Photo: Mikel Covey
The genesis of this Nova Concert was the 100th anniversary of Arnold Schoenberg’s revolutionary lieder cycle, Three Times Seven Poems from Albert Giraud’s Pierrot Lunaire, op. 21 (1912). In Pierrot Lunaire, Schoenberg created a intersection of classical and cabaret music. A melodrama, written to be sung/spoken by an actor, it follows the traditional dramatic character, Pierrot, though a moondrunk (lunatic?) travail of religious horror, nightmare-butterflies, surreal atrocities and, finally, a sailing journey on water lilies and moonlight back to a world both sane and safe. Made before the First World War, it is, to my ear, a revealing pre-echo of the terrible change of scenery and custom about to overwhelm the romantic and rational 19th Century. It is a horn blowing madness before the tragedy that would be 20th Century Europe.
Modern classical music starts with two different composers: Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Every composer since, who wanted to be worthy of his art, has had to deal with pieces like Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, or Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. And though, in time, both were influenced by the other, they are the grandfathers of contemporary classical music. They are both providers of the burrs that make this animal wild to ride, and the writers of maps contemporary composers must either follow or flee.
For those of you keeping track, the century mark of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring is May 29, 2013. Should we expect to see something for that anniversary? One can only hope.
The day’s show was well-attended by an audience that was decidedly ready to hear some great music, though they were somewhat cool when presented with it. Pierrot Lunaire being 100 is technically antique today, but it still sounds wild and nightmarish to these ears. Because it was written for an actress, and though the score doesn’t indicate which range, it is generally performed by a soprano, and it sounds sing-songy, even surreal. It is in a Sprechstimme style, which is spoken and sung rather than technically sung. Many of the decisions about the delivery are dramatically driven, rather than scored. Non-technical singers as famous as Bjork have tried their hand at it. Tony Arnold, today’s Soprano, met the music with dramatic physical heft, throwing her body in large gestures at once stylized and emphatic, and her voice here like water spouts, here gold floss, and here raven flight, served to document the meaning and emotion of the poems in this difficult but engaging piece.
The whole event seems kind of a mystery at first. I was awash in that feeling that this stuff sometimes gives me, like either I’m stupid or just reading a language I haven’t learned in letters I thought I had. There is, however, so much here, and its seeming randomness is so intense that, soon enough, order starts to appear. An over-language works into my mind which finally settles down and I can enjoy. Which is at once exhilarating, and in the back of my mind, ridiculous. Experiences like these depend on me silencing my ego. My concert friend, not having to come up with anything to say about the music, found it much easier to simply glide along the surface. I was, I suppose, scared speechless.
But here and there, the music brought me clarity, and finally reading along with the story, listening to the blister-tongued German words spat or whooped out, I followed the journey. The last two thirds of the songs were quite entertaining as they filled my ears with absurd, primal nightmares.
The second half of the show was The Distance (This), a piece by Jason Eckardt, a former heavy metal and jazz guitar player, turned highly regarded composer of the New Complexity school. A 41-year-old composer from New York, who, in his introduction to The Distance (This), said that his decision to write this song cycle was to comment on, indirectly, and to create a piece as long-lasting, directly, as Pierrot Lunaire. Having heard this second piece, I felt that I did understand the first better for it. Frankly, I enjoyed the newer piece more, which seems to be the case at all of these Nova shows: The newer music comes across better live.
The Distance (This) is the final movement from The Undersong Cycle, a group of three pieces including, A way (tracing), which was played by the fine cellist Noriko Kishi, at Nova last year, and Aperture. The three can be played together to form a “concert length supercomposition.” Like Pierrot Lunaire, The Distance (This) is a song cycle based on a series of poems––in this case a poem/poems by Laura Mullin, whom Eckardt befriended at the MacDowell artist colony. In its post-language elusiveness and its insistent slipperiness, it fit into his interest in the idea of “undersong.” An example:
Sonant (interval) (to keep)
Successive A word for
The word for (“ “)
Name (you tried) remember (to forget) another (under which)
The piece itself was meant to be explicitly slippery, originally it was meant to be selectively played and sung in an ad libed manner, such that any performance would be significantly different from another. But of course, this “free jazz” approach proved too free to actually execute. In its current version, choice of words (order of words) to be sung are up to the vocalist. And the order of the poems, of which there are six, are also up to the selection of the ensemble. That is except for the first and sixth poems (movements), which are always first and last. This is a piece which is about play as much as it is about performance. Because of the nature of the poetry--its insistent non-communicativeness, its spacial leisure--there is no precise, real narrative to confuse. It allows for picking and choosing.
In this second half of the day’s performance, Tony Arnold stood largely still, her emphatic gestures gone, but her singing shone more dynamically and more thrillingly here than in the Pierrot Lunaire. The ensemble required for this piece filled my front-row vision, with the common and uncommon among classical instruments, notably, two different wheeled blocks of glockenspiel or xylophone, and, my new favorite brass, a bass flute. Guest Conductor Steven Schick, wearing about the best looking suit I have ever seen up close (I sat next to him during the Schoenberg), looked like an alien-vampire genius leading a surgical theatre of music as imagined by Thomas Eakins. The wails of the patient were heart piercing at times, and pure glossolalia at others. If there is a spirit, I felt it must be on that stage, and it was ready to confess.
The music, as a rule, was sedate and anxious at the same time, which is to say, panicky: The way that the silent, slowed-down interval between hitting the brakes and getting hit by the other car is sedate and anxious. It positively disturbed my daughter, who later said it kind of ruined her whole day. If that isn’t impressive ... In the end, after all the singing had subsided, came one of the more amazing things I have heard, I suppose, ever. It was an A, so I am told, played at the very bridge of the cello, again by the intrepid Noriko Kishi. The daring one-and-a-half page/several-minute length of this impossibly alien note, and its anesthetic nightmare/cold war bomb shelter/final judgment sense of fear and resignation, totally filled me with awe and joy. When it ended, the piece ended, and I jumped from my seat. I clapped until my arms hurt, and then I continued. Clapping.