Friday, July 23, 2010

Willem Breuker, 1944-2010

It might be odd to find a memoriam here for Dutch bandleader Willem Breuker, who died today, but I have a special fond memory of his music. Probably in the early 1990s, hanging out on the Zorn List, I explored some of the byways of European jazz, and eventually came to Breuker's Kollektief. Maybe the first CD I got was Heibel, which came packed in a cheese box. But the second one was Sensemaya, a CD nearly sometimes disparaged by Breuker lovers because the group performs more standard repertoire than straight improvisational jazz. Among these was a beautifully recorded crooning ballad sung in Dutch, Diep in Mijn Hart, a danceable foxtrot with the most sensuous trombone solo that instantly transported me to the fairy tale land of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The Kollektief on this album was augmented by a 12-piece string ensemble and a couple of soloists, and the recording was impeccable. I fell in love with this song, still one of my favorites and on my iPod even now. Several albums later I realize that this was uncharacteristic music for Breuker…

I should also mention the Acousmatrix series of electronic music CDs that his label, BVHaast, released. Seminal electronic pieces by Henri Pousseur, Luc Ferrari, Gottfried Michael Koenig, and others, were all available through Breuker's effort.

So today, I'm having a beer and a listen to Heibel in his memory. R.I.P, Willem Breuker.

I haven't seen any obituaries in English yet, just this death notice from Radio Nederlands. I'll post an obituary link if I find one.

Update: here's an obituary in the New York Times.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

De Natura Sonorum 2 and 3

The second and third movements of De Natura Sonorum share hidden origins in direct response to the orchestral tradition in western art music. Accidents/Harmoniques (Accidents/Harmonics) was originally envisioned as a parody of Instrumental Music ("with a capital I", says Parmegiani), and Géologie Sonore (Geology of Sound) took a specifical inspiration from Arnold Schoenberg's Klangfarbenmelodie, opus 16, no. 3, the famous orchestral work that emancipated tone color as a common set of pitches rotate around the orchestra. Both movements originated with orchestral samples, largely obliterated in the published work, although oblique traces remain.

Accidents/Harmoniques, spelled throughout this book without the intervening slash, is based around the note A, the standard reference note for tuning, heard at the beginning of orchestral concerts. "I wanted to call this movement: music (or maybe a certain music, I don't remember any more). In any case, it's around the notion of 'music' that my ideas crystallized." Parmegiani tried all kinds of samples from orchestral and jazz records, constructing blocks, chords and groups into aggregates and agglomerations. Virtually all of this work was discarded, leaving only the idea of the 'A' backbone, around which he grafted a few remaining sampled chords and isolated sounds from classical and exotic instruments. One of the other candidate titles for this piece was "Patchwork," but he found he was starting down a path where satire nearly became the principal theme, not where he wanted to go for De Natura Sonorum. The authors see an ironic revenge of the marginalized electroacoustician, isolated from the classical music establishment, creating a promethean and utopian metamusic "capable of humbling and supplanting instrumental music," an opinion shared by another theorist, Michel Chion, in his untranslated 1976 book Les Musiques Électro-acoustique.

The final product, constructed fairly quickly once the initial researches were discarded, was similar to Incidences/Resonances, a continuum interrupted by various events. "I played two tracks in parallel, and sometimes I decided that such and such an event was going to interfere with the timbre in the continuum, and other times it wouldn't. It all happened very quickly." He knew in advance that he wanted to proceed toward a complete anarchy and chaos, and he even introduced an aleatoric sequence near the end. Most of the sound sources were from various records and tapes, with very few original recordings. Instrumental sounds came from violin, double bass, flute, trombone, piano, horn, vibraphone, baritone sax, bandoneon, crumhorn, and various percussion instruments. The chaotic sections near the very end were based on an orchestral recording playing an aleatoric sequence pizzicato, superimposed several times to obtain a very dense texture. These sections are bounded by recordings of wood blocks, slowed down to conserve the sudden, clean attacks but creating a thicker and more imposing event. The wispy materials in the treble around 3:40 are a recording of a Beethoven string quartet run through a ring modulator. He used a synthesizer to create the continuum sounds, often accumulating different partials to get different timbres and splicing them together to get the variations. There's an especially audible example of this at 1:30.

Géologie Sonore has two separate inspirations. One is an image of the earth seen from an airplane, where one can see the ground without details of the exact forms, simply the passage of global forms, dark or light colors, etc. The other is the twin musical inspirations of Arnold Schoenberg's orchestral piece opus 16, no. 3 (the famous chord-color piece) and John Chowning's seminal FM piece Turenas, one of whose aims was the exploration of continuous timbral modification. As with Accidents Harmoniques, Parmegiani started with an hommage to orchestral music, using samples from Schoenberg, Debussy and Verdi, but these were obliterated in the final piece. Instead, there was a long period of sound gathering to create a catalog of wefts (trames), a technical term from Pierre Schaeffer's groundbreaking theoretical work Traité des objets musicaux. Schaeffer's work is still not available in English, but Michel Chion's commentary, translated by John Dack and Christine North, defines a weft as "a type of excentric sound of prolonged duration, created by superimposing prolonged sounds … which are heard as groups, macro-objects, slowly developing, scarcely differentiated structures."

Parmegiani provides the following descriptive inventory of the wefts that he used (which I have slightly abridged):
  • Meta-instrument: an orchestral continuum in which the instruments follow one another through successive dissolves, a sort of continuous metamorphosis. The sequence was recorded live from the radio, then flattened and rendered unrecognizable through montage. Master weft, present almost throughout the entire movement
  • Keyboard + organ: the keyboard of the electric organ, a continuous sound obtained by pressing all the keys on the keyboard, sped up
  • organ + ring modulator: the preceding sequence treated with a ring modulator = a slow ascending movement of the mass
  • harmonic trumpet: a continuous trumpet sound captured for an earlier piece, Jazzex
  • orchestral foundation: an enormous non-tonic agglomerate. A recording of a symphony orchestra making a continuous rumbling or murmuring, elongated through successive dissolves of the recording with itself.
  • Meta-instrument: the initial sequence slowed down and played backwards
  • Martenot + ring modulator: Ondes Martenot treated with a ring modulator to enlarge the sound spectrum
  • Transparent Screen: an electronic continuum from the video evoking millions of grains emanating out from a dense center
  • violin + notch filter: a violin treated with a notch filter for a slow variation in the timbre

For each weft, Parmegiani created a graph, marking the various colors, dynamics, and tessituras on a temporal axis. Armed with all of his wefts, he started the painstaking creation of a series of pre-mixes. He avoided putting timbres from similar families in the same groups, but in general he tried to make the transitions between the wefts as interesting and sensitive as possible. He ended up with over a dozen different reels of tape, which he had to mix down to three in preparation for the final mix. Unlike other movements, where he was able to create short sequences and splice them together, the final mix for Géologie Sonore had to be done in a single pass. In hindsight, he would have liked more diversity between the different colors, more flagrant transitions, but he was unable to put enough bite in any of the transpositions; the technology of the time was too limiting.

The image is an excerpt from the mixing score for Géologie Sonore. I am unable to match this image with anything specific in the music.

This post is the most recent in a very occasional series about L'Envers d'une oeuvre, by Philippe Mion, Jean-Jacques Nattiez and Jean-Christophe Thomas, published in 1982 by Éditions Buchet/Chastel and INA/GRM. The first post in the series has an overview of the book. Click here to get them all.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Open Bach

For as much as I love, have written about, and continue to listen and perform the music of John Cage, I'm equally drawn to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, in many ways Cage's polar opposite. Cage composed with chance operations, and some of my favorite Cage works (like the number pieces) produce sound events differently at every performance, epitomizing what has come to be called "open form." Bach's music presents an inexorable logic, to the point with his fugues where the harmonic and contrapuntal possibilities are contained within the first few measures, which might be considered the ultimate closed form.

Yet Cage selected Bach's The Art of Fugue as an early example of indeterminate music in his lecture "Composition as Process" because it was originally published as an open score, each voice on its own stave and with the instrumentation unspecified. "Timbre and amplitude characteristics of the material, by not being given, are indeterminate," he wrote. "This indeterminacy brings about the possibility of a unique overtone structure and decibel range for each performance of The Art of Fugue." And indeed, contemporary recordings of the work exist for orchestra, keyboard (piano, harpsichord and organ), string quartet, wind quintet, saxophone quartet, and many other combinations. Despite a now prevailing scholarly opinion that The Art of Fugue was written for keyboard, its open score has seemingly licensed a timbral imagination that exceeds the normal orchestral transcriptions that one finds for Bach's organ works. (The orchestral versions of The Art of Fugue that I've heard are in fact relatively colorless compared to, say, Schoenberg's transcription of the St. Anne Prelude and Fugue or Webern's magnificent transcription of the ricercar from A Musical Offering.) And I confess, I have embarked on my own set of realizations on the computer, having completed four of the set to date, half simulating acoustic instruments and half for overtly synthetized sources.

One of the most commonly known trivia about The Art of Fugue is that the last fugue in the set, a quadruple fugue erroneously entitled "fuga a tre soggetti" (fugue on three subjects) in the first edition, was unfinished at Bach's death in 1750. The first edition, published by Bach's sons a few years later, closes with the music trailing off into nowhere and a note in the handwriting of C. P. E. Bach, "N.B. While working on this fugue, in which the name BACH appears in the countersubject, the author died." The vast majority of The Art of Fugue recordings perpetuate this message, breaking off in mid-phrase. The first editors stuck in a chorale that Bach dictated from his deathbed to terminate The Art of Fugue, but it's clearly unrelated to the rest of the work and therefore seldom recorded.

In a gesture that might be seen as hubris, some musicians and scholars have attempted to complete this fugue. My love of Bach was instilled by the English composer, musicologist and critic Donald Francis Tovey, whose 1924 edition of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier includes detailed and entertaining commentaries for each piece. This edition, still in print from the Royal Schools of Music in London, was the first Bach music I studied, and his commentary was as much a part of the education as learning the music. I knew Tovey had published a completion in 1931, but it's fairly difficult to locate even though his monograph Companion to The Art of Fugue is available at many used book shops (generally for an exorbitant price). After several unsuccessful attempts at obtaining Tovey's completion through inter-library loan, I finally located one fairly cheap from a used bookseller in England, and it's now part of my library. Tovey wasn't the only one to attempt a completion of Bach's final fugue. Probably the most well-known version is by the composer and virtuoso pianist Ferruccio Busoni. Busoni actually incorporated the whole fugue into his Fantasia Contrappuntistica, a massive twelve-part piano piece published in 1910. I've got a recording of the piece, and it sounds a lot more like Busoni than Bach, and I'm a bit repelled by the piece's virtuosic nature.

The most recent scholarly research puts forward that Bach was considerably more open about The Art of Fugue than even Cage had thought, specifically that Bach deliberately left the final fugue unfinished as a puzzle for performers to complete. Bach left us other puzzles, including but not limited to the "quaerendo invenietis" canons from The Musical Offering. Printed on a single stave but with two clefs, a tenor clef right side up and a bass clef upside down, Bach's directive to "seek and ye shall find" incites two performers facing each other across the score to devise a solution. An organist from New Zealand, Indra Hughes, uses numerology, handwriting analysis, and solid detective evidence to support his thesis that Bach had a solution to the final fugue, which I find fairly compelling. Bach wrote many of his works for didactic purposes, and Hughes suggests that The Art of Fugue belongs in large measure in this category, a compendium of fugal technique, so that the completion of the final fugue was left as an exercise for the students.

Tovey and Busoni may be the most celebrated final fugue finishers, but recent years have seen other performers release their own completions. The Henle edition of The Art of Fugue was edited by harpsichordist Davitt Moroney, who includes his version. Organist Michael Ferguson from St. Paul, Minnesota, published one and has included it in an organ recording of the entire The Art of Fugue. The Hungarian composer and organist Zoltàn Göncz also used higher mathematics to demonstrate its permutational matrix. His version of the score comes with an endorsement from Györgi Ligeti, who taught counterpoint and fugal technique. Hughes' thesis doesn't include a completion, but he extends the numerological analysis to show how long he thinks the completion should be, along with where the four themes should show up, both normal and inverted.

So, as I hinted three years ago, my summer project is an orchestration of this final fugue. It's one of Bach's longest fugues, so I still have plenty of time to decide whose completion I'll use — I've always been curious to hear Tovey's. But who knows, maybe I'll compose my own….