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.

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

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