Contemporary Music / Early Music and Baroque

House-Blend II: The Long Baroque Era?

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Pianist Alan Feinberg, Curator of PS21's "House Blend" Series
Pianist Alan Feinberg, Curator of PS21’s “House Blend” Series.

House-Blend II: The Long Baroque Era?
Contemporary Music at PS 21, Chatham, Sunday August 8, 2021
Biber, Wolpe, Nancarrow, and Bach

Alan Feinberg, curator of the House Blend concert series at PS 21 in Chatham, has interesting ideas about how to bring together seemingly disparate repertory to provoke new perspectives. My second reaction to the unusual programming of the second concert was “what do these pieces have to do with each other?” (My first reaction was “Cool: I get to hear Biber, Wolpe, and Nancarrow, all in the same program?”) It makes you think as you listen, which is not a bad thing if what you are thinking about is the music you are (carefully) listening to; and the thoughts accumulate as you listen. My thought about the Biber Passacaglia for solo violin, composed in 1676 and a powerful precursor to Bach’s solo violin music, was this: Biber makes the violin sound like several voices singing in counterpoint. This is not something the violin normally does, but after Biber, it became conceivable. The exemplary performance by Siwoo Kim maintained this impression to an uncanny degree. Playing modern violin, he sustained a tonal purity that illuminated the variety of textures, and a smooth bow arm that connected notes in several voices at once, providing the illusion of multiple instruments. A somber lyricism was extended throughout the varied sections through sensitive phrasing.  This reminded me that much baroque music is built on a single prolonged affect (Affekt), or mood, or theme. The passacaglia is built on a descending minor four-note pattern: do-ti-la-sol, which was a trope for mourning or lamentation. The form is a kind of ostinato, which means “obstinate” — a refusal or inability to let go of a state of mind. The affect in question was a dignified elegy or lamentation. This mood was significant in that it carried over into the next work on the program.

“The Man From Midian” is a major ballet score from 1942 by Stefan Wolpe, depicting episodes from the life of Moses, who is portrayed as monumental, energetic, and not entirely admirable. Wolpe’s life and career are so eventful that there is no way to summarize them. His geographic trajectory can give a skeletal picture: after studying with Busoni in Berlin around the same time as Kurt Weill (ca. 1920) he became active in leftist circles in Weimar Germany, studied with Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern, wrote for cabarets, flirted with Dada-ism, either joined or worked with the Communist Party, and then expatriated to Palestine in the 1930’s. He came to the United States in 1939, wrote this ballet score for Eugene Loring (who had commissioned and premiered Copland’s Billy the Kid) in 1942, became fascinated with be-bop and hung around with the likes of Charlie Parker, took a teaching job at Black Mountain College in North Carolina in the ‘50’s where he rubbed elbows with avant-gardists John Cage, Hans Hoffman, etc etc, returned to New York during the high-water mark of American serialism, refined his own technique through a renewed attention to the works of Webern, and became a kind of grand old man to the New York dodecaphonists of the ‘60’s before succumbing to Parkinson’s disease in 1972. His music, though revered by a circle of courageous performers (including Peter Serkin) is still rarely encountered on concert progams. His works can be fearsomely complex, and his theoretical writings can seem as opaque as his music; but as is often the case, serious attention is repaid by the layered richness of both his musical and verbal discourse. 

The 35 minute complete score occupied the central portion of this program, performed in its original two-piano version. It was mentioned approvingly by Theodore W. Adorno as incorporating stylistic elements of Arabic music; if true, they were so thoroughly assimilated as to be undetectable as such. The music consists of eighteen short sections; graphic classical images depicting the story of Moses were projected on a large screen behind the pianos. This was a bit disorienting, since there was no one-to-one correspondence to the episodes, and unless one had memorized the program notes, one had to guess what the music was trying to illustrate. The music’s relation to the story is interpretive and somewhat oblique rather than directly narrative. Overall, the music was large-scale in sonority, making use of multiple registers of the two pianos almost continuously. Its emotional center was a feeling of sobriety, and there was a certain sameness of color that pervaded the entire score; this could have been a function of the performers, who were awesomely skillful in presenting the continual generous outpouring of lines and chords but did not help the listener by pointing up critical lines or points through dynamic contrast or color shifts. The basic sonority was monumental: loud, strong, energetic, and weighty. Most sections offered a single affect based on melodic materials and tempo, most conspicuously in the section where Moses buries the overseer whom he has just killed in the sand — but without being able to read the notes (in the dark), I thought it was illustrating the Hebrew’s fleeing from Pharaoh’s army, rushing toward the Red Sea. 

In seeking the tie-in to the Biber Passacaglia, I concluded that it was through Wolpe’s neo-baroque language: each section maintained rhythmic and emotional consistency, and there was a continual play of complex linear textures, with or without additional harmonies (both pianists were kept busy throughout). Many of the rhythms were motoric (a common adjective when dealing, for example, with Stravinsky’s neo-baroque works) and even obsessive; I suspect there was a certain amount of ostinato technique, although the music was rarely overtly repetitive. One section, associated with a scene of forced labor, sounded like a complex fugue. 

The musical language of this score is also a palimpsest: folk-modality with a minor cast dominates some sections associated with the Hebrew people, but a rich chromaticism can be layered over it in others indicating the personality of Moses; what sounded like 12-tone rows appear from time to time, most probably in the section touching on the ten commandments and other sections focusing on Moses: Wolpe’s essentially rebellious and restless temperament meets the strictness of Mosaic and dodecaphonic law. If any one referential genre predominates, it is the march; the entire score seems to move steadily and implacably forward. My concert companion commented afterward that the whole piece felt like marching slabs of granite, perhaps an over-generalization but with a grain of truth. I would have much rather have seen the choreography than the projected images, but I got some interesting insights afterwards when I listened to the orchestral suite that Wolpe created a few years later for performance by the New York Philharmonic under Mitroupolos: the orchestration provided color variegation which clarified the textural layers by projecting forward the melodies and back-grounding the accompanying parts. Varied solo instruments enhanced appreciation for Wolpe’s particular form of lyricism, which spins long expressive phrases in a region somewhere between Alban Berg and Kurt Weill. The black-and-white monumentality of the two-piano version suddenly opened up into a wide spectrum of light and space. 

Conlon Nancarrow’s music has a very different relationship to the baroque traits and connections indicated above. It could be that the thread was really one of increasing textural complexity. This music’s primary impulse is radically contrapuntal, in a way unprecedented up to that point in any form of music (although possibly hinted at by the most complex late 14th century works of the Ars Subtilior of the late fourteenth century). In order to juxtapose rhythms and meters beyond the capabilities of human performers, Nancarrow created forty-nine “Studies” by composing directly onto the paper rolls used by player piano mechanisms, punching holes where the notes go directly onto the paper, and using precise measurements to create multiple pulses related by complex ratios not normally found in Western scores (including irrational numbers such as the square root of 2). He also composed challenging scores for conventional instruments. Study no. 7 from ca. 1952 is one of the longest and most complex of these works. According to Nancarrow scholar Kyle Gann, the eight sections of the work parallel sonata form. This means that there are more textural shifts and moments of drama than occur in the shorter studies, and the piece as a whole has a cumulative excitement due to the dramatic moments that serve continually to refresh its drive. The paradox or miracle of his music is that although on paper it looks like it is formidably complex, even nail-bitingly modern, it is actually infectious and joyful. Its basic idiom derives from jazz, particularly of the swing era, and it really does swing, despite the complexity. The textures are kept lucid by distributing the layers over the entire range of the keyboard(s), and each layer can be perceived with total clarity, making for a kaleidoscopic sound experience. The work concludes with a dazzling cascade of arpeggios across the entire range of the piano: this is not theoretical music, despite the obvious boundary-pushing of the composer; rather, it is joyful and even theatrical in an utterly original way. Although its radically linear texture might be heard as an extension of baroque concepts, it worked in powerful contrast to the other works on the program, and its dual influences were elsewhere, in the 1390’s and the 1930’s.

The performance on Sunday night was by the two pianists performing a transcription from piano roll to two-piano score by the English composer Thomas Adès. Adès has been a fan of Nancarrow’s music for years, and has made a number of two-piano transcriptions of the studies, two of which he and Kiril Gerstein performed at Tanglewood recently. Yvor Mikhashoff transcribed four other works for chamber ensemble, which were performed at the Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music three summers ago. Watching Steven Beck and Susan Grace was akin to witnessing a juggling act: each hand of each player had its own pulse, meter, and material, interlocking in unpredictable ways. This is not to say that there was no artistry involved; the performances depended upon both players understanding what was produced by the combinations of all four hands, while maintaining the autonomy of each. This is made more complex by the fact that each layer is constantly shifting meters within its steady pulse. No purely mechanical rendition (à la player piano) can work with live performers — they need to “groc” the totality and make it swing. In this respect, the performance was a triumph, and certainly the high point of the evening.

The concluding offering actually constituted a reprise from last Fall, when Conrad Tao concluded his PS 21 program with an encore of the Sonatina from Bach’s Cantata no. 106, “Actus Tragicus.” Beck and Grace performed this work in Gyorgy Kurtág’s four-hand transcription (they could have done it at one piano) to provide a calm, meditative conclusion that in context sounded like a benediction. (Tao performed the same version by himself.) While the baroque trend of the evening had traced an increasingly dispersed sense of counterpoint, this early work of Bach finds the composer at his most homophonic, with gently pulsating chords supporting a shapely melody line that splits into echoes, original scored for recorders. It was once again a perfect way to restore calm after the highly stimulating musical experiences of the evening.

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