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setting the conditions for a sonic expedition

May 06, 2010

setting the conditions for a sonic expedition

David Mazzucchelli

Since the last Westside Connections concert this season, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role that time plays in music. Unlike visual art, which is a static medium (you stand, you walk around, you look, you move on), music is as temporal as it is auditory. Length is as important as sound and the two can’t be separated. The hard-earned cadence at the end of Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, “Age of Anxiety” is so powerful because it takes so long to reach it; the time required to ascend to that point of such amazing beauty is as much responsible for the work’s ability to move audiences as the actual notes are. Just think of how underwhelming the last five minutes of the work would be if they were only preceded by two minutes of music – instead of the 35 that perfectly set up the release and reassurance you feel at the end of a hard-earned 40 minute journey. Writing music is a combination of finding sounds you want and discovering how much time you require to tell the story you hear in your head.

Funnily enough, as I’m writing this I’m listening to Q2, the online new-music arm of the venerable NYC classical music station WQXR, and the current programming description reads: “Like a journey, music happens in time. Music takes us places. It describes places. Music is a place.”

I just finished a really amazing graphic novel recommended to me by my wife – “Asterios Polyp” by David Mazzucchelli is about a modern architect going through a mid-life crisis, a spiritual crisis, a crisis of character. In one scene he meets an experimental composer who is quizzed by Polyp about music:
Q: It seems to me musical composition is either primarily rhythmic or primarily melodic.
A: Well, not necessarily. It could be about tonal resonance, or the texture of sound within, within waves or cycles. Simultaneity—the, the awareness of so much happening at once—is now the most salient aspect of contemporary life. In a cacophony of information, each listener, by focusing on certain tones and phrases, can become an active participant in creating a unique polyphonic experience.
Q: Aren’t you abdicating your responsibility as a composer?
A: No, no, not at all. I’m setting the conditions for a sonic expedition.

The point I’m lazily circling with all this is how powerfully Peter Sellars set the conditions for the sonic expedition that was the Schoenberg String Trio Op. 45 at the last Westside Connections concert. A difficult, very intense, harsh piece for violin, viola and cello, the String Trio uses time by almost making it stand still – you are listening to the work, you are experiencing the sounds, but you are also floating, unmoored to any sense of minutes passing. Sellars explored this idea in his remarks at the start of the concert, and eased the audience into a suspended state of extreme awareness of the music that was to come. The lights were dim, he spoke softly. He explained that the work was written in a flurry of activity after Schoenberg had suffered from a major heart attack that stopped his heart briefly, requiring a shot directly into his chest to resuscitate him. Sellars drew parallels between this limbo state, this constant pain and the uncertainty of recovery and the structure of the piece. The music is fragmented, the sounds coming out of the instruments are haunting. The work never stays anywhere too long and motives and ideas come back in radically altered forms – like memories and recollections – and pull you out of a sense of musical place and into a heightened emotional state. It is a work that is neither primarily rhythmic nor primarily melodic, but is instead best measured by how long it lasts, how long it is experienced in performance.

After the hypnotic introduction from Sellars, Tereza Stanislav, Roland Kato and Trevor Handy came onstage and played the Trio with amazing clarity, warmth and focus. Schoenberg can be a tough sell for listeners (to say the least), but this was a wildly successful performance, and one that sticks in the mind well after the concert has ended.

Isn’t this the sign of a successful work? The composer grabs you, shakes you, confuses you and ultimately makes you forget everything extraneous – he makes you focus only on the time you are spending inside the music.

Readers — any thoughts? Any pieces you can think of that take you out of time, even if only for a moment?

2 comments

Sweet article Evan!

And as far as pieces that remove your sense of time, Georg Friedrich Haas's third string quartet definitely does. It's supposed to be played in pitch blackness, no exit lights or anything, with the string quartet in the four corners of the room around the audience. It can last anywhere from 45 minutes to a couple of hours. I just bring it up because I heard it a couple of weeks ago in Pasadena and my whole sense of time just disappeared. At the end it only felt like a couple of minutes had gone by.

  • —Nick, May 07, 2010 10:53 am

Thanks, Nick!

  • —Evan
    June 01, 2010 12:43 pm

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