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Wolfgang Rihm: Excerpt from Jagden und Formen (1996-2001)

From the album Jagden und Formen (Ensemble Modern, conducted by Dominique My)

The phrase of a French critic writing about Italian opera around 1700 has long stuck with me. Describing its daring (and to French ears, undisciplined) style, he states that the music “owes its greatest beauties to those irregularities which seemed to threaten it with destruction.” This lovely expression often comes back to mind when I hear the music of the German composer Wolfgang Rihm.

Emerging in the mid-1970s, Rihm’s music could be seen as a highly idiosyncratic reaction the dominant midcentury modernism of Stockhausen, Boulez, and company. Though hardly listener-friendly in his own work, Rihm emphatically rejected the restrictions and dogmas that characterized much of the serial and post-serial composition of the postwar decades. (“You can’t make art with taboos,” he quipped.) His search for a more intuitive, direct, and viscerally expressive form of music corresponded to Theodor Adorno’s call for “informal music,” an approach to composition in which the rigors modernism have been absorbed and internalized, allowing the music to attain an organic wholeness without abandoning structural rigor.

Much of Rihm’s music can be heard as a late-20th-century reckoning with the Austro-German romantic tradition, from Beethoven through Brahms and Mahler to the Second Viennese School. This musical heritage surfaces in Rihm’s work in various ways, sometimes quoted directly, more often alluded to or subtly invoked. His openness toward the resonance of musical tradition, however, should not be mistaken with the conciliatory stance of a “neo-romantic”: the historical fragments in Rihm’s music are often disturbingly out of place and unsettling in their effect.

Jadgen und Formen (Hunts and Forms), a 55-minute work for orchestra, bears many of the hallmarks of Rihm’s style, characterized above all by the masterful pacing of textural shifts and a frantic expressive immediacy that leaves the listener gasping for breath. As Seth Brodsky poetically elaborates:

Form in Rihm’s music, the score’s path from first to last measure, acquires the unclassifiable as the contours of a violent spill; shape is dictated by a kind of creative emergency. A Rihm work does not develop; it survives, as if just un-caged, and goes wherever it can in order to keep going.

Played 329 time(s).

August 26, 2012, 9:13pm

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Colin McPhee: Tabuh-Tabuhan, part I (1936)

From the album Tabuh-Tabuhan

The Canadian composer Colin McPhee was born in Montreal in 1900.  He lived in New York in the late 1920s, where he was actively involved in the city’s thriving scene for modern music; McPhee consorted during this time with the circle of American composers known as the “ultra-modernists,” comprising among others Dane Rudhyar, Carl Ruggles, Henry Cowell, and Ruth Crawford Seeger.  It was around this time that he was exposed to a recording of Balinese gamelan music.

From 1931 to 1938, McPhee lived in Bali, where his wife, Jane Belo, was conducting anthropological research.  During this time, McPhee undertook a thorough study of the musical traditions of the island.  His book Music in Bali, published only after his death in 1964, was a groundbreaking study in the fledgling discipline of ethnomusicology and is still seen as a crucial reference work on its topic.

McPhee’s 1936 composition Tabuh-Tabuhan: Toccata for Orchestra, premiered in Mexico City under the baton of Carlos Chávez, represents one of the earliest attempts for forge a genuine syncretism of “classical” and “world” music traditions, a trend that would become one of the dominant tendencies in the later 20th century, with results ranging from fascinating to unfortunate. Tabuh-Tabuhan, scored for a conventional orchestra plus what McPhee called a “nuclear gamelan” (two pianos, celesta, xylophone, marimba glockenspiel, and two Balinese gongs) goes beyond mere exoticism to seek a sincere fusion of disparate musical traditions.  The work also highlights the link between compositional appropriations of non-Western musical styles and the emergence of minimalism, which McPhee’s composition anticipates by some 30 years.

Played 90 time(s).

January 13, 2011, 4:40pm

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Rued Langgaard: Sfaernes Musik (excerpt; 1916-1918)

From the album Music of the Spheres / Four Tone Pictures

Rued Langgaard (1893-1952) was a Danish composer in the grand tradition: prolific, eccentric, and obscure.  His most ambitious and best known composition is the opera Antikrist, which was inspired by his mystical-eschatological religious beliefs. The rejection of this work by the Royal Theater in Copenhagen in 1925 played a part in Langgaard’s withdrawal from public musical life, which corresponded with a shift in his music from hyper-expressionist modernism to a more neo-Romantic style.  He would be an outsider for the rest of his life, composing a vast body of more than 400 works in embittered isolation.

Sfaernes Musik (Music of the Spheres), composed from 1916 to 1918, was performed only once in Langgaard’s lifetime, in Germany in 1921. Made up of a series of distinct tableaux characterized less by thematic development than by the exploration of particular sonic moods and textures, this composition is vaguely reminiscent of a piece such as Debussy’s Jeux of 1913.  But in its intensely quiet and static nature, its exploration of timbre and texture, Sfaernes Musik has few parallels before 1950.  When it was rediscovered in the late 1960s, it was seen as a predecessor to the contemporary tendency toward Klangkomposition exemplified in the music of Ligeti, Penderecki, and others. Upon looking through the score, Ligeti supposedly exclaimed, “I didn’t know I was a Langgaard imitator!”

This roughly five-minute excerpt from Music of the Spheres comprises three distinct sections, labelled by Langgaard as follows: ”How dewdrops shimmer in the sun on a lovely summer morning,” ”Longing—Despair—Ecstasy,” ”World-soul—Abyss-All-souls.”

"Collage-like features, expressive of desperation and fragmentation, and a preoccupation with visions of destruction make Langgaard’s music distinctive, despite the often late Romantic and at times demonstratively retrospective nature of his musical language. He often went to extremes to achieve expressiveness, and his works frequently transcend traditional perceptions of musical form and temporal progression.” (Bendt Viinholt Nielson)

Played 130 time(s).

December 07, 2010, 5:45pm

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