Saturday, June 14, 2014

...Tristan Perich, 1-Bit Symphony

1-Bit Symphony

With his 1-Bit Symphony, American composer Tristan Perich tries to challenge the concept of the artwork as we know it. Assembled into an CD jewel case, a microchip, a battery, volume control, an on/off-switch, and a headphone jack give life to music, consisting in its entirety and literally of 1 Bits.
In a video, Tristan Perich explains his approach to his composition.

I was was compelled by this concept at fist glance. I mean, how cool is that, if the actual music is computed in the very instant you turn it on?

I am almost sad that the analytical part of my brain had to conjure some questions to this concept, which I want to discuss.

It resides in a jewel case. Or not.

The 1-Bit symphony not only resides in the microchip in the jewel case. Since the physical copies are, sadly enough, out of stock, one can buy it as .mp3-files via the Cantaloupe Music Store. It is also possible to listen to a couple of movements via Soundcloud for free.

But what appears to be a convenient way to enjoy Perich's music seems to me as the retraction of the artistic statement Perich's. To be honest, the music itself isn't that interesting. It reminds me and some of the commentators on Soundcloud of 80's video game music, especially that of the Commodore 64 or Nintendo. And saying that of music composed at a time when most teenagers haven't seen a C64 is not necessarily a compliment.

The 1-Bit Symphony could easily be desribed as minimal music. Alex Ross comes to the same conclusion and mentions Terry Riley. That might be or not be the intention of the composer. In the end, I have to ask both Perich and minimalist composers: Why stick to the diatonic scale? Especially electronic music bears to much possibilities to overcome the restriction of the common scales, so why not use these possibilities? And if still sticking to the diatonic scale, why almost always use consonant sounds?

A small detour: In the 80's show A.L.F, Alf is playing piano, observed by Kate. He is playing the song "I just checked into the parasite hotel", in jazz style. He replies to Kate, who is surprised that he can play the piano, that it would be not so easy without the red keys. It seems strange, that a species from outer space has the same tone scale as we have, even with additional red keys. Here is a video of that scene, though in spain.

Another, even more strange scene is the so-called "Cantina Band" at "Star Wars", Episode 4. "Star Wars" happens in a galaxy "far, far away" and "long time ago." But they still have scales from good old earth, and not even the red keys.

If transplanted from the jewel  case to Soundcloud or your mp3-Player, Perich's 1-Bit Symphony becomes what it really is: 1-Bit music (in fact, another piece by Perich is called by that name.) And so it cannot be an innovative piece of music but rather a regression to the style of the 80's.

Another view

But maybe it is not fair to analyze Perich's music with the tools of a musicologist, who hones his skills usually with the so-called avant garde music. That might be a dangerous venture in this case.

Perich did not seem interested in composing avant garde music, this is obvious by listening to other music by him. So it might be rather the concept which should be the main focus of an honest analysis. Perich says in his statement in the video above that the listener should experience the process of generating music first hand. But is this true? The process is obscured anyway, either by the microchip or by a CD player - even a turntable is not "showing" where the music is produced. Where is the difference, whether the music is hard-coded or generated at run-time, if the results are the same? 

So the point of this concept might be the contradiction, that 1-Bit music and not something fancy is coming out directly from a CD jewel case. But wouldn't it be easier to wrap a music cassette-like jacket around an iPhone and plug in headphones?

The Symphony

Perich wants to show us that complex music with a 1-Bit microchip is possible. To support this intention, he calls his composition "symphony." Although the symphony had a rather strict form in the 18th and 19th century, almost everything can be named symphony these days. Accordingly, it is used for music that should be great, either in instrumentation or ambition. One good example are the late Symphonies by Galina Ustvolskaya (I wrote about it one post ago) which are small in instrumentation but huge in ambitions. By calling his work a symphony, Perich is claiming the same ambition for his work, but is failing to fulfil this on the level of the composition itself. The music has no complexitiy, since it is mostly repetitive and not inventive harmonically and rhythmically. But especially this would be possible with electronic music.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

...the Music of Galina Ustvolskaya

Hommage to Galina Ustvolskaya

Galina Ustvolskaya is certainly no longer an insiders' tip. Almost every work by her is available on CD, and the first biography was published this year by Andreas Holzer.
Nevertheless, it is not so easy to encounter her work in concert. The instrumentation is often unusual, and the pieces short in duration, which contradicts the programming in regular concert series'. Therefor, praise is due for the Wiener Festwochen and his Chairman Markus Hinterhäuser for performing her music on four concerts on two consecutive days. 

The concert(s) were debated in a poor review in Die Presse. I guess that the reviewer only attended the concert with the piano sonatas, risked a quick glance at the liner notes and scribbled down his review. The review in the "Tiroler Tageszeitung" is more concise, but far from thorough. Ljubisa Tosic wrote by far the most accurate review for "Der Standard."

The Works

On Saturday, May 31st, and Sunday, June 1st, almost every piece by Ustvolskaya could be heard in the Wiener Konzerthaus, played by some of the world's finest musicians. The first concert started with the Sonata for Violin and Piano, followed by the Duet for Violin and Piano, played by Markus Hinterhäuser and Patricia Kopachinskaya. Both of the them applied an almost romanticist approach to Ustvolskaya's music, which is otherwise often accused of being harsh and violent. Hinterhäuser and Kopachinskaya proved the opposite, and showed that her music is more than a succession of fffff-clusters and allegedly unrelated quarter-notes. On the other hand, their performance of this two pieces already showed the immense emotional potential of this music, which was heart-gripping and overwhelming at the same time. Even Patricia Kopachinskaya seemed to be moved, if not stunned, by it and was able to show a faint smile only after the fourth curtain call. The audience was applauding deeply grateful, and rightly so. 

Markus Hinterhäuser performed also the six piano sonatas on the next day. Once more, his romanticist approach which lots of pedal appeared to be an interesting way of dealing with the ragged and seemingly incoherent structure. This incoherence is a wildly discussed trait of Ustvolskaya's music, but Hinterhäuser showed that this is no necessity. Admittedly, her music is often violent and loud, but Hinterhäuser refrained from showing too much of this performative stance. This was obvious in the notorious sixth piano sonata, which consists almost only of ffff-clusters. He did not "jump" into the piano, like Marino Formenti did in the Symphonies, but played them as carefully as he played mellow passages, which revealed a completely different approach to Ustvolskaya's music. His interpretation has nothing to do with the so-called "Lady with the Hammer." Hinterhäuser showed us the beauty that lies below this mountains of clusters by taking Ustvolskaya's direction "espressivissimo" literally.

World were between Marino Formenti's interpretation of the 12 Préludes later that evening and Hinterhäuser's style. Formenti appeared as a master of the tender and the delicate, in opposition to his almost beserk account in the Symphonies No. 2 and 3. He maybe lost track in the fourth Prélude, but was nevertheless acclaimed frenetically by the audience for a remarkable performance of this early work by Ustvolskaya that showed unknow qualities of her music.

The five Symphonies can be divided in three groups. The first, which was not performed on this occasion, the second and third, the fourth and fifth. The second and third symphony are scored mostly for brass and woodwinds, percussion, and piano. They all have spiritual (religious) names, like "True, eternal bliss" (2nd), "Jesus, Messiah, save us" (3rd), "Prayer" (4th), and "Amen" (5th). They were performed by the phenomenal "Klangforum Wien", directed by Peter Rundel. 
These symphonies are certainly not for the faint-hearted. Ustvolskaya explicitly connects them to a certain, though unnamed, belief, by virtue of the title, and a vocal soloist. The same can be said about the three Compositions, which also bear religious titles like "Dona nobis pacem" (1st), "Dies irae" (2nd), and "Benedictus qui venit" (3rd), but abstain from the use of a singer. The music of the Symphonies and the Compositions is not only perceptible with the ear, but also with the whole body. This is, in part, also true for the sonatas, but because of the different instruments, it is much more effective in the Symphonies as well as in the Compositions. Another difference is that the latter are performed by a ensemble, that is to say, a community. To stay in Ustvolskaya's world of religious faith, the ensemble might be a community of believers who talk to each other, whereas the pianist is a single prayer.

The Occasion

More than twenty Composition were performed in not much more than twenty-four hours. It is a major accomplishment to organize such an event, and even more with such fine performers.
Nevertheless, I have strong doubts that it makes sense to program almost the complete ouevre of a composer in four concerts on two evenings, even more, if it's Ustvolskaya. I was pretty exhausted after the first two concerts on the first evening. The liner notes said, that each concert would last for 70 minutes, which was a ridiculous underestimation, given that the first concert lasted almost two hours and the second 90 minutes. Obviously, the breaks to rearrange chairs and stands were not calculated. The concert could have ended after the first two works for violin and piano, and I would not have been disappointed. In my opinion, the music is too strong for listening to more than one or two works by Ustvolskaya in a row. Even the piano sonatas, though her shortest works in duration, are strenuous, for both the performer and the audience.
 It is highly questionable, if the organizer of the Wiener Festwochen did the performers, the audience, and the composer a favour by this abundance. On the other hand - one can't but admire the audacity (in the best sense) of this very organizer to advocate for this radical, unconventional, and, at least for me, mysterious music.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

...the music of Morton Feldman and Amelia Whiteheart

Sculptures in the Desert

Thursday, April 22nd, I attended a concert at Alte Schmiede in Vienna with piano music from two of the most enigmatic composers of the 20th century: Morton Feldman and Amelia Whiteheart.

Swiss pianist Iris Gerber was playing Piano Piece 1952, Nature Pieces, and Intermissions by Feldman. She combined pieces from the Fifties with one of his very last works, Palais de Mari. It is astonishing, that Feldmans style apparently did not change significantly over the course of more than thirty years. Even the earliest piece, Piano Piece 1952, features the same erratic succession of isolated tones and chords which also characterizes Palais de Mari. Nevertheless, Feldman refined his style, meaning that he dismissed certain techniques and means bit by bit. Piano Piece 1952 starts with a cluster which is not heard anymore in Palais de Mari or similar pieces from this time (like Coptic Light, or For Samuel Beckett). He also limits himself to one dynamic level: While certain tones are emphasized in his early pieces, in his late works a soft atmosphere is predominant.

Morton Feldman, 1976. Credit: Nationaal Archief Netherland, via wikimedia
This does not mean that his music is easy to hear. On the contrary, the discreet tone puts the listener at unease. There is no progression in the music by Feldman, no target, no teleology, even the ends are somewhat arbitrary. His music can be extremely long: Palais de Mari lasts 30 minutes, what is only half the length of his composition For Bunita Marcus. His music raises difficult questions and provides no answers. During the concert I had the illusion of walking through a desert while watching strange sculptures made by an unknown civilization. The have no apparent use nor seem they made for men. They are alien but with an strange fascination.

Who is Amelia Whiteheart?

I have never heard the name Amelia Whiteheart or music by her. Iris Gerber played a selection of approx. 35 pieces out of more than hundred. In contrary to Feldman, the pieces only last for ten seconds or so and are not longer than four bars. In analogy to Feldman, they feature erratic chords and tones ordered to no apparent rules.

Almost nothing is known about Whiteheart. The only source for her music appears to be a website by Russian composer Jashiin, who claims to have gotten the sheet music by Whiteheart through a now deceased friend of his (or hers). According to Jashiin, Whiteheart pieces were composed around 1900. They are the only known trace of this woman which is, as I already wrote, otherwise unheard of. An Internet search unearthed only Jashiin's website as well as the concert announcement of the Alte Schmiede, so there probably weren't other performances, at least not announced via the Internet. The complete set of 123 pieces can be downloaded form Jashiin's website. (I am not sure about the copyright situation, therefore I will not attach any snippets from the score.)

Like Feldman, Whiteheart's music is exceedingly alien, which makes me suspicious about the provenance of the music. Not that there weren't any anomalies in music history, like Italian composer Gesualdo and his strange chromaticism. As a matter of fact, there are composers who worked in perfect isolation (at least in their imagination) like Galina Ustvolskaya. 
My concerns with the music of Whiteheart is that she anticipates the style of Feldman and even more of György Kurtág by fifty to seventy years but is otherwise completely unknown. It is not so much her harmonic style but the way she questions the form of an artwork. Form is a parameter dismissed much later than harmony and certainly not before the 1940's.
Her contemporary would be Charles Ives, and even he did not write as fancyful as Whiteheart. Ruth Crawford Seeger, born in 1901, features a style remotely common to Whiteheart's but not at all that radical.

So the main question is: Is Amelia Whiteheart an unknown genius, a forerunner of modern music? Or is she a hoax? As a musicologist I feel the urge to rise this question, but as an artist I also feel the appeal of inventing a composer to test reactions of the audience.
With all due respect, it is certainly questionable to take Jashiin's website and his statement about the provenance of the Whiteheart-Pieces as the only valid source. A thorough analysis has to dig much deeper and try to discover for example the teachers of Amelia Whiteheart, where she has lived and was educated. How come that she was undiscovered until recently? What is the role of Jashiin, who appears to be an equal enigmatic person in terms of taciturnity?
There are questions even more unsettling: If Amelia Whiteheart did exist, she would be one of the most radical composer of her time and deserved a place between the finest composers of the 20th century. But if she is a hoax, would that diminish the quality of her music? If someone assumed Whiteheart's identity and composed the pieces five years ago under her name, would that make the music bad? Is quality tied to its time? There are difficult questions lying on the bottom of that well that touches our approach to the relationship between time, identity, work, and gender.

Iris Gerber's performance of the pieces by Feldman and Whiteheart was brilliant. She was heavily acclaimed by the few listeners, and rightly so.

Monday, April 21, 2014

...WANDA "Schickt mir die Post"

Release Party

On Sunday 20th, Easter, WANDA released the first Single "Schickt mir die Post" ("Send me the mail") from their upcoming (yet, as far as I know, untitled) album. To celebrate this undoubtedly important event for this young band, they gave a concert at Fluc, like Rhiz one of the most distinguished venues for new rock music.

Marco Michael Wanda, Ray Weber (Image: B. Meyer-Plutowski)
Before the concert I talked to Stefan Redelsteiner, CEO of Problembär Records,  the label WANDA has a contract with. He told me that "Schickt mir die Post" will be a probe to prepare the world for WANDA. It is one of their more accessible songs, a carpe diem-kind-of composition that follows the last hours of a terminally ill (played by M. M. Wanda in the video) who want to ascend to heaven as soon and convenient (meaning with a party) as possible.

Unfortunately, due to technical reasons, it was not possible to screen the video clip, what was really a pity and should not have happened on a release party.

Nevertheless, the video is now available via Youtube.

It is very interesting to see and hear the difference between the studio version and the live version. The environments in which WANDA is performing provide a distinct layer of authenticity which the studio version definitively lacks. It seems to me that the dust and the darkness of the venue is a vital ingredient of the music by WANDA.

A new Account on WANDA

I already wrote a review on WANDA some weeks ago, when I first attended a concert of them in Rhiz. On this occasion, I was extolling the band, writing "Austrian pop music taken to a new level", which was subsequently cited plenty of times to characterize the music of WANDA. But as the weeks went by, I wasn't so sure that my high estimation of WANDA could stand another concert.

The main question was whether the music by WANDA is for the drunk or the lovelorn and sad. After the last concert, I can say, it is for the latter. But why these concerns in the first place?
With "Bologna", WANDA has a signature song. The fans know the lyrics by heart, and the performance of this song is available on Youtube. Thus, "Bologna" is more than a song, it's a hymn, although the lyrics doesn't make much sense, at least not to me. (It is about a man who fell for his cousin. Though he did not have the courage to love her, he dreams of Bologna, where Aunt Ceccarelli probably once did what he longs to do.) I do not think that lyrics necessarily have to make any sense, but they should at least give one or two contact points for free associations. If not, they are just songs for chanting along, quickly learned and ever quicker forgotten.

M. Chr. Poppe, M. M. Wanda, Chr. Hummer, R. Weber (Image: BMP)

This concerts proofed, that WANDA avoids that pitfall. Maybe due to the acoustics in Fluc, I was able to understand the lyrics much better than in Rhiz. One of my favorite songs, together with "Sterne", (which they omitted sadly), is "Niemand weiß, dass es uns überhaupt gegeben hat" ("Nobody knows that we have ever existed"). It is literally impossible to describe the "sense" of this song, since it is full of meaning. This makes WANDA outstanding and much more interesting than, for example, Christina Stürmer. They don't sell out the audience with asinine lyrics, and the audience appreciates to not be put off.

The lyrics by WANDA are often depressing, but they do not immerse in depression. They are complex, but they do not reject the listener. Accordingly, the music is packing the lyrics like gift-wrapping paper is packing barb wire.

A huge portion of the success of project WANDA is due to singer, composer, and lyricist Marco Michael Wanda. He certainly is born for the stage and is visibly enjoying every moment of it. He sometimes oversteps his role, when he is burping into the microphone or spitting tap water into the audience. But every performance is filled and fueled with his respect for the the music. During the performance of "Meine beiden Schwestern" ("My two sisters") the monitor ceased to work, but instead of delivering a weak song he insisted on an immediate solution before proceeding. He might be playing a role - the steady smoking on the stage, the drinking, occasional swear words - but he is also a pro. He does not sacrifice the music for his behavior.

This lust to perform is also kindling his fellow musician. Especially Lukas Hasitschka (drums) and Ray Weber (Bass) are visibly enjoying playing in this band. 

What happens on the Stage, stays on the Stage

Before the concerts I talked to some members of the audience, who told me that WANDA is not receiving only positive reviews. They were accused of being "macho assholes." I could not confirm this so far, but want to counter this so-called criticism anyway. I do not know any member of this band personally; I talked to Wanda and keyboarder Christian Hummer only briefly. They seemed to me, as far as I can tell, like easy-going guys. This may or may not be true - I don't care. The only thing that counts is their music. Their stage appearance has nothing to do with what they are beyond it. If we use personal credibility as a means to measure artistic credibility, everybody would have to submit a resume and a certificate of personal liability prior to entering the stage. What should we think of Richard Wagner, who betrayed his friend by sleeping with his wife? It should be clear by now that this kind of criticism is nothing more than an insult.

I always wish that Wanda would introduce his fellow band members to the audience. He did not do it in Rhiz nor in Fluc. I have no idea why, for me it is a little bit odd.

However, I am glad that WANDA reached the next step of their career. On May 15th they play at WUK as support for "Der Nino aus Wien." I certainly will be there.

Chr. Hummer, M. M. Wanda, Ray Weber (Image: BMP)

Friday, April 11, 2014

...the George Crumb Trio

Music by Austrian and American Composers

On Wednesday, April 9th, I had the luck to attend a concert of the George Crumb Trio in the Alte Schmiede Wien (Old Smithy), together with the "Porgy & Bess" one of the most famous location in Vienna to listen to new music.

The Alte Schmiede has a strange atmosphere - located several stairs under the ground floor it seems to be part of the old Vienna, besieged by the Turks, haunted by the Pest, and reigned by one of the Emperors of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (though not necessary at the same time). The ceilings are low, and the lighting is rather dim, so the over-all character of this venue is either creepy or intimate.

For the concert of the George Crumb Trio I am going to write about, the latter applies. The Trio, founded in 1992, consists of Norbert Girlinger, flute, Andreas Pözlberger, cello, and Sven Birch, piano. They play their instruments as masterful as the composers write for them, all three are teachers at Bruckneruni in Linz.  On this occasion, they played music by the Austrian Composers Rudolf Jungwirth (*1955) and Michael Amann (* 1964), and paired them with two compositions by the Americans Ned Rorem (* 1923) and the name-giving George Crumb (*1929).

Rudolf Jungwirth: "Mandorla"

All four compositions had in common, that their composer were masters of instrumentation. Especially George Crumb is capable of conjuring sounds out of certain instruments that are almost impossible to trace back to its source. Rudolf Jungwirth, as well teaching at Bruckneruni, called his piece "Mandorla" and doubled the flute with a rare-heard (and seen) bass flute. According to the composer, this piece is inspired by poet Paul Celan, although this influence was not (and was maybe not intended to be) perceptible. The multi-movement work (approx. 20 minutes) featured a highly delicate sound quality, reminding me both harmonically and rhythmically of Olivier Messiaen and his chamber pieces, especially his "Quartet for the end of time", and his solo piano work "Vingt regards sur l'enfant-Jesus." The use of added values by Jungwirth, and the highest and lowest register of piano played at the same time might be responsible for this impression.

Flautist Norbert Gerlinger with Bass Flute, Sven Birch, piano

Michael Amann: "Sonett 116"

In contrast to that, Michael Amanns "Sonett 116" (premiere), inspired by the Sonett 116 by Shakespeare, though without the lyrics, was sparse, discreet, and even more intimate. Amann almost never reached for the sonority or the kind of sound Jungwirth achieved, instead he managed to combine a collection of small figures that established a high-tension network of sound. Amann's and Jungwirth's compositions were not consecutive but devided by Ned Rorem's "Trio for Flute, Violoncello, and Piano" from 1960.
Michael Amann, Composer

Ned Rorem: "Trio"

Rorem's Trio in four movements (Largo misterioso - Allegro, Largo, Andante, Allegro molto) was the perfect intermission for the quaffable "Mandorla" and the fragile "Sonett 116." Playful and virtuosic, it nevertheless immersed in the spirit of the sixties. The music of this Trio is in stark contrast to his fellow composers like Elliott Carter, Morton Feldman, or La Monte Young. Rorem does not seem interested in algorithmic conceptions or minimalistic patterns but rather writes melodies and climaxes. In this sense, Rorem's music alludes to a Third Stream, though not in the way proclaimed by Gunther Schuller.

George Crumb: "Vox Balaenae"

The approach to avant-garde of Rorem is, in my opinion, similar to that of George Crumb. In his composition "Vox Balaena" (1971) he freely mixes tonal and atonal content to generate a multi-stylistic and even multi-dimensional work. Crumb depicts a submarine landscape, in which he sets the different ages of the earth into music. Starting with a "Vocalise (...for the beginning of time)", followed by a Sea Theme with five variations (five ages) it ends with "Sea-Nocturne (...for the end of time)" and reaches overt tonality. Crumb employs almost every playing technique imaginable, from "singing into the flute", prepared piano to plucking strings inside the piano. He even breaks up the limitations of the trio by using Crotales, played by the Cellist.

Cellist Andreas Pözlberger, with Crotales (left)
Crumb also calls for electric amplification and blue stage light, what was dismally omitted this time due to the limitations of the venue, and asks the players to wear masks. The masks were also omitted, but with the consent of the composer, as flautist Girlinger told me, since they were to seventy-ish. 

Crumb goes a step farther than Rorem. He not only allows tonality, he actually seeks the allusion to tonal music, like through the citation of Strauss' "Also sprach Zarathustra" in the beginning. It also occurred to me, that this music might be better watched on larger space with more distance to the musicians which are also, in part, actors. The multitude of playing techniques requires much more movements than a Quartet by Schubert, which have to be staged. The George Crumb Trio earns the credit to be not only fully aware of that but also able to perform this movements. Thus they transport this piece from the early seventies into the 21. Century, which sees completely different listening (and watching) habits. Remember, that "Vox Balaenae" is from the same time as works by other composers, who also call for "acting", e. g. Hans Werner Henze and Maurizio Kagel. To perform this piece without the dust of the seventies and dissolving the awkwardness of playing and acting at the same time seems to me the major challenge of "Vox Balaenae."

Andreas Pözlberger, Sven Birch, Norbert Girlinger (from left to right)
The Alte Schmiede and the George Crumb Trio deserves the respect for providing the audience with such a (free of charge) venue and superb performed music.

Note: All images are take by the author. They are removed immediately by request of the depicted individuals or by Alte Schmiede.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

...the Music of Awet Terterian

Awet Terterian, Master of Time

The by far most popular Armenian Composer is, without any doubt, Aram Khachaturian. Together with Sergej Prokofiev, and, of course, Dmitri Shostakovich, he was the most prolific composer of his time. I heard about him the first time, when my piano teacher pulled out some sheet music with a sonata by him, which I loved, despite or because his strange musical language.

By this time I didn't know his fellow composer Awet Terterian (1929-1994). The publicity of the man is inversely proportional to the genius of the music, which does not lead to an increased number of performances. Terterian wrote for almost every genre, including soundtracks for movies. Not everything convinces me, but not everything by Mozart convinces me as well, so that is not a surprise. More surprising is the distance between his short works, for example the song "The Nightingale and the Rose" after a poem by Pushkin, which exists in a piano transcription by Hayk Melykan on Youtube.

Awet Terterian, Source:
His most interesting works are his large-scale compositions, that is to say, his symphonies and stage works. He wrote to operas, "Der Feuerring" and "Das Beben" ("The Earthquake") and eight symphonie. I will focus here on "Das Beben" and his third and sixth symphony, since I know this works best.

Das Beben

"Das Beben" was premiered in 2003 in Munich, at the Theater am Gärtnerplatz by conductor and Terterian-scholar Ekkehard Klemm. It was, originally, commissioned by Edition Peters, in 1984, for a performance in Halle, by that time part of the GDR. The opera calls for a very large orchestra, which wasn't placed on the stage, where the audience was sitting, but in the pit.

The narration, based on the story "Das Erdbeben in Chili" by Heinrich von Kleist. Although the story remains almost incomprehensible, the music is all the more intriguing. Terterian loves to work with repetition, which is a characteristic trait of his music. Dorothea Redepenning, author of the brilliant multi-volume work "History of the Russian and Sowjet Music", assumes vague reminiscences of Armenian folk music, which may or may not be true. In any case, the use of traditional musical elements was encouraged by cultural politics of the communists, but certainly not in the way Terterian employed it. His music is too loud, too long, but on the other hand too reclusive to work as a device for propaganda. For example, a choir is shouting the same words for minutes, while on the stage isn't happening much. There is an uneasy force in this music, not to be compared to minimal music, which I will discuss later.

Unfortunately there is no video footage available of the performance in Munich, but some lucky guys managed to upload some snippets from a perfomance of the Armenian Nation Opera, probably in Erewan.

3. Symphony

A more extreme example are the symphonies, especially the Third. It is marked by the extensive use of percussion instruments and timpani, sometimes beyond the physical capability of the ear. Here, too, Terterian alludes to traditional Armenian music by employing the Zurna and the Duduk, two reed instruments. But again, he is as far away as it gets from using it to allude to Armenian (folk) music. The music is extreme loud, shrill, and acidly, that a willing connection to folk music is suffocated in an instant.

Duduk. Source: Wikimedia
Even when it is not loud and difficult to hear just because of its physical intensity, as in the second of the three movement, the music does not become simply "convinient." In the second movement, a single tone - though not loud - is hold throughout. Nobody has breath enough to hold the tone for almost ten minutes, so the player has to employ special breathing techniques, but it causes the listener physical pain to experience a tone played way beyond the capabilities of human lungs.

Zurna. Quelle: wikimedia

Melody-wise, there is not much happening in the first and third movement. Terterian does not seems interested in melody but rather in building up kind of monumental soundscape (likewise in his Sixth Symphony). His device is repetition, and this puts him in the vicinity of the American minimalist composer.

Nevertheless, I will argue that his music is as far away from minimal music as the music of Morton Feldman is. The aesthetic of minimal music as displayed by Philip Glass or Steve Reich features a dense field of sound in which small changes achieve a strong effect (e. g. "Piano Phase"). It also generates an atmosphere a trance by fast moving patterns and a very characteristic sound color (e. g. "Einstein on the Beach"). In contrary to that, Terterian is not interested in small changes, his music rather accumulates power, but without necessarily discharging it. From the first note, his music is present (as is minimal music, too), but there is still an increasing intensity. His music is not without development, though not in the classical sense.

Terterians music should be played more often in the concert hall, as well as his opera. I guess, it is still looking for the right audience, although there are some performances. The Website collects performance dates and other interesting information.
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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

...Hans Werner Henze, Symphony No. 7

A Symphony Called "Symphony"

Henze's 7th Symphony, composed and premiered in the early 80s, is his first contribution to the genre which he entitled "Symphonie" and not "Sinfonia" or "Sinfonie." It is a work commissioned by the Berliner Symphoniker, and thus a work with a political statement per se. Henze's struggle with his German heritage, culminating in his move to Italy, finds its solution in this work and, at least in the mind of the composer, an answer to the question: How to write Symphonies after Auschwitz?

According to the sketches to this symphony which are kept at the Paul Sacher Stiftung, and the comments of Henze on the music, one of its main topics is the romantic German poet Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843). Hölderlin, who is nowadays known as one of the most accomplished poets of his time, was (more or less) incarcerated in the clinic of Doctor Autenrieth. Treated for assumed madness, he was tortured (compared by today's medical standards) and not being able to care for himself for the rest of his life.
Hoelderlin 1792
Friedrich Hölderlin,
painted by Franz Karl Hiemer (1792)
Henze parallelizes Hölderlin's agony with the victims of the atrocities committed in the Third Reich and is hence establishing a link to the 20th century. However, the efficiency of this link has yet to be proven.

The 7th Symphony is a work with an immense orchestration. It features such rarely used instruments like a Heckelphone (kind of a tenor oboe) and is demanding for every single player as well as for the conductor. Following the score while listening to the music might be a futile attempt at first because of Henze's extreme dense but almost always lucid handling of the orchestra.

Fighting through the Score

I managed to lay hands on three scores for my seven students. One was a conductor's score, so three students could follow the music, the others had to share a pocket score (Edition Schott - Music of our time) by two. I never talked about a piece that big - the symphony has a duration of more than 30 minutes - or that complex, so I decided to focus on the first and third movement. Unlike other symphonies (like the 9th), Henze returned to the old four-movement form, which is another hint of his occupation with the German symphonic tradition.

My strategy was to let the students listen to the first movement while pursuing the form, followed by a discussion on the practicability of terms like exposition, development and so on for Henze's music. I was the only one without a score, and it was baffling to experience that the different parts of the sonata form of the first movement were actually distinguishable, even in an atonal context. Before that I was always reading the score along which must have distracted me from the music.

My students weren't that impressed by the music and viewed the organisation of the parts rather arbitrary. Terms like first and second theme seemed to be useless since this theoretical  framework had no impression on the actual sound. I derived an outline of analyses by Albrecht Dümling and Benedikt Vennefrohne, who wrote his dissertation on Henze's Symphonies, but it seems to be less convincing on paper than in the ear. I presented charts provided by Vennefrohne, which obviously did not match the experiences my students had. I have to confirm them: The ties between the parts are loose and faint, difficult to argue and not necessarily convincing. Experiencing the parts that clearly during the lecture certainly was justified by my repeated listening to the Symphony before, kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A Scherzo of Torture

From the dissertation by Vennefrohne, who evaluated the sketches of Henze as well as a master thesis and an article by Peter K. Freyberg, we learn that the third movement is the real center of the symphony. In this movement, considered a Scherzo, Henze assigns different motives to means of torture, and of course, to Hölderlin himself. The problem is that none of this assignments accurately drafted by Henze and faithfully analyzed by Vennefrohne and Freyberg is compelling at all. The whole conception of the torture instruments "the swing" (a torture practice used in Auschwitz) and "the wheel" (a torture practice used in ancient Greek), resembled by certain motives stands and falls with the knowledge that Vennefrohne derives from the sketches. But even if the liner notes or program notes inform the audience about this circumstances, nobody is obliged to accept this interpretation. Of course, Henze had the notion that music conveys a distinctive message, but we know that this attempt is as futile as ridiculous and an insult of the audience.

Other composers had this crazy idea, too. Think about Karlheinz Stockhausen and his allegedly decent from planet Sirius. But nevertheless, the dominating behavior of Henze seems more serious to me, since it affects directly the reception of the music. That might be the reason why he is so rarely discussed in the University. Henze wants to reign, he tries to hem the listener to his own conception. This is a notion that cannot be accept in the 21st century.

One last example: The last movement is a scoring of Hölderlin's poem "Hälfte des Lebens", but without an actual singer. How is one supposed to recognize this relation? I will not argue that this is not a valid compositional approach, I would use it myself as a composer, and others did it, too. But it is certainly not a valid means of telling the audience, they have to hear Hölderlin's poem out of the music, if they please. In my opinion, this symphony is fantastically written orchestral piece, but I can't accept Henze's urge to control my reception which also smothers a valid analysis. I see it as my obligation as a teacher, to point this out to my students.

Therefore, I am sure, Henze's music will only take its place it deserves in music history when Henze and his scholars will finally set it free.

Vennefrohne, Benedikt: Die Sinfonien Hans Werner Henzes, Hildesheim, Zürich: Verlag Georg Olms 2005.
Freyberg, Peter K.: "Henzes Siebte - Eine Hölderlin-Symphonie", in: Hans Werner Henze (= Hamburger Jahrbuch für Musikwissenschaft, Bd. 20), hrsg. von Peter Petersen, Frankfurt a. Main: Peter Lang 2003, S. 91 - 111.
Dümling, Albrecht: "Ein reflektierter Freudentanz. Versuch einer Interpretation des 1. Satzes von Hans Werner Henzes 7. Symphonie", in: Musik, Deutung, Bedeutung. Festschrift für Harry Goldschmidt, hrsg. von Hartmut Lück und Hans-Werner Heister, Dortmund: Edition V im Pläne-Verlag 1986, S. 107 - 111.

Further reading on the internet
Tom Service: "A guide to Hans Werner Henze's Music"
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