Magic Realms on Restricted Terrain
George Benjamin conducts masterworks from the period between 1930 and 2002
What do composers write when they no longer want to rely on existing traditions but find no other established genres? How does the music take on a binding character if it does not call listeners to prayer, to the dance or to the festivities of a public institution, but instead derives its justification for existence from itself alone? Should it be subject to strict compositional techniques or be left entirely to artistic licence? Friedrich Schlegel summed up the problem shortly before 1800: “It is equally fatal for the spirit to have a system and to have none. So the spirit must indeed resolve to combine the two.” All four composers heard during this concert had or have to struggle with this paradox, but they also used it as a stimulus for their creativity.
Cummings ist der Dichter by Pierre Boulez
Pierre Boulez experimented with extremely formalized techniques, which he described as “automatic”, during the early 1950s. It quickly became clear to him, however, “how essential it is for the music to provide genuine communication”. Thus, he began to systematically take liberties. Boulez was convinced that “the work is only valid when the technical aspect is transformed into an aesthetic goal, into ‘expression’”. Technical and aesthetic intentions must interact with each other like two mirrors.
The aesthetic goal of Cummings ist der Dichter (Cummings is the Poet), premiered in 1970 and published again in an expanded version in 1986, is clearly revealed; the score was even regarded with suspicion by new music purists at first because of its sensory appeal. John Cage had already drawn his young colleague’s attention to the poetry of Edward Estlin Cummings (1894–1962) in New York in 1952. The French composer did not feel comfortable with the author’s native language yet, however; he was not confident enough to tackle Cummings’s lines until he had worked as a conductor in England and America for several years.
The untitled poem from the collection No Thanks (1935) suggests a poetic triad of bird calls, spatial expanse and liberated soaring of the soul using relatively simple vocabulary. The ingenious graphical layout of the text transforms the poetic material into components of a kind of sculpture. Perception is broken up into multiple perspectives; the possibilities for reading and understanding increase. Boulez’s setting captures these structural parameters. Although it moves forward with agility, its gestures seem discontinuous and spontaneous. The vocal techniques range from melismatic singing to pure declamation. Onomatopoeic elements play a role, along with virtuosic embellishments and the superimposition of static and extremely animated strands of the register groupings. The strange German title was the result of a misunderstanding during the composer’s telephone call with the German presenters of the premiere. Boulez immediately thought there could not be a better title than the one that came about by chance.
Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand
Restriction of resources and simultaneous broadening of the expressive spectrum: this antagonism also charges Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Handwith tension. Paul Wittgenstein, the brother of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, was wounded at the beginning of World War I and his right arm had to be amputated. Nevertheless, he continued his career as a pianist. Composers such as Britten, Hindemith and Prokofiev wrote concertos for him. Maurice Ravel had previously shown little interest in the genre of the solo concerto when he received Wittgenstein’s commission. “In a work of this kind, it is essential to give the impression of a texture no thinner than that of a part written for both hands,” the composer explained. “A special feature is that after a first part in this traditional style, a sudden change occurs and the jazz music begins. Only later does it become evident that this jazz music is really built on the same theme as the opening part.” Gradually Wittgenstein began to recognize the importance of the concerto. Well-known as an extremely forceful pianist, he felt entitled to make numerous changes to the solo part, which resulted in a hefty dispute with Ravel. “Performers must not be slaves,” Wittgenstein retorted angrily. The composer disagreed: “Performers are slaves!”
Clocks and Clouds by György Ligeti
In Boulez’s Cummings ist der Dichter the author’s words are so well incorporated into the composition that they appear both as “focus” and “abstraction”, as Ivanka Stoianova observes: they are transformed into sound and gesture, while their meaning is only associatively comprehensible. György Ligeti goes a step further in Clocks and Clouds. Twelve female voices sing “in an imaginary language with a purely musical function”, according to the notes in the score. Ligeti’s compositional approach is aimed at gradual transitions; he looks for smooth, continuous connections between colours, registers and movement patterns.
Ligeti experimented with the hypnotic effect of a sound continuum developing in a gaseous form for the first time in 1961, with Atmosphères for large orchestra. In Clocks and Clouds he concentrates on crossfades between two contrasting states. Karl Popper had published a lecture in 1972 in which he juxtaposed two physical models: on the one side the “clocks”, determinable phenomena whose behaviour can be predicted using the laws of classical Newtonian physics; on the other side the “clouds” – complex, multidimensional systems with the blurriness observed in quantum physics and events which cannot be precisely predicted in detail. For Ligeti the particular appeal of these ideas was that “clocks”, observed on a larger scale, did not tick nearly as reliably as long supposed, while “clouds” are much more precisely quantifiable with an equal amount of mathematical effort. Such ambivalences become evident musically in the imperceptible alternation of periodically repeated events and rhythmically free, flexible movements. The fascinating allure of the music is provided by the gradual increase in range, opening in a wedge shape with the small interval of a second at the beginning and expanding to a majestic “wide-screen sound” à la John Adams.
George Benjamin’s Palimpsests
George Benjamin’s Palimpsests – dedicated to Boulez, who also conducted the world premiere – offers an extremely instructive contrast. “I wanted to write a piece that is crystal-clear, imploring, antiromantic and yet passionate,” the composer declared. “The texture is dominated by a large group of woodwinds and brass; the string ensemble is very reduced. Every single layer should be audible, even when I superimpose ten layers over it.”
A palimpsest is a manuscript that has been erased by scraping or washing and written on again. The concept of the palimpsest has played a role in cultural theory since the end of the last century as a metaphor for the writing process and the superimposition of layers of cultural development. Benjamin first limits his approach to its purely structural function: he uses it as an analogy for a polyphony on extremely different musical levels. The precision of the musical language is obvious; the astonishing clarity of each individual gesture is not without historical antecedent, however. Although Benjamin does not quote anywhere, although he does not indulge in allusions, every phrase of the score is associatively charged.