Jean-Guihen Queyras and Ensemble Resonanz, reconciling the classical and modern in Amsterdam

[first published on i care if you listen] Jean-Guihen Queyras and Ensemble Resonanz lit up the Ij Haven last night in Amsterdam’s Muzikgebouw aan’t Ij. There was a twinkling view of the harbor through this great glass house, and the Ensemble matched this crystalline vision with a lush dynamic ebb and flow in the treatment of the four pieces programmed. With floors of naked cedarwood, red plush seats, blue light glowing through the latticed walls, and lighting and tech equipment exposed at the ceiling, the concert hall has the feel of Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, but more spacious. Throughout the evening, the respect of the audience was astonishing; not a cough was to be heard until the general applause, so that diminuendos in the music and the space between movements enjoyed a profound and utter silence.

muziekgebouw aan't IJ

The Concerto in E-flat ‘Dumbarton Oaks’ (1938) is core to Stravinsky’s neo-classical output. Commissioned for a wedding anniversary and composed before the outbreak of World War II, it is a buoyant and sunny piece, intricate in orchestration, very much a 20th century nod to the Brandenburg concertos, it has always seemed to me. Movement 1, Tempo giusto brims with playful melodies, forward motion, and very individual statements on the flute, horn, bassoon and strings. The small chamber force (only ten strings) handled well these symphony-heavy melodies. The third movement, con moto, has some of the possessed ritual outbursts familiar from Le Sacre du Printemps. By the time this was written, film music was already coming into its own as an orchestral genre, and I believe we can hear a pictorial suggestiveness here, much more than in any of the abstract music which had dominated art music in the previous two decades. These ornate, driving musical churnings describe the complexity and fast pace of modern urban life. If Schoenberg emancipated the dissonance, Stravinsky in Dumbarton Oaks had revitalized the whole diatonic language. Chromatic events are well-disguised and introduced gently.

Schnittke’s Triosonate (1985) is a true hodgepodge of styles, but thematically unified in a mood of dread. Written for a larger consort of strings, it features disjunct, atonal violin melodies anchored by droning fifths in the lower strings. A more homophonic tutti in 6/8 emerges, setting up a very touching minor-mode cadential phrase. Atmospheric white noise is achieved with special bowing techniques. Before long, though, the Psycho-slashing tutti is back to plead with us manically. Schnittke’s music seems to be about the exposure of and confrontation with life’s stuggles. Important melodic themes are revisited after rumination; the 6/8 passage makes a final return, leading to more dark instrospection. Whereas Dumbarton Oaks gives a sense of a choir of voices, Triosonate is the soul-searching of a tortured individual consciousness. Consonant triads, bringing a brief respite to the sinister turns of phrase, eventually give way to the pervasive sense of dread. Ensemble Resonanz handled stark shifts in dynamics quite cleanly without a conductor, as Queyras had joined the cello section.

Arvo Pärt’s Fratres (1977), or ‘brothers,’ maintains a very uniform texture throughout, with very static harmonic rhythm: a low drone supports an upper strings chorale. These chords float and pine for their never-quite-achieved resolution. Phrases are outlined by a refrain on the bass drum and clave – “doorklinkende Klank” according to the program. Although the ensemble had the unity of a great chamber group, the decay of these lamenting chords was like the dispersal of smoke, immeasurable and elusive.

Queyras paid his dues in the Ensemble InterContemporain and is known as a great Haydn specialist. Here, the classical master’s Celloconcert nr. 1 in C (ca. 1761-69) closed the concert, forming “classical” bookends (with the Stravinsky) to the more modern and idiosyncratic composers within. Queyras gave Haydn a chiaroscuro texture, switching deftly between dynamic extremes. The hall’s acoustics had nowhere for fortissimo notes to hide, so big gestures were arresting, and yet soft statements floated very lightly from the stage. The first movement cadenza shows Haydn to be harmonically adventurous for his time. The adagio takes the form of a stately procession. Anyone who doubts Haydn’s influence on Mozart should listen to this beautiful slow movement. The final movement, another sonata allegro, is bursting with an operatic urgency. The rhythmic precision required of this early Classical work was well-served by Ensemble Resonanz and the soloist, who made it seem a matter of spontaneous expression.


Good Night, and Good Luck; Dir. George Clooney. 2005. 93mins. Clooney, David Strathairn, Frank Langella, Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Daniels.

Contemporary McCarthy revisionists like Ann Coulter are sure to label this effort as liberal agitprop, but Clooney’s trip down TV news memory lane actually serves to highlight one of the 4th Estate’s finest hours – the exposure of the Wisconsin Junior Senator’s commie-hunting excesses.  Alas, we also see the nascent conflict between network TV’s corporate interest and its public service obligation.  The year is 1953.  Edward R. Murrow, played soberly by David Strathairn, throws down the gauntlet by broadcasting a report, over military objections, on the redbaiting of Air Force lieutenant Milo Radulovich.  Naturally, this raises the hackles of CBS network brass, and penance comes in the form of a fluffy (and hilarious) on-screen tête-à-tête with Liberace.  Murrow and producer Fred Friendly (Clooney) must balance the twin aims of calling McCarthy’s bluffs on one hand and assuaging the fears of network chairman Bill Paley (Langella) on the other, and this dual tension guides the movie well, although there is never any doubt about the outcome of McCarthy’s crusade – as Paley points out, why risk offending advertisers when the senator will eventually self-destruct on his own?  The answer to this becomes clear when the film is seen in the context of today’s risk-averse, dissent-eschewing television news outfits.  Clooney’s own liberal leanings are presented without subtlety – journalists must not be stenographers to power.  Shot in black and white, through a noir haze of cigarette smoke, and interspersed with singer Dianne Reeves’ heartrending interpretations of jazz standards, Good Night, and Good Luck serves as a lucid window on the zeitgeist of an era that has much to teach us about our own.

Ballets Russes. Dir. Dayna Goldfine & Dan Geller. 2005, 118 mins. Documentary.

For those who know little more about ballet than the Nutcracker, this documentary will serve as a fresh, accessible history of the dance form in the West following the death of Russian impresario Diaghilev in 1929.  The vacuum created by the loss of this giant, combined with a brimming talent pool among refugees of Bolshevik Russia, was seized upon by ambitious promoters who presented to the world the poetic vision of choreographers Balanchine and Leonide Massine.  When the latter embarked on his own venture, the institution split into two, and an era of competition was spawned, testing the loyalty of dancers and the public alike.  As noted in most documentaries covering this period, WWII changed everything, chasing the Ballet Russes from Europe, thus introducing the Americas to an art form that had previously been largely inaccessible.  Interviews with surviving (and thriving) octogenarian dancers, many of whom got their start at the tender age of 14, provide a vivid connection to the explosive creativity of the era, as well as giving a sympathetic voice to the huge sacrifices these dancers made when signing up for such an unforgiving professional schedule.  Especially poignant is the story of Raven Wilkinson, the pioneering African American dancer who ultimately had to abandon her position in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo when seething racism in the South made touring there impossible.  If nothing else, Goldfine and Geller’s film displays a collection of nostalgic, wise old souls that balance pride and humility, aging every bit as gracefully as they once danced.

American Splendor; Dir. Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini. 2003. Paul Giamatti.

In suburban Cleveland, 1950, a housewife hands out Halloween candy to kids dressed up as superheroes; one has no costume, and when she questions him, he throws his arms up and trudges off, muttering why everyone has to be so stupid.  So begins this mixed-media biopic about a classic American loser, Harvey Pekar.  The familiar postmodern conceit of celebrating the life of an individual with dubious claims to fame finds poignant expression here, as footage of the real Harvey Pekar and his equally misfit friends and family is interspersed with scenes of Paul Giamatti’s endearingly grumpy character.  In 1975, dumped by his wife and living in a flat cluttered by an addiction to collecting jazz records and books, Harvey is a VA hospital clerk moonlighting as a comic book writer.  He borrows the talents of his old friend and underground comic sensation R. Crumb to flesh out his stick-figure story lines about his life as a nobody.  When he’s eventually “discovered” by David Letterman, himself a collector of oddities, we learn that fame is powerless to uplift those who are rooted to their own modest ambitions.  While the story has some predictable elements – the celebration of the nerd ethos is underlined by an actual outing to Revenge of the Nerds, he finds love in equally misfit Joyce (“she’s got good-lookin’… handwriting”), and a cancer episode that seems only to add to the surfeit of whining – you can’t help rooting for a humble curio who uses allusions to the Treasure of Sierra Madre and Theodore Dreiser in order to cast himself within the tradition of lowly American dreamers who make their own rules.

WANTED: a labyrinth, an abstraction, an escape from the spiritual void in the post-empire age

[first published on I Care If You Listen] Three composers – each aiming to create modern music in which form has been replaced by “structures” – are featured on this Aurora CD of piano music performed by Håkon Austbø.  When does one listen to atonal music?  In the morning while sipping coffee over a NY Times detailing the latest fabricated Iranian “threat”?  Perhaps while running on the treadmill at the gym and looking up at Anderson Cooper reporting on the latest school shooting?  Maybe at the checkout line at Wholefoods with a basket full of organic beet juice?  The answer to all of these is yes: as we are continuously mesmerized by the last gasps of an unraveling empire, these various incarnations of serial piano music are the medicines to free us, and deliver us back to a spiritual tabula rasa, an unpolluted universe of pure sensory potential.

The third piano sonata of Pierre Boulez is an unfinished work, or as pianist Håkon Austbø describes it, “a work in progress.”  It originally was to consist of five “formants” (as opposed to movements from a traditional sonata) but only the second, “Trope,” and third, “Constellation – Miroir”, were published and appear here in that order.  You see, this is aleatoric music, though a more tightly-controlled variety than that composed by John Cage.  The pianist must choose in which order to play the formant’s sections (in Trope: Texte, Parenthèse, Glose, and Commentaire, but only 8 possible orders), “whether or not to play structures placed inside parentheses,” and how to distribute “notes indicated to be played freely within a given time-span.”  Traditionally, the order of movements in a sonata is fixed, and the relationship between these movements is established by changes in key and tempo; thus a kind of narrative is established.  The concept of “choice” during a performance is not however, entirely new.  Every time a performer comes on stage for an encore, that performer makes a choice of what to append to the program.  Here, though, the idea of a narrative is completely done away with, and instead, in the words of the composer, the work resembles “the plan of a city… there are different ways of going through it… but there are certain traffic regulations.


The pianist begins in a way that doesn’t sound like a beginning at all.  Since this is twelve-tone music, the tone-feed is rather balanced throughout, and dramatic moments are achieved primarily through abrupt changes in register and dynamics.  The influence of Webern is frequently felt in the work of Boulez, and here as well.  The absence of rhythmic patterns or harmonic hierarchy means that even the appearance of a consonant interval like a minor third does not serve as a rest stop, or a reward, but rather a somewhat more tidy corner in Boulez’s city. The end of Trope, however, is clearly identified, as the last vertical sonority is sustained and allowed to decay naturally.

I found myself discovering that while I associate certain types of music with certain moods (heartbreak? give me Tom Waits), this atonal piano sonata is something that takes me completely out of any emotional context.  Every person interprets a piece of music in a personal way, and for me, I find that Boulez is a trustworthy escape from this age of ours, which I like to call post-empire.  Though the piece is from 1957, the unraveling of the west’s global dominance has been going on for some time, and though popular music has tried to respond to historical changes (flower power, punk, etc), I feel that was is needed is simply a musical epigram for a generation self-incarcerated in countless stupid little computer devices.  Several such epigrams are provided by the Blocs and Points of the sonata’s second formant, Constellation – Miroir (so named because it is published in retrograde form, and hey, who hasn’t played a record backwards to try and find evidence of artistic transgression?).  The pointilistic patter of hard-stuck piano notes could easily be taken for the ping of 0’s and 1’s which light up our post-empire world with videos of cats flushing toilets.  This is truly music for music’s sake and is in any event an excellent showcase of Austbø’s skill in articulation on the piano.  At times the damper pedal is depressed just after a staccato attack, resulting in an eery, corrupted reverb.


Elliot Carter describes Night Fantasies (1980) as “suggesting the fleeting thoughts and feelings that pass through the mind during a period of wakefulness at night… when it is not dominated by strong, directive intentions or desires – to capture the poetic moodiness… of Schumann[’s] Carnaval and Davidsbündlertänze.”  This is interesting: Schumann dominated the Romantic piano literature of so-called character pieces, a major departure form the regime of the sonata.  And just as Boulez has turned the sonata into structural labyrinth, Carter uses 88 “all-interval” 12-tone chords in order to evoke the panoply of impressions that take shape in our minds during a bout of insomnia.  Perhaps we think very highly of ourselves during daytime, when we are in control with our impressive array of communication networks and organizational tools.  But who has not experienced the sheer terror of a sleepless night, when the mind is unloosed in the darkness, penumbral fears coalesce, memories become contaminated with fancy and the subconscious, bloated with putrefaction, floats to the surface?  Nighttime is no escape in the post-empire age, and Carter uses the piano as an EKG, interpreting the feverish ruminations of middle-class discontent, as well as the somber resignation that the year-end bonus has not brought happiness, after all.  Indeed, the flux between stark lento passages and flighty, fugue-like flurries on the piano is handled with great control by Austbø, and delineates a fascinating, paradoxical compromise between rigid constraint and freedom.

Asbjørn Schaathun’s Physis for amplified piano and five digital harmonizers (1986/2003) consists of seven “areas,” each of which consists of a main section without electronics, followed by smaller sections using the digital harmonizers, which attach a very attractive shimmer to the sonorities of the piano, and also seem to sometimes compress the sound into dense, buzzing nodes of energy.  As with the Boulez sonata, the performer chooses the order of these smaller sections.  Austbø points out in the liner notes that “the electronic component of the piece… has been subject to revision… as technology has evolved.”  Some of the parameters resemble ring modulators, sweeping through overtones and tapering off like the tail of a sonic comet.  Some parameters are controlled by the performer, making the end product a true collaboration with the composer.  Many of the scale fragments, winding up tightly and exploding in crashing chords, reduce form to a very small scale; the listener is captivated by the gravity of the present, no longer affected by the arresting events of just a few moments before.

Asbjørn Schaathun

The resulting soundscapes are, in my opinion, like the Boulez, escapes from a world where we are accustomed to receive satisfaction at the click of a button, or escape disconcerting news at the click of another button, or just click buttons with glazed-over eyes because that’s all that we do anymore.  I could compare Schaathun’s music to the drawings and sculpture of Roni Horn, but what would be the point?  True artists and musicians have responded to their fractured disciplines and the loss of stylistic movements in the post-empire age by creating processes that aim neither to please nor to impress, but simply to exist as testaments to a sensory world which, while polluted with over-consumption and cursed by self-imposed cultural sterility, retains the potential to receive new modes of expression.  Perhaps these artists are ushering a new age – one of intelligent design.