Monday, October 13, 2008

Like a Patient Etherized upon a Table...

When you play a piece of music, there are many different ways of playing it – not to mention the distinction made between practicing, rehearsing and performing it (and for some lucky players, recording it). While you learn the notes, you come to terms with the technical aspects, beginning simply with getting the right notes, placing them in the right place, phrasing and articulating the notes, then the structure, then the connections and so on. Getting “what’s between the notes” comes with exposure and understanding. Sometimes, you discover “what’s behind the notes” which may give you some insight into what’s on the written page which in turn may give you different kind of interpretation than what you hear other musicians playing.

And meanwhile, you, the player, react to what you’re learning to play and then, once learned, coming to terms with it as a performer. And always listening.

And not every piece requires (expects - demands) the same level of attention: some pieces are harder to play, technically, or more difficult to put together than others. Others present other options to consider: some are fairly straight-forward while others present more questions than answers. One of the things you often hear about “great art” is that it allows you to constantly be discovering new things when you listen to or play a piece – and like people who grow and change with passing time, our listening to a piece of music we’ve heard or played in the past might be invigorated by perspectives that also grow and change as we do.

A pianist could take an “impressionist” approach to, say, Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata (the first movement’s dreamy night-time reverie sitting in a silver-tinged landscape under a full-moon; the finale’s thunderstorm), a “theatrical one” (the first movement’s contemplation of lost love, the middle movement’s nostalgic memories, the finale’s turbulent heart-break and violent passions) or a literal one (a moderate tempo in the first movement, a kind of song-without-words; a minuet that’s not really a minuet but a more realistic respite between these otherwise atypical outer movements; a finale that is agitato without going overboard, being sure to place the accents where they belong because they’re not always where you expect them or even where a lot of performers seem to put them), all of which still reflects what Beethoven left us, even if we ignore the nickname some critic (not the composer) gave it.

To bring those different kinds of possibilities to, say, the little “Facile” Sonata that Mozart wrote – the one in C Major, K.545, which every budding piano-player has to deal with at some point – is neither possible nor wise, though the structures behind the music might be very similar if not the same (in the Mozart, the trick for more advanced players is to remember the difference between “childish” and “child-like”).

And so Bruce Adolphe decided to approach a Beethoven string quartet from a slightly different perspective, offering another viewpoint that might allow a listener (or a player) to hear a familiar work in a new way.

I wasn’t sure what he was going to “do” with Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 95 which the composer himself (not a critic, not the publisher) called “Quartetto serioso.” This is either the last of the “Middle Quartets” or the first of the “Late Quartets” in the progress of Beethoven’s development from a late-18th Century composer who idolized Mozart and whom Haydn tried to control to a composer who, even in his own time, must have sounded like an off-the-wall avant-garde composer writing modern music that went far beyond the boundaries of what his contemporaries considered “proper.” If you listen to Beethoven’s music today, you hear it filtered through all the music you’ve experienced, whether it’s Brahms and Wagner, Stravinsky and Schoenberg, Elliott Carter and Philip Glass or Glenn Miller and Kurt Cobain without realizing how much of a shock this must have been to its first-time listeners in 1810, the year after Haydn died.

It’s easy to argue about whether art is cyclical (what goes around, comes around) or linear (the chronological progression from one composer, one era, to the next) and of course there are always exceptions. The people who created this art are perhaps even more complex that the art they created: we just tend to forget the details of the creators when we have, separated by so much time and context, just their art.

When I was teaching at the University of Connecticut, I asked some of my junior-level students to write down the first things that came to mind when they heard the name “Beethoven!” Most answers were easily anticipated – “Great Music” or “Hero” but also “deaf” and (back in the days when a comic named Steve Martin was everywhere) “a wild and crazy guy.”

In one of those moments where you realize why you teach, one of these students had written down the word “pain.” She said she was thinking of his constant suffering and struggling to survive. “Because he was deaf?” I asked as a kind of devil’s advocate. “No, not just that,” she said, going on to mention episodes in his life that can be telegraphed by his relationships – the Immortal Beloved, the Nephew – as well as how difficult his personality was in relation to the society he lived in. She heard this pain in a lot of his music – she mentioned the last movement of the “Moonlight” Sonata – or the “other side” when he was trying to ignore the pain, perhaps, surfacing in the manic energy of the 7th Symphony, what you might call “working through the pain” – one of my students, perhaps her, had once told me the slow movement of the 7th was some of the saddest music she’d ever heard.

Now, it’s always difficult to psychoanalyze the music or the composer because in many ways you can counter any argument by saying “all composers are different” just as “all listeners are different” – just as for every Democratic response to the economic issues we face politically and socially today can be countered by an equal and usually opposite Republican reaction to the same issue – and vice-versa (even if the response is no more grounded than just saying “it won’t work”). What every performer must do and what every listener should do is something every composer has to do before putting notes down on paper: make an honest committment to the moment. It doesn’t matter if it’s two- or three-hundred years old or brand new. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve heard the piece before or if you’re hearing it the first time. If you’ve heard it fifty times in your life – concerts, on the radio, listening to CDs – there’s someone nearby who may be hearing it for the first time.

Bruce Adolphe’s presentations tend to use humor seriously – like his turning the first movement of Mozart’s G Minor Piano Quartet into a murder trial at a Market Square Concert a few seasons ago – so when it was announced he was going to describe Beethoven’s “Serioso” as an example of “Tourette Syndrome in Music,” I was wondering if people might show up to picket the performance. True, you can look over a list of symptoms and find musical examples that might correspond to them – certainly, his sharp unexpected accents and swift changes of mood come to mind. And it’s not that everything has to be “humorous” even in a piece called “Serioso.” In fact, in addition perhaps to being a little better prepared with the examples he wanted the quartet to play and running back and forth from the raised platform down to the otherwise unused piano, the presentation might have benefited from a little less humor or maybe it was just, in the apparent lack of preparation with the players, the humor hit the wrong notes but “rightly played” could have been the kind of contrast between light and dark Beethoven himself could give you in his music.

The idea was not, it turned out, to “have fun” at the expense of people who suffer with this disease: he made that very clear at the beginning. The idea was not to imply that Beethoven suffered from this along with any other number of things that at the time were unnamed and just passed off as aspects of his personality. The idea was, in essence, to describe the piece – actually, to “diagnose” the piece – as if it itself suffered from something and it was up to the doctor to treat it as he would any other patient.

Part of this involved a little bit of surgery, removing something that a listener in 1810 would have thought a mistake on the second violinist’s part (minor cosmetic surgery) or an unpleasant transition from one point to another. By exploding a chord at one point, Beethoven veers off into unexpected harmonic territory only to resolve it to some expected place after all by means of a harmonic trick. To explain this, Adolphe had the quartet play the passage under the microscope as it’s written, then asked them to cut out a few measures. Unfortunately the resolution still sounded abrupt because it was now without any transition at all: a second-year theory student should be able to write a couple of chords as a “transplant” replacing the “cancerous cells” that would make a more pleasant modulation, and it might have helped make the point to hear how somebody less than Beethoven might have handled it.

But still, the point was clear: the question is, why was Beethoven doing this? Or, if you’re examining the piece of music like a patient, what was happening here to make this simple structure not function the way such structures were intended? Beyond identifying the symptoms and naming them, what could be done to help the patient?

Adolphe began by describing an incident that happened to him recently in a New York train station, a story that anyone who’s lived in New York City could have experienced, how this guy came up to him on the platform and just started cursing at him and gesticulating wildly – just as the quartet began to play the opening music, with its wild turning pattern and sharply articulated leaps. Then the man calmed down and started to walk away (the music calms down) but then suddenly he turned and came back at him again (as does the music, now, with equal suddenness and building of tension). He would go on to explain how intervals in this opening pattern found their way into other passages – most notably the odd-sounding cello solo that opens the slow movement. He also identified a “trigger point” which seems to set the music off into these unexpected tangents – a simple stepping up from F to F-sharp (or G-flat – on the piano, they’re the same note) sometimes with barely any preparation at all, sometimes even more suddenly by just picking up and dropping down into the new key of F-sharp (“whoa, what was that?!”) – which might cause the music to react the same way a friend of mine might react if you just mentioned the word “Hillary”...

The curious thing about this “trigger,” technically speaking, it’s simply another way of treating a harmonic progression, the movement of one chord to another. Several of my teachers over the years described this by writing three Roman numerals on the board:

I – V – I

This the musical shorthand for a tonic chord moving to a dominant chord moving back to the tonic chord again. In the white-rat garden-variety key of C major, a C chord to a G chord back to a C chord. This is the simplest progression – away from and back to the same sonority – and really nothing more than an automatic expectation.

Then they put another symbol in between the first two chords:

I – X – V – I

This “X” now represents a new chord that could become something to prolong the digression from the C chord before we get to the G chord, whether it’s one chord or a bunch of them. But sticking to the basic cadential formula, it could become

I – IV – V – I

or a C chord to an F chord to a G chord before ending satisfactorily on a C chord. There are different ways you can expand this – you can fool a listener who is expecting that final C chord by replacing it with an A Minor chord – which has two of the same pitches in it, but it sounds completely UN-final and therefore needs to resolve further in order to reach that expected C major chord:

I – IV – V – vi

If you want to really throw the listener for a loop, once the “deceptive resolution” to A minor sounds “so last year,” you switch it to an A-FLAT major chord which then allows you a ton of other expectations:

I – IV – V – ♭VI

Like any tangent, this now requires a little more work before you – aaaah! – finally get to where you expected to go in the first place – that last C Major chord.

You could also substitute another “almost-identical” chord for the IV, the original “X” chord. Instead of an F Major chord (built on the pitches F-A-C), you could insert a D Minor chord (D-F-A built on the 2nd degree of the C Major scale and therefore Roman-numeralized as a “ii”) but in its first inversion, putting the third note of the chord – the F – in the bass so it’s now an F-A-D chord (same chord, just a different ‘voicing’):

I – ii6 – V – I

Composers often played with the expectations a listener might have between major and minor chords – or by extension their tonalities – “inflecting” something from the minor world into the major one. This goes back to the uncomfortable generalization that “minor is sad” and “major is happy” kind of thing – one is dark, the other light – but like a shadow passing over the surface, hearing an A-flat in an otherwise C Major passage would be something to notice: it’s not expected.

Substituting an F MINOR chord for the IV – thus making it a “iv” chord (upper-case = major chord, lower-case = minor chord) – can bring out a new and different emotional response with this inflection of the A-flat from the parallel world of C Minor:

I – iv – V – I

If you go back to that “ii-chord” substitution and now work with the two common notes of F and A-flat, and switch the D to a D-flat, you have not only a minor “inflection” but also a note that does not belong to the scale of C Major OR C Minor. This is usually handled as a first-inversion chord, again, with the expected F in the bass – F - A-flat - D-flat – which then resolves to a G Major chord et cetera...

I – ♭II6 – V – I

Whether this “sound” was invented in Naples, Italy, or not, it’s become known as a “Neapolitan Chord,” one of a variety of geographically identified chords that have certain intrinsic structures and expectations of their own.

Beethoven is, however, often using the emotional response for this chord more directly, more “in-your-face” by NOT playing with the “oh, I’m just masquerading as a IV chord” kind of chord. And in his aggressive rhythmic and melodic patterns, it becomes startling – in 1810, possibly even frightening. It’s not what the listener expected and it’s playing with these expectations that opened up whole new worlds of sound and harmonic technique that may lead directly or indirectly to further confusions of expectations in Schubert or Wagner or Schoenberg.

As my teachers would explain it, “I-V-I is just a raw element of music, a cliche.” (In pop music today, perhaps it’s I-♭VII-I but the analogy is still there.) Pointing to the X in the “I-X-V-I” pattern on the board, he’d say, underscoring the X, “THAT’s composition.”

Looking for humor in Beethoven’s agitated “Serious” Quartet might have brought up the possibility of placing Op. 95 on prozac. By calming down the opening’s abrupt motive to become more acceptable, more of what listeners then expected, would it turn into just another faceless quartet in the crowd? Hoffmeister, perhaps? It wouldn’t take much to rewrite a few measure here and there to show what we would have lost if Beethoven were on medication...

As Adolphe concluded, whether we think it’s the pain that Beethoven experienced that he put into the music or the piece of music itself that bears the pain – after all, he said, “Beethoven is dead” (unless of course you believe in a weird kind of parallel universe, whether or not they continue to live through their music) – we have the piece and we can hear its pain. And the pain becomes ours.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

While I’m not in the mind-set to write reviews of performances I hear, though some people expect it – let me repeat, I am not a music critic despite whatever opinions I may have or whatever other people think of them – it’s impossible not to comment on the performance of the Beethoven “Serioso” Quartet given by the Daedalus Quartet at Saturday night’s opening performance with Market Square Concerts.

This is a group I’d heard a little over three years ago playing Sibelius’ underrated String Quartet with a more enigmatic nickname, “Intimate Voices,” a work that figures on their first CD release from the Bridge label. For one reason or another, I hadn’t listened to this disc: even without listening to it when we got it at the station, I automatically ordered a copy for myself. It was odd, driving in to hear them play at Market Square Church and listening to their performance of the Sibelius on the ride in and the ride back. Of course, the listening conditions in my car were not as good as hearing a live-performance anywhere, one reason why sitting in a concert hall in quasi-religious confinement listening to music is better for the experience (unless you’re just looking for pretty wall-paper). By concentrating your focus on the music, you absorb more of what the composer wrote and how the musicians interpreted it. Some of it, also, is just the “communal experience” of sharing this concentration with the rest of the audience as well as communing with the music. Granted, I should’ve listened to it in my living room, if the Kittens of Mass Distraction would allow the ability to focus (of course, there, if the phone rings, I feel more obligated to answer it than to hurl silent curses to the idiot with the cell phone two rows down...).

But I was still wondering why this piece isn’t heard more often. I don’t recall it being programmed locally before, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t play it more than three times the whole 18 years I was working at the radio station, once to promote the Daedalus’ performance with the Next Generation Festival that year.

Beethoven’s Op. 95 is in a different category. Listeners have the opportunity not only to hear this one work frequently, it’s not unusual to hear it on an all-Beethoven program with two other quartets – or even in the context of a Complete Quartet Cycle.

Whether or not the Daedalus Quartet was influenced by the image of the music being laid out on an examining table – reminding me of that cadaverous exhibit going around called “Our Bodies” – they certainly gave it a very visceral performance. By pushing what would have sounded unexpected in 1810 (or whenever it was first performed: Beethoven didn’t publish it for another six years), they made it sound fresh and frightening today, not belabored by what most audiences expect after two more centuries down the road. For some listeners who like their music clean, this may have been an over-the-top performance, pushing the tempo to a risk-taking breaking-point. Regardless, it was a clean performance, note-wise at least, even if at times the emotions got a little messy.

The Haydn that opened the program, the second of the Opus 20 set known as the “Sun Quartets,” was appropriately all light and sunshine, not to sound too perky about it. I love this quartet, mostly because the cello actually has something to do beyond just kicking out the bass-line. This was a clean performance in all respects. The second movement is a curious “slow” movement called a Capriccio which one could argue, in terms of diagnosing the Beethoven, suffers a bit from ADD: before you know it, what sounds like it could be another episode turns out to be the next movement. Papa Haydn and his jokes, always playing with your expectations! And the last movement was so well controlled, starting off hushed before ending with a bang, it didn’t dawn on me (no pun intended) it could be called the “Crescendo” Quartet.

It might have been beneficial to hear the Beethoven immediately after this very nice work by his teacher, written only 38 years earlier (If the Beethoven were new today, that means the Haydn would've been written in 1970 - how old is that?). Keeping in line with the prognosis on the second half (given a concert-series sponsored in part by a health insurance company), the slot usually reserved for the less familiar, more challenging and generally new piece was a work written in 1992 by Bruce Adolphe. Being there to set up the Beethoven, he said a few words about his own piece – better than reading the program notes, if you did: it wasn’t quite like having somebody doing a power-point presentation and then reading everything to you as if you can’t understand it, yourself – that helped put the music in a more subjective context.

While he was working on the idea for a new quartet, a relative was diagnosed with a serious illness. Since music cannot tell a story, it can till imply one but it can also imply any number of similar stories or different details, often none of which the composer had in mind – even in words, reading Moby Dick is one thing, figuring out what it means is something else.

After describing how the first movement describes the personality changes between shock at hearing the news and the attempts (with humor) at trying to keep your mind off it; how in the second movement there is a slow tick-like motive in the 2nd violin and viola with the 1st violin cast as the patient and the cello, as the disease; how in the final movement, a double canon, we feel trapped in this kind of never-ending texture - after all this, he says someone remarked to him that it could just as well be a story about gazelles being stalked by a hunter. True, he thought, there’s no way to control the listener to think specifically of this relative, that disease and those thoughts – but in hindsight, it’s still the same story where the gazelles (at times playful) are the patient, the hunter (ever persistent) is the disease. One assumes from the open-endedness of the last movement (no real finale in the wrapping-up sense), the cousin may have survived to hear the work since the music is more about ones thoughts on mortality rather than on death, dying and mourning.

That being said, there were a lot of things to listen for in this piece – and grateful for the composer’s insight to have many of them pointed out, whether one would hear them without it or not. There were gentle passages like a minimalist cushion for whatever may have been happening on the surface – the ticking motive that came from the title given the work, “Whispers of Mortality” (as opposed to T.S. Eliot’s “Whispers of Immortality”) or a kind of rhythmic rising-and-falling (breathing?) that reminded me of something I heard by Scott Pender back in the mid-1980s, a touch of Steve Reich as one of many dialects absorbed into a composer’s own language.

Whether they have performed this piece before or learned it for this concert, paired with the composer for his Beethoven presentation, it’s hard to tell. Their individual playing was impressive as well – the cellist, so pristine-sounding in the Haydn now taking on the role of villain; the 1st violinist’s virtuosic outbursts that recur (often repeatedly) throughout the piece – but still blending into a cohesive unit as a single quartet of different but equal components.

On first hearing, there’s nothing I could fault the quartet or the composer for except for feeling the ending something of a let-down, proportionally, not that it needed a more dramatic turn or even a last minute reprieve like the buck-and-wing that ends Beethoven’s Op. 95. This ending – if it can be called that – came primarily as a surprise when it stopped, begging for a second hearing to make more sense out of it. After all, how much great art can you truly absorb in one encounter?

There was one curious thing that happened during Bruce Adolphe's quartet, “Whispers of Mortality” - it was as if an off-stage conversation (more of a growing argument) were taking place somewhere else in the building with doors slamming and occasional laughter. At first, I thought I was imagining things but eventually, especially during the short last movement, I noticed other people looking around uncomfortably, too. It almost seemed part of the piece (Quartet for Strings and Off-Stage Theatricals? More Whispers than You Bargained For? The Grim Reaper Coming to Take You Away?) . In the end, I was reminded of another T.S. Eliot reference:

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.”

...and I had this odd hankering for a peach...

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