"Harmony" from The Thebans featured at this year's BBC Proms but those few minutes could hardly make much impact, though they reflected Anderson's interest in writing large choral pieces. Ironically, the chamber works at the Wigmore Hall might give better clues as to what The Thebans might be like.
Writing opera is very different to writing abstract music. Anderson, however, has always been a surprisingly graphic composer. Visual images inspire his music and enrich its interpretation. His Alhambra Fantasy (2000) was stimulated by Islamic architecture, his Eden (2004) by Brancusi, The Book of Hours (2005) by the miniatures in Trés riches heures du Duc de Berry, and even Symphony (2003), despite its non-commital title, owes much to the paintings of Sibelius's friend, Axel Gallen-Kallela. Perhaps it's relevant that Anderson studied with Tristan Murail and others influenced by Olivier Messiaen, a composer who believed in a synthesis of sound and colour. This bodes well for The Thebans. Not many composers think visually, so if Anderson's librettist, playwright Frank McGuinness, comes up with a good script. the ENO might have a hit on its hands..
Anderson's Another Prayer (2012) isn't visual, but inspired by the untempered pitches in Bartók's original Violin Sonata (1944), so hearing it played by András Keller was specially rewarding. Keller is perhaps one of the greatest interpreters of Bartók and Kurtág, so the wild urgency he brought to the piece felt intuitively idiomatic. Snatches of melody appear, like ghosts of Hungarian peasant dance, untamed and elusive. It's technically challenging, involving subtle changes in bowing technique and pressure. The pace accelerates until it levitate into the highest harmonic pitches the instrument can reach. Quite dramatic.
"Music is pictures of music", Hans Abrahamsen has said. "....the fictional aspect that one moves around in an imaginary space of music." At the Wigmore Hall, members of the Aurora Orchestra played Abrahamsen's Walden, written thirty years ago. It's the wind quintet precursor of Abrahamsen's Wald, conducted by Oliver Knussen at the BBC Proms in 2010. The horn (Katie Pryce) leads us deeper into this aural landscape. It feels timeless, like the call of an ancient hunting horn. Bassoon and bass clarinet create dark undertones,while oboe and flute play lilting fragments of melody. But this is by no means mere impressionism. Abrahamsen builds up dense textures from independent and interacting instrumental cells. Just as in nature, multiple layers of sound co-exist. We have to be alert to hear the patterns and nuances. It is in this way that Abrahamsen really translates Henry David Thoreau's concepts. We retreat from "civilization" and received values into a pure state of listening. Walden feels organic, as if it's resonating physical and emotional processes.
Anderson's Tiramisu (1994) operates in layers, though it's based on multiple sub groups within the orchestra and doesn't refer to the dessert. It's a delicious confection, however, where the segments dance along, separately and together. I thought of whimsical cartoons, from the era when cartoons were created around serious classical music, and were themselves a form of art in visual motion.
With Anderson's The Thebans coming to the ENO, it's a good time to consider Salvatore Sciarrino's approach to music drama. Sciarrino's Killing Flower (Luci me tradici) was heard recently in London. (Read more here), but he's written extensively for music theatre. Although Sciarrino's music is exceptionally refined, it lends itself well to drama. It's not "grand" opera in the sense of semaphore emotions and bombast but more esoteric. In Luci me tradici, words fragment as they do in normal conversation. People communicate in many non-verbal ways. Sciarrino's narratives lie in abstract sounds which the listener translates into concrete images. Anderson, of course, might do something completely different!
For me, the key to Sciarrino lies in his chamber music, so it was good to hear two movements from ....da un Divertimenti (1969-70) at the Wigmore Hall, sections III Romanza, Adagio and IV Scherzo. . They are fragments of a larger piece which hasn't been published. Quite intriguing, stimulating the imagination. Although textures are rarified to an almost homeopathic degree, dissipating beyond the pitch of the human ear, Sciarrino's music grows from firm structural foundations. Much of the impact of Luci me tradici stems from the formalized nature of dance, suggesting the restrictions of courtly life from which the protagonists cannot escape. One thinks, too, of Renaissance architecture and the black and white mosaic contrasts of Italian style. In these fragments, we can hear the ghosts of classical form, elegantly poised, evaporating into something totally new, original.and highly distinctive. Such inventiveness com ressed into a small time frame, but also opening outwards.
Julian Anderson's The Comedy of Change (2009) employs similar instrumentation to the Sciarrino fragments. "Comedy" here refers to the Elizabethan use of the term, ie happenstance and unexpected outcomes. Anderson's starting point was Charles Darwin, and the odd ways evolution creates diversity. Long plates of sound, interspersed with small, rapidly moving figures. "20 million years in 3 minutes!", says Anderson in his notes, the "lumbering movement of Galapagos giant tortoises". But it would be wrong to take this music too literally. Rather, enjoy the whimsy and invention, and use your imagination. Oliver Knussen premiered this work two years ago with the London Sinfonietta, an ideal "fit" between composer and conductor. At the Wigmore Hall, Nicholas Collon conducted the Aurora Orchestra, in a performance of wit and charm.