Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: music (page 3 of 13)

Iannis Xenakis

It closes in just a couple days, but I loved the Xenakis Exhibit at the Drawing Center. Being able to look at the scores and plans while listening to the relevant pieces (on complimentary iPod!) was revelatory for me, particularly the extended coverage of Xenakis’s seminal Metastasis. (A nice little primer on the early stuff. I was also unaware of his absolute opposition to chance operations, improvisation, or performer choice.)


Study for Metastasis

This and others showed the hyperboloid curves that Xenakis used to generate the series of glissandi for a string ensemble, each instrument scored individually. Here’s the result:


Metastasis

At least for me, it vindicated how effectively Xenakis’s work does portray the graphic forms sonically, rather than sinking into impenetrable abstraction as Stockhausen’s far denser work frequently does. Xenakis really did have a rather atatvistic, populist conception of music (aided in popularity, no doubt, by the psychedelic era, which led to people like AMM getting major label recording contracts) that shows up in his own writing, where on several occasions he insists that his techniques are in the service of generating music that is intuitively graspable. The program included this quote from his early essay “The Crisis of Serial Music,” where he doesn’t sound so far from many of the more conservative critics of serialism (even daring to mention “the audience”!).

Linear polyphony destroys itself by its very complexity; what one hears is in reality nothing but a mass of notes in various registers. The enormous complexity prevents the audience from following the intertwining of the lines and has as its macroscopic effect an irrational and fortuitous dispersion of sounds over the whole extent of the sonic spectrum. There is consequently a contradiction between the polyphonic linear system and the heard result, which is the surface or mass. This contradiction inherent in polyphony will disappear when the independence of sounds is total. In fact, when linear combinations and their polyphonic superpositions no longer operate, what will count will be the statistical mean of isolated states and of transformations of sonic components at a given moment. The macroscopic effect can then be controlled by the mean of the movements of elements which we select. The result is the introduction of the notion of probability, which implies, in this particular case, combinatory calculus. Here, in a few words, in the possible escape route from the “linear category” in musical thought…. 

To paraphrase: forget individual manipulation of notes and tone rows, and focus on macroscopic presentation of dynamics, effects, densities, timbres, etc.

It would be empty speech if Xenakis’s work, or at least the best of it, didn’t succeed so viscerally in realizing his aesthetics (and listening to some of his followers reveals how easily things can go wrong–sorry spectralists!). I think his grasp of timbre and texture far outweighed many of his contemporaries (though granted, many weren’t interested in such things anyway), putting him closest to Messiaen and Varese, who both supported him.

Maryla Jonas Plays Chopin

One of the loveliest (but also melancholic) renditions of anything I’ve ever heard, from the underrecorded and neglected Maryla Jonas. It’s only 2 minutes; give it a listen.

Mazurka Op. 68 #3

From a Time article in 1946:

She was in bombed-out Warsaw when it fell. The Gestapo agent who found her in the city’s ruins tried to persuade her to go to Berlin to play for the Nazis. She refused and was sent to jail.

Seven months later, a Nazi officer who had heard her play let her out, told her that if she could get to the Brazilian Embassy in Berlin, she could get out of Europe. She walked most of 325 miles from Warsaw to Berlin, slept on the roadside, scarcely ever ate, and does not know how many weeks it took her. But she got to Rio. There she was put in a sanatorium, exhausted and sick. She got word that her husband, her parents and a brother had been killed in Poland. She did not go near a piano for months.

Polish Pianist Artur Rubinstein, visiting Rio, decided to trick her into playing again. He invited her to Rio’s empty Municipal Opera House, asked her to play some chords so he might test the acoustics. She sat down at the piano at 2:30, played until 8. Said she: “It was a put-up job.” She played three years in Latin America, earning enough to pay her way to the U.S., and the $1,400 that a Carnegie debut cost her.

Last week, five weeks after her New York debut, she played again in Carnegie Hall. This time the house was packed and the critics were in their pews. A buxom, platinum-haired woman of 35, her face was heavily rouged to cover the pallor of the past six years. Her U.S. sponsors wanted her to wear a corset; she refused (“I have to feel what I play from the legs up”) Says Maryla: “My first concert is European. Come one artist in old dress, no photogenic, no smiling. Then come complications. The criticisms are too good. Come snobs, I play too pianissimo, too fortissimo, my hair, I am too fat, my dress. My second concert is American concert. Everyone come to see am I really so good. It is not art, it is sport. It is football! If I have goal, bravo! If no goal, goodbye!”

The Elitist’s Credo

It is not at all natural to want to listen to classical music. Learning to appreciate it is like Pascal’s wager: you pretend to be religious, and suddenly you have faith. You pretend to love Beethoven–or Stravinsky–because you think that will make you appear educated and cultured and intelligent, because that kind of thing music is prestigious in professional circles, and suddenly you really love it, you have become a fanatic, you go to concerts and buy records and experience true ecstasy when you hear a good performance (or even when you hear a mediocre one if you have little judgment.)

Berlioz detested the music of Bach: he did not want ot enjoy it. Stravinsky despised Brahms, but came around to him at the end of his life. Not all composers are easy to love: Beethoven was more difficult than Mozart, Stravinsky harder than Ravel. Some composers, on the other hand, bring diminishing dividends over the years to their amateurs. One can revive a taste for Hummel or Saint-Saens, but it is not nourishing over a long period. (A little Satie for me goes a long way: I am never in a hurry to return to him.) Those amateurs who love a composer are the only ones whose opinion counts; the negative votes have no importance. The musical canon is not decided by majority opinion but by enthusiasm and passion. A work that ten people love passionately is more important than one that ten thousand do not mind hearing.

Charles Rosen, “The Irrelevance of Serious Music”

I like Charles Rosen, both as a writer and as a pianist. (How many people in the history of the world have been truly proficient in music and writing?) Rosen sounds like an elitist in this passage and in rather many others (he is not tolerant of ignorance or dilettantism and disdains populism). It’s a very carefully circumscribed elitism, however, since he reserves his praise for the passionate enthusiasts. Still, he can’t resist sniping at those who are indiscriminate; it’s true, there is nothing more vexing to the discriminating amateur than the freshly-minted fan who loves everything, and I guarantee you, at least one of those ten people is going to be someone who will enthuse the next day about the latest piece of pap to come down the pipeline. But an elitism around enthusiasts is still preferable to one which says, “A work that these ten people love is more important….”

Teshigahara and Kobo Abe: The Man Without a Map

That is the opening to Hiroshi Teshigahara’s The Man Without a Map, better known in its English novel translation as The Ruined Map. The amazing cutup music is by Toru Takemitsu.

It’s the final of four collaborations between Teshigahara and novelist/screenwriter Kobo Abe, who also produced the gorgeous The Woman in the Dunes and the surreal and disturbing The Face of Another. If there’s a problem I have with those two, it’s that Teshigahara always seems to be the sanest of the contributors: while Takemitsu and Abe are straining at the margins of convention, Teshigahara seems more content to play things straight, filming things as though they were conventional dramas with haunting scenery. I don’t think it’s coincidence that Teshigahara’s last film was about a master of tea ceremonies.

In The Man Without a Map everything falls apart. The movie isn’t a disaster and has enough to hold interest, but it is a failure. Teshigahara seems uninterested in the material and gives it little visual flair, while the ambiguities of the earlier films now spill into incoherence. The basic story is of a detective hired to investigate a missing man, Nimuro, by Nimuro’s sister. But the noir tropes dissolve as quickly as they’re introduced. Nimuro’s brother shows up to give the detective secret information that the sister did not reveal. Nimuro’s wife appears and disappears. Nimuro was involved with some bootleg food stalls possibly associated with the mafia, who beat up the detective. A man tempts the detective with nude photos he claims were taken by the Nimuro, but were they? Do they have anything to do with Nimuro?

That last mysterious man, who throws out clues that may be red herrings, who may not be related to the case at all, is the closest to the heart of the movie. The detective is hostile to any sort of conventionality, and by the end of the film, the noir tropes appear to be springing up because he wills them to do so, even if they don’t make sense. By the end of the movie (spoiler alert!), the mystery man announces his attention to commit suicide on the phone to the detective, who is annoyed with him and ready to hang up. The detective asks if he’s written a note: “No. They’re not exactly easy to write.”

I laughed, but I take it to mean that in trying to write some sort of lives for themselves outside the margins, Nimuro, the detective, and the mystery man have unwoven the fabric of their lives and so they fall apart, like the movie. Similar disintegrations happened in the earlier films by Teshigahara and Abe, but they didn’t reach the level of the plot, as they do here. Because, it appears, Teshigahara is not on board with Abe’s conceit, the film falls apart as it attempts to fall apart.

It makes me wonder what would have happened if a more avant-garde filmmaker of the time like Terayama, Oshima, or Yoshida had worked with Abe’s material–this or Abe’s far crazier The Box Man, where Abe abandons all pretense to psychological realism. The Face of Another is the most successful of their collaborations because Teshigahara is able to transform a “normal” world into one that becomes increasingly frightening and chaotic for the faceless protagonist. But once the normal is far out of sight, visual innovation has to substitute for the normal reference points of identification, and in The Man Without a Map, it doesn’t happen.

And just to conclude, here is the trailer for The Woman in the Dunes, featuring Takemitsu’s eerie, remarkable electroacoustic score:

Satie

“Je suis venu au monde tres jeune dans un temps tres vieux,” he famously said, and today I feel just about the opposite.

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