The Gift of Immediacy: A Meditation on Being Late for a Concert

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Andrew Wyeth – The Carry

Me senté
en un claro del tiempo.
era un remanso
de silencio,
de un blanco silencio…
I sat down
In a space of time
It was a backwater
of silence,
of white silence…

 
Claro de reloj (Pause of the clock), Federico García Lorca, trans. Stanley Read

Actually, I stood up – at the back of the King Center concert hall with two of my friends, because we had arrived late. As the Lorca lyrics of Morton Lauridsen’s Cuatro Canciones wafted to us in a shimmer of vaguely Messiaen-ish harmonies and Crumb-ish timbre-textures, it was a backwater of crystalline sound – an unexpected music. The usual ritual of sitting down, clapping, and program reading foregone, we had walked in at the start of the Playground Ensemble’s October 26th, 2015 performance of this movement as though it had always been happening in that space. We had entered with no idea of who we were hearing, or of what; immediately, our empty hands had been filled with the molten, colored jewels that adorned that white silence.

One of the gifts of lateness and of not having sufficient time for anything (once you let go of the stress and the self-condemnation, that is) is immediacy. Immediacy is the elusive treasure of the 21st century, arriving secretly and remaining for a time veiled and useless to the possessor behind daily layers of panic and dissatisfaction. If those layers are peeled away, immediacy is revealed as the resolve to jump in and do what can be done now without fear; to let go of unhelpful expectations and worries that get in the way of now; to listen to intuition, allowing an experience or an atmosphere to have free reign in your consciousness without your own interference; to capture the absolute essence of something without trying, painting a truth in the broadest possible strokes; to engage in listening and conversation without the background noise of ego and preconceived notions. Immediacy is the sensory experience of a child – all eyes and ears and uninhibited fingers that reach without hesitation for the crayon.

Actually, come to think of it, we did sit down – once the Lauridsen piece was over and the stage was being reset. But for me, at least, the immediate hearing remained – that coming in out of the cold and dark to meet unknown sounds without context or expectation. I looked with only half an eye at my program, not wishing to spoil the feeling, and I half-learned that Louis Andriessen’s Workers Union was for “any group of loud-sounding instruments.” From the stage, one of the performers explained that Andriessen’s notation only specified rhythm and contour – not exact pitch. Then the framework that is Workers Union began to unfold, and I recognized again the gift of immediacy, remembering a quote by Andrew Wyeth: “That’s why I like fencing so much…it’s very much like painting. It’s that decisive, sharp, quick stroke that captures the essence of a subject.” I could hear how Andriessen captured the essential vision in the broadest strokes, and how the performers seized it, bringing their communication, their letting go, and their commitment to the immediate interpretation of those strokes.

When Workers Union came to an end, a conspicuously immediate conductor (viz., clothed in a tattered ball cap, unsuitable pants, sweatshirt, and well-worn shoes) took the stage and began to direct the Playground’s closing soundpainting. I’ve heard many soundpaintings before, but none as fresh, as energized, or as seemingly-composed-yet-also-seemingly-improvised as this one. A construction of sound emerged with flawless logic but the unmistakable torn edges of the immediate vision. I heard sounds I wanted to hang onto and dwell with for a while, letting the immediate experience continue on without me…But still immediacy held me in its grip, embodied in the hyper-alert musicians and their conductor. Together, with effortlessness and razor focus, they animated the living, growing organism of structured sound.

Actually – now that I think of it – we were neither sitting down nor standing up when the first movement of the Lauridsen began. We were hovering in the foyer, our own backwater of silence, because Claro de reloj was already underway, and the ushers were softly preparing to open the doors for us between movements. “When you go in, try to grab a seat at the back, or just stand until the piece is over,” they said, and handed us our programs. They might as easily have said, here, you lucky latecomers; take a double portion of the gift others left behind –

anillo formidable
donde los luceros
chocaban con los doce flotantes
numeros negros.
a formidable ring
wherein the stars
collided with the twelve floating
black numerals.

 
Yes, you missed the first piece; you are tired, you are late, you are burned out, and you have no good ideas left.

But your inheritance is immediacy.

The Power of Recurrence: Further Thoughts on Form

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I recently had the pleasure of seeing a live performance of Mario Davidovsky’s Synchronisms No. 10 for guitar and tape. Davidovsky is an Argentine-born composer who has spent most of his career in the US, especially at Columbia and Harvard universities. As with much American music from the more “academic” strain (Davidovsky’s biggest mentor was Milton Babbitt), Synchronisms No. 10 does not follow any traditional form. Instead, the piece appears to be through-composed, with a number of distinct sections following organically upon each other, creating an interesting and colorful variety of sound worlds. Somewhat surprisingly, the piece begins with several minutes of solo guitar before the electronic part enters. However, near the end of the piece, the guitar’s opening gestures recur exactly as at the beginning, but with an electronic accompaniment this time. As I listened to the performance, the obvious recurrence of this passage gave the whole a much more defined shape in my mind, causing me to smile and nod in approval almost involuntarily. Suddenly, it seemed as if I liked the piece a whole lot more, even though it had done nothing new.

Even though Davidovsky studiously avoided using any classical forms, I realized that this recurrence of the opening material was actually functioning in a way analogous to a recapitulation in traditional form, even apart from the return to a home tonality which is traditionally associated with it. This suggested to me that perhaps the main purpose of traditional musical forms such as sonata and rondo is not to provide a tonal structure, but simply a framework for recurrence. In a piece of any substantial length, some element of recurrence is necessary to create a satisfying listening experience, whether the language is tonal or atonal. In fact, I would argue that the longer a piece is, the more essential repetition or recurrence is to maintaining a coherent construction of form.

Similarly, in the visual arts, the larger a work’s physical dimensions, the more important its form or composition is. The painter, potter, sculptor, or architect constructs these forms out of elements dealing with the distribution of materials across space, such as shape, color, balance, and proportion. However, while a work of visual art can be grasped instantaneously, in a single glance, a work of music must be experienced through time. Therefore, its structure must be articulated through elements dealing with the disposition of materials across time, such as repetition, variation, recurrence, expansion, or contrast.

Because of this principle, I would argue that truly through-composed music (that is, forms relying exclusively on variation or contrast instead of repetition or recurrence) can only work on small scales. One significant exception to this might be so-called process music, in which certain musical parameters follow a clearly-defined trajectory over the course of the piece, so that the character of the music is constantly in flux and thus never literally repeating. These large-scale trajectories provide a way for the listener to conceptualize the entire piece in a single glance, so to speak, without needing to recognize material they heard earlier. Even so, most examples of process pieces use either repetition or recurrence as well to help construct the form. Composers may even construct processes that undo or spiral back upon themselves, so that the end of the piece is the same as the beginning—a sort of terminal recurrence that signals the piece’s completion. (For a brilliant example of process music, see Thomas Adès’ In Seven Days.)

In an earlier post, I reflected on how minimalist art showed me that the ideal balance between repetition and variation in a work often tilts much more towards repetition than I think. After my experience listening to the Davidovsky, I now wonder if this principle applies to all musical styles, not just minimalism. For example, one of the most stimulating experiences I’ve had as a composer was taking a seminar in Schenkerian analysis, a music theory paradigm which attempts to show that tonal music uses the same basic patterns at all levels of its structure, from phrases to sections to entire pieces. As a theorist, I don’t necessarily buy all the assertions of Schenkerian philosophy, but as a composer, it opened my eyes to the potential to expand any musical idea without adding any new material, by simply replicating the pattern of the whole in each of the parts, much like a fractal.

To take a completely opposite example, serial music also relies heavily on repetitions of a basic tone row, albeit transformed through processes such as retrograde and inversion (not to mention extreme contrasts in rhythm, timbre, or texture). While serial music is notoriously difficult for listeners to comprehend, I wonder if this is not due to its lack of tonality but rather to the fact that the repetition and recurrence in its structure are not apparent to listeners, having been buried by the radical variation of other musical parameters. The same sort of structure is still there, but it fails to create a sense of cohesion for listeners if they are unable to perceive it.

In my opinion, the difficulty for composers in writing long pieces is not in coming up with enough ideas to fill the piece, but in stretching out a single idea to fill the appropriate amount of time, like blowing up a balloon or throwing a pot on the wheel. Much as novice potters tend to leave the walls of their pots too thick because they don’t realize how far they can stretch the clay to enclose a larger volume, aspiring composers tend to leave their musical materials underdeveloped, moving on from an idea before it has grown to its full potential.

So the next time I’m stuck searching for inspiration in a piece, I intend to check what I’ve already written and consider if it might just be time for some repetition, or at least a little more stretching of an idea. After all, if you never pop a balloon, you’re not blowing them up big enough, right?

Thomas Adès, In Seven Days

The title of Thomas Adès’ piano concerto In Seven Days is, of course, an allusion to the Biblical account of creation. With each movement titled after the aspects of nature referred to on the corresponding day of creation, one naturally expects some parallelism between the structure of the music and the literary structure of the creation narrative. Indeed, Adès provides just enough numerology to satisfy curious minds without overloading the music with symbolism. Many sections of the piece have time signatures in seven, and the prevailing number of voices in the piano part increases progressively in each movement, from one to seven. However, Adès’ genius in this music goes far deeper than mere mathematical ingenuity, as he brilliantly manages to embody the essence of creation and the natural world on every level of the piece’s structure.

After an spiky, energetic orchestral introduction, the latter part of the first movement (“Chaos – Light – Dark”) and much of the second (“Separation of the Water into Sea and Sky”) are built around long chromatic lines in contrary motion. Somewhat surprisingly, these lines do not expand the register outward as if to represent a nascent expanding universe, but actually converge towards middle C. However, Adès is constantly sneaking them back out by octaves (almost like a Shepard-Risset glissando) to stretch out this process over several minutes. Thus, Adès has foregrounded register as a primary compositional element, which serves as an apt figure for the concepts of “void,” “space,” and “expanse” in the creation narrative.

In the third movement, “Land – Grass – Trees,” Adès retains register as a primary compositional element, while adding another process on top of it. This movement (my personal favorite) is a majestic passacaglia based on a spiraling chord progression with smooth voice-leading which transposes itself up a semitone every 8 chords.[1] Thus, the pattern must cycle through all 12 transpositions of itself before duplicating itself an octave higher. Over the course of the movement, the pattern repeats almost four full sets of 12 cycles, thus rising about four octaves in register. However, Adès does not deploy it in a static fashion as in traditional passacaglias; instead, the rhythmic values of all the instruments and thus the speed of the progression become gradually faster with each set of 12 cycles. This recursive process, musically akin to fractals in geometry, suggests the organic growth patterns of living plants branching out geometrically into smaller and smaller leaflets and fronds. One can almost feel the first plants and trees solemnly unfolding towards the sky.

Literary scholars of the Old Testament have noted how the creation account is structured to match days 1 and 4, 2 and 5, and 3 and 6, and Adès’ music does the same. Thus, movement 4, “Stars – Sun – Moon,” returns to the massive, long-lined trajectories of the first movement, but with a much more active texture in the piano part, as if the primordial light has now been differentiated into multitudes of stars. Similarly, movements 5 and 6, two fugues dedicated to the “Creatures of the Sea and Sky” and “Creatures of the Land” respectively, continue to develop the elements of register and recursive growth even further. For example, the first fugue has a lengthy exposition in the winds, ranged from high to low (flutes, clarinets, oboes, bassoons),[2] after which the strings take up the subject in order from low to high. However, the distinctively polyphonic nature of the fugal process, as opposed to the more diffuse, almost sound-mass textures of the previous movements, suggests the “teeming” nature of the animal kingdom highlighted in the creation account: many different instruments are doing essentially the same things, not clashing against each other, but not totally in harmony with each other either.

The piece ends with a brief “Contemplation” representing the seventh day, one of rest. However, Adès has one last secret of structure to reveal: the ending of the piece seems to fade back into the beginning, so that the last two chords of the piece are the same as the first two. Thus, the entire piece is itself a circular process which ends where it began. Indeed, the piece can be seen as a self-encapsulating fractal as well: the melodic motive which gradually coalesces out of the opening “Chaos” section underlies each of the movements, like a giant kaleidoscopic theme and variations. Yet this is itself a marvelous metaphor for our natural world, in which the same patterns (again, often fractals) often recur on vastly different levels of structure, from molecules to mountains, cells to cyclones.

In Seven Days is also a multidisciplinary collaboration between Adès and Israeli video artist Tal Rosner, creating what they call a “visual ballet.” Rosner overlaid video and still shots of the two venues which hosted the premieres of the work (London’s Royal Festival Hall and Los Angeles’ Disney Hall) into an abstract montage which spawns a healthy dose of fractals of its own (visible at times in the recording linked above). The film seems to represent Rosner’s visual interpretation of the patterns of the music in architectural terms, both in the sense that his subject matter is strictly buildings, and that he is translating the structure of an intricate work in one medium into another medium, purely through symbols, without the aid of verbal signifiers. Which is, of course, exactly what Adès has done in the music.

[1] Actually, the pattern transposes up a perfect fourth with each cycle of 8 chords, creating a sort of circle progression. However, each of the three voice-leading strands (the prevailing texture since this is the third movement) skips down to the next lower voice at some point during each cycle in a sort of three-way voice exchange, so that the net ascent in register is only a semitone per cycle. In addition, the three voice-leading strands are often interwoven in the orchestration and difficult to distinguish aurally.

[2] In a manner strongly reminiscent, I think, of another work by a British wunderkind—The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.

Intimate Conversations: Thoughts on Loretta Notareschi’s String Quartet OCD and Stephen Bailey’s Love Story

love story
A few months ago I had the privilege of hearing Denver composer Loretta Notareschi’s String Quartet OCD performed by the Playground Ensemble at Regis University. As I sat in the concert hall and watched the composer approach the podium – about to deliver a prepared talk as a preface to a panel discussion of postpartum obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) – I had my doubts about the appropriateness of conducting a mental health discussion in a concert setting. A few minutes later, however, I was fully engaged, listening to Notareschi and the other women on the panel share their stories of struggle with postpartum mood disorders, and eventual healing with the proper support. Much to my surprise, I was in no hurry for this personal storytelling to end and the music to begin. Yet, when the music did begin, it felt like an organic continuation of the stories I had just heard, a way for my intuitive brain to engage with the information about postpartum OCD that my intellectual brain had just acquired. It was a poignant experience that challenged all my previous notions of what music is and how it functions; Notareschi’s quartet – presented in the context of this postpartum mental health event – demonstrated that a piece of music can function as a vehicle for conversation, creating a safe space in which listeners can grapple with concrete ideas. This realization raised a number of questions for me about the writing of socially conscious music, or music that involves personal storytelling.

 Just a week after the Notareschi concert, I heard Nebula Ensemble premiere a new electroacoustic work by my colleague Stephen Bailey called Love Story, created in close collaboration with soprano Emily Gradowski. Like Notareschi’s String Quartet OCD, Love Story addresses a serious issue that affects many women in our culture and does so by telling a deeply personal story while inviting listeners to construct their own stories. The storytelling and the music are fully integrated in Love Story, as the pre-recorded voice of Gradowski poses several personal questions to the audience, and then answers a few of the more difficult questions, constructing a truthful narrative that reveals the body image and self-confidence struggles affecting an overwhelming number of women in our society. As the story unfolds in the electronic element, the acoustic instruments help to create an emotional environment for that story, a space in which the audience can ponder the questions Gradowski and Bailey pose, and contemplate Gradowski’s answers as well as their own (unspoken) answers.

Several weeks before the premiere of Bailey’s work, and shortly before hearing Notareschi’s String Quartet OCD, I had an email conversation with Bailey about his goals in the creation of Love Story. Bailey expressed the opinion that music must be allowed to tell these kinds of intensely personal stories in order to be relevant in today’s culture. In his view, then, the benefits of writing this type of socially conscious music  – music that strives to inform and provoke an audience to wrestle with a particular issue through the sharing of a personal narrative – outweigh the potential risks. I agreed with this view; an important lesson I learned during my time as a creative writing major was that the telling of stories that seemed weird or extremely personal to me would always earn peer comments along the lines of “I totally know what you mean,” whereas any deliberate attempt on my part to write something with “broader appeal” would leave my readers cold and indifferent. It’s a lovely paradox: the more particular and personal the story, the more universal it actually is.

This conversation with Bailey was in my mind during the performance of Notareschi’s work. Prior to the performance, Notareschi explained that one audience member at a previous performance of the work had confessed to initially “hating” and “judging” the composer as she spoke about her personal struggle with postpartum OCD, and then “loving” the composer – in other words, being reconciled to the personal story and gaining a better understanding of it – after hearing the music. Clearly, if a composer chooses to make difficult personal disclosures through a piece of music, there is always the risk that listeners will find this off-putting. For that matter, a listener’s preconceived negative idea of a composer’s personality could lead them to judge the music unfavorably before they even hear it. That Notareschi was able to win this audience member over through her music is a testimony to her compositional skill and judgement; the risk was mitigated by the high quality of Notareschi’s music and its ability to serve as a compelling and comprehensible emotional context for her personal story.

It isn’t difficult to find less successful examples of this type of personal storytelling through music. For instance, I once heard a microtonal “protest” piece (written for a specially constructed electric guitar with quarter-tone frets) that told the story of the composer’s unfair arrest and time in jail during the 1970s. At the conclusion of the performance, I overheard another audience member – who had found the piece painfully long and grating on the ears – comment that they wished the composer had remained in jail to prevent him from writing the piece. If the composer’s intent was to illustrate his experience and protest his incarceration by plunging the listener in the same monotonous suffering he endured, then he succeeded. If his intent was to raise awareness about unfair arrests and gain sympathy for other individuals in his position, however, his musical efforts failed to reach his audience. The audience as a whole remained unmoved by his story, and several audience members made unflattering jokes about the piece during intermission; sadly, the audience member who wished the composer had remained incarcerated was not the only person I overheard expressing such sentiments.

So, I suppose the takeaway for me is that a successful effort to write socially conscious/deeply personal music of this type must achieve two things: the telling of a personal story with profound honesty and humility (hubris must be left outside the door), and the creation of a high-quality musical representation of (or context for) the story that a listener can readily connect to. The composer who chooses to write music of this type undertakes a far more difficult task than the composer who writes “absolute” music, or the composer who is inspired by less intensely personal ideas related to nature, art, or spirituality. Notareschi’s and Bailey’s efforts in this arena are exciting to me because of the hyperengaging cognitive-emotional experience they created for me as an audience member, vastly different from the usual experience of hearing new music. Let us hope that they and other composers will continue to make successful experiments in this genre.

Claude Vivier, Lonely Child

by Nathan Cornelius

The history of Western music has largely been defined by methods of combining contrasting voices, with distinct rhythms and melodies, into a harmonious whole. From medieval motets to Renaissance counterpoint to Baroque fugue, all the way up to 20th-century “micropolyphony,” composers have developed intricate systems of composition and notation to regulate this complex relationship of parts. However, Canadian composer Claude Vivier negates the central thrust of this 800-year tradition in his masterpiece Lonely Child for soprano and orchestra.

Lonely Child was commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1980. Vivier never heard the piece performed live, as he moved to France the following year and, tragically, was murdered in Paris in 1983. The text by Vivier himself, alternating between French and an imaginary nonsense language, is a lullaby comforting a sad child with fantastic visions of fairies, magicians, and stars. Vivier grew up in an orphanage and never knew his biological parents, and the text is often considered a depiction of his own childhood.

After an introduction featuring a sparse string melody interrupted by strokes on the bass drum and rin (a Japanese percussion instrument vaguely resembling a gong), the soprano enters with the text, accompanied by sustained notes from the full orchestra, moving in exact rhythmic unison with the voice. However, the texture continues to be sparse, as nearly all the instruments are concentrated on either the soprano note or one other lower part (which takes the place, if not the function, of a bass line). The lone exception is the first violins, who softly play hazy clusters in a very high register, appearing like a glassy sheen on the soprano’s vocal timbre.

In fact, these violin notes, as Bob Gilmore has shown, bear a precise mathematical relationship to the two principal voices.[1] Vivier generates them by repeatedly adding the frequency of the “bass” note to that of the soprano, as if they originated from electronic interference between the two notes. For example, the soprano’s first note is A440 (the A above middle C, having a frequency of 440 Hz), while the lower voice plays the G just over an octave lower (196 Hz). The violin notes above this approximately frequencies of 636, 832, 1028, 1224, and 1420 Hz (440 + 196 + 196 +196 +196 +196), forming a dense stack of notes. Played by itself, this cluster would sound noticeably out-of-tune, but in this context it blends seamlessly into the two lower notes. Vivier creates similar harmonies above each pair of soprano and bass notes for the entire melody, as it gradually ascends higher and higher.

With this innovative and boldly simple structure, Vivier has done away with the traditional musical elements of harmony and texture and absorbed them into a single element: timbre. (Timbre is often referred to in layman’s terms as “tone color,” and Vivier himself called these chords les couleurs.) The texture is such an extreme of homophony that it ceases to be noticeable as a texture at all. Meanwhile, the piece does not have harmony in the traditional sense, since there are only two main notes sounding at a time, but each simultaneity has a unique overlay of violin notes that impart to it a distinctive color. As a result, the dominant perceptual element of the piece is a series of shifting timbres generated by the relationship between the melody and its supporting voice.

Although Vivier is mentioned far less than his friends Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail as an influence on the “spectralist” movement in 20th-century music, works like Lonely Child come as close as any to fulfilling the ideals of the movement. The spectralist composers conceived of music along a set of continua, such as pitch to rhythm, or harmony to timbre, and sought to show how these apparently distinct musical elements were actually two forms of the same entity, in a sort of musical theory of relativity. Vivier’s Lonely Child is a nobly elegant embodiment of that idea, but more than that, a deeply poignant and sensuously beautiful work of art.

[1] Bob Gilmore, “On Claude Vivier’s Lonely Child,” Tempo 61 (239), 2-17.

Daniel Sharkey, untitled no. 267

Recently, I’ve been writing about how careful listening can lead us to discover new dimensions of sound, and of the world. Rather than talking more about this topic this week, I’d like to take a few minutes just to watch this short film by Daniel Sharkey, with music by my friend Jasper Schmich Kinney. Sharkey’s images and Schmich Kinney’s music speak to this idea far more incisively than any of my words could.

untitled no. 267 was a collaboration between Colorado filmmaker Daniel Sharkey and Nebula Ensemble, a group which with deformingprisms writers are involved in bringing “the now of music” to the Colorado Front Range. The film will be screened at Nebula Ensemble’s upcoming concert, ACOUSMA: Film and Electronics in New Music on Saturday, February 20th in Denver. This exciting concert will also feature another film collaboration between Sharkey and Schmich Kinney, a new electronic work by deformingprisms contributor Stephen Bailey, and much more. Details on the concert are available here.

A Moment of Silent Noise

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by Nathan Cornelius

I love listening to the music of Gustav Mahler for his colorful use of the orchestra and skillful use of counterpoint. At any given moment, there are usually more things going on than I can pay attention to at once, yet everything seems to cohere into a grand and monumental sound object. This was certainly the case at a recent performance of Mahler’s 9th Symphony I attended. Indeed, spending an hour-and-a-half five rows back from a hundred-piece orchestra can be an overwhelming sensory experience. So it was strange that the most profound moment I experienced listening to the piece came when hardly anything was happening.

Unlike most symphonies, Mahler’s 9th ends not with a grand finale but with a lyrical, passionate, and expansive slow movement. (This movement is famously known as Mahler’s farewell to life, since the 9th was the last work he completed, but that’s another story…) Sentimental epithets aside, the music does carry a certain sense of unfulfilled longing, and each time it builds to a climax, it abruptly drops away to a single note just at the moment one would expect it to resolve. These “anticlimactic” notes are played softly, sustained by one of the strings, in contrast to the lush orchestration Mahler uses elsewhere in the piece. At the last major climax, about two-thirds of the way through the movement, the texture once again thins to a single note, but this time it is a high C-flat, played fortissimo by all of the violins, and held for more than two measures.

To play a note so loud and long, the violins must use the whole length of the bow several times, as Mahler indicates in the score. They generally also try to stagger their changes of bow direction to keep the note from sounding like several short notes in a row. Furthermore, with this much pressure on the bow, the  bow change creates a brief crunching, scuffing noise as the hairs grind against the string. This, of course, happens anytime a violinist plays loudly, but we are normally not consciously aware of it, simply perceiving it as a component of “the sound of a violin playing loudly.”

As the intense C-flat stretched on and on, I became increasingly aware of this chorus of bow noises as one violinist after another reversed direction. Surprisingly, the note itself seemed to recede from my perception as I concentrated more and more on the noises. Instead of the note being foreground and the noise being background, the sound flipped inside-out so that the noise was foreground and the note background. By the end, I could almost imagine myself surrounded by a deep silence, broken only by the chorus of little scuffs, even though I knew I was in fact listening to twenty-odd violinists sawing away at full blast. The only other listening experience I’ve had anything like it is listening to the combination tones that arise from an intense sound of rapidly oscillating pitch in a resonant hall, such as a soprano singing a high note, a clarinet playing a rapid tremolo, or (most remarkably) a marimba sustaining closely spaced chords.

This curious experience suggested to me several principles about musical listening. First, music conveys information to us by the very act of changing or evolving over time. If a sound were completely static, we would cease to notice it after a while. Our consciousness quickly gravitates toward any new stimulus and thus away from an ongoing, unchanging stimulus. When we listen to a new piece, everything seems unfamiliar and thus clamors for our concentration. If the piece contains too much musical information, the effect can be overwhelming on the listener. However, once we become used to the sounds we are hearing, we begin to notice more subtle variations or changes within them and soon forget how bold and brash they seemed before. Thus, I was only able to pay attention to the bow changes when the note C-flat had sounded for so long that it ceased to register as a new stimulus to my hearing.

Second, careful listening makes you aware of components of the sound you don’t normally notice, and careful composers can help listeners become aware of components of the sound they don’t normally notice. This can be as radical as, in my case, listening to the production noise while ignoring the subsequent note, executing a sort of figure-ground reversal, but it can be much more subtle as well. In keeping with the previous principle, composers must also be careful not to include so many musical events in their work that listeners are never able to attend to all the incoming stimuli being thrown at them and thus never attain this level of hearing. Sometimes a long note—or a long silence—can work wonders to help the ear process what it has just heard and focus its concentration on what comes next.

Finally, it takes a long time to reach this state of awareness. With the vast array of stimuli around us, it is hard to devote our attention solely to what we’re experiencing in the present moment. Even when we do listen, it is usually not at this intimate level of detail, and it’s not possible to simply flip a switch and instantly become attuned to the nuances of a sound. Instead, we have to gradually soak deeper into the sound and let our inner ears open wider, like a fern unfurling its fronds. Indeed, I spent much of the first movement of the Mahler distracted by something that had happened on the way to the concert.  I don’t think it’s any coincidence that this magical moment struck me only after more than an hour of concentrating on the music. I think this is also why, when the final strains of music faded away and the audience waited for an incredibly drawn-out half-minute before anyone dared applaud, the silence seemed the sweetest sound I’d heard all day.

Sofia Gubaidulina, Repentance

by Nathan Cornelius

Born in 1931, Sofia Gubaidulina is one of the leading Russian composers of the late 20th century. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, where she had spent most of her career, she moved to Germany, and her music became increasingly known in the West. Her music synthesizes Eastern and Western traditions and often has mystical or religious connotations, as in this piece, Repentance for cello, three guitars, and double bass.

Repentance struck me with its simplicity of materials above all else. Gubaidulina eschews sophisticated structures requiring deep analysis in favor of distinct, transparent musical objects which speak directly to listeners. Most of the melodies in the piece are simply chromatic scales or elaborations of them, with a strong ascending or descending trajectory. The only prominent harmonies which appear are major and minor triads, along with the quartal chord formed by the open strings of the guitar and the bass. The effect is like that of a drawing made up solely of points and lines, without subtlety and artifice of shading. Perhaps this music’s intentional simplicity symbolizes the spirit of humility and contrition necessary for repentance in Christian theology.

The piece begins with a prolonged and increasingly intense high B in all five instruments, ornamented with its neighbor notes A# and C, creating a strong sense of a pitch center. At 2:30, the cello causes the pitch center to shift to a low C, but its nervous, almost obsessive music is strikingly interrupted by a gentle, slowly sinking series of major chords played pizzicato by the guitars and the bass. This alternation between agitated, ascending chromatic lines and calm, descending major chords continues throughout the piece, with the chromatic music becoming more and more dissonant and chaotic. At 16:05, Gubaidulina creates a spectacularly jarring effect with all three guitars playing indeterminate chords with glass slides. In the end, the cello’s wildly soaring line glissandos down to come to rest with the low pizzicato object in the guitars and bass.

George Crumb, Quest

by Nathan Cornelius

As both a composer and a performer, I’ve had the privilege of experiencing all sides of the process of creating a musical work. When I write music, I often quote the music of composers I admire—sometimes almost against my will! While I’m not sure exactly what draws me to borrow from other composers, I suspect that the example of their artistry inspires me to be more creative and more intentional as I work on my music, even if my music doesn’t sound anything like theirs. Thus, it is no surprise that many of my favorite pieces I’ve performed also pay homage to earlier music, whether in overt or subtle ways. In particular, this is true of one of my favorite chamber pieces which I finally had the opportunity to play this fall: George Crumb’s hauntingly beautiful Quest for guitar, soprano saxophone, harp,  double bass, and percussion.

Crumb was one of the leading American composers of the 20th century, known for his unusual combinations of instruments, intricately designed scores, and mystical subject matter. Quest, written in 1994 for guitarist David Starobin, uses a diverse array of instruments, including Appalachian hammered dulcimer, African talking drum, and Japanese temple bells, to create an astonishing web of sound, with the guitar as the protagonist.  For Crumb, the music expresses “the concept of a ‘quest’ as a long and tortuous journey towards an ecstatic and transfigured feeling of ‘arrival.’”

The quotation from the American hymn tune “Amazing Grace,” with its line “I once was lost, but now am found,” contributes to the imagery of a search for peace amid darkness and trouble. In the final movement, “Nocturnal,” the hymn tune, played freely by the saxophone, alternates with a more rhythmic idea in the guitar and harp with a curiously similar ascending contour and pentatonic harmony. In fact, the more I played this piece, the more faint echoes of “Amazing Grace” I heard, as the hymn tune and Crumb’s music seemed to melt into each other. The ascending perfect fourth that begins each line of the hymn multiplies into a cascade of fourths on the harp in “Dark Paths,” a saxophone melody shortly thereafter, and a gesture in harmonics on the guitar at the beginning of “Nocturnal.” This forced me to ask myself: what compels me to search for “Amazing Grace” throughout the piece, even beyond the places where it is explicitly quoted? Does the very existence of a quotation give the piece deeper (albeit extra-musical) meaning?

György Ligeti, Lux Aeterna

by Nathan Cornelius

At first, this piece presents an opaque surface to the listener’s ear, “like a dense, impenetrable cobweb,”[1] to use the composer’s own words. It is almost impossible to tell when the first two voices are joined by a third, then a fourth, until eventually eight independent parts are all singing the same note. Gradually, one by one, the voices diverge to different notes, creating clusters that are sometimes chromatic (as at 0:30) and sometimes diatonic (as at 0:45). Ligeti instructs each voice to sneak in imperceptibly, with the result that the listener does not perceive the discrete entries and exits of the voices, but only clusters gradually building up and then dissolving again.

This method of constructing the texture fulfills one of Ligeti’s main compositional goals. Ligeti was critical of the hyper-serial music of composers such as Boulez, where the exact timing, volume, and articulation of each individual note carry great significance. Instead, Ligeti sought to create music based on larger processes which were directly audible to the listener, and Lux aeterna is clearly music built of textures, not notes. Nevertheless, the score is very precisely notated, full of quintuplets and sextuplets. In each section of the piece, the different voices follow a strict canon, singing the same pitches in the same order with different rhythms.   It turns out that Ligeti follows a complex set of rules specifically designed to give the piece a smooth texture, neither experiencing any sudden change in the density of attacks nor making the timing of any individual attack predictable.[2]

Thanks to these rules, Ligeti’s complex polyphonic writing produces an effect that is anything but polyphonic.  Ligeti explains, “The polyphonic structure does not actually come through, you cannot hear it; it remains hidden in a microscopic, under-water world, to us inaudible… All in all, you cannot hear my music as it appears on paper. Of course, while actually composing each piece I worked on what we hear, as we hear it.”[3] A serial composer such as Boulez might construct a complex set of “rules” or a matrix, like a carefully engineered machine, and then simply let it run and generate the piece as it willed. In contrast, Ligeti was constantly tinkering with his machine, tweaking the rules until they produced results that perfectly matched his conception of what the piece should sound like. The strict canons and evenly distributed attacks were for him merely a means to an end, a carefully designed process for creating the elusive textures and floating rhythms that for him symbolized the timelessness of eternal light.

[1] György Ligeti, Ligeti in Conversation, trans. Gabor J. Schabert, et al. (London: Ernst Eulenburg, Ltd., 1983), 14.

[2] For a lucid analysis of this, see Benjamin R. Levy, “‘Rules as Strict as Palestrina’s’: The Regulation of Pitch and Rhythm in Ligeti’s Requiem and Lux aeterna,” Twentieth-Century Music 10, no. 2 (2013), 203-230.

[3] Ligeti, Ligeti in Conversation, 14-15.