Saturday, June 17, 2006

'Earth Dances' anew

Sir Harrison Birtwistle is a crotchety composer fom England's north, who grew up near Manchester. He and I both share a working-class background, the clarinet as our main instrument, and a tendency to compose highly linear music. I owe Sir Harrison a debt of gratitude, as my encounter with his music enabled me to move forward as a composer in a way I would have not found otherwise. 'Secret Theatre' in particular affected me deeply, and I recently travelled to Rochester to hear it performed live at Eastman. I don't listen to his music as often as I once did, but there are a few pieces that I greatly admire. 'Earth Dances' is one such piece, and this new recording with Pierre Boulez conducting the Ensemble Modern Orchestra is phenomenal. It's available for download from iTunes. It's been available in Europe for over a year, but has not been issued stateside yet. When I learned of the iTunes release, I didn't hesitate.

'Earth Dances' is a sort of "'Rite of Spring' on steroids," at least that's how I have described the piece to my friends over the years. The work (for large orchestra) is in one continuous thirty-three minute movement, with the material unfolding in six different layers, at varying speeds, evoking the relentless geologic heavings of the earth. A glance at the score shows this easily, with the work's lapidary construction as visible as it is audible. Obtaining clarity within and between all of these layers is an impossible job for a conductor, but Boulez makes it sound easy. The two earlier versions, conducted by Eötvös and Dohnanyi, made quite an impression on me, but this is the first recording where I felt I was really hearing everything with the right balances. An overwhelming work just became that much more perceptibly overwhelming.

Monday, June 12, 2006

György Ligeti

Today is a sad one, due to the passing of composer György Ligeti, the best of the best. His music occupies a unique place in our world. Devoid of sentiment, whimsical, bizarre, and utterly astonishing in its continuous discovery of new sounds where there seemed to be none left to be discovered, we are left with no one who can fill his shoes. In my years of studying music, I have yet to encounter a fellow composer who did not admire his genius, which was to learn everything from everyone, from Brahms to Stockhausen to Steve Reich to Nancarrow to African pygmies. I heard him lecture at Cornell in 1993 and literally swooned when he played a cassette recording of the second movement of his then brand-new Violin Concerto.