- Martin Fröst, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra: “Jesper Nordin: Emerging from Currents and Waves (Live)” (BIS)
- Angélique Kidjo, Filharmonie Brno, Dennis Russell Davies: “Philip Glass: Symphony No. 12, ‘Lodger’” (Orange Mountain Music)
- Nightingale String Quartet: “Vagn Holmboe: String Quartets, Vol. 2” (Dacapo)
If Elon Musk’s Twitter deal had gone through, would there have been more Schoenberg discourse, less Schoenberg discourse, or the same amount of Schoenberg discourse on the platform? I’m not sure what prompted the latest round that seems to have taken over Classical Music Twitter this week—and I take musicologist Carrie Allen Tipton’s fruitless search for “Schoenberg Zero” as a cautionary tale against trying to find out.
Meanwhile, I keep going back to the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne and Heinz Holliger’s new recording of the composer’s Chamber Symphony and “Sechs Kleine Stücke” for the sense of wonder it prompts. “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious,” Einstein once said. “A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds.” It’s an axiom that suits Schoenberg’s music as much as it does the works of Jesper Nordin, who echoed Einstein’s sentiment when he said that the “fantastic thing about art and music is that one can pose questions and conjure up visions at the same time.” Nordin, whose works sound like the sort of vast galaxy-scapes that were recently captured by NASA’s James Webb Telescope, rendered this combination of impenetrable mystery and conjured visions most literal with his work for orchestra, electronics, and clarinet, “Emerging from Currents and Waves.”
Written for clarinetist and fellow Swede Martin Fröst, Nordin delivers a clarinet concerto wrapped in a series of intricate puzzle boxes. Three movements—“Currents,” “Emerging,” and “Waves”—mirror the standard concerto structure. But “Emerging” is in turn broken down into three sub-movements; an atom broken down into protons broken down into quarks. Nordin adds to this by incorporating his invention of the “Gestrument,” which allows soloist and conductor to interact with motion sensors by (as the name suggests) gestures. Sounds can be recorded in real time, treated, and looped back into the performance as the work unfolds. In live performance, the technology also manifests as a video-image component for the concerto. While some aspects of Nordin’s score are precise in their notation, his Gestrument allows for a more free-flowing layer that Fröst likens to “sculpting” the music.
The concept is a bespoke fit for Fröst, whose own performances seem driven more by atmosphere than by technique (though, in an understatement of the year, he suffers no dearth of the latter). Even in some of the most standard repertoire for the instrument, there is always a synesthetic experience: He’s painting pictures with his instrument, creating a work of installation art out of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto that invites the audience to linger, absorbed. In the opening “Currents” section of Nordin’s work, which at times sounds like a prolonged and more interesting version of the THX theme, that absorption is part and parcel of the score. It’s a bit like floating in an aquarium of sonority; some tones float overhead, some echo from above the waterline, and others are just barely audible through the depths.
This accelerates into “Emerging,” which flutters to life in Fröst’s hands and soon becomes a maelstrom of arpeggiated clarinet lines that simultaneously express fear and wonder. Despite all of the technological components to this work, there is an inherent earthiness to the score as well, articulated by Esa-Pekka Salonen in this live recording of the work’s 2018 world premiere with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. It grounds Fröst’s passagework, which becomes increasingly frenetic, until we’re thrust into “Waves,” as if thrown headlong into the actual Baltic Sea. Jagged chords from the string section cut through like icepicks. Breathless gestures collapse in on themselves, like hands coming to rest after wild gesticulation. Fröst’s final lines sound like a prayer; almost a solo against an orchestra sample. It’s like the final supplication of a high holiday service.
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There’s something similarly prayer-like in the repetitions of Philip Glass, reiterated like rosaries or—perhaps more appropriate—Buddhist chants. In the composer’s Symphony No. 12, “Lodger,” the final in his trio of works based on David Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy of albums produced with Brian Eno (“Low,” “Heroes” and “Lodger”), it feels like an even more apt metaphor than usual. While Glass’s previous Bowie symphonies focused on the music, recasting classics like the title song of “Heroes” to fit a minimalist symphony orchestra, for “Lodger,” he turned to the text.
This was a move as pragmatic as it was artistic. “There was much less musical content” Glass told the Los Angeles Times of Bowie’s 1979 album. “In ‘Low’ and ‘Heroes,’ there are actual melodic themes that they composed. When I got to ‘Lodger,’ there were no original musical ideas on that record. And I had forgotten that because I hadn’t heard it in so long.” It seemed like this had presented a struggle that prompted some procrastination: “Low” had been the basis for his Symphony No. 1 in 1992. Symphony No. 4, “Heroes,” premiered in 1996. It took another eight symphonies to get to “Lodger,” which premiered in January 2019. But perhaps that time also gave Glass the necessary fresh eyes. Glass read and re-read the lyrics to “Lodger,” which Bowie had co-written with Eno using the composer’s Oblique Strategies methods to spark a sort of Dadaist creativity. The result, as Glass saw it, was the creation of a “political language.”
“We came from the farmlands to live in the city; we walked proud and lustful In this resonant world” sings Bowie on “Yassassin” (Turkish for “long live,” a phrase Bowie had apparently seen among the graffiti of Berlin). The song was written in the wake of a mass migration of Turkish “guest workers” to Germany, and its political dimensions have only multiplied in the last 40 years. “You want to fight, but I don’t want to leave or drift away.” And yet, as intricate as the lyrics are, the melody as conceived by Bowie and Eno most likely didn’t hold up even in 1979. Edward Said’s Orientalism had been published the year before; Nat Simon had written the novelty tune “Istanbul” a quarter of a century earlier. Glass strips the song of its kitsch, refitting its lyrics with a Britten-esque sense of precision and musical narrative.
It helps, too, that the singer for whom Glass’s “Lodger” was composed is Benin-born chanteuse Angélique Kidjo, whose own sense of remixing and interpolation is otherworldly. The year before premiering Glass’s symphony, she had released her own tribute to another Brian Eno project: the Talking Heads’s 1980 album, “Remain in Light.” Owing much to West African music, particularly Fela Kuti, the album came full circle in Kidjo’s hands, through her ecstatic reorchestrations. There’s a similar effect of rediscovery and reinterpretation as Kidjo makes Bowie’s lyrics her own while navigating the waters of Glass’s prismatic orchestrations. As she sings the line “To live in the city” in her always-a-little-bit-Marlene-Dietrich drawl, equal parts sense and sensuality, and Christian Schmitt tiptoes in on the organ, the whole thing takes on the dimensions of a religious fresco; a parable of flight and fight, of the rooted and rootless.
I was reminded of Philip Glass with the opening to Vagn Holmboe’s String Quartet No. 2, which in turn opens the second volume of the Nightingale String Quartet’s multi-album tribute to the Danish composer. Pixelating and pulsing in 12/8 time, the work begins in motion; a melody passed between the violin and viola allows us to jump on. The landscape changes rapidly; Glass’s perpetual motion quickly gives way to Jesper Nordin-y icicles, as if the road has turned from pleasant and pastoral to fallow and foreboding. (The Nordin connection isn’t purely incidental; in studying with Bent Sørensen who in turn studied with Per Nørgård, Nordin is only three handshakes away from Holmboe.)
It’s hard not to think of natural landscapes when listening to Holmboe. Composer Karl Aage Rasmussen links Holmboe’s style to Schoenberg’s constructivism, with a caveat: “Schoenberg found his arguments in history while Holmboe’s come from nature.” He was far from a sheltered bumpkin—in his liner notes for this album, Jens Cornelius writes that Holmboe’s mother was an early practitioner of yoga in turn-of-the-century Denmark, and his older brother Knud was “probably the first Dane to convert to Islam.” Holmboe was acutely aware of the vastness of the world around him, and saw music as a means of expressing “a perfect unity and [conjuring] up a feeling of cosmic cohesion.”
That flows through his String Quartet No. 2, composed in 1949. Perhaps the timing lends a bit of post-nuclear chaos to the piece; the second movement swirls with cosmic mystery before dissolving into a middle section that fidgets with agitated phrases before giving way to the quiet tension of a brief adagio. The final, fifth movement moves in at a brisk pace again, violins chirping like cicadas, eventually finding a resolution through Balkan folk themes. This is also key to Holmboe’s musical output on the whole, and especially in his string quartets (one of his key influences in this area was Bartók). Writing in a neoclassical era, he avoided overly-intellectualizing his work through his anthropological obsession with folk music, stretching from Romania to the Middle East. As Cornelius puts it, he “often talked about how he was ‘freed’ by the rhythms and tonality of folk music.” That sense of freedom, of unimpeded self-expression, shines through brilliantly in the hands of the Nightingale String Quartet, whose compulsions towards completism (prior to their Holmboe cycle, they covered Rued Langgaard’s quartets) make for thrilling musical biographies of composers who merit the airtime. ¶
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