Tag Archives: music

Elections, Muddleheadedness and Music

stemming  /’stɛmɪŋ/ (nom. fem.) 1. voting, vote; ballot; 2. ♪ tuning; 3. frame of mind; …

One good thing about the Dutch electoral system is that its low threshold allows so many parties to enter parliament, that absolute majorities are unlikely to arise. Maybe this mechanism has just protected us (the Dutch) from being governed by the nationalist ultraright.

Another effect of the system is that for any crackpot idea you may find a party to represent it, and sometimes several. Take, for example, basic income (a form of social security dispensed to all citizens unconditionally). To be sure, I don’t think this is a crackpot idea. There are strong arguments in its favour, and four parties in parliament at least encourage experiments (PvdA, D66, GroenLinks, Partij voor de Dieren).

And exactly because it should be taken seriously it is a pity that two fringe parties (which failed to win a seat) have made it their nr. 1 priority: the Basic Income Party (Basisinkomenpartij) and the Freethinkers’ Party (Vrijzinnige Partij, VP). “Free thinking”, I’m afraid, is a euphemism for muddleheadedness. Witness the curious paragraph on music in their election programme.

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Four Funerals and No Wedding

Dust and Ashes, a new opera by composer Thomas Winstrich, was premiered last week in the State Opera of Brönitz. Those who were attracted by the production’s massive publicity and expected Gothic horrors were disappointed. For me it was the opposite. The work turned out te be more serious, subtle and ironic than its theme or title might suggest. Winstrich calls his work a “documentary opera”, not in the sense that it presents us with facts, but rather that it documents the universal human tendency to seek answers in myth, particularly concerning “this hardest-to-swallow truth: that there is an end to all of us”.

Dust and Ashes is exceptional simply because all its heroes are dead before the curtain rises. Its shows the funerals of four composers, Mozart, Paganini, Weber, and Liszt. Living protagonists there are only two: Richard Wagner, cast as baritone in the third act, and his wife, Cosima Wagner née Liszt (mezzo soprano), in the final act. Apart from a somewhat surrealist recreation of the funerary rites little happens on stage – it may be the most static and ritualistic musical drama since Parsifal. Luckily the imaginative cinematic stage design (by Voss & Tohanka) succeeds in keeping things alive.

The main action however is in the music. Though it is basically a pastiche from the four dead composers’ oeuvres, the complexity of its many levels of quotations and allusions exceeds familiar postmodernist pasting practices. Music is piled up layer upon layer in a score which demands a huge orchestra, a strong choir, and in acts 3 and 4 a wind band on stage. Despite the intensive use of borrowed materials, there is great inventiveness in the ways these are structured in waves of increasing and decreasing density. And if I can trust my ears and memory, there are quite a few original ideas hidden in between the stolen notes.

The opera’s first act is the shortest and maybe the most effective. Whether or not Mozart’s “third class” burial in a shared grave was disgraceful by the standards of the time, it remains a shocking idea to us that no ceremony took place at the graveyard and that no permanent marker was erected to identify the spot. Winstrich fills the void with a grimly humorous, Shakespearean dialogue between grave diggers, undertakers, coach drivers and a drunken priest, interspersed with fragments from Mozart’s Requiem and other works, which sound like they’re carried by the wind from a distant place.

The second act is maybe the weakest, due to the lack of any great mournful music by its deceased hero, Niccolò Paganini (1824). It also has the weakest foundation in known facts. The truth seems to be that the devil’s own fiddler died without absolution, and therefore was denied a religious burial. The body remained above ground for more than a year, then was moved from one temporary grave to another, and found its present resting place only in 1896. Legend has it that Paganini’s son Achille sailed the coffin from one port to another in despair, until he set foot on an uninhabited rock in the Mediterranean where he secretly dug a grave. With its maritime scenery, this act most heavily depends upon cinematic effects. Musically it works more or less like a grim symphonic scherzo, the apotheosis of demonic virtuosity, with an orchestra of ghostly violins in the air (playing in the pit and and projected above the stage). It refers, I suppose, to the burden of virtuosity (or eternal restlessness) carried by all post-romantic musicians.

Following chronology, the opera puts Carl Maria von Weber (1826) after Paganini, because what it shows is Weber’s second burial in Dresden, 1844. Already gravely ill, Weber had traveled to London, were he died without his family soon after the premiere of Oberon. His grave was neglected and nearly forgotten, according to Richard Wagner, who, 31 years old and an ambitious second conductor at the Dresden opera, took lead in an initiative to bring home the remains of his predecessor. For the occasion Wagner arranged fragments from Weber’s Euryanthe for winds, and at the graveside held the speech which is the basis for the first extended vocal solo in this opera (sung more securely than sensitively by Claus Sikurny).

“It happened to me (Wagner writes in Mein Leben), as I had started my speech with clarity and great sonority, that for a moment the sound of my own voice had such an almost frightening effect upon myself, that I was completely carried away and imagined not only hearing myself, but watching myself before the breathless crowd. This self-objectification created in me an intense expectation of the fascinating event which was about to happen before me, as if it was not I myself standing here, ready to speak. […] Only my own prolonged silence and the quietude around me reminded me of the fact that I had to speak, not to listen.”

His first inspiration for this work, Thomas Winstrich says, has come from this episode, at the heart of which is an astonished, self-reflective silence, a kind of Doppelgänger experience. Similar (yet differently motivated) silences are the core of each of the four acts, as a kind of “white hole” around which the musical waves “keep rotating”.

Act 4 is the weightiest, weirdest and saddest. Franz Liszt died in 1886, three years after his son-in-law Richard Wagner, during his visit to the Bayreuth festival. The focus is on his daughter Cosima, Wagner’s widow (intelligently interpreted by Angela Berger), whose monologue is set on an extratemporal plane outside the action, a reflection on life, death and pain drawn from her diaries and childhood letters to her father.

Not a note written by Liszt himself sounded during the real event, an omission redressed in this operatic recreation, which includes parts of the Requiem Liszt supposedly composed for himself (a little known, austere composition for male voices, organ and winds), as well as fragments from his many other funerary compositions. These are overlaid with a thick carpet of allusions which remind the spectator of the many directions the Liszt Nachfolge has taken in the 20th Century.

Musical density increases as the opera progresses, reflecting (according to the composer) “music history’s ever growing burden of riches”, as “a tribute to the presentness of the past”. This explains something of the haunting quality of this work. Never have there been so many auditory ghosts in my already overstuffed head.

Shapes Moved With Sound

Or the Birth of the Animated Cartoon from the Spirit of Music
Tönend bewegte Formen oder die Geburt des Zeichenfilms aus dem Geiste der Musik. 

Listening to Chabrier’s Joyeuse Marche (in a 1919 recording conducted by Eugène Ysaÿe) it dawned upon me: before there was the animated cartoon, there was animated cartoon music. In fact the piece dates from 1888 (the original four hand piano version from 1885) – that is, from a period when the animated cartoon was just developing. The first public screening of an animated projection (by Charles-Émile Reynaud) took place in Paris in 1892, but his Pauvre Pierrot does look poor and suggests that, indeed, the spirit of the cartoon was there musically before it took shape graphically.

But what makes this music cartoonish? – Chabrier called his piece Joyeuse Marche, not Marche Joyeuse, and I’m not sure what that word order implies to the native French, but it seems to me that the composer thought of a walk (a silly walk) rather than a march. Listen to it (preferably in an early recording), and I bet you won’t be able to stay in your chair. You’ll start walking around in a funny way – jerky, angular, and a trifle too fast, like an early cartoon character. Not with those rounded corners, those stereotyped retards, that make modern computer animation look like swimming in syrup.

Music consists of animated forms, the 19th century music critic Hanslick thought, but he was at a loss what to do with the idea: what does it mean, animated? – The answer came from the movies.

On Wings and Wooden Shoes

Of Chopin’s 51 mazurka’s my favourite is Op. 24 Nr. 4. It starts with a broken octave F which shrinks in alternating semitone steps: two voices seeking to meet halfway, in a simpleminded, but musically weird and ambiguous pattern. If left to shuffle along the two would meet on the tritone B – the musical nowhere.

Just in time the bass steps in, hm-pa-pa, but gently, and starts to pull things straight. The contralto makes a step ahead of time, the soprano briefly freezes on the spot, then, swirling upward through four more hm-pa-pa’s, they settle for the key of B-flat minor. Jarring octaves; no soft melting in unison. Forward and backward, up and down, through mood swings huge as mountains.

In the second contrasting section (D-flat major) the contralto steps forward, con anima, chest-voiced, grandly gesturing, and plastered. She has only one point to make, but makes it many times. We know the refrain, and yet we want to hear her making it.

Ignacy Friedman highlights the aerial and earthy contrasts within this mazurka with abandon, not restrained by the minor details of the score. Delicate lingerings, dizzying accelerations; slight asynchronicities of left and right that make a soft plunge into the chord; and bumpy bass notes that knock you back into tempo. His second- and third-beat accents are realized by rhythmic manipulations rather than by force of touch: an irresistible elasticity affects both the smallest and the larger time scales.

A beat is not a beat: pattern takes precedence over measurement. Unless you’re a musical mechanic, you will keep counting 1-2-3 (hm-pa-pa) no matter what the pianist does – within uncertain bounds. (There are reports of contemporaries counting 4 while Chopin played his mazurka’s.)

I’ve projected the first four bars of the tipsy contralto’s solo onto the spectrogram of Friedman’s 1930 recording, stretching and shrinking the bar segments to fit his fluctuating beat lengths. Musical notation portrays temporal order in its horizontal and vertical dimensions, but not in detail or correct proportion (a piano roll does that). Showing a performer’s tempo rubato as a graphic transformation of the score is impossible in detail, but still the image is suggestive.

I made the spectrogram and beat markings with Sonic Visualiser, a wonderful free open source program. It does not allow you to insert a score into the analysis, but it does offer possibilites to produce exact data for the study of performances and performance styles. It has been an important tool in a British research project around the recorded performance tradition of Chopin’s mazurka’s.

Nicholas Cook, who has been director of this project, devotes a chapter to the mazurka style in his recent Beyond the Score (OUP 2013). Cook concludes (p. 173) that there may be “no reason to imagine there is a single essential criterion that defines the mazurka style, whether in terms of composition or of performance. […] But it is perhaps fair to say that the prototypical mazurka performance involves the creation through some kind of recurrent rubato pattern of surplus anacrustic energy, resulting in an unusually vivid sense of embodiment.”

It may be hard to dance the mazurka to Friedman’s playing, but no doubt it is impossible to comprehend his playing without such embodiment, without moving along in some hard-to-define mental-physical sense. The specific gestures and actions of piano playing also have a part in this, and a listener who cannot see or imagine the pianist’s actions might be less engaged. Much depends upon the ability to feel oneself in the performer’s place.