Monday, 12 May 2014

Birtwistle at 80 - Earth Dances, Theseus Games

The Barbican's major retrospective, Harrison Birtwistle at 80, starts with his opera Gawain. Gawain is echt Birtwistle. Just as the plot connects to ancient myth, Birtwistle's music operates on simultaneous layers. It's a good time to revisit Birtwistle's seminal Earth Dances (1985), conducted by Pierre Boulez.

Birtwistle said of Earth Dances that it is "like a giant labyrinth, whose formal units appear nearly identical, but wherever you are inside it, whichever corner you turn, there is some new aspect or perspective". The music has progressed from "foreground" and "background" shifts of emphasis to something more multi-dimensional. The title Earth Dances itself describes the music well. Comparisons have been made of this piece to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. The ballet explored an ancient myth where maidens perform a dance in a circle of stones or megaliths. Just as Stravinsky combined different chords and twisted lines to describe the mysterious spells being cast, Birtwistle’s figures shift and change in mysterious, complex ways, as if he too were evoking, but in an abstract, impenetrable way, another Earth rite from an ancient mythic past. The composer said himself that he cast the material "in layers which could be compared to the strata in a rock face, such as on a cliff".

From the start, Birtwistle’s massive blocks of sound pile up, layer on layer, sudden flashes of percussion flashing light up through the darkness. The movement here is of vast tectonic plates, continents moving together, shaping continents. The movement is inexorable, almost linear – the action is within the densely textured units. Boulez conducts these forces with mastery. How difficult it must have been for the person playing those reverberating bass drums to hear the solo flute enter, or for the players to co-ordinate their separate parts without a conductor whose vision of the music is so vivid. Boulez keeps individual textures precise, despite the overall density of sound. Earth Dances is a favourite of many good conductors, but Boulez, to whom it was dedicated, brings tight clarity to this performance: a muddy, undisciplined reading would disintegrate into chaos. Ensemble Modern was augmented by key modern music specialists, to provide the vast forces. Virtuoso playing like this can't be compromised. I don't think there will be a budget version of this by some jobbing orchestra in a long, long time. 

In Theseus Games (conducted by Martyn Brabbins and Pierre-André Valade), two separate conductors participate, each conducting separate parts of the Ensemble even though the array of instrumentalists is smaller than the number required in Earth Dances. As with Charles Ives' Fourth Symphony, this reflects the way in which the composer deconstructs conventional form. It takes repeated listening to extricate the different ensembles, each playing at different tempi, intertwining and interweaving. This is like the Labyrinth into which Theseus enters, an adventurer into the Unknown. not knowing where it would lead, each twist seeming to open new vistas, which might suddenly and unexpectedly lead to confrontation with the Minotaur. What appears at first to be the "way" is contradicted by the other, alternate sound-world. A piece of music which so involves a listener in this way is inherently dramatic. Words would be extraneous. 

Eleven years ago, when I first head this combination of classic Birtwistle preoccupations  I wondered where the composer was heading next. The Labyrinth, where Theseus confronts the Minotaur?  Psychic powers ?  Sure enough, Birtwistle's next big hit was The Minotaur (2008) about which I've written extensively, and discussed with Philip Langridge and Andrew Watts who created the critical scene where the Oracle is consulted. In  Birtwistle's typically oblique way, the scene in which the whole opera pivots is concealed in a devious puzzle. There are parallels between Gawain and The Minotaur but I'll leave that til after Friday.

Please see my 30 or more other posts on Harrison Birtwistle. Part of the reason Julian Anderson's Thebans was badly received by some in the press was that they don't know Anderson's work. There is no excuse for anyone not to know who Birtwistle is.

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