“Unlike painting, music unfolds in time”. So say the programme notes to George Benjamin’s concert at the South Bank on 21/10. The pieces chosen show composers can adapt concepts of time in music – not simply tempo changes,. The notes for this concert are unusually good but the attributions are tucked away in small print. But they are superb. So if I quote more than I would normally, it’s for a reason. These guys are the best.
This concert was one of the highlights of the massive Messiaen retrospective at the South Bank, conducted by his student, George Benjamin. It centred around Messiaen’s Chronochromie, where “Kronos”(time) and “Khrôma” (colour)interact. Time is expressed through “32 different durations, subject to a system of permutations”. The rhythms are like cells of time, beaten into pace mainly by percussion. Like clockwork, the sound ticks along mechanically, but onto this Messiaen adds two layers of colour. First, the permutations are expanded by “dense harmonies in seven or eight parts”, gongs with first violins, bells with second violins Then Messiaen adds the vibrant “colours” of nature, birdsong and even the sound of a mountain waterfall he heard in the mountains, which he notated in eight parts. At the 1962 première audiences went bananas, what cacophony! But as Messiaen explained: “My permutations of durations are rigorous, my birdsongs are free. Rigour is implacable, but so too is freedom”. In this performance the rhythm whirred nicely but the overlay of detail was perhaps more dominant. Boulez takes a more vigorous approach, getting the contrasting structure and tensions more intensely, but Benjamin is interesting as “closeup”.
My friend first heard Xenakis in 1965 – speaking about architecture. Xenakis was an architect, trained to think spatially, who worked with Le Corbusier. Think blocks, curved concrete and angles – not so different from music. Pithoprakta begins with a horde of tapping, short bursts of sound. Sitting up in a box for a change, I could see how each sound was made differently – sometimes bows tapped against wood, sometimes fingers, strings sometimes plucked, sometimes tapped. It was like an immense chorus of insects, each small sound morphing into a mass. Only later did I read the programme where the writer describes it as “an insect-like crowd of unpitched tapping, punctuated by a single stroke on the woodblock”. Just like insects, the sounds suddenly die down and change direction. Then, as Mr Mystery says, “criss cross glissandi ensue, within a basically static cloud”. …”the final silence is broken into by a mass of swooping glissandi that gradually settle in dense clusters like a swarm of bees”. I must be psychic.
Ligeti’s Atmosphères is almost too well known to describe. Our friend expresses it thus “Now there is virtually no figurative foreground, only background. But what a background! Brilliantly coloured and of blinding intensity this too suggests clouds and gases amassing and dispersing, a strange and exotic void before matter is created”. He refers to Beethoven and Bruckner, most of us think 2001 Space Odyessy. So high and clear are the pitches they seem to exist like elementals, “beyond” structured sound or time frames.
These three masterpieces proved tough competition for George Benjamin’s own Sudden Time from 1989/93. The Messiaen influences are extremely present –sometimes you can hear what must be deliberate references. The title comes from a poem by Wallace Stevens which says “It was like sudden time in a world without time”. So the swirling textures and minute divisons of time “ebb and flow with seamless liquidity and only rarely solidifies into vigorous rhythmic pulsation” – “sudden time” leaping out of stretching time.
The mystery writers ? Peter Hill on Messiaen, Richard Steinitz on the others.