Thursday, 3 September 2009

Xenakis Rachmaninov sculptors in sound Prom 63 2009

Rachmaninov and Xenakis on the same Prom? The "arch-modernist" and the arch-Romantic? Strange pairing, but whoever made the connection really understands how music works other than on an obvious superficial level.

Everyone knows that Xenakis worked with Le Corbusier, though as an architect he didn't design ordinary buildings, but conceptual structures like the Philips Pavilion. See HERE. (There is a lot on this site about Xenakis, architecture and Le Corbusier, so use the links at right or the search widget). It's important to remember this as Xenakis didn't design with bricks and mortar but with ideas. So there isn't any real transition in Xenakis from creating structures in space and creating structures in sound.

Nomo Gamma
takes performance space as starting point, and fills it with sound. Xenakis creates spans of sound which cross over each other from different points in the vast void, forming an intricate network of effects that hold together even though they don't have physical form. Think how bridges are built, spanning emptiness til they create a strong structure. Like the Philips Pavilion, Nomo gamma is a free floating series of small cells which coalesce to form content out of void.

It's an ideal piece for the Royal Albert Hall, for it maximises the vast open spaces. Ninety-eight musicians positioned all over the building, even in the upper galleries. Musicians move, in and among the audience, further breaking down the idea of fixed positions. It's amazingly dramatic, because the audience is drawn into the experience. So much nonsense has been written this year about the Hall's acoustic. In fact there's no such thing as a single acoustic: everything depends on what's being played, and in what position it's being heard. It's a flexible concept. Too often it's used as an excuse for lazy listening. Last year Stockhausen's Gruppen and Cosmic Pulses were heard to magnificent effect: what a tragedy that the composer didn't live to experience them at that Prom!

Xenakis wasn't the first or last composer to experiment with sound as structure but his background makes it easier for people to grasp the concept. It was an astute move to use Nomo gamma as a wedge, opening the door towards greater understanding of ideas in new music. So much nonsense is currently being written about new music as "intellectual" – repeated so often it becomes shibboleth. Judging by the huge applause at this Prom, even extremely cereberal, conceptual theory like this can work if only people actually listen and open themselves to experience.

So the audience lapped up Aïs which followed, where Xenakis deconstructs the idea of singing, giving Leigh Melrose a part that ranged from extremes of the register, disintegrates into clucks made at the back of the throat, then suddenly swooping off into screams that break off as if strangled in mid-flight. It's impressive in performance even though it wrecks a singer's voice. Berio, Nono and others deconstructed voice more effectively than this, but Xenakis is good to hear at the Proms because he was such a fascinating personality, who can make new music approachable even by audiences who might otherwise be scared off theoretical music.

is also accessible because it connects to concrete images, like the paintings on Greek vases which depict the exaggerated expression of ancient actors - eyes round, mouths frozen in horror and and so on. Indeed, though there's only one soloist, the vocal part is created so it functions like a chorus. Poor Melrose switches from one type of sound to another so quickly that it seems as if there were several roles trapped within one body. Quite a tour de force, but this isn't repertoire designed for human habitation. Rather like some of le Corbusier's architecture (or rather that of his followers). Rebuild the Barbican for human access!

The real surprise of this Prom was for me Rachmaninov's From the Isle of the Dead. David Robertson, an "arch-modernist" to use that infantile term of abuse, turns the old dreamer into a cutting edge master. It's hard to believe that this piece was written in 1909, before the Rite of Spring, before Sibelius 7th. Above is one of Arnold Bocklin's paintings of a dream he had about an Island where death reigns. It springs like a volcano out of a smooth sea, impossibly steep cliffs surrounding a dense grove of trees. It's completely unnatural. There's only one way onto the island, through a narrow crack. A narrow boat approaches, with an upright figure. Any Freudian will note : images of death, sex and birth together. Perhaps why the image is so powerful, it's an archetype.

So Rachmaninov, who was spellbound by the picture, paints music which describes a place which cannot possibly exist in reality. Often this piece is played like a misty impressionist landscape, which it arguably is. But Robertson and the BBC Symphony Orchestra get so much more out of it Suddenly, the craggy cliffs become savage blocks of upright sound, contrasting with the flowing passages whih represent movement, perhaps through light or water. The concept of structures, density and texture, of movement and fixed masses. It's music as architecture, long before Xenakis, even before Sibelius's powerful sculptures of Nature. So now the clichés that parcel composers into niches like tonal/atonal are shown up for the myths they are. Thank goodness for original thinkers like David Robertson who don't stereotype. Not long ago I heard the Berliner Philharmoniker play the same piece. When one of the best orchestras in the world plays on auto pilot, you realize just how important a good conductor is and why the best deserve the money.

An excellent Shostakovich 9, but the shock of Rachmaninov was still too great for me to overcome.

Tonight's Prom feature Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Dialogues for two pianos. The Berliner Philharmoniker have been doing a seaon of Zimmermann all year, so go to their site whee you can still watch and listen. Zimmermann's big masterpiece is Requiem for a Young Poet, which the B Phil has a wonderful download of. Read about it HERE

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