Sunday, 19 April 2009

The Lighthouse - and Other Webcasts

Peter Maxwell Davies' The Lighthouse (1979) has been staged in a new production in conjunction with the Lancaster Concert Series. They are broadcasting the show on the web:

James Oxley - tenor: Sandy
Damian Thantrey - baritone: Blazes
Jonathan Best - bass-baritone: Arthur

Etienne Siebens - conductor

Elaine Tyler-Hall director
Aaron Marsden designer
Marc Rosette lighting designer

Psappha Ensemble

Brief Synopsis:
Part ghost story, part psychological drama, this opera is based on the true story of three lighthouse keepers who disappeared mysteriously from a remote Scottish lighthouse in 1900. In the prologue, three officers from a lighthouse ship report to a Court of Enquiry how they arrived to relieve the three keepers and found the place deserted. The main act flashbacks to the keepers, working the lighthouse far longer than usual. They are nervous and pass the time by singing characteristic ‘set piece’ songs – which express their individual guilt. Out of the fog, their past emerges to taunt them. They see the arrival of a blinding light as Antichrist, in which they are replaced by the relief officers: the mystery is unresolved.
(from Chester Novello) This opera seems very much in the Britten tradition - it could seem a bit out of date now. But the production looks good quality and the audio/video is rather incredible.

Also there are a few other webcasts (of varying quality of performance) - one interesting one is an entire programme of Claude Vivier:

The Vivier concert includes Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele, which I believe was unfinished on Vivier's death. Either they perform a completion, or they perform only the completed movements (there is no programme note unfortunately, and no libretto - there is a 404 not found error). As for the rest of the programme - I feel its pretty variable. Vivier has written some inspired music - but in this programme there were some things that I found, frankly, a bit boring.

As much as the quality of performance goes - considering most musicians would be unhappy with cameras pointing at them unless in a very controlled environment, the Psappha Ensemble do remarkably well. This is not easy music. The BBC Singers in the Vivier perform excellently.

Besides which, I think its a good thing that programming of this kind is happening - and certainly, this sort of distribution, on the web, seems like an excellent idea. I'd like to see a programme by InterContemporain or Klangforum Wien broadcast in this way (EIC actually have started doing titbits on YouTube, but nothing like the quality of the Lancaster Uni stuff).

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Quatre Chants pour Franchir le Seuil

Gérard Grisey died in 1998 - at 52 years of age. His final work is a dark piece (Four Songs for Crossing the Threshold), coincidentally, about death and transformation.*

(To read this analysis, it would probably be useful to have heard a recording - there is one available from the Austrian label Kairos [], or a free radio transcription from Inconstant Sol [])

Grisey's most well known works were in the cycle Les Espaces Acoustiques - a cycle that in a full performance lasts an hour and a half. Indeed, Grisey didn't write many pieces that are shorter than about twenty minutes, his shortest pieces being earlier works from the 60s. Many of his compositions deal with extended time - processes that evolve gradually, transforming themselves from one thing into something new.

While this piece (Quatre Chants) is nothing like Les Espaces, these considerations, of processes, and transformations, are still very much in existance.

The ensemble of 16 instrumentalists (including soprano) is split into four groups of four, one 'high' group and three 'low' groups. The three 'low' groups, at the back, each consist consist of two similar-timbre single-line instruments, and a string instrument, and percussion.
[click to enlarge; applies to all images]

The front group is similar, but the instrument tessituras are higher, and the soprano replaces the percussion. The Flute and Trumpet timbres also differ.

Evidently, symmetry seems to be an important consideration for Grisey in this piece. It is confirmed on the first page of the first movement - we are confronted by an intricate tempo canon, where the saxophone group have phrases that are echoed, more slowly and lower, in the clarinet group and the tuba group.

First page of first mvt., lines added at every new phrase
to show canonic form.

The drawn lines aren't really adequate to convey the shape of the canon. The clarinet-group material is multiplied by 4/5 to reach the sax-group speed, and 4/3 to reach the tuba-group speed. This canon continues for some time, but it is gradually corrupted and distorted.

The 'process' of this movement is a gradual winding up of tempo. The tempo of the soprano/flute/trumpet interjections increases until it is almost frenetic. The form of the piece leads up to a remarkable piece of 'instrumental synthesis', where the ensemble collectively imitates the sound of the singer's voice.

The sonogram here represents the soprano high C6, on 'Mort!', and then the instrumental version of it afterwards.

Sonogram of first movement bars 150 and 151, first beat of each. Brackets added
From Kairos recording (0012252KAI).

Notice the bracketed sections, where the fluctuation of the soprano's vibrato (in this case Catherine Dubosc) is predicted and acurately mapped by the top violin note and piccolo, whose notes are B6 and C#7, the higher partials of the wavering soprano note. The trumpet spectrum (the most visible spectrum here) is also very close in character to the soprano; doubtless, this is one of the reasons why the instrument was chosen by Grisey.


What I actually wanted to do, however, is to examine how this particular portion of Grisey's text - that I have used for my blog title - is important to the work. To do this, we need to understand Grisey's intricate motivic writing.

Grisey's piece follows a model not unlike other great romantic song cycles (Strauss' Four Last Songs being the prime example; but also Das Lied von der Erde) - where each movement is separate, on a separate text, but there are subtle musical links between each of them. Indeed this is really a kind of symphonic form - where the listener thinks s/he is listening to something new, but it is indebted to what has come before.

Indeed, Grisey's work could be seen as a kind of skewed symphonic form - with a first movement that builds tension, releasing it into a coda (which is actually a simplified recapitulation); a second, slow, simple movement; a third, short, fairly bright coloured movement; which leads attacca on into a long fourth movement of several distinct sections.

So to begin examining Grisey's motivic development, we could begin with the most simple - a two note falling motive, descending stepwise, where both notes are long, and there is a crescendo to the note change.

Third mvt., bb. 57-60

This is the first sonorous cross-ensemble sounding of this theme, but the soprano and parts of the ensemble have previously been sounding less obvious versions. Of course, a two note theme is probably the shortest theme possible (although I think a one note theme might be possible, it has to be combined with timbre**), so it has to be extended and repeated for it to sink in.

In the next example, Grisey extends the theme by prolonging its resolution from one note to the next, throughout the ensemble.

Fourth mvt., bb. 15-18

In the next example, Grisey writes the theme for congas - note how the lower note is characterised not only by a change in pitch, but also a change in speed - for really, those two things are one and the same, pitch = periodicity.

Fourth mvt., bb. 17-20

In the next example, Grisey builds a scale out of two iterations of the theme. It appears in the tubas, and is harmonised/decorated by the rest of the ensemble.

Fourth mvt., bb. 100-3

The four note product is then given to the soprano, and it now becomes a part of what is probably the emotional heart of the work.

Fourth mvt., bb. 124-7, treble clef.

This text is set [bracketed sections not included]:
Je regardai, alentour:
[Le silence régnait!]

Tous les hommes etaient
s en Argile
The text is set poignantly, just with cello and violin, with the contrabass on a low F. It is worth quoting in its entirety.

Fourth mvt., bb. 137-72

Notice how each of the phrases is built out of the two note theme - either through addition, retrograding, or intervallic expansion. The final phrase of this section is made out of the intervallic expansion of the previous, like the 'alentour' phrase, and it is abruptly cut off.

The triadic shape of the ending phrase also mirrors the coda to the end of the first movement. Indeed the melody quoted above, beginning on 'Je regardai' bears a striking resemblance to the melodic material of the very opening (see the image of the first page above). Internal musical reference is important in this work - and as I said earlier, such motivic use suggests a kind of symphonic thinking. Themes and motives we think are new actually get transformed into things we have heard before. We dont need to realise that we are hearing something we have heard previous; but it (arguably) makes for a more unified musical experience.

As old fashioned as it is, this kind of motivic development - of such a simple idea - is something that I value greatly. In my own compositional efforts, motivic development of this kind is key.

But not only that; it is that such a simple theme can have such emotional potency. It is really this section - and the section that follows it, the remarkable Berceuse - that carries home Grisey's intentions for this piece.

As he describes it:
Musique de l’aube d’une humanité enfin débarassée du cauchemar. J’ose espérer que cette berceuse ne sera pas de celles que nous chanterons demain aux premiers clônes humains lorsqu’il faudra leur révéler l’insoutenable violence génétique et psychologique qui leur a été faite par une humanité désespérément en quête de tabous fondateurs.

Music for the dawn of a humanity finally disencumbered of the nightmare, 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.

*Many composers seem to have last works that fit in with early deaths - Claude Vivier's last work was Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele [Do You Believe in the Immortality of the Soul], unfinished before he was stabbed to death; Maderna's Satyricon ends with a funeral dirge; and of course, the Mozart Requiem.

**Beat Furrer uses the same one note theme in many of his works - a very high pizzicato string note, which appears in FAMA, the Piano Concerto, and a few other works. Of course, this is more of a sonorism, but it is such a prevalent sound that I feel it is thematic. Furrer is a composer that can write an awful lot of notes down, and yet not have any motives there. One ends up with a kind of multi-pitched noise - which can be combined with motives, or left alone.

NB: Many thanks to Coptuscantus for providing me with a digital version of the score.