a humanizing of the pathological irruptions of the ‘real.’

CMT: I think so. And, in his book, Dialogic Imagination, Mikhail Bakhtin differentiates between the stylized, ‘absolute’ past of the epic and the open-ended, solvent-like ‘emergent’ or continuing reality found in the novel. An ‘epic’ is set in a past that is so distant that the ‘gap’ created is unbreachable. It is a place where everything is “absolute and complete…everything is finished, already over.” It’s a place of unwavering protagonists and narrative trajectories that never divert from the path. The beginnings of epics are “idealized” or “brightened” and the endings are “darkened.”

DSM: On the other hand, ‘novels’—or in this case, novelistic musical compositions—don’t speak to a remote experience but instead address current reality. Epics have one language, an omniscient voice that knows and tells all. In the novel there are multiple languages, a variety of voices caught in the act of development. In short, the epic is a single-voiced discourse; the novel a multi-vocal discourse. Where the epic prophesies, the novel predicts; while the epic must end in death, the novel depicts “a life process that is imperishable and forever renewing itself, forever contemporary;” the epic is closed and complete, while the novel contains “an unrealized surplus of humanness.”

CMT: Following Bakhtin we can think of this Mahler Piano Quartet as a narrative trajectory of an epic form. Its opening begins with stylized innocence, referring to an absolute past. In the middle of the piece there’s a narrowing of focus to the singular (epic) story where no provision is made for varied voices or points of view. The epic distance is solidified at the end of the Quartet as the world of the past becomes completely inaccessible. At the end there is the violin cadenza—a “canonizing of events” that leads up to the catastrophe or apocalypse.

DSM: But, if we continue following Bakhtin, a novel has discursive features that are capable of seeping into other genres, including the epic. What happens at the end of the Quartet is not the end of history but, to use Derrida’s words, “the end of a certain concept of history,” in this case the epic history of the apocalypse. Mahler’s 16 year-old premonition is of modernity itself. That’s what I hear in this!

CMT: So we have a ‘novelization’ of the Quartet’s discourse when a single voice no longer speaks monologically from an absolute, epic past, but instead multiple voices now sound from current reality—life in the aftermath of the apocalypse. The process follows Attali’s notion of innovative music, leading to “a…conception of history…that is open, unstable.”

DSM: The Quartet strikes me as a searing elegy, a dirge where “death chords” are interrupted by laments equal in their emotional force. The individualistic utterances that are set apart from the surrounding music (both physically and emotionally) have their lyrical and harmonic beauty effaced by the irruptions. The ending passage opens the way for the diffuse finale that represents an unfinished, still-evolving contemporary reality.

CMT: The finale is the longest section in the Quartet, and in it material from earlier movements returns cyclically. The increase in tempo over the five movements combined with the cyclic return of themes, the intensity and sheer length of the finale create an end-oriented trajectory for the work culminating in the final movement that is an exhausting tour de force. The movement is a sonata form in which every section has developmental tendencies and the recapitulation returns themes not only from earlier in the movement, but also the cyclic returns.

Melissa Rose
DSM: Well, ‘long’ is a relative term. Melissa Rose and her fellow ensemble members who performed yesterday in Kansas City performed this Quartet in 9 minutes and 20 seconds. By contrast, Christoph Eschenbach’s performance with members of the Philadelphia Orchestra last year was 13 minutes. Various other artists’ performances of this Quartet are also 12 to 13 minutes long. So it was a tremendous disappointment to hear Rose compress this piece by more than 30% and, in so doing, extinguish the portato and the emotional drama. The ‘arc’ of the recurrences lacked dignity, and the existential impact that the piece should have was blunted by this interpretation. The last two chords became no more than appendages. Regrettably, it retained nothing at all of the depth that Eschenbach projects:

    [30-sec clip, Eschenbach, 2.6MB MP3]

T he dignity of Mahler’s music lies in the fact that it can be understood and understands itself, but eludes the hand that would grasp what has been understood.”
  — Theodor Adorno

H  ow can an artist expect that what he has felt intuitively should be perfectly understood by other people, since he himself feels in the presence of his work—if it is genuine art—that he is faced by a riddle about which he too may have illusions?”
  — Richard Wagner, letter dated 25-JAN-1854, to August Roeckel