Monday, February 17, 2014

Hilary Hahn, Part 4

Looks like this series is going to go on a little longer than I thought! I naively supposed that I would do three posts: one on background, one on the CD itself and one on aesthetic observations. Well, turns out that just talking about the recording itself is going to take four posts. So here is the discussion of the first half of the second disc.

The disc begins with a piece by Christos Hatzis, a Greek-Canadian composer who teaches at the University of Toronto. He studied at the Hellenic Conservatory, the Eastman School and at SUNY Buffalo. One of his teachers was Morton Feldman. The piece, titled Coming To uses what are often called "extended techniques" meaning extremely high harmonics and left-hand pizzicato. There is an interesting effect where the violin seems to go in and out of focus as a mostly tonal melody is distorted by sliding in and out of the "right" pitches. The piece feels a bit like a tango with frenetic interpolations. There is a tonal center.

Jeff Meyers was the winner of the competition for the 27th slot and his contribution is titled The Angry Birds of Kauai. He doesn't have a Wikipedia page, but does have a website. An American, he lives in New York and attended San Jose State, Eastman and the University of Michigan. He mentions a diverse set of influences. The music contains some real motivic development and imitation and there are a lot of frenetic virtuoso passages. The timbres are at times intentionally "ugly". Some dialogue between the instruments. In the absence of a firm tonal structure, the piece ends sections with hammered repeated notes.

Mark-Anthony Turnage is an English composer who studied with Oliver Knussen and Gunther Schuller. Jazz and Miles Davis in particular are cited as influences. The piece on the album, titled Hilary's Hoedown, is inspired by a different tradition entirely, of course. A hoedown is a traditional kind of country music associated with square-dancing and the fiddle is the traditional instrument. After a toccata-like introduction, the music sounds very "hoedowny". I like this kind of thing, where you take a traditional genre like hoedown or reel and "deconstruct" it by taking it apart and rebuilding it with different harmonies and effects.

On a completely different note are the Two Pieces by the Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov, who studied at the Kiev Conservatory. His music is called both neoclassical and post-modernist. I might be tempted to call it "recovered tonality". The composer says"I do not write new music. My music is a response to and an echo of what already exists." The two pieces are both slow and are like two views of the same material. The music is very "harmonic" and by that I mean that there is great sensitivity to tension and resolution in all voices, not just a tonal center with everything else whirling around it. The melody is floating and lovely.

Kala Ramnath is the first composer on the album who is herself a violinist. She is an Indian classical violinist coming from a very musical family. Her piece, Aalap and Tarana, is a powerful evocation of Indian music with clever touches like scraping the bass strings of the piano to get the effect of the sympathetic resonating strings of the sitar. The frequent slides in the violin are also expressive in a way reminiscent of both the singing and sitar technique of India. At the same time, there is more repetition than development and harmonically the feeling is that of a continual background drone.

Lera Auerbach is a Russian-born composer who studied with Milton Babbitt. She is also a concert-level pianist. Her piece is titled Speak, Memory. It is one of the pieces where it is safe to say that there is no tonal center! "Speak, Memory" is a memoir by the writer Vladimir Nabokov, but I can't say anything about the connection as I haven't read it. The piece very much has a "Viennese expressionist" feel and reminds me of the music of Alban Berg. It is quite dissonant with a tortured feeling. Uses some extremely high, scratchy harmonics.

The last piece I will talk about today is the seventh on the second disc, Blue Curve of the Earth by Tina Davidson. I would give it the first prize for the coolest title. She is an American composer who studied with the Canadian Harry Brant, among others. The music makes a lot of creative use of pizzicatos and harmonics. Rhythmically, there are some nice jerky hemiolas. There is a modal feel to both melody and harmony. Mostly it is in a regular duple meter with a definite tonal center.

I think we are starting to see both the strengths and weaknesses of this CD. They both derive from the incredible diversity of musical vocabulary. By the way, we often use the terms "vocabulary" and "language" in talking about music, but for philosophical reasons I want to insist that they are just metaphors. Music does not have a language-like vocabulary, though there are some similar elements. Music is too non-specific to be accounted an actual language. As someone once said "if music is a language, what are the words and where is the dictionary I can look them up in?"

As soon as you get accustomed to the style or practices of a particular piece, it is over and you are thrown into the utterly different style of the next piece. I suppose this is good for people with very short attention spans, but it means that you don't ever quite get fully into any one piece.

More about that another time. Here is Hilary Hahn interviewing Tina Davidson:

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