Symphonic Island-Hopping: Kiwi Edition

For the last entry I listened to Spanish composer Tomás Marco’s Symphony No. 5, inspired by (and with individual movements named after) the Canary Islands. So I couldn’t resist when I came across a CD of Christopher Blake’s music with a featured work called Symphony – The Islands. 31-PBmncQEL.jpgBlake (b. 1949) is a dyed-in-the-wool Kiwi: born in Christchurch, educated at Canterbury University, and now Chief Executive of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. And the “islands” referenced in the title of his 1996 symphony are those that comprise his own country, which makes Blake’s symphony notably different from Marco’s. Blake’s symphony is about home.

But Symphony – The Islands is about something else as well. Cast in three movements, it takes its title and a good deal of inspiration from three sonnets by New Zealand poet Charles Brasch (1909-73). md22536625228.jpgThe poems are printed in full in the liner notes, and emblazoned across the album art as an epigraph is this quote from the second of them, from which Blake says the music takes its “mood of restlessness”: “Always, in these islands, meeting and parting/Shake us, making tremulous the salt-rimmed air.”

Nexus entry.

I can’t stop thinking about Debussy’s “sea symphony,” La mer (1905), and not because Blake’s work sounds anything like it. In fact, Symphony – The Islands doesn’t remind me of the sound of Debussy or of early twentieth-century French music at all. That, though, is almost the point. Debussy is writing a sea symphony from the perspective of the water; Blake is writing an island symphony from the perspective of the land. Water is present in both, but Blake gives the motion, the “restlessness” of water, something substantial to push against. Another obvious comparison is Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony (1909), which shares with Blake’s piece a grounding in poetry that uses seascapes as a kind of mechanism for the visionary. But Blake doesn’t sound much like Vaughan Williams either, and he sounds even less like the Vaughan Williams of A Sea Symphony, only most obviously because Blake’s isn’t a choral symphony.

I’m stepping up to the ledge of an entire category of environmental music here, as well as a rich cache of ecomusicology. 9781783270620_2.jpgThe recent thought-provoking volume The Sea in the British Musical Imagination, edited by Eric Saylor and Christopher Scheer, leaps to mind, as does an excellent paper given by Karen Olson (at the most recent AMS conference in Rochester) on two pieces by Peter Maxwell Davies tied to “his” islands, the Orkneys. What I mean to say is that the musical trope-iverse of “island music” and “sea music” inevitably intersect, but they’re not the same. Teasing out the differences at a larger level would be, I imagine, a worthy pursuit.

But to the music at hand. . .

Blake’s first movement, “Recitative and Appassionata,” opens with an almost imperceptible throbbing that slowly grows—it really seems as if we are getting closer to it. When the cello recitative begins, it feels as if an entirely different character has been introduced or, rather, that a character has been introduced. “Recitative,” after all, means that a character is singing, and since Blake has told us all about the centrality of Brasch’s poetry to his symphonic conception, the instrumental recitative stands in for the poetic voice, and by extension for our human voice. Then what was that growing throbbing? I think Blake is asking his listener to perceive more in it than accompaniment. Its relative stasis, its rhythmic permanence suggests the natural world of rocks and waves, the land and sea against which the poet writes the story of his own recitative-like perception.

This kind of conceptual polyphony between the human and the environmental is, I think, one of the most compelling aspects of Symphony – The Islands. It occurs again in the slow second movement, “Gongs, Echoes and Chants,” where an opening subterranean pedal is answered by shimmering ascents. In the words of Brasch’s middle sonnet, “Divided and perplexed the sea is waiting,/Birds and fishes visit us and disappear.” And then, the human element appears. Blake calls it a “chant” in his movement title, but it sounds more like a hymn played out in atmospheric strings. I hear in it an echo of the end of the slow movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. MarbledGodwit.jpgWhen a descending trumpet figure cuts through the hymn texture, at first it feels like a response to Charles Ives’s Unanswered Question, in which the strings’ slow-moving hymn is cut through by the questioning trumpet. But there’s more to Blake’s trumpet than a dissonant question; as other instruments take up the figure, it reveals itself not as a human but as avian. To wit, the call of the godwit, as Brasch’s poem verifies: “from their haunted bay/The godwits vanish toward another summer.” And now we arrive at the doorstep of Messiaen, who uses birdsong to suggest the voice of the divine. By the end of the movement Blake synthesizes some of these varying elements—the primal throbbing of natural forces, the shimmering ascents of fishes and birds, the hymning of humanity—but the synthesis doesn’t achieve apotheosis. Instead, and as Brasch writes, “None knows where he will lie down at night.”

This sentiment is carried over into the third movement, “And None Knows. . .,” which gives much of its bulk to “rapid string and wind figurations” and “an energetic fast dance” before an extensive coda that returns to the stasis of the natural world and the “human voices” of earlier movements. The coda is calculatedly inconclusive, the relationship between the natural world and human presence unclear, the future of that pact unknown. Or, as Brasch’s third sonnet has it, “The stones are bare for us to write upon.”

Nexus exit.

The CD is rounded out with three “tone poems,” each about ten minutes, which Blake explains in the liner notes “are conceived as a group and share similarities in style, sentiment, and technique.” Two are elegiac—We All Fall Down (1996), an “extended threnody. . .which remembers the children of the wars of our time,” and Echelles de Glace (1992), commissioned by the Wellington Youth Orchestra in memory of their former member David Heymann, who died while climbing the Matterhorn. The first belongs to a growing body of late twentieth-century works in memoriam for which Henryk Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (1976) is perhaps an ultimate stylistic model. R-898934-1241102979.jpeg.jpgThe second, while fulfilling its memorial function admirably, also references a special kind of twentieth-century orchestral writing that I think owes a considerable debt to nature documentaries. The final work on the album is also the most recent: The Furnace of Pihanga (1999), inspired by a Maori story about the contest of mountain gods “for the love of the beautiful Pihanga.” There’s a sensitive timbral imagination on display here, and it’s a pleasure to hear Blake tell the story described in his liner notes through the orchestral medium.

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.