22 Jan 2018

Ways of Listening

Ways of Listening

There are some pieces of music that must be listened to in certain ways to appreciate them fully. Well, that’s true of all music, but some pieces seem less robust to circumstance than others. One is Sibelius's The Swan of Tuonela, which I this week saw performed by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and the CBSO (I was glad to see her here in Newcastle after having seen her magnificent BBC Proms debut last year). One way to listen to Tuonela, if not going to a concert, might be by a kind of sensory deprivation. It should be quiet and dark; you should be motionless and utterly attentive, lying down, eyes closed.

Obviously, I speak for myself in this, but my point is that some music has the capital-b Brass to whisk you along even if you have it on thoughtlessly in the background, while other music demands more deliberate focus. I can put on Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and think nothing of its programme, caring only for its honking great melodies, but to listen to Tuonela, at least the first time you have to mindfully consent to enter the otherworld that it depicts.

In part, this is because ethereal, mournful, contemplative music inevitably suffers when listening distracted, but in part it is because Tuonela is of that class of music whose effects are profoundly influenced by its physicality. In its opening bars, for example, a chord moves like a mist through the orchestra, leftwards and upwards, through cellos to violas to violins, the gesture every bit felt as heard; the chord itself a miniature overture to the description of the swan that follows. If I heard this through headphones without absolute concentration, I might skip to the next track; hearing it live, I gave myself over to it immediately.

When I think at one and the same time of birds and the oboe (or the cor anglais, which is the swan of Tuonela), I cannot help but think of ducks, which don't have quite the same grace, thanks to Peter and the Wolf. But this combination of the tragic and the turgid worked remarkably well for conjuring a mythological creature that floats weightlessly through the afterlife. The effect was also unharmed by my mistaken belief during the concert that it was partly about some bleak Scandinavian landscape a scene from Frozen Planet, perhaps; a swan holding itself stoically against bitter winter winds rolled out by distant timpani.

Also on the programme was Brahms’s Violin Concerto. It’s a piece I have been moved by too many times now for it to still work on me, and I have been additionally spoilt by Isabelle Faust’s magnificent recording, on which she plays the giddy Busoni cadenza all the endless Joachims are now disappointments. Nonetheless, it was interesting to hear the pace that Mirga set for the second movement. It seems already that a good tempo for Mirga is a good tempo for me, which is to say, it is probably too fast for some. Her BBC Proms performance of the overture to Die Zauberflöte was particularly blistering lesser orchestras would have blustered and without undoing the lyricism of the Brahms concerto, she let it move with confidence, making it sound more like a chorale than a lament.

Hearing it this way, and noting the opening wind instrumentation, it struck me as similar in temperament to the setting of the Saint Anthony Chorale that Brahms used as the theme for his earlier Op. 56 variations. That is a piece I now listen to as little as possible, so I can still be in love with it when I need to be, but the momentary resemblance in this concert delightfully opened me up to the feeling of the concerto one more time.

30 May 2015

'Orfeo', Then and Now

Orfeo, Then and Now

I'm pleased to say that I was a finalist in this year's BBC Radio 3 and NCEM Young Composers Award, for which I had the extraordinary privilege of having a short work performed by the Dunedin Consort (one of the best period ensembles in the UK; their recording of the Mozart Requiem is the best I've ever heard).

The composition task was to set a text for the ensemble that had previously been used by Monteverdi and I opted for an English translation of a scene from his 1607 L'Orfeo, in which Proserpine pleads with Pluto to let Eurydice leave the underworld. This is a description of the piece that I gave for the programme:
This scene from Act IV of Orfeo was tempting to set because its events are so central: Proserpine pleads with Pluto to let Orfeo rescue his love and Pluto sets the terms on which we know Orfeo will fail. As such, I wanted to write the music so that it could be played in isolation while also suggesting that we find ourselves in the midst of a bigger story. However, I was particularly drawn by the opportunity to see the plight of Eurydice reflected in Proserpine's circumstances, who otherwise has quite a marginal role.

Before the events of this tale, Proserpine becomes Pluto's wife only after he forcibly abducts her (and although Eurydice canonically enters the underworld after being bitten by a snake, in the Middle English Sir Orfeo, she, too, is abducted), yet Proserpine speaks to Pluto with respect and admiration. She is rather like the Eurydice of Rainer Maria Rilke's striking retelling, where she is so "filled with her vast death" that she has forgotten her earlier life and when Hermes sorrowfully tells her that Orfeo has looked back, all she can say is, "who?" Like Rilke's Eurydice, the familiar Proserpine has forgotten her original self and seems satisfied with a living death.

In this setting, however, I strove to invert that image: here, both women yearn for life back in the world above, and while Proserpine's subjection by the dominating Pluto means that she could never admit to him that she would rather not have been stolen after all, the music hints at a subtextual nostalgia and longing. When she pleads with Pluto to allow Eurydice to return to the "joys of waking days", the implication is that she would return to those joys herself if only there was someone to rescue her.