Monday, 16 August 2010

Meetings with Remarkable Men - Langgaard and Foulds

Trust the Proms to throw up some oddities! Rued Langgaard and John Foulds, Proms 35, 23 and 27. Langgaard's Sfaerernes Musik,  Music of The Spheres (1916-18) defies any possible stereotype. Best let him describe it himself: ‘In Music of the Spheres I have completely given up everything one understands by themes, consistency, form and continuity. It is music veiled in black and impenetrable mists of death.’

It pops out of Langgaard's other work like a strange, exotic effloressence, as if a particle from outer space suddenly took root and flourished. It's inspiration in purest form, unadulterated by rational restraint. 

Thomas Dausgaard and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra were wise to match Langgaard with Ligeti's Lux Aeterna and his two miniatures Night and Morning.  Not for nothing Ligeti's music was immortalized in 2001: A Space Odyssey: it sounds like music from another dimension.  Famously, Per Nørgård  played a trick on Ligeti into reading Langgaard's score. Like everyone else, Ligeti could hardly believe such music could have existed at such a time and place.  Ferruccio Busoni dreamed of new means of expression, inspiring Edgard Varèse, another man before his time. Langgaard's a visionary too, for Music of The Spheres  exists in an atmosphere of its own. Trying to approach it in conventional music terms is utterly pointless.

Better, maybe to think of it as a fragment descending from a cloud of altogether more esoteric experience. Like so many other Europeans at the time,  Langgaard was into "alien worlds", ideas outside the European mainstream.  That's what connects Langgaard with Picasso, Debussy, Ravel, Loti, Colin McPhee, Szymanowski, Tagore, Blavatsky, Zemlinsky, Gandhi, Gurdijeff and, on a wilder plane, Heinrich Himmler who really did send missions to Tibet. Exoticism really is part of the western mainstream. 

And so to John Foulds, who quite likely would have understood Langgaard right away. Foulds was taken by theosophy, too, and went to India where he lived in an ashram. The Beatles and hippies were doing nothing new. Foulds's A World Requiem was revived at the Royal Albert Hall in 2007. Many admired its scale, but for me the performance seemed leaden and congested, the "orientalism" contrived.

Thus I wasn't looking forward to Foulds's Dynamic Triptych or April- England. Fortunately, Mark Elder and Donald Runnicles see the music in Foulds, rather than the curiosity value, so these two Proms performances restored Foulds's reputation  Although Dynamic Triptych is the greater work, I really enjoyed April-England because Elder and the Halle played it with such joyous grace. Even the "smeary" bits, where the notes are elided, not glissando, but stretched, sounded right, the way April rain "smears" the way things are seen. Distortion, but with a purpose, the way Nature itself distorts what we experience. Hearing this made me realise that there's a lot more to Foulds than just another forgotten Englishman. Like Langgaard, he's interesting because he connects to a greater "aliran", the Javanese term for the way a river grows from different streams, and flows apart into deltas that stretch over distances wider than the river alone. (Meetings with Remarkable Men is the title of a book by Gurdijeff, which became a cult movie in the 70's.)

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