Saturday, November 12, 2005

"acts of compositional exuberance"

All three composers featured on tonight's program are here in Miami Beach, guiding us through rehearsals of their pieces and generally being cheeky and British. Except for Gunther Schuller, who is American and not particularly cheeky. Even Mr. Schuller has been in a rare good humor this week though, thanks probably to Oliver Knussen's amiable style in rehearsals.

Mr. Knussen, who prefers to be called "Olly," is an enormous man who at first made me think of Fafner from Wagner's Rheingold, before he turns himself into a dragon. Once you get past the imposing appearance, though, Olly is more like Arthur Dent from The Hitchhiker's Guide: a sweet and funny man with a healthy appreciation for the absurd. He is constantly making funny quips and asides during rehearsals, about anything from the brass section's mutes to the politically incorrect rehearsal letters ('SS', 'KKK'). Things can get silly at times, but the effect is to set everyone at ease. Working with Olly helps me to appreciate the levity and humor at play in his music, and the music of other supposedly severe serial composers.

Any composer of an opera entitled Higglety Pigglety Pop! would need a great sense of humor. Knussen wrote that opera in 1985, based on a Maurice Sendak story, then adapted it into an orchestral suite called The Way to Castle Yonder, the first piece on tonight's program. It's a curious combination of the whimsical and sophisticated - the New Grove Dictionary has this to say about it:
Here the predominant use of all-interval tetrachords linked into octatonic chains gives rise to a harmonic palette which allows Knussen to incorporate brief allusions to similarly construed passages from Musorgsky or Debussy without any sense of stylistic incongruity.
Yikes. That article was written by composer Julian Anderson, whose piece The Book of Hours will represent the youngest generation on tonight's program. Thankfully Anderson's music is rarely as thorny as that sentence. His piece is for a small orchestra with lots of electronic sounds - the second part begins with a scratchily rendered recording of the first part; later an "electronic interlude" several minutes long takes over from the live performers, but we get to finish the piece with a jaunty viola jig.

The younger composers' pieces bracket two longer works by Gunther Schuller. Actually a generation separates those two Schuller pieces, Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee and Of Reminiscences and Reflections, written respectively in 1959 and 1994. The continuity I hear is mainly in their borrowings from eclectic sources - renaissance polyphony, bebop and free jazz, traditional Arabic music... I like what the New Grove says about the later piece:
In every dimension, [Schuller] has insisted that music be meaningful and engage humanity’s full range of experiences and aspirations. This objective is strikingly exemplified in Of Reminiscences and Reflections, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994. An angry and elegiac work, which broke a year of compositional silence following the death of his wife, it conceals within its textures references to music he and his wife experienced together; it is music about the meaning of music.
Both Schuller and Knussen were eager to proclaim their love of double basses - apropos of Knussen's request for a more emphatic low E-flat during an early rehearsal, Schuller told us, "I love the bass - you must know the Quartet for Double Basses I wrote!" Knussen said: "I love the bass too, my father was a bass player!" My stand partner, James, added, "I play the bass!" It was just that kind of corny week I guess.

Anyone interested in reading more about Olly Knussen should check out an online interview, "The fantastical world of Oliver Knussen." I also just discovered a website about the fantastical world of new music in general, NewMusicBox. It features a profusion of news and longer articles - last time I was there I found some thoughtful comments by John Adams, written during rehearsals for Doctor Atomic.

1 comment:

Joe said...

Cool program! How's Gunther doing? I've been listening to his String Quartet No.3 (Emerson Quartet recording) quite a bit lately, and we played the Klee Studies last spring. Wild piece of music, and it very much identifies itself as being Schuller. He can actually make an orchestra sound like a big band, and that Twittering Machine movement is off the hook.