Down the Spectral Rabbit Hole

lehman-travail-pi-recordingsI love sfSound Radio. It’s a continual shuffle-play of experimental and improvised music, from fully scripted modern classical to spontaneous noise. And during work, it’s a great way to shake the cobwebs and bring some avant-garde street cred to my desk.

Like any good radio, it’s also a way to discover new sounds. And so it was that I recently heard a sparse strings piece that I liked, which pulled me into the world of spectral music and made me reconsider Steve Lehman’s recent octet albums.

grisey-espacesThe piece was the introductory movement of Gerard Grisey’s Les Espaces Acoustiques — solo viola, it turns out. That led me to give the complete album-length composition a listen. As with minimalism, Grisey’s music is a rethinking of what the orchestra can do. Les Esapces is a roiling sea of sound, not so much divided into discrete events (like waves on a beach) as presenting continuous shades of emotion. Abstractness aside, it does feel like a narrative, one full of unsettling emotions.

I’m not sure what to make of the Epilogue, where a pair of horns lash out on composed unison phrases, almost playfully. Behind them, the orchestra maintains a sparkling sheen hinting at heavy thoughts and universal mysteries. But as the piece ends, the sheen drops — we’re left with the horns and a drum. The contrast feels like it’s meant to be a silly touch at the end of this epic piece, but that seems out of character. It can’t be that simple.

Only after doing all this listening did I look up Grisey and learn that he’s the composer tied to the idea of spectral music — compositions that use the lingering harmonics of notes to create the “spectral” sheen that sounded so special to me. (Grisey did not coin the term “spectral” and apparently didn’t like it.)

I’d heard of spectral music before. It made jazz headlines thanks to the Steve Lehman Octet.

But when Travail, Transformation, and Flow (Pi Recordings, 2009) was released, I gave it only a cursory listen, to see what this “spectral” stuff was about. And I didn’t immediately get it. I think I was expecting some overtly complex or ugly musical language, something brutally obvious as with microtonal music. The albums were good, but I didn’t feel “spectralized.”

The problem is that I paid too much attention to Lehman’s angular saxophone soloing. It’s fantastic, but he does that all over his other albums. What I should have noticed was the sheen, that uncomfortable rustling built out of subtle, off-kilter harmonies. After sitting with Grisey for so long, it was so obvious.

In contrast to Grisey’s overhang of impending doom, Lehman’s spectral sheen is brighter, like sunlight bouncing off glass. He uses the vibraphone (Chris Dingman) as the foundation, but it’s necessarily complemented by the horns to create a dissonant and lingering effect. You hear it right out of the gate on Travail, with “Echoes,” combining a ringing vibraphone chord with a combination of horns sounding a bright but slightly “off” chord.

On a track like “Segregated and Sequential” (from Mise en Abîme, Pi Recordings, 2014), the sheen is more implied, spoken in horn fragments while the vibraphone — a custom microtonal version, still played by Dingman — chimes away at a different tempo. “Autumn Interlude,” also from Mise, is based on a snappy theme and rhythm but intentionally drags itself down — both in tempo and mood — through the use of what sound like microtones on the trombone.

Tristan Murail is another composer strongly tied to spectral composition, and it turns out I’ve already enjoyed his piece “Winter Fragments” in my collection. Before, it just sounded nice; now it sounds all “spectral” to me. It’s interesting how much we can influence our own musical experiences. It makes a difference when you know what you’re listening for.

Shuffle Bach Viola

Does anybody else wonder if classical compositions can work modularly?

I know it’s a silly question. I understand that those allegro and andante movements are sequenced to tell a story, in an abstract sense, whether it’s a roller-coaster of a symphony or through your usual fast-slow-fast sonata. But if you took the fast introductory movement of String Quartet No. 4 and replaced it with the fast introductory movement of String Quartet No. 6, would you even notice? Would the (probable) change of keys matter? Might it even be better?

From the few experiments I’ve done, the answers seem to be “yes,” “probably not,” and “no.” In other words, the exact selections of movements does matter, and when you do the kind of substituting I suggested above — well, even if the original piece didn’t seem to completely “flow,” the new version tends to flow even less.

kashkashian-bachSo, along comes Kim Kashkashian’s recording of Bach’s cello suites (ECM, 2018), upshifted for viola. It’s not the first time a violist has done this, but Kashkashian’s rendering, aside from being novel for simply being new, has a lightness that makes it attractive, an frictionless glide like the footfalls of ballet. I can see why so many artists have recorded the complete suites: The six suites are divided into six movements each, for an attractive symmetry, and of course, every movement is oh so unavoidably Bach. There’s a suggestion of orderly self-similarity that just feels satisfying, in a math-geeky sense.

And it also made me wonder. How interchangeable are the pieces of these suites? All six seem to follow similar patterns, after all.

So, I tried building my own viola suites by hitting shuffle play. Even if an ear-pleasing fast-slow-fast pattern didn’t emerge, the parts should still make some sense together, right?

No, not right. I gave it three tries, and the first one showed why this is such an improper use of Bach.

I. Strategy: Shuffle play, stopping when it feels “done”
A) 6.5 [Suite No. 6, movement 5] Gavotte (D major)
B) 6.4 Sarabande (D major)

The gavotte movement was a bright midtempo, a cautiously optimistic opening. That worked. But it was followed by a slow movement in the same key. Fast-slow is a natural progression, but this just felt laconic. The lack of key change actually hurt; the slow movement felt like a lazy deceleration. I think the problem is that the gavotte is setting itself up to be followed by something even faster — which of course is exactly how the original suite is written. Faced with immediate failure, I had to hit Stop. Grade: D (fittingly enough).

II. Strategy: Shuffle play until “done.”
A) 3.2 Allemande (C major)
B) 1.2 Allemande (G major)
C) 3.6 Gigue (C major)

That’s a little more like it. The “Allemande'” movements are regal: formal but still lighthearted. They aren’t meant to be openers, because that’s what the Prelude movements are for, but I thought 3.2 did the trick well. That the same mood carried into 1.2 wasn’t a problem; it felt like a reasonable continuation, and maybe the key change from C to G added some new color. The gigues are crowd-pleasing conclusions, so 3.6 felt like the right time to call it. Grade: B+.

That was fun, but both mini-suites were awfully “mini.” I’d hoped to last for something like eight movements, not three. One problem was that the lack of minor-key movements was driving me batty. There’s only so much upbeat Bach or Mozart that I can take before I have to go crank some gloomy Schnittke for balance. So, I gave it one more go with slightly different rules, and I lucked out:

III. Strategy: Four movements no matter what
A) 4.6 Gigue (Eb)
B) 6.1 Prelude (D)
C) 5.1 Prelude (C minor)
D) 2.2 Allemande (D minor)

The gigue, meant to be a closer, made for a bouncy, crisp opener, but it clashed mightily with the D major Prelude, because the latter piece just screams “intro segment.” Interesting how music has that language, like the cadences of a speech: Certain rhythms and timing work better in certain situations. But by the end of the Prelude, I acclimated. It was like when the first song on a rock album is the hit single, and the second song is a less intense one that feels like filler… but over time, that second song ends up being your favorite.

With movement three, I finally got a minor key, and in the perfect spot for toning down the mood. I didn’t even notice the key change to C minor. In general, I hadn’t found the key changes very jarring; the only problem I had was with the lack of key change in that first  attempt. The C minor Prelude ends with a gentle sigh that would have been a good way to conclude a suite — but the rules said I had to add one more segment, so, into the D minor Allemande we went. More of a minor key. It didn’t feel like overkill, but it did mean the suite would end with a gray sky, not a happy field of flowers. And it did just that, dying out with quiet understatement that felt like an interesting artistic “choice.” Grade: A-.

I’d envisioned doing a lot more of these, but having found two permutations that I liked, and one that I really didn’t like, I figured it was time to call it quits. Maybe next, I’ll build a truly modular suite: Movements 1 through 6, in order, but each taken from one of the six suites selected at random. (Should repetition be allowed, or should it be one movement from each of the suites? Hmm.) First, though, I think I’ll show the old man some respect and try to dig into some of these suites in the proper order. They’re written that way for a reason.

Schoenberg and an Art Journey


Intrigued by a review in BBC Music magazine, I gave this album a try: Schoenberg’s String Quartets Nos. 2 and 4, by the Gringolts Quartet (Bis, 2017).

The quartets were written 30 years apart and document different phases in Schoenberg’s 12-tone composing. The Art Music Lounge blog provides a good review with historical context.

Both BBC Music and Art Music Lounge describe the Second quartet as more accessible than the Fourth. But to me, it’s the opposite. That’s partly because the Second quartet includes two movements with a soprano — in this case, Malin Hartelius — singing lines of poetry by Stefan George. I’ve yet to develop a good ear for classical art-singing; to me, it sounds wandering and aimless. By contrast, the jumpy twelve-tone lines of the Fourth quartet sound fun and even catchy — even though an ordinary listener might call them “aimless” too. It’s probably the result of all the post-Schoenberg modern jazz and improv I’ve listened to.

So my mind wandered during the Second, and I started getting curious about that album cover art. Where did it come from?

schoenberg-2-4I could have made a good guess if I’d thought about it. In fact, as I discovered in a web search, this piece has been used as cover art a few different times — such as the album Signs, Games & Messages: Works for Solo Violin by Bartók and Kurtág (Resonus, 2016) by violinist Simon Smith.

It’s also on the cover of a book: Poetics in a New Key — essays by, and interviews with, poet Marjorie Perloff.

It’s hard for me to resist a connection like this, so later, I got curious about Kurtág’s Signs and started listening to samples of Simon’s interpretation. I didn’t recognize the music, but after a while, I began to remember I already owned something else of Kurtág’s. I riffled through my digital collection and found Kim Kashkashian’s viola version of Signs.

That’s when I remembered. I don’t like Signs.

Several listens to Kashkashian’s version left me cold — which I hate to say, because I’m a fan of hers, and because Kurtág is still living and, charmingly, records and performs piano duets with his wife. How can you not love that?

Still, Signs doesn’t click with me. It’s a set of miniatures — an evolving set that Kurtág is still adding to, so recordings vary depending on which handful of pieces the soloist picks. That aspect is intriguing. But the miniatures themselves feel like incomplete doodles. I’m not able to channel them together into a “story.” Maybe it’s just that Kurtág and I just aren’t on the same wavelength.

My dislike of Signs matters to me, though.

In a 2009 essay for The Guardian, Christopher Fox makes an interesting point about Schoenberg’s legacy. The Second string quartet was powered by Schoenberg’s emotional state, as his marriage was falling apart. That doesn’t mean every geometric arrangement of 12 tones is going to produce something great, as Fox writes:

The subsequent institutionalisation of the techniques he developed in those decisive months has produced hour upon hour of greyness … Atonal harmony and fragmented melody are still powerful expressive tools, as film composers demonstrate whenever their directors need a musical equivalent for psychological distress, but as the habitual texture of contemporary classical music their routine use has stripped them of meaning.

Gringolts Quartet.

Even though he has a point, I can honestly say I enjoy some of those gray expanses. For example, I went to explore Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 3, just because it isn’t on the Gringolts album. Art Music Lounge describes the Fourth quartet as “much more accessible than his Third Quartet, at least trying to follow a cohesive melodic line much of the time” — so I couldn’t resist diving into the potential incohesion of the Third quartet.

But you know what? I liked it. It’s engaging — bouncy and rhythmic, with small spurts of repetition to help ground the listener and create a sense of progression. And I’m confident that this isn’t just me being pretentious, because — as with Signs — I’ve discovered that it’s possible for me to not like modern music.

(What about the First quartet, you ask? Apparently it’s tonal — in D major. Eh, maybe some other time.)

Oh, as for that minimalist, curvy-pointy cover art … it’s by Wassily Kandinsky. Yeah, I shoulda known.

Kandinsky is credited in the album’s liner notes, which I own in digital form but didn’t think to consult until later. There’s even a connection to Schoenberg:

“In January 1911 in Munich, Kandinsky attended a concert with music by Schoenberg, including String Quartet No. 2. Much taken by the experience, he wrote to the composer later the same month: ‘You have realized in your work that which I, admittedly in imprecise form, have so long sought from music. The self-sufficient following of its own path, the independent life of individual voices in your compositions, is exactly what I seek to find in painterly form.”

Discovering Charles Wuorinen

A bit of advice on Twitter last night from the ever-wise Ethan Iverson:

I think I’ve heard of Wuornin. Sure, what the heck.

A YouTube search directs me to a New York chamber outfit called Decoda.

Hey, that’s pretty cool. I like the pulsing feel. I have to admit, there are parts where the conga drums don’t feel like they “fit,” as if they’re just in there for the randomness of writing a piece for conga drums.

“Blue Bamboula” turns out to be a driven, bouncy piano piece with some rapid-fire quietude toward the end. There’s a partial version on YouTube with an image of adorable kittens, but I’d rather post a full version. This performance is by Molly Morkoski.

It’s always nice, and sadly kind of novel, to indulge in the music of a living composer. Iverson quickly corrected his tweet by noting Wuorinen is 78, not 79, but that doesn’t matter — it was still a good tip.

The Word on Lutosławski: A 24-Hour Tribute

Here’s what I know about Lutosławski:

  • His first name was Witold.
  • His Cello Concerto got namechecked in some interview with Tim Berne or Jim Black, some years ago. The context was along the lines of, “I don’t listen to kind of classical music you just asked about, but if you want me to pick something, here’s what I do like…”

Not what you’d call scholarly expertise.

Photo by Sue Terry. Source: WXQR; click to go there.
Photo by Sue Terry. Source: WXQR; click to go there.

But because of that interview (which I can no longer find), I picked up a copy of the Concerto — played by Mstislav Rostopovich, another name I would eventually come to know much better. (He’s super famous as a player and conductor.) So, you could call me a casual fan of Lutosławski.

The chance to quickly learn more about Lutosławski is at hand: WQXR-FM’s online satellite, Q2, has assembled an eight-hour tribute to celebrate the 100th year of his birth. It’s going to be played three times on Tuesday, Nov. 12, Eastern time.

The program starts with a one-hour “Lutosławski 101” session, which is what I’ll be listening for. In Pacific Time terms, it’s playing at 9:00 p.m. on Monday, and 5:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. Tuesday.

That’s followed by seven one-hour installments that hone in on different phases of Lutosławski’s career.

The Cello Concerto itself famously starts with the cello alone, digging at one note. No buildup to a big entrance; the cello is just there, already seizing the conversation. After four minutes, a lone trumpet breaks the spell, joined by a gaggle of others. Most of the orchestra doesn’t do anything until the second movement. As opening movements go, it’s quite different.

The third movement, “Cantilena,” features some high-note cello sawing that bursts into a big, dramatic phase, with slightly chaotic horns, a splash of piano, a screaming violin mob, and (out of nowhere) a couple of seconds of scattered xylophone that mark the transition into the colossal “Finale” movement. It’s captivating, featuring lots of spaces for the cellist to show off, nearly unaccompanied.

naxos-lutoIt was enough to get me to randomly buy a Naxos collection of Lutosławski: Orchestral Works, Vol. 8 (released in 2003). It’s lighter, featuring a bunch of “children’s songs” and a set of dance preludes. What I really like, though, is the Double Concerto for Oboe, Harp, and Chamber Orchestra. It opens with a frenetic swirl of strings, and it’s got some of the same ocean-crashing orchestral qualities as the Cello Concerto. Being for oboe and harp, it also presents some more soothing textures.

And then, in the third movement (“Marziale e grotesco”), the oboe gets a few moments of squeaking and buzzing — extended techniques! I guess it’s not that surprising, considering the piece was written in the ’70s, and it’s possible the sounds were a decision by oboist Arkadiusz Krupa and not part of the score. In any event, it was a nice surprise.

I like modern-classical music. It’s got a sense of exploration that I don’t find in “regular” classical music. And I’ve found I like this guy Lutosławski. I wouldn’t mind learning more.

(UPDATE: Judging from this video snippet, which I think is the same passage I excerpted, the oboe craziness is written into the score.)

Elliott Carter, 103

I’m glad I read below the fold on today’s NY Times website. Because down below all the big election news, down in the arts section, was the simple headline: “Master of Complexity” and a photo of Elliott Carter. It could only mean one thing.

At age 103, Elliott Carter has finally passed away. The Times obit stresses the fact that he continued composing throughout his life and was present not only at his own centennial birthday, but at a few celebratory concerts in the years afterwards.

RIP, you badass. Here’s the Times‘ obituary.

Classical Improv

I glanced across Maximal Music (Arte Nova, 1997) at the public library and got curious. It’s always nice to see some curveballs included with the usual Bach, Mozart, Miles, and Duke that make up the classical and jazz sections.

The disc is subtitled “Improvisations for Violin and Piano,” and true to form, it consists of 14 purely improvised pieces, ranging from romantic to spiky and avant-garde, relatively speaking. Liana Issakadze doesn’t go nuts with extended technique on the violin, but she does get playful with bowing tricks and pizzicato flurries. Franz Hummell dives into prepared piano quite a bit.

I have to believe both players have been exposed to European improvised music — the likes of Evan Parker, Han Bennik, and so on. The liner notes are written for a normal classical audience, though, and it’s very interesting to see improvisation, which I take for granted, explained in such detail.

Such was the case in the liner notes for Keith Tippett and Andy Sheppard’s 66 Shades of Lipstick (E.G., 1990), which was probably the first improvised-music album I owned. I’d bought a World Saxophone Quartet album that had a more “free” atmosphere, and of course King Crimson’s classic stuff included improvised tracks, but this album of sax/piano duets was my first take at pure improv, a leap I took after seeing the album’s #1 ranking on a magazine’s year-end list. (I think the magazine was even Jazziz, all the more strange because they were crazy for smooth jazz at the time.)

66 Shades is a rather melodic album, and some tracks could be mistaken for composed pieces. But the liners explain the carefully unplanned nature of the sessions, the music “carved like sculpture from the air.” That’s a phrase I’ve relished ever since, and I’ve probably misappropriated it once or twice for this blog.

Maximal Music could likewise be mistaken for composed music, I suppose, but given the variety and the lack of obvious repetition that’s common even in modern classical music, that “composed” feel still amounts to a nicely bumpy journey. Most tracks stick to a single mood, so there aren’t many surprises in that regard; contrast with European free jazz, which covers a lot of different shades and hues in the span of just a few minutes. That kind of free improv can be like a dandelion seed buffeted by the winds, which is one of the things that’s wonderful about it.  Maximal Music seemed to be more about settling upon a structure, then filling in the colors.

They do let the playing get adventurous, including some skewed techniques on violin by Issakadze: different bow angles, rubbery koto sounds on “Seventeen” (one of the further-out-there tracks). Some playful call-and-response crops up here and there; the track “Twenty-One” is particularly fun.

My curiosity about the album came from the idea that a classical label would take a chance on improvisation, but apparently, Arte Nova was no stranger to the genre. The front cover clearly tags this CD as an “Arte Nova Improvisation” series, as opposed to the normal “Arte Nova Classical.” A cursory check finds at least one other CD, mentioned here; I’ll have to scan the Arte Nova catalog at Allegro to see what else there might be.