Behind Every Gate, a New World
Edgard Varèse, Iannis Xenakis and Peter Eötvös connect past and future.
Unity or mix? Identity or diversity? Probably no other art form so forcefully invites one to ponder the vital social issue of our day as the so-called “world language” of music. This evening’s concert provides some material: its programme takes the Greek-French Iannis Xenakis to Jerusalem, the Hungarian Peter Eötvös to Granada and, finally, accompanies the French-American with Italian roots Edgard Varèse to the Hudson River in New York City. The spectacular musical visions come from cosmopolitan 20th-century composers, masters of adaptation to new personal circumstances – who nonetheless remained conscious of their origins. Moreover, the metropolis connected with each of the three scores is an interface between continents, ethnic groups and religions. Each city owes its existence to the cultural melting pot that enabled the dream of diverse humanity’s productive cohabitation to become a concrete utopia.
Scientists and inventors among themselves
Varèse and Xenakis are the two 20th-century composers who perhaps more radically than any other broke with the traditional European understanding of music as something speechlike and made out of a monophonic or polyphonic succession of pitches. Suddenly, everything narrative or expressive was passé. Varèse and Xenakis practised their art using scientific and quantitative methods, respectively. Both shared the conception of music as “organized sound”, as physical events which they sought to compile in categories like texture, saturation and motion. Varèse tended to compose in terms of moving sound-masses rather than ordered sequences of notes. He compared his creative approach to that of a scientist or inventor and referred to himself as “a worker in rhythms, frequencies and intensities”.
Xenakis, on the other hand, some 40 years younger than Varèse, had Olivier Messiaen’s reassurance that a lack of formal compositional training could be understood not as a deficiency but as a distinguishing feature: “You are already 30,” Messiaen advised his pupil. “You have the good fortune of being Greek and of having studied mathematics and architecture. Take advantage of these things.” Xenakis’ world view had been shaped by the writings of Plato and Karl Marx as well as by the resistance against the German and, later, British occupiers of his homeland, in which the young man was gravely wounded, losing an eye and suffering a crushed cheekbone. Xenakis’ perceptive faculties, as he later acknowledged, were thereafter so seriously impaired that for a long time he felt himself isolated, “like being in a shaft… Because of my weakened senses, I cannot directly grasp the world that surrounds me. I think this is also the reason why my brain has turned more and more towards abstract thinking.”
An ensemble of 60 string soloists
Condemned to death in absentia by the Greek military junta, Xenakis began a new life in Paris in 1947. By the end of the 1990s he had created an immense, wide-ranging oeuvre of 150 works. The unique combination of eruptive, often brutal energy and meticulous structural planning earned the composer the reputation of a “constructive Fauvist” (Rudolf Frisius). Unlike Varèse, who considered string instruments feeble and anachronistic, Xenakis dedicated several compositions to this family. Their scoring ranges from string quartet to large string orchestra of 60 players, as in Shaar from 1982-83. In its anti-ingratiating roughness, Xenakis’ treatment of the string timbres is thoroughly original.
There is no programme in the narrower sense. The work was commissioned by Recha Freier, the Zionist resistance fighter who saved thousands of German-Jewish youth from the Nazi regime and later founded the “Testimonium” (Witness) Festival in Jerusalem. It was Freier who suggested an imaginary action involving the Assumption of Moses and the opposing forces of Satan. Xenakis went along with the idea in fun but called for “much more Devil” for his music. The associations then shifted to Joseph della Reina, hero of a Kabbalistic legend who attempted to destroy Satan’s power but ended up enslaved by it. Freier altered the ending of the legend so that Joseph was ultimately able to escape from the earthly world through a secret gateway. Thus sha’ar, the Hebrew word for “gate”, became the composition’s title.
The Alhambra on Google Earth
Sha’arim (“gates”) is also the name of the architectonically prominent entryways to Jerusalem’s Old City, and quite similar historical gates run through Peter Eötvös’s third violin concerto, Alhambra, during its musical stroll through the courts of the Moorish fortress on Granada’s Sabikah Hill. Like Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, it is articulated by a recurring theme – a lyrical idea that revolves around itself in small steps, introduced by the soloist alone at the beginning of the work. The violin – at the centre of the action, never pressurized by the orchestra – wanders through the vast palace complex, surprised by the constantly changing decor and illumination of its patios and halls. The memorable melody encircles the note G, the first letter of Granada.
Having no previous first-hand knowledge of the Alhambra, the composer was aided by Google Earth and Wikipedia to form an idea of the site. Schopenhauer’s oft-cited description of architecture as “frozen music” takes on a meaning of its own in Alhambra: Eötvös has not composed a musical illustration of a building but rather an atmospheric and structural equivalent. Dancing rhythms are, at most, suggested, and, as so often with Eötvös, the melodic shapes are created by means of a dense network of cryptograms, in which the letters of “Alhambra” and the first and last names of the soloist Isabelle Faust are translated into music notation.
Music on and under the skin
From the magical World Heritage Site at the foot of the Sierra Nevada we travel into the thick of Manhattan’s soundscape 100 years ago – into the cheerful cacophony of industry, transport and the daily affairs of thousands of people. Over 140 musicians take their places onstage playing 27 woodwind and 29 brass along with two timpanists and no fewer than nine further percussionists. In addition to conventional instruments, they operate – among other sound effects – a siren, a steamboat whistle and a crow call. For the first time, the percussion group confronts the other instrument sections as an independent driving force. The simultaneous downgrading of the strings adds a perfect touch to the culture shock.
Composed between 1918 and 1921, Amériques was the first work Varèse completed in the USA. Because his earlier scores were left behind in Berlin and later destroyed in a fire, it became his de facto Opus 1. “When I wrote Amériques, I was still under the spell of my first impressions of New York, not only New York seen but New York heard”, explained the composer in a note about the work’s title. “As I worked in my Westside apartment, where I could hear all the river sounds – the lonely foghorns, the shrill peremptory whistles – the whole wonderful river symphony which moved me more than anything ever had before. Besides, as a boy, the mere word ‘America’ meant all discoveries, all adventures. It meant the unknown … new worlds on this planet, in outer space, and in the minds of man.”