Krzysztof Penderecki, 1933–2020

I heard the news about the death of the Polish composer and conductor Krzysztof Penderecki yesterday evening. He was 86, and although one of his carers had recently been diagnosed with Covid-19, there was no suggestion that his death was related. He had been ill for a long time.

Penderecki’s music was once very close to me. A couple of decades ago, when I was contemplating starting a PhD, his name emerged, along with those of Kurtág (whose music I had already studied for my masters thesis), Górecki (subject of an ardent youthful passion), and Ligeti as a possible case study for a wider investigation into East European new music during the Cold War. In the end, it was Ligeti and Penderecki who formed the two pillars of my dissertation, with numerous of their Polish and Hungarian colleagues clustering (ahem) around for support. I collected countless reviews of Penderecki’s music in British journals and newspapers; I wrote a substantial analysis of the St Luke Passion, tying its particular soteriology to a quasi-Schenkerian analysis of its pitch centres (including a novel explanation for that work’s outlandish E major ending, one that probably doesn’t bear all the weight it needs to, but felt satisfying at the time). I wrote a less satisfying analysis of Anaklasis too, although that didn’t make the final cut post-viva. St Luke in particular is a work I lived with for several years and although I can’t say I ever loved it wholeheartedly – although I found that you could probe very deeply into its construction, it never quite rewarded those investigations with the sense of a revelation gained – it was nevertheless very important to me. And when I had the (now rare) opportunity to experience the piece live for the first time, a couple of years later, at Canterbury Cathedral, it was an unexpectedly moving experience. There was a great sense of personal fulfilment, but the work too made a much greater impression on me in the flesh than I had anticipated. That ending, by the way, makes so much more sense live than any recording possibly could.

So moved was I that on my way home I phoned the arts desks of every paper, asking if they would like a review. None of them did, although I was eventually able to place something in the very conservative magazine Musical Opinion, where it was completely out of place and probably barely read (I gave it away, too). For its concision it remains one of my favourite pieces of writing. I reproduce it below.

Because of my PhD, Penderecki has shadowed my career ever since. Some of my first BBC programme notes were on his music. My first pre-concert talk was at the Barbican, on the occasion of the UK premiere of his Eighth Symphony, a sort of eco-aware Pastoral Symphony on the subject of loss and environmental destruction. The Eighth is a work before its time in some ways, although in Penderecki’s hands one human catastrophe was much the same as any other. It is one of his better late works, I believe, but there’s little in the music that distinguishes its themes from many other pieces of his.

Yesterday, as I thought about it for the first time in a while, Penderecki’s music felt very distant from me. I clicked through some tracks on Spotify to add to my Twitter response: surely a composer so preoccupied with death would have something appropriate to say at this point? The best I could come up with was the Lacrimosa from the patchy, but occasionally inspired Polish Requiem.

I think part of the problem is the morbidity of Penderecki’s music. Those deep, mumbling choirs, portentous cries and clanging gongs, tearing strings, and lamenting, descending chromaticisms, leave no room for redemption and light (even in the St Luke Passion, where salvation is supposedly the driving force of the entire work). The sonic and emotional spaces of Penderecki’s music always seem to be collapsing inwards and downwards. It is, when it is at its best – in Threnody, the Dies Irae, Utrenja, and the First Symphony – powerful stuff; some of the most emo music in the classical canon. But it is not suited to all times: the death of its composer apparently one of them; the unfolding Covid-19 crisis perhaps another.

I wonder what piece Penderecki would have written about all this, in a year or two’s time, had he had the chance to? No doubt he would have done: he was never afraid to tackle a big subject. Listening to his music now, though, as I am, it feels just a little close to the bone; and also, missing the curious mix of anxiety, passivity, intimacy and remoteness that seems to characterise the Covid-19 experience (for those of us fortunate enough to have so far avoided its worst effects). What we crave are open spaces not infected air and indoor surfaces; whispers and closeness not shouts across the void. Penderecki’s music spoke to and of a particular time. But maybe not this one.

Incidentally, Keith Potter was my supervisor for that PhD. I am proud to see that he was also the Guardian‘s chosen obituary writer for this occasion.

Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra/Penderecki

Canterbury Cathedral

The Eastern Bloc revolutions of 1989 were about culture as much as politics. Penderecki, Poland’s musical memorialist, played his part in the 1980s, but it is still the cult success of his St Luke Passion of 1966 that exemplifies his knack of combining religious awe, musical freedom and political stridency. This giant oratorio has become a much rarer bird since its first performance in Münster and this revival, conducted by the composer in the sort of space for which it was first written, attracted a capacity audience to Canterbury.

It was not without risk, however. St Luke’s eclectic mix of pseudo-chant and avant-gardist noise has long attracted controversy, its religious fervour can seem anachronistic, and the pacing suffers badly in slow, indulgent performances. Which way would Penderecki’s conducting instincts pull him? Within moments the prospects were good, as the Polish orchestra unleashed an overwhelming, almost profanely sensual bass. Their sonorous power did not waver until the shattering E major conclusion 90 minutes later. They were matched in commitment by the combined choirs and, in particular, Jerzy Trela, whose spoken Evangelist was easily the most heated I’ve heard.

Has St Luke stood the test of time? Its dissident impact is now irrelevant and its religious symbolism seems crude. But although it was an important precursor to the late 20th century’s revival of large-scale religious compositions – from Górecki to Golijov – it is mercifully free of cheap platitudes. It is a deeply flawed piece, but this performance was the most convincing argument in its favour one could imagine.

Playlists for the Long Distancing 2

We’re going to be indoors for a long time now. In case it helps ease the pressure, I’m going to be revisiting my back catalogue of new music playlists and posting things here every weekend. Some of these lists regular readers will have seen before; some of them will be new collections. (Or at least ones I’ve had knocking around privately for a while.)

The second of my weekly playlists was a real monster when I first posted it in 2012. After updating it this week it has more than doubled in length, to a whopping 63 hours.

This is Mode Records‘ ongoing Complete John Cage Edition, which now extends to more than 50 volumes. Not everything in that series is in the following playlist – some volumes have been released on vinyl only, or as DVDs – but the list is currently as comprehensive as it can be.

Now, much as I love Cage’s music, I don’t expect anyone to listen to this list in its entirety. Rather, I place it here as a testament to Mode’s remarkable achievement in sustaining this edition. Think of this playlist as a sampler, and a reason to buy the original recordings from Mode themselves.

This is also a good time to mention that Mode – who have been releasing exemplary recordings of new music for thirty-five years – are in desperate need of funds in order to continue. You can find their fundraising page here. The good news is that if they reach their target of $9,500 dollars, this will be matched with a further $10,000 by the Robert D. Bielecki Foundation. The bad news is that this total must be reached by the end of March, just a few days from now. However, they are less than $2,000 dollars short of this target, so please give generously if you can. With new music already so stretched in the current climate, it would be wonderful if we could save something too.

 

ICE and Music on the Rebound to present Pauline Oliveros’s The World Wide Tuning Meditation

The following press release just landed in my inbox. This looks like a terrific idea – I might see you there – and I’m pasting it here without addition:

International Contemporary Ensemble and Music on the Rebound
Present Pauline Oliveros’ The World Wide Tuning Meditation
Hosted by Ione and Claire Chase

Live on Saturday, March 28, April 4, 11, and 18 at 5pm EDT 

Tune via Zoom. No music experience necessary.

www.iceorg.org

New York, NY (March 25, 2020) — On four Saturdays – March 28, April 4, 11, and 18, 2020 at 5pm EDT – the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) and Music on the Rebound present The World Wide Tuning Meditation. Ione and Claire Chase lead a global performance of the late Pauline Oliveros’ The Tuning Meditation, a sonic gathering with a legacy of bringing communities together through meditative singing. Anyone from anywhere in the world is invited to join in via Zoom to sing together from their personal phone or computer. No music experience is necessary.

Oliveros’ The Tuning Meditation consists of four steps:

  1. Begin by taking a deep breath and letting it all the way out with air sound. Listen with your mind’s ear for a tone.
  2. On the next breath using any vowel sound, sing the tone that you have silently perceived on one comfortable breath. Listen to the whole field of sound the group is making.
  3. Select a voice distant from you and tune as exactly as possible to the tone you are hearing from that voice. Listen again to the whole field of sound the group is making.
  4. Contribute by singing a new tone that no one else is singing. Continue by listening then singing a tone of your own or tuning to the tone of another voice alternately.

Claire Chase says, “I remember with deep admiration how Pauline handled the devastating moments after 9/11, immediately calling on artists to come together, to create renewed kinds of community, and to make music more purposefully and more generously than ever. In these confusing moments over the past weeks as we have found our lives and work upended by the public health crisis, many of us have again turned to Pauline, and even though she is no longer physically with us, her music, practice, and the ever-widening spaces of inclusivity and listening that she engendered in her lifetime are very much with us. The Tuning Meditation is perhaps her most inclusive composition, as it invites any number of humans to listen and sound with one another over any distance, and I can think of no greater salve for our souls right now than the gathering of a thousand self-isolated people to share in music making across all kinds of real and imagined borders. I am so grateful to my colleagues at ICE, to Raquel Klein and Rebound, and to IONE and Pauline for their extraordinary collaboration in this. As Pauline always used to say, ‘Collaboration is a community of effort.’ When there are so many forces at play to divide us right now, we need every effort to stay together, in all of our complexity and all of our beautiful difference, in all of our suffering and all of our hope.”

Of the project, Ione says, “‘Call it listening out loud.” Pauline said once about The Tuning Meditation. I listened as the 500 members of the audience at St John’s Cathedral, Smith’s Square in London received comfort from their own rising sounds after hearing Pauline’s simple instructions. She stood at the front of the vast crowd, hands clasped, head slightly bowed, listening. It was June of 2016 and the news of the positive Brexit vote had just stunned an enormous number of British citizens. A sense of extraordinary community was palpable in the room as the singing concluded. Pauline, very aware of a political climate that might shock and separate us, intended to present The World Wide Tuning Meditation again to meet upcoming new challenges. I am so grateful to Claire Chase, Raquel Klein of Music on the Rebound, and Ross Karre and Bridgid Bergin of the International Contemporary Ensemble who are bringing Pauline’s score to us again in its worldwide form. It has the effect of a healing balm to unite us as one community.”

Music on the Rebound is an online, interactive music festival designed to bring people together and support performing artists affected by the COVID-19 crisis, streaming March 25-30, 2020 featuring music across genres from esteemed artists such as Claire Chase, Paola Prestini, Ganavya Doraiswamy, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and more. Donations will go directly to the artists featured in the video or to an emergency arts fund. New concerts are released at 7:30pm EDT each day of the festival.  

Program Information
The World Wide Tuning Meditation
Saturday, March 28, 2020 at 5pm EDT
Saturday, April 4, 2020 at 5pm EDT
Saturday, April 11, 2020 at 5pm EDT
Saturday, April 18, 2020 at 5pm EDT
Tickets:
Free. RSVP Here to receive Zoom call-in information.
Information Link: https://www.musicrebound.com/pauline-oliveros-tuning-meditation

Performers and Administration:
Raquel Acevedo Klein – Music on the Rebound Festival Organizer
Ione – Co-Organizer, Tuning Meditation
Bridgid Bergin – Co-Organizer, Tuning Meditation
Larry Blumenfeld – Advisor, interviewer
​Claire Chase – Co-Organizer, Tuning Meditation
Boo Froebel – Producing Advisor
​Ross Karre – Co-Organizer, Tuning Meditation
​Erica Zielinski – Producing Advisor
​International Contemporary Ensemble – Host, Tuning Meditation

Social Media: 
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/musicontherebound/
Hashtags – #musicrebound #reboundrecover

Isolation Chamber: Alvin Lucier’s Nothing Is Real

Circumstances change how we hear things. Our ears, connected to our minds, connected to our bodies, moving through the air, touching and being touched, penetrating and distancing, hear differently in different situations.

This was clear to me today as I listened to Alvin Lucier’s Nothing Is Real (1990), the first in a series of weekly free downloads offered up by Cologne’s Ensemble Musikfabrik to help us all through the Long Distancing of 2020. The late afternoon sun streaked through my open window; my children were playing in their bedroom: their laughter, through my study doorway to my right, mixed with birdsong, traffic noise – still – and the occasional train to my left. In between, from my desk, Lucier’s distillation of the Beatles’ Strawberry Fields Forever, played by pianist Ulrich Löffler.

This charmingly, disarmingly simple piece is one of my favourite of all Lucier’s works. It is, like so much of his work, a piece about resonance and location, space and sound; its relationship to Chambers (1968) and I am Sitting in a Room (1969) is clear, but Lucier makes two capricious tweaks in Nothing Is Real to the analytical stance of these pieces. The first is the already mentioned use of John Lennon’s melody for ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, attenuated by Lucier into a series of slow, monodic phrases that hover on the edge of abstraction, rather like the semi-disjointed sentences of I am Sitting in a Room. It is a credit to Lennon’s songwriting (and no doubt one reason for Lucier’s selection) that despite this rarefied state, the original song, with all its baroque psychedeliary, is present in our minds too.

The second is a humorous, theatrical gesture that is nevertheless what makes this unmistakably a Lucier piece: the addition of a china teapot into which a miniature playback device is inserted. For the first half of the piece this records the solo piano music; for the second, it plays it back, from inside the teapot, like a mystic genie, or the tannin remains of an afternoon with cake and crumpets: an image that Lennon himself would surely have enjoyed. By opening and closing the lid, the pianist can create roars and whispers and entirely new tunes out of the overtones, seemingly by magic. ‘Strawberry Fields’ is reconstructed across an entirely new, yet strangely sympathetic sonic landscape.

I am waiting for the official confirmation letter from my GP, but today I begin twelve weeks as one of the 1.5 million of the UK’s most vulnerable individuals. Twelve weeks during which I am advised not to leave my house except where absolutely essential. I’ve felt this or something like it coming for some time now, and I’ve been pre-empting the government’s advice for ten days already, since I left hospital last Friday. Until now I’ve permitted myself trips outside to run or cycle, along the Thames path only, avoiding all contact, but now it seems even these are to be avoided. I have been acclimatising myself to the new chamber that is my house: how I move through it, what I touch and don’t touch, how I connect with members of my family and the world outside, how I construct a temporary, new version of me. In these circumstances, Lucier’s piece acquires an entirely new and unforeseen set of resonances.

Playlists for the Long Distancing

We’re going to be indoors for a long time now. In case it helps ease the pressure, I’m going to be revisiting my back catalogue of new music playlists and posting things here every weekend. Some of these lists regular readers will have seen before; some of them will be new collections. (Or at least ones I’ve had knocking around privately for a while.)

Love and art are what will get us through, so keep your families close, and use the time to listen to some great music.

To start with, a run-down of playlists made to mark International Women’s Day between 2011 and 2018. I hope that you find some things you like.

2011: Music by Lockwood, Rehnqvist, Weir, Tian, Neuwirth and more

Original post about this list is here.

2012: Music by Chambers, Monk, Lim, Berberian, Bång and more

Original post about this list is here.

2013: Music by Lockwood, Weir, Mamlok, Jugend, Hodkinson and more

Original post about this list is here.

2014: Music by Amacher, Spiegel, Canat de Chizy, Z, Fullman and more

Original post about this list is here.

2015: Music by Payne, Rylan, Mundry, Polli, Westerkamp and more

Original post about this list is here.

2016: No list for this year. (Sorry.)

2017: Music by Oliveros, Z, Ali-Zadeh, Walshe, León and more

Original post about this list is here.

2018: Music by Iannotta, Pritchard, Joyce, Norman, Gísladóttir and more

Original post about this list is here.

Sparrows in the hedge

The most striking things I heard today were the sparrows. Most of them live in the hedge at the end of our garden, where it backs onto the railway, but there are some under the eaves where our house joins our neighbours’. Last year there were two broods born in the hedge, and this year around fifteen birds are flitting above, or dotting the hedge’s new, highest shoots like pricks on manuscript paper.

We’re south of the river here, so these aren’t the cockney sparrows of folk sayings. These are more like midweek teenagers, throwing chips by the bus stop and teasing each other to try their luck in the off license. They hang out in gangs, drawn together by nothing more than accidents of birth. A robin has tried to make his territory here – on the fat balls, the greedy bugger – and I can’t always tell who has the upper hand, he or they.

When I went out mid-morning today I was hit by a wall of noise. Every sparrow, chirping at once. Not the usual rising and falling, filigree counterpoint of spring birdsong, but a sheet of sound, rectangular and opaque. It would all stop at once, then start again. In between they span around the air just above the garden, sounds like shards. There’s something about the spatialisation of birdsong, how it draws your mind out of your skull and stretches it across the sky. We’re used to placing sounds or sound-making objects within our field of vision: when a noise startles us we immediately turn to where it is. Sounds behind us or to the side act very differently. Set up a noise, like boiling a kettle, then turn your back on it and feel the hairs rise. It speaks to a primal need to be connected, sonically, to space in some way – the need of a hunter and a prey. And it seems to do us good to use those skills and to touch those feelings from time to time.

One last thing: a starling, stood in the gutter, squawking like a parakeet.