Music since 1960. Forty years of modern composition and what this music means to me.
It’s been a little while since I wrote one of these. I’ve found this one quite tricky to get started on for two reasons – one, I have a lot on at the moment which keeps getting in my way; and two, it’s one of a few imposters in the list that doesn’t actually have a big personal story attached to it. Which is not to say that I don’t enjoy or recommend the piece – I do, and like Steve Hicken think it one of Lutosławski’s best. It’s just that, well, I only bought a copy of it a year or so ago as part of a Naxos CD deal that came through the door – through which I plugged a number of gaps in my Polish coverage for about 3 GBP a disc. There’s a bit of my mind for which Lutosławski is the elephant in the corner. I’m doing at least half a PhD in postwar Polish music, but I don’t expect him to feature beyond the most passing of references. Part of this is simply because Lutosłwaski is a very different composer from the Poles who really fire my blood, and never really got embroiled in the whole devil-may-care noise explosion of the early 60s that sent Penderecki and Górecki on their ways. He’s always been a little more refined than that. The other part that keeps me off tackling Lutoslawski in any great depth is that have a friend writing his own PhD on the guy – in fact this very piece – so I would only spoil the territory. For whatever reasons, I’ve always stayed at a curious distance from his music.
But here we go. Lutosławski is best known for his technique of ‘controlled aleatory, or to put it another way, improvising within rules. In the 1960s, composers from all over the spectrum were introducing elements of uncontrol into their music, but Lutoslawski was one of the most consistent devotees of the idea. How one goes about introducing chance, or unpredictability, or improvisation into a piece can vary enormously. Lutosławski’s favoured method was to give performers short sections of music, which they would play, and repeat, to a more or less free tempo, until given an instruction to stop by the conductor. This meant that although the general harmonic field could be defined at any point, the note-to-note counterpoint couldn’t. Individual parts would be operating in an unpredictable synchrony.
This might give the impression that Lutosławski represented a sort of East European outpost of downtown New York experimentalism. Morton Feldman’s Polish cousin. But this isn’t really true, as his music is also, in at least equal measure, precisely scored and orchestrated. There are areas throughout Lutosławski’s music of greater and lesser control, and, to put it most simply, this simply gave him another parameter, along with harmony, or rhythm, or density or whatever to play with. In Livre – a teasingly abstract, teasingly literary title – the ad libitum sections form interludes between three controlled Chapters. The chapters form a more or less continuous musical argument, but the freer sections interrupt this – they are often described as areas of ‘relaxation’ but this designation assumes that the single musical narrative of the chapters should be taken at face value.
While theorists might debate long and hard about the nature or even possibility of musical narrative, for me it is a valid concept. Music obviously cannot tell stories in the way that literature can. Without a stable vocabulary it cannot even name things, or characters, or isolate moods or motivations. However, music can, within the recognised or self-defining language of a work, body of works, genre, or musical epoch, establish a language of sorts. This language is basically structuralist and relies on opposites and the shades between them. From this you can develop patterns of tension and release; you can also establish movement and development from, towards, and between. If music is ‘programmatic’ – ie it tells a story – it only does so by analogy. It is narrative stripped of all specifics: all that are left are the bare structural bones of a story.* One level of tension and release is between the strictly composed and aleatoric sections in Livre – relegating them to areas of relaxation strips away one layer of narrative potential. What can be argued to be the case with this work – or at least one reading of it – is that the two layers act as disrupting narratives working against one another to create one overarching meta-narrative. It’s reminiscent of the structure of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller in which the story of an individual entering a bookshop to buy a book is continually interrupted by the opening chapters of other books, until the two stories inevitably merge at the end.
Lutosławski’s piece can be read something like this, as the interplay of competing narratives. It does also contain some of the composer’s most memorable moments. The very opening glissando is – coincidentally I’m sure – almost identical to the very opening of Morrissey’s The Teachers are Afraid of the Pupils; and the piece ends in an unmistakably aleatoric clatter of honking brass, over ethereally dissonant string chords. A passage such as this, or the one for clarinets a few minutes in, show the effectiveness and versatility of Lutosławski’s controlled aleatory technique. There is no doubt, when listening to these passages that they are not fully composed out – but they are never for a moment at risk of losing their musical identity. Lutosławski had a gift for entrusting a certain number of decisions to his performers, without ever losing control over precisely what he wanted. Maybe that’s why, for the loveliness of the writing, and the tremendous skill of the composer, I don’t think there’s any Lutosławski piece that I unreservedly love: paradoxically, for all the freedoms that Lutosławski introduces, the conclusion that they always reach is the ultimately controlling hand of the composer himself, reigning everything in at last to his will.
* Admittedly this is only part of the matter. By various means – quotation, allusion, textual reference, etc. – it is possible to introduce specific elements into a work. But the way these elements function within a piece remains at one remove from literary narrative: quoting Chopin is not the same as having him appear as a character in a novel.