At a meeting with a group of journalists today, Alan Gilbert, the incoming music director of the New York Philharmonic, divulged some details of his first season, which gets underway next fall. Also in attendance were Zarin Mehta, the Philharmonic's president, and Matías Tarnopolsky, the artistic administrator, both seconding Gilbert's commitment to combining traditional repertory with contemporary work — what the conductor calls a "museum plus laboratory" approach. The orchestra is not yet ready to announce the entire season, but Gilbert did describe his opening-night gala program: a new piece by Magnus Lindberg, Messiaen's Poèmes pour Mi with Renée Fleming as soloist, and Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. Lindberg — pictured above — will be the Philharmonic's composer-in-residence, a position that lasts two years. The Finn will write another new work for Gilbert's opening season and also direct one of two programs by the Philharmonic's new-music ensemble, which commences operations next season. Lindberg and Gilbert are looking at a long list of potential composers for commissions, including a number of little-known younger Americans. Other items of interest: Valery Gergiev will lead a three-week Stravinsky festival in spring 2010; Thomas Hampson will serve as Artist in Residence, curating several programs; and, in a sign of his commitment to the city, Gilbert will lead all of the Philharmonic's summer parks concerts. Overall, the feeling was good. Dan Wakin has more.
Photograph of Lindberg: Richard Haughton.
October 27, 2008 | Permalink
Listening to the New York Phil play Copland at a Young People's Concert the other night, I realized I'd omitted a favorite tidbit from the Audio Guide for my book: the derivation of Queen's "We Will Rock You" from the Fanfare for the Common Man. The sonic evidence is, I believe, incontrovertible:
Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic, Sony 63082.
October 23, 2008 | Permalink
Judd Greenstein is among New York's most gifted younger composers. I extolled his piece Folk Music sometime in the early days of this blog, and have followed his work closely since then. I couldn't possibly have predicted, though, the latest turn his career has taken: Folk Music is now serving as the soundtrack for the Obama-Biden Tax Calculator. The recording is from the NOW Ensemble's recent disc on the New Amsterdam label. (Hat tip: Dan Johnson.) On Oct. 29, NOW plays with composer-vocalist Corey Dargel at Le Poisson Rouge in NYC, on the same evening the Jack Quartet plays Xenakis quartets.
As regular readers know, I strive to be strenuously fair and balanced in political matters. In the interest of equal time, I offer this video of Sarah Palin's magisterial explication of the Wall Street bailout, with an ingenious, speech-based accompaniment somewhat in the manner of Steve Reich's Different Trains. The pianist is Henry Hey:
October 21, 2008 | Permalink
In November, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center will present an imaginatively programmed festival entitled Night Fantasies: works of Crumb, Ligeti, Debussy, Carter, Berg, Schumann, Messiaen, and various others, on a nocturnal theme. Klaus Lauer, of the Römerbad festival in Germany, serves as guest curator. To spread word, CMS has created a striking short video of musicians in Manhattan at night. The soundtrack is the "God-music" from Crumb's Black Angels, with a slight admixture of Chopin and Ligeti.
October 21, 2008 | Permalink
The Rest Is Noise, after which this blog is named, is now in paperback. To mark the occasion, I'm introducing a Glossary of terms that appear in the book, with audio illustrations. Hopefully this webby feature will offer a helping hand to readers who stumble over the tritone, the cluster, and the like. I have also greatly expanded the Audio Guide, so that there are now some three hundred audio examples, dozens of photos and archival documents, and assorted videos. (Many thanks to Billy Robin, who worked with me on both features and assisted with various other projects over the summer; Jeff Seroy, who let me record weird modes on his piano; Matthew Guerrieri, Kyle Gann, and Tiffany Kuo, who answered queries; and Andy Mouldovan, who made the audio icon.) I will make more appearances on behalf of the book this fall, though nothing like last year's craziness. On Oct. 30 I'll be at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco, talking to Joshua Kosman; on Nov. 1 I'll give my twentieth-century audiovisual tour at the Chicago Humanities Festival; on Nov. 10 I'll speak on Messiaen at ASU in Tempe, AZ; and Nov. 24 I'll appear at the 92nd Street Y.
October 14, 2008 | Permalink
October 11, 2008 | Permalink
Sixty-three years after that first false sunrise in the New Mexico desert, the atomic bomb remains newsworthy. Just the other day, Gov. Sarah Palin said, "Nuclear weaponry, of course, would be the be-all, end-all of just too many people in too many parts of our planet." Doctor Atomic, John Adams's extraordinary dramatization of the Trinity test of July 1945, opens at the Metropolitan Opera next Monday. Having chronicled the premiere in 2005, I'm most curious to see the new production, and also to hear Adams's score played by the Met orchestra under Alan Gilbert. Thanks to a generous $500,000 donation, the house is offering a slew of prime orchestra seats for $30 as part of its Rush Ticket program; details here. For background information, interviews, a production blog, and a schedule of allied talks and events, go to the Met's Atomic mini-site.
Atomic will also play at the Atlanta Symphony in November, with Gerald Finley again portraying Robert Oppenheimer and James Maddalena making a welcome return in the small but crucial role of the weatherman. A very effective DVD of the original Sellars production, as seen in Netherlands Opera performances from June 2007, is now available on Opus Arte.
October 06, 2008 | Permalink
by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Oct. 13, 2008.
Karlheinz Stockhausen, Bruno Maderna, and Michael Gielen conducting the WDR Orchestra; Stockhausen Edition 5.
For a few years in the late nineteen-sixties and early seventies, Karlheinz Stockhausen, the German avant-garde composer, nearly achieved the status of a pop icon. Each new piece of his attracted crowds of critics, struggling to convey the latest cosmic splatter of pointillistically variegated sounds. A lavish recording usually followed on the Deutsche Grammophon label. His lectures, mesmerizing in their mixture of scientific detail and visionary speculation, drew composers, professors, misfits, and rock stars. In 1967, the Beatles included his face on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, having already echoed his space-age bleeps in “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Hippies began showing up at Stockhausen’s concerts, which themselves assumed a psychedelic aura, the composer meditating onstage before the music began. In 1971, he visited the New York Philharmonic to present his electronic-instrumental work Hymnen, a frenzied collage of national anthems. The Times, calling Stockhausen a “Pied Piper of the Young,” reported, “Instead of the elderly clientele who dote on their Mozart, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky, there was long hair, there were miniskirts and hot pants, there were bearded boys in sweaters and denims, there was even a suspicious odor that sort of resembled tobacco.”
Then came what seemed an irreversible decline. Every year, people talked about Stockhausen a little less. The New Age drift of his life style and philosophy—he lived with two female companions and claimed to have emanated from the star Sirius—eroded his intellectual reputation, while the minimalists replaced him as beacons for youth. From 1977 until the first years of the present decade, Stockhausen sank his energies into a series of seven operas named after days of the week, the entire cycle entitled Licht. La Scala staged the first three installments in the eighties, but interest dwindled, and the final parts, Wednesday and Sunday, have yet to be played in full. The low point arrived on September 16, 2001, when, at a press conference in Hamburg, Stockhausen fell to pondering the destruction of the World Trade Center, and, invoking the mythology of his opera cycle, described it as a Luciferian masterpiece. The general feeling was that he had gone off the deep end, and that his music no longer mattered. The last time I saw him in performance, in Berlin in 2002, he seemed a diminished figure, prosaically outfitted in white slacks and an old orange sweater. Yet there was something moving in his determination to keep on working. And there were always large, diverse crowds.
Stockhausen died in December of last year, at the age of seventy-nine. If anyone expected his music to die with him, the opposite has happened: suddenly, he seems to be receiving more performances than ever. In Europe, the Holland Festival, the Proms, and the Warsaw Autumn have all honored Stockhausen in what would have been his eightieth year, and in November retrospectives will take place at London’s Southbank Centre and Paris’s Festival d’Automne. In this country, by contrast, activity has been minimal; one of very few events in recent months was an all-Stockhausen concert at the ARTSaha! festival in Omaha, Nebraska, where the composer’s final electronic work—an abstract, engulfing blur called Cosmic Pulses—had its American première. (Non-Nebraskans were able to watch the concert on the Internet.) Perhaps the lack of attention has to do with lingering unease over that World Trade Center comment, although, now that 9/11 has been exploited and trivialized in every conceivable way, the cryptic musings of an elderly German composer hardly seem worthy of notice. Within a few years, I suspect, aromatic Stockhausen fans will once again be filling American halls. In some ways, the man’s eccentricities impeded the advance of his music, especially in later years. Now the music is all that remains—a chaos of invention that communicates an inexhaustible, almost childlike joy in the possibilities of sound.
Perhaps the handsomest tribute so far in Stockhausen’s birth/death year has come from the Berlin Philharmonic, which, at the close of the Berlin Festival, presented Gruppen, a controlled pandemonium for three orchestral groups and three conductors. The concert took place in Hangar 2 at Tempelhof Airport, the historic site of Hitlerite fantasies and of the Berlin airlift. Tempelhof is scheduled to close at the end of October, and parts of it are being converted to other uses. Hangar 2, a forty-five-thousand-square-foot space that resembles the Park Avenue Armory, is big enough to accommodate Stockhausen’s conception; the three orchestras were arrayed in a horseshoe around the audience. With Simon Rattle, the Philharmonic’s music director, sharing conducting duties with Daniel Harding and Michael Boder, the orchestra played Gruppen twice through on two consecutive nights. Listeners were instructed to change seats between performances so that they could obtain a different acoustic perspective. Beforehand, brass, wind, and percussion players assembled to unleash Messiaen’s Et Exspecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum, another room-shaking investigation of sonic properties. Altogether, these events were among the most gripping orchestral concerts I’ve attended in recent seasons.
The historically charged setting stirred memories of the weird horror of Stockhausen’s youth. A child of a line of farmers, he was orphaned by Nazism and the Second World War: his father, a troubled Nazi, died on the Eastern Front, and his mother, mentally ill, was apparently killed in the Nazi euthanasia program. As a teen-ager, he served as a stretcher-bearer behind the collapsing front, attending to soldiers whose faces had melted away. A fan of American pop, he sometimes serenaded dying soldiers with the likes of “Tea for Two” and “Honeysuckle Rose.” During the American occupation, he studied at the Summer Courses for New Music in Darmstadt, which was supported, in part, by “reorientation” dollars. In short, Stockhausen’s mind was shaped and scarred by the historical furies that now haunt the desolate corridors of Tempelhof. If, in later years, this composer appeared to have booked himself on one long flight from reality, who can blame him?
Stockhausen worked on Gruppen from 1955 to 1957, at the height of his involvement with a technique known as total serialism, which preoccupied many young Europeans in the fifties. Schoenberg had developed a system for extracting musical material from rows of twelve notes; the total serialists went further, ringing changes on the various other elements that characterize a note (duration, volume, and so on), so that music entered into a state of unending, frantic flux. At times, this method led to a kind of nerve-racking monotony. But Stockhausen seldom let himself become a prisoner of the system, even as he devised ever more elaborate schemes of ordering. In Gruppen, he scrupulously avoids writing discernible themes—each instrument seems to be scurrying along its own twisting path—and yet the disparate sounds add up to textures of strongly defined character: insectoid swarms of string pizzicato, birdlike twitterings of upper-register winds, armor-plated blasts of brass.
In some passages, Stockhausen minimized the system and let his fantasy run wild. The latter part of the piece brings a brief, spectacular sequence in which brass sextets in each orchestra throw blazing chords to one another around the space, like alpenhorns resounding across valleys. In fact, Stockhausen conceived the score while staying in a village in the Swiss Alps, and modelled some of his organizational diagrams on mountain shapes. Romantic, too, is the sound of a solo violin singing out against a molten mass. (This music has more in common with Richard Strauss’s Alpine Symphony than the ultra-modern young composer might have cared to admit.) At the same time, Gruppen mimics high-tech noises: showers of electronic pulses, fluctuations of bandwidth. And there’s a jazz energy to the wah-wah-ing brass, the squealing clarinets, the pounding tom-toms and wood drums in the percussion. Soon after the Alpine brass sequence comes a gloriously mad freakout for the three orchestras together. It’s a bit like hearing the big bands of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Benny Goodman play ad libitum at the end of a very long night on the town.
The almighty Berlin Philharmonic executed Stockhausen’s complexities with fierce attention to detail and also with a kind of improvisatory verve. By the fourth performance, the musicians were visibly enjoying themselves. A surprising human warmth emerged from the more subdued, reflective passages of the work: the meanderings of a solitary guitar, the shivering masses of tremolo strings. An almost Mahlerian atmosphere of wistfulness descended in the last few minutes, as the instruments grasped onto the sweeter intervals in Stockhausen’s master twelve-tone row. In light of this commanding performance, it’s strange to hear reliable sources reporting that Rattle remains a controversial, even embattled figure in Berlin, not least with his own orchestra. Maybe a certain amount of interpersonal tension actually enlivens the music-making. In any case, if the usual Berlin pattern holds, whenever Rattle leaves his post the pundits will reëvaluate his regime as a golden age, and this concert will be cherished as one of his finest moments.
Rattle’s most inspired stroke was to pair Stockhausen with Messiaen, whose centenary is being celebrated around the world this year. At first sight, the two composers seem poles apart: the German chasing new timbres, new technologies, alternative spiritual paths, the Frenchman steeped in tonal fundamentals and Catholic dogma. Yet, odd as it may seem, Stockhausen was a practicing Catholic at the time he wrote Gruppen; only in the sixties did he renounce organized religion. In the final bar of the score appear the words “DEO GRATIAS.” In the neighborhood of Et Exspecto—which Rattle and his players delivered with gasp-inducing intensity, the tones of brass and gongs roaring through the hangar at almost unbearable volume—Gruppen revealed itself not only as a visceral adventure and a technical tour de force but also as an obliquely spiritual experience. Right at the end, the principal horn lets loose a soft, bright little interval, a rising major third. I had the impression that we had just heard the Big Bang run in reverse, and that this floating interval was the divine spark from which it all began.
October 06, 2008 | Permalink
"Zion Park" from Messiaen's Des Canyons aux étoiles; Reinbert de Leeuw conducting the Asko Ensemble, the Schönberg Ensemble, and Slagwerkgroep den Haag (Naive 782179).
The centenary of Olivier Messiaen, a formerly radical-seeming composer who now belongs to the ages, is being celebrated with a rather impressive array of concerts around the world. Andrew Patner describes a ten-day Messiaen festival now unfolding at the University of Chicago; the kickoff concert last night had the great British organist Gillian Weir performing Messe de la Pentecôte, among other works. (When I reviewed a great pile of Messiaen organ discs for Fanfare magazine some years ago, I came to the conclusion that Weir's cycle, originally issued on Collins Classics and now available from Priory Records, reigned supreme.) Chicagoans should take note of a screening of Paul Festa's intensely personal documentary film Apparition of the Eternal Church on Saturday morning. Festa's website gives a sense of the movie, although nothing can quite prepare you for the experience — for one thing, it's a bit racier than you might expect. As this page reveals, there will be two more showings of Apparition in Chicago and others in Sackville, New Brunswick; Austin, Texas; Concord, NH; Washington DC; Tempe, Arizona (I will appear at a related event with William Bolcom); and the Barbican in London. Another big Messiaen festival is unfolding in Montreal, leading up to a grand birthday presentation of Saint Francis under the direction of Kent Nagano. The actual centenary falls on December 10; oddly, neither Carnegie Hall nor Lincoln Center has relevant programming that day, although Reinbert de Leeuw and the Yale Philharmonia will present Turangalîla at Carnegie on Dec. 14 — in the wake of a week of Messiaen at Yale — and in February David Robertson will conduct the Juilliard Orchestra in From the Canyons to the Stars during the reopening festival of Alice Tully Hall.
For many people, the gateway to Messiaen's world is the Quartet for the End of Time, although there is no right place to start. Despite much formidable competition, the finest recording of the quartet remains Tashi's, on the RCA label. Currently at the top of my recommended CD list is a budget six-CD reissue, on the Naive label, of some staggeringly good recordings of major Messiaen pieces under the direction of de Leeuw and Pierre Boulez. Of the two conductors, it's the scandalously underrated de Leeuw who shows deeper sympathy for Messiaen's all-devouring aesthetic; the recording of From the Canyons to the Stars attains a degree of passion and intensity that you rarely find on disc. The beginning of "Zion Park," from Canyons, is excerpted above; the ending is pure animal joy in sound. Three other cherished Messiaen recordings: Pierre-Laurent Aimard's Vingt Regards (preview his new DG album here), Riccardo Chailly's Turangalîla, and Nagano's Saint Francis. You can hear more audio excerpts on my Messiaen/Ligeti pages.
Update: Marcus Maroney and Steve Smith add details of more events in Houston and New York. I should also mention the Celebration Messiaen series in Pittsburgh and the ongoing OM Century series at Jacaranda in LA. Notice that the Messiaen 2008 site linked up above has an audio archive of Claude Samuel's extensive interviews with the composer — a great resource for scholars. According to that site's concert listings, the Quartet for the End of Time will have been performed 145 times by the end of the anniversary year.
October 03, 2008 | Permalink
Obama listens to Bach, Coltrane, Dylan, and Stevie Wonder. McCain likes ABBA. We now know something about the musical inclinations of Sarah Palin, who, according to actuarial estimates, has a 14.2-15.1% chance of eventually becoming president if McCain wins. This video from the 1984 Miss Alaska Pageant reveals that her favorite artist is James Galway.
In the interests of equal time on the Alaskan musical front, I offer a link to Philip Munger's work Variations on a Theme on the Katrina Hexachord, which draws on the six-note dissonance that George W. Bush famously struck on a guitar the day the levees broke in New Orleans. There are, incidentally, several competing transcriptions of Bush's chord(s), depending on which photograph you look at and how you read the placement of his fingers. I still lean toward Paul Mitchinson's transcription, which produces the set of notes that the music theorist Allen Forte has named 6-Z49. This is the complex that governs the apocalyptic final bar of Strauss's Elektra, where a quick, brutal chord of E-flat minor collides with C major:
Throughout his career Strauss used this abrupt juxtaposition of tonalities (major and minor triads with roots separated by a minor third) as an emblem of death ; his inspiration was, no doubt, the passage in Wagner's Tristan that marks the hero's demise. Again, E-flat minor interrupts a spell of C, though at trembling low volume:
How uncannily sensitive of Bush to reach for this same doom-laden formation of notes on that dark day in 2005!
This being a music site, I wish to remain absolutely neutral on political matters, but for any interested NYC readers I pass along the information that Brad Mehldau, Chris Thile, and Wordless Music are holding a benefit concert for one of the presidential candidates at Le Poisson Rouge on October 10.
Recordings: Solti (Decca), Pappano/Domingo (EMI).
October 02, 2008 | Permalink