lunes, diciembre 11, 2006

The dilemma of contemporary music

During November the Complejo Teatral de Buenos Aires presented the tenth season of Contemporary Music, a cycle led by Martín Bauer since its inception; this year the venue was the Teatro Presidente Alvear except a concert that took place at the Margarita Xirgú. I attended a total of six out of eleven events, quite enough to draw some conclusions.

What follows is a very personal reaction about the music of our time (composers active after World War II). The appreciation or valuation of it varies wildly even among specialists and it may well be that some readers won't agree in the least.

The beginning decades of the Twentieth century were enormously rich in musical quality as well as innovative. They were the result of the dialectical end of the tonal era. A straight line of increasing harmonic complexity that had lasted a thousand years came to a final crisis; Schoenberg and his Vienna School made the big jump into atonality, and then their leader ideated the twelve-tone system as an intellectual alternative to tonality. Stravinsky, Prokofiev , Milhaud took another way: intense dissonance and superposition of tonalities. Others were Neo-Romantic. And in the Thirties there was a Neoclassic tendency. There was a solitary harbinger of things to come: Edgar Varese in the Twenties wrote pieces where pure sound dominated.

The principal aesthetic lines of those early decades persisted after WWII although weakened. But several other appeared ; some fell down pretty fast ("concrete music", processed noise), others are still with us. To wit:

a) The Polish School led by Penderecki in his youth was based on the textural possibilities of sound, eliminating or diminishing drastically the age-old parameters of melody, harmony and rhythm; "spectral music" is a more recent derivation.

b) Electroacoustic music was certainly new in having all possible cycles of sound available and eliminating the interpreter; technological sophistication has produced several generations of sound production.

c) Integral serialism derives from twelve-tone music, but in it all parameters are serialized (Boulez) .

d) As a nihilistic equivalent to Duchamp's urinal, John Cage negates all tradition and even "composes" a piece made only of silence as a climactic "concept" piece.

e) Minimalism is based on redundancy and very basic melodic and harmonic elements; the American line is led by Philip Glass but there's also the European "mystic" line of Paert or Gorecki.

f) More a feature of various styles than a style in itself, "aleatoric music" was the rage in the Sixties and Seventies: the player can choose between several possibilities offered by the composer.

g) Some have led ways of their own, such as Messiaen or Feldman, both with transcendental aims but diverse techniques.

h) Crossover has proliferated, imitating within the classical field the constant fusions of disparate music that we see in the popular field.

i) Postmodernism has reinterpreted materials of the past in terms of current sensibility.

The question is: do all these styles point to the future dialectically? And are there masterpieces worthy of being put aside those of Bartok, Ravel, Stravinsky? My personal answer is "no", and I come frustrated out of a Festival of contemporary music.

Musik Fabrik is an excellent German ensemble that played works by W.Rihm, H.Zender, R.Saunders, M.Kagel, I. Xenakis and C.Cardew; I partially enjoyed the Xenakis and Zender pieces for their greater coherence and sense of timbre. I must say I deliberately skipped sessions dedicated to Steve Reich, Salvatore Sciarrino and Morton Feldman ; they don't appeal to me, and I had enough of Sciarrino after his incredibly boring "Infinito Nero", done by the CETC at the Xirgú early in the year.

The piano duo Helena Bugallo/ Amy Williams is certainly brilliant and dedicated; the programme was changed due to the quality of the pianos and I thus had the pleasure of hearing a true masterpiece, Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" (1913). I did enjoy the complex Studies by Conlon Nancarrow and Ligeti's "Three pieces". The Diotima Quartet (French) played mostly well difficult and arid pieces by E.Nunes and J.Dillon. H.Lachenmann's "Grido" was more interesting. As examples of avantgarde of their times they did Stravinsky's wonderful "Three pieces" (1914) and Beethoven's futurist "Great Fugue" (1826), where the players came to grief.

An homage to Gerardo Gandini on his 70th birthday showed him again as a refined composer passing an acutely melancholy phase; five of his works alternated with some favorites of him: Gershwin, Schoenberg, Berg and Tauriello. Decent playing from a local group, the Ensamble Sueden. I admired the neatness of the Ensamble Lontano (Great Britain, debut) led by the picturesque Odaline de la Martinez; they have a splendid clarinettist. They offered a valuable panorama of British music: two great names (Tippett, his admirable suite from "The Ice Break"; and H. Birtwistle), and several new ones:Diana Burrell, the Argentine Silvina Milstein (who lives there), Joe Cutler, Martin Butler and Eleanor D'Alberga ; a good deal held my interest. Finally, the competent Ensemble Sillages (debut, French) did "spectral music" by T.Murail, J.L.Hervé and G.Grisey, sporadically attractive; also the splendid trumpeter Antoine Curé did a very creative piece by Yan Maresz ("Metallics") combined with electronic sounds.

I couldn't attend two concerts with some promise; in the first Musik Fabrik under Alejo Pérez premiered Wolfgang Rihm's "Vigilia"; and in the second (the last of the series) Martín Matalón led the Ensemble Sillages in his scores for Bunuel pictures.

Para el Buenos Aires Herald -December 13, 2006

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