Friday, June 30, 2006

Sources and Re-explorations, Part Two: Olivier Messiaen

Of all Olivier Messian's works, CHRONOCHROMIE (1959-1960 ) is the one I seem to return to over and over. It might be that its scale-- just under a half-hour long-- suits me perfectly; Certainly, the piece appeals because of the way it addresses and illustrates, in one place, most of its composers concerns: bird song, rhythmic transformation, orchestral texture as color and vision.
I listened to CHRONOCHROMIE again a few weeks ago, on a rainy morning when I'd risen to strong coffee and the sounds of a very lush dawn chorus. Concepts of time and color--Chrono and Chromie-- are at the heart of the work, and Messiaen uses complex rhythmic transformation of melodic materials-- bird song, mostly-- to build a majestic sonic analogue to a pre-human world: a mountain, a stream falling through rock and stone.
The rhythmic transformations are, of course, the time-field of the work. The color-field arises when melodic materials are voiced and stacked vertically in strata: gliding strings, breathing woodwinds , chattering melodic percussion, dark-toned low horns. The piece is structured in what Messiaen called strophes: cells of musical events that at first seem to push and pull against each other. But as one listens to the unfolding music, the events begin to take on a sense of flow, that sense increasing until Messiaen has created for the listener the sight and presence of a massive mountain, of rippling, tumbling waters down that mountain's steep sides. It's nothing less than a monolithic construction in sound.
All falls away, though, for the infamous Epode: a thicket of transcribed bird song played only by the strings. Having just heard a real early- summer dawn chorus, I was prepared to be disappointed by Messiaen's transcription of nature. But I was surprised at how powerfully the composer captured-- even using only the relatively dry timbres of the strings-- the liquid chaos of the real thing.
The power of CHRONOCHROMIE lies for me in its sense of transformations, even trans-substantiations: bird song as light and color, vibration as stone and water. And above all there's the mystery of music vibrating its way into all the senses and tools of perceptions, becoming something of substance and mass in the world.

(A note: Messiaen's book, MUSIC AND COLOR (Conversations with Claude Samuel) is an invaluable guide to the composer's fascinating methods and ideas. )

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Sources and Re-explorations, Part One: Charles Ives

This week I've decided to go back and revisit some works of music and writing that have been crucial to my perceptions, and thus my own expression. I've chosen three to re-explore and write about. I'll begin with the American composer Charles Ives's orchestral work, THREE PLACES IN NEW ENGLAND(composed between 1903-1914.)

I first heard THREE PLACES IN NEW ENGLAND on an LP my dad brought home sometime in the late 60s. He'd bought it for Copland's LINCOLN PORTRAIT, but it was the Ives piece that captured me. I have strong memories of listening to it with one ear to our old Magnavox mono rig; the smell of hot tubes is somehow tied forever in my sensory memory to Ives's orchestral triptych. It's probably been ten years now since I've last heard it, so this morning-- a hazy, humid, summer-like one, as befits the first of June-- I sat down with coffee and listened closely.
The first section honors the famous St. Gaudens Bas-relief sculpture dedicated to Colonel Shaw's black Civil War regiment in the Boston Common. Like most of Ives's music, this composition is spacious and feels "outdoors" to me; there is light and sound and silence, and the sections and voices of the orchestra are arrayed to magnify that sense of spaciousness. The dominant harmonic colors, applied to snatches of hymns and ghostly song fragments, are like a more tart and polytonal take on the chromatic exoticism of Wagner and Debussy; but the overall effect is less heroic and monolithic than Wagner, less nocturnal and dreamlike than Debussy. This is, instead, music for bright light and clean, open air.
Like St. Gauden's fluid and classical approach to representational sculpture, Ives's music here evinces a sense of heroism tempered with compassionate humanity; there's all that open space and landscape, and the hymns provide a sense of history, community, and human continuity. Especially powerful is the way the constantly shifting textures-- the piano and contra-bass provide a particularly questing restlessness-- seem to find occasional fleeting resolution in one repeated, haunting hymnal motif.
The second place Ives visits is another war memorial. In "Putnam's Camp, Redding, Connecticut", the composer returns to childhood memories of outdoor picnics on the site of a Revolutionary War battle. It's a wild and raucous piece, with Ives's usual weave of hymns and marches. But there are quiet moments here and there, too, and these shifts in mood bring, to my ears, a morphing between Ives's childhood memories and the more ancient time-frame of the Revolutionary battle itself; thus this music becomes evocative of time and history in layers, of both history and personal memory. This layering could not be better sonically manifested than it is near the end of the piece, when a martial, elegiac, bugle-like horn melody on the far right horizon is subsumed by the same note played, on the left horizon, by a hollow, ethereal, thrush-like flute-- suggesting, perhaps, the ultimate merging of human history with the natural world.
Personal history and the natural landscape of New England are at the heart of the final movement, "The Housatonic at Stockbridge." Here Ives revisits a memory of a walk with his wife along the river. This is water music at its most evocative; music that flows and eddies and pulses and moves with a lush combination of impressionist harmony and tight, poly-chromatic dissonance. Ives brings the memory of moving river waters to life here, ending the piece abruptly --and emotionally-- with one of his yearning, questing, hymn motifs.
(I should add that the CD I listened to this morning-- Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1970 (DG 463 633) --offers an interpretation and recording that is very satisfying in its spaciousness, clean sonics, and dynamic range.)

I heard in Ives's THREE PLACES IN NEW ENGLAND this morning the same things I heard-- and loved -- when I was ten years old: evocation of place and history, of landscape and nature, of the unique clear and spacious light that suffuses the New England latitudes. And, certainly, I can hear how those things have stayed deep inside me to inspire my own writing and musical composition.