Monday, January 26, 2009

Sounds of silence

Since I returned from the week-long SICPP last summer, my piano practice has tapered off in exchange for studying computer music, so I have gravitated toward shorter and somewhat easier pieces. I have always enjoyed the music of 20th-century Spanish composer Federico Mompou. His most well-known works are probably a series of Song and Dances (Cancion y Danzas) which he wrote at various times throughout his career, and one of which I included on my audition tape for SICPP. But lately I've been playing the first of four books entitled Musica Callada.

Composed over several years starting in 1951 when Mompou was nearly 60, the twenty-eight pieces in Musica Callada are succinct miniatures that sum up Mompou's aesthetics. Nearly all of them are in a slow (and sometimes very slow) tempo, and all are fairly short, most of them under three minutes duration. Mompou is often compared to Erik Satie, whose charming Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes remind me of Mompou's songs. But Mompou's harmonies, especially in his later compositions like Musica Callada, are considerably less tonal than Satie, and being a generation younger than Satie, his music was deliberately closer to the Impressionism of Debussy and Ravel. In fact, as Mompou wrote in the work's introduction, Musica Callada is "an endeavour to express the idea of music that was the very sound of silence. Music keeps its voice silent, that is, does not speak, while solitude has its own music."

Besides the slow pace, how else does Mompou try to capture music of silence? One of the ways people can lead silent lives is through religious contemplation, and the opening piece in Musica Callada strongly recalls plainsong, the monophonic, unmeasured music of the early Catholic Church. It has a single melody, accompanied by single chords that sound like bells. Bells show up often in Musica Callada, perhaps reflecting their ubiquity in Catholic Spain, filling the air with their resonance at all hours of the day and night, as well as sounding the liturgical hours. Even the miniature form itself is a manner of approaching silence.

Most large form classical music requires a well developed short term memory. Symphonies and sonatas have primary and secondary themes, development sections where these themes are chopped up into little motifs and reworked, and recapitulations where listeners are expected to recognize not only when the themes return, but the fact that they are in different keys the second time around. The short duration of miniatures like Musica Callada accepts forgetfulness and encourages a simple awareness of the moment. If my mind wanders listening to one of the pieces, I can return my attention later and not have missed some crucial fragment that will supply a musical epiphany. In The Time of Music, Jonathan Kramer discusses moment form, a term popularized by Stockhausen, as an intermediary between the sonata's directed time and the timelessness of drones. Musica Callada isn't strictly moment form, but the pieces are often too short to stand on their own, so it shares many of moment form's characteristics. Especially in the first two books, which contain the shortest pieces, the suite provides a succession of disconnected pieces without an overarching emotional trajectory, without noticeable formal connections between the pieces. Unlike Chopin's preludes, another collection of very short pieces, there is no underlying unifying harmonic scheme — most of Musica Callada isn't even tonal.

Awareness of and immersion into the present provides the appreciation of drone music as well, so there is a common thread to the music I perform as well as the music that occupies much of my listening. It's an interesting question for long-form music generally: how much short-term memory is required, how much do I need to retain from what has already happened to appreciate what lies ahead? Moment form is a different solution for eliminating artificial drama than Kramer's vertical music or Kyle Gann's Absolute Present, but it's all a way to honor perception over memory. In his book Haunted Weather: Music, Silence and Memory, David Toop points out that "the withdrawal of noise is replaced by a louder phenomenon, a focussing of attention, an atmosphere, which we mistakenly describe as silence." In Mompou's case, the attention and atmosphere are unmistaken, and the voice of silence makes itself heard in the focussed tranquillity of his miniatures.

The score for Musica Callada is published by Editions Salabert, either each book separately or all four books in a very nice, reasonably priced album along with several other works. There are several recordings of Musica Callada on compact disc and through iTunes and emusic. The phenomenal 20th century specialist Herbert Henck recorded a beautiful version for the ECM New Series, which I can recommend highly. He also wrote a personal essay for the booklet, but the music is available at iTunes (without program notes). Martin Jones (for Nimbus) and Jordi Maso (for Naxos) have also recorded Mompou's complete works, including Musica Callada, both available at iTunes and emusic. Finally, Mompou himself recorded his complete works in 1974, i.e., at age 80! His rhythms are occasionally a bit idiosyncratic, but the interpretations are authoritative.

The photo of Federico Mompou with his daughter at the piano taken around 1955 is from the official Federico Mompou web site. I would have provided a link in the main text, but the site uses Flash exclusively, and I am unable to get any language except Catalan. The usual starting composition date for Musica Callada is 1959, but the biography at the official site says (based on my parsing of the Catalan) that he started its composition in 1951, and published the first volume in 1959. Given the absence of any available authoritative biographical material in English, I have used the earlier date.

1 comment:

DaveX said...

This sounds like just the sort of thing I'd like to hear! As a close second, I suppose I'll drag out some of my Satie records tomorrow until I can get my hands on this!