Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Eagle has landed

Without a doubt the coolest thing I've ever owned.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Sunday dinner redux

More to come about Mahler in a day or two, but for now, a slow-food menu for friends:

-Cauliflower and Jerusalem artichoke soup with bacon, black pepper and olive oil ('06 Sancerre "Les Baronnes", Henri Bourgeois)
-Braised lamb shank in red wine reduction sauce, chèvre risotto with thyme, roasted Brussels sprouts ('01 Château d'Aurilhac Cru Bourgeois)
-Cheese & fruit plate
-Lemon custard tart with wildflower honey whipped cream ('05 Lenz Moser Trockenbeerenauslese)

It's a bit odd to match Sancerre with creamy soup, but I quite like the contrast between the stony, acidic wine and the smoky smoothness of the soup.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Laid bare in the deep midnight

I'm up far too late for a school night, alight with a fire I haven't felt in a very long time. Against my usual habit as a recovering insomniac, I was doing some late-night listening in preparation for tomorrow's lecture on Mahler's 3rd, with accompanying digressions into Klimt and, Unnamed Deity help me, a bit of Nietzsche. I'd intended to just brush up some ideas about the Midnight Song movement, I ended up going right through the last half of the symphony.

And I am broken by it. Shattered. Wrecked.

Some unseen force has been holding me back from working on my thesis. Inertia? Fear? Who knows? But struggling under the weight of teaching this massive topic, all the details, the amount of history nobody can hope to master in a single semester, and at the end of my degree no less, I think I'd lost sight of why I wanted to do it in the first place. But listening to the close of that radiant Adagio movement, I find myself brought full circle by the sheer humanity of Mahler's utterance, reminded why I wanted to be a composer in the first place: in the hope of being able to touch people the way he did, to someday make that kind of contact with a listener, be it someone known to me or not. Beyond the biographical minutiae, the politics surrounding Mahler's life and music, the analysis of his character and ample personal flaws, the raging egotism, behind all that there's a soul so great, so all-embracing, harboring a love of the world so vast that he couldn't contain it, had to let it out in such a glorious effusion. For me, such music stands as a gauntlet thrown down, a line drawn in the sand for all who dare participate in this art form, as if Mahler were saying, "I dare you, double dare you, triple dog dare you to give so much of yourself."

A century on, I'm not naïve enough to think that one can return to that language and hope to find it fresh. Much as I'm a fan of George Rochberg's music, the slow movement of the 3rd Quartet is a look back, not forward, and as such doesn't register with the same emotional force as Mahler's Adagio. And yet, I'm forced to wonder if, over the course of the last hundred years, we as composers have abdicated a significant part of our emotional palette to whatever technical and aesthetic ideologies grabbed our attention. Is it still possible to express oneself in such direct emotional terms, with utter sincerity, without sounding bombastic, nostalgic or merely empty? I hope so, because if I should ever manage to write something so monumentally touching as the end of Mahler's 3rd, I'd consider my life's work done, and done well.

And now, to bed.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Concert life

For whatever reason, there's been a dearth of live music in my life lately. Either there hasn't been much to interest me in Helsinki this season, or I just haven't felt like going out. Whatever the cause, I've made up for it in spades this past weekend. It started with a concert of music for Finnish kantele on Friday, in which my good friend Juhani Nuorvala participated in an improv piece for microtonally tuned kantele and synth, with live electronics. Lovely music, very restful, and redolent of Brian Eno's Music for Airports. My only complaint, which I voiced to him, was that I wanted it to last all evening instead of just fifteen-ish minutes.

Later that same night, I ended up at a concert of Czech music for strings put on by players from the Finnish Radio Symphony. I'd gone along with my friend David, of The Late Review, nominally to hear Janacek's String Quartet no. 1. It was lovely, as expected, and I can think of no other piece quite like it, the way it just seems to start in the middle of a drama, with no preamble or context. The real discovery of the night, though, was Erwin Schulhoff's String Sextet, a predominantly quiet, slow, obsessive, repetitive, magnificently bleak piece that took my breath away. I've usually liked Schulhoff's music when I've encountered it in the past, but have tended to find myself entertained rather than gripped. Knowing the composer's eventual fate, it was easy to picture the Sextet as his final utterance before being taken away to the concentration camps. Imagine my surprise, then, to discover it was written in the 2os, around the same time as the other Schulhoff piece on the program, a fun, if not especially deep set of dances for string quartet, light years away in mood. Glancing over the available recordings, I'm amazed the Sextet isn't more popular. Clearly a major statement, one that will hold up to repeated listening, I think.

Just this afternoon, I ended up at the Finnish première of Rhys Chatham's Two Gongs, in a performance held in an art gallery downtown. It was an impressive piece, all the more so that Chatham wrote at in his teens. Such an idea would never have even occurred to me at that age, and I wouldn't have seen the sense in it even if I'd heard the piece back then. Leaving aside the various problems I had with it as a composition, most of them having to do with the teeth-rattling dynamic levels, it was phenomenal. The waves of sound emanating from the gongs made a hard-hitting, physical impact. The semi-randomized patterns of harmonics and pulses resulting from various playing techniques were endlessly absorbing. Even jamming my fingers into my ears to preserve my hearing produced fascinating textural results. Overall, I'm glad I went. And yet…

It should have been the perfect environment for this music: a high ceilinged, resonant chamber with plenty of natural light filtering in, a few chairs for the audience, and some pretty paintings hanging on the walls. But the performance was endlessly marred by the attitude of the museum-goers who weren't listening to the concert. People, mostly middle-aged and older, strode around the gallery where the concert took place, looking at paintings, fingers stuffed theatrically in their ears, even deliberately crossing the space between the audience and the performers, staring us down with defiant, fuck-you expressions on their faces, as if to challenge our willingness to sit there listening to this horrible music, saying "we paid to get into this exhibit and see these paintings, and we're not going to acknowledge that there's any kind of performance going on, so deal with it." They'd leave the room and immediately begin having loud conversations just outside the open doorway. It made it impossible to focus on those slowly-evolving, iridescent patterns, which was the entire point of the piece.

I'm not one of those people who insists on absolute silence in concerts. I generally like quiet for performances, and hate when people fidget, rustle papers, or start clapping before the last note of a piece has finished ringing, but I'll willingly revise my expectations of quiet, depending on the occasion and setting. In a museum space with open exhibits, one can't expect or demand total silence, or require people to stay still. Two Gongs isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea, and one should expect and allow for walk-outs, as well as encourage people to walk in from adjacent rooms if they're interested. To their credit, the gallery did post warning signs about the extreme volume, and requesting a minimum of noise for the barely hour-long duration of the concert. But it truly was ridiculous to be part a group of people trying to have an experience, with another group of people who don't understand that experience doing their level best to keep us from enjoying it, for whatever reason. If I don't like a concert, and can get out without making a big scene, I'll do so. But to disrupt the proceedings for people who are clearly into it, because of some animus I might have against the music? Boorish, shameful, and antisocial in the extreme.

Oh my dear Lord...

There are some things in the world that are so bizarre as to defy description. I can't look away.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Come again?

A quote from a Wall Street Journal article delving into the secrets of the Finnish education system:

"Ask an obvious question and you may hear "KVG," short for "Check it on Google, you idiot.""

Assuming I'm reading that acronym right, that's not quite what it means. The closest English equivalent I can think of would be "RTFM". But YMMV. IMHO.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

"I'll be there with bells on..."

I'm now the proud owner of an oceanharp, also known as a poor man's waterphone, the sound of which is famous from sci-fi and horror movies everywhere. Even if you never knew what it looked like, you've probably heard it. I've always wanted one, but with no real reason to make such a frivolous purchase, it remained a fond wish, and nothing more. However, my orchestra piece Of aspens, hills and shattered dreams has a prominent part for waterphone in the final section, and the Helsinki Philharmonic was understandably not all that enthused about buying an otherwise useless instrument, what with a tiny, tiny handful of pieces calling for it. The sound can be replicated (badly) with a bowed cymbal, but the waterphone's entry is really the cherry on top of Aspens as far as I'm concerned, so I gleefully pulled out my credit card. It's a silly thing to have, really, what with its uses being limited mainly to 1) sound source for electronic music, and 2) sitting exotically on my office shelf and making my students think I'm cool.

While prepping last week's lecture on Mahler's Symphony no. 2, though, I was pleased to discover that I'm in rather exalted company, if not quite in the same league, in buying odd instruments for a single performance. It seems Mahler didn't like any of the commonly available orchestral bell sounds, and actually went out and bought a set of church bells for the final moments of the 2nd.

I bet the shipping charges were brutal.