Music Since 1960: Pärt: Cantus In memoriam Benjamin Britten

Index here.

Yikes – I definitely remember at some point deciding that I was going to steer clear of too-familiar choices here, and look what's come up, one of the most well-known slabs of modern classical soundtrack music there is. This piece really is up there with the second movement of Górecki's Symphony of Sorrowful Songs as a short-cut route to post-religious grief, isn't it?

Well, of course it is, but I like to cling to the idea that it's also a bit better than that as well.

Pärt is one of those composers who everyone pretty much 'got' in the early 90s, swept up by the dread 'holy minimalism' banner that someone must have thought was a compliment once. Terrible term as it is, if it applies to any of the three composers it's most commonly pinned to – the other two being Górecki and Tavener – it's easy to concede a fair cop in Pärt's case. His music since 1976 has been defined by a number of minimalist-like strategies for composing large amounts of music with small means. With the right compositional procedure, six bars of material and a Latin copy of the Gospel of St John you can pretty much recreate his hour-long Passio in your own home. Sounds like minimalism to me; and it doesn't take much reading of his workslist to spot that this is a man whose faith is extremely important to him.

Except that there is much more to Pärt than the 'holy minimalism' tag will allow. As well as being a deeply spiritual man, it is worth remembering that this is the composer who first introduced – in defiance of Soviet doctrine – 12-tone composition into Estonia in 1960 with the orchestral piece Nekrolog; rather than the monk-like character of his popular portrayal, in the studio he is known to challenge those around him to press-up contests. And his music is as frequently secular as sacred.

Cantus is perhaps the most minimal, most process-based of all his works, yet in defiance of the 'holy minimalism' tag, it is also one of his secular ones, being a lament for a fellow composer. To quote the composer himself in the sleevenotes to ECM 1275 817 764-2:

Why did the date of Benjamin Britten's death – December 4, 1976 – touch such a chord in me? During this time I was obviously at the point where I could recognize the magnitude of such a loss. Inexplicable feelings of guilt, more than that even, arose in me. I had just discovered Britten for myself. Just before his death I began to appreciate the unusual purity of his music – I had had the impression of the same kind of purity in the ballads of Guillaume de Machaut. And besides, for a long time I had wanted to meet Britten personally – and now it would not come to that.

The other aspect to Pärt's work that is often overlooked is the awareness within his music of the rest of the musical world. This is not something that, for example, might be claimed for much Tavener's music, which for many years found its only sustenance in Greek Orthodox chant. Once again, the popular perception of Pärt as a solitary composer writing sacred chants to the exclusion of the external, secular world doesn't fit. Witness, for a start, the numerous quotations – Bach in particular, but also Tchaikovsky and others – in his music. It is to this side of Pärt's nature that Cantus belongs.

Lamenting his personal grief at the loss of a lately discovered and greatly respected colleague, Pärt chose to distill this grief – "just before his death I began to appreciate the unusual purity of his music" – into the purest music he could find capable of sustaining the weight of serious expression: an A minor scale, an A minor arpeggio and a tolling bell. Western music has few more funereal materials than these. (Except, perhaps, C minor…) If you want to see how the piece is put together, Paul Hillier's excellent book on the composer is highly recommended, but what you need to know is obvious enough from a first listen: the descending scale is layered several times across the whole string orchestra, in different tempi, so that the whole effect is of one long drag down the scale, eventually coming to rest on a great fat waft of A minor. Glenn Branca has done similar things in his later symphonies, replacing guitars for strings.

What I admire most about the work is the fact that it is such a beautifully pure exposition of material. The whole is simply one sound, one mechanism for 5 minutes, but the mechanism unwinds itself in an infinitely subtle and variable way. Rather than any of Tavener's works, or even Górecki's, Cantus deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Ligeti's Lontano and Lux aeterna. Yet where Ligeti couldn't resist the lure of Mitteleuropan developmental forms – and thus built signposts and points of tension and release into even his most amorphous forms – Pärt leans back and rides the sound out. Surfing on sound waves. By the end, as the whole structure breaks over you, you can't help taking a very physical, secular pleasure in the whole thing; Pärt's masterstroke, and perhaps a key to the man, is to leave the final leaden circles of the funeral bell hanging in the air as you open your eyes again.

Music Since 1960: Cage: Apartment House 1776

Index here.

Unashamedly reworking my own material, but here's a sort of example of what I mean by applicability.

Apartment House 1776 is one of Cage's 'musicircus'-style works, in that it involves small groups of musicians playing independently against one another, within the confines of a larger scheme. In this work it is to be performed within the confines of a single stage, and there is a fully written-out score, rather than loose instructions. The one performance I have seen of the work required about a dozen groups of 1-4 instruments dotted around the stage, and in addition various recorded folksongs were played over the concert hall's PA.

As its title suggests, Apartment House 1776 was composed to mark the bicentennial of the American Declaration of Independence in 1976. It's actually one of several works Cage was commissioned to write for the occasion, and at least one other has an overtly political aspect. Lecture on the Weather features 12 American men who had become Canadian citizens (and as a result avoided the draft) to read extracts from the work of transcendentalist poet Henry David Thoreau. In the case of Apartment House 1776, the political edge comes through the choice of music materials Cage employs, and the nature of musicircus itself. It's also one of a long line of works in what might be called the 'American experimental tradition' to make extensive use of ready-made, explicitly American materials, a habit that goes back to Ives. In the mix of music played amongst the musicians on stage are 44 early American choral pieces, which Cage has distorted through chance operations, removing some notes and extending others. In doing this, Cage says, he retained something of their 18th-century flavour, but without the sacred reference. These are incorporated within a gumbo of 18th-century melodies, civil war drumming and Moravian church music. Over the PA system were played recordings of Protestant, Sephardic, Native American and African American songs. It doesn't take much thought to realise that you are being presented with a musical cross-section of American history and society.

In his treatment of this music, however, Cage achieves something quite remarkable. As the different musical elements are layered on top and alongside one another, in the fashion of the big Musicircus, each element in its turn is both elevated and equalised. Since each element (aside from the important exception of the distorted hymns) is played straight, and given dignity and presence within the sound, at one time or another (times selected, naturally, through chance operations and not the taste of the individual), there is a curious effect of privileging everything at once. The piece becomes a joyous, eloquent celebration of the American ideal put to paper in 1776. But it is not, certainly, a piece about America in 1776, or even 1976. But elements that grow from the music are applicable today – to America, and the world. It sounded to me at the time a much better, more honest, more accurate, more celebratory collage than Stockhausen's Hymnen, simply by virtue of, quite clearly, aurally obliterating the ego of the composer – and very often of the players too. The questions of responsibility, of the intersections between place, time, music and history were much more powerful – and difficult, and lasting – than other similar works in which the composer's ego is allowed to intrude and to influence.

Cage's method has an equalising effect – this was at the core of much of his philosophy – but it is a mistake that the individual elements are brought down to the same level. Cage's genius – and why, in fact, the ego of the composer (wherever that might be) is still crucial to his music – is to elevate these elements above everything else. All sounds may be created equal, but the ones Cage asks you to play are more equal than others. That is something to think about.

Music Since 1960: Rzewski: The People United Will Never be Defeated

Forty years of modern composition and what this music means to me.

Index here.

Thema: With Determination I’ll admit it. This has been a tricky piece for me to tackle. It made the list because I needed something for 1975 and this seemed right at the time. Truth be told, I’ve hardly (knowingly, although it’s not uncommon to hear snippets here and there) listened to it since I was an undergraduate, so what follows is something of a reorganised, hyperlinked investigation of my own, a collection of things on and around Rzewski and his piece, redistributed to mirror the form of the piece itself. Hope it’s useful.

Variation 1: Weaving; Delicate But Firm
Variation 2: With Firmness
Variation 3: Slightly Slower, With Expressive Nuances
Variation 4: Marcato
Variation 5: Dreamlike, Frozen
Variation 6: Same Tempo As Beginning
Variation 7: Tempo (Lightly, Impatiently)
Variation 8: With Agility; Not Too Much Pedal; Crisp
Variation 9: Evenly
Variation 10: Comodo, Recklessly
Variation 11: Tempo I. Like Fragments Of An Absent Melody – In Strict Time
Variation 12
Variation 13: Tempo = 72
Variation 14: A Bit Faster, Optimistically
Variation 15: Flexible, Like An Improvisation
Variation 16: Same Tempo As Preceding, With Fuctuations; Much Pedal
Variation 17: LH Strictly – RH Freely, Roughly As In Space
Variation 18
Variation 19: With Energy
Variation 20: Crisp, Precise
Variation 21: Relentless, Uncompromising
Variation 22
Variation 23: As Fast As Possible With Some Rubato
Variation 24
Variation 25: With Tempo Fluctuations
Variation 26: In A Militant Manner
Variation 27: Tenderly, And With A Hopeful Expression
Variation 28
Variation 29
Variation 30
Variation 31
Variation 32
Variation 33
Variation 34
Variation 35
Variation 36
Cadenza (Optional Improvisation)
Thema: Tempo I So there you go. 36 variations, 36 links, plus one recommended recording. Enjoy exploring!

Music since 1960: Grisey: Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil

Forty years of modern composition and what this music means to me

Index here.

Astute readers will know that this is a work that completely blew me away when I first heard it in January February 1999. I was reading some Music and Letters reviews from the early 1970s on Monday, and one critic – from memory it may have been Henry Raynor – suggested that most of us, if we’re lucky, see about a dozen concerts that stay with us through our lives. The first performance of Quatre chants, alongside the latest incarnation of Boulez’s Sur incises and a Wolfgang Rihm work I no longer remember the name of, was one of my dozen, no question. Since then, I’ve attempted sporadically to find a recording to little success (although I’ve not tried recently, so one may be out there now – I’m in Paris next month, so I’ll have a nose round the Pompidou music shop. Update: Charlie Quidnunc points out that a recording is available at that obscure emporium, Amazon. Thanks!). The work crystallised for me a number of ideas about music that are important in how I see and hear things 6 years later. One of the most memorable elements of that performance was the great rack of gongs stretched across the back of the stage – a 15-note gong ‘keyboard’ in fact. Most of the piece is extremely quiet, and at several points the percussionist in charge of this giant metallophone has to play rapid, pianissimo, arpeggios across the full range of the gongs spread in front of him. The precise gymnastics of this, to create an effect that was barely audible, was hugely impressive, and from that point I was convinced of the importance of the visual and the physical aspects to so much successful music.

For the re-presenting of the work, with the original forces of London Sinfonietta, George Benjamin and Valadine Anderson singing the soprano part, at Monday’s concert, the linear gong arrangement that I remembered had been reconsidered as a three-sided cage for the player. Actually, I thought this worked just as well – you just had to spin, rather than leap, to hit all the notes. As for everything else, it stood up well against the enhancing effects of memory, and just confirmed for me that this really is one of the most important concert works of the last decade. It’s certainly the most shattering I know of – I wasn’t the only member of the audience left absolutely shell-shocked by the end, and Benjamin, great musician that he is, gave us a full 15 seconds of silence before anyone even dared applaud.

The four sections of the work (its title roughly translates as ‘four songs for the crossing of the threshold’) deal with the deaths of the angel, civilisation, the voice and humanity respectively, and set texts from Guez-Ricord, The Hours of Night, fragments from an archaeological catalogue of the Egyptian Sarcophagi of the Middle Empire, two lines by the 6th-century Greek poetess Erinna, and an extract from the Epic of Gilgamesh. It’s a great set of texts – the second movement is just a litany of entries in the archaeological catalogue “811 and 812: (almost entirely disappeared) / 814: ‘Now that you rest for eternity … ‘ / 809: (destroyed) / 868 and 869: (almost entirely destroyed) …” Find me a more unintentionally moving text than that. These are set to an almost post-minimal series of three-note patterns – very slow – played with microtonal colourings throughout the ensemble. For Grisey, whose works to this point were generally glittering, intricate collisions of timbre and rhythm, it is, as Benjamin said on the night, a very courageous work. This movement comprises almost nothing, yet it is one of the most immediate emotional cores of the work.

The first song, The Death of the Angel, is hardly less extraordinary. The four songs are separated by interludes, the hiss of a bass drum skin being brushed in large circles, a noise that grows from the ambient sounds of auditorium air conditioning and audience breathing. This is how the work opens too, and the sound becomes the slow whoosh of unpitched air through wind and brass. From this impulse Grisey constructs an intricate web of note patterns, eternally descending. Aside from the singer, the noise level never rises above the barely audible. Adding an additional layer of effect, every player seems to have multiple instruments, mutes and other paraphernalia to deal with. These have to be changed on an almost constant basis. The stage never stops fidgeting (part of me thinks that all this written-in tinkering must be a wind player’s dream). With the sound level so low, and each performer in the small ensemble very exposed, the tension of changing, from say, one sax to the next to the next every few bars is palpable. The visual and aural effect is as delicate and intricate as unpicking a spider’s web.

The tension is maintained at this borderline-unbearable pitch – it’s like working with your fingers at something very small and very precise: after a certain time you have to make a large movement just to clear your head. The beginning of the fourth song sounds as though it might be this large movement: the bass drum interlude that has punctuated the spaces between each song so far returns for a last time, and grows into a fast percussive tattoo of repeated notes, shared between the three percussionists. But what looks like the release of tension that has been expected for the last half an hour never fully materialises; the drum sounds remain so neutral, so flatly percussive and regular, that instead of being released, our tensions are just sent on a different trajectory. What we really want, after all these hints at sound, is a rich noise, something to ease our hyper-sensitised ears into – the chorale from Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Winds, or Messiaen’s L’Ascension; even a nice chord on the vibraphone would do. But dry drum patterns – word-painting the lines from The Epic of Gilgamesh “For six days and seven nights / Squalls, Pelting rains / Hurricanes and Flood / Continued to ravage the earth” – aren’t making anyone feel comfortable. Finally, “When the seventh day arrived”, the sea is calmed “into stillness”.

I looked about:
Silence reigned!
All mankind had been
Returned to clay;
And the flat liquid
Resembled a terrace.

Some relief is offered – again it feels like true relief at first – by a chiming two-part line in microtonal (just intonation?) violin and cello accompanying these words. They are the first real pitches in several minutes, and they resemble a shaft of light, even if the way out remains obscured. Only at the very last does the music finally allow the scent of fresh air “I opened a window / And daylight fell on my cheek … ” Grisey described this final lullaby as “Music for the dawn of a humanity finally disencumbered of the nightmare,” although he himself cautiously added “I dare hope that this lullaby will not be among those we shall sing tomorrow to the first human clones as we perforce reveal to them the indefensible genetic and psychological violence committed against them by a humanity desperately seeking new taboos upon which to ground itself.” A mighty work both of, and for our times, then.

Music since 1960: Kilar: Krzesany

Forty years of modern composition and what this music means to me.

Index here.

No lengthy analysis for this one. Nor is much demanded. Kilar is now best known in his later career as composer-of-choice for directors such as Roman Polanski – you can hear his work on The Ninth Gate and The Pianist, for example – but he broke through in the 60s with the wave of Polish composers that included Penderecki and Górecki. He was about as heavily promoted by the Polish state publishing house, PWM, as any of his colleague at the time, but like them his music was not well received in the UK. One piece in particular – Riff 62 – crops up on a number of occasions in concert reviews through the early 60s (it's a rare piece of its type in getting more than one mention at least), to general bemusement. Like much of Kilar’s work of the time, it's a pretty raw slab of sonorism, and the general opinion was that it works well enough, but you wouldn't want to hear it a second time.

Although a little later, Krzesany falls into a similar sonic bracket, but, typically, I'd love to hear it again. I first discovered the work on a rare foray into my University's principal orchestra. My break came because Krzesany requires four oboists (it's quadruple wind all round). And three of those ahead of me in the queue couldn’t make it. Yes, I was seventh choice oboist as a student. Which I suppose was fair enough given that I hardly practised.

Anyway, since the concert, I don't think I've heard Krzesany again. It's extremely immediate in its musical language – not easy on the ear as such, but there’s not much subtlety in Kilar's musical language. Most of the fourth oboe part involved fortissimo runs from the highest note of the instrument to the lowest, and there was a long ffff passage of repeating top As – not the easiest note to hammer out at fortissi-issi-issi-mo. What really sticks in the mind though – and this is what made the piece such a riotous work for student orchestra – is the closing section. By this stage in his career, Kilar – similarly to Górecki – had discovered the music of the góral people of the Tatra mountains in the south of Poland; in fact 'Krzesany' is a 'sparking' or fire-leaping dance of the region. For the work's coda, then, Kilar has all the strings grinding out, barrel-organ style, a fast Tatra melody, over and over and over. On top of this, the remaining members of the (large) orchestra enter, section by section, in completely free improvisation. Kilar includes some detailed instructions on the sort of improvisation he's after, but the summarised version is that we should all be playing everything, all of the time. Whether he meant this to include the theme from 'The Muppets' didn't get in the way of one or two of the brass section during rehearsals. In the closing bars, as the Tatra melody accelerates to a frenzy and the rest of the orchestra are threatening to blow the roof off the auditorium, the brass stand and belt out a whopping C major chord over the top. As a musical gesture it's about as subtle as Pantera, but by 'eck it's bloody good fun.

Krzesany isn't exactly an obscure piece on recording as it happens, so follow me in grabbing a copy; then throw it on the stereo, loud.

Music since 1960: Reich: Six Pianos

Forty years of modern composition and what this music means to me

Index here.

When my mum first heard Six Pianos we were driving back from Newcastle, where I'd just bought the piece on CD (this recording, which I wholeheartedly recommend). Mum was driving, and in the end the relentless rhythms were grating on her nerves so badly that we had to turn them off.

When I first heard Six Pianos a few years earlier (in its arrangement for six marimbas) it was a formative teenage musical experience. I can't remember the first piece of minimalism I'd really heard – this may have been it – but this was certainly the first piece I'd seen live, and formed in me a belief to which I still adhere: minimalism (particularly of the Steve Reich/Phil Glass variety) is music for live performance. At their best, seen up close, Reich's interlocking patterns create their own visual magic. You can't follow the movement of all twelve hands on the keyboards, but whichever you look at seems to be performing some sleight of hand trick; the rhythms you hear never seem to lock with the rhythms you're seeing. The hand strikes the keys, there's a sound,


The hand lifts, there's a sound.


Unlike large orchestral, non-repetitive orchestral works, with Reich's music you feel that you can follow how each individual action of the performers translates into the notes you hear; yet this sense only leaves you more open to fooling. You can't follow everything, so what you get is always more than you see.

And then there's the sound. My Six Marimbas epiphany was at the Albert Hall, with the stage positioned ideally in the centre so that the resonance shot straight up and swirled around the auditorium, like a wall-of-death biker. It was the first time I'd really heard all the auditory tricks to be found in deep, sustained resonance – strings and choirs drifted down, curtain-like from the gallery, the walls hummed.

Since then, I've preferred my minimalism in granite slabs like Six Pianos. On the same CD as linked above, Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ just about fits the bill (although in a much more tintinnabulate fashion), but Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards marks the point at which Reich seems to lose some faith in the power of those sculpted blocks, domesticating them with semi-functional harmony, traditional forms, pseudo-melodies, stratified orchestration and so on. With the sustained wind notes of Variations – by which the visual performative act is subordinated to the sound it makes – the edgy unpredictability of something like Six Pianos is lost (simply put: wind playing doesn't look as good as percussion, or even strings).

The other edgy thing about Six Pianos places it firmly in the American experimental tradition, something that is some way behind Reich by the time he writes Variations. For a couple of years my dad, in semi-retirement, worked at the local music shop (my parents' village is home to England's largest music shop north of Leeds) helping restore pianos. He once told me about the complexities of tuning pianos, and why it is so hard to tune one, damn near impossible to tune two to each other, and actually impossible to tune three or more. I don't know if it qualifies as an example of chaos theory, but the upshot is that even small variations in the wood and metal used in piano construction can affect the way in which it is tuned. Since no piano, being equally tempered, can be tuned absolutely, the material variations affect the tuning compromises that are made across the entire keyboard. Dad could explain this much better than I, but the result for Reich's piece is that even though the notes are on the surface composed to give the impression of one single super-piano rather than six individual instruments, a monochrome wall of sound, the end result is in actual fact completely unpredictable. Reich's fully-notated, metronomically precise work is in fact deeply reliant on chance, on an awareness of the physical limitations of music-making, and the points where pressure can be applied. Each piano has its own slightly different tuning, and when six are played together, there is no mistaking the six different instruments for one; it's not that difficult to aurally pick out individual voices within a Six Pianos performance (even if the appearance can momentarily deceive). It would of course be simple to realise Six Pianos through MIDI, but even with the best synthesised piano available there could never be any confusion over which version was acoustic, which digital. The MIDI version would have its own qualities, for sure, but it could never glisten with the clashing of all those ever-so-slightly off-key upper partials; there would be no breath in the sound. We are back to the essential drive for live performance that is built into Reich's music.

In this respect Six Pianos shares something with the work of Brian Ferneyhough – an awareness of the potency of live performance. The relationship between score, performer and sound is unique, and central, to classical music, yet not all composers (and fewer performers themselves) are willing to explore its ramifications. There is a danger in thinking that since there is such a thing as a good or a bad performance, there must, somewhere, be a Platonic Form of that work. The problem is that when that Form is discovered, it will render all other performances useless. Thankfully music does not exist in such a sterilised world; it is rather in the deliberate non-congruence of six pianists playing six pianos, and in this, Reich's work has an important lesson for all musicians.

Music since 1960: Górecki: Symphony no.2

Forty years of modern composition and what this music means to me.

Index here.

No, that’s not a typo in the title. Everyone knows the 3rd Symphony. By some distance it’s the most popular piece of classical composition of the last 50 years. It’s a magnificent work, from the first movement, a gigantic canonic pyramid ascending into prayer, to the last, a prolonged study on the opening chords of Chopin’s Mazurka, op.17 no.4. But it’s not the one I want to talk about.

There are at least two important aspects to Górecki’s music that may be appreciated on first hearing any of his works. The first, and the one for which he has become internationally popular, is a lush, meditative melancholy, the sort of thing that permeates throughout the 3rd Symphony and many of his later works such as Amen, Totus tuus and so on. The second is a radical cut-and-paste approach to form. There are elements of this in the 3rd Symphony, in which huge homogeneous blocks of material are simply pressed up against one another, but in that work the edges have mostly been smoothed out so that one section seems to flow more or less naturally into the next. In the 2nd Symphony there are no smooth edges; it’s built like Stonehenge.

The 3rd Symphony is a ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’, and is thematically unified by three sung laments, from a mother to her son (a Silesian folksong), from a daughter to her mother (from graffiti scratched on the wall of Gestapo torture chamber in Podhale), and from Mary to Jesus (from the Holy Cross Lament). Thus the Second World War, Polish folksong and Catholicism are brought together in a long maternal lament that references elements of Polish folk and art music. The 2nd Symphony, ‘Copernican’, takes up a different set of themes, but still with a distinct Polish edge to them. This time, in writing a work to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the birth of Poland’s greatest astronomer, Górecki composed an apocalyptic, fatalistic, contemplative solar system, in which giant slabs of sound orbit one another like planets.

The opening is massive. If these are the planets (and I’m not suggesting that there’s any such simplistic programme to the piece) this is Mars. The melody is essentially a chant, based on just four notes. However, it is harmonised in whole-tone cluster chords spanning a full six octaves. These are played at shocking volume and ricochet between three layers of crashing drums. Hardcore, Mars is going to war.

A few minutes in and we’re in Neptune’s neighbourhood. The thunder of the opening is replaced by softer chords in strings and wind. These orbit slowly around one another, some are tightly dissonant, others luminously tonal. Górecki shows here his mastery of harmony as texture rather than function; the chords are not heard as an accompaniment to any melody, but are a palette of rotating colours.

The first movement continues in a similar vein; the thunderclaps return, then there is a third slab of new material, for brass instruments and wind and employing a great deal of the structured aleatory pioneered by Lutoslawski. The thunder-chant returns a last time, with the addition of a choir singing extracts from the Psalms – ‘God, who made the heaven and the earth’, etc. There is no doubt that if the opening movement represents the mechanism of God and the planets, this mechanism is violent, awesome in its power.

The second of the two movements contemplates the effects of Copernicus’ discovery that man, revolving around the sun, was no longer the centre of the universe. For late Medieval thought this was a devastating idea that required complete revisions to the prevailing concepts of humanity. Two soloists, baritone and soprano, illuminate the musical space in a manner that anticipates the 3rd Symphony. In that piece, the mother’s song of the first movement ‘Where has he gone, my dear young son’ encapsulates the act of prayer as sorrow, mourning, hope, faith, peace and meditation. A similarly complex mixture of emotions are to be found in Górecki’s settings in the 2nd Symphony as the two soloists struggle to comprehend God’s work as so awesomely revealed in the first movement. Even though the harmonic background to the baritone’s solo is richly tonal in comparison to the crashing dissonance of the first movement, it is unrelenting in its stasis, always threatening to overwhelm. It is a particular trick of Górecki’s to turn chords that elsewhere would shine radiantly into forces of real menace. The effect is even more marked for those who are familiar with the arias of the 3rd Symphony, in which the harmony provides close emotional support to the voice – as the melody rises to points of climax, so does the harmony. Here, melody and harmony resist one another. A lamenting mother does not inspire conflicting emotions; but a revolution in man’s relationship to God and the universe such as Copernicus instigated surely does.

In the end, Górecki uses Copernicus’ own words to resolve the conflicts that his work has embodied. The words “What indeed is more beautiful than heaven, which of course contains all things of beauty” gloriously sidesteps the issue of who or what is at the centre of that universe, bidding us instead to contemplate the universe as it is, in all its majesty. For these words, Górecki introduces a slow chorale based on an anonymous 15th-century vocal fragment. I cannot say why, but his setting sounds as though it should be used in every film about space and the planets ever made (although to my knowledge it never has). In order to reinforce this urge to contemplate the beauty of the heavens above us, Górecki once more writes music to invoke the universe. This time the dissonant, violent forces of the opening movement have resolved themselves into immense chords, themselves a giant, resolving cadence. At around five minutes this is probably the longest cadence in musical history; each chord grows from the bass upwards, the only changes being the introduction of new instrumental layers – strings, then wind, then brass add a glittering sheen. Plato’s music of the spheres spreads before us in a wave of harmonic resonance. What indeed is more beautiful than heaven?

Music since 1960: Feldman: Rothko Chapel

Forty years of modern composition and what this music means to me

Index here.

A timpani roll. Another, higher. This is a whole sequence of timp rolls – almost a motif. Now a viola. Timpani and viola; a crazy combination, but it might just work. That was almost the motif again – the viola has played three notes in similar pattern, up, down. The melody grows broader, I’m reminded of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending.

A chord on the celeste.

Some rolls on temple blocks. The viola keeps exploring a territory of wide intervals, like birdsong in canyons.

That celeste chord again. At least, I think it’s the same.

Now a choir, and those timp rolls return in the background. Extracts from a chant or chorale that’s in no hymn book from this planet.

More viola, and another celeste chord; and three deep celeste notes. Seven chords from the choir, each covering a wider harmonic range; then two chord changes – these ones are new.

To my ears Morton Feldman is one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. More than most recent composers, but similarly to Bach, his artistic vision was complete and unified, but infinitely varied. The opening minutes (that’s the first five I’ve described there) are extremely fragmentary – musical events occur, in unpredictable sequence. Everything sounds surprising, everything sounds almost like something we’ve had before.

Celeste chord, viola note. Together. Once without celeste. Together. And again, but the chord and note are different. Seven more times, seemingly the same, but never quite where you expect them in the bar. Were they the same? Can I trust what I’m hearing, what I’m remembering?

Of the whole piece, these three minutes are perhaps most typical. Feldman often talked of ‘crippled symmetries’ – one piece even has this title – in which repetitions, symmetries, are ‘crippled’ through subtle and continual change. This is not the phase-like changes of Reich’s or Glass’s patterns in which continual process evolves one musical idea into another. Feldman’s changes are wilful, enforced one by one, to no discernible sequence, and certainly no predictable process. If Reich plays a God who creates beauty in system and order, Feldman’s God creates it in weakness and deformity. His is the God of Kafka and Beckett: “Slept, woke, slept, woke, miserable life.”

A great swell from choir and timpani. At its climax is an impassioned viola flourish, augmented by tubular bells. A sound of grief, of pain.

And again.

But not a third time. Such overt emotion is unusual in Feldman – for a moment he’s almost Richard Strauss – but he turns from it very swiftly.

Was that really pain, then? Can I believe what I felt when I heard it? A few minutes later, there is another tremendous swell from the choir, but this time there is no strident outburst from the viola to dissipate its energy. It hangs heavy in the air. The workings of the music in time, and its interaction with memory create expectations about how it might develop, how repetitions might unfold themselves. But Feldman undercuts these expectations at every turn so that the music both invites us to anticipate its future development, and also to look back to revise our impressions of what we thought earlier moments implied. Time turns to amber.

Another surprise. The music which, up to now, has lilted or hobbled along at a fair pace, aided by the continual introduction of new material, has drawn to an almost complete stop. A single chord is sustained by the choir, with only tubular bell tones and the breaths of the singers as punctuation. This goes on for more three minutes.


Surely this is the gesture of a work reaching its close?

Four pizzicato viola notes. Unexpected.

A soprano, singing another wide-intervalled melody. This we have heard before, amidst the fallout from the choral climaxes. Now this solo voice seems to have taken up the role occupied by the viola in the first minutes of the work, occupying a great and empty musical space.

There are those timpani rolls again.

Almost – almost – this feels like a recapitulation, a return to the work’s opening material after an extended development, characterised by the three climactic crescendi, and the long sustained choir chord. But by now we no longer trust any repetition. The sense is that we have reached some sort of resolution of the various ideas of the piece, as the singer’s melody is more tonal, more familiar than the viola’s opening. And whilst the music is still fragmentary, each fragment does begin to sound like the last word on the matter, a series of closing chords.

Vibraphone. An ostinato? A simple four note pattern, literally repeating over and over? Pure symmetry? This is not the first sustained chord-like resonance of the piece, but it is the first to feel so warm and comfortable.

A viola melody. For once this is not in wide intervals. The melody fits perfectly with the tonal, four-square ostinato. The music sounds pastoral once more, but also like a lullaby.

There are some of those hushed chords from the choir.

The ostinato continues. The viola continues its folky melody.

Some final choral chords. The ostinato stops.


There is no more stunning passage in postwar composition than this. Rothko Chapel, for all its internal, hidden consistencies, is fragmentary and sounds at least partly improvised (it’s not); for it to suddenly introduce such a simple, almost childish idea as this vibraphone ostinato, and use it to underpin a melody of breathtaking beauty and naivety is extraordinary, and I don’t know of any moment like it in Feldman’s output. As I said, his was an artistic vision that seemed throughout his career remarkably consistent, even if his later works seem superficially far removed from his early graphical experiments. Feldman is reliably always different, but always the same. At this moment something different is happening.

The circumstances of the work’s commission are typically Feldman-like. The Rothko Chapel of the title is in Houston, TX, an ecumenical religious space decorated with Rothko paintings specially created for the space. Rothko and Feldman were part of the artistic group that included Cage, Pollock, Guston and many others; Feldman himself formed long and fruitful acquaintances with many painters of the time, and knew Rothko well. The piece was thus a personal endeavour – not unusually for him – and it incorporates a number of very personal musical elements. The soprano melody, for example, that dominates the third quarter of the piece Feldman wrote on the day of Stravinsky’s memorial service. The viola melody from the work’s ending he wrote as a teenager. Thus the tricks of musical memory and internal quotation are blown up; the final effect is so magical I hope never to understand it.

Music since 1960: Ferneyhough: Cassandra’s Dream Song

Forty years of modern composition and what this music means to me

Index here.

Brian Ferneyhough. One of those names that strikes fear into performers and audiences alike. Ferneyhough is the senior figure of a group of composers who are sometimes linked together under the name ‘New Complexity’. Other members of the group include Michael Finnissy, Richard Barrett, Chris Dench and James Dillon; it’s a loose group musically, but it is the notational complexity of their scores that has given rise to the name.

Here’s an example of some Ferneyhough (taken from the last page of this Italian article on ‘The Concept of Ornament in Music’). For what it’s worth, he’s probably the toughest of the new complexity group; Time and Motion Study II for solo cello is one of the most notation-heavy scores you’re ever likely to see, with the solo performer having to negotiate several simultaneous staves for cello and the effects pedals and electronics the instrument and the performer’s body are wired up to. I think they’re some of the most beautiful scores written, and although they are not, strictly speaking, graphic scores (everything in them accords exactly to the familiar rules of notation, even if this is pushed to its limit), there’s no doubt that the visual image is a crucial part of the musical effect. His music is, in many ways, about tension. OK, most music is about tension on one level, but Ferneyhough makes the creation and manipulation of extreme levels of tension central to so much of his work. Just think how tense a player must feel trying to navigate this stuff in live performance. It is music truly on the edge. Although his music owes a great deal to the serial procedures of Boulez and Stockhausen, and the 1950s avant garde they spearheaded, a lot of Ferneyhough’s earlier music, like Cassandra, struggled with articulating form in ways that the avant garde had failed to do. Much of this involves a sophisticated approach to time, but what Ferneyhough also brought out of the avant garde was a sense of theatre and musical drama. In turning the new performance challenges of avant garde music to his own ends, he returned the performer-score relationship to centre stage.

As a result, several of Ferneyhough’s earlier scores are for solo performers, and Cassandra belongs to this group. It is for solo flute – a favoured instrument in Ferneyhough’s output. I couldn’t find an image of the score online, but the extract from Unity Capsule linked above (also for flute) gives you an idea.

As with so many composers, I first became fascinated with Ferneyhough when I saw a page from one of his scores. He’s cropped up on a few occasions throughout my work, even though I’ve always been daunted by the note-to-note detail of his music, and the equally tough theoretical position the composer shrouds himself in. Cassandra was a work I analysed as a Masters student – to the initial anxiety of my tutor – but which I think I did OK on. Why did I choose this piece, when several easier examples were suggested to me? Again, because of those intoxicating scores. The draftsmanship is exquisite, and any analysis of Ferneyhough would have to follow suit; I was always a great (if cynical) believer in the value of presentation to the success of any analysis, and the chance to transcribe and pick over a work of Ferneyhough was too much to resist.

The results of that analysis are too meaningless to give any exposure to, but what I love about Ferneyhough is the tightrope he walks between ultra-modern control and postmodern freedom (hence that Steve Reich essay I’ve mentioned before). Large chunks of his music – particularly the solo works – sound like free improv, and yet (and crucially you know this) they’re highly organised, extremely precise and demanding scores. There’s a sense of theatre that Ferneyhough ekes out because the music is so difficult to play – the Time and Motion series of pieces were all about exploring the ‘efficiency’ of music. Is anything to be gained from expending huge amounts of compositional energy on writing this music, then making similarly huge demands on your performers, when the result could, arguably, have come from improvisation? Passionately Ferneyhough would argue yes, and so would I. With improv, you can always doubt the commitment of the players (the best players are deservedly respected, but you know what I mean – how can we be sure they’re not doing this half-arsed); with Ferneyhough, there’s no doubt about commitment. It’s all or nothing. Steven Schick, percussionist for the Bang On A Can Allstars has written of his six month odyssey to learn Ferneyhough’s Bone Alphabet; that’s how much commitment is required. It’s an original and fruitful take on composition, and one that draws so much more into the performance of a work than simple reproduction of a composer’s instructions; it’s hard to imagine future re-re-re-recordings of the same old lazy interpretations of Ferneyhough works, a fate that too much great music is burdened with today.

What of Cassandra’s Dream Song itself? Well, it’s an unusual work for Ferneyhough in that it employs an open, mobile form. The score is on two large sheets, each with a handful of short musical sections. Starting on sheet one, you alternate between the two sheets, a section at a time. The catch is that sheet one is to be played in order, sections 1-6, sheet two in any order. It’s a bit like that disrupted narrative effect that I mentioned with reference to Lutoslawski in an earlier post. Within the extremely tight constrictions of the notation and the density of his musical argument, Ferneyhough thus introduces an element of freedom – both choice for the performer, but also in subverting the musical structure he has set in motion.

All of this aside, what I enjoy most about Cassandra are the surprises it deals out. In the opening section, a sphincter-tight study on the note A suddenly and briefly transforms into an F major arpeggio. For a second, it almost sounds like Jesus Christ Superstar, albeit played on ‘quasi-pizzicato’ percussive tongue clicks. Then there are the moments of pure lyricism – as the piece progresses, the melodic space opens, and flirts with not-quite tonality, but at least a pitch-centred organisation. By the time we reach section 5, the grace note runs and flurries are almost Debussy-like.

Ferneyhough is a greatly misunderstood, often feared, composer. I think he’d be horrified were he to gain any widespread acceptance, but that’s not really the point of this post. The point is to suggest that once we make the leap past the superficially daunting aspects of contemporary music, there is simple, sensuous, human pleasure to be found on the other side. Cassandra’s Dream Song is, in spite of its robust compositional method, music of fragile beauty. This relationship between strength and fragility goes to the heart of the work and is what makes it so successful.

Music since 1960: Berio: Sinfonia

Forty years of modern composition and what this music means to me.

Index here.

Some of the works on this list are a little more off the beaten track than others. Berio's Sinfonia is not, however, one of these. It is that rare thing – a genuine, indisputable postwar masterwork. I quite accept that many people might find early Penderecki too abrasive, Cage too disorientating, or Reich too featureless; but if you can listen to the whole of Sinfonia (recommended recording, and .ram sound samples, here) and not fall in love at least once, then you might wish to take a deep and long look into your soul.

The third movement is the famous one, the notorious one, the number one hit. But there are four other movements here, and they're not just filler. In fact, the whole work is a tightly woven web of allusion and self-reference – which explodes in the central movement's loosely hurled-together galaxy of quotation. The first movement opens with the 8 singers (originally the Swingle Singers) to the very forefront. Beginning with minimal instrumental support they begin to piece together fragments taken from Claude Lévi-Strauss's The Raw and the Cooked. In relating these tales, concerning fire, water and rivers and drawn from Brazilian mythology, the singers' music of swelling chords and metronomic pulses leaches into the orchestra, causing it to swell into greater and greater activity, until the voices are overwhelmed and all but disappear. The piano takes over the role of directing the music's direction, earning a solo at the end of the movement, only to be brought to a halt itself; the movement ends as it begins with the same sustained vocal chord.

Now, instead of instigating the momentum that swamped it the first time around, this chord cadences naturally into the second movement, a lament for Martin Luther King. This was also published as a separate work, O King. The singers change ring on the syllables of King's name with bell-like tones – supported closely by the orchestra. No actual bells are used though, and the effect is much sharper, more resistant, than simple funeral chimes. One can hear ethereal ascents in some of the string glissandi, or prayer in the softer incantations of King's name, but the sharp accents from horns, piano, clarinet and vibraphone never allow this music to subside into peaceful meditation (although it remains glisteningly beautiful), it forces attention. In the last minute of the movement, the steady – if lopsided – pulse of the music quickly frays and all disintegrates into another hushed vocal cluster as for the first time 'Martin Luther King' is heard in full statement.

The stories of Lévi-Strauss's study often concern the trials and ultimate deaths of heroic figures, and the relationship between the texts of the first and second movements seems clear, in addition to the fairly common musical ground they occupy. Within seconds this picture of coherency is destroyed. An ascending trumpet blast, some muttering voices, and a ghostly waltz emerging from the strings throws open the door to Stephen King territory. The waltz is taken from Mahler's 'Resurrection' Symphony, and in greater or lesser form runs throughout the entire Berio movement. The unease is sustained throughout by a running text from Beckett's The Unnamable, the only other reliable constant from beginning to end. Overlaid are dozens of quotations from Beethoven to Stravinsky, as well as many written texts. It is in one sense a composed-out version of Cage's works for multiple radios, a melée of sound, one of the earliest and greatest musical expressions of fractured postmodernity. But while it continually threatens to blow itself apart from sheer exuberance, it is also a masterclass in tugging heartstrings. If it isn't already, the third movement of Sinfonia should be on every young film composer's primary listening list. For all its multilayering, meta-music structure, the movement is also a carefully considered emotional tug. My old composition teacher, who was never a man to really get swept away in musical sentimentality, loved to declare that the moment 8 or so minutes in with one singer yelling 'Can't stop the wars …' over an orchestral swell probably lifted from Strauss always brought a tear to his eye. For me, there's a soprano swoop upwards into the stratosphere at about 5 minutes, with a lilting brass chorale, that always does it for me. The whole 12 minutes are indisputable proof of the powerful identity a few musical notes can retain in the midst of all chaos, and the considerable emotion such phrases can evoke. Any film composer worth the bucks can piece together chunks of pseudo-Strauss, sub-Wagner, neo-Górecki to support a film's emotional narrative; what Sinfonia demonstrates is the surprising complexity and consistency such patchworks can sustain.

The fourth movement returns us, mirror-like to the soundworld of 'O King', transforming Mahler's text 'O Röschen rot' into 'Rose de sang', which itself echoes the 'eau de sang' mentioned in the text of the first movement. Where the third movement bulged, and threatened to burst out of the closely self-referential world of the opening two movements, the fourth brings the circle around once more, reconsidering the third movement as an elaborate keystone and not the door into foreign lands.

Continuing the arch-structure, the fifth movement continues where the first left off, with the piano apparently continuing its aborted solo. The text once again is from Lévi-Strauss, but is even more fragmented than before, although the music is considerably more energised and self-assured. Once again though, at the very end all activity collapses into a hushed resonance, and the complete work ends in precisely the same way as its first movement. Meta-music has become meta-meta-music.

There are books to be written on Sinfonia – in fact, here's one by the excellent David Osmond-Smith. It's a stunning, beautiful, important piece of music. If, if, I were to recommend just one piece of late 20th-century music to someone who had heard none before, this would be it. It has moments that are achingly gorgeous, but not for a moment does it hide behind a veneer of saccharine religiosity, or pop-pandering as so many works can be accused of. It never pulls its punches, it's a complex, challenging piece, but it rewards every single second that you listen. This is the real deal.