Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Chantal Akerman's "Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles"

This film is, superficially a woman going about her everyday business for over three hours — and "Last Year at Marienbad" is just a camera panning around an expensive hotel. To say that this is "an exercise in boredom" is to miss the point entirely. If anything this is, like Robert Bresson's later color films, a brilliant example of conveying an entire world through extremely limited means. At the beginning of the film Jeanne is the picture of perfection, which is mirrored in the impeccably furnished and decorated apartment. As the film progresses, we begin to see the cracks in her personality — even if it is something so seemingly common as dropping a spoon, or overcooking potatoes. In the context of the film these are like pebbles breaking the tranquil surface of a pond. When Jeanne knows that no one is watching we see the look of despondency and hopelessness on her face. Eventually she breaks down, and her breakdown is both horrifying and cathartic.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Milton Babbitt - Occasional Variations (Tzadik)

In the past, Babbitt has always been the Big Scary Monster of 20th Century American music (not exactly a catchy nickname), though increasingly his reputation has risen through the good work of people who have actually heard his music.

In the 2nd (1952) and 6th (1993) string quartets (the real highlights of the disc, in my opinion), the ghost of Romanticism is constantly making it's presence felt. Babbitt's sonic palette in these quartets is conservative, alternating between bowed and plucked notes — no col legno, string snapping or rapping the side of the instrument here. The effect is not one of a conscious regression or hearkening to the past, but rather one feels that here Babbitt has absorbed and sublimated an entire history of the string quartet genre (one that has become in the past century even more of a cornerstone than the symphony). There are constant whisperings or "memories" of tonality, happening almost as if by coincidence — like drifting clouds converging to form a familiar shape. More than 40 years separate the two quartets, but little obvious change in style can be discerned. It is almost as if Babbitt is (perhaps heretical to say!) a modern day Fauré, writing music that is solely his own long after it has become unfashionable.

The disc's title piece, Occasional Variations (1968-71), has suffered the same fate as other pieces of this genre — it sounds extremely dated. Even so, the pure timbres of the ancient synthesizer sound charming to these ears, and give one the feeling of listening directly to the score, free of the "vagaries" of performance — similar to a MIDI transcription of a piece, but more interesting because of the extremely synthetic nature of the sounds.

Where in the two string quartets, Babbitt has sublimated a history of quartet writing, in Composition for Guitar (1984) it is the folk music of Spain and traditional jazz playing that is on display. Flamenco-like strumming alternates with softly plucked notes in a bed of silence in a way that is meditative without devolving into mere dinner table ambience (if indeed it is at all possible for music this abstract to do so!)

This disc is my introduction to this reputedly "difficult" composer, but it certainly won't be the last. I'd recommend this to anyone interested in music that is challenging, but eminently rewarding.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Horatiu Radulescu's "Lao Tzu" Sonatas (Ortwin Stürmer, piano)

As is, unfortunately, often the case, I first became aware of Radulescu's music on the announcement of his death last year. His name is invariably associated with the so-called "spectral" school of music (though, the composers labeled as such would be the first to point out the error inherent in this sort of tagging). I had been intrigued by what I had read about his music — his use of "sound icons" (a grand piano turned on its side and played directly on the strings) and his use of the overtone series (an approach composers like Per Nørgård and Tristan Murail have mined since the 1970s).

With this reputation one would expect these sonatas to be examples of arch-modernism; they are actually relatively conventional, but this by no means a fault.

Referred to collectively as the "Lao tzu" sonatas, these piano pieces each have as their subtitle a quotation from the Tao Te Ching, and the pieces reflect this mystical attitude in their feeling of stasis and non-development within each movement; the musical material is rather than becomes. Themes are contrasted and combined rather than formally developed, which recalls Boulez's comment that Olivier Messiaen "didn't compose, he juxtaposed". Much could be said for these sonatas, but Radulescu's insistent rhythms and almost-tonal snatches of melody make these more interesting and memorable than Messiaen's mature pieces for the instrument.

Radulescu wrote three more piano sonatas other than those collected here: one early piece from 1968 and two later pieces from 2003 and 2007 respectively. Thus far only 2-4 have been recorded — indeed, precious little of Radulescu's music exists on disc, but one hopes that will soon change. These are fascinating and absolutely musical pieces that beg further exploration.

Friday, October 16, 2009


This space will eventually be filled with my music reviews from other sites, dithyrambic outpourings on music, movies and writers I love, and various other ephemera — if I ever manage get off my ass and write something.