Among my plans, activities and resolutions for the New Year, I have decided that every day I will listen to a new piece that I had never heard before by a living composer. This blog brings my impressions of my favorite ones.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Defying Gravity - About Thomas Adès' Traced Overhead

To me, the most fascinating thing about Traced Overhead is that it makes the piano sound like a new instrument. There are no special effects such as playing inside the piano, nor there are prepared-piano accessories like screws or clothespins. And yet, it sounds different. The piano is the easiest instrument to produce sound from—all you have to do is press the keys. Anyone can do it, even a cat promenading on the keyboard, or a dog leaning on it with its paws (see recent popular YouTube videos). On the other hand, it is a limited instrument. It cannot sustain sound, there is no possibility for expressive effects such as vibrato, and its sound character is extremely homogenous and therefore can often sound dull.

Composer Thomas Adès challenges these constraints.  He looks for new possibilities of creating unfamiliar textures and sounds, and floods the score with instructions about tempo, dynamics—the performer is often asked to play several chords simultaneously with different dynamics for each one—and even the amount of pedal use in every moment (quarter-pedal, third-pedal, half-pedal, full pedal, or no pedal at all). The harmonic language is also unique. It combines severe renaissance counterpoint rules, 19th-century chord progressions, and 20th-century spices. Like putting old photo slides one on top of another, memories from different periods of life—a new picture is created. It is a stunning example of how the small details create the big picture; how extreme specificity creates an illusion of ambiguity.

In the beginning of the piece, the composer throws a fast arpeggio up in the air and watches it slowly descend, submitting to gravity, like a balloon losing its air. The names of the two first movements, as well as the title of the piece, evoke associations of “upwards.” Traced Overhead is a title that invites you to look up. The first movement—less than a minute long—is called “Sursum.” It comes from a part of the Christian Mass that begins with “Sursum Corda,” meaning “lift up your hearts.” The second movement is called “Aetheria”—Latin for sky, upper air, or ethereal. Longer than its predecessor, this movement is comprised of capricious music that quickly shifts between different ideas, like electric pulses in the brain during a dream. While these titles all suggest ascending, the piece is really about what happens after the rise—when gravity begins to run its course.

The heart of the piece is the last movement, called “Chori”—Choruses in English. It is the longest one, and it opens with three different chorales, like three choirs that sing different songs in different places of the cathedral at the same time. An ornament precedes each chord, creating a sound like wind chimes. The chords conflict with each other and create dissonances, musical clashes, aching and pleasing at the same time, like beauty that hurts the eye. When most piano music is normally written in two staves (one for each hand), here the score opens up to four, and later to six. The pianist has to constantly jump between registers and exchange hands for the different voices. This creates an illusion that the music is being played by more than one pianist—a technique commonly used by Mendelssohn—and adds to the distinct sonority of the piece.

The music wraps-up with an arpeggio à la Chopin, morphing unexpectedly from one harmony to another, until it disappears somewhere in the low keys of the piano. It invokes the very first arpeggio that opened the piece, now saying its farewell. What goes up must come down.

To listen to Traced Overhead click here

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Chaos and Order - Hans Abrahamsen's Piano Concerto

When you listen to the second movement of Hans Abrahamsen’s Piano Concerto, you slowly begin to lose track of time. The first part of the movement features a piano solo, which consists of chords and intervals played one after the other. After a while you realize that the music is not just about the different pitches that are being played, but also about the way they decay. Your ears follow each chord or couple of notes as they slowly move in space. Like a human being, the sound changes and evolves with time. It goes slightly up, then a little down, alters its appearance and character, until it slowly disappears.

With a wind or string instrument, the musician can increase the volume of a note as it is played. On the piano, however, it is physically impossible to create a crescendo during a single note; the note starts fading as soon as it is born. But a fantastic moment occurs in the piece that challenges this limitation: the orchestra suddenly sneaks in and merges into one of those piano notes, saving it from perishing. As the piano plays the next note, and the one after that, the orchestra crescendos into each one of them—like beams of light that come out of the keyboard—and in a way overcomes the laws of physics.

Abrahamsen’s music contains multiple musical layers that exist at the same time, like ancient cities buried in the same ground, accumulating one on top of the other for thousands of years. In other words, when you first listen to the piece, it sounds like a complete mess. It takes several listenings to peel back each layer and discover what’s underneath. The beauty is that you hear something new each time. In the fast, middle part of the movement, I could hear dream fragments of Shostakovich’s 1st Piano Concerto, some Rachmaninoff, and the opening of Mahler’s 5th Symphony, all played in a distorted way, one on top of the next.

The first movement starts in chaos, spinning molecules in space that look for order. This short movement lasts less than two minutes and holds the essence of the whole piece. In order to deal with the chaotic world that we live in, we constantly look for order. To that end, we invented calendars and planners. We follow our dreams and desires, and we’re also influenced by societal pressures, as well as expectations that the people in our life have for us. We make a plan for our lives, but most often, life has something else in mind. Douglas Adams said, “I never get to where I want to be, but I always get to where I need to be.” Abrahamsen’s short Piano Concerto is like that. It searches for meaning in the turmoil of blackness. It ignites processes and sends ideas out into the world. In the beginning of the fourth movement, the piano plays an ornate passage, which is beautifully taken over by the clarinets and the rest of the orchestra. Once these ideas are out there, they develop and take on a life of their own. In the end, the Concerto reaches a sense of acceptance and peace of mind.

To listen to Hans Abrahamsen's Piano Concerto, click here

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Somei Satoh - Violin Concerto

Somei Satoh’s Violin Concerto is different than any other piece of music I have ever heard. It is music that is “becoming”—a term coined by pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim. Several pieces in the classical repertoire are similar to this in their beginning, taking some time to form their identity before declaring their argument. Bruckner’s 4th Symphony is a good example. It does not start with a clear statement right away, but lets the music take form and—“become.” The opening of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances is like that too. The difference between these and Satoh’s music is that the latter is constantly becoming. It’s similar to how life can feel on occasion. Sometimes, you feel that you’re waiting for something to happen, some sort of event that will change everything so you can finally start living the life that you’ve been imagining for yourself. Until you realize that this is life. Life is not what you are waiting for, but rather what is happening now. Satoh’s Violin Concerto is like that. The music slowly unfolds; prolonged chords change very gradually—like the appearance of the sky at different times of the day—and a sense of infinity is created.

The piece reflects Satoh's identity in its infusion of western instruments, 19th- and 20th-century harmonies, and an old European genre—the concerto—with traditional Japanese percussion instruments. The concerto is my favorite classical music genre, because it is about relationships—a subject that we are all concerned with. In the case of a concerto, the relationship is between the solo and the orchestra. Like in every relationship, the solo and the orchestra can sometimes get into a musical fight, have a discussion, tease each other, or complete each other’s sentences. A concerto is also a piece that aims to highlight the soloist and show off his or her musical and technical skills. However, Satoh’s piece is non-virtuosic, utterly lyrical, and the solo and orchestra are in almost constant agreement. It is the opposite of what you would expect from a normal violin concerto.

Shinto Shrine
In his music, Satoh incorporates philosophical ideas from Shinto, the largest religion in Japan. Shinto promotes a doctrine of acceptance. When a child is born in Japan, he or she is automatically added to a list kept in the Shinto shrine—not as a form of religious imposition, but as a welcome greeting. Shinto does not differentiate between the natural and the supernatural; neither does it dismiss beliefs of other religions simply because they are different. God, or multiple spirits—“Kami” in Shinto—can take the form of humans, animals, trees, places, energies, and universal forces. Shinto is known as the religion of “eternal present,” a beautiful paradox in which the past flows into the present and into the future; where the present embodies the past and future and cannot exist without them. This concept of simultaneously embracing seemingly contradictory periods in time (past, present, and future) also applies to Satoh's music.

"The Profile of Time"
inspired by Salvador Dali's 1931 painting "The Persistence of Memory" 
©Stephen Dawson
Still time, an impossible physical phenomenon, can only exist in art. Time stands still in paintings, statues, or photos. The exceptions are film and music, which are dependent on time. Like film, music requires movement, and therefore cannot live without time. Music is born when a bow is drawn against a string, when air is blown into a pipe, or when a hand hits a drum. When the movement stops, the music vanishes with it, and all that is left is a memory and a feeling that the music evoked in us. In Satoh’s Concerto, however, there is an illusion that time stands still. The music starts with a slow, steady pulse, like the first heartbeats of a baby in its mother’s womb. This rhythm, lasting for a little over than five minutes, is hypnotizing. The music, meditative, mostly quiet and slow, also involves many moments of silence. For Satoh, silence is not the absence of music, but a part of it. In an almost magical way, Satoh manages to create the sensation that the silence itself is vibrating before taking the form of sound.

As you submerge into Satoh’s world, the heartbeat appears again at the end. It looks back to the beginning and recollects the path that the music has taken us through. But at the same time it has its own presence and meaning as it leads us to the end of the piece, simultaneously embracing past, present, and future.

To listen to Somei Satoh's Violin Concerto click here

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Guillaume Connesson - Techno-Parade

Except for a few visits to nightclubs during my teen years—when I was mostly yearning for the night to end as soon as possible—and hearing the occasional car pass by with blaring speakers and a driver aspiring to spread the word of techno music to the masses, I’ve rarely listened to techno. To be honest, I was never particularly interested in it. But this week, I stumbled upon a piece written for flute, clarinet and piano that aroused my curiosity.

Originally, what appealed to techno artists was the possibility of making all of the music by themselves. Techno removed the need for real players; the artist could produce all of the sound independently, with just a machine. Techno-Parade creates a fascinating phenomenon by taking this concept—machines imitating acoustic instruments—and reversing it. In the most innovative and creative moment of the piece, the pianist is asked to put sheets of paper on top of the piano strings and rub a brush against them while playing. This move produces an amazing effect: the piano suddenly sounds like a digital sampling of its own self. An acoustic instrument is now imitating a machine, whose original purpose was to imitate an acoustic instrument. I know, very meta!

The charm of Techno-Parade comes from integrating techno with contemporary classical and jazz music. After a short introduction and a lush piano glissando, the music moves into irresistible, repeated rhythmic patterns written in 7/8 meter. These patterns appear a few times throughout the piece. In jazz they are called riffs and are sometimes used as bed for improvisations. While practically all techno music is written in a steady 4/4 meter—making it easy to dance to—Techno-Parade changes meter constantly and unpredictably, building excitement and surprise.

Techno music was born in the nightclubs of Detroit, Michigan, in the 1980s. Some say that techno was inspired by the noises and rhythms of the factories that make up Detroit’s famous auto industry, but others dismiss that as a legend. In any case, great classical composers such as Bach, Beethoven, and Wagner, were constantly looking for ways to improve and develop the abilities of different instruments. With the overwhelmingly rapid development of technology in the 20th century, composers started looking for ways to incorporate technology in music. And it was only a matter of time before technology would be used in popular dance music too.

I’ve listened to Techno-Parade many times in the past few days, because I enjoy it so much. But it’s not just the pleasure of listening to it that makes Techno-Parade—out of all the new pieces I listened to this week (recall that I am listening to at least one new piece each day for this project!)—such a standout. I’m excited because it has opened a small door for me into the world of techno music, a genre I had previously overlooked. And if your experience with nightclubs and techno is similar to mine, there’s a chance that Techno-Parade will do the same for you.

Out of all I’ve learned about techno this week, there is one thing in particular that I found especially inspiring, which has really made me think about techno in a new way. It is a quote from a Detroit based techno producer named Carl Craig. He said: “since we’re dealing with machines, it’s important that we put some of ourselves into the music. And by ‘ourselves,’ I’m not just meaning note values. I’m meaning spirit; I’m meaning heart. I’m talking about that little ‘oomph’ that’s needed to go into it to make it powerful; to make it me.”

Listen to Guillaume Connesson's Techno-Parade here.