Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Hilary Hahn, Musings on the Encore Project

Here is where I get to unleash my hounds of the aesthetic. That's a little over-stated--I must have been reading too much Camille Paglia. I mean, here is where we are going to step back a bit and see if this amazingly diverse group of pieces tells us anything. This project is an excellent cross section of compositional practices in the early 21st century. Generalizations are often deprecated, but I think they are useful if you are careful to link your generalizations to the specific things you are talking about. Here are some of the things I am noticing:
  • Composers, young or old, are faced with some very difficult challenges and choices at the present. I don't know if they are easier or harder than composers have been facing for the last fifty years at least, but they are difficult nonetheless.
  • Here are some of the options:
  1. Accept the ideology of modernism and write "progressive" music. The problem with that is, what is progressive now? Serial atonality? Probably not since the 1960s. Minimalism? Probably not since the 1970s. Neo-romanticism? Probably not since the 1980s (though I'm a little foggy about that one!). Extended-techniques-spectral-new-complexity-noise-etc-etc? Well, pick your decade! You see the problem? In the 20th century, styles and practices in music composition started to look a bit like fashions, changing every season.
  2. Refuse the ideology of modernism and either write whatever sounds good to you or write music influenced by the music of the past.
  3. Be a post-modernist and write music influenced by a blend of your own taste mixed with "world music", popular music and whatever else you can dig up.
I think that we can hear all of these choices reflected in different pieces in the collection. Let me hasten to say that making one choice or the other does not necessarily either save or doom your composition, aesthetically. It is perfectly possible to write a piece of atonal serial music that is a great piece of music. Alban Berg: Lyric Suite. It is also perfectly possible to write a piece that is imbued with the historic shade of Mozart himself and still have it turn out a crappy piece. It all depends on how you do it.

I think that as there is a wide range of styles here, there is also a wide range of quality. In other words, I don't think all of Hilary Hahn's choices were inspired ones. But quite a few were!

In my own composition I am mostly a No. 2 guy. The last piece I wrote was a Lux Aeterna based on my idea of a new version of organum. But I hope that I can appreciate that a piece written from a completely different basis can still be a great piece of music. So let me see if I can pick out a few highlights and lowlights for you. Probably the piece I enjoyed the most was the very last one by Max Richter. I'm not sure what the title Mercy means, but it is a truly lovely piece, economically presented. These are two qualities I really admire: musical beauty (with no trace of the maudlin) and economy of means. Probably my least favorite piece is Elliot Sharp's The Storm of the Eye. I can't seem to find any redeeming features there. It is both unpleasant to listen to, and fails the "Green Card" test. That is, it sounds no better than what a couple of crazy people might bang out at random.

In between are some very fine pieces like Valentin Silvestrov's Two Pieces. But don't think that I only liked the more tonal ones. Memory Games by Avner Dorman really works well but it carves out its own harmonic landscape and is not terribly traditional rhythmically. The first piece on the album, Impulse by Franghiz Ali-Zadeh is also a powerful and impressive piece of music, but it seems to owe no particular debt to past musics. Antón Garcia Abril's Third Sigh does however, but is an original and exciting piece nonetheless.

There are some fun pieces like Jennifer Higdon's Echo Dash, Mason Bates' Ford's Farm, Mark-Anthony Turnage's Hilary's Hoedown and James Newton Howard's 133 ... At Least. There are some charming but probably lightweight pieces like both the pieces by Somei Satoh and Michiru Oshima. There are some enigmatic ones that I am not quite sure how to think of like the ones by Bun-Ching Lam, Lera Auerbach, Nico Muhly and Gillian Whitehead. There are some really lovely gems like the ones by Einojuhani Rautavaara and, in a more robust manner, Christos Hatzis. And, yes, there are some unpleasant ones like the pieces by Elliot Sharp, Du Yun and Jeff Myers that I can't make much sense of and that seem to be actively bullying the listener!

I'm sure I am not qualified to evaluate all the music on the album. Some of it is from traditions that I am not very familiar with such as the piece by Kala Ramnath. But on the other hand, who is qualified? There is some wonderful music on the album and some not-so-wonderful music. I'm sure we would differ about which is which, though! If you have had the opportunity to listen to the album, I would welcome your thoughts and see how they compare with mine.

Some observations about genre and such. Hilary laid down some restrictions here: pieces for acoustic violin and piano between 2 and 5 minutes long. Also, of course, there was a subtext that it would be nice if the music would be suitable as encore material. What might that mean? Every composer took a different guess. Some thought that just writing fiendishly difficult passages for the violin was the trick. Others that the music should be tender and expressive--both are traditional encore strategies. Others thought of writing a fun romp. A little cadenza for the violin alone was included in quite a few pieces.

One of the interesting things about this project was looking at the background and careers of the composers. The old model of writing academic modernist music while teaching at a university is only followed by a very few these days. A lot of composers are also working in the areas of pop/alternative music and writing film, tv and video game scores.

Now to comment about what most reviewers would have started with and mostly stuck to: Hilary Hahn's performance of these pieces. She is an enormous talent and I'm sure she can play anything you put in front of her. Technically and musically this is a tour-de-force for the performers and one wonders if anyone else could have brought it off. Hilary takes the role of performer to be one of a transparent window on the music, adding very little of one's own personality. I can certainly appreciate that as it was one I tended to follow as well.

A couple of questions kicking around my head: how much back and forth editing went on? Did Hilary call up some composers and say, what you have written here and here just won't work or is impossible? Also, what were the amounts of the commissions? All the same? Different? Does anyone else get the sense that a couple of the pieces might have been "phoned in"? Also, do the composers share in the royalties? One presumes so. And how much would that come to in a year?

In any case, I think this is a fascinating album, well worth repeated listens and I recommend picking up a copy.


Craig said...

Thanks for this very interesting commentary on this recording. I've admired Hilary Hahn for a few years now, ever since I heard her outstanding disc of the Sibelius and Schoenberg concertos. It's the recording I go to first when I want to hear those pieces. (Rather more often for the Sibelius, I have to say!)

She's a superb musician, and though she is young and beautiful, she seems to have successfully resisted the pressure to play the tart in her album art, etc. She carries herself with dignity, and I respect her for that, in addition to her wonderful way with the violin.

Bridge said...

Assuming one need even make a choice to begin with. Composers are influenced by music which moves them, and you cannot choose what you are moved by. Conditioning may play a minor role but I would argue in this modern world it is almost fully determined by exposure. By exposure I refer to the act of listening to the music and studying it. People choose what they listen to only in the sense that they reject the things that they do not like and embrace the things which they do. Nobody nonchalantly proclaims: "I am going to become a serialist composer." They just do it because they love the music and wish to write it (at least, I hope that's what most people do). It doesn't make any sense to assign yourself an arbitrary role and anybody who does is sure to write subpar music.

The way you portray the issue you make it sound like amateur composers are in a real dilemma about where they can fit in. The idea is not inherently incorrect. Change it a little so that amateur composers are in a dilemma about what they want to say with their music and you are spot on. Of course everybody who wants to write anything of worth has to consider that. The difference being that whatever they wish to express might just be something completely new, or a beckoning to the past, and not necessarily choose which pidgeonhole to place themselves in. It's not like a graduate choosing between a few stock professions. The titles come after the music, when it is documented.

Bryan Townsend said...

Craig, thanks. I will definitely pick up her Schoenberg and Sibelius. I don't have either of those on disc. Violinists that I know also highly respect her musicianship and abilities.

Bridge, I don't think I can agree with your assertions about what motivates composers. True, they can be very close-mouthed about what they do, but listen to the interview with Max Richter--that seems very genuine and it certainly accords with my own experience. Composers often seem to live in a world of music inside their heads. Tracking these ideas down, making sense of them, putting them together in ways that work for the listener, these are the challenges and they involve all sorts of choices. Making choices is the basic activity of composers.

I wasn't talking about amateur composers, of course, I was talking specifically about the composers on the album, who are all professional. Ah, what they want to "say with their music"!! Now that is where we really diverge. I don't think composers, generally want to say anything with the music. Saying something is a language thing more than a music thing. Unless you are writing songs, of course. And besides, it is more that you want to find out where the music wants to go itself.

And sometimes the titles do come first...

Bridge said...

If you wish to substitute "express" for "say" you may do so. It doesn't matter, since I was not referring to the articulation of any tangible idea. Only that composers need to have a clear grasp of what they want their music to be and how best to achieve it. It's infantile to ponder about what type of music you should write because then you are putting the music second. Who cares if the last century has brought about an oversaturation of serialist music, or that people have for the most part lost faith in Cage-esque aleatoricism? If you have something meaningful to bring to the table, do so without fear of judgement. If you want to write works in a strict Classical style, nobody is going to ignore it for being anachronistic if it is quality music.

Jennifer Higdon said...

Bryan, I thought I'd answer a few of your questions (nice blog by the way). Hilary's attitude towards new pieces is a composer's dream: if you write it, she feels it's her duty to play it. So the only editing that I was aware of was her asking for clarification on notes or articulations. Mine was probably the hardest piece, and she played the heck out of it. Having also written a concerto for her (which is hard as heck), I think she can actually play absolutely anything.

Everyone was paid the same (nominal amount). I got the feeling that no piece was "phoned in".

The composers share the royalties...but it actually is something like 1/27th of a fraction of less than a penny. So no one is counting on seeing a check. But we all understand the great value in having an artist of this caliber commission and play a new work (and record it as well).

Warm Regards,
Jennifer Higdon

Bryan Townsend said...

Bridge, it seems as if we are in basic agreement after all!

Bryan Townsend said...

Jennifer, what a pleasant surprise to see your comment! I imagine it is a real delight to have Hilary playing your music. Yes, it sure sounds as if she can play anything you can write down.

This is possibly the most interesting recent recording of contemporary music and what a wonderful project, beautifully realized.

Yes, I know the realities of renumeration for composers. I just signed a contract with the Avondale Press in Vancouver for some pieces for violin and guitar I wrote last summer.

Thanks so much for the note and the compliment on the blog!

All best,