16 September 2007

New England Bassoon Quartet: Re-voicing the Canon

New England Bassoon Quartet
DSM: The New England Bassoon Quartet performance at The Boston Conservatory this afternoon was excellent. NEBQ was founded in May this year. The Quartet is comprised of Ardith Keef (University of Southern Maine, Portland Symphony, Maine Chamber Ensemble, Maine Baroque Ensemble, Isaac Ensemble), Suzanne Nelsen (Boston Conservatory and BSO), Margaret Phillips (Berklee College of Music, Boston Philharmonic, Rhode Island Philharmonic, Portland Symphony), and Janet Polk (University of New Hampshire and Dartmouth College, Vermont Symphony).

CMT: Besides the performance today, NEBQ will also be performing at University of New Hampshire on Saturday 22-SEP.

  • Michel Corrette: Le Phenix
  • Christopher Kies: Arietta in Memory of Francis Poulenc
  • William Schuman: Quartettino
  • Serge Prokofiev: Scherzo
  • Vaclav Nelhybel: Concert Etudes
  • Lowell Shaw: Fripperies Vol. 1

DSM: The Kies arietta was gorgeous. Kies is a pianist and composer at UNH. This arietta was composed earlier this year, expressly for NEBQ. According to Ardith Keef, Poulenc left an unfinished bassoon quartet, which he was writing about the time that he died. Kies’s arietta was composed with that in mind.

CMT: So we have New York Bassoon Quartet, South Minneapolis Bassoon Quartet, Caliban Quartet, and now NEBQ. Are there gender issues that dispose toward all-women bassoon quartets, do you think?

T o paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, ‘What is it with these all-girl bassoon quartets?’ ”
  —  Jeff Lyman, International Double-Reed Society.

DSM: I don’t think so—nothing different from any other quartet type. No matter the gender of the players, bassoon ensembles can be especially beautiful when they achieve balance and stylistic unity, as the New England Bassoon Quartet members do. There’s superb music-making here, with solid musicianship powering it. Wonderfully lyrical, wonderfully ‘vocal’. Reminds me of Dunn’s and Jones’s ‘Embodied Voices’.

CMT: In Leslie Dunn’s and Nancy Jones’s book, I really admire the essays by Rebecca Pope (‘The diva doesn’t die: George Eliot’s Armgart’) and Elizabeth Tolbert (‘The voice of lament: Female vocality and performative efficacy in the Finnish-Karelian itkuvirsi’). Pope examines the female voice as a means of redress—for disparities and injustices of various kinds—and as instrumental in the exercise of freedom—singing as an act of full-fledged, independent personhood.

Dunn & Jones
DSM: Pope’s diva revises the conceptions of women’s roles and voice—restores a mode and a metaphor of female empowerment. The NEBQ members are not divas per se, but they surely are empowered! And the baritone register of the bassoon suits each of them well.

M en did not say, when I had sung last night, ‘Twas good, nay, wonderful, considering she is a woman’—and then turn to add ‘A baritone would have sung her songs better of course.’ ”
  —  Armgart, George Eliot, Middlemarch, p. 478.

CMT: Tolbert’s essay concerns women’s voices in a Finnish-Karelian idiom (itkuvirsi) that is historically women-only. The cultural function of the laments is iconic—it orchestrates the collective experience of sorrow and grief by the community. The style is also lyrical—emotional to the point of ecstasy; shamanic, even. The women lamenter vocalists serve as conduits to Tuonela, the Finnish-Karelian land of the dead. The singer ‘finds the words’ (löytää sanoja)—and the words gain power through performance. Much like lays and skaldic poetry in other Scandinavian cultures.

W omen cry with words, as opposed to men, who merely cry with the eyes.”
  —  Elizabeth Tolbert, in Dunn & Jones, Embodied Voices, p. 180.

K laudia Rahikainen, while not a lamenter herself, heard lamenting in funeral contexts in her youth and is quite sensitive to the increasing decontextualization and aestheticization of Karelian traditional practices. She criticizes today’s lamenters who ‘lament for money and not for a real occasion ... Prasniekka is a church holiday, but it is also a general word for festival ... Before there weren't laments at prasniekkas, but now there are. It’s now a performance ... The prasniekkas now are lammitetty [‘warmed over’].’ ”
  —  Elizabeth Tolbert in Dunn & Jones, Embodied Voices, p. 183.

DSM: It’s essential that there be genuine improvisation then—extemporaneity in the performance. The voices’ authenticity, living and breathing: the NEBQ are very spontaneous. Engaging interaction with the approximately 90 attendees at their Boston Conservatory recital, too.

CMT: What does it mean for a bassoon to be ‘vocal’ though? The term ‘vocal’ isn’t synonymous with ‘easy’, but, just the same, any song or part is ‘vocal’ if it can be readily sung—with effort but without strain—by the type of voice for which it’s written. This is true of a ‘vocal’ instrumental part as much as is of a ‘vocal’ vocal part.

DSM: Neither an uncomforably high nor an uncomfortably low tessitura, then.

CMT: Right. Vocality is something we’d ascribe to a part that is ‘in-character’, even when that part is recounting or mimicking the experiences of another character. Compositions that are truly ‘vocal’ have, I think, a unity of affect—a coherence of character—a recognizable and natural and stable embodiment of a character.

New England Bassoon Quartet
DSM: The Nelhybel Etudes were delicious. Difficult, the large-scale Allegro vivo forces the players through a long serpentine line. The second and third bassoonists’ music is ‘vocal’ but more angular—less like melody than a rebuttal. The other bassoonists antagonize the first bassoon; imparting a sensation of individual vs. imposter, of false-doubles and the anxiety they generate.

CMT: This sense of anxiety becomes more palpable in the slow third movement. This Canon moves with lyrical introspection and gaunt lines. The first bassoon transgresses reflective borders, from sparse soloistic dimensions into a chamber of throbbing, perseverative shadings. These aren’t saccharine-sweet Etudes to be played quietly on Mothers’ Day.

DSM: The Canon leads into an Allegro fourth movement, where the quartet’s intensity has full expression. The first bassoon spins a line of endless transformation, like a demented singer long having forgotten the actual melody. The other bassoons all the while grow—like an infestation—and eventually converge on the first bassoon. Through this proliferation of musical ideas—evocative of madness? fervor? euphoria?—the first bassoon never ceases. Iconic and shamanistic, a la Tolbert’s Finnish-Karelian lamenters. The four players’ songful convergence on the high unison—not so much an agreement as a fervent concession, don’t you think?

M usical melancholy arises when the protagonist of a work – be it the vocal character in a song or the ‘composer’s voice’ in an instrumental work – exhibits an ironic distance from his or her own pain. The musical dialectics in these works prompt listeners, for their part, to take a step back to contemplate the borders and limits of emotional experience and communication.”
  —  Nancy November, 2007.

CMT: Jonathan Dunsby wrote several years ago that he was unhappy with Lawrence Kramer’s concept of ‘songfulness’ because it’s overly complex, not intuitive enough to adequately cover emotional extremes. The New England Bassoon Quartet’s performance today provides evidence to support Dunsby’s argument—their performance is surely amenable to analysis, but it’s more compelling and accessible and intuitive than would ever require any analysis. Their musical discourse is straightforward, immanent, and aesthetically transparent—not complex or scholarly. Nice!

W hat we hear in a performance of a song is also what we brought to that performance from our own experience, what we remember of it, and what it will become. This is actually the most obvious single challenge to music analysis, and even more of a challenge to that very poor relation of analysis, music criticism: How do you know what you will say about a piece of music tomorrow?”
  —  Jonathan Dunsby, Making Words Sing, p. 140.

S uppose that a particular quality of ‘voice’ attracts your attention, one that is not captured precisely by another performer, or perhaps even by the same performer at another time (or in a different acoustic environment). A recognition of its individual quality implies that some compariston has informed your listening. That comparison can, however, remain entirely tacit until a moment of critical reflection, when it becomes more articulate.”
  —  Naomi Cumming, The Sonic Self, p. 74.

S ongfulness is a fusion of vocal and musical utterance judged to be both pleasurable and suitable independent of verbal content. It is the positive quality of singing-in-itself: ‘just singing.’”
  —  Lawrence Kramer, Beyond Words and Music, in Musical Meaning, p. 53.

A n expressivity of ‘voice’, or ‘singing’, is heard as **belonging** to a sound, not as something that can be separately known in all its specificity. It may well be termed ‘innocent’ in its purity or ‘warm’ in its broad timbral palette, leading to subsequent reflection on why sounds have been marked as conveying such qualities ... The capacity of some violin sounds to convey a quasi-vocal ‘innocence’ or ‘warmth’ as their embedded object is established within a community of discourse—one which habitually links ‘violin’ [or bassoon] with attributes of ‘vocality’.”
  —  Naomi Cumming, The Sonic Self, p. 73.

The Boston Conservatory

15 September 2007

Górecki on Loss: Progressive Disability in the Shadow of Canonic Agency

W  hen horses die, they breathe,
When grasses die, they wither,
When suns die, they go out,
When people die, songs are sung.”
  — Velimir Khlebnikov.

CMT: Listen. Górecki started with techniques that somewhat resemble Messiaen. But in his later works, his atonal practices disappear. They’re replaced by tonal minimalism of gently mounting thematic phrases.

DSM: His String Quartet No. 3, ‘...songs are sung,’ performed by Kronos Quartet, is songlike and thematic. But it’s not purely sorrowful, like his Third Symphony. This String Quartet No. 3 is filled with soul-searching melancholy, it’s true—music that seldom rises above mezzo piano. The opening Adagio builds on a pernicious metrical theme borrowed from Beethoven’s Seventh—over which we have this “breathing” violin melody. The violin part resembles a dying person’s breathing in and breathing out, progressively more labored—inspiring, expiring. It ascends to a tense climax and then dissolves into an angst-filled stillness.

CMT: That’s followed by an even more subdued Largo, interspersed with major-key plateaus. The brief third movement, Allegro, suggests a recovery, but that is short-lived and gives way to the thematically related Deciso and Finale with their continued progression and deterioration.

DSM: There’s a pervasive melancholy followed by a cathartic peacefulness, created by Górecki’s repetition of figures. It reminds me of my experiences taking care of people in hospice, close to the end of their lives.

CMT: Górecki’s slow tempos are very occasionally supplanted by faster ones—ironic or defiant outbursts. These exacerbations and remissions are surely characteristic of the course of many people at life’s end. Górecki’s mildly dissonant minor key chorale textures that tend toward harmonic stasis—those too are symbolically consistent with palliation of pain, with the incurability of failing organ systems in the body, with the clinging to hopes and spiritual concepts, with the dying person’s effort to maintain an emotional stasis up to the last.

DSM: Górecki’s five-movement quartet is a loose, arch-like form. Material from the first two movements is repeated in the last two movements in a way that clarifies or revises the meaning that was imparted at the outset.

CMT: The ending that mirrors the beginning is something of a T.S. Eliot-esque Four Quartets ‘Little Gidding’ (‘to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time’) return, a cycle. Górecki’s surprises, such as the romantic theme that appears in the third and fourth movements, are wonderfully narrative: the temporary recovery; the suspense you feel when it becomes increasingly clear that the recovery won’t last, but it’s not yet clear what will happen next. But I think some listeners may have a hard time noticing or appreciating the narrative. It takes some effort on the listener’s part to grasp it—the listener must be in an imaginative mood, must be open to hearing a song about morbidity and mortality. Górecki has this glacial lyricism—long, long projective lines—mounting tensions conducted on a glacial timescale of minutes. Having worked in palliative care, this String Quartet No. 3 immediately spoke to me, spoke poignant truth. But I wonder how many listeners will be receptive and hear in it the things that I hear.

DSM: The hospice or palliative care interpretation is supported, I believe, by the positive, transient major-key melodies undermined by negative harmonies and dissonances. The negative material suggests doubt, and possibly a difficulty remembering.

CMT: Or even a relinquishing, a letting-go of trying anymore to remember. As the circulation begins to fail, as the perfusion of the brain diminishes—the person has less and less ability to keep up the effort to be wakeful and lucid. In fact, this Quartet as a whole seems preoccupied with the elusiveness of memory, with the mind’s ability to repeat ideas but to lose itself in them through that very repetition, through its periodic development and both exact and inexact recall. An excellent example is the rather sweet, rising melodic idea just after the start of the only fast movement (III Allegro, sempre ben marcato), which at the end falters and flickers and fades away. Its closing cadence barely registers. The symbolism is so strong—the resemblance to the process of dying is so unmistakable—it’s impossible to think that this idea was not behind Górecki’s writing.

DSM: Your example also reveals Górecki’s symphonic style—the lack of expressive closure in the Allegro third movement propels the listener forward. Then he quotes from the first movement of Szymanowski’s Second Quartet. This quotation—a technique we see in Górecki’s earlier music—also suggests that the person—the singer, the narrator of this Quartet—is remembering or trying to recall specific things that are outside this Quartet; is successfully remembering the Szymanowski snippet and then losing it.

CMT: Besides the Szymanowski quotation, the features of Górecki’s String Quartet No. 3 include its strategic use of melodic thirds, both minor and major; its chordal patterns with strong diatonic and sometimes cadential features; its conflictual dissonances between melody and harmony.

DSM: Górecki’s slow tempi produce moments of peace and resolution, introspective meditations during periods of lucidity. The music makes you urgently hope that the subject of the Quartet can somehow sustain the peaceful state of such moments. But no such luck—for the most part the work is characterized by an organic restlessness—like the agitation of an elderly person who has a cognitive disorder, like Alzheimer’s Disease. In effect, the Quartet is like the memorial testimony of a family member or other caregiver, summarizing the progress of their loved one’s prolonged deterioration and eventual death. It is a memorial to the person, but the person who gives this account is ennobled by the act of giving it. It is an unsentimental testimonial to the nature of the human condition, and to the innate goodness in humankind as members of our species try in extremis to cope with our condition. In the sense that the four string voices are rendering what amounts to a song or story of one person, this Quartet is far less discursive or conversational than most other string quartets.

CMT: Having cared for people at the end of life, including dementia patients, I identify viscerally with the expressive world that this Quartet evokes—the music transports me far beyond the literal musical content of the Quartet.

DSM: This String Quartet No. 3 convinces me that Górecki’s retreat from serialism in his earlier work to his more recent minimalism was really a positive move. The Quartet’s underlying morbidity somehow carries optimism. The writing is well paced and unrelentingly intense.

CMT: In terms of pacing, the length of the first movement, and maybe the fourth, would be a bit much for a listener who is not grasping or identifying with the morbidity-mortality themes, I think. The minimalist violin sighing-inspiring-expiring might annoy such a listener, especially when it continues for more than 10 minutes. This Quartet is 56 minutes long, after all. Most of the sections feature cadential silences—very meaningful, if one accepts the interpretation we’re applying to the Quartet—but easily misunderstood by others who are not in a receptive mood, who might feel the silences are gratuitous.

DSM: There are these slow pulses in the viola and cello parts that signify uncertainty and inability to act. Why do you think that ‘agency’—the human capacity to make choices and to act in the world—matter to us and to Górecki?

CMT: You mean why is it so important that our intentions have effects in the world and that they embody what we value? Well, the final, terminal phase of life when we are totally dependent on others and are unable to perform even the simplest activities of daily living like feeding ourselves or bathing or toileting represents a diminution of all of the means we have of establishing our identity and sense of self. It is a period of tremendous loss. With thoughtful end-of-life care, it need not mean the erosion of dignity or worth or integrity as a person. But it is undeniably a time of loss. Vegetables do not have ‘agency’ or intentions. Individuals in a persistent vegetative state do not have ‘agency’. Personhood—being fully alive—is inseparable from ‘agency’. That’s why ‘agency’—the ability to decide and act—is so important, to us and to Górecki. But, beyond that and given that Górecki is Polish, given that he experienced all manner of repression under the old regime, and given that he more or less completed this Quartet in 1995, I wonder whether this Quartet embodies his motivations for political agency and judgment in an age that lacks much enthusiasm for civil rights.

DSM: What are the conditions for being an impactful citizen when the meaning of democracy has become less transparent and nominally democratic governments are filled with corrupt plutocrats? David Kyuman Kim has published a book recently that addresses these issues. He specifically examines the political, moral, philosophical, and religious dimensions of human agency. Kim treats agency as a form of religious experience that reflects implicit and explicit notions of the Good. Kim considers ‘projects of regenerating Agency’ or critical and strategic responses to loss—very relevant to the subject of Górecki’s String Quartet No. 3. Moreover, he says that agency is ‘melancholic freedom’. Such freedom persists through the moral and emotional losses associated with a broad range of experiences, including alienation experienced by those who suffer the indignities of racial, ethnic and gender discrimination.

 Kim, Melancholy
CMT: Here are some excerpts from the fifth movement (Largo, Tranquillo) of this Quartet.

    [60-sec clip, Kronos Qt, 1.4MB MP3]

    [60-sec clip, Kronos Qt, 1.4MB MP3]

    [60-sec clip, Kronos Qt, 1.4MB MP3]

W hilst the slow, mournful music fully articulates the weight of death and grief, instead of being catapulted into corresponding misery, it has the surprising effect of throwing the listener into a state of contemplation, reverie and even hope.”
  —  Charlotte Gardner, BBC Online.

I f Górecki’s works are informed by suffering and grief, they also chronicle courage and vision. There’s an unmistakably political component alongside the music’s spirituality. Górecki, after all, touches on some of the pivotal events of the 20th century: World War II, the rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland, Pope John Paul’s return to his native land in the closing years of the Cold War. But if Górecki is resolutely Polish and Roman Catholic, his music surely transcends cultural and spiritual barriers.”
  —  Cate Hagman, Olsson’s Classical Corner, Bethesda.

L ike the poetry of Wallace Stevens, Henryck Górecki’s music seems cerebral almost to the point of insularity. Stevens wrote: ‘Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.’ Of course, no art exists in a vacuum, carrying as it does an inherent quality of communication. Yet, there are those artists who, through their use of symbolism, create an atmosphere that leads to a profound sense of contemplation and loneliness.”
  — ArtAndCulture.

I s my death possible?’ How is this question to be understood? ... One of the aporetic experiences—my own impossible yet unavoidable death—can never be subject to an experience that would be properly mine—an experience that I can have and account for. Yet there is, at the same time, nothing closer to me and more properly mine than ‘my death’.”
  — Jacques Derrida, Aporias.

DSM: Melancholy and aporias are, of course, perennial subjects in the Arts. For example, you can see melancholy and creative despair in the works of such disparate artists as Peter Brueghel, Albrecht Dürer, Edward Hopper, Jörg Immendorf, Sigmar Polke and Caspar David Friedrich. Suffering and alienation inform Art across all cultures and all centuries. The sublime melancholy Górecki achieves in this Quartet is another masterpiece in that tradition.

CMT: The term ‘melancholy’ comes from the ancient Greek melas (black) and chole (gall). The Greeks believed that it was bile in the body that produced the despair and depression that so characterized the poets and artists of their time. In medieval times, scholars and artists formed ‘melancholy Clubs’ and in 1621, Robert Burton wrote ‘Anatomy of Melancholy,’ the first systematic review on the subject.

M elancholy characterizes those with a superb sense of the sublime.”
  —  Immanuel Kant, Observations on the Feelings of the Beautiful and Sublime, 1764.

DSM: For Susan Sontag, the ‘mind as passion’ and the body in pain were central motifs. Her last book, Regarding the Pain of Others, considers how images of war and violence mediate our responses to human suffering. Like Górecki, she favored disjunctive forms of
argument; she liked silences. She used aphoristic modes of critical expression and used epigrams not as mere decorations but as encapsulations of the meaning she intends in her text; so does Górecki with his Khlebnikov epigram, although he tries to deny it in his interview with Norman Lebrecht.

CMT: In his delicate portrayal of indelicate aspects of human life—this Quartet with its complex network of multiple surprises and ironies, Górecki achieves a level of authenticity that one rarely encounters in depictions of life. Normal, canonical existence is always suspect, a temporary armistice. . . these fears bleed into successive generations, so that a war or defeat or forced labor or internment are not over when they are ‘over’ but are carried around as this inchoate melancholy the listener recognizes as the backdrop of Górecki’s work.

T he forests were on fire—
they however
wreathed their necks with their hands
like bouquets of roses
People ran to the shelters—
he said his wife had hair
in whose depths one could hide
Covered by one blanket
they whispered shameless words
the litany of those who love
When it got very bad
they leapt into each other’s eyes
and shut them firmly
So firmly they did not feel the flames
when they came up to the eyelashes
To the end they were brave
To the end they were faithful
To the end they were similar
like two drops
stuck at the edge of a face.”
  —  Zbigniew Herbert, Collected Poems, 1956-1998.

DSM: You mean that melancholics often keep mental ledgers of help received and given, feel deprived, begrudge others their successes. The elderly in nursing homes keep such ledgers—tend to resent those who are not maintaining their accounts in good standing, resent the family members who are not visiting as frequently as they would like. Yes, there is no ledger-keeping in Górecki. There is the nostalgia, though, that permeates this music. It remits in the Third Movement (Allegro) briefly. And it remits transiently when the tense, dissonant passages give way to sudden, gentle major chords. But even those affirmative moments are fleeting and seem fueled by memories, rather than durable new developments. This reinforces the realistic sense that the character Górecki creates—the individual that this Quartet evokes—is failing, beset by a series of ongoing morbid problems that are incurable and terminal, as with someone in hospice.

CMT: In other words, the nostalgia is not narcissistic. It’s propelled by the morbidities that are driving the rest—spontaneous and organic, not of the character’s choosing.

DSM: Flickering life, belly-up. The sageing flesh, a wrinkled vicedom. The veined reverberation of a life consumed. On corneas imprinted with a thousand dreams, now penumbral plays directed by a sight receding and a brain enraged.

CMT: It’s hard to believe this is the same Górecki who composed serialist music in the 50’s and 60’s. This is the music of a post-modern Romantic.

DSM: His earlier works are sharp, biting; this latest Quartet is sadly, warily wise.

CMT: I wonder why, given that he completed the composition of this Quartet in 1995, he withheld it from Kronos Quartet (who had commissioned it) until 2005. That has got to be unique. Very strange. And the story behind it would, I bet, be worthy of a novel or a screenplay.

DSM: A 10-year hiatus is not explicable in terms of mere editing. Was it that he was waiting, to see whether this Quartet in the end truly said what he intended it to say? Was it that events in Poland or events in Górecki’s life during those years were altering and re-altering what he felt truly needed to be said?

CMT: Or was the delay due to some frailty or health problems of his own?

DSM: No, my hunch is that—as with Polish poets like Zagajewski and Milosz—he wanted to be sure this Quartet did not contain anything that would, in hindsight, diminish it. This is a highly introverted, meditative piece—and there is a risk that compositional gestures in
such a piece could be precious or trite. To create such an inward-looking piece as this is a very subtle, risky thing—it’s deceptively simple-looking on the face of it. But I think it’s inherently harder to be sure when you are ‘finished’ with such a piece—harder, that is, if you deeply care about your decision being right. ‘Ten years hard,’ I don’t know. But hard, anyway.

W rite what you like about the quartet. I am always interested in what people write about my work. I put notes on paper, you put words. What I think about the music, my philosophy, that does not leave my work room. But I am curious to know what others see in it. [...] [W]hat goes into my music stays in my [work] room. The world can hear in it what it likes.”
  —  Henryk Górecki, interview with Norman Lebrecht, La Scena, 28-FEB-2007, about Quartet No. 3.

I  ask why he waited so long before bringing it [Quartet No. 3] out. ‘I honestly don’t know,’ he sighs. ‘It’s like wine, some bottles you leave for two years, some for five. This one had to lay a little bit longer.’ ”
  —  Norman Lebrecht, interview with Henryk Górecki, La Scena, 28-FEB-2007, about Quartet No. 3.


07 September 2007

Llorca: Artist-Opera, Composer-Politics and the Internets

The Empty Hours

W e now need to look beyond restrictive theories; beyond galleries with their exclusive, radical agendas; beyond, even, artists themselves—and focus all our attention, and every critical fibre we can muster, on the works that are being produced today, wherever they come from and whoever makes them.”
  —  Julian Spalding, ‘The Eclipse of Art’, 2003

DSM: The performance by Agrupación Coral Benidorm (Benidorm Choral Ensemble) and members of the Julius-Stern-Institut für musikalische Nachwuchsförderung of the Universität der Künste Berlin last night was novel and exciting.

  • Director: Matias de Oliviera Pinto
  • Piano: Anastassiya Dranchuk
  • Soprano: Laila Salome Fischer
  • Speaker: Anna Thalbach

CMT: ‘Las Horas Vacías’, Ricardo Llorca’s chamber opera for soprano, chorus, piano and a chamber orchestra, premiered at the Sacred Music Festival of Benidorm, is a work about a woman, isolated in her executive role, trying to find meaningful interaction with other people—a lover?—via the internet.

DSM: More broadly, ‘The Empty Hours’ proposes to be a psycho-opera. It’s an extended meditation on the loneliness and feelings of ennui and meaninglessness that are prevalent in Western societies. It’s not a scholastic piece, it’s not an Adorno-style ‘negative dialectical’ set-piece—it’s accessible and and the music is moving. I would say, though, that it looks like Llorca’s very much in the tradition of Spanish tragedians like Cervantes.

The Empty Hours, premiere in Benidorm, Spain, with Dorota Grezskowiak (soprano), Maria Ruiz de Apodaca (speaker)
CMT: Llorca indulges in extended passages with bitonal harmony—purposefully—not with a superficial aim to unsettle the listener, but to advance the plot.

DSM: The score is organic, approachable. The timbral qualities of the soprano’s voice are extensively explored, in ways that are complemented by the orchestration. The writing for each instrument is lyrical—the only part of the score that’s self-conscious is the extensive bitonality—two keys simultaneously, clashing.

CMT: As new music goes, ‘The Empty Hours’ is something of a hybrid, both traditional and contemporary. It establishes its narrative with a harmonic and melodic foundation that’s not tonal but not atonal either—it might accurately be called non-atonal.

DSM: Llorca says that, due to the absence of a single unifying tendency or a specific defining style in new music today, he and other composers of new music are forced to choose between continuing along the path of experimentation or returning to a classical framework. The opera, to him, represents a middle ground—an escape from this dichotomy.

Ricardo Llorca
CMT: Llorca is 45—he was born in 1962 in Alicante on the southeastern coast of Spain, and he studied in Madrid at the Royal Conservatory under Román Alis, Luigi Nono, Carmelo Bernaola, and Luis de Pablo. For the past 20 years Llorca has lived in New York. He completed his studies at Juilliard, where he worked with composers David Diamond and John Corigliano, and then joined the Juilliard faculty. In 2001, he received the John Simon Guggenheim Award for his composing.

DSM: Llorca has had a number of important commissions, including the Virginia Luque Debut Recital at Carnegie Hall; the Julliard Performing Arts Program for Schools; the Composers and Choreographers Series at Lincoln Center; the Queen Sofía Spanish Institute; Sensedance; the Centro para la Difusión de la Musica Contemporanea; the Festival Internacional Andrés Segovia; the Junta de Castilla-La Mancha; the Grupo de Musica Barroca ‘La Folia’; the Festival de Musica Colombo-Catalana; the Setmana de Musica Sacra; and the French Institute-Alliance Française.

Ricardo Llorca
CMT: Llorca’s compositions currently include:
  • Tres piezas para piano y orquesta: ‘El tiempo malherido,’ ‘El fin de la inocencia,’ ‘La avalancha’;
  • Concierto Italiano para flauta de pico, guitarra, clave continuo y orquesta de cuerdas;
  • Tres piezas academicas para piano: ‘Sarao,’ ‘Coral,’ ‘Fuga’;
  • The Dark Side (monodrama for mezzosoprano and piano);
  • El Ángel Caído (The Fallen Angel);
  • The Swimming Pool; and
  • The Empty Hours (Las Horas Vacías, monodrama).

DSM: ‘The Empty Hours’ combines traditional compositional techniques with modern and post-modern musical elements. 17th Century recitatives are amended with contemporary motives and polyrhythms. The role of Llorca’s recitatives is not one of evoking nostalgia, though, or merely providing a foil for the contrasting aggressive passages. The recitatives have the effect of revealing the ‘disconnects’ in personhood, the multiple ‘selves’ that we are comprised of. Not just the multiplicity of the selves that we outwardly present to others, but the multiplicity of selves that we are inside. In other words, the combination of compositional techniques does shed light on Llorca’s politics—on the political arguments of his operatic essay.

CMT: Through the opera, the protagonist Frau experiences a series of self-doubts and reflections. She is totally absorbed by her job, a series of negotiations with investors and presentations to business clients. By the conclusion I had expected that she would reach a kind of meta-stable stance, a non-resolution to the human predicament but one that achieves a degree of dignity and meaning. That’s what I’d been led to anticipate from the pre-performance press...

W  hen actions are merely diagnostic of outcomes rather than causal, the analysis of [personal autonomy and] choice becomes problematic... The cognitive dissonance can be reduced by re-evaluating the state of affairs. But cognitive dissonance theory does not claim that people must engage in actions that are ‘diagnostic’ of an inference in order to accept the inference. And dissonance theory is not inconsistent with the notion that people may choose actions that enable them to make favourable inferences.”
  —  George Quattrone and Amos Tversky, 'Self-Deception', in Jon Elster, ‘The Multiple Self’, 1987

DSM: The performance by Julius-Stern-Institute of Berlin was admirable—earnest and beautiful. At the Institut about 70 gifted students between 9 and 19 years receive a comprehensive musical education alongside a general curriculum. The Julius-Stern-Institut chamber orchestra was established in late 1999.

CMT: Matias de Oliveira Pinto’s conducting was passionate and sensitive to the requirements of the composition. The ensemble is comprised of young players—for whom bitonal writing could be confusing. Hell, dissonances so extensive as these can be confusing to players of any age, of any level of experience. But de Oliveira Pinto provides ample cues and support. With such a ‘safety net’ the performers can devote themselves to their parts, can invest themselves emotionally in their parts.

Matias de Oliveiras Pinto
DSM: Anastassiya Dranchuk’s piano was suitably ‘metronomic’, in keeping with the score.

CMT: Bell-like, clock-like eighth notes—especially in the reverberous Berliner Dom. Yes, Dranchuk was relentless and precise in her performance. The piano and orchestra are, essentially, the ‘other’ subject in the opera—the antagonist to the ‘Frau’ protagonist. They represent the world, the relentless passage of time—the context within which human beings either find and create meaning or fail to do so.

DSM: Dranchuk’s piano is the core of Llorca’s ‘minimalism’ in this opera—the glue that holds the texture of the opera together.

CMT: As well as the harbinger introducing new motifs or announcing the reprise of previous ones.

DSM: The 29-voice Benidorm choir was a bit muddy. But that’s not their fault—Llorca has too many passages where there is a Tower of Babel of competing voices. Maybe in a studio or a smaller hall with more congenial acoustics this writing would be okay. But, really, I think the compositional techniques in the rest of the score have already ample abstractions symbolizing the fragmentation of society, the isolation, the loss of identity that accompanies technology, the dark side of technology that enables radical autonomy (or technology that inadvertently prevents people who need competent professional help from seeking and getting such help).

CMT: The string players’ performance was admirable. Llorca’s score allocates interesting passages to each of the parts, and the Julius-Stern-Institut members rose to the occasion.

DSM: Laila Salome Fischer’s singing was capable. Her part has a number of technically difficult staccato passages, for instance. Her intonation was spot-on, and she nicely accommodated her diction to the cavernous Dom sanctuary. Well done!

CMT: Anna Thalbach’s oration was too self-absorbed. She emitted giggles several times that sounded very much the way a teen-age girl sounds when she is on the phone with friends. If the score calls for those, then perhaps Thalbach’s effect is the one that Llorca did intend. But it seemed inconsistent with any plausible introspection regarding ‘emptiness’ of our post-modern hours. If this Geschäftsführerin’s hours are truly ‘empty’, then the existential weight of them should be felt by the character. I was expecting and hoping for this existential weight, but I never got it. Thalbach never experienced it, never delivered it; and Llorca never wrote it.

H ello? Hello?
I think you’re connected ’cause I see your name on the screen.
Yes? ...Hello? Hello? Are you there?
Ah!... Shall I tell you?
Wednesday was a nightmare with the new employees;
Who did everything wrong:
Photocopies, bills of sale, contracts sent off with no signature.
So I had to fix up everything, staying late to correct their mistakes
And getting home with my eyes exhausted,
And too late for dinner.
And then I only got a few hours sleep
Since I had to be at a meeting on Thursday morning
Again !!! with the new investors,
Who never missed a chance to criticize,
To inspect, oversee, and appraise,
Coming and going as they saw fit,
Correcting, controlling,
And meddling in things they can’t understand,
And no concept of the work involved...”
  — Frau, The Empty Hours libretto

DSM: I think the Berliner Dom’s crackly, distorted PA system is partly to blame for that.

CMT: Hmmm. Well, to the contrary, I in fact liked the creaky PA system through which Thalbach’s voice was amplified. I thought that its antique-ey, distorted sound lent a certain remoteness, a telephone-ey distance to the text. The physical or social isolation of Thalbach’s character was convincing because of the telephonic timbre that the PA system imparted. It was consistent with some of Llorca’s tendencies to use ‘found’ sounds and electro-acoustic effects in other of his compositions.

 Matias de Oliveiras Pinto
DSM: It might be interesting for a woman of 40 years or older—40 or 50 or 60, say—to perform the speaker role in The Empty Hours, don’t you think?

CMT: For a more world-weary, world-savvy, business-savvy demeanor you mean? For a perspective more realistic in portraying a female Managing Director? Yes, I think that would be more in keeping with the thematic aspirations of Llorca’s opera. Obviously, that’s not possible if the ensemble who’s performing is the young Julius-Stern-Institut group. But, yes, in other productions of this opera I think a speaker of a certain age would be a good idea. It’s hard to carry off the part of a business woman, a Managing Director no less, if you’re only 18 years old.

More than this, though, I think Llorca is way ‘over the top’ with the text of the libretto—the Geschäftsführerin’s ‘It’s all about me’ attitude. It’s hard to conceive of anyone so self-absorbed as this Frau; hard to conceive of any partner, online or otherwise, who would put up with such a person’s egotism and narcissism—conveyed by the words that the libretto puts in the Frau’s mouth/keyboard.

More than that, though, my impression from the libretto is that Llorca’s conception of online social networking and text-messaging—among business people—is flawed. The exchanges (for example, the excerpt above) are so implausible that it makes me wonder whether Llorca has ever used any Web 2.0 apps; makes me wonder whether he himself is online much at all, or whether he instead chose this online-culture conceit only for its topicality-cachet. The Internets! Okay—this opera proposes to be about online culture. But it clumsily depicts online culture—not even close to reality. The libretto could be convincing if the Frau’s lines weren’t so histrionic and confessional. If the text resembled actual online dialogues of real business people it would be effective and believable. No business woman in a position of any responsibility ever utters sentences like this ditzy, histrionic Frau’s. ‘I think you’re connected because I see your name on the screen.’ Please. If a thought or gesture like this actually arose in the course of online chat or solicitation of chat, what do you imagine would be the reaction? Loser! Flee at great speed!

What I mean is, I don’t think Llorca’s intent was to create an opera that takes a cynical, disparaging view of business women—but that’s in fact what he’s inadvertently done. A cynical, disparaging critique of hyper-capitalism, yes—that may be part of Llorca’s politics and part of what he intends. But I don’t believe he means to evoke this disparaging view of business women as self-absorbed, needy, hysterical Web 2.0 incompetents, unfulfilled and estranged from family and community. We can’t identify with this character if the portrayal is false or unrealistic. And we can’t identify with the character if the qualities she possesses are so off-putting and unlikable. Parasitic. Hours can have emptiness in contemporary social contexts even for full, whole every-woman/every-man characters; Llorca didn’t need to give us this empty, damaged woman character to enable the exploration of emptiness and social impoverishment.

I mean, I wouldn’t want to meet a business woman like this one in real life. And I have never met such a one in real life, in my own more than 30 years in business in the U.S. We wouldn’t tolerate such a portrayal of women today in theatre, television, film, literature. (Well, maybe we would if the woman character were a psychotic killer in a ‘B’ horror movie or a ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ cheesy TV soap-opera.) So I can’t accept that such a characterization of us should here be thought ‘artistic’ or have critical punches pulled merely because it is in this medium. It should not get a free pass just because it is opera—wrapping it up as opera with a chamber ensemble and chamber choir can’t immunize the work from criticism that it deserves. The music is fine if you ‘go’ for minimalist abstraction, but the libretto seriously needs a re-do.

DSM: Wow. Because I don’t speak German, I didn’t grasp the feminist aspects you’re upset by. Even without understanding the words, however, I do recognize your point about the young speaker, Anna Thalbach. If the lines were delivered with a coolness and detachment calibrated by more decades of living, it might’ve mitigated some of the problems inherent in the text itself. And I do acknowledge your point about hyper-capitalism—or more specifically your implication that Llorca has no realistic notion of business at all. Consider his ignorance of the rights and duties that investment bankers and venture capitalists have in the operations of the companies they invest in, for example. That ignorance yields a libretto that makes the Frau say stupid, unrealistic things. Evidently Juilliard is very far away from Wall Street. In all, though, you’ll agree that this performance was an outstanding element of Musikfestival Berlin.

CMT: Yes—all opportunities to hear new music are welcome. Push our envelope anytime! But sometimes we may push back.

O nly by considering the views of Spaniards themselves can we test the validity of our own perceptions and perhaps rethink how we arrived at them in the first place. ‘Giving to art objects a cultural significance,’ as Clifford Geertz says, becomes then a matter for both insiders and outsiders.”
  —  Carol Hess, ‘Manuel de Falla and Modernism in Spain’, 2002, p. 2.

Musik-Fest Berlin 2007 billboard/poster

Spalding, Eclipse of Art