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.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Taking Risks and Travelling Far - Unsuk Chin's Šu

Upon finishing their mandatory army service, many young Israelis embark on a new journey as the country’s border gates reopen before them. And a journey it really is. 20-year old women who served for two years and 21-year old men who served for three, pack a large travel satchel with camping equipment, grab a travel book, and fly away as far as they can for what will commonly last about a year. Popular destinations include India, the Far East, and South America. Most frequently, it is an impromptu kind of trip, meaning that lodging is not booked in advance and neither is a return ticket. They will figure everything out as they go.

The “post-army-service-trip” is a phenomenon that has become a core part of Israeli culture. Why do young Israelis feel compelled to take such a journey? Perhaps because after devoting several years to the military without being able to leave Israel, they feel the need to turn to the opposite extreme and visit as many countries and cities as possible. Or, perhaps the years of having to report to others and adhere to a strict schedule have made them eager to do whatever they want, not plan anything, and just be. There might be yet another motivation—one that almost anyone can relate to: the desire to have a life-changing experience that will make you a different person.

I served in the Israeli army as a musician, and as such was allowed to travel abroad to perform concerts during my service. This experience—along with the fact that I have been living outside of Israel for more than 8 years now, which has been a journey of its own—may be part of why I don't typically feel the need to travel to exotic places for indefinite periods of time.

But it is also a matter of character. Backpacking is not really for me. I love being in nature and seeing the world from the top of a mountain, as long as I can take a funicular up there and back. I love lying on the sand in the middle of the desert and watching the stars glowing at night, as long as I can go to sleep in a nearby hotel afterwards. I’m not really keen about random encounters with wild animals either.

Nevertheless, when you perform music, you have to be able to take risks. You have to have conviction (even if you have doubts), and go all the way with your musical vision. You have to forget about yourself, about possibly embarrassing yourself, and devote yourself to the music that is in front of you. There is something tempting about purchasing a one-way ticket to a far-off land without committing to any further plans, but perhaps it is the aspiration to take risks in music that has left me with a need for more certainty and stability in my extra-musical life.

However, pieces like Šu revive my appetite to travel far and leave everything behind. Written for orchestra and sheng, a traditional Chinese instrument, this piece makes you think about things that are far from you; that are not a part of your everyday life; that you only read about in books and newspapers, see in movies and photos. Listening to this music is another step out of your comfort zone. It makes you forget about here, and think about somewhere else.

The sheng is an old mouth-blown Chinese instrument that is made out of a collection of pipes.
Resembling a small fracture of an organ, or a bagpipe without the bag, the instrument sounds like a combination of an accordion and a harmonica. More than 3000 years old, the sheng often serves as an accompaniment for singing. South Korean Composer Unsuk Chin brings it to the front of the stage, making it the soloist in a western concerto.

Pronounced “Shu,” the title of the piece is derived from Egyptian mythology and represents the symbol for air. And indeed, the coda of the piece sounds as if a tranquil wind is blowing through the ancient instruments of the orchestra, caressing the bells and gongs.

The piece is divided into two sections, like two eras. In the first, the old era, the sheng plays high, prolonged chords. The special technique of playing the sheng, combining both blowing and sucking air, allows the player to hold the notes for a long time, creating a sense of infinity. The chords are hypnotizing, taking you to another place, remote and foreign. In the second section, the new era, the sheng becomes a virtuosic instrument in the spirit of the European solo concerto. The orchestral score calls for four percussion players, each of whom also plays the harmonica—a distant relative of the sheng from a parallel world.

The charm of Šu is in its cryptic character. Listening to it is like living through a suspenseful process of evolution. You are constantly eager to know what’s going to happen next, and the strange sonority of the piece fills you with a sense of wonder. You just sit there, taking it all in, without exactly knowing what it means. And there is no need to.

There is a special feeling to returning home after a journey. You’re driving again on the same roads that lead to your house, the furniture in your apartment is exactly as you left it (hopefully), and hearing your language again is, perhaps most of all, a comforting reassurance that you are really back. But despite the fact that everything is so familiar, it also feels different, strange even. Because you are different. The trip and the experiences that you had have changed you.

Šu has the same impact. After listening to it, I came out a somewhat different person. I was back to where I was before, but with an evasive longing for a place that is far away from here. And who knows, perhaps a few more listenings will prompt me to leave everything and fulfill the post-army-service-trip that I never had.

To listen to Unsuk Chin's Šu click here

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Resurrecting a Forgotten Instrument - Jörg Widmann's Armonica

In 1761, American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin attended a concert in London that featured a performance of musical wine glasses. Franklin was ecstatic. A true renaissance man—not only a brilliant politician but also a writer, inventor, musician, and scientist—Franklin decided to build a machine that would create the same effect as the wine glasses, but with a more efficient arrangement. He placed a bunch of glass bowls around a turning rod activated by pressing a pedal. Franklin called his new instrument “Armonica” after the Italian word for harmony, “Armonia,” in reference to the instrument’s new capability of creating harmony, i.e. chords—three or more notes played at the same time.

Benjamin Franklin playing the armonica
A musician named Marianne Davies was the first person to play the instrument at a concert in London. It just so happened that a wunderkind by the name of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was in town at the same time for his own concerts. Mozart heard Davies playing the armonica and was intrigued by the new instrument. While he spent the ensuing years writing string quartets, piano sonatas, symphonies, and many more, he never forgot about the peculiar instrument. In 1791, a few months before his death at the age of 35, Mozart returned to the armonica. He wrote a couple short pieces featuring the instrument, and those turned out to be the last chamber music pieces he ever wrote.

In the decades that followed, the big concert halls that were built and the increasing capability of acoustic instruments to produce stronger sounds pushed the soft-sounding armonica to the dark corners of history, where it mostly remained quiet, collecting dust. Two centuries passed, and then German composer Jörg Widmann was asked to write an homage piece to Mozart to be performed on January 27th 2007—Mozart’s 251st Birthday. Widmann chose an original way of doing so. He used his own musical language to commemorate the instrument for which Mozart wrote his last chamber music piece.

An armonica in an orchestra is like someone who goes to a party alone without knowing anyone there.  In order to help the armonica feel more comfortable in its new surrounding, Widmann adds a couple more friends: the accordion and the water gong. Although these don’t often get invited to most orchestra parties either, they are more common instruments than the armonica, and are both connected to the armonica. This enables them to serve as a bridge between the armonica and the rest of the orchestra.

The upper register of the accordion sounds very similar to the armonica. But whereas the armonica’s sound is glassy and somewhat cold, the accordion is softer and warm. The water gong is a bronze drum hung over a small tub filled with water. After hitting it, the player lowers the drum into the tub. As the drum takes a dip, its pitch changes. The use of the water gong is a clear reference to the armonica and the musical wine glasses, which are both played with moistened fingers.

One of the unique characteristics of the armonica is the delay in its sound production, like seeing the light of a star that died millions of years ago. Everything that happens in Widmann’s piece derives from this idea of delayed sound. The orchestra here is an extension of the armonica. The armonica sets things in motion, and the orchestra takes them further, as if trying to stretch the instrument’s abilities. Like the armonica, with its sound constantly fading in and out, the orchestra performs a series of crescendos and diminuendos. It begins with mere breathing—first by the accordion, whose bellows go in and out without making a sound, just air. Then, the breathing becomes vocal. The instrumentation grows with each crescendo-diminuendo pattern, like a stream of water that gradually thickens, increasing its erosion and velocity. The orchestra reaches a huge climax when all the instruments play a few loud, repeated chords.

But the real climax, the emotional one, comes toward the end of the piece, when the armonica becomes soft singing. Literally. The human voice was always the object of envy for instruments. When we learn to play an instrument, our teacher regularly implores us: “sing!” In the score of their instrumental pieces, composers often write cantabile, songful. In a hair-raising moment, as a final effort of stretching the boundaries, Wildmann asks the armonica player to sing while still playing, making it sound as if the singing is coming out of the instrument. Like spinning straw into gold, the sound of the armonica turns into a human voice.

Wildmann’s Armonica has a ghostly feel to it in part because of the nature of the instruments, but also because of the extensive use of the octanonic scale—alternating intervals of a whole step and a half step. Composers used the octatonic scale often in order to create a supernatural atmosphere. Listening to the piece, you might very well feel as if you are conjuring ghosts, perhaps those of Benjamin Franklin and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, trying out the armonica for the first time.

To listen to Widmann's Armonica click here

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Embracing the World--Andrew Norman's Play

In 1907, shortly before leaving for the US to take over the position of principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, Gustav Mahler travelled to Finland to conduct a concert. In Helsinki, he met with another great 20th-century composer, the Finnish national hero Jean Sibelius. As they strolled together, they discussed the future of the symphony. Sibelius stressed the importance of structural severity. Mahler disagreed: “No, the symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.”

I recalled Mahler’s words while listening to Andrew Norman’s Play, a 47-minute piece in three movements, which creates a holistic symphonic world that embraces everything. Play wrings the maximum possibilities out of the orchestra. Written for a standard 19th-century size orchestra with the addition of a big percussion section, it calls for extended special playing techniques, from “machine gun stutter” sounds in the strings, through flipping the mouthpiece around to create a buzzing sound in the brass, to swiping a credit card against the strings of the piano. The use of unusual playing techniques and extra musical accessories are not unfamiliar ingredients in contemporary music. However, Norman’s precision in employing these ingredients and the new combinations he makes with them create innovative and delicious tastes. Like an obsessive compulsive cleaner, the composer’s indications are extremely clear and accurate. I can only imagine the amount of time Norman invested in putting down each instruction in order to achieve the realization of his imagination. He even instructs individual players when to turn their page.

And the orchestra sounds like never before. Bold, impulsive, fresh. I have already dedicated a post to one of Norman’s earlier orchestral pieces, Sacred Geometry. However, listening to Play was such a striking experience—like visiting a foreign country for the first time—that I had to share it too.

Norman derives inspiration from the different meanings of the word “play”: music playing, theatrical play, playing a game, as well as the negative connotation of playing someone. The titles of the three movements of the piece—which can each stand on its own and be performed separately—are Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3, like in a video game.

Level 1

The opening of the piece sounds like a scratched record that is being played backwards by a possessed DJ. The music is frenzied, repeats itself, goes back and forth and starts over from different places of different passages. Before too long, the main motif of the piece appears: scales that are moving in different directions at the same time.  

The coda, which comprises the last two and a half minutes of Level 1, is breathtaking. We don’t get the final product immediately, but rather watch it being created in front of our eyes. Different spices are tossed into the pot. Fragments of earlier parts of the piece, like shards of a memory, are added one by one. At first, you feel puzzled and unsure about the result. But slowly, the fragrances begin to intoxicate you. Individual brass instruments make a fast crescendo on a single note until it’s abruptly stopped, like someone suddenly yanked the cord out of the outlet. Brisk string arpeggios flicker capriciously. The main motif of the piece (scales going up and down) returns. A new rhythm—dotted and unstable—materializes, perhaps an homage to John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine. An epic melody in the brass emerges, reminiscent of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. The effect is mesmerizing. It feels as though everything has fallen back into place, as though you are looking back on your own life, contemplating your successes, failures, achievements, and disappointments, and you suddenly realize why they had to happen.

Level 2

The first half of Level 2 unfolds soft chords played in harmonics by the strings. They appear and disappear over and over again, like the musical equivalent of breathing. A most touching moment occurs when the harmonics (the overtones that are produced by lightly touching the string rather than pressing it down) become real tones. It’s a feeling of relief, of coming back to life.

The second half of Level 2 is a duet between two percussionists playing slapsticks and bass drums. The effect is startling. I was listening to the piece at 2 am and jumped in my seat when the first blast occurred.

The piece ends with a theatrical display of page turning. Each stand of the string section is instructed when to turn the page, followed by the winds and percussion. American composer John Cage has a famous piece called 4’33, named after the length of the piece. A pianist sits at the piano and doesn’t play a single note for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. The idea is that everything is music: the sound of breathing, an audience member clearing his throat, the squeaking of a chair, the hiss of the air conditioner. Norman pays clear tribute to Cage by making the trivial act of turning the pages an essential part of the music.

“I wish you all could see Play performed live,” writes Norman in the booklet of the CD, referring to the theatrical meaning of the word “Play” that he implements in his piece.

Level 3

When I was a kid, my friend and I used to play a game where we would choose two random words and transform one to the other by repeating one of them many times, while slightly altering it with each time. To make things challenging, the two words had to be very different in sound and length. For example, a long word like “encyclopedia” had to be converted into the one-syllable word, “fish.” We would repeat the word “encyclopedia” numerous times, while gradually and unnoticeably distort our pronunciation until, surprisingly, the word smoothly mutated into “fish.” Looking back on this somewhat peculiar game, I’d like to say that, as aspiring young musicians, we were fascinated by sounds—including the sounds of words. But I think the truth is that we were simply a bit bored, and for some reason this game made us laugh.

In any event, Level 3 of Play is kind of like this game. It begins with the trombone player blowing air into the instrument with no sound. It is followed by quick, restless answers from the strings. Like an improvisation game, the different groups of the orchestra are having a lighthearted musical chat. Hesitant in the beginning, the music slowly gains confidence, rhythms and harmonies are formed and phrases are created. As time passes by, the different musical elements change their appearance and character, slowly morphing from “encyclopedia” to “fish.”

Play “embraces the world” because it’s full of contradictions, and yet it makes sense. It’s eclectic, drawing ideas from the great pieces and composers of the past, but has its own unique voice. It encompasses sounds, noises, and theatrical gestures, but for Norman, it’s really about the people who are making them, the musicians of the orchestra.

To listen to the piece, go to this link, and hit Play.