Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Soundscape at CASA: Piano Music of Carter, Ligeti and Bach

On Tuesday, I spoke to a number of students at the Capital Area School for the Arts which meets at the Salem Church on Chestnut Street in Harrisburg. The cornerstone says it was built in 1821, only about 60 years after Johann Sebastian Bach published the Goldberg Variations, one of the works on the Market Square Concerts program this weekend.

This presentation was part one of Market Square Concerts’ latest “SOUNDSCAPE,” a cool thing that introduces the students to some of the music on the concert program and then, a day or two before the concert, they get to hear the artists talk about and play some of the music live just for them.

Truman Bullard had done one of these before the Antares Concert in November, introducing the students to Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time.” Then a few days later, the members of Antares played excerpts from the work and gave them the performers’ perspective on the piece. Many of the students then attended the concert Saturday night at Market Square Church. Truman will be back to do another one in February, prior to Maria Bachmann’s recital which will feature the world premiere of a violin sonata by Philip Glass.

Yesterday, there were close to 70 students from the different programs at the school with theater, visual arts, film and video, dance as well as music students. I took a couple of photos before we got started but I was looking right into brightly back-lit stained glass so all you can see are a couple of silhouettes in what would appear to be windows. Wasn’t sure I could pass them off as artsy or just examples of bad photography, so I decided not to post them...

On Friday, then, they’ll go over to Whitaker Center to hear pianist Matthew Bengtson and composer Jeremy Gill who will talk about the music for this concert, including Gill’s “Eliot Fragments.” Gill, a Harrisburg native, now teaches at Temple University in Philadelphia and will have his Symphony No. 1 played by the Harrisburg Symphony in May.

Though Bach’s Goldberg Variations are clearly the “major work” for this concert, I began my share of the program by talking about some of the composers on the first half of the program.

Sometimes, young artists discover their dreams need to have a back-up plan in case the dream doesn't come true. Alexander Skryabin, still a conservatory student, was studying to become a concert pianist when an injury to his left hand looked like it was going to mean curtains for his career. Influenced by this dreadful realization, he concluded his first piano sonata which he was composing at the time – thinking he’d be, like most concert pianists of the day a pianist who also composed – with a funeral march (incidentally, pre-dating Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique by a year). Fortunately for him, he recovered and went on to become one of three major concert pianists in Russia at the turn of the 20th Century, along with Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev. Unfortunately for us, it meant he wrote less than he might have, but still, for him, he was following both Plan A and Plan B.

Luciano Berio - two of his piano works are also on this program - had been drafted into the Italian army during World War II. On his very first day of training, being shown how to fire a rifle, he injured his hand. I’m not sure what this did for his military service, but in his case, it meant his dream of becoming a concert pianist was shelved: instead, he turned to composition, becoming one of the leading Italian composers of the 20th Century.

Elliott Carter, who celebrated his 100th Birthday last month, had been involved in music lessons but was rather vague about what he wanted to do about them. His parents were not keen on his becoming a musician. He was 15 when he heard the first American performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, fascinated as much by the music as he was by watching people troop out of the hall. Anything that could create that strong a response in people, he decided, was something he wanted to be a part of: even though he came late to identifying his own musical voice (he was in his 40s when this finally happened), he spent much of his life writing music that caused lots of people to troop out of the hall. More recently, his music has elicited cheers and standing ovations so he joked about perhaps having gone wrong, somewhere, after all these years.

I told the students how I had heard all five of Carter’s challenging string quartets in a single performance a year ago and how inspiring it was to see the auditorium filled with people there to hear this difficult music and who clearly loved it. It also inspired me that you must also have the conviction of your own integrity to realize your dreams, not to give in when people tell you “you know, it’d be much easier if you wrote in a style that would be easier to listen to.”

In his music, Carter explores different ways of organizing his sound-world not by using chord-structures and harmonic directions even remotely related to what composers had been doing for centuries before him but by creating music in layers which we call “polyphony” (many voices) or “counterpoint” (the skill of creating independent layers of voices related to each other) that often sound like several tempos playing simultaneously.

Playing a recording of the opening of “90+” – a work Carter composed for a colleague’s 90th birthday, written when he himself was a mere 86 – I pointed out that Carter chose ninety short, accented notes which are played in a slow tempo and then all around this, creating the other layers, are related notes and chords moving in different, often rapid but seemingly independent tempos. It’s a kind of “temporal” counterpoint, dealing with what sounds like “audibly independent tempos” all written out in some kind of common-denominator notation. But the relationship between these lines, these sonorities (“chords,” in a new-fashioned sense), may be no more organized than how composers worked 150 years ago.

Holding up my copy of Elliott Carter’s “Harmony Book,” I said it wasn’t really a book telling you how to write like Elliott Carter. It’s basically a collection of every possible pitch combination and how each one relates to other possible combinations – a chapter on chords of 5 notes shows you what 3- and 4-note chords are related to each of them and how you can add 1 note to them to make 6-note chords. And so on. Not great reading but for a composer in this style, a more systematic way of organizing your sound-world than just arbitrarily trying to find the next pitches you need and better, too, than re-inventing the wheel by exploring these possible relationships with each new piece you write.

(Afterward, I was amazed and delighted to have two students come up to me to look at the “Harmony Book,” both wanting to know how they can order copies for themselves! Whoa!)

In Beethoven’s day, composers may not have thought about it as “mathematically” as many of them might today, but the Rules of Harmony that evolved in the 18th and 19th Centuries were pretty specific about what you could and could not (or should not) do, not very different from the kind of thinking many composers in the 20th Century (that would be “the last century”) thought about tone rows in a system called serialism.

Carter’s was just another way of figuring out how to “organize sound” and yet still follow the same basic precepts that underlie all Western music – the idea of getting (or not getting) from beginning to end, creating variety but maintaining some kind of unified way of doing it. The structure may not sound the same but it is often, underneath, not very different from what people may be familiar with and find more easily likable because of its familiarity.

Here is a recording by Ursula Oppens of Elliott Carter's “90+” ...

Jeremy Gill, in his Eliot Fragments, taking part of its inspiration from lines of the poet T.S. Eliot, pays a musical tribute to Elliott Carter by incorporating ideas from 90+ into his own work. The students will have the rare opportunity of actually talking to a living composer and asking him questions about the music he composed and which they will then hear.

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Next, I talked briefly about two of the three piano pieces by György Ligeti on the program, from his first book of Etudes written in 1985. Ligeti was a Hungarian composer who was very much influenced by music from sub-Saharan Africa, particularly the mbira or “thumb piano.” He is more influenced by the way this music was organized, not so much by the actual sound of it, the way other composers usually incorporated elements of folk music into their own voices. (As a side-light, I mentioned I’m not sure what influenced Ligeti was actually folk music or the “art music” of this culture.)

There is a similar kind of “tempo-awareness” as in Carter’s music: in “Fanfares,” there is a consistent pattern of persistently rising notes pitted against a more rhythmic East European-like folk-dance which flash around in different registers, often colliding rhythmically which each other in the ways they tumble over each other and shift around the keyboard. In “Autumn in Warsaw,” the patterns are descending – given the title, it might be a musical depiction of falling leaves – but they also (as falling leaves do) move at different rates of speed. In fact, the pianist ends up playing sometimes four or five different “rates of speed” simultaneously – audibly perceived as different tempos, really – over a steady ostinato pattern in the background.

Again, this is counterpoint, layers of sound where the individual lines’ independence is clarified as much by pitch as it is by rhythm. Bach could write steady eighth notes in the right hand over steady quarter notes in the left hand which, essentially, means one is moving at half the speed of the other. It may sound like Ligeti is taking this to an extreme, but in reality, it’s not that different from what Bach did, just translated into a new approach.

Pianist Volker Banfield plays three of the Etudes (from Book 1) by György Ligeti which Matthew Bengtson will be performing on his Market Square Concerts recital this Sunday: first, "Fanfares" and "Rainbow"...

...then "Autumn in Warsaw."

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Tomorrow, I will post the portion of my talk about the Road-Map for the Goldberg Variations. But if you haven't already read it, check out "The Human Side" from an earlier post.

-- Dr. Dick, Market Square Concerts kammerblogger

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