Beamish’s Future Past: Bellburst, Tomblight

Sometimes an album is like a snapshot. Summer 1967: the summer of Sgt. Pepper’s, when the world of “popular music,” whatever that was, became something else. The snapshot was of a changing world, a record of kinesis between this and that, the high jump captured in mid-air, time miraculously frozen. But Sgt. Pepper’s is an easy example: an album that wanted to be understood as a moment, that knew it would be a moment before it was one, as the gathered dignitaries on its iconic cover so memorably demonstrate. (What else could have convinced them to show up?)

Album cover of Beamish’s “The Imagined Sound of Sun on Stone”

British (Scottish, we should say!) composer Sally Beamish also gives us a snapshot with her album The Imagined Sound of Sun on Stone, which is also the name of the last work on it, essentially a one-movement concerto for saxophone and orchestra. Released after the decade of her meteoric rise (the 1990s) but before her more recent acknowledgment as a major composer of the last quarter century, the album includes works that chart that rise and articulate her compositional journey, a gradual tapping into a deep well of creativity that connects to her identity.

(Nexus entry.)

Felix Femina’s album of Scottish medieval polyphony, with pieces from W1, the musicologist’s bane!

The Caledonian Road (1997), first work on the album, is named after the road in North London where Beamish’s family went shopping when she was growing up. As she explains in the liner notes, the road really was the road to the north – to that place the Romans called Caledonia, the frightful region beyond the reach of Empire. This was also the place to which Beamish moved in 1990, a move described as “the most important of her career.” So The Caledonian Road, while seeming simply to point to Scotland, is also autobiographical and has to do with Beamish’s personal road to Scotland. The sound of the north seems to be present in at least two ways in the work: through a pastoral style conjured by lyrical wind lines over string drones and through specific reference to a complex of musical sources – “ancient bells,” horn calls, and fragments from the St. Andrews Music Book (that is, W1. . .that is, Wolfenbüttel 1, that is, Cod. Helmst. 628, which, as every musicologist of a certain age knows, is one of the major repositories of the Magnus liber organi). Beamish had brought these sources together before in St. Andrew’s Bones (1997), a work for horn, violin, and piano, which was also inspired by the ruins of St. Andrew’s Cathedral in the county of Fife in Scotland, ruins the composer had heard described as “like the rib-cage of some long-dead god.” And so the work is autobiographical in layers, touching on the composer’s childhood and on another work of hers, with its related but distinct set of referents. One of the most unusual qualities of the work to me is its essentially non-dramatic nature. Despite the fact that the largest number of “bell bursts” is saved for the end, the end is really no louder or more impressive than other moments throughout the work. The notes describe the work as being in “variation form,” with variations marked off by those “bell bursts,” combinations of chime sounds and orchestral renderings of bell resonance. Some variations are more active, some more lyrical, and the whole is loosely arranged in a kind of arc shape, with the most active, densely contrapuntal variations inhabiting the central section and the variations with sparser textures bookending the work.

What does such a form suggest if the title points to journey, to a road, and if the notes argue for a sort of narrative dimension where one eventually arrives in a physical and spiritual Caledonia? In thinking about this, it has seemed to me almost as if Beamish structures the work so that the road to the future leads to the past and that the activity of the central section, its agitation, is the movement – a great exertion – that leads back to the beginning. The elliptical journey suggests the preordained, moving forward only to find that the destination was within you, was you yourself in some version you sensed but did not fully comprehend. This is less the unfolding of a drama and more the dawning of enlightenment, the recontextualization of ever-present material.

Reeds near the Budôkan, Photo by Kevin Salfen

The idea of moving into the future to get to the past is also present in the second work on the album, The Day Dawn. Without having read the notes, my first thought was that the saturated, slow-moving string sonorities at the beginning were reminiscent of Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, called the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs because of the texts, concerned with mothers and children, and more particularly with the loss of children. And then I read the notes. Beamish wrote the piece, as it turns out, as an act of public mourning for a friend of hers whose young daughter had died. Perhaps, therefore, Beamish was deliberately referencing Górecki, or perhaps she couldn’t escape him. But the idea running through the piece, of a parent, a mother, trapped in mourning, greeted by sunshine on the day of the funeral after a week of rain, also suggests the world of Kindertotenlieder, and more specifically of “Nun will die Sonn’ so hell aufgehn”: “Now the sun will rise brightly, as if nothing bad had happened in the night.” But where Rückert and Mahler are mired in irony, beset by self-doubt, and Górecki makes grief so beautiful that you never want to leave it, Beamish shows us a way out.

That way is an old Shetland fiddle tune named “The Day Dawn,” which was played to celebrate the Winter Solstice, “to mark the dawn of lengthening days,” according to the notes. The tune is heard at its clearest at the very end of the work, a sort of Ivesian solution to form, as if it could only be pieced together a bit at a time over the course of the work. When it is heard in this clearest version, however, it is without the vim and vigor of dance: a vessel that needs to be filled, the shape of life that needs to be stepped into. And here I’m reminded of another line in Rückert’s “Nun will die Sonn’”: “Du mußt nicht die Nacht in dir verschränken / Mußt sie ins ew’ge Licht versenken!” – “You must not become the darkness yourself but must commune with eternal light.” (That’s my attempt, but I’ve often seen it in English as “you must not enfold the night within you but must sink into eternal light.”) How do you enter into the light that exists beyond mourning? Beamish uses that old Shetland fiddle tune to suggest a potent cure: music, dance, activity, the land, home, the rootedness of those things, their ability to subsume individual grief in a larger story, all of which means that life does go on after loss. It’s a kind of ancient wisdom, the wisdom that has the mother dance all night at a wawa verlorio to mourn her child. To live into the future, Beamish has us travel deeper into the past.

That album that everyone has. . .still good!

Time breaks down in music, becomes a kind of riddle. Brevity stands for length, forward stands for backward. We are time travelers, set adrift in a timeless soundscape.

Beamish, as I’ve said, lets the last work on the album, The Imagined Sound of Sun on Stone, give its name to the whole. And the way that work plays with sound and time will now seem iconic for the album and composer. The material, according to the notes, comes from various places and times: an old Swedish herding call, “psalms and chants coming from different traditions,” “blues,” though I think this is an oversimplified way to describe a much more sophisticated jazz-inspired idiom, which sometimes steams and screams like Coltrane and sometimes simmers and sneaks like a gumshoe in postwar film noir. Beamish is kind enough to describe the form of the work in her notes, and I would gloss her description as “accumulation, arrival, dispersion.” The arrival happens a little over halfway through the twenty-minute work and is a true climax on an album of few overt climaxes: an explosive, gripping burst of C major, which the composer describes as “the moment at the solstice when light enters the prehistoric tomb.” That arrival shatters conventional time. It serves as a sort of portal into a place where jazz and ancient chant exist in swirling simultaneity – a universal “hymn” in the Ivesian sense of a thousand different voices singing their thousand different songs at once. Gradually the elements released by this C-major arrival, which seems to me a cousin of the Sanctus from Britten’s War Requiem, scatter and fly away, but a cycle has been established: seasons flow, and the solstice will come again, letting past and present dance together until the tomb goes dark.

Irina Ratushinskaya’s most well known work.

The other piece on the album, I’m not afraid (1989), is also fascinating. An early work, one that Beamish apparently considers crucial in her compositional development, it is a sort of response to six poems by Ukrainian poet Irina Ratushinskaya (1954-2017), which are read (by the composer!) as the chamber ensemble provides an accompaniment that is part filmic underscore, part expressionistic Pierrot-like mimesis. The clown logic of the piece may connect to the poet’s history. A Christian dissenter in the Soviet Union, imprisoned for almost four years, who wrote poetry throughout her imprisonment, some of which was smuggled out on scraps of paper: this is the sort of grim grotesquerie that would seem to require the surreal distancing techniques of Pierrot to achieve anything other than the bleakest tragedy. I would love to write about Stravinsky in the work, about the special role for oboe, and yes, about clown logic, but for this entry maybe it’s just as important to note that in 1989 Beamish was already “singing” the song of the dispossessed, of the woman imprisoned, yearning to seize freedom. On this album she has shared that sound of yearning, in her own human voice, before showing us the ancient destination that lay on the path ahead.

(Nexus exit.)

You see, sometimes an album is like a snapshot. . .

Forever Unfinished: Ives’s Fourth Symphony

“This was like a first shot of heroin to me. I became hooked thoroughly on Ives.” So said John McClure (1929-2014), famed producer of some of the great Stravinsky and Bernstein albums for Columbia Records, about his experience of hearing the Piano Sonata No. 2 “Concord, Mass., 1840-1860,” each of the movements of which connects to the American transcendentalists: I. “Emerson”; II. “Hawthorne”; III. “The Alcotts”; IV. “Thoreau.” I had a similar reaction to Ives, though I can’t remember if the first piece of his I heard was Three Places in New England, The Unanswered Question, or the Second Piano Sonata, because once I had encountered the first, I sought out the others in quick succession. I do remember, though, that the first time I heard Ives’s Concord Sonata, my experience was, bizarrely, not that Ives’s was quoting someone else, but that someone else was quoting Ives. At the risk of being self-indulgent, I’ll take the trouble to explain.

It happened that, in the late 1980s, when I regularly fired up the Walkman to ease the passage of homework that didn’t particularly compel me (Shame!), I would often pop in a cassette of Bruce Hornsby and the Range’s 1986 album The Way It Is. 81PMp5uth2L._SX425_.jpgThe second track, “Every Little Kiss,” opens with Hornsby’s piano solo—hardly a surprise, as that was sort of how he carved out his unconventional place in the popiverse of the Reagan years. Through repeated background listening I memorized “every little” nuance of that opening solo.

¡¡EnTeR tHe UnIvErSiTy YeArS!!. . .when I encountered Ives, as described above, and was stunned to discover that Hornsby’s opening solo was lifted straight from the opening of “The Alcotts.” Hornsby has never made any secret of liking Ives, so I think this gesture is a straightforward homage to an important musical influence and not an attempt to communicate anything connected with the household that gave the world Louisa May Alcott. Nevertheless, so fascinated was I by this connection, and by the phenomenon of initially encountering Ives’s music as something someone else had quoted instead of as a compendium of quotes itself—and the opening of “The Alcotts” is itself a compendium of quotes, as I would later learn from J. Peter Burkholder’s All Made of Tunes (Yale Univ. Press, 1995)—that I quoted the opening of “Every Little Kiss”/“The Alcotts” in a piece I wrote at university, “Job Work,” a setting of a poem by James Whitcomb Riley for tenor and chamber winds. (Here’s the really self-indulgent part—sorry.) I used the quote for Riley’s lines “And shout in glee such a symphony/That the whole world understands.” The opening of “The Alcotts” is a sly re-harmonization of the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth, so by using the Ives-via-Hornsby quote for this line, I think I must have been saying something about how the quotation and re-quotation of Beethoven points to a “symphony that the whole world understands.” But the more interesting point to me now is that my recognition of the phenomenon of quotation sparked further quotation, a compositional quirk I’ve never really been able to shake.

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It was illuminating, therefore, to sit next to a (ahem) certain Ives scholar at the last American Musicological Society meeting in Rochester, and to briefly discuss, while we were waiting for Susan McClary’s talk to get underway, quotation in Ives. I said something about how different an experience Ives must be for students now, many of whom don’t know any of the tunes that Ives quotes. (Lots of people have said this; I was just being banal.) The Ives scholar pleasantly but firmly made the point that identifying a particular tune was not necessary for an enjoyment of Ives’s music—that, in fact, perceiving the quotation of style was sufficient, an argument he had been making for a very long time and one that he continued to promote through publication and, I’m happy to say, in casual conversation.

I’ve thought about that conservation frequently in the intervening months, wondering if my knowledge of, say, classical repertory and hymn tunes, makes Ives fascinating to me because of my familiarity with specific pieces or because of the concomitant familiarity with certain styles. The answer isn’t an either/or. Yes, it does mean something to identify specific quotes in Ives; it enriches the listening experience significantly. But suddenly I catch myself and wonder if what it enriches is the process of reflecting on the listening experience, and if, during the experience of listening itself, style “leads” and specificity of quotation is less significant. To identify a specific quotation is to stand outside the experience of listening, to a certain extent. (If all you’re thinking about during “Ice Ice Baby” is “Under Pressure,” you’re not in the musical moment, right?) The frequency of quotation in Ives’s music, taken with listeners’ varying abilities to identify specific pieces, would seem to suggest that the experience of listening to his music is a dance between in and out, between riding along on a current of style and considering a concatenation of distinct phenomena from a distance. This inside/outside dance that potentially characterizes listening to Ives can be initially disorienting, confusing, but it can also be terrifically exciting, because you’re not sure what the composer is asking of you. Are you in or are you out, and where should you be? There’s something about it that feels like our experience of music as an entire field; Ives seems to me always to be asking his listeners to tie the experience of a specific work to a larger conception of the messy way in which music permeates our lives. He’s after a kind of honesty that breaks down the wall between concert experiences, private musical moments, and walking around in public environments. It’s the American experimental road that leads to John Cage: a proposal for perpetual conceptual revolution that accepts all experience as fundamentally musical.

Nexus entry.

How delighted I was to encounter on YouTube a documentary and full performance of the 1965 première of Ives’s Fourth Symphony by the American Symphony Orchestra under the baton (principally) of Leopold Stokowski. The film was shot for National Education Television, which would later morph into PBS, and includes interviews with John McClure (from which the gem that opened this entry), charmingly dotty podium remarks by Stokowski, and some artful shots of the orchestra tackling what was clearly a dauntingly complicated work for them.

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But the recording I listened to for this entry was the 1974 recording of the Fourth Symphony with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under José Serebrier, who was one of the assistant conductors for the televised première under Stokowski. 4296307.jpgThe atmosphere of quotation begetting quotation that Ives inspires seems echoed, therefore, in the link between the NET film and the LPO recording. This quality is brought out in Serebrier’s extensive program notes, which often reference the 1965 première. In the spirit of Ives, I can’t resist a quotation: “I shall never forget that winter morning at Carnegie Hall, when Stokowski had scheduled the first rehearsal of the Ives Fourth. He stared at the music for a long time, then at the orchestra. I had never seen the score, and my heart stopped when he turned to me and said, ‘Maestro, please come and conduct this last movement. I want to hear it.’ After it was all over, my arms and legs still shaking, I complained that I was sightreading. Stokowski’s reply was, ‘So was the orchestra!’” If they were sightreading on that first day, one of the remarkable things about the première was it was especially well prepared: Stokowski asked for (and got) a number of extra rehearsals, underwritten by the Rockefeller Foundation. (See the NET documentary at 7:55 for Stokowski’s explanation, delightfully redolent of the absent-minded professor.) But Serebrier’s recording brought with it almost an additional decade of opportunity to live with the work’s challenges and possibilities, and so it inevitably sounds more refined.

musicsales-HL50490634.jpgStill, it is a revelation to listen to Serebrier’s recording while following along with the 2011 Charles Ives Society Critical Edition of the score, with each movement edited by a different scholar from the variety of sometimes conflicting sources. (This extraordinary publication includes a CD-ROM with scans of all of Ives’s manuscript material for the work.) Looking at Wayne D. Shirley’s edition of the fourth movement, for example, shows how much either was excised from or never incorporated into the edition prepared by the staff of the Fleischer Music Collection, used for the 1965 première and the 1974 recording; following the course of almost any single part reveals that much more is possible than got realized under Stokowski or Serebrier. And, well, who can blame them? Ives asks for an entirely different ensemble for each of his four movements, pushing past Richard Strauss into a kind of proto-Gruppen orchestral environment, particularly in the finale. All this in a work of the 1910s and ‘20s. Not that Ives would have recognized the finale in the 2011 Critical Edition as his, per se. As William Brooks brilliantly proposes in the preface to the edition, in the face of the impossibility of creating a single definitive edition of the finale from a multiplicity of sources, “The workable anarchy of Ives’s music is better manifested in his manuscripts than in publications; and it is the manuscripts which you [Who, me?!?!]—through whom Ives’s music sounds—can and should enter. There can be no Ives urtext, no approved edition. In the re-formed world universal access to the manuscripts will bring into being an ever-expanding sphere of visions, performances—‘editions,’ if you will—all shaped for particular times, places, circumstances. I look forward to your contributions.” This quote resonated powerfully with me as I sat there in the stunned aftermath of the last movement, thinking about the beauty of what I heard and the promise of what I didn’t hear but could almost imagine. (More of it is present in other more recent recordings, incidentally.) Could there ever be enough instruments, enough parts to satisfy Ives’s all-encompassing vision? Could there ever be enough refracted and refracting quotations to answer the call? Brooks says no, but he looks forward to a Borges-like infinite gallery of responses. How wonderful to imagine that in writing about it we come to constitute a version of the work.

Nexus exit.

I think that the idea of being unfinished, as with my entry on Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, needed to inhabit the center of this one, and that other conceptions I initially had for it—that I should mention links between Three Places in New England and the first, second, and fourth movements of the Fourth Symphony, or that I should write about “place” and the slow third movement, which has to me more than a touch of the Adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth–simply must wait. There’s great and perhaps infinite promise, after all, in what’s left unfinished.

Unfinishment: (In)completing Mahler’s (In)completion

(Nexus entry.)

From the opening bar of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, we are plunged into a memory space populated by ghosts of the Prelude from Parsifal, the Prelude from Tristan, and the final movement of Mahler’s own Ninth Symphony. In fact, the opening of Mahler’s Tenth feels like a renewal of the conversation that Mahler had with himself in the Ninth. Like Hermann Hesse or William Faulkner or Terry Gilliam, there were certain topics that Mahler, once he had introduced them, simply couldn’t let go.

Of course it’s possible, however unlikely, that Mahler’s Tenth wouldn’t seem this way if the composer had finished the symphony himself. For over fifty years the world only had the colossus of an opening movement and the featherweight sidekick of a third movement, a self-effacing Allegretto with the bizarre appellation “Purgatorio.” Then Deryck Cooke (1919-76), who never finished his own planned study of Wagner’s Ring (mentioned in my last entry), made a performing version of all five movements of Mahler’s Tenth, which premièred in 1964 and was published in 1976. Other performing versions have been made, but Cooke’s is distinguished by being the first and having more than one famous name attached to it. Brothers David and Colin Matthews both helped revise Cooke’s orchestration to achieve something approaching a Mahlerian sound. R-3485643-1332258657.jpeg.jpgThe recording I was listening to, incidentally, was of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Mark Wigglesworth, which accompanied the August 1994 issue of BBC Music. In some ways it makes a great deal of sense to listen to this live performance, as the 1964 concert that brought the fully realized Tenth to the world was part of that season’s Proms.

The three movements that Cooke’s completion introduced to that 1964 audience (II, IV, and V) make for a fascinatingly symmetrical form in performance: around 23 minutes for the first and last movements, around 11.5 for the second and fourth, and a four-minute middle movement. Mahler clearly intended this symmetry. The outer movements are slow and share with the last movement of the Ninth an autumnal atmosphere that ranges from desolation and despair to searing pain—including the most dissonant sonority Mahler ever wrote, out of which blazes a solo trumpet, which is then submerged again in a “poisoned” chord—to visions of paradise and achievement of rest. The second and fourth are scherzos, similar to the placement of the Nachtmusik movements in the Seventh Symphony. But unlike the Nachtmusik movements of the Seventh, which are clearly differentiated, the scherzos and slow movements of the Tenth, respectively, feel like siblings, so that the interrupted kinesis of the first scherzo is picked up again in the second, and the solemnity and scope of the first movement are picked up again in the fifth. The sense that any Mahlerite has from the first note of the Tenth—that this symphony is a return, after an “interruption” between symphonies, to the essence of the Mahlerian conversation—is mirrored in the finale’s “return” to the first movement’s manner, after the interruption of three movements, and in the fourth movement’s return to the scherzo language of the second movement after the interruption of “Purgatorio.”

In a symphony that blends Mahlerian tropes with extraordinary surprises, one of the things that surprises me most is the language of constant interruption that Mahler cultivates in the scherzos. Motives are cut short; phrases are arrested; cadences are unfulfilled. Mahler has created a style in which a sentence almost never ends; instead, it gets turned into another sentence, which itself does not end. There’s logic to this—a way of the music—but the logic is one of incompletion. What Mahler does with form at the largest scale, he also does with material at a local scale: incompletion has become a sort of aesthetic, made poignant because of the unfinished state in which the composer left the symphony.

What does incompletion mean? Is it a sign for nervous anxiety, the impossibility of positive action in the symbol-laden decaying world of fin-de-siècle Europe? I think people often feel compelled to read Mahler like that, to look for ways that the music expresses the extraordinary emotional contours of its creator’s thinking in a Freud-filled, angst-bedeviled prewar context. But I confess that as I was listening to the scherzos of the Tenth this week, thinking about the aesthetic of incompletion that they embody, I perceived not a neurotic rhetorical hyperactivity but an achievement of rhetorical emptiness. One can only follow so many changes of mood before the rapid-fire volte-face of happy face-sad face-happy face-sad face—emoticons spinning in a slot machine—loses its precision and ceases to mean in conventional rhetorical ways. It feels to me as if in these two scherzos Mahler is unhooking mode and gesture from rhetorical function. He seems to be trading in musical twists and turns shorn of their communicative inheritance, a world powerfully close to Schoenberg’s where musical extremes need not signify emotional ones. I increasingly hear the two scherzos of the Tenth Symphony as a kind of kinetic workshop, a place where the composer was thinking, through music, about where music was going.

And what does this mean for the diminutive “Purgatorio,” a movement that spends a good deal of time spinning its wheels, like Gretchen am Spinnrade, with an empty oscillating figure underlying more conventional statements of melody? This is clearly Mahler’s Lieder style, and arguably it’s a more specific reference than that, but it’s so strange to hear this between the boldly fragmentary, proto-modernist scherzos, a leaky skiff bobbing along between Scylla and Charybdis. (Romantic metaphor-of-the-day award winner). I place the blame for this ridiculous metaphor squarely on Mahler. 61uYgohaXCL._SX337_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgHe’s the one, after all, who called his middle movement “Purgatorio,” suggesting the epic scope of Dante’s Divine Comedy and practically begging a listener to look for an Inferno and a Paradisio. Or is it really the middle three movements that function collectively as a kinetic purgatory—a waiting place, an interruption—foil to the first movement’s hell and last movement’s paradise? Music musics, ultimately, and any narrative parallel fails to fully accommodate those qualities that make the music so extraordinary.

One of the extraordinary features of Mahler’s Tenth, the narrative significance of which is elusive, is the final movement’s shape, which begins and ends with expansive tempos and features a central Allegro moderato. This shape echoes the rhythmic profile of the entire symphony, an echo enriched and complicated by the resurfacing of motives from earlier movements in the finale. There can be no question of the “validity” of a narrative reading here; Mahler brewed up such a complicated potion that one must simply accept that multiple readings, resonances, visions and revisions abound. Mahler has created a space constituted of reflections and refractions, making the nature of any one fragment difficult to pin down.

I’ll mention just one more such feature, which seems more powerful to me the more I hear this symphony. One of the principal motives of the last movement is a trumpet figure, another in a long line of funereal brass motives whipped up by Mahler. 800px-Richard_Strauss-Woche,_festival_poster,_1910_by_Ludwig_Hohlwein.jpgBut this one bears a striking resemblance, I think, to the motive from Richard Strauss’s Salome (1905) that Lawrence Gilman called the ¡¡¡EnTiCeMeNt!!! motive in his 1907 guide to the opera. In isolation, the connection would perhaps merit little attention, but taken with the bass drum hits that open Mahler’s finale and the return of the “poisoned” chord, both of which have parallels in Strauss’s score, I cannot resist the comparison. (It’s the bass drums, remember, that crush Salome with their shields [or something like that], and who can forget the “poisoned” chord when Salome kisses the forbidden fruit, the severed head of Jochanaan?) When Mahler was sketching his Tenth the music of Strauss’s operatic success de scandale was all the rage, and Mahler certainly knew the score well. What’s Mahler doing here? Perhaps he’s contemplating, through music, another recent development in music, in just the same way that the internal scherzos reflect a kind of Schoenbergian shearing of aspects of signification from musical gesture. If Mahler is thinking about Strauss in the finale of his Tenth, the music is too potent, too evocative and immediate not to spark narrative dimensions. What forbidden fruit has Mahler’s symphonic protagonist tasted to be crushed in this way? Whatever it was, Mahler himself didn’t live to taste it. In listening to the last movement, we hear Mahler from beyond the grave, expressing things he did not have the time to express.

(Nexus ex. . .

When a Symphony is Like an Archipelago: Marco’s Symphony No. 5

The symphony is dead. Long live the symphony.

Last night I had the local classical radio station on in the car, and they started playing Brahms’s Second Symphony. Brahms is not my ¡FaVoRiTe! symphonist, and the Second isn’t my ¡FaVoRiTe! Brahms symphony, and yet. . . And yet. . .

I love this form. I love the experience of listening to a symphony. Live. On recording. I love talking about them, reading about them, thinking about them. I love studying scores of them, and, as a composer, from time to time I repress the urge to write one. Or at least to start writing one. y450-293.jpgI happen to think—and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who does—that the symphony is one of the ¡gReAt IdEaS oF hUmAnKiNd!, in the way that Peter Watson places the invention of opera between chapters called “Capitalism, Humanism, Individualism” and “The Mental Horizon of Christopher Columbus.” <1> And so hearing Brahms Second at the end of a long day was my own little piece of heaven.

For the last entry two entries I’ve been listening to “island music”: the first, steel band music from Trinidad; the second, works by Tania León that are profoundly informed by Cuban culture. This week I encountered two symphonies that were new for me: Spanish composer Tomás Marco’s Symphony No. 4 “Espacio Quebrado” and Symphony No. 5 “Modelos de Universo.” But the one I found most fascinating is also “island music,” in a sense.

Nexus entry.

MI0001105480.jpgMarco’s Fifth Symphony has seven movements, each of which is named after one of the seven main Canary Islands: I. Achinech (Tenerife), II. Ferro (Hierro), III. Avaria (La Palma), IV. Maxorata (Fuerteventura), V. Tyteroygatra (Lanzarote), VI. Amilgua (Gomera), VII. Tamarán (Gran Canaria). (As an aside, I’ll admit that one of the reasons I was drawn to the piece is because in the last few years I’ve read a fair amount about the connection between San Antonio and the Canary Islands.)

Things get a bit more complicated here. In extensive program notes, Marco (b. 1942) explains that the symphony was commissioned by the Festival of the Canaries and that he wanted, therefore, to create an homage to the islands, which he claims to know “inside out (better than the natives, I expect),” as a kind of testament “to their progressive destruction.” Despite the titling of movements, though, the composer had “no desire to commit the tactlessness of appropriating Canarian folklore. . .an easy, opportunist way out, as well as being a sort of profanity, that would have harmed both the folklore and the symphony itself.”

Instead, Marco wanted to create a “universal work for the Canaries that would carry their name across the wide world every time it was performed.” <2> (This makes me think of the Dalai Lama approving the recording and distribution of Tibetan Buddhist rituals with the idea that every time one pressed play, the prayer was renewed, like a disembodied prayer wheel.) And how does a composer make a symphony universal, other than by omitting any direct reference to music and folklore of the Canary Isalnds? Marco attempts this by tying his work to others in the symphonic tradition. He references the famous opening motive from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the opening of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra repeatedly. Arguably, that’s a different kind of opportunism; at the very least, it’s the ¡MoSt ObViOuS wAy! of involving an audience in a conversation about the music, through the music.

Marco also explains that there are “hidden references to various well-known Fifth Symphonies” elsewhere, especially in the transitions. But three other “non-Fifth” symphonies occur to me as models of Marco’s symphonic universe. One is Mahler’s Third, a six-movement work with titles that most often point to the natural world as inspiration. Another is Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Sinfonie (1948), with which Marco’s Fifth Symphony shares an unorthodox number of movements, many featuring titles that point to a personal cache of complicated referents. A third is Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia (1969), the symphony after symphonies have died, which famously uses the scherzo from Mahler’s Second (1894) as a “vessel” into which many text and musical quotations are poured.

Berio’s scherzo movement, with its apparently self-defeating environment of hyper-quotation, might seem the most apt comparison, especially when Marco writes something like, “Once creative innocence has been irrevocably lost, one has no choice but to be ironic about one’s own creation.” MV5BMmNlYzRiNDctZWNhMi00MzI4LThkZTctMTUzMmZkMmFmNThmXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzkwMjQ5NzM@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_.jpgIn other words, it’s difficult to hear Also sprach, especially after 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Beethoven’s Fifth and not roll your eyes. But when ironic experience is repeated so often, it loses its ironic edge, becomes instead simply an environment. That environment is a palimpsest, endlessly written over, just as Marco’s movement titles have traditional island names and parenthetical “colonized” names, just as the symphony as a genre is a model that is written over again and again. What is left is a place of depth, a place where unfathomable things have happened and are recovered only partially, through a veil of imperfect memory, Marco Polo repeatedly trying to describe the glories of Venice for a mesmerized Kublai Khan in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

Nexus exit.

Ultimately, in his Fifth Symphony Marco claims to have given the listener “seven formal models,” inspired by various theories of the universe, “translated into seven abstract and exclusively music movements,” the “techniques of construction” for which the composer does “not want to tire the reader by describing.” No matter. On the island of symphonies, there’s enough to hear without all that.

References

<1> Peter Watson, Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud (HarperCollins, 2005).

<2> Tomás Marco, Sinfonia No. 5 “Modelos de Universo ‘88/89”; Sinfonia No. 4 “Espacio Quebrado ’87,liner notes by Harry Halbreich with program notes by Tomás Marco Indigéna, aurophon AU 31812, 1991, compact disc.

Panning for Gold: Hits in and beyond Trinidad

In the last entry I found myself (unavoidably?) making a reference to Beetlejuice (1988), which (unavoidably!) got me thinking about, yes, the score by Danny Elfman (b. 1953), and also the film’s two moments of spirit-possessed dancing, both accompanied by classic Harry Belafonte recordings: “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jump in the Line (Shake, Señora).” maxresdefault.jpgPart of me wants to write this entry on an album by Harry Belafonte (b. 1927): musician, actor, activist. After all, his album Calypso (1956), which opens with that unforgettable “Day-O,” was the first LP to sell a million copies and was #1 on the U. S. charts for 31 weeks. But that’s not the album I pulled from the shelf.

A thorny, troublesome something—an interpretive Demogorgon—lives at the intersection of Caribbean music, spirit possession, and “strangeness” in postwar Euro-American culture. To limit this to the present topic, maybe it goes something like this: The makers of Beetlejuice had seen examples of the Terrifying Dangers of Caribbean Music in movies and TV shows growing up, and the terror thrilled them.

Dr._No_(soundtrack).jpgThink of the use of calypso in the 1962 film Dr. No, the first Bond movie featuring Sean Connery as 007. In the opening sequence, a trio of (Chinese-Jamaican) assassins, feigning blindness, gun down the British agent assigned to the Kingston office in broad daylight and then melt back into the cityscape. Their soundtrack is a calypso rendition of “Three Blind Mice,” realized by Monty Norman (who penned the Bond theme, etc., John Barry, etc., legal action, etc.). This sounds ironic, menacingly so, and given Monty Norman’s fascination with Caribbean music and his work with Jamaican musicians, the composer probably meant it that way. But I’m not so sure that the children who would grow up to make Beetlejuice would have. Here was musical otherness paired with racial otherness, all supporting a delight in violence. What child could ferret out the ambiguity, even with the words of a children’s song there to drive it home in a sort of calypso echo of the slow movement of Mahler’s First Symphony? Instead, there’s the simultaneity of horror at and liberation from conventional mores, precisely the heady mixture characterizing the possessed dance sequences in the Tim Burton film. There’s nothing particularly unusual about this idea: It’s exoticism, simply put. What makes the phenomenon so memorable in Beetlejuice is that exoticism undergoes a kind of emptying of its original foothold in reality because of the disembodied nature of recording and the imprecision of nostalgia for a remembered childhood.

51FB-tmvWBL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThis reminds me of the opening of Simon Winder’s The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey into the Disturbing World of James Bond (2006), where the writer recalls seeing the Bond film Live and Let Die at the local cinema as a ten-year-old. He makes himself sick with a rum-and-raisin-flavored candy bar called an Old Jamaican while watching “voodoo worshippers. . .screaming and convulsing” in a “loosely West Indian setting.” Gross. As Winder realizes of his adolescent self. Of course, there is an irony in that Jamaica was the very place that Ian Fleming wrote most of the Bond novels; it was his second home, and he clearly loved being there. And yet. . .empire, colonialism, racism: the ugly, inescapable past that anyone with a conscience must perpetually face down.

And now for something (sort of) completely different. (Nexus entry.)

There’s much to love about Nonesuch Records. Nonesuch commissioned—yes, commissioned—Morton Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon (1967). (That’s enough, isn’t it?) Under the visionary leadership of Teresa Sterne (1927-2000), Nonesuch released recordings by a number of important young composers and also an Explorer Series, featuring music of stunning variety recorded on site around the world. Sterne and her team at Nonesuch in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s seem to have appreciated that, in the spirit of the times, expanding minds meant expanding sonic experience into realms of the unfamiliar.

One record in Nonesuch’s Explorer Series—the one I did pull from the shelf—is The Sound of the Sun (1967), an album comprised entirely of music for steel band (as in steel pans) played by the Westland Steel Band. A brief essay by Jane Sarnoff on the back cover sketches a history of the steel band, an ensemble born of extraordinary resourceful in the wake of repeated attempts by colonial authority figures to clamp down on aspects of Carnival. Drums in the nineteenth century? Banned. Bamboo sticks thumped on the ground? Banned. Pots and pans, discarded brakes and other metal bits were promising, but then. . . As Sarnoff puts it, “There are countless rumours, calypsos, and stories telling of the One man, the thousand One men who first discovered that dents in the tops of steel drums made notes.” She continues delicately, “The large oil industry on the island gave a ready source of basic instruments.” Helen Myers (ethnomusicologist alert!) is less conciliatory in her 2001 article for Grove: “After World War II, bandsmen developed a technique whereby the discarded American 55-gallon oil drums littering the island could be fashioned into a tuned idiophone whose tempered steel extended the range of musical versatility of their groups.” So Americans leave massive amounts of toxic waste on an island in the Caribbean, wash their hands of it, and the people of Trinidad give the world the steel band.

R-1662607-1383419160-6661.jpeg.jpgThe gift of The Sound of the Sun, though, is that it reveals an ensemble in transition. Not too long ago someone shared with me a YouTube video of a steel band playing the opening of Rite of Spring. It was meant to impress, and it did, as if to say, “Anything an orchestra on a concert stage can do, we can do.” That claim could not have been made when the Nonesuch record was made. In 1967, steel bands were closer to their origin as the creative expression of urban youth seeking music to articulate movement (march, dance) during Carnival. That gives the twelve tracks on The Sound of the Sun a certain self-similarity: a walking pace, an unvarying ensemble of ping pong, guitar pan, cello pan, boom, and shak-shak. (By the time Myers was publishing her Grove article, she explains that this terminology had shifted toward the less colloquial tenor pan for ping pong and bass pan for boom.)

But where variety exists on the album, it fascinates. A track like “High Life” has an unrelenting groove with an isorhythmic figure that reminds me of the sanjuanes described by John Schechter (ethnomusicologist alert!) in his work on Andean music. Compare this with “Maria,” where the tenor pan has all the rhythmic and melodic interest of a solo vocal line, with the ensemble breaking their groove to join the melody for certain hits. This also happens in “Mambo Lake,” the ensemble coordination seeming to beg for paired movement: What would the Westland Steel Band have done if they were playing this on the move?

On this listen I was especially drawn to “Linstead Market,” originally a folk song about a mother who can’t sell enough fruit in the market to feed her children, adapted simply here for the steel band. But the song itself spirals out into the nexus. It is Jamaican in origin and had been printed and recorded many times before the Westland Steel Band gave it a go. For example, the mento band the Wrigglers (sometimes “The Wigglers”) recorded it as a single, blending it with. . .ready?. . .“Day Oh” (“Day-O”), around the same year that Belafonte released his album Calypso. FW06846.jpgLouise Bennett-Coverley (1919-2006) also recorded “Linstead Market” for the 1954 Folkways Records release Jamaican Folk Songs. Bennett, lifelong champion of Jamaican folklore, was the person who introduced Belafonte to “The Banana Boat Song,” though it had been “Hill and Gully Rider” as she knew it. And she recorded “Linstead Market” on at least one other occasion, that time with the Caribbean Serenaders featuring Leslie Hutchinson on trumpet (Melodisc 1139) in what the 78 label describes as a “Jamaican Rhumba.” Steel band, calypso, folksong, mento, rhumba, Jamaica, Trinidad, the U. S.—the fluidity of genre, the quick movement of repertory between islands and across oceans, the surge of popular and ethnomusicological interest—all points to kind of vibrancy, a being on the leading edge of a musical revolution, a postcolonial achievement of voice. The Sound of the Sun is a brightly shining page from that story in motion.

(Nexus exit.)

Betelgeuse, Betelgeuse, Colin Matthews

It’s probably not surprising that listening to the OST for The Empire Strikes Back (for the last entry) would put me in the mood for Gustav Holst. There’s The Planets, after all, which John Williams has referenced (mined?) in a variety of ways throughout the Star Wars saga.

117042209.jpgBut the record I pulled off the shelf this week was not The Planets, but Holst’s Sāvitri (1908), a stunning one-act opera clocking in at about 30 minutes, with a B-side that I’d never heard: The Dream-City, a ten-song cycle that composer-conductor Colin Matthews arranged and orchestrated from Holst’s Twelve Songs, Op. 48 (1929), on poems by Humbert Wolfe (1885-1940). Matthews’s The Dream-City (1983), like Holst’s Op. 48, is by no means well known, but it’s frequently attractive and occasionally fascinating. Matthews organized the ten Holst songs into three “parts” and, in addition to having orchestrated them “more elaborately, perhaps, than Holst might have allowed himself,” he contributed some “linking material” to weld certain songs together. The third part, for example, connects three songs in one unbroken set: “Rhyme,” “Journey’s End,” and. . .wait for it. . .“Betelgeuse.”

Nexus entry.

MV5BZDdmNjBlYTctNWU0MC00ODQxLWEzNDQtZGY1NmRhYjNmNDczXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTQxNzMzNDI@._V1_UY1200_CR87,0,630,1200_AL_.jpgAnother week, another ‘80s movie reference. Behold, I bring you: Beetlejuice (1988). Granted, the weird nightmare landscapes that Michael Keaton’s poltergeist-purveying title character slinks through in Tim Burton’s film are a far cry from the wisps of dreams in Humbert Wolfe’s poems. But something does tie together that bizarre film, Wolfe’s poetry, Holst’s settings, and Matthews’s orchestration: the strangeness of our fantasies about death.

“Rhyme,” jittery and unsettling, is about the power of that particular characteristic of poetry to disrupt the natural order, to jolt us “out of space and time.” “Journey’s End,” written in a sort of faux naïve father-son dialogue, depicts the afterlife as the cold, dark, and silent “room” of a coffin. Holst’s music (and Matthews’s beautiful orchestration) goes much further, revealing the numinous through its arching lyricism.

By placing “Betelgeuse” last in the cycle, Matthews sustains this meditation on an afterlife “out of space and time”: “On Betelgeuse the gold leaves hang in golden aisles for twice a hundred million miles,/and twice a hundred million years/they golden hang and nothing stirs,/on Betelgeuse.” TheMagiciansNephew(1stEd).jpgThis science-fiction-like vision of death—which reminds me of the terrifying frozen world of the White Witch’s home planet in C. S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew (1955)—becomes a marvel in Matthews’s rendering. He has forged a sonic Betelgeuse in the environment of his orchestration, with sly references to Mahler’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” to ground the autumnal quality of the poetry in the musical language of the Romantic orchestral song cycle. In the recording, soprano Patrizia Kwella barely touches consonants and uses light vibrato or straight tone throughout while perfectly placing every pitch, aiding the sense of the strangely beautiful and otherworldly, her voice attaining the quality of an instrument beyond the human frame. (She sounds like a glass harmonica at times!) Perhaps Kwella and Matthews were thinking of the 1968 recording of Holst’s Op. 48 by Peter Pears and Britten, in which Pears attains a similar diction-light placidity? Or perhaps Matthews heard Britten and Pears perform it live, since shortly after the recording was made he became the composer’s assistant.

Nexus exit.

I admit that it’s a bit perverse to have “gone nexus” on the LP’s B side without lavishing attention on Sāvitri, which is, well, a truly wonderful work. How do I love it? Let me count the ways. Or at least briefly mention a few of the things that I love about it.

It is an opera with only three roles—Death, Sāvitri, and her beloved Satyavan—in which Holst gives Death the first word. (Like Wagner, Holst wrote his own librettos, in this case adapting the story from the Sanskrit epic The Mahābhārata.) 518Pw2aGHgL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgDeath sings the opening section alone, without orchestral accompaniment, which might initially suggest Wagner’s strategy at the beginning of Act I of Tristan und Isolde, but in Holst there’s no prelude to set up the emptiness of the opening song. And then, magic! Sāvitri joins Death in an unaccompanied duet and reveals that his song has been running through her mind. So the first character we hear is actually the thought of another character. The stark tension between the two vocal parts seems to prophecy Peter and Ellen’s bitonal duet in Britten’s Peter Grimes, which is similarly unmoored from orchestral accompaniment. Composer-scholar Raymond Head claims that Sāvitri features Holst’s first use of bitonality (“Holst and India (III)” Tempo 166 [September 1988]: 37), and given that Britten acknowledged his debt to Holst’s harmonic thinking, the Sāvitri-Grimes link seems intriguing.

Another favorite moment is the use of women’s chorus to accompany Sāvitri’s song to death (“Welcome, Lord!”), which sounds like the very best of the Anglican choral tradition, and so glosses the Hindu mythology of the story with the resounding strains of a British paradise. If that seems uncomfortably colonial, well. . .how could it not? Holst was inevitably a tenant of his times.

I’m not sure it counts as a “favorite moment,” but I’m also amazed by the conversation (argument, really) that Sāvitri has with Death, over the course of which she essentially tricks him into not taking the life of her Satyavan. The deliberately archaic language of the libretto echoes Wagner, certainly, but I’m more fascinated by the musical logic of this section of the opera. The succession of tempos, the modal shifts, the way the orchestra supports the drama—all suggest the logic of Wagner while remaining satisfyingly Holstian. But it’s more specific than that. I almost feel that this particular collection of tempos and moods comes from something: Tristan and Isolde’s conversation at the end of Act I, perhaps? I can’t quite put my finger on it, but seeking an answer is a quest well worth taking up sometime. Meanwhile. . .

So. Many. Records.