Sunday, February 24, 2008

My sentiments exactly, Mr Ravel!

I was lucky enough to get a ticket to Thursday's dress rehearsal of Kaija Saariaho's new opera Adriana Mater at the Finnish National Opera; the official première was last night. Having followed Saariaho's music for the last thirteen years, and having attended three performances of her previous opera L'amour de loin, there was really no question as to whether I was going to like this piece or not. Saariaho's music is captivating, agonisingly beautiful, at times visceral and violent, and Adriana Mater is no exception. For those with Finnish, here is Helsingin Sanomat's review.

The intricacies and subtleties of the music and staging require too much thought to post about right now, but perhaps I'll return to this subject at a later opportunity. I'm compelled to post regarding a conversation I had last night with K, who had just come from the première. K is himself a formidable and experienced musician, whose opinions I don't take lightly. For me, this fact makes his assessment of the opera all the more alarming. I described the opera as "häkellyttävä" (astounding, astonishing), to which K replied that that would certainly be an appropriate term. After I said that I had expected nothing less from Saariaho, it turned out that his comment was meant sarcastically. "How so?" I asked. "Well, for a start, it's badly written, badly orchestrated, and the orchestra doesn't get to play any melodies," he replied. For a moment, these comments rendered me speechless. Of course, people can disagree on the merits of any given piece of music, and I love a good argument as much as anyone, but in this instance, K's argumentation is, in my opinion, so fundamentally flawed that it has driven me to afford it deeper consideration.

Admittedly, I haven't examined the score very closely but, having a knowledge Saariaho's previous music, I think it's fair to say that melody is not and has never been a defining feature of her aesthetic. According to K, the players find the piece "boring". Do they feel cheated because they don't get to play grand melodies, I wonder. Perhaps more than concert music, isn't opera all about the audience, about the experience of listening to an orchestra while being visually stimulated by what is happening on the stage? Boring or not for the musicians, Adriana Mater is a highly successful piece of music theatre precisely because it engages the audience, which for me is a more relevant criterion by which to judge the music than whether the musicians enjoy playing it or not.

When I asked K to give an example of how the piece is "badly orchestrated", he mentioned a section in the clarinet part which requires a high c#4. "How can a player be expected to produce this note night after night?" he asked. A quick look on Google reveals fingering charts for all the notes up to d4. Agreed, these pitches are at the upper reaches of the clarinet's altissimo register, but you can't call something badly written just because it's difficult. If you claim to play the clarinet, you play the whole clarinet, not just the easy bits.

Performers are notorious for taking the path of least resistance when it comes to new music. Too often one hears performers claim that certain techniques are "impossible", when what they mean is that they are difficult, outside the boundaries of standard technique (agreed), the implication being that these techniques actually involve some practice. At a new music workshop a few years ago, the cellist who played my piece came up to me later in the evening and told me that I shouldn't write microtones because they're very hard to produce. Well, cry me a river! I replied by explaining that, as a string player, I know exactly how difficult (or not) it is to produce microtones on a string instrument. To give a more extreme example: Brian Ferneyhough's music is "difficult", but if you decide to perform it you then take on the responsibility of learning it properly. That this is a revelation to some professional musicians is surprising to say the least.

This whole conversation – and writing this post – reminds me of the exchange between amputee pianist Paul Wittgenstein and Maurice Ravel regarding the latter's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (commissioned by the former). Wittgenstein wanted to rearrange some aspects of the piano part claiming famously that "performers must not be slaves!" Ravel's answer was simple and to the point: "Performers are slaves." The day composers allow performers' whims and, dare I say, in some cases, laziness to dictate what can and can't be done with their instruments will be the day all progress in the field of musical expression grinds to a halt.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Filth and Wisdom

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the cinema, Madonna goes and does it again. Not as actor (for which we may be eternally thankful) but as director (groan). Like most people who haven't been at the Berlin Film Festival this week, I haven't seen this film, so I can't give any first-hand reaction to it. Judging, however, by the reviews, including this one by Peter Bradshaw in today's Guardian, I seriously wonder what it's chances are of ever being put on general release.

Ms Ciccone / Mrs Ritchie is a perplexing, vexing figure. Her music is bland in the extreme, yet it is touted, particularly to young gay men, as if it were the pinnacle of expressive art (note to self: try not to sound too much like Peter Giles...) Her use of Abba's music in a recent single was, in my opinion, utterly unforgivable and serves merely to underline the vacuousness and sheer lack of any originality that characterises Madonna's career. Her acting career was abysmal (Swept Away and The Next Best Thing rank alongside Crossroads as possibly some of the worst films I've ever seen). And so forth and so forth...

Now we have her directorial debut bearing the vaguely Austenesque title Filth and Wisdom. Peter Bradshaw's one-star review certainly doesn't spare the wrath. But really, in a related article, Madonna states: "I have always been inspired by the films of Goddard [sic], Visconti, Passolini [sic] and Fellini and hope that I may one day make something that comes close to their genius." The audacity of this statement leaves me speechless.

I'm pleased to note that the Guardian refrains from referring to Madonna as the Queen of Pop - I mean, who ever said she was the Queen of Pop? I could name a whole list of people manifestly more deserving of that title, but whose careers have suffered by virtue of actually being able to sing without the intervention of modern audio technology [Peter Giles alert!!!] - and settles for the far more apt Queen of Reinvention. I'm also indebted to Julie Burchill for many laughs in her numerous columns on the Immaterial Girl herself (two good examples of which can be found here and here). All I can say is that if the film is ever released in Finland, I will go and watch it and attempt to post an objective review here, but until then, let's not hold our collective breath...

Prejudice and Pride

Reading through Peter Giles' interesting history of the fall and rise of the counter tenor (entitled – what else? – The Counter Tenor) I was struck and a little disappointed by his attitudes to any music other than 'classical'. (Here I use inverted commas just as he does to refer to any other form of music). Had the following opinions been published in, say, the 1920s, one could almost understand them, though his level of animosity towards musical development would still have seemed rather alien to our modern sensibilities. The fact that these opinions were published in 1982 makes one wonder why his publisher didn't suggest he dilute his vitriol. Here is a typical example:
The whole world of serious music is itself the subject of incredible prejudice. It is ignored good-naturedly, or scornfully dismissed as irrelevant by a now sizeable and growing proportion of the general public, who know nothing of any tradition before Elvis Presley and care less. (Giles 1982:3)

So we have a fascinating situation: on the one hand a tradition legitimate and honoured, successor to the Romantic, Classical and Baroque, going back to Renaissance and Medieval times, but hidebound in many matters. Next to it, another tradition, recent and clearly illegitimate, artificial, of mammon, in many ways barbaric, all too prey to the whim of the moment and the wave of the manipulator's chequebook; but at least utterly free to go where it will within its limited abilities and 'cultural' boundaries. The first is the undoubted arena for, surely, the ultimate in vocal and instrumental technique, for mankind's most profound musical experiences and statements. The second, for the most part and with the exception of the art form 'jazz' and certain musicianly groups like 'Sky', comprises ephemera perhaps more of interest to the sociologist than the true artist musician. (Giles 1982:4-5)

The irony that these comments and countless others like them appear in a chapter entitled 'Prejudice and the Status Quo' will surely be lost on nobody. Neither, indeed, is the irony of two lengthy citations, both written in the 12th century, in the following chapter on the development of organum singing and the rise of the Paris Notre Dame School. It would appear that Giles in fact part of greater, not to mention highly legitimate, tradition of moaning about the development of music, a tradition stretching back a thousand years.
Whence hath the Church so many organs and musicall instruments? To what purpose, I pray you, is that terrible blowing of belloes, expressing rather the crashes of thunder than the sweetnesse of the voyce? To what purpose serves that contraction and inflection of the voyce? [...] Sometimes, which is a shame so to speake, it is enforced into a horse's neighing: sometimes the masculine vigour being laid aside it is sharpened with the shrillnesse of a woman's voyce: now and then it is writhed and retorted into a certain artificial circumvolution. (Aelred of Rievaulx, Speculum Charitatis, 1123)

As Giles points out, "John of Salisbury was also worried by much of what he heard":
The very service of the Church is defiled, in that before the face of the Lord, in the very sanctuary of sanctuaries, they, showing off as it were, strive with effeminate dalliance of wanton tones and musical phrasing to astound, enervate, and dwarf simple souls. [...] When this type of music is carried to the extreme it is more likely to stir lascivious sensations in the loins than devotion in the heart. (Policraticus, trans. John of Salisbury, 12th century).
And he wasn't even talking about Elvis Presley...