Monday, May 5, 2014

Ten Classical Pieces You Don't Care About (Yet): #3


      Our next composer, born near Berlin in 1861, wrote an ode to the first American aviator to be killed in WWI. But the music of Charles Martin Loeffler isn’t really ‘All-American,’ or German—or any one thing. His father’s dissenting political ideas relocated the Loefflers to central Europe and Russia, where young Charles absorbed folk music; his formal training as a violinist-composer in Berlin, then in Paris, taught him more ‘studied’ approaches to harmony and form. Emigrating to the United States to play, conduct, and compose for the fledgling Boston Symphony Orchestra, Loeffler decided (in 1903) to focus solely on unraveling and re-weaving these aural influences and cultural proclivities—that is, to compose. In 1917, Music for Four Stringed Instruments arose from Loeffler’s loom, held together by a robust New England attitude and hope/despair over the Great War that many Americans felt. The piece is not only dedicated to, but woven out of, the memory of aviator Victor Chapman.
      Music for Four Stringed Instruments begins with a statement in the cello of what sounds like a dark lullaby—but it’s actually a traditional chant from the Catholic Mass, the Resurrexi from the Introit (entrance chant) for Easter Day. This chant, from Psalm 139, appears in every movement, and translates “I am risen, and I am always with you, alleluia.” In this first sample, you’ll notice the Resurrexi move to an elegant, stately theme which soon becomes declamatory in a folksy way. Textures are utilized to make a statement:

        In the second movement, we’re given a new flavor—savory, lyrical, yet recognizable. Loeffler is expressing his deep love of America…or is it France, or eastern Europe? Modal and contrapuntal writing, with a dash of French Impressionism, make for really special listening (also keep an ear out for the Ressurexi):

A sample from the final movement:

       Meditative dissonances generate lively folk themes; pious heads turn to blithe hearts. By the closing chords of Music for Four Stringed Instruments, we’re glad to have dedicated time to a fallen pilot, glad to have made the acquaintance of a peculiar, fresh composer.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Ten Classical Pieces You Don't Care About (Yet): #4

     An Israeli composer trained at Julliard, Avner Dorman wrote “Concerto Grosso” in 2002 for conductor Aviv Ron as part of a series dedicated to Baroque concertos. I got to hear this piece three years ago at Walt Disney Concert Hall, where its fusion of Handel and Vivaldi with Górecki, Pärt, and Glass simultaneously peppered and doused the hall in sound. The instrumentation of the piece is for two solo groups (string quartet and harpsichord) leading a larger ensemble. The first and third movements test out a world through sound: a fact that makes the rollicking, dramatic, and catchy second movement (‘Presto’) a result and precedent of instrumental exploration. Here's the whole piece:

       The composer claims to take the techniques of modern 20th century minimalists to “new extremes,” but he doesn’t mean through extended techniques. Dorman’s dynamic contrasts are smart and youthful (he was only 26 when he wrote the piece), without scratching or screeching. At Disney Hall, the strings were impressive, the harpsichord a small wonder; I kept bouncing along not to profundity but to energy. In the third and final movement, a world continues to be tested through sound, sweetly.

     “Concerto Grosso” by Avner Dorman does not set out to prove anything, or work through past horrors or future desires.  There is no commentary here, only music. As a virtuosic showpiece for the string quartet, plus a surprising twist on old material, “Concerto Grosso” is incredibly appealing.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Ten Classical Pieces You Don't Care About (Yet): #5

                 Vladimir Martynov wrote the short piece The Beatitudes for chorus in 1998, re-scoring it for the Kronos String Quartet in 2006. A student of theology and history, Martynov is specifically influenced by Russian orthodox chant—timeless, static, seeking the life of the spirit. His direct, consonant style of expression is in line with minimalism of the Soviet Union in the 1970s, but not the pulsating variety of Philip Glass or John Adams.
I first heard The Beatitudes on a Saturday or Sunday, lying in bed at my mom’s house. Weary from a weekend of anxious and impatient post-grad thought processes, I needed something…but I didn’t know what. Writing about my first encounter with this little 5-minute piece, on my twin bed that doubled as a sofa when I was away at college, a special place in Ohio that gave me what felt like an unsure heart in exchange for my real one, left somewhere in the snow…well, to write about it is to be inaccurate. Others have called The Beatitudes “sweet, romantic without becoming sickening, giving us the effect of joyful anticipation frozen in sound,” or like entering a “prolonged state of grace.” Mystical but tender, they seem to say. 

There is no narrative, not the kind we think we want. At around 3 minutes, the distilled sweetness starts to grow—but it does not grow a backbone, never bears physical weight. There is swirling of strings, yes, but not enough to perfume us. There is intellectualism in its minimalism and its Biblical referent, but not enough to challenge us and humble us like Arvo Pärt…right? To answer this question, we have to take the piece on its own terms. The life of the spirit can be truly accessible, and can be sappy and profound; there is humility in the music itself, not just in our intellectual approach to it. When I first heard the piece, I didn’t notice the lack of thematic development, of harmonic playfulness, of significant ‘physical’ structure. I only noticed that my eyes weren't dry, maybe because the physical is nothing special to begin with, maybe because life is so darn beautiful sometimes.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Ten Classical Pieces You Don't Care About (Yet): #6

              The fifth piece of music that you don’t care about (yet) is Carl Vine’s Piano Sonata (1990). Considered one of Australia’s most versatile musicians, Vine composed dance scores for “Flederman,” a contemporary music ensemble he co-founded in Sydney. Once a modernist, Vine soon discovered a new idiom with help from the sonic possibilities of the piano and the simplicity of the triad. Huge success for his Piano Sonata, commissioned by the Sydney Dance Company and first performed at the Sydney Opera House, came when Michael Kieran Harvey (the piece’s dedicatee) won a prestigious piano competition with a lyrical and aggressive performance. Now, Vine’s Piano Sonata is widely heralded as the most important one since Elliot Carter’s.  
Harvey states that the piece “was exactly what I was looking for at the time – not high complexity, not minimalism, not transcribed jazz or pop, not world music, something unique which suited my predilection for condensed energetic music with a dash of lyricism.” Here’s the first movement:

           Like Elliott Carter, Vine built his sonata around a rhythmic scheme of metric modulations, the relationships between disparate tempi serving as structural pillars. Motoric rhythms and resonances build up layer by layer in mounting tension, finally bouncing into new speeds and sounds. Passages oscillate from labyrinthine pointillism to granite-like density, which “propel the music irresistibly towards its climax." You can hear kinetic textures coupled with austere lyricism in the second movement: 

          For Vine, extreme virtuosity comes with a feeling for narrative and the fun of human life. This Piano Sonata feels that way not because it is interestingly crafted (Bacewicz) or in spite of itself (Bono), but simply because it is fun to listen to. After all, "what [Vine] wants to do is write…pieces at the end of which people feel better" (Michael Oliver). If you appreciate virtuosity, dense textures that are quick on their feet, and pop/jazz harmonies in the concert hall, you might feel much better after the Piano Sonata. If Jim Svejda is right in saying that Vine defines his own unique musical world, Kui Min is even more correct: Carl Vine is “one of the most articulate composers Australia has produced."

Monday, December 16, 2013

Ten Classical Pieces You Don't Care About (Yet): #7


       Christopher Bono was drafted by the Seattle Mariners before a career-ending injury led him to his guitar and to musical composition. After working on an experimental rock project and his spiritual side, he released his first chamber music album in 2012.
       The second piece in a triptych of “Invocations”, “Fish, Father, Phoenix” is best described as a “surrealist percussion collage expressing humanity’s place in the life cycle juxtaposing animal and insect sounds with cut-up samples of the voice of Bono’s father” (Jack Sullivan). Exploring the juxtaposition of field recordings from Africa and Botswana with his deceased father’s philosophical musings, the piece grapples with “the process of aging, man’s place in the natural world, and transcendental anxiety” (from Bono’s website). Here’s the first two minutes:

       According to Bono, the ‘fish’ of the title represents the germinal force of life, the potential for creation and change, as well as man’s own lower nature; ‘father’ is the present state of man; ‘phoenix’ is our future. Behind this terminology is music that is both brightly minimalistic and slightly post-rock. Layers build and add to other layers, while certain instrumental pockets are emphasized at certain times. Although the occasional honking or screeching emerges from the din, none of it is harsh or inaccessible. In fact, “Fish, Father, Phoenix,” is made of spontaneity and rhythmic sway, as if Bono is discovering this music himself for the first time.
       Bono’s spirituality is not New Age-y or commercialized—it feels real. As I’m struck by new combinations of pre-recorded samples and instrumental lines against a background of addictive rhythms, I find further stimulation (and even solace) in thinking about a kind of spiritual message. The last two minutes feature a wide sonic expanse of sand, the present day stretching out to the horizon.
       "Fish, Father, Phoenix” is colorful, but also consistent. Just because the piece is best enjoyed with headphones doesn’t mean you can’t share it. So, share it. This contemporary classical music is exciting and worthwhile.

NOTE: Christopher Bono’s choral pieces “The Unexcelled Mantra” (with text from the Heart Sutra) and “Unity” (Plato’s Republic) were released this past October. The former comes with this video from the woman behind Sigur Rós and Seabear videos and album covers.