Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Birtwistle Prom 27 2009 London Sinfonietta

Paul Klee was a Swiss painter but his influence on modern music is huge. Many of his paintings take music as their inspiration: Fugue, Ballet, Theatre, Polyphony, etc. Pierre Boulez has written extensively about the links between Klee and modern music. His book Le Pays fertile: Paul Klee is a basic text. Klee, says Boulez, paints like a composer, building up from cells and layers to complex layers, almost geometric blocks of colour and line. Although paintings are one-dimensional, Klee's are full of implied movement and change. Inaudible music you hear with your imagination.

There are other Klee styles, such as the one where formless, luminous colour washes are overlaid with dark outlines. Debussy or Takemitsu, perhaps? But not Birtwistle.

This painting is Ancient Sounds, so it's very relevant when discussing Harrison Birtwistle, whose fascination with ancient mysteries has shaped his whole career.

Late night Prom 27 was one of the highlights of the season. These Birtwistle pieces are closely associated with the London Sinfonietta's glory days. David Atherton and John Constable, the pianist, were part of the Sinfonietta from the beginning. Hearing this Prom was like opening a window on the past, parallel reality between memory and the present. Also a Birtwistle concept.

Carmen arcadiae mechanicae perpetuum ("a perpetual song of mechanical arcady") was a London Sinfonietta premiere, conducted by Birtwistle himself in 1978. Like a Klee painting, it's built from six basic "mechanisms" which fracture and regroup to form 22 blocks. Each is distinct, some punctuated by percussion, others by dark splats of brass. Each tableau is heralded by a high horncall. Perhaps the horn hints at a lost Arcadian world existing beneath the busy, bubbling mechanical rhythms?

Everyone knows Stonehenge but Silbury Hill is perhaps even more mysterious. It's the biggest manmade hill in Europe, rising out of a flat plain. Once I visited when the fields around it were flooded. The hill seemed to float between sky and sea, frighteningly surreal. As clouds pass over, the surface of the hill seems to change - like a Klee painting - but what's beneath that unnaturally smooth dome is menacingly powerful. Silbury Hill is only part of a massive complex of underground passages, burial grounds, tumuli and tunnels which stretch for miles, linking Stonehenge to the even more impressive, and bigger Avebury stone circle. Five thousand years ago this must have been the biggest engineering works in the region but now no one knows who it was built by, or why.

So Birtwistle's Silbury Air connects to his regular obsession with ancient myth and things buried - labyrinths, journeys in the Underworld.

What's interesting is that this isn't "impressionist" descriptive music. Instead, Birtwistle composed it using a hidden set of rules and patterns. Someone once described the Silbury Avebury complex as "psychic geometry" which rather sums up Birtwistle's arcane approach. Dozens of small cells swirl dizzyingly round, from which the Air rises vertically, and floats. Just as it seems to settle, the thread is broken by sudden, clearly defined chords of the harp, the solid, angular blocks of sound heard earlier reasserting themselves. In an odd way, Silbury Air recalls Birtwistles's Earth Dances, conducted brilliantly with controlled passion by Pierre Boulez.

Silbury Hill photo credit David Bukach Very evocative pic, should be used in recordings etc.
Please see my review of Prom 39 The Mask of Orpheus. Scroll up or click HERE

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