View From the East: Pieces of the Elephant

View From the East: Pieces of the Elephant

Greg Sandow

As I was watching MercyMeredith Monk‘s deeply touching music-theater piece, created in collaboration with Ann Hamilton, and performed at BAM—I suddenly realized how wrong I’d been about something I’d thought for years. I’ve loved Meredith’s work, but always thought it sat in some off-center new music niche. Pierre Boulez, by contrast, lives and works on Main Street, or so I thought, more or less unconsciously. And that’s where anyone lived who wrote for the standard forces of the concert hall.

God, was I wrong. New music right now—and in fact, or so I’m thinking, most likely the entire music world—is best described with the old story of the blind people and the elephant. You know the drill. The blind people approach the noble beast. One touches its tail. “This is a rope,” he says. The next one reaches out a hand, and finds the elephant’s trunk. “It’s not a rope,” she says. “It’s a snake!” And so on, till they’re lost in confusion.

Though really what describes us is the reverse of that story. We don’t have to be confused. For us, there isn’t any elephant. The rope and snake (and any other body part, inside or outside) define themselves without reference to a center, because the center hasn’t held. Which makes us lucky. As the future forms itself, we’re free to like whatever pleases us, with no need to ask, in any guilty murmured voice, whether something else might not be more important.

So with that in mind, I’m going to talk about a few CDs I’ve heard. I have a lot of catching up to do; I haven’t listened yet to any serious chunk of the things that come my way and also don’t have time or space today to write about everything that interests me. If I don’t mention something now, that doesn’t mean I’ll never mention it.

Also, I have something else in mind, some thoughts about describing music. William Carlos Williams memorably said a poem is a machine made out of words and in just the same way, a piece of music is a machine made out of sounds. Let me forestall a common sentimental misinterpretation and say this doesn’t mean that music is or should be unemotional, that structure matters more than meaning (or that it is meaning) or that by studying the musical machinery you penetrate the mystery of art. None of that is true; music in the end is unexplainable.

But still the machine is in motion; any piece of music has its separate parts, which push and turn and rub against each other. If I describe how they push and turn and rub, I might shed light (at least for myself) on what the music does for me and certainly I’ll learn something about why I react the way I do.

Thus I’m challenging myself. I’ve listened to some CDs. Can I find a way to say what makes the music on them go? And what will that reveal about my biases?

On to the CDs.

1. Invert

Invert is a New York-based string quartet, with two cellos instead of two violins. I met one of its cellists at a concert; he sent me the CD, named after the group; I liked it. These are people with both pop and classical backgrounds, not to mention jazz and world music. They’ve played at Galapagos and The Knitting Factory, and backed the rock group Guided By Voices on a CD.

One thing I like is that three of them write the group’s music. That’s a good inspiration for classical performers. There’s too much mystique about composing. Rock and jazz musicians routinely compose. Why shouldn’t classical players?

And these people compose nicely. There’s always something simple going on—like scales in contrary motion, on the first and shortest track, “Machine” (by one of the cellists, Chris George). The scales are part of a musical landscape that includes syncopations, a neatly curving melody, and happy swoops upward in the violins. The scales grow out of the syncopations and melody, and they end the piece, left naked when rhythm under them drops out. There’s nothing to these scales, and yet they sound modestly perfect. They stop short of what you’d think was going to be their final note, a deft touch, and also a conceptual echo of the first melodic phrases, which also end one note short of what you think will be their destination. The note these phrases end on is prolonged, which underlines how perfectly “not right” it is. (Not right in the best sense, of course.)

Though certainly these fine points wouldn’t mean anything if the music weren’t so attractive. Melodies swing by with an easy familiarity, making themselves right at home in part because they really do sound familiar, but not so familiar that they’re obvious. One great virtue of this music is that it’s never too easy. (Like—shudder—the horrors on the latest CD from the pop-tart string quartet Bond, in which four British women, made over so they barely look human, play empty junk over bad dance beats.) You can hear Invert yourself on their engaging website, where of course you can also buy the CD.

(One track, by the way, that does work on Bond’s new album is “Kashmir,” the Led Zeppelin song. It emerges, even on those inhuman shores, as great music: strong, prodding, insistent, and unmistakable. Let’s adopt it into the classical canon!)

2. Make His Praise Glorious

Wait, how’d we get here from “Kashmir?” This is a CD of American religious music (subtitled American Psalmody, Volume I), sung by Gloriae Dei Cantores, a terrific and very famous chorus based on Cape Cod, conducted by Elizabeth C. Patterson. It’s one of six CDs they sent me, the latest being The Lord is My Shepherd: American Psalmody Volume III. Others give us Bach; sacred and secular music by Copland and Virgil Thomson; and some Appalachian folk hymns, with Mark O’Connor joining the chorus on violin.

The CD I listened to—and picking it more or less at random, I suspect, was unfair to the others, but I had to start somewhere—came out in 1998. Most of the music is for chorus and organ; the organ is a noble instrument housed in a hall specially built for it in Methuen, MA. (It’s a law of nature, by the way, that music critics almost never know much about organs and their music, so I won’t say more. But somebody, I trust, is reading what I’ve written here, and saying, “Oh, that organ! Why didn’t he say so?”) The organ really does sound spectacular, recorded at a suitably great distance, with the chorus echoing in the space in front of it. (Or that’s how it sounds on the CD.)

The drop-dead highlight of the disc is Charles Ives‘s Psalm 90, which (for very different reasons than the issues that arise with organs) I barely trust myself to describe. I said I wanted to talk about musical works as machines, but forget it—the only machine I understand in this piece is a low pedal note that resonates throughout. I guess I could tie together various things that might otherwise seem only loosely connected—a strong and quiet unison melody at the beginning, dissonant cries elsewhere—but mostly what this music does, at least for me, is invoke a timeless sense of awe.

So the main thing I hear in the piece is that awe—awe of God, awe at the hugeness of His presence, awe at the meeting of human voices with the great shock of eternity. I’ve never heard that conveyed so unmistakably, not even in Bach. One weakness in the piece, if this piece had any weaknesses, would be its rhythm, which is square and (from a merely mortal point of view) far too literal; the syllables of the text present themselves one by one, without much flow or rhythmic contrast. This, though, is just a fancy way of pointing out the obvious—that Ives doesn’t care to write music with the worldly grace of Poulenc, let’s say, or Cole Porter. In his hands, the blunt rhythm underlines the majesty of God; you can’t be smooth or fancy in His presence. One shock in the piece is church bells—really raucous and metallic, as they’re recorded here—that break in suddenly when the chorus sings about God’s wrath and then swing softly at the end to evoke (with giant tenderness) God’s love.

I could comment here about the use of consonance and dissonance—dissonance for wrath, consonance for love, but that would be ridiculous, a perfect example of how trivial analysis can be. In music by anyone conventional, so obvious a translation of music into meaning (consonance happy, dissonance sad) would be an embarrassment, an invitation to suggest the poor composer turn the thing around and try writing triads whenever God gets angry. But from Ives it’s perfect. I can’t pay the chorus (and its conductor) any higher compliment than to say that they catch the mood and music of the piece with equal perfection. From any purely musical point of view, their intonation of dissonance is exemplary and so is the force with which they bite right into it, but that pales before the awe that they reflect.

The rest of the CD doesn’t stand comparison, which is unfair, but true. Let’s honor the group for recording so much new music, by composers like Hovhaness, Samuel Adler, Ronald A. Nelson, and Robert Starer. The Hovhaness piece, Make a Joyful Noise, in four movements, does cast a fine peaceful glow; it’s one of the few works that could follow the Ives (as it does here) and sound welcome. That’s partly due to the solemn sound—which, with many thanks to both Hovhaness and Elizabeth Patterson, never seems pompous—of trombones joining the organ. But as the movements droned on, I found myself caring less and less about what happened in them, in marked contrast to what happened when I listened to the Ives and sat wide-eyed with amazement at every note.

As for the rest…again, it’s no fault of the chorus that some music just isn’t very interesting. (It’s also no fault of the very fine liner notes, written by Craig Timberlake, who, with a sharp eye and ear for musical niceties, instructively finds something notable in every piece.) Daniel Pinkham, for instance, comes off (in four short choruses) as the anti-Ives, touched with just enough grace to make his music flow, but restricted and conventional in his response to words. I wondered, no doubt unfairly, what would happen if he composed erotica, rather than religious works. Would that wake him up? Though his sense of harmony—his sure touch in placing interesting dissonances in a firmly tonal context—is something all of us could learn from.

Howard Hanson (represented by How Excellent Thy Name) has a good sense of musical architecture; material that isn’t very interesting seems to last just the right amount of time. Randall Thompson, whose work I haven’t heard for decades, is just as mellifluous as I remembered, and maybe seems even more strikingly so, because such a pure delight in thirds and triads isn’t all that common now. His setting of Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”) starts with fine assurance then degenerates. If only he’d found a second musical idea as good as his first!

One complaint: The soloists who step out from the chorus aren’t very good. But don’t let my complaints about that, or about any of the music, detract from Gloriae Dei Cantores, a superb group, whose many CDs (and I promise at least to sample the other five I have) are available from Paraclete Press.

3. Metamorphosis

This—on New Albion—is the first solo CD from Jean Jeanrenaud, formerly the cellist of the Kronos Quartet. It’s a labor of love and exploration; a tribute to new directions and personal growth. It’s also very serious, often lovely, but rarely playful. (Of course, I could say that about Gloriae Dei Cantores, too.)

It starts with a Steve Mackey piece, Cairn, which taught me a lot about how I listen, though I should say first that it’s about something very sober—mourning for Jeanrenaud’s stillborn child. It starts with some decisive but also uneasy cello music, a musical figure with a clear, composerly profile—first a rhythmic jump upwards, then a descent—which then with no warning collapses into an unhappy slide downward, toward an edge I didn’t know was there. But when an answering phrase emerges, full of rhythmic changes, the whole thing sounds composerly again—very wrought, very thought-about, very much in the wake of much contemporary music that I’ve heard. This isn’t at all bad, but somehow loses my attention, even though Jeanrenaud plays it all with intense concentration on little details of tone and phrasing, so that wisps of emotion seem to flash in and out of focus. I like that, but still this part of the piece loses me. It’s all too dense—a comment that I’ll quickly say tells more about me, perhaps, than about the music.

But after a while something else starts happening—a little four-note rising scale (in harmonics, I think), with lower notes preceding it, the arrangement of them changing each time the scale is played. Somehow this grips me. It keeps repeating, though with the changes I’ve mentioned. The repetition draws me in; I find it mournful, strange, and comforting and I love the way other things get layered over it as Jeanrenaud plays against herself in prerecorded loops. Somewhere in the piece, she writes (in liner notes), she improvises. I wonder if it’s here. In any case, this is the part of the piece I really like; I feel like I’m responding most to music that grows like something in nature or, to put it in quite an opposite way, to music that really sounds like a process defined only by itself (it would be misleading here to use the word “machine.”)

But then—especially if Jeanrenaud is improvising—there’s freedom juxtaposed to the process I enjoy, so maybe I’m reacting to the joining (very Hegelian) of freedom to necessity. I stress my own reactions, not to put myself above the piece, but to emphasize how personal they are, how much they’re merely my reactions, not a judgment of the music.

The work I like most on Metamorphosis is The Song of Songs, by Karen Tanaka. This I find just lovely. The machinery inside it seems powered by a willingness to opt for sheer beauty—tiny bells against a soft carpet of electronics, the cello turning in the air above it. Again Jeanrenaud, in her performance, seems to go right to the heart of the piece. But my explanation of the process here—”a willingness to opt for sheer beauty”—seems sentimental (as well as pretty vague) since God knows how many awful, empty things I’ve heard in which beauty was all the composer seemed to aim at. Here there’s clearly much more going on, and one thing I notice (as the music plays through headphones as I write) is how the electronics faithfully keep the cello company, like a friend or loyal servant. The machine then might be Tanaka’s openness to time and flow, the way she feels the weight and movement of every note she writes.

(It’s a shame, let me gently say, that the composer, in the liner notes, take pains to tell us how “the pitch organization is intentionally simple.” To quote Brahms—famously responding to someone who told him the big tune in the last movement of his first symphony sounded like the big tune in Beethoven’s Ninth—”any fool can hear that.” The statement comes across (or is this me?) as an apology, as if to say, “Look, I know music is supposed to sound more complex than this, but I wrote it this way on purpose.” Enough of that; we’ve thrown out the elephant precisely so every piece of music can stand up for itself.)

The music with the most perceptible machine is Metamorphosis Four by Philip Glass, which is actually a piano piece which Jeanrenaud arranged, sonorously and skillfully, for four celli. (Scary thought: The title now sounds like one of those pieces from the ‘70s—Cataclysm VI, Dysfunction V—which academic composers wrote, and which Philip, if you’ll let me simplify some history, led the revolt against.) Here, of course, the machine is formed from Philip’s familiar chord progressions and arpeggios, which wear their repetitions on their sleeve. But to me the very clarity of all those repetitions—the way the piece so plainly tells you what it is—is a way that it also wears its heart on its sleeve, with emotion as unmistakable as its mechanism.

I’m re-listening now to the final piece, Blond Red, by Mark Gray and I’m getting happily lost in the soundscape it presents (wonderful computer-generated stuff, hanging lost in space.) I don’t want that part to end. I remember, though, that it does end as Gray unpredictably abandons the soundscape I like so much and starts getting rhythmic. But then the rhythmic stuff is fun to hear as well and the machine here might be powered, at least in part, by Gray’s determination. He’ll do what he wants, no matter what we think he’s led us to expect.

There’s also Escalay by Hamza El Din, where at least on the surface, rhythmic propulsion seems to make more impact than anything else. Though there’s also an engaging choice of notes and timbres (pizzicato at the start, for instance, with a sense of easy exploration.) I could say there’s very little in this music; I think of it as just a solo line, even though I read (on the back cover of the CD) and also hear that Jeanrenaud plays, again, against herself in prerecorded rhythmic loops. But I can’t remember spending 17 happier minutes listening to any music that makes no pronouncements about itself and seems so (deceptively) simple.

I’m sad, though, that I don’t get more caught up in Jeanrenaud’s own composition, Altar Piece. There’s something I don’t quite get in the way it builds from quiet harmonics into churning tension; each end of the evolution seems too obviously the antithesis of the other. What’s hard to explain is why that doesn’t satisfy me here, when things just as obvious worked for me when Invert did them. Maybe that’s because Invert doesn’t take itself so seriously. But then Ives certainly is serious. Jeanrenaud, at least to my ear, is forcing things a bit.

4. Rapture

It’s not quite clear if this is the title of Michael Torke‘s new CD (on Naxos), or just of the percussion concerto that concludes it. I’ll vote for the former; CDs ought to have a title, and Rapture is a good one.

The concerto is pretty fabulous. Nobody’s going to say that Michael isn’t playful and this piece is just a feast of play, with Colin Currie an exuberant and precise soloist. The cast of performers is completed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by Marin Alsop (and stretched, I’d say, a little outside their comfort zone when the music gets intense.) But then all three pieces on the CD—Rapture, Jasper, and An American Abroad—come from Michael’s long association with the orchestra, as its Associate Composer. So the Royal Scots are surely doing something right.

The play in the concerto grows out of its machinery, at least as I hear it, then turns around and animates the machine. Michael’s wonderful idea was not to separate the music for the soloist and orchestra, but instead to write for both together, creating (this is my image now) a single dancing beast, with many legs. One result is that the soloist keeps busy all the time; there aren’t lengthy tuttis for the orchestra alone. Another result is intricately interweaving rhythms or, really, one large rhythm (at least in the first and last movements), which the soloist creates and the orchestra in effect explains by assigning pitches, chords, and colors to each rhythmic point. Though now it strikes me that the process works the other way in the last movement; there the orchestra seems to take the lead, with the percussion marking rhythmic spikes in the pitches, chords, and colors that the orchestra lays out.

The second, slower movement oscillates in short waves between orchestra and percussion, the soloist this time playing only the marimba. It’s all very peaceful and right now (again I’m re-listening as I write) the strings are doing graceful things between marimba oscillations. The movement, I just noticed, oscillates two ways—between soloist and orchestra and between the higher and lower notes of a two-note figure that everybody plays.

Repetition, of course, is one of Michael’s trademarks, and he handles it with special grace in An American Abroad. It sounds like some strange hybrid of Gershwin (you can guess which piece) and Philip Glass. Though “hybrid” doesn’t sound quite right—I’d more precisely say that this is music by someone who’s clearly listened to Glass and Gershwin then gone out on his own.

And there’s another happy pleasure here, as well: Michael sounds like he’s in love with big orchestral scores, both from the classical repertoire and from the movies. His trick though—not really a fair word, but it’s a neat (and, again, wonderfully playful) compositional finesse—is to build the elements of conventional orchestral scores out of repetition, which normally would be foreign to them. At the end of the piece, for instance, there’s a genuine Big Theme, rising first out of the low brass, then coming back in the winds and trumpets. But, it’s built from nine repeats of a single motif, making it minimal as well as big.

Michael writes about this with exceptional intelligence in his liner notes. “The melodies and rhythms may sound directional,” he writes (to quote only one short sentence), “but overall the music expresses a kind of celebration of itself, a state of sustained feeling for its own sake.” A steady state, I’d add. But within the steady state are striking contrasts. New musical ideas pop up; old ideas show up in new clothes; I found I listened with relaxed delight, choosing my favorite ideas as they passed by, then wondering where and how they’d come back.

And new sections of the piece introduce themselves in surprising ways. You could say, if you were writing boring program notes, that the piece owns three pieces of musical property, corresponding to the three movements of a classical concerto: fast, slow, and fast again. But the slow acreage does something the fast acreage doesn’t—it settles into a tune, and a really lovely one, very much a tribute to Gershwin, and a worthy tribute, too. It’s a terrific tune, led by the oboe. If they knew this solo, I’d imagine that the principal oboist of every major orchestra would petition management—or, I’d hope, imposingly demand—to program this piece.

And when it’s time for what I’ll call the finale, the new fast tempo is introduced in the light shades of the harp, a complete surprise, since there’s been nothing like it in anything that came before. The finale continues to unfold more lightly than I thought it would, for instance with a happy passage highlighting the xylophone and piccolo. Then there’s a dance for fragmented brass, tapping out a melody in little separated groups of notes. Now I’m just reciting the piece to you, chortling, I guess, about how much I’m enjoying it. When the big tune arrives in the low brass, the sonority is deeply satisfying, which brings me to yet another way the piece works—by finding, thanks to Michael’s mastery of orchestration, just the right sound at each moment. The underlying stasis is hard to miss, but so is the parade of treats playing on the surface.

5. Mercy

I’ll end where I began, with Meredith. I’ve got her voice in my headphones, singing a curling line at the start of the first track of the CD of music from the Ann Hamilton collaboration, faithfully recorded by ECM. Other voices start supporting her, like hands holding her in the air while she turns. I hear what I thought was an ordinary vibraphone, but which the CD booklet tells me is actually a vibraphone that’s bowed. Soon there’s a piano, playing, over and over, versions of the same thing, while someone starts a singsong chant in French.

As always in Meredith’s music, the effect is strangely sad, and also joyful. Also grounded, and completely honest. This is her. This is also the people she works with, who wouldn’t be asked to sing or play anything that didn’t fit with them.

As for the spine of the music—its machine—that’s easy to identify. Again, it’s repetition but what makes the music grow as it proceeds is change. Each section grows new shoots as it progresses, and each one finds new ways to somehow stay in one place while it grows. The movement that ends both the staged production and the CD—it’s a vocal piece: careful, sad, intimate, and somehow noble—just stops dead in mid-phrase, as if refusing to decide whether life should be static or evolving. And, of course, that ending is another kind of growth, a straight jump to silence, something that we haven’t yet encountered in the piece.

But this dissection seems beside the point. Anyone can hear what I’m talking about. What I love is something beyond analysis, the way the music seems to heal me. It’s so deeply healthy that I grow stronger in response. This isn’t a magic quality or metaphysical (though I’m all for magic and metaphysics.) It’s what comes from going deep within yourself and trusting what you find. I’m listening to the CD again and thinking that the mercy running through it is reliable; it warms me every time. This is one piece of the elephant I’d like to live with forever.

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