Intersections

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..Italian version……………….

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by Alfonso Alberti

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From time immemorial, the arts have been evolving in parallel, together renewing themselves and together expressing their age. But also, sometimes in very different ages, facing the same themes and delving into the same tangles of human thought and imagination. This column, “Intersections”, aims to explore the many facets of this relationship, so that music, visual arts, literature and the other arts can shed some light on each other.

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About Alfonso Alberti

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December 15. 2011 – Intersections 23

Marco Stroppa’s Music, between commitment and technology

Marco Stroppa (1959) is a composer with a multi-faceted training: for him the intersections between the different art and knowledge domains are customary frequentations.
After musical experiences in various Italian conservatories, he undertook scientific studies at MIT’s Media Lab in the U.S.: computer music, cognitive psychology and artificial intelligence. And then the electronic experiences: they aren’t a mandatory condition for his music writing, but a mindset that Stroppa takes on also when composing for acoustic-only ensembles.
Recently the audience in Milano had a chance to attend to the performance of a work of his, Nous sommes l’air, pas la terre (2003-2004) for accordion and viola, where a further intersection comes to the fore. It is the intersection between music and reality: music lives in the world and reads it, reads the evil, the violence, the unavoidable – and avoidable – tragedies.
The title of the work quotes a sentence, epigraph to a book by Svetlana Aleksievic, Byelorussian journalist and writer, well known for her inquiries into some dramatic events of the Twentieth Century. In that book (Voices from Chernobyl), the author lets the survivors of the Chernobyl tragedy talk, collecting their scathing testimony. Such a kind of reference gives Marco Stroppa the opportunity to reassert the civil commitment of his music, a commitment which clearly cannot be fully embodied in a single title, although that title could anyway be the tip of the iceberg:

Music is an outstandingly social art […], it doesn’t lend itself to capitalistic logic: it is a value and not a commodity. Here already I would see a form of “engagement”, that then is coupled with the commitment of the composer as a person and as a citizen who, in my opinion, should have a clear position. Of course, it’s been a long time since music was the bearer of a message, making it more important than the musical path […], recently anyway the reality has come to appear to me harsh enough to drive me to use texts and titles a little more “hot”.

(Talking about hot titles, it’s worth mentioning his plain I will not kiss your f.ing flag.) In Nous sommes l’air, pas la terre, the core theme drives Stroppa to create a really unusual musical form, where the main agents are just the “fission” and the “fusion” of the instrumental voices (as fits the title, one of them is made “out of air”, the accordion, and the other “out of earth”, the viola).
We already hinted to a mindset mediated by Stroppa’s experiences in the electronics field and by his training in the realm of cognitive psychology. It is exactly about this: the will to shape the sound from scratch, without biases and without sinking into the habit, although an habit of old and taken as absolute. The voices of the viola and of the accordion, in this work, will be subjected to the most varied transformations, up to the radical last, where they will morph into completely different voices. The sound of the viola will progressively become the sound of a Pan flute; the sound of the accordion will change into that of one of his ancestors, coming from far-away lands, the sheng, the Chinese mouth organ.
The music could expose the fractures, could show the evil and could name it, could even suggest the possible ways out. The research music, which has always been a research of the elsewhere and of the different from what others see as natural and unavoidable, gets the listener used to not taking for granted what happens.
It happens this way, but it could happen otherwise: it should happen otherwise.


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December 5. 2011 – Intersections 22

Edgard Varèse’s and Bill Viola’s Deserts

I had a chance to see Bill Viola’s movie, Déserts, in 2008 at Rome’s “Music Park”, in the framework of a concert of the Ensemble Intercontemporain for the Accademia Filarmonica Romana. That experience of an intersection between contemporary videoart and 20th-century music undoubtedly was, a little later, one of the strongest drivers (or even the main driver) of the basic idea of this column. But, ironically, only at the twenty-second issue of the series comes to light the article that should have been the first.

Between the years 1950 and 1954, Edgard Varèse, composer whose significance for the following 20th-century developments is hardly overvalued, wrote Déserts, a broad composition for winds, piano, a wide range of percussions and magnetic tape. The meaning of this work is staggering, because it is one of the earliest compositions where the instrumental live sounds and the electronic recorded sounds interact. The two sound worlds are sharply separated: among the seven sections of the work, the odd-numbered ones are for the instruments, the even-numbered are electronics-only. In a live performance, then, you can see three times the unusual sight of a director halting the musicians, who fold their arms and hand over to the recorded tape.

In 1994 the American video artist Bill Viola created the same-titled video where, in the same way, two worlds are opposed. The instrumental sections are matched by deserted, lifeless scenarios: wide sand and rocks expanses, great plains crossed by fires, underwater landscapes but also, later, urban settings with an equally deserted outlook. The electronic sections, on the other hand, are matched by the interior of a room: a chair and a table, with a lamp, some dishware, a book, a water pitcher and a glass. A man in white enters the room and performs some gestures.

The direction style changes also completely, based on the context. In the external takes the montage is more dynamic, sometimes even agitated (something very peculiar, if you know a little of Bill Viola’s art), with frequent camera movements. There are also many detailed matches between music and video: as an example, the perfect synchronization between the sudden lightning flashes and especially forceful musical events. In the interior takes, instead, you can find the typical Bill Viola’s slow motion, where the movements are slowed down in a draining way, and a mostly fixed framing.

As often happens in the works of this American video artist, the events are chained, creating a very simple, but at the same time emotionally very moving narrative.

The man in white sits down. He grasps the pitcher, pours some water in the glass and then puts down again the pitcher. Then he grasps the glass, drinks and puts down the glass. In the end something happens: the hand moves again closer to the glass and hits it. The glass falls to the ground and shatters.

As trivial as it can be, the event immediately acquires a total and final aura. The man stands up, turns around and falls in his turn toward the audience. As soon as his body touches the ground, the floor isn’t there anymore, it becomes a water gap, an horizontal threshold, which the man goes through.

The pitcher too, the lamp, the dishes and the book in the end fall, and the camera records their slow flight toward the black wall. The pitcher hits the ground and shatters, but a moment later we can see it, whole, entering in a water desert. In the same way the lamp, undamaged, slowly goes down toward the bed of the underwater world; when it reaches its destination it seems to bow its head and fall asleep, but its light is (and will remain) on.

During the Fifties, Varèse achieved his musical revolution, where the human being and his sensitivity were not necessarily the main characters, but only one among many possible references. Forty years later, Bill Viola takes the human being to a threshold and investigates the desert that surrounds it.

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November 16. 2011 – Intersections 21

“And we began to look into the stars”: the spiritual element in Karlheinz Stockhausen ‘s music

The intersections between music and spirituality are many and most varied. Undoubtedly, in a more general sense, some form of spirituality could and should be part of every musical listening experience. As for Stockhausen’s music, anyway, the spiritual element is far from being unspecific, and there are strategies implemented in such a way that the listener is able to live a very peculiar experience.

The watcher should feel separated from what temporarily he deserted by getting into the concert hall; s/he should feel fully immersed in the sound environment; the experience shouldn’t be mediated by the rationality filter; the time should be suspended in a kind of trance where thinking surrenders to vision; and this vision should touch just what was never before experienced – these seem to be Stockhausen’s intentions when he conceives some of his most important compositions. The strategies which should take the audience to this kind of experience are thorough and effective: the sound speakers that often encircle the listener, creating a virtual space which she is fully immersed in; the duration of the experience, typically far longer than the usual concert hall’s experience, and consequently a contrasting factor against the customary forms of music enjoyment; a statical, non-developmental concept of the musical time, where every moment is worth for its own sake and not as a prelude to the following one; the surprising and often mysterious nature of the sought-after electronic, instrumental or vocal sounds.

In Stimmung (1968), for six vocalists, for more than an hour the interpreters sing only six notes: a low B flat, an F, a higher-octave B flat, a D, an A flat and a C. That is, a dominant ninth, as consonant and euphonic a chord as there is. There is no text, in the narrow sense of the term: the singers are called to dress the six notes with mostly vowel sounds, which cover all the possible intermediate nuances among the five traditional vowels. Strictly without vibrato, and singing each vowel in such a way that in it clearly the prearranged harmonics resonate.

The six singers, who have in front of them (or memorized) an outline and other sheets with models, magic names and additional text to be recited, begin. Who sings and what s/he should sing (that is, which among the six notes) in each of the fifty-one sections comprising the work, is ruled by the outline. It also defines who should be the “leader” in each section; the leading voice freely chooses, unknown to the others, one of the rhythmic-phonetic models and sings his/her note, ceaselessly repeating the chosen pattern. The other vocalists react in real time, mimicking the pattern they hear and progressively approximating it, until the different parts match each other. As soon as the “intonation” (Stimmung) is reached, the leading voice of the following section can decide to go forward, suggesting the new model. Sometimes the vocalists can call the names of deities belonging to religions of every place and time: Allah, Osiris, Wakantanka, Chronos, Tamoi, Jesus are invoked by the voices in turn, and the other voices react appropriating the magic name and hybridizing with it the model they are singing.

Stockhausen declared that, at a certain moment, during the Twentieth Century, in music «a movement away from man began. And we began to look into the stars”. We would like to remember him as a composer who with his music looked into the stars, and find in his inheritance a lesson of radical and visionary drive.

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October 19th, 2011 – Intersections 20

“C’est tout don Juan qui est là”: Alfred Cortot and piano interpretation

«The exterior correctness of playing, the mechanical perfection, is pointless, if it doesn’t shed a better light on the generating principles of the art work”, wrote Alfred Cortot. He, sometimes, took many wrong notes, in particular in the last stage of his career: «He discovered the sound and lost the notes, he had staggering ideas and slips of the fingers», someone wrote about him.

In his last years, many among his audiences were struck by performances which, probably fairly, deserved harsh critiques. But if now we are talking about him and not about someone else, it clearly depends on the fact that the drops suffered in the last years do not depict in a correct way the nature of Cortot’s art, and why the boldness of his interpreting career is unambiguously confronting us.

His concerns were elsewhere: in particular, in the world of imagination.

In one of his masterclasses that, luckily for us, were recorded, Cortot listens to a student playing Mozart’s Fantasia in C minor, and then remarks: «There is the whole “Don Giovanni”. There is the Commendatore, there is Zerlina, there is Donna Elvira, there is the curse, all that has to be better exposed to the light… piano… pianissimo… We are going to start… Do you see? It is so surprising, you have to emphasize it well and save its nature of fatal outcome… Here is Donna Elvira… throbbing with emotion, with this kind of nobility and dignity…» Why should be necessary explaining the C-minor Fantasy through something that is external to it? Why summon Paolo and Francesca («No greater grief than remember days of joy, when mis’ry is at hand») in the Major B-flat Prelude of Chopin’s Op. 28, or Faust («the despair, the fervour, the enthusiasm, the dream, the irony») in Liszt’s Sonata? For Cortot, that’s absolutely needed, it is necessary emphasizing that the art is made by the man for the man and in it (what a surprise!) there is the man with all his complexities and his dark traits. «Music should live inside us and with us. It is the mirror where our image is reflected.»If you want to understand the man, on one hand you should live with full awareness, on the other hand you should reason about some peculiar aspect of this life experiences, the way, for example, they are handed down to us by myths and literature. In this way you can understand the habit of talking about a music work «narrating it», as if it was crossed by a plot that, as soon as decoded, isn’t less stirring than a successful thriller.
In recent years, some pianists won important competitions playing Rachmaninov’s Second Sonata, explaining that they read in it the Bluebeard myth. Of course, you can read there something completely different; but it is clear that you can capture the humanity encompassed in a musical page by intuition, too, without tracing it back to a literary or mythical label. Cortot’s lesson anyway is the call to bring in full light what living and human is concealed in a musical work. And if Paolo and Francesca or Faust show us a way, the pianist should not hesitate to walk over it.


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October 3rd, 2011 – Intersections 19

Music & film II: Clockwork Orange

Probably Clockwork Orange wouldn’t be Clockwork Orange, if the unlikely frenzied intercourse between Alex and the two girls of the record store was not associated with the Wilhelm Tell’s ouverture, suitably defiled by Wendy Carlos’ (1939-) electronic oddities. Or if the slow backtracking that opens the movie would not happen with the background of Purcell’s funeral plaint, equally modified by the eccentric American composer (at the time still credited as Walter Carlos). Tool for revisiting the music of the past was that Moog synthesizer, recently invented, that for the first time made available an extended pool of sounds, among whose to choose as from a painter’s palette: Wendy Carlos picked out the sounds that rendered the alienating (and sometimes crazy) desired effect, halfway between a mouse squeak and a fair organ grinder.

In Clockwork Orange more than anywhere else Stanley Kubrick’s direction ideal is realized, for whom «the best thing, in a movie, is when pictures and music create the effect», and who dreamed of a movie without words where «these peculiar aspects of the film art were the only communication means». If you want to convince yourself on the crucial role of the soundtrack for this movie, you should only carefully think in how many cases it suffices in giving the meaning of the situations, as in the case of Elgar’s march that ironically beats the opaque ritual of the minister’s visit. Or how it seems perfectly conceived for influencing, in a biased way, the whole interpretation of the story.

If in the first part of the movie – excepting a few unavoidable outrage jolts – the violent acts of the Droogs seem almost fine and amusing, it mostly depends on the hyperlively and exuberant musical framework that surrounds them: for example Rossini’s Gazza ladra in the scene of the fight with the rival gang, or the famous Singin’ in the Rain that inspires a violent dance in the writer’s house.

In a similar vein, in the second part of the movie, after the Ludovico therapy, the unpleasant musical distortions enhance the discomfort against the revenges that the main character undergoes by his former victims. Even the beloved Ninth of «Ludwig van», formerly source of fire and excitement, becomes agony to be inflicted.

The same Ninth was just at the beginning of the collaboration between Walter Carlos and Kubrick. Unaware of the ongoing film project, the composer was engaged in an electronic reworking of part of that work and in creating an original electronic piece (Timesteps), that would be a prelude to Beethoven’s selection. Then came the news of the filming of Clockwork Orange and «Wouldn’t it be great if…»: no sooner said than done, Carlos sent to Kubrick the sound material and so the successful fellowship began, that a decade later was re-enlivened with Shining’s dark atmospheres.


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September 15th, 2011 – Intersections 18

Music and Film I: The Double Life of Veronique

If you want to tell somebody how to go from one place to another, you typically refer to a sequence of streets, squares and buildings, using phrases such as “straight on”, “turn left after a hundred meters”, “beside the law courts building” and the likes. In Krzysztof Kieslowski’s film, The Double Life of Veronique, on the other hand, Véronique was mailed a tape cassette where only noises were recorded – and that’s all. She knows she has a rendezvous and that the cassette holds directions to the place and the route. Among the recorded noises a station’s loudspeaker can be heard: and so Véronique, also taking into account the stamp on the parcel, goes to St. Lazare’s railway station. The creaking of a door can be heard, and the dull “Excuse me, excuse me” of a waitress: and here she is, in that coffee shop near the station, with the creaking door and the waitress with a dull voice. An ambulance’s siren is on the tape; and then from the shop’s window she can see the remains of a car accident that just happened.

This sequence is deeply telling of Kieslowski’s taste for crossword puzzle-like details and clearly shows how important in the movie the non-verbal sound universe is. A universe where, obviously, music is queen.

Veronika (the “other” Véronique) is a singer; at the beginning of the movie an unexpected rainfall makes all the choir-singers scuttle away, but she doesn’t get out, she sings up to the end, holding for a seemingly unending time her last note, sucking its extreme voluptuousness. Véronique is a music teacher and she makes her class acquainted with the music of van den Budenmayer, “a very interesting composer, recently rediscovered, who lived more than two hundred years ago”. But be advised: who should browse a music encyclopedia for information about the composer with this obscure Flemish name, would not find any (unless he just stumbles on that unfortunate dictionary that, based on the anecdote Kieslowski and his colleagues circulated, included van den Budenmayer among its entries), because he never existed, but in the imagination of the real composer of the score for the polish director’s movies, Zbigniew Preisner.

Van den Budenmayer’s music follows the whole evolution of the story. Its metamorphoses span Veronika’s intense interpretation and the limping and botched version sung by Véronique’s students, the fragment that the puppet master lets Veronika listen, in a night phone call, its appearances as a soundtrack, that the audience’s ears, but not the movie characters’, can perceive. Preisner’s theme is mysterious, romantic and self-indulgent. Whether the threshold of kitsch is exceeded or not, that’s a question the musician-moviegoer will unescapably ask himself; but it is worth bearing in mind how flexible that threshold is, as cultures and listening habits change. The music of Preisner-van den Budenmayer is such that it does not guarantee any solution to the mystery surrounding the two main roles; it walks them to the end, up to the moment when Véronique is presented the only possible revelation, in which the one and only revealed thing is the conundrum’s outrageousness.


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September 1st, 2011 – Intersections 17

Robert HP Platz’s music: Wunderblock and memory

Robert HP Platz (b. 1951), German musician who allies an intense activity as a conductor to the activity as a composer, weaves in his pieces references to the most different disciplines.

Hallmark of his poetics is, simply, that since 1989 up today Platz has been working at a single great work, of which each composition is but a partial expression. It doesn’t mean that the composer has been writing an expanded piece made of many parts, which, as soon as completed, in the end will be performed as a unity: the «formal polyphony» that Platz aims to has mostly a conceptual meaning and does not aim to become one in a final summary performance.

The beginning is a pivotal piece, Kern («core»), upon which a kind of «mantle» (Hülle, in German) is progressively spread, where then echoes (Echo) and consequences of the most different kinds spring from. In some subsections of this total work, the polyphony between piece and piece is concretely implemented: the Up Down Strange Charm piece is but the Up piece performed at the same time with the Down and Strange and Charm pieces, all together. (Let’s remark, here, the intersection between music and not less that subatomic physics: up, down, strange and charm are four quark “flavours”, the ultimate components of the matter.)

The poetic substance of Robert Platz’s music, particularly in the last decade, leans toward a conception of the music work rather ritual than dramatic, also with respect to some aspects of the Japanese culture that always fascinated the composer (such as the Noh theatre, whose rituality is revived in the recent Kiefer for low clarinet and percussions). In a sound world where the goal is not to build dramatic contrasts and catastrophes, but to make gestures acting in an almost magical way on the listening activity, the said thing adds to other already told things, which they endlessly converse with.

Wunderblock (2008) is a three-pieces cycle: Kiefer, next and Sekundenstücke. The three pieces could be separately performed, or in the different possible combinations as a duo (for example: Kiefer and Sekundenstücke together with the title Kiefer Sekundenstücke) or as a trio. In case of an integral performance, the scene layout has to be such that the piece is well articulated from an optical point of view too: the alto flute (next) at the left in foreground, clarinet and percussions (Kiefer) in the middle and a little back, and the strings trio (Sekundenstücke) on the right in front.

In 1925 Sigmund Freud quoted in one of his works the Wunderblock (the «magic block»), the little blackboard for kids on which you can write and then you can delete everything, simply pulling a lever. Freud remarked that it is not true that everything is deleted: there always is a faintest trace; and he made it a possible metaphor of human memory.

So writes Robert Platz:

Memory and polyphony become one and the same thing: memory is polyphony and polyphony is memory.

The composing activity is like a magic block: notes are written over other notes, but not one of them is ever truly deleted.


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Agoust 1st, 2011 – Intersections 16

“Art belongs to the unconscious”

Dear professor! Please forgive me if I write to You although I never had the pleasure of meeting You personally. I just attended Your concert, and it was a real delight for me.

These words are the beginning of one among the most fascinating correspondences of the twentieth century arts, the one between Arnold Schoenberg and Vasilij Kandinskij. Kandinskij wrote those words the 18th of January, 1911, and the concert, whose impression is still powerful for him, was performed the second day of January in Munich: first and second Quartet, Three piano pieces op. 11 and a series of five Lieder.

I believe that the harmony of our times should not be found along a “geometrical” path, but along an anti-geometrical, anti-logical path. This is the path of the “dissonances in the arts”, so then in painting as much as in music.

So Kandinskij wrote to Schoenberg in his first letter, and Schoenberg, a few days later:

The art belongs to the unconscious! It is necessary to express yourself! Express themselves with directness!

Some among the compositions of Schoenberg’s first period were named, by the philosopher Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno, “seismograms” of the psyche, just meaning this directness. The pen of a seismic device does not interpret, neither rework adding something of his own, but simply records the tremors of the earth’s crust; in the same way, the monodram Erwartung, the Five pieces for the orchestra op. 16 or the Six little piano pieces op. 19, will simply “record” on the musical page the movements of the Ego, his tremors, his inspirations, his fears. Nothing appeases the warmth of an impulse, the passion of a gesture, the suddenness of a rift. No pattern can tell in advance where to go and which path should be followed. No rule can tell which tone should come after the preceding one.
The program of the concert, which Kandinskij attended to in 1911, has all the spell of the moment when this radical stance is not yet reached, but it is pointed at, as an unavoidable ideal. It is a revolutionary moment, when a musician or a painter creates a new, authentic and unavoidable language.
Their agreement does not come, as everything suggested, at a great common production. At any rate, the poetic goals, strenuously pursued for a while, sometimes change and dialectically reverse into their opposites. That’s true for Arnold Schoenberg too, who, after taking the directness’s path to the extreme, would take the mirroring way, creating the twelve tones composition method: rules heartily suggesting which tone should follow the preceding one, outlines able to define in advance the directions and the landing points of a piece, tools for planning and building.
The relationship with Kandinsij too was bound to unexpected turns. The letters stop in 1914, and then the exchange resumes in 1922-1923. Now in Weimar, Kandinskij suggests to Schoenberg that he present himself as a candidate to the direction of the local musical institute; Schoenberg does not simply refuse, he is not able to disguise his annoyance for what, to his eyes, is pure anti-Semitism in the other’s circle.
The extraordinary spiritual and artistic fellowship ends in misunderstanding and coldness.


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The program of the historical Schoenberg’s concert of January 2, 1911, will be performed again, a hundred years later, September 8, 2011, in Milan, for Mito Settembre Music and the Friends of Musica/Realtà at the San Fedele Auditorium, at 9:00 PM, with an introduction by Enzo Restagno, performers Quartetto di Cremona, Lorna Windsor, Alfonso Alberti.

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July 1st, 2011 – Intersections 15

Luigi Veronesi and the chromatic visualizations

A few years ago the Catholic University of Milan hosted a symposium on Musical Visions: Relationships between Music and Visual Arts in the 20th Century. The cover of the recently published proceedings shows a very peculiar work of visual art, very wide (indeed it runs on the front and the back of the cover), made of a multitude of high and narrow rectangles, each of them filled with one of the rainbow colors, no gradations or hues. The sequence of the rectangles creates a structure, which we could easily ascribe a “musical” character to – but actually the work is “musical” not only in quotation marks, but also without them, and decidedly so.
It is the Visualization of part of the Air à faire fuir #I from Erik Satie’s piano collection Pièces froides, a work by Luigi Veronesi (1908-1988). Yes, that’s it: a “visualization” of a musical work (in this case, a part of a musical work); instead of listening to a fragment by Satie, we can “see” it. The visualizations are a prominent and significant part of Luigi Veronesi’s creative activity. They recently were the focus of the arts historian Paolo Bolpagni’s interest, who found many of them in an up to now unexplored corner of Veronesi’s studio, and analyzed them (in many cases coming to an identification of the musical works, often not explicitly declared).
Skrjabin’s Vers la flamme, the second movement of Webern’s piano Variations, fragments of Bach’s Art of the Fugue and of Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke; and then Mozart, Satie, Bartók, Prokof’ev, Malipiero and so on. As the musical octave is segmented by twelve tones whose frequencies are in specific mathematical ratios, so Veronesi picks out of the spectrum twelve colors, whose wavelengths are in corresponding ratios. The fact that the same note (say, a C) is in a lower or higher octave translates into the same color with differing degrees of saturation. Each tone is a rectangle: the higher the rectangle, the louder the sound; the wider the rectangle, the longer the tone’s duration. At a certain point, Veronesi experimented also with the visual reproduction of tone quality, matching different instruments with different geometrical figures; but somehow this path was abandoned.

As Luigi Rognoni writes:

He was interested in music just because he deemed it the most “abstract” among the art languages; and the study of the relationship between visual and hearing perception, between tone and color, between rhythm and line, in a space-time dimension, was a regular topic in our talks.

Veronesi’s intent – an exact and “scientific” translation of music into shapes and colors – as stated in his theoretical writings, is probably doomed to the dreams’ world. But there are, landing places of this uncommon bridge between the two art forms, Veronesi’s poetical outcomes, with their peculiar appeal.

 

Visioni musicali. Rapporti tra musica e arti visive nel Novecento, a cura di Francesco Tedeschi e Paolo Bolpagni,Vita e Pensiero, 2009, Milano.

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June 15th, 2011 – Intersections 14

Arthur Lourié: composing music as if it was a canvas

In one of our former posts, we reflected on Sylvano Bussotti’s scores and on his habit, of tracing them as he would do in front of a canvas: so that in many cases the border between the musical and the pictorial page is blurred or even removed. Reading his music often means browsing the page in various directions, following the paths, traced by dotted lines, arrows and pointers of other sorts; and seldom we can sink into the relaxing safety of left-to-right, top-down reading.

This possibility, of writing music in a spatially different way, was widely taken advantage of during the twentieth century, although without reaching Bussotti’s radicalism. But how far in time should we go back, in search of a pathfinder who first dreamed of “painting”, instead of writing music? A good reference point is Arthur Vincent Lourié (1892-1966), a Russian composer who, a few years after the Revolution, settled in France and then in New York. In his young years he was in close relationship with the poets Vladimir Majakovskij, Anna Achmatova and Aleksandr Blok; and then he was among the subscribers of the Futurist Manifesto in Russia, forestalling Marinetti who went there for promoting the Italian novelty, and found a group of Russian artists and scholars forcefully determined to claim their novelty.

Lourié’s piece we are interested in is Formes en l’air for the piano, written in 1915. Let’s open the score and browse the staves system. What the staves do not, is lining orderly up, from left to right margin, and then starting a new line as good soldiers. To the contrary, they begin where they want and end where they want; the white space of the page takes them apart. The look of these systems, too, has nothing ordinary: if the musical idea is composed of different events in descending sequence, for example, the various staff segments will truly mimic a series of descending steps. And, you probably already figured it out, if, during an event – and therefore in a staff, silences take turns with sounds, the staff will break up too, and start again a little farther, almost suggesting a foolish eagerness of ink saving.

What is the rationale of that all? Which are the pragmatical, musical consequences of these choices?

The first and crucial is that the white event-separator space is exactly that, white space; and, lacking an explanation page that tells how to quantify it, it doesn’t have a precise matching in terms of time. Each solution is virtually viable, the one that chains without break the various segments, to the one that sees them as wrecks inserted between long silences. Moreover, the interpreter is swayed by the non-conventional look of the page and is led to highlight its many composing events in a different, brighter way. Or maybe not: the looseness of the spatial relationships leads him to drown everything in an impressionist climate. The musicological studies on Lourié are not so developed as they should, for giving us reliable answers to those questions, but on the other side the missing evidence adds to the allure of this music.

The dedication of Formes en l’air is telling: “to Pablo Picasso”. Music and painting go ahead hand in hand in an uncommon manner, paving the way to the twentieth century, going up to us and Bussotti’s labyrinths.


You can listen to Arthur Lourié’s Formes en l’air (à Pablo Picasso), performed by Alfonso Alberti inside the concert:

Alfonso Alberti – Piano Music and Visual Arts – 1
go to the concert

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June 06th, 2011 – Intersections 13

Sofija Gubajdulina, or the freedom of narrating themselves

Could music narrate? In this sense, could the intersection between the art of sounds and the art of narration emerge?

That’s far from indisputable, although it is, in some respects, a natural enough fact. It could be natural, for example, to ask “what is happening now?” at any point of a piece, and expect that the five, ten or twenty forthcoming minutes will be an oriented whole, with a beginning and an end, where each moment is the consequence of the preceding and the premise of the following one. But it could not be so, and in fact for music of different times the narration metaphor could not be a mandatory key, sometimes it would even be inappropriate. A better alternative could be the rhetorical metaphor (the piece as discourse), for example, that can fit much of the baroque music, or the architectural one (the piece as building).

A great part of Sofija Gubajdulina’s (born 1931) work, instead, definitely narrates.

Let’s consider De profundis (1978) for accordion. Missing the true characters (in music there are no proper names and surnames), we meet archetypes: using an appropriate capital letter meaning the symbolic power of musical structures, we’ll meet for example the Dark and the Bright, generated by the powerful mechanics according to which being an acoustically low or high sound always carries along with itself the two opposing visual suggestions. Entering the details of the piece, we will meet the Dramatic and then the Choral element, beyond the related typical figures, characterized by the dissonant or consonant language, respectively. The Choral will be matched by a Bird Song, that characterizes it as a transcendent item (as for Messiaen, the bird is the creature which doesn’t live on the earth, but it is not completely separated from it, either, and in this way is a link between it and the sky).

The Dramatic element will become progressively more restless and at a certain point it will enter a dialectical competition with the Choral. The piece will plunge down in a Dark region where every power will seem to be exhausted, but in the end it will be possible to come out of it, slowly rebuilding the Choral, its first chords, mimicking the reconstruction effort, will be broken in dissonant clusters, and then the last-moment comeback of the Bird Song will mark a semblance of reconciliation.

These capital letters and these presumed certainties should not deceive you: the symbols are very clear, on one hand, and absolutely reluctant on the other. Very clear because in a very clear way they exhibit their reference to something else, reluctant because most of the times this something else can shift from a meaning’s zone to another, depending on the symbolic world of the listener and, plainly, on the interpreter’s one.

The events told by Sofija Gubajdulina are matters of a pain and of a salvation which is ambiguously revealed, an unquestionable presence but also, most of the times, an (at least here and now) impossible achievement. No ideological mask softens the hardness of the assumption and makes it less unwelcome to establishments and self-appointed art judges. At the beginning of the Nineties, for the first time, Italy came to know a composer who thrilled the audiences in Paris, without ever going there, because she was not permitted to; a composer who for a long time quietly took no notice that she was not taken notice of, without making a compromise just for changing this state of things.

Twenty years after that first Italian revelation, Sofija Gubajdulina’s music remains today a lesson in authenticity and freedom.

Corrado Rojac plays Sofija Gubajdulina’s De Profundis on Limenmusic Web Tv
go to the concert

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May 16th, 2011 – Intersections 12

En blanc et noir and his neighborhoods: or, what should we do against war

In 1914, First World War broke out, and soon came to France. Claude Debussy, his spirit already marked by other (financial, familiar, medical) worries, will write almost nothing for a year: his first far-reaching composition completed in wartime will be En blanc et noir, for two pianos, in 1915.

The second among the three pieces which comprise this work is a peculiar example of how a musician would compose during wartime. First of all, as a motto for the piece there is a fragment of the Ballad against France’s enemy (1416) by the French poet François Villon:

Prince, porté soit des serfs Eolus

En la forest ou domine Glaucus

Ou privé soit de paix et d’espérance

Car digne n’est de posséder vertus

Qui mal vouldroit au royaume de France

[Prince, let him be brought by Eolus’s sons

to the expanse which Glaucus rules on,

and peace and hope be taken off of him,

because is not worth of having virtues

he who bears ill-will to the Kingdom of France!]

The «expanse which Glaucus rules on» is the sea, which Villon hopes would swallow the hated enemies of France, whom already, just before, he wished to be confronted «with flame-throwing beasts» and other amenities of the same kind. The intersection of Debussy’s piece with this well-known poetic abuse is the sign of a peculiar and unique intention: let somehow the musical «battle» genre to revive.

One of the «characters» in the score, in fact, is a symbol of the German culture, the Luteran chorale Ein’ feste Burg; but many nasty deeds happen to it, and it pays for «being incautiously lost in a French caprice». After an introduction where various cries and appeals ring, the piece’s main section is made of rhythmic ostinatos which let the turmoil progressively grow; in the meantime, the fragments of Luter’s hymn have to closely confront «French» musical figures. The outcome of the fight is a short, but «éclatant» rant by a «French-style» fanfare, whence the Luteran choral in the end is silenced, and a «pre-Marsigliese» (so it is called by Debussy) collects all of the glory.

The second piece of En blanc et noir represents one of the paths Debussy entered, as a composer, during wartime. Another one was the path of the Berceuse héroïque for the piano, written for the King Albert’s Book (an international hommage to Belgium’s king and to the nation invaded by the Germans): a completely unique piece (what can be gathered by the strange title’s couple alone – an heroic lullaby!) that could anything but stir up the minds.

And then there was the Noël des enfants qui n’ont plus de maison for voice and piano, which instead readily inflamed the minds, and was often requested, in his public performances, of an encore, and then again.

But the path that would turn out the most novel and fruitful was not much later discovered, with the idea of a compositions cycle, without in memoriam dedications, abuses in mottoes, representations of fights, and ad hoc texts: simply, «Six Sonatas for different instruments, composed by Claude Debussy, French musician». Six: you stand against the war building something big and strong. Sonatas: pieces of pure music, which cross with a secular, civil, humanistic tradition. And, in the end, «French».

In these Sonatas (in the three he was able to complete) Debussy sought a personal way in front of the war; an alternative to the turmoil of En blanc et noir, and an alternative to the «flame-throwing beasts».


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May 2nd, 2011 – Intersections 11

Music for starry skies

John Cage was an ingenious master of intersections. Once he was also on the verge of a very peculiar intersection with gastronomy, when he dreamed of composing a piece where he was cooking notes and the audience were eating them. That piece, clearly, remained in the world of dreams, but there are many notable cases where his music is intertwined with a variety of other disciplines.
Astronomy, for example – or, better, astral geography. In the Seventies, when many composer were still creating post-serial composition rules, he used to take maps of the starry sky, lay on them transparent music paper and “compose”. A star is a tone, a constellation becomes a series of tones. And then, with a number of details in need of specification (should this celestial body match with a single tone or a chord? A chord of how many tones? Natural or altered tones?) he used to browse the I Ching, the popular Chinese oracle, and through its responses refine the whole. A “whole” that was the Etudes Australes for solo piano, thirty-two pieces collected in four books, totaling many hours of music, where the star map becomes phantasmagorical tones constellations, the two hands restlessly swirling across the keyboard.

What is the meaning of that all?

As usually adopting the simplification attitude that best fits these few lines, we would suggest that for Cage, rather than observing where the music comes from (the astral map), it’s important noting where it doesn’t come out from. And which is this place, where the music doesn’t ever really spring from, is readily identified: it’s the self.

So I want to give up the traditional view that art is a means of self-expression for the view that art is a means of self-alteration, and what it alters is mind, and mind is in the world and is a social fact… We will change beautifully if we accept uncertainties of change; and this should affect any planning. This is a value.

Music that wouldn’t have anything to say, least of all by a subject that has been long supposed behind the art work, in the act of providing confessions or transcribing his mind. Music that wouldn’t say, but simply act.

Everything began, for Cage, in the Fifties, with a discovery: that in the Oriental cultures music is not a means for “self-expression”; instead,

the purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind thus making it susceptible to divine influences”. I then determined to find out what was a “quiet mind” and what were “divine influences”.

In those Oriental cultures, the self is an obstacle to be overcome for rejoining themselves. From that moment on, in his music making, John Cage went around the obstacle constantly averting his eyes from himself; he began his quest for star maps, oracles to look up, dice to shoot, music already written or silences already full of sound. Often coming along with that open and inscrutable smile that was a meaningful trait of his, in the pictures and in his music alike.

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April 18th, 2011 – Intersections 10

Music and calligraphy: Toshio Hosokawa’s percussions

The East is different. This simple reality is often clouded by the phenomenon everybody knows as globalization. The outlines of cultures are blurred and the differences softened, the amazement in front of what is far from us stops and we have the impression of knowing everything of everybody: in the West we are living in the era of conversions to Buddhism, of the wild commercialization of Zen philosophy, of geishas tales and so on. The face of Japan, by example, increasingly appears, with its big cities and multinational conglomerates, less different from the western counterparts. That notwithstanding, the East is really different (and the Zen is far more than a lovely reading for commuters), and also the intersections that happen there have something special.

As an example: the Nagasaki-born composer Toshio Hosokawa reports that when in the Noh drama a musician is preparing to play the tsuzumi, a percussion instrument, he brings forth the right hand, draws a circle in the air and only at that point actually generates the sound by hitting the instrument. The ensuing sound is laden with a peculiar tension, that begins through the gesture that comes before the real sound. The performer, in the preliminary gesture, lets out an exclamation, and this cry helps to raise the tension. As an outcome, the sound and the preceding silence are not each rival to the other, whereas the sound somehow takes his roots in the preliminary gesture.

«The silence supports the sound and gives life to it, in the same way as the lines of Sho (the traditional Japanese art of calligraphy) get their life by the void world around them»:

Sho is the eastern art of writing on white paper with a brush dipped in India ink. The lines made with the brush are not straight lines, they have soft bends in the varying shades of the ink. Once I had the opportunity of learning something about Sho from a calligraphy teacher, and I was really impressed by what he told me. He told me that, before he begins to write, he stares to a point in space, starts a brush motion from that point, moves the brush as if he is going to create a new world, writes on the paper and then comes back to the same point in space. The lines, that’s visible on the paper, is only a part of the total, invisible line of the movement. The visible line remaining on the paper is supported by an invisible world. The blank spaces between the lines are traces of that world.

All that is to be found in some Hosokawa’s musical works: just a composition among many – Sen VI for percussions. A sequence of detached instrumental gestures; long rests between them, which discourage following the composition along the lines of the western musical logic, based on consequentiality; overwhelming importance of the silences, so similar to the blank spaces between the lines of the calligraphic art; the same cries of the tsuzumi’s performer, the same rituality of the event, the same time suspension, where the instants do not strive to an organization in tight sequences of “before” and “after”.

The East is different also for him, who, like Hosokawa, discovered the culture and music of the Japanese tradition far from Japan, in the West. «I don’t know what Japan is». It is a spiritual place, where maybe it is not possible to be born, but which you can go in search of, where it’s worth setting out to.


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April 1st, 2011 – Intersections 09

Sylvano Bussotti’s Pictograms

We often talk about notes. Overbearing subject, the note: a measurement, an exact frequency, a recognizable and codable object, that would qualify as the main parameter and overshadow everything else. Then we can refer to sound, and in this way we bring to light what was concealed at the side of the note, and beyond it. But it would be worth talking about the gesture – which causes that sound; and about the body, which makes that gesture.

Body and gesture (and therefore also theater) are pivotal concepts in Sylvano Bussotti’s poetics, a creator hanging between music and visual arts. In the fourth of the historical Five Pieces for David Tudor, a real drawing set in a pentagrams’ system, the double caption sheds a light on the double personality of the author: “1949 drawing” and “piano adoption: March 27, 1959”.

Beyond this and other radical examples, the musical page of Sylvano Bussotti is always aiming at being close to a painted canvas. Thickenings and rarefactions of the stroke, unconventional disposition of the elements in space, a bending of what should be rectilinear, and vice versa, a proliferation of signs and lines that link, divide, signify: this page, these gestures crave at embodying themselves in the gesture and the body of the player. But how? As an example, such a variable stroke longs to change itself, becoming an equally supple touch; the network of lines and signs that maps the page yearns to become the gesture of the person who, facing multiple paths and readings, hesitates at first, and then suddenly decides, but then maybe will come back, retracing his or her steps. And everything, based on multiple captions and divergent situations, has a strong discontinuity trait: and there comes out the picture of a musical subject which lays him- or herself bare, exhibiting his/her complexity and contradictions.

«Beneath the sounds, before them (and I don’t know yet how much dependent on them) are sheets that I’m barely willing to define written or drawn on; scores that are not scores, adventures of the writing that pretends to prelude the sound, but states itself.»

The congeniality of the gestures – the creator’s and the interpreter’s – becomes leading theme in many occasions. In a recent short piano piece, Lo studiolo di Luca Signorelli, we can find, in fast sequence, «scivola» [slips], «quasi s’arresta» [almost comes to an halt], «corre» [runs] and then, after a break, in the end «scorre e canta!» [flows and sings!]. How could we doubt that these captions depict, not only the pianist’s hand, but also the hand of the composer, caught in the writing act (and also the hand of his Renaissance’s other self caught in the painting act)? More accurately, in the act of beginning their work, wavering (composer and painter) in front of thousand powerfully strong-willed and uncompromising ideas: a pen (a brush) that straight off begins, then breaks off, sketches out again, then is set down. And at last goes back tracing strokes, now having found the way.


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March 15th, 2011 – Intersections 08

The Two Planetoids of Maurits C. Escher and Federico Gardella

Maurits C. Escher (1898-1972), the Dutch artist, was a famous master of optical illusions. Little men who climb up and up and up and then, without ever turning around, it comes out that they go down and down and down. People who, seen from a certain point of view, are normally walking and, seen from another perspective, are instead hanging upside down. And so on. But Escher was also a master of mirrors and parallel words that reflect each other. In Three Worlds, on a very narrow gap the real presence of what is just there (leafs), the filtered image of what is underneath (fishes) and the reflected image of what is overhead (branches) are intertwined. In Three Spheres II, the three spheres reflect each other, reflect the writing desk (that in its turn reflects them – and so they reflect also their reflection on the desk) and finally give us also a reflection of the artist who is drawing them.

In Double Planetoid, there are two imaginary tetrahedron-shaped and interweaved celestial bodies. One, with a completely smooth surface, on each of his four edges accommodates a fortress with a fanciful outline, fully equipped with tower and flag. In these strongholds men live: we see them looking out of the windows, walking on the balconies, or sitting around a table. Outside the big entry gates of the fortresses we can glimpse the other planetoid, tilted in such a way that the space logic is completely misrepresented. This second heavenly body is as different from the first as you can fancy. The first, we already know, is smooth; the second is totally uneven, because of the wild greenery that covers it. Men (and only men) dwell on the first; the second is inhabited by animals (weird-looking reptiles, a crossing of prehistoric animals, Middle Ages bestiary creatures and dreamlike image). On the first, man left his mark in the form of fortresses; on the second, no trace of human civilization is visible. In other words: the first planetoid has a familiar and reassuring look, whereas the second inspires awe and terror.

In 2009, Federico Gardella (born 1979), the Italian composer, let himself inspired by Double Planetoid into writing a piano piece, titled Di rami e radici [About branches and roots].

First issue: how to represent, without any ambiguity, two worlds on just one instrument? By “preparing” the piano: half the strings are left as they ordinarily are (first planetoid), the other half is “prepared” with a material that dramatically alters the elicited sound (second planetoid).

Second issue: in Escher’s work, the gaze comfortably, and in the way it likes most, explores the two realities, moving at will from one to the other. In the music, the time sequence of events has to be determined by the composer. And so: should the first planetoid come first? Or should the second be first? Both entwined? (But how could it be so?)

The solution is as Escher-like as you can get: the two worlds show up as they are morphing into each other. At first, the utter familiarity of the usual sound; then a first, quick foray of the “other” sound, followed by other, increasingly deep incursions; in the middle of the piece, the utterly fragile moment of the true metamorphosis; thereafter, everything in reverse.

And “everything in reverse” means that the world that was confronting our eyes vanishes forever. There remains the other, oneiric appearance where pipe-dreams dwell: faded away, we gaze at our absence.

You can listen to Federico Gardella’s Di Rami e Radici, performed by Alfonso Alberti inside the concert:

Alfonso Alberti – Piano Music and Visual Arts – 1
listen

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March 1st, 2011 – Intersections 07

Music and vacuum tubes: Paolo Castaldi nad Postmodern

Not many musicians know what a vacuum tube is. And it is not likely that most of the readers of this blog would be very familiar with that concept. The author of this lines, then, can evenly admit of knowing absolutely nothing about it.

Don’t be afraid, anyway. Also without getting into engineering details, will it suffice to say that Paolo Castaldi (born 1930) in 1969 wrote a piano piece, Grid, that works (the author declared it explicitly) exactly as a vacuum tube. In the vacuum tube, explains Castaldi, there is something that causes (mechanically and strictly) something else. The same happens in Grid: there is who commands and who is commanded, who lays down the rules and who follows them. The extraordinary thing is that the two “who” are two very famous musical pieces, that through Castaldi’s intercession meet and short-circuit.

The commander is Chopin’s Etude op. 10 #3, a celebrated page, loved by the audiences. It commands, meaning that offers the whole framework (rhythm, figures, polifonic structure) of the piece. Commanded is another very famous page, Liszt’s Liebesträume, that in that framework simply arranges the notes. The body that springs out of it lives only for the short stretch of a couple of pages (and, let’s restate it, half of it has the features of Chopin’s Etude, the other half the features of Liszt’s Liebestraum), then the tube fails and commander and commanded do not get along anymore. The piece, simply, stops.

Where does this intersection between art and engineering, between music and vacuum tubes, take us?

The discussion would be very long, but a simplified summary is possible: this intersection takes us into the postmodern world. A world where the meaning of the musical work doesn’t consist in harmony, in a sequence of notes, in an invention. We already told it: the notes are Liszt’s, the rhythms Chopin’s; in other Castaldi’s pieces, the quotations will not be faithful, but the composer, simply, will “pretend” to find and quote. But if harmonies, notes, rhythms and everything else are already given, where is the composition, where is the meaning? It is in the short circuit. The composer chooses the objects, puts them in contact and then (undeclared, but undeniable accomplice) stands watching what happens. Sign of the times: the man, who doesn’t know anymore who he is, tries to find himself in history. And there, of course, he will never find the exact image of himself, but endless mirrors; to be mixed and matched, should by chance come out a truthful portrait.

What will come out of the collage, or of the working of the vacuum tube, or of any other operation, is unpredictable and amazing: there, in the new relationships between the objects, will be the only possible meaning. But poetry comes before meaning. Waiting for a further musical works recombination, poetry already dwells in the gesture of who those musical works sought for and assembled, declaring himself willing to accept the further meaning of their short circuit. It looks like the gesture of a fool, who forgot the sense of things; and who then roams among them, watching and experimenting, until any (but definitely different from the former) sense would shed again some light on them.


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February 14th, 2011 – Intersections 06

No German Sky: Death in Venice according to Gérard Pesson

This time, many are the intersecting characters: a novella, Death in Venice, by Thomas Mann (1911-1912); the same-name movie directed by Luchino Visconti (1971); the Adagietto of the Fifth Symphony by Gustav Mahler (1901-1904); the life of the German poet August von Platen (1796-1835); and last a choir piece of the French composer Gérard Pesson, Kein deutscher Himmel (1997).

Let’s trace the story and stitch together all the pieces.

In Death in Venice, Thomas Mann portrays the story of the writer Gustav von Aschenbach, who devoted all of his life to his artist’s work and suddenly decides to go to Venice. There he meets a very beautiful adolescent boy, Tadzio, around whom his life comes to revolve. The cholera breaks out, but the risk of infection doesn’t drive the main character into leaving Venice and the boy. The end of the story focuses on the last glance that Tadzio, the symbol of total and unseizable beauty casts on von Achenbach dying at the Venice Lido.

Behind the face of the main character in Death of Venice we can easily get a glimpse into the face of Thomas Mann himself. But not only his: as in a kaleidoscope of sorts, there are other blended-together hidden (but not really) identities.

First identity: Gustav Mahler. Mahler dies in 1911, and when Thomas Mann learns about his death he is right in Venice; Gustav is Mahler’s name and it is the name of the main character in the story. Luchino Visconti’s 1971 movie will make the identification fully outspoken, and will turn Gustav von Aschenbach in a composer; therefore a piece by Mahler, the Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony will be the linchpin of the soundtrack.

The second identity hidden behind Gustav von Aschenbach is that of a German poet and playwright who lived at the turn of the nineteenth century, August von Platen. Who was born in Ansbach, a city whose name reminds us so much of Aschenbach; and who died in Siracusa, an Italian city on the sea (like Venice) at the time of an epidemic.

So, there are a musician and a poet, two real presences implied in a fictitious character. To those presences aims Gérard Pesson, the composer, crucial link in the intersections chain. He addresses himself to Mahler, because Pesson’s Kein deutscher Himmel is Mahler’s Adagietto, that is a (very poetic) transcription for a cappella choir – not one note more, not one less. He addresses himself to August von Platen because the Adagietto, migrating from the symphonic orchestra to the voices, now needs a text; and right out of the works of von Platen are the passages sought, which are appropriate for creating a venetian collage.

Removed, Thomas Mann remains aloof, and Death in Venice is staged without him. We get the feeling of retrieving a lost document, which will tell us, from a completely unheard of viewpoint, the final occurrences in the life of Gustav von Aschenbach.

«You painters bring me to the eternal life / (a call! a call!) / I couldn’t stand a failure of yours / and I couldn’t give up the pleasure in exchange for eternity.» No German sky, says the title: and in fact August von Platen was looking for his elsewhere, where he could fully and peacefully live his (also homosexual) identity, far from Germany. The outline of his Venice gets muddled with that of Mann’s and Visconti’s Venice, a mythical place where chimeras are pursued. Adding to the lagoon’s myth a further piece, Gérard Pesson depicts just this never-ending quest, its extolling and its ultimate setback.


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February 1st, 2011 – Intersections 05

“The rose is without ‘why'”: Angelus Silesius and Niccolò Castiglioni’s Mysticism

Dulce refrigerium, sechs geistliche Lieder für Klavier (1984) is the place, within the piano production of Niccolò Castiglioni (1932-1996), where the spirituality of the Milan-born composer is more fully expressed.

To get into the meaning of this spirituality we ought to say that it is deeply rooted in mysticism, and especially in that of the German poet and mystic Angelus Silesius (1624-1677).

The rose is without “why”
She blooms because she blooms
She doesn’t care for herself
She doesn’t ask if anybody sees her

And then:

Wisdom enjoys staying
Where the children are –
Why? (oh wonderful thing)
Because she herself is a child

And:

Blessed is the man
Who nothing wants and nothing knows
And to God (don’t get me wrong)
Gives neither praise nor honour

These couplets and others, extracted from Cherubinischer Wandersmann (The Cherubinic Wanderer) and set to music by Castiglioni in his Cantus planus I and II, apparently are in agreement with a certain naïve track of his musical poetics. Everything could and should be seen with the eyes of a child. God, too. Rather, you couldn’t see him otherwise, Silesius and Castiglioni seemingly suggest.

And that’s why the “six spiritual Lieder for the piano”, which make up the Dulce refrigerium cycle, are among the simplest possible things, and they outline the various pictures in short and disembodied pages. Humilitas and Humus move about in a fabric of quiet chords, where sedately consonant triads and chords emerge from.

In Urquelle the leading role goes to a horns phrase, alternating between the E major and E flat minor keys, constantly repeated above a liquid run of demisemiquavers, the “original source” of the title.

In the Lied there is the total naïveté of an unaccompanied melody, whose popular tone we can identify, but which, because of its rarefaction and of its sudden melting in a very fluid figure, doesn’t seem to have anything earthly anymore.

Liebeslied is a sequence of free-rhythm chords, which end on one of the commonest musical symbols in Castiglioni, a peculiar chord with a special and alienating resonance, whose appearance “pierces” the pieces where those appearances happen, opening the doors to what is totally “other”.

Finally, in the last piece of Dulce refrigerium, Choral, we run into another symbol, which becomes absolute and takes possession of the whole (very short) page. Only seven bichords in Adagio (again an imaginary horns melody), with the remark “Ah, ritorni il vecchio affetto a regnar nel vostro cor” [Ah, shall the old affection come back, and rule in your heart]. No elaboration, nor development or musical form, however you want to say it. The logical language turns into pure vision, which – like Angelus Silesius’s rose – doesn’t wonder nor care for herself.

If your soul is a virgin
And pure as Mary was,
In a blink of an eye
Will be pregnant of God.


You can listen to Niccolò Castiglioni’s Dulce refrigerium, performed by Alfonso Alberti inside the concert:
Alfonso Alberti – Ritratto di Niccolò Castiglioni

listen

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January 15th, 2011 – Intersections 04

Giorgio Gaslini’s three “Piano Sonata Décollage

Visiting an exhibition of works created by the informal painter Mimmo Rotella, I was struck by his large paintings where advertising posters of American, French or Italian films appeared, teared off, or rather unglued off normal bills, and on which Rotella, with skillful brushwork, exercised a completing operation, aiming to alienating the original meaning of the materials. The title of each work was Décollage, that is ‘tear’ or ‘peeling-off’.”

That’s the way Giorgio Gaslini presents the first of his three recent (2008/2009) Piano Sonata Décollage for piano. As the artist Mimmo Rotella teared off advertising posters, brought them to his studio and there assembled, reworked them and then tore them off again, so Gaslini does in the music realm. Tearing apart melodies, ballads, marches, tangos, barcarolles, counterpoints and uncountable many other genres. Never quoting what exists (in this way clearly distinguishing himself from Rotella), but always self-creating the posters to be teared apart, which consequently are never, althought they could be, real.

Interestingly, the end product is amenable to a two-level reading: on one hand there is the finished music piece, built in such and such way, ready to be listened to. On the other hand, just when we listen to that piece, we are invited to attend its birth, peeping through the keyhole at the artist/composer at work. Among the poster shreds, sometimes we witness live to the tearing operations, unmistakably mimed by the musical figures. Moreover, in the two movements, which make up the third Sonata, we are confronted, as in a movie, with the working artist’s night and, in the end, with the matinée, when the works are exhibited. Here is, by example, the “plot” of the first movement: “The painter worked in his atelier all night long to put the finishing touches to the five large décollage paintings meant for the oncoming, highly anticipated exhibition. At the crack of dawn, slumped on the old armchair, he gazes at his works, sipping a bourbon and indulging in listening to his favourite authors, Ives and Satie. So he gets to sleep and in the whirlwind of dreams fragments of those music resurface.”

But, mind you: the three Piano Sonata Décollage are not meant to be narrative or program music, in the old sense of the word. “Narrating” the birth of the painted/musical décollage is the tool Gaslini choose for offering us his self-portrait, portraying his musician’s craft, as he understands and has been practicing it for decades.

Portraying himself in the act of tearing apart and assembling, rather than building, is extremely meaningful. He who builds, decides to select a set of materials and with these (and not others) raise his building. Instead, he who tears and then glues is, at least theoretically, open to any kind of material, without false (deeply false, in Gaslini’s view) style’s and genre’s issues.

Along Giorgio Gaslini’s career, the jazz production and his other, non-jazz works, always went side by side, enriching each other. Not later than 1964, in his Total Music Manifesto, he wrote: “Music is for man. Music rises from man for man. We are interested in the total man. So we are in favour of the synthesis of every culture and then for the merging of all the music languages”.

Intersections do not happen by chance. The elective affinity between Mimmo Rotella and Giorgio Gaslini serves the latter for positively expressing in music one of his strongest statements of freedom.


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January 1st, 2011 – Intersections 03

Telling stories without rhyme no reason

Arts history is full of powerful sentences, prohibitions, tabulae rasae. As in the golden age of Surrealism, when André Breton forbid even the composition of novels. No sooner said than done. Should the surrealists never write novels? Then Max Ernst, artist who at the time was very close to the Surrealism, in 1929 publishes one, La femme 100 têtes [The woman a hundred heads].

Red-handedness notwithstanding, in a sense there is no crime, because the said novel isn’t a novel. Not in the realist sense, at least, that is a novel reflecting reality according to traditional logic, with a beginning and an end, with well outlined characters whose whereabouts contribute to the building of a plot.

In La femme 100 têtes, the narrative element is completely removed. It is a “picture book”: a long sequence of printings with subtitles, organized according to the rules of the surrealist automatic association. “The lamb half-fertile expands his abdomen at will and becomes ewe-lamb” is followed by “The sky brightens up twice”, then comes “In Paris’ basin, Loplop, the highest of the birds, brings to the streetlamps the night nourishment”. It isn’t the logic of reality that drives the hand, but the logic of dreams.

Breton wrote: “After you have settled down in a place as conducive as possible to the turning inward of the mind upon itself, have someone bring you what you need to write with. Place yourself in the most passive or receptive state possible […]. Write quickly and without any preconceived subject – so quickly as not to retain or be tempted to reread what you write. The first sentence will come of itself […]”

In music, too, narrativity has a very important role. The musical page can drive the listener’s mind trough a pure sound plot. A plot that can be followed, because it is based on a logic, understandable in traditional terms: repetition and clash, accumulation, peroration, steady statement of an idea, negation of another one.

As the literary, the musical narrativity can be abolished. Around 1930, pianist and composer George Antheil wrote “his” Femme 100 têtes. Forty-five preludes and a “Percussion dance”: this extreme fragmentation alone already shows that every logical consequentiality probably deserted the music sheet. Moreover, the manuscript (reproduced in the published work) is studded with deletions and second thoughts, and the preludes sport different, inconsistent numberings, and it even happens that part of the thirty-third is labeled as the end of the third, and page 34 directs back to page 20. If logic is free dreaming association, the course can change at every moment; the music piece has the exterior look of a maze of options among which to choose, and in case (there doesn’t seems to be a solid execution praxis for the Femme 100 têtes) the random leeways of the experience suggested by Antheil came almost thirty years before the Boulez’s and Stockhausen’s moving sheets and arrow mazes.

Sometimes, along the path of these forty-six musical snapshots without plot, some visions reappear. But in a not enough organic way for being picked up as real musical themes, whose whereabouts are worth investigating. They are rather more like the “Woman a hundred heads” who enigmatically shows up here and there in Ernst’s picture novel and who, just because in French “cent” (100) sounds almost like “sans” [without], instead of a hundred has no heads at all.

You can listen to La femme 100 têtes, by George Antheil, performed by Alfonso Alberti inside the concert:

Alfonso Alberti – Piano Music and visual Arts – 1
listen

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December 15th, 2010 – Intersections 02

The consequences of a totally-white painting

The Fifties in New York were an extraordinary time, due to the intertwining (human and artistic) life courses of great musicians and great visual artists.

Once, in those years, Morton Feldman, the composer, visited Bob Rauschenberg’s studio and came out of it with one of his Black Paintings, paid sixteen dollars and some change – all that he had in his pockets. The painting was hauled on John Cage’s Ford, the same car that, in another occasion, Cage would use for “inking” a painting, also by Rauschenberg, passing over it with blue ink-soaked tires.

The Black Paintings were all black; but Rauschenberg created also paintings that were completely white. Not partly, or almost completely, white. No, white – that’s all. One of the early reviewers of the 1953 exhibition, in which Eleanor Ward showed the White Paintings, was really Cage, who declared, fancy that, that the white paintings were not exactly white. Instead, they were “airports of the lights, shadows and particles”. What seemed completely void was, instead, full of liminal events. The subtraction wasn’t complete, the result wasn’t zero.

The White Paintings had for Cage (who came to know them a couple of years earlier, when Rauschenberg started to create them) some interesting consequences.

The first, already many times highlighted: In 1952 Cage decided to complete a composition, which he began in 1948, but didn’t yet finish. Six working years would let you figure a far-reaching composition for orchestra, or something of that kind. Instead, it was a work written on a single sheet of paper, with the words “First movement TACET”, “Second movement TACET” and “Third movement TACET”: it is the celebrated 4’33”, made only of silence, but a silence that, just like Rauschenberg’s white, is a repository of usually repressed events. It was, as Cage confessed, one of the compositions that took him longest to write, and whose “completion” was fostered by the White Paintings. There, in Rauschenberg’s, all white; here, in Cage’s, all silence. There the total lack of color (in the traditional sense of the word); here, the total lack of sound. There the presence of the color, in a non traditional sense (the “shadows of the white”, so to speak); here the presence of the sound in a non traditional sense (the noise in the hall, the coughs, but above all the smallest vibrations of silence).

4’33” apart, there is a second composition that Cage wrote in 1952, and that, as it seems, has much to do with Rauschenberg’s White Paintings: Music for Piano 1. This time, the sounds are there, and they are not particularly rarefied, you could say. But, how Cage created this work? He took some sheets of white paper (all white) and closely inspected them, discovering that the supposed white was really covered with imperfections; on each page laid a transparent music sheet and “interpreted” the imperfections, translating them to sounds. Music for Piano 1 is the first of a series of works, written using the same technique; a while later, came Music for Piano 2, Music for Piano 3, Music for Piano 4-19 and Music for Piano 20.

In 1954, this collection of interpretations of the white became the music for a ballet, Minutiae. The choreography was by Merce Cunningham, Cage’s life partner. The décor (it couldn’t have been otherwise), was by Rauschenberg, who for Minutiae created the celebrated combine with the same name.

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December 1st, 2010 – Intersections 01

Sixteen and a half: the Endless Column of Brancusi and Ligeti

Music gets in time – so in it there are, first of all, a “before”, and an “after”.

It could seem odd, in the abstract, that you could talk, in it, of an “over” and an “under”, because the space coordinates are the main feature of visual arts. That notwithstanding, there is a musical parameter that has always (as far as we can remember) been associated to space: the pitch (which in Italian is “altezza”, “height”, a revealing term). A sound can be treble (but we will also say that it is “high”), or bass (and then “low”). This parameter was always seen as the analogue of the vertical dimension in physical space; it is to be noted that the analogy is particularly deep-going, because it involves (at least potentially) the whole symbolic sphere associated to the vertical direction – up and down.

The well-known Endless Column [or The Column of Gratefulness Without End] of the sculptor Constantin Brancusi (built in Târgu Jiu, Romania, in 1938, a monument to the young who died during the First World War) and the Piano Etude (with the same title) by György Ligeti (the 14th in his production, and the last in the second heft) are exceptional examples of intersections between music and visual arts, related to the vertical dimension and infinity.

Infinity, in physical space, is only in circularity and its variations; in any other case, the paths do have a beginning and an end, there is no way out. Brancusi choose the straight line (how could be a column, otherwise?), therefore aiming at giving us an illusion of the infinite. Thanks to a very high structure (almost 30 meters), made of seventeen diamond-shaped piled modules, the last of half-height (to strengthen the visual illusion of something more, that is there but is not represented): sixteen and a half.

For Ligeti, the task is far more difficult: the piano keyboard is strictly limited and the path upwards (that is, on the instrument, left to right) is at risk of being doomed to a short life. The solution: to “doctor up” the piano space and graft onto it a circularity that isn’t there. Each hand, in turn, can fall into a hole in space (a “wormhole”, as a science fiction writer would name it), that suddenly takes it to the starting point (or almost there). Even if the right hand has to restart crossing the left, which in the meantime overtook it, so that their usual position is overturned. But only until the left hand falls in turn in the next hole.

Going upwards, you never come back, although you find yourself more and more at the starting point; until, at a certain point, the ascending paths of the two hands do not fall anymore into the folds of space circularity, and the top is reached.

At last: Ligeti’s Etude had a first version (of transcendental difficulty, whose performance the composer advises to entrust to a mechanical piano), published together with the final version. In the latter, there is a starting, regular position, with the left hand at the left, and the right at the right, then eight times the right moves to the left, crossing the other hand, and eight times the left hand restores the starting position. One plus eight plus eight: seventeen. But the last time the movement suddenly comes to a halt: sixteen and a half.


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One Response to “Intersections”

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