Monday, April 17, 2006

Berio's Rendering- the light eye and the dark

When I was in high school I took some private lessons from real symphony musicians, i.e. people who played in the (old) San Jose Symphony and present SF Symphony. (In retrospect, I should have been troubled by the fact that these musicians who had 'made it' were still spending their Sunday mornings trying to coax gangly high schoolers through the trickier parts of Don Quixote. The present status of orchestral musicians is kinda like that of doctors in the beginning of the last century: highly respected, lowly paid, and often forced to make housecalls). One of the tips imparted by these musicians was extremely practical: whatever you're going to be playing, your first task is to get a recording and (ideally) a score. It seems pure and virtuous to nurture ideals about arriving at a fresh interpretation by starting from scratch, but it's more important not to embarrass yourself in rehearsal.

And so, this weekend, I downloaded a recording of Berio's Rendering from iTunes for a whopping $5. The orchestra in which I percuss has announced Rendering as a program item for next year, and I figure that any composer who gets billed alongside Boulez on CDs probably deserves my early attention.

I had heard the idea for Rendering before I heard the piece: it's yet another piece where a composer 'finishes' someone's incomplete sketches, like all those Mahler 10ths or Schubert 9ths or last acts of Turandot or Lulu. For some reason, composers love finishing other people's pieces, but authors seem to steer clear of tacking happy endings onto, say, Kafka's Amerika.

Berio takes as his material some sketches for Schubert's '10th'. (These were sketched as though for piano apparently- I can't determine just how many fragments there are and whether it's certain that they were intended to be part of a symphony.) His idea goes something like this: rather than simply stitching these swatches of music into a symphony that would approximate something by Schubert, he instead creates an 'idea piece' in which the orchestrated fragments are left detached- the gaps between them are filled with nebulous, tonally ambiguous passages in which Schubert's themes are pulverized into atomized fragments (they sound a little like a cross between Stravinsky's Firebird and Ligeti's Clocks and Clouds, and apparently quote Turnadot- ho ho!). Moreover, Berio doesn't restrict himself to Schubert's orchestra- there is a full complement of trombones, a celesta, unusual string effects, and all the trappings of a fine orchestra c. 1918.

This work has been very successful. There are already four or so recordings of it in circulation, and a casual Google check reveals that it's popular with the more high-falutin' community orchestras. This is, presumably, because it isn't extremely difficult (I don't see these groups taking on Berio's Sinfonia) and consists of %95 classical tonal music that makes use of a full, modern orchestra. This last is a practical consideration- if you're working out the schedule for people to participate in a local group, you either restrict yourself to the 18th century or you find something for your trombones and clarinets to do.

So, by contemporary classical music standards, the piece is a success, no getting around that. So why do I find that it makes me so uncomfortable?

The first time I heard it, I was disappointed by how conservative it was. I'm not usually a huge fan of the more extreme IRCAM-style European plink-squawk virtuosity, but this piece was so restrained that I found myself eager for a little frenetic marimba and bass clarinet (those favorite agents of late 20th century plink-squawkery). Rendering sounds like Schubert orchestrated by Berlioz, with some dreamy intervals of 'modern' ambiguous music that wouldn't raise an eyebrow as background music in a 'classy' film score from the '80s.

Later, after I'd listened to it a few times, I grudgingly admitted that there are some fine, big Berlioz moments when the trombones blare and the strings saw violently. Still, though, the piece didn't convince me at all. I didn't get the feeling of there being a grand ligne in the traditional sense- and isn't that what tonal music like Schubert is built for? Eventually, I realized what was making me itch about this piece.

Consider this fragment from a conversation with Lutoslawski about programming modern music:

'No good comes from mixing two kinds of music, especially nineteenth-century and modern music. That results in what we might call the "cancellling-out" of two aesthetics. Perhaps this sounds rather extreme; but all the same it expresses the reality we have to come to terms with. [...] From my own experience I can give you two instances of modern music being performed along with other works. One occasion was successful, the other not. Both took place in America. The first was a subscription concert given in a large town with its own symphony orchestra and a typical subscription audience. They performed my Trois poèmes d'Henri Michaux, preceded by a Beethoven overture and followed by Tchaikovsky's Piano concerto in B flat minor with Rubinstein. This arrangement of the program resulted in some people cancelling their subscriptions and donations, while others wrote letters to the organizers expressing gratitude for the performance of my work. On the other occasion two works by Gabrieli were played first, then my String Quartet; after the interval there were Debussy's two dances for harp and string quartet and a Bach cantata, but I was very pleased to have my work in such company. / This is precisely the context in which modern music functions best. We should not combine modern music and nineteenth-century music, but there are great possibilities in performing it alongside music of other periods: Baroque, late Renaissance or early twentieth century.'

This seems, to me, to slice clean to the bone of what makes Rendering such an awkward, frown-inducing piece. There are fine tromboney passages of Berliozian Schubert and passably good passages of cloudy Schubert-deconstruction - all silvery with celesta and high strings - but, unfortunately, the two cancel each other out. If the 'idea' of the piece is to investigate the self-destructive juxtaposition then: fine, gold star for Berio, but he could have written an essay. I can't help but think that he could have made two fine pieces out of these fragments: an unusually-orchestrated, cohesive symphony and a great, weird boiling cloud of fragmented phrases and harmony.

The worst thing is how unhappy my vague dislike for these piece makes me. Rendering gets a thumbs-up from every critique I've read. In this sense, it's a piece like Ades' Asyla: fun to describe. It's the musical version of those book reviews in the New Yorker that excuse you from actually reading the books: you get the gist, like drinking a smoothie instead of peeling and chewing your way through a basket of fruit.

Spry (mentioned in my last post) concludes the first half of Life on the Bosphorus with a parable about a Sheik who, upon hearing that a certain town has fallen into sinful ways, sends two different dervishes to see the place and bring back news to him about whether it is still righteous. The first dervish returns and says:

"O, Sheik! it is high time that stringent correction should visit these people lest the hand of Divine wrath overtake them ... They are worse than their bad reputation; faith and truth to them are as treasures hidden in the sea. They neglect prayer-time, turn away their cheeks from ablution, and snap the finger of derision at Divine precepts. By my head and yours ! they are cheats, liars, false swearers, and there is no goodness in them. They deserve the fate of the children of Lot. I have spoken!"

The Sheik tells the first dervish that he has done very well and sends him off to get some rest. Then, the second dervish arrives to give his report:

"O, Sheik! God is great and infinite, and has made man both good and vicious. In His immeasurable bounty He has favoured these people and so balanced accounts that the majority are not of those who go astray. It is true there are some grievous offenders, but these are as black spots on the white lamb's fleece. I have eyes, and opened them to witness their ablutions; I have ears, and did not close them to the music of their five daily prayers ... These people could be much better; but many of higher repute are less deserving. Such they did appear to me; I have nothing to add!"

The Sheik then praises the second dervish, and sends him off to be refreshed. A guest of the Sheik, puzzles, asks:

"With permission, how is this, Effendi? There are two sides to all things, and black side and a white side; shade and light cannot be on the same face; but, lo! one dervish enters and swears by his head that the people of a certain district are all heretics, unclean, and sons of the devil; thereat you exclaim: 'Thou has spoken well,' and bid him depart with blessings; presently a second dervish enters, and, behold, he declares these people to be good and pure, like unto angels; whereat you observe: 'Thou has spoken rightly,' and dismiss him likewise with benediction. Now this contradiction passeth my knowledge and understanding; I beseech you, therefore, to explain how it is that he that speaketh well and he that speaketh ill of the same thing can be worthy of commendation.'

The Sheik answers:

'O, Moossfeer (guest), the words I used to those worthy men were just. Knowest thou not that God hath not made all men's eyes to see alike? He has granted some a bright eye which softeneth errors; to others he has granted a dark eye which augmenteth defects; so it is with these two dervishes. Yet both are honest, conscientious men, and have doubtless narrated matters even as they appear reflected in their own eyes.'

So, when it comes to this piece by Berio, I clearly have been given a dark eye. Does the classical music press only employ people with light ones?


For reference, you might enjoy:

•Kaczynski, Tadeusz. 'Conversations with Witold Lutoslawski', Chester Music, London, 1972.


•Spry, William J. J. 'Life on the Bosphorus: Doings in the City of the Sultan; Turkey Past and Present; Including: Chronicles of the Caliphs from Mahomet to Abdul Hamid II', H. S. Nichols, London, 1895.


Blogger PWS said...

Great post

But I must say-Really though-"Lulu" was all but finished in short score and was verrry carefully orchestrated by Cerha.

Also a good heft of the Third Act was included in Berg's "Lulu Symphonie" orchestrated.

It's probably one of the best completion jobs ever pulled off, as none of the orchestration is below or out of character for Berg.

Mahler's 10th on the other hand, was only in sketch form I believe, so there was a lot more that needed to be done and "composed" by Deryk Cooke. "Lulu" was only a simple orchestration job with good evidence of how to complete thanks to the short score, "Lulu Symphonie" and the third act's repitition of a lot of earlier material in unaltered form.

9:54 PM  
Blogger Trevor Murphy said...

I don't know, I was completely new to Lulu and Berg the first time I saw it, and the different orchestration textures of the third act were very striking to me. (I commented to a friend - sigh - that I liked the last act better.) Like you say, it's a great completion.

The three or four Mahler 10s I've heard are all bad, especially the ones that dream of Mahler mutating into free atonality. Same goes for Schubert 9ths- I don't have any desire to hear any of them again.

I think it shows that multi-movement instrumental works like Mahler and Schubert symphonies are arbitrary in their musical unity, whereas a narrative like an opera so strongly demands a conclusion that the question isn't whether it needs a completion but rather which one to pick.

11:43 AM  
Blogger sfmike said...

There's a British classical music blog called "On An Overgrown Path" that currently has a very funny Hindemith quote that he uses to bludgeon somebody for finishing an unfinished Elgar "Pomp and Circumstance" march. Here's the quote:

I repeat Paul Hindemith's words in his 1952 book A Composer's World: "You are not permitted to sell unsanitary macaroni or mustard, but nobody objects to your undermining the public's health by feeding it musical forgeries."

12:17 PM  

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