July 12, 2014
From experiments to traditional melody
For the Herald
Contemporary music: a hard to define genre that caters to different audiences in BA
I recently wrote about Nono’s Prometeo and several sessions of the Ciclo de Conciertos MSC Contemporánea curated by Martín Bauer, and made it plain that I felt his views are too narrow for an adequate panorama of current music.
In earlier seasons, he had offered music by Gérard Grisey, considered in France the founder of “musique spectrale” (based on the musical spectre where sounds are associated with colours). This time we heard three scores by Grisey (1946-1998) at the Usina del Arte hall.
Hard to define it as “contemporary,” since Grisey lived a short life and is no longer with us, but he was born after myself (1938), so he was certainly my contemporary, although he isn’t contemporary for an eighteen-year old nowadays; however, his music is certainly avant-garde. But even that is difficult to evaluate, for Varèse’s 1920s music remains astonishingly new. However, the dictionary Funk & Wagnalls says: “1) Contemporaneous: living or existing at the same time; 2) Having the same age; coeval”.
But there’s the matter of the “Zeitgeist,” the spirit of the times. The trouble is that the definition of it varies widely according to the country, and even within a particular one diverse coteries feel it quite differently. And it shows in the audiences: the taste of many goes (luckily) from Bach to Tchaikovsky and consider it rash to programme Hindemith; but others are only fascinated by the newest trend and call even Stravinsky “passé.”
Also, you will encounter composers that write now as in 1900 and others who grope for something new and most of the time don’t find it, simply because we are in deep crisis as concerns the art of composition: dialectically there is no direction now. For in this century nothing really new has appeared; two trends dominate but come from decades ago: sound itself as prime parameter and or minimalism. Both trends are exhausted and no one knows where to go.
Grisey was one of the best practitioners of those that privileged sound; he was preceded first by Varèse and then by Penderecki, but Grisey had personality although his music is uneven. In the 40-minute Vortex temporum (1995), you hear flutes and clarinets of various sizes plus strings and piano.
Several sections merge into another, and textures change between enormous turbulence, slow dissolves, big silences, crunches and chords; the piece is overlong but imaginative textures make it palatable. Instead, the prologue to the cycle The Acoustic Spaces (1976) is for only viola, and its 15 minutes overstay their welcome, even in the skilled hands of Garth Knox.
Les chants de l’amour (The songs of love — 1984), 35’, for twelve mixed voices with microphones and quadraphonic track, expose the listener to shouts, spoken fragments recorded in Spanish, repeated “I love you” interjections. Some bits I found expressive, others seemed cacophonic and insincere. Both the Ensemble Sonorama in the first score and Nonsense (vocal ensemble of soloists) seemed brilliant executants.
I skipped a Lachenmann collage that seemed too far out, as well as a performance about The Rite of Spring, where Xavier Le Roy mimed the movements of a conductor. But I attended El gran teatro de Oklahoma, an opera by the Argentine Marcos Franciosi, on the homonymous chapter from Kafka’s America, libretto by Diego Cosín and Franciosi. This was at the intimate Casacuberta, a venue I find most congenial.
It is an opera inasmuch as it is sung most of the time, but what it tells is almost nonexistent and the all the singers are amplified. Its decibel level is about 80 percent of the time akin to heavy metal. By saturation and repetitiveness it does obtain a Kafkaesque sensation, but I wouldn’t care to submit myself again to the piece (while Strauss’ Elektra is terrible but life-enhancing). Some traits of absurd humour are welcome. The nine-member instrumentation works well and the seven voice soloists are faced with tough challenges; Franciosi is certainly resourceful though I dislike the results. Mind you, the young people in the audience thought it was great.
Splendid work from Nonsense, especially Virginia Majorel, Alejandro Spies and Javier Lezcano, and first-rate playing of the Ensemble Süden and two flutists under the solvent conducting of Valeria Martinelli. Very good staging by Walter Jakob with the intelligent two-level stage design of Ariel Vaccaro.
Más allá de esas sierras, by the Argentine Fernando Albinarrate, who lives in Europe, represents the other aesthetic extreme, for it could have been written by a composer born in 1850, were it not for the only “modern” detail, the adding of percussion to the piano accompaniment (in this case, due to the absence of Arauco Yepes, the pianist-composer contributed stomping with the left foot and thumping on the piano woods). A “retablo lírico” rather than an opera, it is a collage of songs and duets with texts from García Lorca poems and plays, featuring particularly Yerma.
In the intimate Espacio Colette (a cellar with tables) two veteran professionals in good vocal condition sang and acted with conviction: soprano Anahí Scharovsky and mezzosoprano Marta Blanco. They were accompanied with ample tone and command by the composer in a very simple but effective staging by Blanco, who instigated the whole thing. The music was agreeable though not memorable and got some emotional peaks in the duos that close the three scenes.