randy_byers: (blonde venus)
Thanks to my neighbor, Elonna, who has been volunteering at the Seattle Opera this year and then offering me a ticket to the dress rehearsals of the operas, I got to see Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos on Tuesday. (This was after a brain-meltingly brutal day at work when I had to work a little later than usual, and I had put the opera outing on the wrong day on my calendar, so when she innocently texted to ask if I'd be ready to go by 6:20, I was thrown into a panic. A pre-opera martini was good medicine.) The only Strauss opera I had previous seen and heard (on DVD and CD) was Salome. The only thing I "knew" about Ariadne was that it was a comedy. But as I said to Elonna on the way to the opera house, my memory of the Ariadne mythos was that after she helped Theseus find his way out of the labyrinth of the minotaur, he, in true Greek hero fashion, dumped her. It was hard to imagine how the story could be fashioned into a comedy.

Ariadne Deserted on the Isle of Naxos by Hans Schuler.jpg
Ariadne Deserted on the Isle of Naxos sculpted by Hans Schuler

Well, it turns out to be quite a bit more complicated than that, and the opera is one of the odder and more delightful works I've seen yet. It feels quite post-modern in its way, and that may be partly a reflection of how it came to its present form. It starts with a Prologue set in the manor of a wealthy patron who has hired musicians to entertain his dinner guests that evening. The Composer (a male character played by a female singer) has written a tragic opera about Ariadne. He is horrified to discover that the wealthy patron has also hired a commedia dell'arte troupe, lead by the coquettish singer Zerbinetta, to perform some comic numbers before (or after, I can't remember) the opera. Much comedy ensues around this clash of highbrow vs lowbrow, culminating in the wealthy patron announcing that because dinner has run late, the opera and the commedia dell'arte act need to be combined. Eventually the Composer and Zerbinetta confront each other, and the Composer is seduced in a marvelous soprano duet. Nonetheless, he's left in a miserable mood at the thought of his profound musical poetry being polluted by clowns.

After an intermission we get the combined performance of the opera and commedia del arte, with the wealthy patron and his guests watching from tables at the sides of the stage. We begin with Ariadne waking up on Naxos and lamenting Theseus' cruelty in a Wagnerian aria. She longs for death. The clowns and Zerbinetta take the stage and try to cheer her up, telling her that she'll find another man and forget the jerk, Theseus. Ariadne is not buying it, and she leaves the stage. Zerbinetta sings a remarkably acrobatic song about her fickle heart and short memory for the many men who have passed through her life, and this is played out as a charade in which the four clowns woo her. They all leave, and Ariadne returns with her longing for death to take her in his arms. Bacchus arrives on the island, and due to a confusion of identities (she thinks he's Hermes coming to take her to Hades, and he thinks she's Circe, who has just given him a magic potion), they fall in love. Thus the advice of the clowns has inadvertently been followed, and Zerbinetta and the Composer watch from the audience to the side of the stage, holding hands.

Ariadne auf Naxos.jpg
Harlequin and Zerbinetta console an inconsolable Ariadne

I was completely wowed by the way Strauss was able to pull off the unlikely combination of tragic romance and romantic comedy. The comedy is laugh out loud funny and goofy, and the serious love story is soaringly, poetically beautiful. The way that both strands weave with the other is deft and seamless. The performers were astoundingly good, and the music they were given to sing was gorgeous, with some very tricky parts for Zerbinetta in particular. (On a first pass, I far prefer this music to that of Salome.) The sets were also pretty much perfect, and I loved how the serious characters in the opera-within-the-opera wore 18th century costumes, giving the production a feeling of mixed eras as well as mixed genres and musical styles. Really, it's just a fantastic production all around, and I highly recommend it.

Regarding how the opera arrived at its odd structure, it was originally commissioned by the famous German theater director Max Reinhardt, who was putting on a new production of Moliere's The Bourgeois Gentleman, which is about a pretentious nouveau riche who is trying to convince everyone that he's sophisticated. Strauss and his librettist, Hofmannsthal, were to provide a short opera that would exhibit this man's questionable taste. This superproduction failed to enchant audiences, so Strauss and Hofmannsthal created the Prologue to replace the Moliere play as an explanation for the opera. What results is something like the backstage musicals that Hollywood has always been so fond of. Yes, kids, it's the Singin' in the Rain of opera!
randy_byers: (2009-05-10)
Jean Sibelius was born 150 years ago, and the Seattle Symphony celebrated with a series of concerts they called "Luminous Landscapes" in which they performed all of his symphonies, the violin concerto, the tone poem "Finlandia", and three chamber works. I believe there was other music of his performed as well, including some of his lieder after the concert I went to. I went to the performance of the final three symphonies, the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh. The Seventh has become one of my favorite pieces of music, and it is at least partly responsible for my recent focus on 20th century classical music.

I have a recording of all seven symphonies (along with the violin concerto and "Finlandia") by Leif Segerstam and the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, so I've heard them all. (I also have other recordings of the Seventh and I think a couple of the others.) I wasn't sure how familiar I was with the Fifth and Sixth, and as it turned out the Fifth was only familiar in parts, which probably means I haven't listened to it much. Perhaps that's why I only liked parts of the performance of the Fifth. I especially liked the rousing finale. There was also an interesting swimming texture in the strings almost throughout the thing that sometimes put me into a strangely disoriented frame of mind, but that's probably just me. At one point I felt as though I was about to have an out-of-body experience, and I wasn't sure that would actually end well.

The Sixth on the other hand was familiar all the way through, and I liked it a lot better than the Fifth. In the program notes, guest conductor Thomas Dausgaard (a Dane) says that Sibelius worked on all three of these symphonies simultaneously. However, Paul Schiavo writes that the Sixth and Seventh "stand apart from his earlier symphonies. ... In general, they are more restrained, more introspective works. Setting aside heroic struggles and other typical symphonic postures, they explore sound worlds unlike those of Sibelius' earlier symphonies, or those imagined by any other composer." This may explain why I like the Sixth and Seventh the best of his symphonies. The performance of the Sixth completely nailed it, and the ending was so charged that the audience sat in stunned silence for some time before the applause began. I got up on my feet for that one.

The final chord of the Seventh was about the only thing I wasn't sure they got right in that performance, and that may have been because unlike the reaction to the Sixth, a few overly-excited people started clapping before the final chord had faded. Up until that point, I found the performance completely transporting, and that was in the face of some very high expectations indeed. I'm not good at understanding what goes into a classical musical performance, but I found Dausgaard's approach to Sibelius appropriately restrained. His body language was just as mesmerizing as the music. There was a sense of powerful forces being gently released in the Seventh. The music would swell into intense crescendos and then immediately fall into a delicate pianissimo, which only made the previous intensity feel more powerful in contrast. Really amazing expressiveness throughout, and they absolutely nailed the oceanic surging of the strings with the horns flowing in wavelike peals on top of the dark mass of underlying sound. I was sitting on the right side of the auditorium near the double basses, and the deep, pulsing sound of those magnificent instruments was incredible.

Well, I have to say I was practically in tears at the beauty of it. A lot of the audience, including the people on both sides of me, had clearly been to all of the Sibelius concerts, and the standing ovation at the end was ecstatic and tributary. Kudos to Thomas Dausgaard and the orchestra for a magical evening that was everything I'd hoped for.
randy_byers: (blonde venus)
Another note for future reference: Tom Service's list of "The 10 best operas by women". I've only seen one of these: Kaija Saariaho's L'amour de loin, which I've watched on DVD and found completely transporting. I've heard of Unsik Chin's Alice in Wonderland, but other than that these are all new names and titles to me.
randy_byers: (2009-05-10)
Somebody named Will Robin has put together a program called Symphomania for WQXR, and it's comprised of 24 hours of 21st Century orchestral music. Robin's introduction gives context for the program, which includes a number of composers and pieces of music that I've heard or at least heard of, but also many composers I've never heard of. I'm mostly linking to the program for future reference.

Not 21st century, but on the orchestral music front I've got a ticket to the Seattle Symphony on Thursday, when they'll be playing Jean Sibelius' Symphonies 5, 6, and 7 conducted by Thomas Dausgaard. As I've mentioned here before, the 7th has become one of my favorite pieces of music. I've heard the 5th and 6th as well, but I'm not as familiar with them. I'm really looking forward to this show.


Jan. 22nd, 2015 04:41 pm
randy_byers: (colma 1987)
'I had the same reaction when I heard this album 18 years ago. It made 17 year old me want to go fuck shit up and burn it all down. It makes 34 year old me want to go fuck shit up and burn it all down in a sensible minivan.' (Jessica, in a comment on Anna Minard's belated review of Sleater-Kinney's Dig Me Out)


Jan. 15th, 2015 04:22 pm
randy_byers: (2009-05-10)
'Anniversarising can be the most obvious yet most scattergun approach to programming in classical music, but all those round numbers ought to give programmers the excuse and audiences the chance to programme less familiar music as well as the symphonic Scandiwegians. So in 2015 let’s hear it for Aulis Sallinen (80) and Frank Zappa (who would have been 75 this year). Muzio Clementi, by the way and since you ask, would have been 263; which although not round, is a satisfyingly big prime number. Here’s a thought: why can’t we use primes rather than round numbers as excuses for anniversaries? Here’s to Beethoven’s 251st anniversary (his next available prime) in 2021!' (Tom Service, "This year's classical music anniversaries – and some less usual suspects")
randy_byers: (2009-05-10)
Become Ocean CD CoverI haven't posted about music for a while, and that's probably because I haven't been listening to much -- or at least not much new stuff -- in recent months. My exploration of 20th and 21st century classical music has faltered for the moment, although it hasn't completely come to a stop. I continue to obsess, for example, on John Luther Adams, and I'm posting now to recommend the new recording of his Pulitzer Prize winning piece, Become Ocean, which was premiered by the Seattle Symphony last year. WQXR is still streaming the Seattle Symphony's live performance at Carnegie from May of this year, and the studio recording is now available at fine music emporia everywhere.

To quote my post about the CD on Facebook: "I've been obsessing on the Seattle Symphony's new CD of John Luther Adams' brilliant BECOME OCEAN. The reviewer at SF Gate dismisses the music as 'a mashup of its obvious sources: the prelude to Wagner’s “Das Rheingold,” Debussy’s “La Mer” and the massive sound banks and arpeggios of early Philip Glass.' As if that's a bad thing! It's also a giant palindrome and produces a feeling of endless tidal returning."

I hemmed and hawed over whether to describe it as "tidal returning" or "tidal churning," because both seemed apt.

It's perhaps worth remembering here that my exploration of 20th and 21st classical music was inspired by the operas of Daniel Catán, who died in 2011. I was looking for more music that had that organic, unfurling, flowing quality. I've found some, too, both in older music like Ravel's and in newer stuff like Frances White's. This piece by JLA is exactly the kind of thing I was looking for. It really speaks to me, and I've been listening to it (and some other pieces by JLA) almost constantly since I started listening to that WQXR stream back in May. It sounds nothing like Catán, although both owe a debt to Debussy. Water music, but different waters -- perhaps the Amazon vs. the North Pacific. It's immersive music for me. I can drown in it.
randy_byers: (cap)
My neighbor dragged me to the Michael Franti show at Marymoor Park yesterday. I didn't really want to go, but she bought me a ticket, so what could I do? Well, it turns out that I could have great time.

Show started at 6pm, but there was a long line up of opening bands that we'd never heard of, not to mention the fact that it had been a long week and a glass of wine sounded good. Since we were going through Woodinville anyway, we figured we might just spot a winery. With thoughts also turning to grappa, we stopped to check out the Grapeworks Distillery. When we found that it was closed, we tried the Martedi Winery next door. Little hole-in-the-wall place with a supremely charismatic owner who gave us tastes of six different wines and a line of chat about wine, grappa, and Italian coffee that never ended. He was a total hoot. After a year of getting their place set up, they're having their grand opening today. If you're out Woodinville way, check them out. Really nice wine, to my inexpert palate.

E. wanted to get right up front for the Franti/Spearhead show. I was still feeling dubious about the whole thing, but what the hell. Franti started working the crowd, and I thought, "Isn't he getting bored with this shtick?" Then the crowd started hopping and waving their hands in the air, and the riddim just kept rolling and rolling, and there were smiles and nodding heads all around, and before I knew it I was feeling pretty damned happy myself. Amazing how he always manages to lift my mood, no matter how burnt out and over it I'm feeling. At some point he brought out his 15-year-old son, who has a kidney condition that reduces function by half, and he sang him a love song that was so sweet and heartfelt that he had the whole crowd in a puddle.

He also came out into the crowd during one song giving out high fives and hand clasps, and he came right between me and E. and gave us each a hand. Though the last album of his I have is dated 2008, I recognized most of the songs. He mentioned that the bassist has been with him for 20 years, and I think he's the only original band member of Spearhead left in the band. The guitarist looked about 15 himself. Franti brought out a couple young performers to join in on different songs, clearly delighted in playing the mentor to new talent. For the final two songs he invited all the kids in the audience to come up on stage, and there were a damn lot of kids. It was a family affair, and they sang a few stanza's from Sly Stone's "Every Day People" in the middle of one of their own songs. Franti mentioned that their first show was at a bowling alley in Seattle, and eight people came

I didn't dance my head off as I would have ten years ago, but I still had a blas. Almost as soon as the music stopped, the rain started, and it was a fitting sign of refreshment.

2014-06-27 Michael Franti at Marymoor
randy_byers: (2009-05-10)
Ludovic Morlot is in his third year as the music director of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, and in that short time he has created an aura of innovation and exploration around the SSO. Partly this has been through trying to expand the repertoire that they perform, especially in 20th Century music and in commissioned pieces such as John Luther Adams' Become Ocean, which won the Pulitzer Prize this year. Since I've been investigating 20th century classical music in recent years, I've started to become curious about what Morlot and the SSO were up to. I actually tried looking at their website a while back, but was completely baffled by the presentation of various programs and packages. Last weekend, however, the local newspaper had an article about their upcoming show, which was Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé (the complete score) and Dutilleux's Symphony No. 2.

This was practically the perfect program for me. Ravel was one of the composers I started digging into at the beginning of my survey of the 20th century, and Daphnis et Chloé was an immediate favorite. As for Dutilleux, I hadn't heard any of his music, but his name kept popping up in my reading. He died just last year, and he seemed widely considered to be one of the best French composers of the latter half of the 20th century. I found a recording of Symphony No. 2 on YouTube and listened to it on Wednesday to prepare myself a bit, and the dark, brooding sonic world it projected seemed immediately appealing. I had read that Morlot has become a champion of Dutilleux's work, and I knew that the SSO had already released one CD of his music, with plans to release more. So, the program was one piece that I already dearly loved, and another that was a passion project for the musical director. Two French composers and a Frenchman conducting the orchestra. Sounded like a marriage made in heaven to me.

I arrived an hour early at Benaroya Hall -- only the second time I'd ever been there -- and had a martini before I made my way into the auditorium. I'd bought the cheapest ticket I could get, and I was surprised at how close I was to the stage, although a bit off to the side. The woman sitting next to me was very chatty, and she was a font of information about the SSO. She has been trying to learn the violin in her 50s (or maybe even 60s, I wasn't sure), so she had an interesting amateur musician's perspective as well. Meanwhile I had all this stuff I've been reading that I could gabble about. Eventually Leslie Chihuly (daughter of Dale), who's the Chair of the Board of Directors for the orchestra, took the stage to give an introduction, and we also got some comments from a deputy mayor, who addressed the many people who were in town for the League of American Orchestras conference. She explained that Mayor Murray couldn't be there because of the shooting on the SPU campus.

The concert began with the Dutilleux, which was premiered in Boston in 1959. This symphony is described as something of a concerto for orchestra, with a subset of the orchestra sitting up front and playing in a complex interaction with each other and with the full ensemble. My general feeling was that I really liked the opening and the finale, but the middle section felt a bit amorphous and aimless. Now, I don't know if that was because of the performance or because of the music or because I still don't have a grasp of what the music is trying to do. It's not a particularly dissonant piece, but it's quite modernistic and difficult. Thorny music. As Ross Chamberlain noted over on Facebook, where I posted a link to the recording on YouTube, there's a lot of Stravinsky in it. He could also hear Hovhaness, but I'm not familiar enough with Hovhaness to say. The woman sitting next to me, who has been following the orchestra since the Gerard Shwarz days, said that she thought Morlot didn't look as enthusiastic as usual at the end of the performance, and she wondered if it hadn't gone the way he wanted. Well, I'll listen to the YouTube version another time or two when I get the chance to try to get further perspective on it.

After the intermission, in which I chatted with my new friend about atonality and chords, the orchestra returned to the stage in a new configuration and with the addition of a choir. The performance of the Ravel was absolutely glorious. Was it because I'm so much more familiar with the music? Actually, I had never read a synopsis of what the story of the ballet is, and one of the nice things they did was provide descriptions of what would be happening in the ballet on a supertitle screen above the stage as the music progressed. Amongst other things I learned from this was that the ballet includes pirates and nymphs and Pan, oh my! This is just perfect music to me -- dreamy, sensuous, mysterious, atmospheric, restless, shimmering, ever shifting. I've only heard the one recording of it that I have, but hearing it live was really incredible. [Updated to say that actually I've also got a recording of a suite of selections from the full score.] The constantly changing textures and shifting gears of the piece feel trickier when you're watching the musicians do it in real time, and it felt almost miraculous that they were able to pull off some of the tighter maneuvers so deftly. Morlot certainly looked enthusiastic in this piece, and he was clearly feeling it as they reached the orgiastic climax of the "bacchantic Danse générale," to quote the program notes on the finale. The audience rose to its feet with a thunderous ovation as soon as the last notes played, and my chatty friend crowed, "Now that's why you come to the symphony!"

So maybe familiar music just plays better to an audience, or maybe the orchestra played Ravel better than Dutilleux, or maybe Daphnis et Chloé is just a freakishly great piece of music. All in all, it was an exhilarating night at the symphony. Next week they're playing an intriguing program of Brahms, Strauss, and Schoenberg, and the week after that it's the three great early ballets of Stravinsky. Both shows are tempting, especially the Stravinksy. Not sure I'll make it, but I'll definitely be keeping an eye on the schedule in the coming years. Not sure how long Seattle will be able to hang on to this guy, Morlot, who seems destined for bigger things.

Music blip

May. 21st, 2014 09:32 am
randy_byers: (2009-05-10)
Suddenly I'm listening to a whole bunch of music on YouTube. This has been threatening to happen for a while now, as my appetite for new music has outgrown my budget. The trigger seems to have been delving into John Luther Adams, who won the Pulitzer Prize this year for a piece called "Become Ocean" that was commissioned and premiered by the Seattle Symphony. (You can listen to their more recent Carnegie Hall performance of the piece, along with works by Varese and Debussy, streaming at WQXR.) As I read more about Adams, I discovered that he considered Lou Harrison a mentor. I'd been faunching to listen to some Harrison, whose name keeps popping up as I poke around in 20th century classical music, and there's a whole bunch of it on YouTube. I've particularly enjoyed the Third Symphony so far, but am also intrigued by his music for gamelan.

Meanwhile, via discovering Alex Ross' profile of Adams for The New Yorker, I started reading Ross' archives on the intertubes and found his profile of Nico Muhly, who is a 30-something composer who has collaborated with all kinds of people, including Bjork, and has already made quite a name for himself. So I listened to a couple of *his* pieces on YouTube, and I was impressed by "Gait," which was performed as part of the Proms in London in 2012.

Yesterday I went to YouTube to listen to some Harrison, and the front page was recommending a piece by Arvo Pärt that I hadn't listened to yet, the "Trisagion for String Orchestra". Well, I've been meaning to delve deeper into Pärt for a while now (I've long loved his "Tabula Rasa," which I now realize is using prepared piano to sound a bit like gamelan), so I checked out the "Te Deum" after that. (Was YouTube remembering that I had listened to Pärt's Fourth Symphony previously, or was it noticing that I was listening to other music it considered similar to Pärt's, or was the suggestion of Pärt random?)

This is not to mention the Sixth Symphony of Allan Petersson that I was pointed to by [livejournal.com profile] ron_drummond. At an hour, it's a lot of music to absorb, but I've listened to it twice already. There's a whole lot more Petersson there too.

And much, much more. YouTube's an ocean of music, and I'm becoming ocean.


May. 3rd, 2014 09:12 am
randy_byers: (2009-05-10)
'Velocity. For our purposes it involves the speed and concurrence of tones. They articulate together in ratios, rhythms. In a typical march piece the concurrences group in twos and threes in a pretty elemental fashion, in ratios where mathematically the addition, subtraction, multiplication and division are rather straightforward. Classical music, jazz, African and Indian classical music can have much more sophisticated ratio velocities. Then of course as students of nature and the industrial worlds we hear other concurrent velocities, some really quite complex. The sound of rain dripping off the roof combined with the pulsating whirs and sometimes anarchic clunks of a room air conditioner, coupled with the confluence of bird calls and an idling truck motor outside our window, for example, can create a complex velocity grid that ever shifts as the sounds beat over and across one another, sometimes coming together in a synchronous moment, most other times not. Some modern avant composers after Cage especially have become creators of analogous sound worlds.' (Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review on John Luther Adams, Four Thousand Holes)
randy_byers: (2009-05-10)
It's been a while since I wrote about what I've been listening to. When last I reported, I was focused on Schoenberg and Mahler. That continued for a while, and in particular I got deeper into Mahler. My favorite piece by him is the song cycle, Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), but I'm also quite fond of the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies. (The Adagietto of the Fifth was conducted by Leonard Bernstein at JFK's funeral.) The Sixth and Seventh Symphonies are still on the agenda.

In the meantime, however, I figured I'd been focused on the early 20th Century for long enough, so I turned my attention to Aaron Copland and Benjamin Britten. For Copland this has been the Third Symphony, which I got on a CD that also included Roy Harris' Third, which I've therefore also been listening to. For Britten I first picked up the War Requiem, but I bounced off that. After watching Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom for the third time and finally realizing how deeply embedded Britten's music is in that film, I pursued some of that music. So far that's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra (without the narrative) and Simple Symphony -- the latter of which is based on music he wrote between the ages of ten and thirteen. Britten strikes me as something of a post-modernist who adopted elements of musical styles of all eras and apparently of other cultures as well (e.g., gamelan music). A bit of a chameleon.

The other Britten work used heavily in Moonrise Kingdom (both as a source of music and as a source of narrative) is the "opera for amateurs," Noye's Fludde, and indeed it is in opera that Britten seemed have left his strongest mark. There's a lot more for me to explore there, and in general I haven't gotten very far in opera lately, although I did spend a few months delving into Wagner's Ring Cycle, so there's that.

Also I recently uncovered a list of Great Twentieth Century Music that I made a couple of years ago, and that prompted me to go back and to listen to a few things I'd been listening to when I made the list, including Stravinsky, Bartok, Ravel, John Cage (Sonatas and Interludes) and Steve Reich. It also reminded me that I hadn't tried any of Ravel's chamber music, other than the string quartet, so I've been loading up on his solo piano music, piano trio, sonatas for violin and cello and for violin and piano, and the Introduction and Allegro for harp, flute, clarinet, and string quartet -- all of which is remarkably beautiful. Ravel continues to be a revelation for me. I can get lost in dreamland listening to the piano music of Satie, Ravel, and Cage.

In 21st Century music, I've picked up a couple of CDs recommended by Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review, which I'd just discovered in that last post about music here. First up was an album called String Paths by Elena Tabakova. I have mixed feelings about her music, which sounds a lot like film music at times, but I've liked "Frozen River Flows" quite a bit. The other album I've been listening to quite a bit is In the Library of Dreams by Frances White. Again, mixed reactions to various pieces (and I really don't like "The Book of Roses and Memory" at all), but two of them I like a lot: "The Ocean Inside" and "In the Library of Dreams". White's music sounds ambient to me at times, and she gets into sonic textures that sometimes remind me of Kaija Saariaho. Speaking of whom, I continue to find Saariaho a fairly daunting, difficult composer, but the more I listen, the more I like. Her opera, L'amour de loin, is still the best thing I've heard by her.

For further study: In a piece about Sibelius' Seventh Symphony (still a benchmark work for my engagement with 20th Century classical music), Tom Service brings up the concept of metric modulation -- "in which you use a common unit of musical time to elide from one speed to another" -- in his discussion of how Sibelius creates a sense of "musical time-warp." I think this probably gets at the sense of organic unfurling I get from the piece -- the way that it finds points of connection or commonality between two apparently very different tempos and uses them to transition.
randy_byers: (2010-08-15)
Had an unusual invitation on Friday. An old friend/acquaintance -- part of the Seattle sector of the University of Oregon diaspora -- Facebook-messaged me with 'a weird favor/opportunity': 'Friday night some friends and I are doing 1 hour of improvised music, from 9-10. It always adds an element of "danger" when there is an audience, even of 2 or 3. If you wanted to do us this favor, you would certainly be in line for a beer. Everyone in this little ensemble has trained with Robert Fripp.'

I was somewhat dubious, but what the hell, I hadn't seen him in a couple of years and, indeed, it was happening only a couple of blocks from my house (which is undoubtedly why he thought of me). So I trundled down the hill at 8:50 and at the address given found an office building where I was let in by a young man who turned out to be my friend's 16-year-old son.

"Anyone else here?" I asked.

"I've seen five people with guitars and two people without."

The performance space was a law office that reeked of new carpet. I think there were a total of nine guitarists, and there were three of us, counting the son, who were only there to listen. The third was a woman who introduced herself to me but otherwise didn't have much to say, which was more than fine by me. No need to stretch my social skills *too* far!

My friend also greeted me and then told us, "To make things even more difficult, it's best if the audience sits in the middle of the guitar circle." Oh shit. In the center, at the focus. We waited until they were ready to play before we moved into the circle.

It was a typical avant garde kind of performance in many ways. Very serious (although playful too), with a long stretch of meditative silence before and after the performance. The music itself was improvised in ways I didn't always understand. One method that I did catch onto came at the beginning, when they started by going around the circle playing one note or sound each and then eventually got into a process where the person playing the note/sound would look at another player who had to play the next note/sound. Later in the set all the players started moving around the room in various random patterns and at different rates, which was probably my favorite part of the show. Playing styles mutated from plinking and plonking to strumming to whatever you call it when a guitarist is not plucking the string so much as touching off overtones. There wasn't much -- well, nothing really -- by way of melody or harmony in any of this.

I can't say the music appealed to me all that much, but the performance was mostly interesting. They were all very and verbally thankful for the audience of three, although apparently they did shows at Tuning the Air where 75-200 people showed up. After the music, a bunch of us walked over to Brouwers for a beer. On the way my friend told me that his son had become a big fan of SF, and so I asked the kid who he liked, and he talked about Cory Doctorow and John Varley. I told him I used to run into Varley in a pinball arcade in Eugene. Beers and frites with the musicians was good fun (the son went off to hit the taco truck while he waited for his dad), and they all seemed very interesting and engaging. They wanted to know what I thought of their performance, and I did my best to give them some feedback and asked a few questions. They seemed satisfied and were again copiously thankful.

So, an oddball evening for this old recluse. Odd enough that I felt I should take note.
randy_byers: (2010-08-15)
Further notes on recent listening to early 20th century and contemporary classical music.

As I believe I mentioned in my last episode, I've been listening to a lot of Schoenberg, particularly the early tonal music. At this point I've got four recordings of Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), which he composed in 1899 as a string sextet and then arranged for string orchestra in 1917 (which arrangement was revised in 1943.) I do really love the piece, but I didn't set out to acquire four recordings. The first recording I picked up was a string orchestra version, and then I decided I wanted a string sextet version. Once I'd gotten the sextet version, I noticed that there was a recording of the sextet by the Smithsonian Chamber Players, who play on period instruments from the Smithsonian's collection and were a favorite group of mine back when I was listening to a lot of classical era music in the '90s. The frosting on this particular cake was that the Smithsonian disk included a recording of the Chamber Symphony No 1, which was a transitional piece for Schoenberg, as he headed toward his break with traditional tonality. I thought it would be interesting to hear it performed on period instruments, and indeed on a first hearing I liked it better than the other recording I have, by Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

As for my fourth recording of Transfigured Night, it was a byproduct (which I still haven't listened to) of picking up Karajan's recording, with the Berliner Philharmoniker, of Schoenberg's Pelleas und Melisande, which is currently my other favorite piece by Schoenberg. It shares with Transfigured Night a dreamy, anguished, ecstatic, trembling, languid quality that I find very appealing and that sometimes reminds me of Debussy. In fact Schoenberg had been intending to write an opera adaptation of Maeterlinck's symbolist play, Pelléas et Mélisande, until he discovered in 1902 that Debussy had already premiered his opera version of the play, at which point Schoenberg settled on writing something of a tone poem that is sometimes described as an opera without words. (Maeterlinck's play also inspired incidental music by Sibelius and Faure, and I have recordings of these pieces as well. The play certainly resulted in some amazing music.)

The piece by Schoenberg that I recently picked up my first recording of is his String Quartet No. 1 in D Minor. [livejournal.com profile] ron_drummond will be interested to know that I picked up the recording by the Lark Quartet. The disk also includes a recording of the String Quartet No. 4 by Zemlinsky, who was the one person whom Schoenberg studied under. However, this is a much later composition that is apparently a response to Berg's atonal Lyric Suite, which I've also picked up but have only heard once. Anyway, I've only listened to the Schoenberg quartet a couple of times so far, and it hasn't made much of an impression on me. Can't go wrong with D Minor, though, can you? Well, Mozart and Schubert couldn't.

The major tonal work by Schoenberg that I've still to acquire is Gurrelieder -- a two-hour cantata for vocal soloists, choir, and massive Teutonic orchestra. It's one of those pinnacles of late Viennese romanticism, building off Mahler and Wagner. I've been trying to work my way up to it by listening to some Mahler, and I think I want to listen to Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) before I tackle Gurrelieder. I've got my eye on a recording by the Smithsonian Chamber Players of an arrangement for chamber orchestra that was done by ... Arnold Schoenberg!

But I've also been listening to a couple of symphonies by Mahler (the Second and the Eighth), tone poems by Richard Strauss (who was the one who urged Schoenberg to write an opera based on the Maeterlinck play), and two string sextets by Brahms. The latter I acquired because Schoenberg is said to have been trying with Transfigured Night to build a bridge between the different tonal worlds of Brahms and Wagner, and because I discovered a recording by L'Archibudelli, who are another favorite period instrument ensemble from my earlier era of intensive classical listening.

So I am drowning in Viennese and otherwise Germanic late, hyper-chromatic romanticism, and I think I will be for a while. (I'm thinking I might give Wagner's Tristan und Isolde a try too.) Thus I haven't been listening to much contemporary classical lately, although one piece that I've been listening to, thanks to the kind offices of [livejournal.com profile] ron_drummond, is Daniel Catán's string sextet (also called Divertimento), which is one of only two chamber pieces that he composed. This is not a commercially available recording, but is a recording of two live performances by an ensemble called Pacific Serenades, whom Ron contacted via email and who very kindly sent him a CD-R. I've had a mixed response to the piece, which Catán apparently wanted to revise but was unable to before he died. It has some utterly glorious passages, however, and I continue to find his music extraordinarily beautiful. He is the reason I have started listening more intently to 20th and 21st century classical music.

Other than that I've also been listening to the Symphony No. 1 by Christopher Theofanidis, which premiered in 2009. I had previously heard Theofanadis' piece called Rainbow Body, and while I still don't know that I like his musical structures, I find his sonic terrain very rich and stirring. I've seen the argument that he belongs to a Copland-inspired line of American music, which I can sort of hear, although I don't know Copland's music well, in fact. He also seems indebted to film music, which is held against him in some quarters, but not by this film fan. He has also won a number of prizes and been nominated for a Grammy, which makes him a conservative figure from the avant gardist perspective. Well, my own taste seems to be fairly conservative on this front. Cf. Catán and his Puccini soup as well.

Finally, for now, I've discovered a blog called Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review, which if nothing else serves to remind me that I will never get caught up with everything that's going on out there. According to the front page: "Grego Applegate Edwards's Classical-Modern Music Review blogsite covers recent releases or re-issues of recordings that feature classical and concert music, primarily of the 20th and 21st Centuries, but earlier music as well when warranted. All styles of relevance will be addressed from Late-Romantic and Neo-Romantic through High-Modern, Avant Garde and Post-Modern styles. Chamber music, orchestral, choral, operatic, and electronic forms will be considered as well as music that combines a classical element with one or more other stylistic elements." It's endless, my Friends. There's a whole lot of new music going on, and everybody's writing a goddamned opera! (Latest opera viewed on DVD was Puccini's La fanciulla del West, which is the one that has echoes of Debussy. But enough, enough.)
randy_byers: (2010-08-15)
I've continued my exploration of classical music of the 20th and 21st centuries. It almost begins to feel as though I waited too long in life to start this exploration! There's so much to listen to.

Anyway, I've been listening to a lot of Schoenberg -- lots of the atonal stuff, but moreso the early tonal works, Transfigured Night and Pelleas and Melisande. Likewise with Webern, I've been most recently focused on the tonal works, Im Sommerwind (a very early work that he didn't publish in his lifetime) and Passacaglia. All of these pieces are described as highly (or hyper) chromatic and highly influenced by Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler. The highly chromatic late romantic music (which is also a description applied to Debussy) is one of the things that seem to have led to atonality, as it uses all the notes in the chromatic scale and is more tolerant of dissonance than earlier classical styles. In any event, I really like these four pieces by Schoenberg and Webern a lot. In that same vein I've listened to Mahler's Second Symphony a few times and am still chewing on it. There's a lot of music there, no doubt, and Schoenberg and Webern may help me get into it.

On a less epic (but perhaps no less chromatic) scale I've also been listening to an album of music by the contemporary Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe. My favorite piece by him so far is Memento Mori, although the pieces off this album that he seems best known for are Kakadu and Earth Cry. He reminds me a little of the contemporary Finnish composer Aulis Salinen in the eclectic range of styles he embraces, which seems to be a hallmark of modern composers. I finally got a round to watching the DVD of Salinen's opera, The Palace, which is a political satire on dictatorship that has jazzy, Broadway-musical elements as well as traditional arias. Not something you can digest in one viewing, but intriguing enough that I picked up a DVD of an earlier Salinen opera, The Red Line.

I picked up an album called Copland the Modernist by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony. This is Copland reacting to various modernist trends fairly early in his career. For example the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra is full of the jazz influences that Gershwin put to such good use in Rhapsody in Blue. Likewise Orchestral Variations, which bristles with dissonance and heavy sonority and slips effortless in and out of jazz stylings. The influence of jazz is a much bigger part of the 20th Century Classical story than I had realized, and it seems to have gone in both directions. I think it was David Toop who wrote about how Charlie Parker had indicated an interest in studying under Edgard Varese shortly before Parker died.

My most recent acquisition is an album that includes Britten's Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes and also the Passacaglia based on music from Grimes. I watched a DVD of the opera last weekend and had mixed feelings about it, although I loved those interludes. This album also includes Frank Bridge's The Sea, which was influenced by Debussy's La Mer, and Arnold Bax's tone poem On the Sea-Shore, which I haven't listened to yet. Bridge and Bax are composers I knew nothing about, and it's being exposed to lesser-known composers like them that makes me feel as though this sea of music is endless.

Speaking of Toop (which brings to mind his infatuation with Brian Eno), another interesting album I picked up recently was Bang on a Can's recording of Eno's Music for Airports. Music for Airports was Eno's manifesto for ambient music, and of course his version of it is composed using tape loops. Bang on a Can, which is a new music ensemble centered on three composers, Julia Wolfe, David Lang, and Michael Gordon, has also recorded things like Terry Riley's In C. They've taken Eno's tape-loop-generated music and performed it live without loops, at least in the recording I have. (It looks like they may have made a studio recording of this music earlier.) It's a pretty amazing performance of these four very familiar pieces, which I've been listening to since I discovered Eno back in 1979 or 1980. (His recording of Music for Airports came out in 1978.)

I've also been trying to check out music on YouTube to save my credit card some amount of abuse. There I've finally listened to In C for the first time, for example, although so far I'm more struck by Riley's 1969 album, A Rainbow in Curved Air, particularly the piece "Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band". I've listened to at least one piece by La Monte Young on YouTube as well, but I don't remember which. It didn't make much of an impression, but all of this stuff needs multiple listenings. YouTube seems like a good place to check out Edgard Varese, who I'm not sure I'll like, but I haven't gotten there yet.

Oh, and speaking of composers I'm not sure I like, I discovered that I have a recording of John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano, probably courtesy of carl. I'd earlier discovered that I have Cage's album In a Landscape, and that I quite like the title piece of that one. Some of Cage's other prepared piano music has struck me as mostly irritating, but I'll keep listening, because Cage's name pops up all over the place. His use of chance and the unintentional in composition influenced Eno, for example.

And on and on. The list of music I want to check out just keeps getting longer and longer. I'm listening to the Bax piece right now. He apparently was heavily influenced by Scandinavian music, as well as Celtic music. This one sounds like Sibelius to some extent. He wrote another tone poem called "On Faery Hill" that sounds like something I should hear as a devotee of Elfland. And on and on.
randy_byers: (colma 1987)
carl recommended (and loaned) this book to me as a possible companion piece to Alex Ross' The Rest Is Noise. He was absolutely right; it was a fine companion piece. The two books cover some of the same figures: Claude Debussy (same anecdote about his exposure to gamelan music at the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition), John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Terry Riley. The subject of Terry Riley is one where the two books show their differences, however. Riley is a minor figure in Ross' book, which focuses more on Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and John Adams from the American minimalists. Riley is a major figure in Toop's book, and Reich and Glass are hardly mentioned at all. Toop also writes quite a bit about Edgard Varese, and I don't remember Ross writing much about him.

It's a bit difficult to synopsize Toop's book. The subtitle is "aether talk, ambient sound and imaginary worlds." You could say that the central topic is ambient music (and the central figure Brian Eno, referred to a bit cloyingly as "Brian" throughout). But beyond ambient music, Toop is concerned with the the opening of Western music to all kinds of different influences (including Asian music, as signaled by the anecdote about Debussy's exposure to gamelans) and to the related opening and dissolution of Western musical structures in various ways. I would say the book is focused on electronic music, but Toop is also fascinated by people like La Monte Young and Pauline Oliveros who compose avant garde music with acoustic instruments as well. He's basically interested here in any kind of music that's moving away from traditional compositional techniques or structures or sounds, although he's really not interested at all in serialism. Another thread is the fascination with natural or environmental sound as a source of music.

Toop's approach is appropriately digressory and associative. This is not a book of grand theory, but one of anecdotes and examples and dreams and tidbits and mini-interviews that strike chords without having an obvious logical connection to each other. It's not all about music and sound either. There's a fair amount of material about drugs and shamanism and rave culture. (Ocean of Sound was published in 1995.) The major weakness of the book, to my mind, is a certain hip, bohemian attitude that feels rather privileged and insular and economically detached. Perhaps it made me uncomfortable because that's the world I live in. These are my people, if only aspirationally. Some of my best friends are pagan hippies!

Unlike Ross' book, Toop is talking about a lot of music I've been listening to all along -- Eno, Harold Budd, Jon Hassell, Miles Davis, Robert Fripp, Frank Zappa, John Cale, David Byrne. When I was reading Ross' book, it got me thinking about the post-War period when things fell apart and a thousand movements blossomed, and I thought of it as the electronics revolution. That's very much what Toop is on about. Another way to look at it is that his central subject is the studio and how it became a compositional instrument in that period. I found it utterly fascinating, even if I personally could've done with a bit less shamanism. Highly recommended.


Mar. 5th, 2013 10:57 am
randy_byers: (2010-08-15)
So I think I've always thought of "atonality" and "dissonance" as vaguely the same thing. Reading Alex Ross' The Rest Is Noise I came to the conclusion that this was wrong, and that atonality referred to a lack of a tonal center -- the tonal center of a piece traditionally announced by saying that it's in C Major or G Minor or whatever. Wikipedia elaborates: "Atonality, in this sense, usually describes compositions written from about 1908 to the present day where a hierarchy of pitches focusing on a single, central tone is not used, and the notes of the chromatic scale function independently of one another. More narrowly, the term atonality describes music that does not conform to the system of tonal hierarchies that characterized classical European music between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries."

The more I dig into this, the less clear it becomes. For one thing, it turns out I don't really understand the theory and practice of tonality, let alone concepts such as the chromatic scale. Pretty soon I'm deep into music theory, which means I'm quickly in over my head. Even in my confusion, however, I can't help but be entertained by the fact that the term "atonal" is itself controversial, with Schoenberg quoted as arguing, "The word 'atonal' could only signify something entirely inconsistent with the nature of tone... to call any relation of tones atonal is just as farfetched as it would be to designate a relation of colors aspectral or acomplementary. There is no such antithesis."

It also seems that there actually is some kind of connection between atonality and dissonance, with Schoenberg also arguing that "By the later nineteenth century the higher numbered dominant-quality dissonances had also achieved harmonic status, with resolution delayed or omitted completely. The greater autonomy of the dominant-quality dissonance contributed significantly to the weakening of traditional tonal function within a purely diatonic context." If I understand this at all (big if!), he seems to be saying that greater acceptance of dissonance in composition was part of the process by which tonality became less important over time.

I think it might help me to have these concepts illustrated with musical examples. The Wikipedia article on atonality mentions that Debussy composed some atonal music, but it doesn't say which pieces qualify. I've been digging around into articles about the tonic, dominant, triads, diatonic scale, etc and just feeling that I haven't a clue what it all sounds like. I took two years of piano when I was in elementary school, and sometimes I wish I'd stuck with it longer just so I'd understand scales and chords better. Well, I guess I sang in choirs up through high school too, but it didn't help. (Now there's some personal history I don't think about much anymore! Yes, I was a high school tenor.)

Update: "Tonality, Modality, and Atonality" sheds more light on this for me: "Objectively, there can be no atonality, as Schoenberg himself maintained. Composers of atonal music try to avoid all reminders of tonal music, evading major and minor chords (tertian chords in general), scales, keys, dominant functions, regular rhythms, repetition, etc. This means that atonality is psychoacoustical; i.e., it depends, at least partly, upon individual sensibilities and subjectivity."
randy_byers: (2010-08-15)
Well, I've mentioned this book a couple of times already. I just finished reading it last night. I really, really enjoyed it. The full title is The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, and it's a history of classical music in the Twentieth Century, which I picked up because I've become fascinated with music of the last century and the current one as well. It's over 500 pages (not counting endnotes), and there's a lot to absorb.

Ross begins with a chapter on Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler as exemplars of Germanic late Romanticism, and he centers this chapter on a 1906 performance of Strauss' controversial new opera, Salome, in Graz (it was initially banned from the imperial capitol, Vienna) that was attended by such luminaries as Strauss, Mahler, Puccini, Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, and possibly Hitler. This anecdote allows him to set up some threads that are drawn through the fabric of the text all the way to the end, where he is able to connect the dots from Strauss to Schoenberg and Webern through to John Cage and Morton Feldman and on to Steve Reich and Brian Eno. That's just one set of threads, too, but a good example of his method.

With a whole century of music to cover, this is necessarily only a high level overview that skips a ton of material and one or two zillion composers, but that's exactly what I needed to start to get a sense of the field of play. Most of the composers that Ross focuses on are ones I've heard of and heard music by, but a lot of them I didn't know much about and wasn't sure what part of the century they worked in. It's fascinating, for example, to see who studied with whom. Messaien (like Schoenberg) seems to have a had a large influence as a teacher, for example, but so did Nadia Boulanger, who is much less famous as a composer. It's too bad, actually, that Ross didn't tell us more about who she was, but that could be said of many other figures who flash in and out of the book or never flash in at all.

The first half of the book is a remarkable portrait of the various strands of musical modernism that exploded out of the Romantic era, and their interaction with the political developments of democracy, world war, and totalitarianism. The various figures and their music clash and collaborate and disappear and reappear in new contexts throughout this section in constantly surprising ways. The chapters on music in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany and in the Cold War aftermath are particularly gripping, as Ross delves into the different ways that composers reacted, rebelled, or complied with the political forces at work. Through all of this he also spends time on various composers, like Sibelius and Britten, who seemed to hold themselves aloof from these events.

The second half of the book (which may well be less than half in actual fact) that's dedicated to the post-War music is less tightly-woven than the first half, probably because the post-War scene saw things fall apart even further. The disintegration of the old European aristocratic elite also saw a disintegration of the infrastructure supporting elite music composition, and the democratization of music created a decentralizing diffusion of styles and audiences and methods of consuming music. To some extent the book reflects a power shift from Europe to America, with the post-War section gradually focusing more and more on American composers and finding the most to say about so-called minimalists such as Reich, Philip Glass, and John Adams. One of the odder aspects of this, however, is that Ross remarks in passing that Glass is probably the most popular and widely-known composer since Stravinksy, and yet Ross probably spends less time on his music than on that of Reich.

One of the things I've been trying to grapple with as I explore 20th Century music is the way that the avant gardists seemed to take over and populism (along with tonality and melody) came to be denigrated. Ross' book helps with this, both by making me more sympathetic to what avant gardists such as Schoenberg were trying to accomplish and by clarifying that to the extent they took over it was really more in the academic world. Populist music continued to be created throughout the century (cf. Sibelius, Britten, Glass), but for a number of reasons most of it wasn't any more successful at breaking through to audiences than the avant garde was. And many avant gardists were actually disdainful of the whole idea of appealing to an audience, for political as well as artistic reasons. I'm reminded of the quote from the film director Andrei Tarkovsky (not exactly a populist himself) that Glenn Kenny posted to his blog the other day: "Ultimately artists work at their profession not for the sake of telling someone about something but as an assertion of their will to serve people. I am staggered by artists who assume that they freely create themselves, that it is actually possible to do so; for it is the lot of the artist to accept that he is created by his time and the people amongst whom he lives." The avant gardists withdrew from serving the people, because to them the bourgeois audience that their predecessors served were fascists.

Well, it's a lot to chew on. I'm tempted to immediately start reading the book again to try to refresh my memory of some of the unknown composers, such as Szymanowski or Henze, that he writes about only briefly. I've already got an enormous list of composers and works to investigate. I have to be careful not to just wildly grab music from every which where. It takes time to listen and to hear. The education continues, and this is going to take a while. Meanwhile Ross's book is highly recommended as a work of cultural history and as a perspective on the 20th Century, whether you're interested in the music or not.
randy_byers: (cesare)
Okay, I just listened to Arnold Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces (Fünf Orchesterstücke, 1909), and it didn't seem all that weird. I suppose he got weirder later, but then again maybe time has tamed him. We'll see what I make of Webern's Six Orchestral Pieces.

I can thank Alex Ross's book, The Rest Is Noise, for persuading me to give these pieces a try. Ross depicts Schoenberg and Stravinsky as the two poles around which European classical music of the early 20th century rallied. Now I'm listening to Stravinsky's Petroushka (the 1911 version, conducted by Stravinsky himself), which I don't think I've ever heard before, although I've long known it was one of his most popular pieces. Once again the influence it's had (including on Daniel Catán) seems immediately obvious.
randy_byers: (2010-08-15)
Yesterday's music post was mostly a list of names of composers I'm currently listening to. Here are a few words about some of the music.

Considering how much I like Debussy, I'm not at all sure why it has taken me so long to dig into Ravel. I guess it's a bandwidth problem, amongst other things. So much music, so little time. Previous to this I was most familiar with Bolero and the string quartet. Now I'm listening to Daphnis et Chloé (the full version), and it instantly leaps into the pantheon for me. This is exactly the melodic, sensuous kind of music that I love! And of course I can hear all the ways it has been influential on later composers, too. In particular I'm struck by how much Jerry Goldsmith borrowed for his score for Ridley Scott's Legend (1985). (A score that was replaced in the American release by one by Tangerine Dream, but can now be heard in all its considerable glory on the alternate version of the film released to DVD a number of years ago.) Goldsmith borrowed parts of the wordless chorus, some of the harp washes, and some of the eerie crescendos. Fairy music! Well, he also borrowed from Bartok's Music for String Instruments, Percussion and Celeste, which I'm also now listening to. (Update: Just watched Miyazaki's Ponyo again, and Joe Hisaishi's score quotes Daphnis et Chloé as well, including the eerie wordless chorus.)

Then there's Alban Berg's opera, Lulu. I've only watched it once (it was the 1996 production at the Glyndebourne Festival), and I almost gave up on it in the first act. Musically I didn't find it very appealing, particularly the vocals. Unmelodic, that's for sure. What kept me going were some non-musical factors (although to be fair I was also interested in the music for non-musical reasons). I was interested in the story, because it was based on two plays by Frank Wedekind that were also adapted by G.W. Pabst into the brilliant silent film, Pandora's Box (1929), with Louise Brooks. So it was also interesting to me that this production of the opera consciously modeled the look of Lulu after Louise Brooks in the movie, starting out with her famous bob and later slicking it back in a more severe style that was also used in the film. (Berg composed the opera after the film came out, but I don't know whether he was influenced by it at all. His idea for the opera, which he didn't complete before he died (it wasn't completed until after his wife died in 1976), was to have a silent film interlude at one point to cover Lulu's time in prison.) I also found the costuming and mechanically elaborate stage interesting, and Christine Schäfer, who played Lulu, was fascinating in the role. Very sexual, of course, but in a much more forbidding way than Louise Brooks. The opera covers a lot more ground than the movie, but it does cover most of the events in the movie, with slight variations. Well, some not so slight. In the movie, for example, it's ambiguous who pulls the trigger when Dr Schön is killed (he and Lulu are wrestling over the gun), whereas in the opera Lulu plainly shoots him several times in the back. The Lulu in the opera is more of a monster than the Lulu in the film, although still with the "earth spirit" quality (Wedekind's first play about her was called Erdgeist) that makes her seem like a force of nature.

So while I found the music occasionally trying (especially since the opera is three hours long) and mostly not interesting even when not trying (with the exception of a couple of instrumental interludes), I did actually find Lulu interesting over all. I might even watch another production of it at some point, who knows. One thing that struck me about the music was that the style of the vocal lines was probably an influence on Kaija Saariaho in L'amour de loin, particularly the final scene where Clémence rails against God but then seems to transfer her anguished love to Him (Who offers her the ultimate "love from afar"). I'm not savvy enough to describe what I found similar, but Saariaho's music also avoids melody and the vocal lines have a similar plangent, anguished, abstract quality. What's different about her score, which makes it more appealing to me, is that it's more lush and chromatic than Berg over all. Berg not only lacks melodies, but he lacks anything that I can identify as harmonics as well.


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