14 November 2009

Berliner Philharmoniker: Schoenberg’s ‘Accompaniment’, Op. 34

Schoenberg discursively playing chamber pingpong in 1930

Schoenberg discursively plays ‘chamber pingpong’ in 1930

H    ow words are understood is not told by words alone. How music is understood is not told by music alone. [How films are understood is not told by film alone.]”
  —  Arnold Schoenberg quote.
T    hough originality is inseparable from personality, there exists also a kind of originality which does not derive from profound personality. Products of such artists are often distinguished by uniqueness that resembles true originality… Certainly there was inventiveness at work when the striking changes of some subordinate elements were accomplished for the first time. Subsequently, they achieved an aspect of novelty not derived profoundly from basic ideas. This is ‘mannerism’, not originality. The difference is that mannerism is ‘originality in subordinate matters’. There are many, and even respectable, artists whose success and reputation are based on this minor kind of originality… The moral air of such products is rather for success and publicity than for enriching mankind’s thoughts.”
  —  Arnold Schoenberg, Criteria For the Evaluation of Music (1946), quoted by Tom Myron.
T  onight the Berliner Philharmoniker, under conductor Sir Simon Rattle, performed Schoenberg’s 1929 ‘Begleitungsmusik zu einer Lichtspielscene (Drohende Gefahr, Angst, Katastrophe) ‘ [Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene], Op. 34, at Carnegie Hall. What, if anything does Op. 34 have to do with ‘chamber music’, you ask?

W  ell, if ‘intimacy’ is the defining quality of ‘chamber’ music idioms, then Op. 34 has considerable to do with ‘chamber’ collaborative motivations and expressive qualities. Hive-like sectional playing so ‘tight’ and in-tune that a whole section sounds like one person… ‘Open’ orchestration that accentuates individualism of parts… Parts covered by one musician (e.g., timpani; flute flutter-tonguing; heavily muted/smothered trumpet; clarinet near the end of the piece)… A spirit of ‘mutual discovery’ among the ensemble’s parts, instead of orchestral ‘exposition’…

A  gainst those ‘chamber’ features you have the fact that the ensemble has a conductor, has 100+ members, and is playing in this large unchamber-like hall. So, go ahead and throw out my fascination with chamber-ness if you want.

J  ust the same, maybe the writing does manifest chamber music idioms. Does any modest-size chamber orchestra ever perform this Op. 34, I wonder?

I  n 1929 Schönberg was commissioned by the Heinrichshofen Verlag in Magdeburg to write music for films. The autocratic Schoenberg was not about to relinquish his artistic control, contract or no contract, and so he focused on the eponymous ‘threatening danger, fear, catastrophe.’

A  s a result, Op. 34 is only loosely an instance of ‘program music’. It does not specifically address any particular film’s scenes or characters. The film was hypothetical, imaginary, never produced. The sections that comprise the work (Introduction; 12-tone theme; Song form; Ostinato; Four Contrasting Episodes; Subdivision into Tetrachords; Climax; Reflection on the Beginning of the Work) are fragments. They are idealizations of features that might occur in music intended to be coupled with a film—it’s a kind of meta-film score, a score about future film scores.

A  ctually, Schönberg constructs the climax of ‘Begleitungsmusik’ by colliding a succession of tiny components without predetermining a ‘victor’. The 8-min piece is a series of ideas that enter and enter and enter, intruding upon other ideas that are still being articulated by other parts. New material that unexpectedly eclipses other material—that is a gesture that in 1930 was revolutionary but that we today recognize as a frequent element of film music: overlapping and occluding parts is a way to convey/reinforce that the ‘action’ is changing.

M  ore than this even, Op. 34 has an amorphous pattern of rapidly altering meter. The tempo is ‘elastic’, changing on a timescale that is very short—several seconds only—in a manner that palpably means action. This piece feels decades ahead of its time, introducing gesture after gesture that we today recognize as ‘cinematic’.

A  ccompaniment’/‘Begleitungsmusik’ is a term that evidently bothered Schoenberg. It’s such a politically ‘loaded’ term, connoting subjection of musicians and abandonment to some larger fate that is beyond their control...

B  ut the accurate word for the film composer’s relationship to a director/producer is ‘abandonment’. It must surely be the rare film scoring gig where the director/producer is open to deep collaboration—open to the film’s aesthetic’s being seriously modulated or diverted by what the composer comes up with on her/his own recognizance, like what iconoclast Schoenberg was doing. In a highly competitive world where composers are required to deliver commercial results on tight deadlines, producers and directors do everything that they can to de-risk their projects, with carefully constructed contracts and scene-lists and storyboards. They restrict the budgets and the support in such a way as to preempt novel spiritual discernments and mental awakenings to deep creativity that might extraneously occur. They usurp the composerly role, as Moorefield puts it (link below), and the composer takes a subordinate one... For most film composers, their intimate, chamber Truths lie undiscovered and, if detected, unexamined or edited-away. Exceptions to this exist, of course; but still…

S  o here, in the Berlin Philharmoniker’s beautiful, inspired account of Schoenberg’s Op. 34, we heard a singular, intimate Truth that refused to be subdued by film contracts, producers, commissions. It was a performance so dramatic and unusual that I wanted to put these few thoughts about it down here, even though it’s a bit OT for CMT…

A  ccompaniment’ is difficult, isn’t it? Tough, in part, because it must sound ‘easy’ and not ‘ask too much’. The listener is to be shielded from the difficulties that arise from constraints that require the composer to shorten or prolong each phrase to match the film’s action, at whatever pace that action unfolds. The music suffuses us generously with deliberation and control that originate in the film but only tenuously so. The film’s action can ‘lean’ on the music if it wishes, like a cushion. The film can fall back onto the music if it needs to, like a trapeze artist’s safety-net. These are the cognitive assurances that the music suffusing us makes. Conventional ‘score-as-accompaniment’ is the epitome of supportiveness and of the absence of surprise and obtrusiveness/iconoclasm.

A  nd yet, in Op. 34, sudden viola warmth floods the music—inviting but untrustworthy. There are bassoonistic surprises. Seeping drohende Gefahr, existential Angst.

T  remulous cellos, holding the first two pitches in the 12-tone row, are joined by the bassoon and bass who are preoccupied with pitches 3, 4, 5, and 6. Pitches 6 through 12 enter precipitously in staccato fusillades. The score progressively explores violence and estrangement, via col legno bow-ballistics and brass and flute flutter-tonguing.

O  kay, so maybe Schoenberg’s temperament was not well-suited to composing to commission ‘spec’ on short deadlines. But the duress illuminates so much about the composer as individual, and about small-ensemble perspectives! Originality is, after all, not necessarily something deeply ‘new’ but often the result of looking askance—an averted gaze that looks at the familiar in a fresh, detached way.

R  ainer Seegers (timpani) was particularly skillful in animating Schoenberg’s averted-gaze existential feeling in Op. 34. Large-ensemble orchestration, yes; but still chamber-like sensibility.

I  f you're a software programmer or a mathematical linguist, you might like to read Gorbman (link below) on what today we would call refactoring and code hierarchies... film music as cognitive refactoring of codes contained in the film's action/imagery, simplifying complex relationships between object classes and subclasses and/or confirming or refuting provisional concept bindings that the viewer has made based on the film's imagery.

Wake book, refactoring in Ruby

08 November 2009

Rational Exuberance: The Joyous Athleticism of St. Lawrence String Quartet

 St. Lawrence String Quartet, photo © Marco Borggreve

P    lay every concert like it’s your last; every phrase like it’s the most important thing you’ve ever said... Remember that the only reason you’re there is to make people cry and sweat and shiver, and give them that incredible sense of creation happening before your eyes [ears]. That’s the [only] reason to play. Otherwise there’s no point.”
  —  Geoff Nuttall, violinist, SLSQ.
T  he St Lawrence String Quartet performance in Kansas City’s Folly Theater last night, as part of the Friends of Chamber Music’s 2009-10 season, was superb.

  • Haydn: String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 9, No. 2
  • Mendelssohn: String Quartet in F minor, Op. 80
  • Beethoven: String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131
T he interpretations were spirited, to the outer limits of spiritedness—often drawing upon auxiliary abductor and adductor muscles for the most vigorous bowing. The exertion and enthusiasm are sometimes so great that, well, your feet simply become airborne:

 St. Lawrence String Quartet,

U nconventional… unique even, Geoff Nuttall’s foot-action. No, the gestures of all of SLSQ’s members are beyond exuberant, really. But never to the point of becoming ‘spectacle’.

T    hese are fearless musicians whose spontaneity stretches past conventional interpretation and probes the music’s imaginative limits.”
  —  The Washington Post.
T he lively, extraordinary mindfulness of the quartet was captivating, vibrant, alive. Watching them and listening to them, it is possible believe that playing music as they do is the ultimate antidote to ennui of everyday life. The majority of people in the audience may not be suffering from any diseases or obvious pathologies. But if there are blocked arteries or high blood pressures, this activity and these sounds must surely help to reverse them!

W hat I mean is, SLSQ performs as though string performance practice were ‘dance’. Their motions are more ‘balletic’ than merely musicianly, and this fact lends itself toward emotionally concentrating or intensifying their musical expressiveness. Fascinating!

W ho knew that great strength in rectus abdominis muscles is needed to play stringed instruments this passionately? Wow! Bravo!