The Time Machine

The sense of the past is implicit in classical music, the idea that the music belongs to its history. This is a weakness and a strength; the sense of age in the music is one thing that frequently limits its overall appeal, and the context of time gives it both power and present day life. The great ‘classics’ that are still with us were once new, of course, and as often revolutionary in their moment, something that gives them staying power. Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ symphony is 200 years old, but any good performance conveys a sense of freshness and relevance.

In this music, the past is always with us. All the music made new is placed at the top of an edifice made by all that came before, and the new music will itself become a foundation for what comes next. Time exists in this edifice in linear structures, circular structures and no structures at all. There may be a clear break from or connection between the past and the present, and the past and the present may exist in the same moments, in the same spaces, intertwined in a way that demolishes any such distinctions. This is a phenomenon that is consistently presented at Miller Theater, where the programming follows two important specialties; Early Music and contemporary music in the form of the Composer Portraits series. Recently, two Miller concerts in particular illustrated this peculiar and important quality of history in classical music.

Benet Casablancas is a Catalan composer little known in the United States, but his music and career exemplify something all Americans should be aware of, the perverse horror of ideology in the 20th century. As much as it was a century of material progress for this country, it was a lost century for much of the world. This can be heard in particular music, trapped in time in one way or another. Shostakovich was perhaps the great representative of the tragedy of that era, an artist squeezed between the necessities of self-expression and self-preservation, trying with equal desperation to say so much and to say nothing at all (Czeslaw Milosz’s “The Captive Mind” is an important examination of this state, but I think the idea that best expresses it is the title of Harlan Ellison’s story, ‘I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream’). Shostakovich, and Prokofiev, at least had the advantage of their knowledge of the history of classical music prior to the confines of their circumstances, the later generation of Soviet composers did not. One of the reasons Alfred Schnittke’s music seems to one foot in a dated past and the other escaping from time is that it is doing just that; as the USSR fell apart as a political entity, Schnittke for essentially the first time in his life was able to experience this vast body of work, and indulged in it like a starving man at a banquet, trying to write every moment at the same time.

Casablancas comes from a country with a similar experience of being frozen in time, but with specifically different results for himself. The 12-tone music of the Second Viennese School had made it’s way to Spain by the time of the Spanish Civil War. On stage, the composer himself mentioned an international arts festival in Barcelona in 1936 that brought these ideas to his country, just before war and the victory of the Nationalists and Fascist rule sealed Spain off culturally from most of the rest of the world. Of all the oddities, it is that what is now to us an archaic version of Modernism was frozen in amber in that country, and it is this old-fashioned Modernism that Casablancas described as being recovered in Barcelona in recent years. You can hear this in the composer’s music, which is dedicated to the ideas of Schoenberg, Webern and (especially) Alban Berg, but has a real freshness about it.

It doesn’t matter that the music essentially starts where 1936 ended; it’s all new to Casablancas, so it’s new to us. And the composer is neither a slavish imitator of the ‘big three’ nor a slavish follower of the rules of serial composition. Foremost are his expressive goals, and, like Berg, he breaks the rules of 12-tone music when he needs to. His music is bracingly complex, full of activity, energy and color. The works played at Miller, by the Perspectives Ensemble and conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez, were all composed within the last twenty years, and were all, at the minimum, local premieres, including the world premiere of the Miller Theater commissioned Four Darks in Red.

That new work is clearly modeled after the Schoenberg Opus 9 Chamber Symphony but, like a building whose facade has been preserved and interior remade, opening the door into it work reveals the style and ideas of Casablancas. It’s an expressive piece, serious about its aims but not about itself, with warmth and humor. The dramatic opening statement is followed by an attractive, sinuous English Horn line. Much of the writing is highly active, polyphonic in the modern sense of independent lines creating a kind of open society of music, rather than following a more rigid structure where each supports the other directly. There are also lyrical, meditative passages that seek to plumb the composer’s response to the Rothko painting that gives the piece it’s name, and the opening of the final movement is engrossingly contemplative. At the end, though, the rugged exuberance which seems the natural state for this composer returns. It’s an excellent work, great to hear, and it belies the unthinking response that 12-tone music is unpleasant and unlistenable. Casablancas has chosen a style for communication, and he is clear in it; while the ear may take a minute to adjust to a different sense of signpost and structure, ultimately one is left either to agree or disagree with what he has to say.

I think the accidental time machine that Casablancas found himself in is an integral part of what makes this possible. Although the Second Viennese School was aesthetically ensconced within German Expressionism, the technical aspects of the style spread like a virus after World War II and became, unfortunately, wedded to a moralistic sense of what ‘proper’ music was, creating a sometimes accomplished but mostly cold, denatured international style. It was consistent and faceless, like a corporate behemoth with homogenous outposts across the globe. While it may seem at first a minor tragedy that a composer is stuck by historical circumstances into a world four generations past, the counterintuitive benefit is that Casablancas skipped the ideological wars and so can meld the past to a much more contemporary academic idea of complexity and do it all with a human voice.

This can be heard in the New Epigrams and Little Night Music from the early and mid-1990s. The first piece holds its surprisingly chaotic mix of lines together through 12-tone harmonic structure and has great energy. There are enough tonal passages to give the work at times a Classical feel (the writing is that clear), and while the colors are the legacy of Stravinsky and Ravel, the lyricism, the sense of mystery and the gentle acceptance of entropy are the composer’s own. Little Night Music is a chamber piece, paced by a muffled bass drum beat, full of inscrutable, beguiling gestures; arguments between activity and stasis, irregular phrases that start and stop, attractive woodwind colors. It is essentially quiet music, and lovely.

The large scale Seven Scenes from Hamlet, in its US premiere, is powerful. An actor recites Hamlet’s lines, the music offers a response, then this is repeated. The performance seemed ideal. Chuck Cooper was excellent as Hamlet, smart and expressive, able to express anguish, anger, clarity, confusion, determination and doubt with not only equal effect but often simultaneously. The ensemble played with verve and power. This music is engaged in theater without ever settling for cliché and both reflects the just heard thoughts and moods of Hamlet and presages what is to come. It is often more tonal than the other works on the program, extremely colorful and expressive, by turns mysterious, moody, pensive, beautiful, deeply agitated and tragic. It’s a gripping, dynamic work that makes several centuries of the past melt away into a now that is completely alive.

Concepts my come, go and be pioneered, but basic techniques of composition have remained the same for centuries, serving to solve the problem of how to say something, how to get from here to there, how to make a certain sound, how to create a whole out of parts. 15th century composer Guillaume Dufay, one of the most important and distinctive figures of his era, had to work out much of the same things that Schoenberg and then Casablancas have, and with the added challenge of setting words to music, meaning that the listener must understand the words and discern the meaning the composer found in them. Two days after the Composer Portrait, the Orlando Consort sang Dufay and music from some of his general contemporaries, and offered valuable insights into the works through miniature lectures.

The polyphonic vocal music of the Renaissance that remains with us is generally very beautiful but also generally faceless; it can be hard to tell one composer from another, with a few exceptions. Dufay is one of those. There is a graceful, luminous simplicity about his musical line, a tendency for a phrase to rise unexpectedly before it falls, and an austerity to his dissonances that make him both recognizable and one of the great mystics among his peers. In music that can be almost overly lush in sound, Dufay keeps his focus on declaring the line and moving it along. The Consort sang with a spare, beautiful and not overly-smooth sound, they made the counterpoint and internal rhythmic structure clear. These structures are often surprisingly contemporary. Along with the major works on the program, two Ave regina celorum, the powerful Kyrie: Missa Ave regina celorum, and a good chunk of the Missa Sancti Jacobi, the Consort sang fascinating short liturgical and secular works, including the Nuper rosarum flores, performed at the dedication of Brunelleschi’s cupola at his Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence on March 25, 1436. The music is intimately built from the ratios so important in sacred architecture and can honestly be called an example of algorithmic composition, a concept thought to have been created only in the century in which it was named, the 20th. Medieval and early Renaissance musical structures are actually highly complex, more so than Minimalist and post-Classical styles, and this is true especially in their rhythmic complexities, where lines are doubled and repeated in different voices at essentially different tempos. As Western music developed a more exact system of pitch, vertical harmonies supplanted modal ones and harmonic complexity came to the fore. But the combination of rhythm and sound in Dufay is wondrous and exemplifies that complexity of thought and expression were as natural and common 500 years ago. Nor do the events or our times seem so special when his century is considered; the Lamentatio sanctae matris ecclesiae Constantinopolitanae was written in reaction to the loss of Constantinople, a more wrenching event in his era than 9/11 was in ours.

The variety on the program was fascinating. The opening piece was a 14th century work by Jean Tapissier, Eya dulcis/Vale placens, where the split quartet sings both parts of the work simultaneously. A set of short works from Loyset Compère, Antoine Busnoys and Jean De Ockeghem set Dufay among his colleagues. The ensemble also made the point the Dufay wrote specifically and well in the plainchant style, and sang this through his Nuper almos rose flores and Victimae paschali. But the most memorable work was the achingly sad Adieu ces bons vins de Lannoys, where the young composer, off to Italy, laments the loss of ‘those good wines of Laonnois’ and of a particular lady, and of the weight of the sack of nuts he must carry on his journey. La plus ça change . . .


Author: gtra1n

I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.