Category: Music

Composing the Missa Solemnis

Instead of a usual review, TD writes fifteen fragments. These are refractions of TD’s consciousness during listening. Judgments are to be interpreted as culminations of preceding, unwritten descriptions.

1. The Swedish Radio Choir rises and falls as a unit. Natural and pleasant, like a sleeping baby’s belly.

2. After Beethoven finished the Missa Solemnis in 1823, he wrote to Karl XIV, the king of Sweden, to cajole him into purchasing a copy. Beethoven penned two epistles, one in February and one in March. The king did not respond to either. In this performance, these Swedes answer Beethoven’s request.

3. Wow, this Kyrie! Sustained unisons resound with power. Despite movement, they seem static. The divine is immovable and motionless.

4. Beethoven: “For God, Time absolutely does not exist.”

5. Dausgaard conducts with reserved dignity. He expends just enough energy to get his desired result. Nothing is superfluous.

6. I picture how this would sound in a cathedral.

7. Michael Weinius’s movements are unpleasant. He shakes his music with despair, as if in need of literal salvation. Apparently, he enjoys Beethoven.

8. These sopranos sound like dying birds. Their staccatos are clipped and comical. They need depth to match the Credo’s message.

9. Dausgaard automates a magnificent swell in the chorus. He pricks a delicate ribbon and pulls it outward. Solemn, subterranean vibrations to boisterous exultance.

10. Whereas Weinius sounds like an overblown opera star, Malin Christensson, the soprano, transmits the divine. Pristine and peaceful, like immovable lake water in the Canadian Rockies. Repentance soars in beautiful legato.

11. Beethoven: “In the upper registers, the soprano, too, can demonstrate inner calm and joy as the evidence of peace.”

12. The famous Incarnatus. Processional dignity morphs into solemn piety. Alto soloist enters with care. A flute tries to soar over the strings. It ultimately breaks through. Ignaz Seyfried, a Viennese composer and colleague of Beethoven’s, thought that the flute was heaven’s messenger in the Annunciation.
13. Thunderous applause congratulated the mass’s Viennese premiere. Beethoven heard nothing.

14. New Yorkers, who are all critics, tend to support foreign ensembles more than the New York Phil. As evidence, a great celebration greeted the performers. They definitely heard it.

15. Dausgaard gently releases his grip on “Eleison”– and its sound flutters away. I am sad to see it go.

Photo from the 2014 film Güeros.

There is a moment in Alonso Ruizpalacio’s 2014 film, Güeros, that has stayed with me since my first viewing: following a confrontation with an angry neighbor, the film’s trio flees the scene by car, and Sombra, the protagonist’s older brother, lies in the backseat undergoing what is clearly meant to be an audiovisual representation of a panic attack.

The scene owes much of its haunting memorability to its experimental track. A selection of ambient sounds—an eerie screech, a low rumble, and an incessant beep—intensify in sync to Sombra’s deteriorating mental condition, blurring his vision and muting the pleading voice of his younger brother (shown above) until his whole existence is reduced to the mere sound of frantic breaths against the backdrop of perilous sonic waves, which are evidently threatening to overtake him.

The reason this scene continues to leave such a lasting impression on me is simple: I, too, suffer from anxiety, and the scene’s mise-en-scène (everything that physically appears before the camera) seamlessly blends with the avant-garde dreaminess and apprehension of the score to elicit a convincing and uniform reproduction of my mental affliction.

In fact, when I first saw this film, two years ago, I was in the midst of my own personal Crisis. This took place seconds after I realized it was mathematically impossible for me to pass one of my CS classes, and that, consequently, I would be unable to graduate from Columbia within the traditional four-year span. Suffice to say, this colossal failure (“colossal,” insofar as it was the only notable one in my life thus far) amplified my anxiety-inducing imposter syndrome to the point where I physically couldn’t leave my room; the specificities of what followed, however, are for another time.

For now, I wish to briefly ruminate on one of cinema’s most sacred, primordial powers, illustrated by the aforementioned example: its ability to instill in the viewer catharsis (Greek: “katharsis,” meaning “purification” or “cleansing”) through poignant verisimilitude, especially as it relates to life’s immanently tragic nature.

As Aristotle teaches us in his seminal work on tragedy, Poetics, this experience is marked by a profoundly satisfying purgation of “negative” emotions, especially those characterized by fear and pity. In the end—if all has gone well—the viewer reemerges with the consoling reaffirmation that, despite one’s misfortunes, they will be able to cope nonetheless; in other words, that everything will end up okay.

But, on a more primal level, why do we experience catharsis at the movies at all?

Here it is helpful to quote the German Continental philosopher, Hans-Georg Gadamer, who is best known for his 1960 work on hermeneutics, Truth and Method, in which he writes:

“What is experienced in such an excess of tragic suffering is something truly common. The spectator recognizes himself and his finiteness in the face of the power of fate…To see that ‘this is how it is’ is a kind of self-knowledge for the spectator, who emerges with new insight from the illusions he, like everyone else, lives.” (132)

The first step in reaching catharsis, “recognition,” is not to be misunderstood as something immediate, for this is the process by which the artist aims to get the viewer to empathize with the protagonist on at least some level (this implies neither likeability nor relatability—think Walter White from Breaking Bad). Neither should it be seen as “contextual” recognition: after all, who else has ever found themselves literally trapped by a boulder in a remote slot canyon in southeastern Utah (127 Hours)? The recognition, then, is a thematic one: to use the previous example, the viewer is familiar with the general feeling of being suddenly pitted against a formidable obstacle which, despite your initial off-guardedness, will come to test the limits of your resolution.

The instant of catharsis occurs when the character’s suffering reaches its crescendo because it is here that the “power of fate” is most viscerally felt. Having been emotionally “led on” by the artist, the character has become us in the abstract sense, so that their trials and tribulations are likewise our own. Hence, we too are subjected to the great emotional weight of intense suffering when the crescendo arrives. It is here that the recognition realizes its consummate form as an utterly affective phenomenon.

It is the aim of the artist to lead the viewer to this step of “affective immersion,” without which the next step is not possible: the acquisition of what Gadamer terms “self-knowledge,” or “new insight.” This is the most important stage of catharsis, for it is here that art fulfills its primordial power: the viewer can now walk away with a rejuvenating, newfound emotional clarity. All that is left is the dissection of this clarity and the study of its personal implications.

For me, after watching Güeros, this meant sitting in shock for several hours, letting the weight of time slowly crush me as I slowly accepted the terrifying reality of my situation: I was having a chronic panic attack, fueled by a feral wave of anxiety, and was caught up in a truly desperate situation which seemed to have no end in sight.

Finally, cinema’s greatest gift: the capacity to incite radical change in the viewer, for the betterment of his or her situation, or those of others.

For me to get up and say:

“Hm…Maybe it’s time I got out now.”

 

The Seventh Art is written by Juan Gomez and runs every other Sunday. To submit a comment/question or a piece of your own, email submissions@columbialion.com.

Photo by Timothy Diovanni

Hypercube: Brain on Fire

(le) poisson rouge 10/15/17

 

If you want to learn about philosophy in action, talk to Hypercube, a NYC-based contemporary music ensemble comprised of saxophone, percussion, guitar, and piano:

“A hypercube can be described as an analogous shape, a 3-dimenseional cube, in four or more dimensions. The cube formation is essentially a 3-dimensional equalizer. We like to think that it enters another dimension when the music is added,” Erin Rogers, saxophonist, explained over e-mail.

Does the music transport to another dimension? Or is this just lofty language – is the actual experience more conservative?

To answer these questions, I will describe the musical experience. Mikel Kuehn’s Color Fields (2006/8) sounds like painted landscapes. Barren, desolate tundra morphed into desert glow. In the most colorful moments, it is hard to determine which instrument is playing which line. Disembodied sound eliminates the individual, presenting a blurred image.

These mixing timbres – a fancy term to say how an instrument sounds because of its physicality (i.e. what makes a clarinet sound like a clarinet and not a flute) – are explored in Andriessen’s Hout (1991). I appreciate Rogers’s commentary before the piece; she describes how the instruments interact through a displaced motive. Tree branches shoot out, overlapping, rustling into each other. Rare unisons sound like the manifestation of unshakeable wood.

Behind me, as I listen, ice cubes rumble. Spaghetti and meatballs float in waiters’ hands. This is a new concert experience for me – I am used to the absence of most extraneous sounds – and I am not very happy about it (boohoo for me, I guess).

Rogers leans back with her instrument, like a rocker with their guitar or mic stand. Jay Sorce, spectacled, navigates his instrument’s fingerboard, stoically, with an occasional head wiggle. A grey-haired man in the front row moves his head in time with the music, outwardly satisfied. Unflinching precision masks Chris Graham’s face; he is a Secret Service agent on the marimba. Between pieces, he appears relaxed, friendly, smiley. Pianist Andrea Lodge’s head bounces in a groove. Yellow, blue, pink light shroud the performers, their instruments, sheet music, and iPads. One forlorn disco ball dangles, misplaced, from the ceiling.

Photo by Timothy Diovanni.

Most composers treat Sorce’s guitars – he plays both acoustic and electric – with extra care, making sure to not have them overpower the ensemble. Schuessler’s Liminal Bridges (2016) and Hurel’s Localized Corrosion (2009) stand in contrast: Sorce shreds, riffs, wails, screams eruptions of living sound. Flutter-tonguing in the saxophone complements these outbursts. Who knew these instruments could mix so convincingly?

Considering these sound worlds, does the program achieve its goal of setting the audience’s “Brain on Fire”? This program is as a challenge to concertgoers: the music should, in theory, cause vigilant attention, surprise, visceral responses. Hurrel’s Localized Corrosion best accomplishes this task for me.

Intense, overwhelming sound catapults the piece. Thunderclaps in the bass drum, a growling saxophone, trembling guitar. Quick switch in texture. Sad vibrations stream from the solo guitar. Ensemble jumps at him, vigorous, interruptive. Disconsolate saxophone sighs: hell-plunging, uneasy piano pulsations: metallic acceleration on a small gong: vigorous, bold guitar. A bass drum orgasm terminates in profound stillness. Tense energy radiates from the stage. 10, 15, 20 seconds. Nothing. The performers hold their positions. Lodge rustles; her head moves slightly downward. Then, they release their stance, breaking the spell.

Because of its multifarious, competing textures, Hurel’s work causes continual engagement.  This is not mind-numbingly music: it cannot be turned into Muzak, lightly pacified in shopping malls and convention centers. It demands the precision and daring of this ensemble to strike the deep chasms between passages, to become alive. Provocative music ignites an experiential fire.

Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role and Joyce DiDonato as Adalgisa in Bellini’s “Norma.” Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

 

Monday was opening night at the Metropolitan Opera. The evening was a chance to be seen, to be heard, to be loud. Half-drunk, piss-colored prosecco glasses hovered through the Met lobby. Red-headed twins in matching green dresses pranced down the stairs. Muted elegance hid in an alcove, a sentry with a light-blue, fluffy overthrow. Folks met colleagues with half-hearted smiles, and lovers embraced joyously. Noise echoed throughout the space, filled with exclamations of “You…look superb”, clacks of skyscraper heels, Italian murmurs, Russian rumors, small talk on the summer weather. Press congregated in an impenetrable, baseball-diamond formation. A gaggle of photographers snapped ferociously.

Eventually, an unseen magnet dragged us from the velvety mulling spaces into the theater. The performance began promptly 20 minutes late with a rendition of the National Anthem. Maestro James Levine conducted. The audience largely did not sing along.

Of course, there was an opera to be had tonight: Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma (1831). For those who don’t know Norma, here is a quick summary:

Norma is a priestess in Gaul (think France) during Roman occupation. She had two kids with a Roman governor, Pollione, but now he’s seeing Adalgisa, another priestess. Adalgisa tells Norma about Pollione, which makes her (understandably) furious. Act 1 ends in a heave.

Norma considers killing her children—Hello Medea!—but draws her dagger away at the last moment. Adalgisa enters and Norma is apparently A-Okay with her and Pollione: she even suggests that they run off to Rome together. Adalgisa is aghast. She hopes to reconnect Norma and Pollione.

Segue to a rather boring male chorus. The Druids want to revolt. But it’s not time yet, says Norma’s dad Oroveso. Snooze.

Final scene. Norma learns that Pollione will stay with Adalgisa. She strikes the war gong three times, the Druids fire up a frenzy (torches!). The drama blusters to a close: Norma tries to get back with Pollione, he refuses, she decides to kill herself, Pollione joins her and they walk into the pyre together (How sweet!).

For this vocal masterclass disguised as an opera, a producer could simply put a white backdrop on the Met’s stage without too much injustice. That said, I thought the staging admirably captured Bellini’s late romantic aesthetic. Dark, disorientating pines and scattered, encroaching moonshine complemented the characters’ interactions.

Joyce DiDonato as Adalgisa in Bellini’s “Norma.” Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

As an audience member proclaimed at intermission, though, “people care mostly about the voices in this work.” Tenor Joseph Calleja (Pollione) was casual, reserved, despite the heady topic (love). He infused more devotion as his character was whirlpooled into the tragedy. Soprano Joyce DiDonato (Adalgisa) had a silvery tone when she sang high. Her acting felt spontaneous and intense. Sondra Radvanovsky (Norma) embodied tender, moving Romanticism in her famous aria, Casta Diva. Throughout the marathon, Radvanovsky executed rocket-powered scales, winding phrases, and dancing grace notes—markers of the bel canto style–with ease.

Although I haven’t seen it posited elsewhere, the bel canto singing style extends to instrumentalists at well. In Casta Diva I was impressed by the flutist’s phrasing and tone, which built a solid foundation for Radvanovsky. In an exposed clarinet and flute duet in the first act, the intonation was sparkling clean. Their effort created an appropriate holiness. Overall, the orchestra’s fortes just felt way too safe. More sound! (Please.)

Cadenzas—extended, solo passages usually for one or two musicians—allow singers to showcase their vocal prowess. Duet vocal cadenzas are especially difficult to execute because both singers must be perfectly synchronized in their tempo alterations and dynamic choices. Radvanovsky and DiDonato had to perform several of these duets. In the first act, their intonation suffered in their upper register. However, they solved the problem in the second act, summoning the pristine beauty of the bel canto style.

Although I have several reservations about the plot, one scene stands out for its drama. When the Druids find Pollione in their temple, they bring him to Norma to kill him. Instead, Norma tries to convince Pollione to return to her. He refuses; Norma indicates that she will kill Pollione’s lover. She recalls the Druids and announces that a guilty priestess shall burn on the pyre. They implore, “Who is she?” Norma hesitates. The Druids ask again, “Who is she?” Norma, “It is I.” The singers captured the tragedy of the moment with intense, palpable stillness. When the orchestra reentered on their soft sostenuto, the mood was solemn, desolate. Radvanovsky pleads and prays, her accepted devastation processes to its infernal . Here, I believe the production succeeded: the prolonged silence followed by the tragic orchestra created a poignant ping that made me empathize with Norma’s fate. Such pathos proves that a moving Norma is not just about the singers, rather how different operatic elements–orchestra, staging, choreography, ensemble–interact with each other. The experience can only be endured through a live performance.

 

Norma runs through December 16, with casting changes. The opera will be broadcast live October 7, at 1:00 PM, on WQXR 105.9 FM.

For anyone in MusicHum, this opera presents the perfect opportunity to see an archetype of bel canto. Tickets in the boonies aren’t as cheap as they once were: the best you can do is a $25 rush ticket the day of the performance on the Met’s website (rush tickets are cheaper than student tickets.). Information and ticket listings on metopera.org.

 

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Illustration by Laura Elizabeth Hand

 

Prior to the Columbia University Orchestra performance at Alice Tully Hall, my most recent event at Lincoln Center was Yo-Yo Ma’s breathtaking cello performance of Symphonie Fantastique. Yo-Yo Ma climbed to the highest note of his cello while we climbed to the edges of our seats. Here, instead of the back corner box, I am in the front, my gaze catching on an audience that has exchanged black gowns and reserved enthusiasm for H&M and outright fervor.

The spring concert will lead with Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde (1868), and then eventually trail into Columbia’s own rendition of Symphonie Fantastique with a different cellist starring. Alec Hon’s performance of Haydn’s Cello Concerto in D Major (1783) is set to follow Tristan and Isolde first, however, ushering the packed— sold-out— hall into intermission and then the closing march of Berlioz’s Episode from the Life of an Artist: Symphonie Fantastique (1830).

Heels and blue jeans, overexcited parents and a girl in a blue down jacket (leaning in to gesture frantically at a distracted violinist) are the signs marking the rapid growth of our audience as they press into the general admission seating. The vibrations and eerie peels of the stringed instruments begin as they warm up for the highly-anticipated spring concert. Soon enough, the wind instruments’ lend trills to the rising atmosphere.

In the final moments before Tristan and Isolde begins, there is a brief interlude of frantic applause followed by absolute silence.

Then the sound and the silence that punctuates its phrases begins and the audience is spellbound. Even Yo-Yo Ma did not command this degree of respect from his audience. The musicians and the conductor are clearly responding, as the synchronized sweep of elbows gains in pace and coordination. If music is not their first love, as is the case for Chris James, violinist first-year studying psychology (whose proud uncle sits next to me with his torso half twisted over the edge of the balcony box for a better view), it may yet prove to be their finest.

The musicians move with the music, and the audience is moved. Perhaps a finger slips with perspiration here or there, but the overall effect of the students’ passion is unmistakable and impossible to ignore. In a perfect cycle, a moment of silence, then thunderous applause also carries the piece to a close.

After a few minutes of the muffled brush of gowns, squeak of instruments, and squeal of shuffled chairs, all of the sounds of musicians rearranging themselves for a piece, the strings once more coral the audience into submission for Alec Hon as he takes his cello and takes center stage.

During the Cello Concerto, he pants against his cello as the music rises, sweat visible on his forehead, effort and nerves carrying a different tone into the bars. As each run ends, his right shoulder drops and the bow falls back, leaving the responsibility of the piece to his fellow musicians, who perform the piece with frantic energy. When his part comes again, Hon plays without reference or prompt, and the only moving bodies in the room belong to Alec and the third bass player, who attempts to surreptitiously duck away for a second’s relief from the heat of the lights and his stifling formal wear.

When they come together again, the piece comes to a close, ending with a bow and a fond pat on Hon’s cheek by the pleased conductor. The audience rises to a standing ovation.

Intermission is accompanied by the inevitable gush of exiting audience members bottlenecking in the halls and loudly declaring their opinions on the pieces performed thus far. The discourse seems overwhelmingly favorable.

As the audience members make their more subdued return to their seats, there is renewed enthusiasm for Symphonie Fantastique, which I share but pair with some trepidation. Having recently viewed the undisputed master of the cello take on this piece, how will I review an admittedly incredibly talented student orchestra?

I needn’t have worried. While the piece is nearly unrecognizable from the psychedelic interpretation of Berlioz Yo-Yo Ma and the New York Philharmonic offered, it clearly demonstrates budding mastery of a different style. This is perhaps most evident in the softer percussion and the presentation of the Fourth and Fifth movements. Instead of pushing forward with the shrill nerves of the dream as I first heard it played, the Columbia University Orchestra offers rolling swells of music that invoke a deeper introspection than the NYPhil’s lucid dreams.

Indeed, after the concert ends and the applause grows louder than ever before, I find myself thinking it would be hard to find a member of either audience who did not fall in love with Berlioz and the musicians who brought him to the stage.

The night closes with a lingering audience and many proud tears, the Spring Concert happily demonstrating itself a roaring success.