Tanglewood Program Notes: Messiaen, Et Exspecto Resurrectionem Mortuourum

I’m going to start posting some of the program notes I write for Tanglewood here.

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“This composition is destined for vast spaces; churches, cathedrals, and even the open air on high mountains…” Olivier Messiaen instructs in the score to Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum, which was commissioned by French Minister of Cultural Affairs André Malraux as a memorial to the French dead of the two world wars. The minister requested something “simple, solemn, and very loud,” and it’s easy to imagine how another composer would have taken that assignment and created something nationalistic and digestible. Messiaen had, in fact, spent a year in a Nazi prisoner- of- war camp after being captured while serving in the French army.  However, rather than incorporating explicit references to the horror of war or bathetic elegies for the fallen, he strived
to embrace all with this contemplation of the Nicene Creed’s promised resurrection of the dead.

The composer’s Catholic faith held deep meaning for him, and his musical perspectives on God, Christ, heaven, and angels are like nothing else in sacred music. Messiaen’s God is a wild God, present in consonance and dissonance alike, with a voice audible in the roar of waves and the song of birds. While composing this piece in the heights of the Alps, Messiaen surrounded himself with “strong and simple” images, such as Egyptian temples, Mayan pyramids, and Gothic and Romanesque cathedrals, and read St. Thomas Aquinas’ texts on the Resurrection.

The first movement’s title translates to “Out of the depths of the abyss, I cry to you, Lord: Lord, hear my voice.” The lower end of the ensemble moves in quiet, tense unison, and the shifting time signature gives the melody a chant-like spaciousness. The clouds burst with a suddenly deafening chord, with the ensemble’s most strident voices (flutes, trumpets, oboes) at full power, and gongs and tam-tams booming as if to split the earth.

While the first movement begins in the deep, the second, “Christ risen from the dead,” begins in the sky with a quick flurry of winds. That immediately turns into a passage of slow, meditative exchanges among the oboe, clarinet, English horn, and flute, underscored by soft tam-tam tones. This mood alternates with lively jubilation, propelled forward by a cowbell in the 13th century Indian rhythm “Simhavikrama,” “power of the lion.” This references both Jesus as the ‘Lion of Judah’ and the Hindu god Shiva, who represents the death of death and end of the eternal cycle of life. The third movement, the most dramatic, illustrates the moment when the dead hear the fiery, terrifying voice of God, made of the song of an Amazonian wren, echoing bells, thunderous waves of gong and tam-tam, and the horns of the apocalypse sounding from the heights and depths alike.

The fourth movement is all joy, a mélange of visions of resurrection. The bells and trumpets ring out
plainchant for the the day after Easter, interspersed with the song of the Calandra Lark in the woodwinds. The final movement, “And I heard the voice of an immense crowd,” is a massive and reverential chorale that turns like a colossal prayer wheel, with gongs beating steady time all the way to the end. “Simple, solemn, and very loud” indeed.

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Sufjan Stevens, April 17, Cleveland

Published on Fearless and Loathing.

It was April and raining, and I was alone in the third row of Cleveland’s cavernous Masonic Auditorium. Well, not exactly alone. It seemed like half of Oberlin was there, but I wasn’t sitting next to any of them. I hadn’t managed to find a ticket-buying buddy back in January when they went on sale, so there I was, third row and alone but not alone, hoping Sufjan Stevens would include me in some transcendent constellation of humanity.

I thought he might be going for the plain and simple feel of his new album Carrie & Lowell, which has been widely praised for its bare-bones instrumentation, gutting and personal lyrics, and intimacy. However, no matter how hard I tried to find it, there was little of that intimacy between myself and the people on stage in the elaborately choreographed, cued, and layered spectacle. So much for third row.

Stevens himself shattered cliché with his songwriting, spinning faded images from a spattering of words in a soft, slightly off-key but evocative falsetto croon. Hissing synthesizer and rumbling bass added a new dimension to some songs that on the album were fragile guitar skeletons, such as “All Of Me Wants All Of You” and “Should Have Known Better.” Long, tall video screens shaped like church windows displayed pastel projections and grainy home movies of Stevens’s childhood behind the musicians.

“Drawn to the Blood” lost none of its emotional punch with the addition of more volume, more texture, and a vaguely detuned piano welling up under the finale, rolling like sweet bells jangled. “Carrie & Lowell,” in its tenuous but lush optimism, sounded more like “Chicago” than the bright, blocky rendition of “Chicago” he played later. The energetic treatment jarred sometimes, as in “Fourth of July.” When sung over rollicking drums and full electric guitar power, the mantra of “We’re all gonna die” sounded too blasé.

“No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” followed “Fourth of July,” with just Stevens and band member Dawn Landis on stage standing behind microphones, and I’m glad they did nothing to that. Sweet and straightforward, it found the loose thread in the audience and pulled it until most of us were falling apart.

After playing most of Carrie & Lowell out of order, he took a detour through some older cuts. “The Owl and the Tanager,” hypnotic and dark in piano and solo voice for its first minutes, flew into a wash of cymbals which came on, raged and rattled, and died down as quickly as a summer storm. Some of his Seven Swans selections, like “In the Devil’s Territory” and “Sister,” might have been more on target with a little less bombast.

More worrisome was “Blue Bucket of Gold.” It closes the album with a deep but soft howl of guitar and strings that in the live show was a high-octane, burning and flashing vortex of pounding drums and screaming instruments. The wall of video screens blinked on and off in lurid color and blinding white while mirrored balls sent little pops of light into my eyes so quickly that I had to shut them for the rest of the song. I hope no one in the audience was prone to seizures.

After a hauntingly reverberating “Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois” and an overstuffed “The Dress Looks Nice on You,” the show ended with “Chicago.” I got up and joined the small crowd of Obies dancing and singing “All things go, all things go,” at the back of the floor level, and found more connection than I could have imagined — albeit with the other people experiencing it with me, not with the man on stage, who may as well have been behind glass.

I walked out feeling cheated and angry at myself for feeling cheated. Everything had gone right: the visuals had been beautiful, his banter about dead skin cells was poignant; his wispy voice should have been able to shine through the haze for more than a few brief moments. Yet I was left cold. How did this happen? I’m still trying to figure it out, and wondering if I was the only one in the audience who felt that way.

Those seeking a more personal experience would do well to check out opener Cold Specks, Somali-Canadian doom soul songstress Ladan Hussein. She softly twisted back and forth behind her mic, darkly musing in a seething alto about decapitating her lover in his sleep on top of booming drums and clean, cold guitar. She slid out from behind her mic to sing a cappella, working the protest chants of “Hands up, don’t shoot, I can’t breathe” into the end of her final song. The audience was almost entirely united in silence, leaning forward to pick up on every word. Hers is the kind of voice that could shout from the rafters, but you’d think it was singing to you and you alone.

Review: Bang on a Can All-Stars, Oberlin, Feb. 28

Those unfamiliar with Bang On a Can All-Stars would not have been able to tell what they were about to hear from the cornucopia of instruments strewn around the stage of Oberlin College’s Finney Chapel on February 28. A cello and bass lay on their sides, an electric guitar sat on a stand, and a playground of percussion occupied more space than your average New York studio apartment. Is the All-Stars really a “contemporary classical” (those dreaded two words) group? Is it a rock band? Will guitarist Mark Stewart ever lose his long mane of formerly red, now grey, hair? After over 20 years, these questions remain unanswered.

One certainty: Bang on a Can All-Stars is a group of musicians with an electrifying stage presence.  They have a self-possessed but rarely complacent vibe about them, confidently skipping through time signatures and harmonies, always conveying the joy they take in sharing their bright, colorful music with their audience.

The group has gone through numerous personnel changes (only Stewart and bassist Robert Black remain of the original lineup), performed countless concerts, premiered bucketfuls of new works, and even transformed into cartoon characters for an appearance on PBS’s Arthur. Their brand of post-minimalism sometimes seems as set in stone as sonata form, but just as there are very good sonatas, there is very good post-minimalism.

Read the rest over at SFCV!

Review: Stile Antico, March 6

How did you keep a roof over your head and food on the table as a composer in the 16th century? Odds are it was through taking cloying, pandering texts in praise of your powerful employer and turning them into triumphant polyphony.  “Having splendid music at court was a way of asserting status,” tenor Andrew Griffiths explained between selections of the early music vocal ensemble Stile Antico’s March 6 program at the First Congregational Church in Columbus, OH.

The concert concluded the British group’s American tour, which has featured music written for the House of Habsburg. Certainly no Western dynasty had more “status” than the Habsburgs, who ruled parts of Europe for most of the past millennium. (The assertion in Clemens non Papa’s Carole magnus eras that King Charles ruled over “all of Asia and Africa” was pure exaggeration.) In any case, being in the employ of the Habsburgs called for a certain amount of sycophancy.

However, Stile Antico is far from sycophantic. Their delivery is opulent but lean, with organic energy. No matter how prim and proper the texts, there was no trace of cassock-and-ruff, choir-stall stuffiness in the performance.

The group, which will soon celebrate its 10th anniversary, has no conductor. Still, from the first flashing notes of Cristobal de Morales’ Jubilate deo, the 12 singers consistently breathed together, started together, and ended together. Vowels were as tall and solid as the church’s walls, and consonants were audible without chopping up the phrases, as if the singers’ brains were somehow wired to a hidden central hub below the floor. (Maybe that’s why the women all wear floor-length dresses.)

Read the rest over at SFCV!

(I can post these latest reviews now because SFCV has them up.)

Concert review: Formalist Quartet, Feb. 4, Oberlin

Review by Zoë Madonna

I’ve been thinking a lot about snow lately. It’s hard not to, these days. Ever since my final semester at Oberlin started, the campus has been buried in the stuff. The wind just begins to blow the trees bare or the temperature pushes just high enough for the snow to start melting, but then the clouds gather again and yet another new blanket falls.

The Formalist Quartet – Mark Menzies, violin/viola; Andrew Tholl, violin; Andrew McIntosh, violin/viola; Ashley Walters, cello – performed February 4 in Oberlin College’s Warner Concert Hall, with fresh, cold powder blowing outside.

From the outside, the music the ensemble performs might all look similar – a white haze of loud pops and jarring rasps with the occasional smirk of tonality thrown in for good measure. Once you take a walk through it, or dip your fingers in ungloved, or throw yourself in backwards with your arms spread out, then you will begin to see how many textures it has to offer. No microscope needed.

Read the rest over at SFCV!

Sufjan Stevens, “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross”

Sufjan Stevens seldom swears. The last, and only, time that “fuck” appeared in a Sufjan Stevens song it was a defiant yelp, a repeated mantra . ”I’m not fucking around!” his reedy voice fires into the air after three minutes of Lego-block building, with a swirling, pulsing choir and fluttering flutes stacking on top of chaotic beats in ever-changing prime number time signatures. Five years later, “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” lets fall a lone sigh of “Fuck me, I’m falling apart,” almost an aside, tumbling into the ocean of plaintive finger-picked guitar and the air conditioner on in the background – no longer crying to God out of the depths, but looking at everyone else who’s down there with him.

No Shade” arrives as the lead single from Carrie & Lowell, Stevens’s forthcoming album, which centers around the death of his mother. While his most recent non-Christmas release The Age of Adz dealt with his personal struggle with physical and mental health by creating a song-of-myself wonderland of bleeps, buzzes, bright colors and long symphonic suites, Carrie & Lowell strips away the layers of production to almost nothing. “I needed to extract myself out of this environment of make believe,” Stevens said. “It’s not really trying to say anything new, or prove anything, or innovate.” If this song is any indicator of what’s to come, it will be a wispily brutal and personal journey of faded snapshots like that of the album cover, glimpses through the poeticism into clarity, and curses that mean something besides punctuation. A parent’s death, an adult child’s grief, and the ever present razor wire fence of faith, all in dusty low fidelity.