Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Les Préludes

I'm back from nearly a week at the Mänttä Music Festival, where my huge, more than a little hubristic cycle of twelve piano preludes after Whitman's Leaves of Grass received its premiere last Saturday, played by the inimitable Risto-Matti Marin. Risto-Matti is an incredibly dedicated, often critically underappreciated pianist in the local music community, though much beloved by those in the know. I imagine his taste for oddball, non-canonical piano works – especially Golden Age transcriptions and paraphrases by virtuoso pianists, and for placing these works on his programs and recordings alongside new music and a warhorse or two – makes him hard to pin down. He doesn't specialize in any one thing, doesn't make all-Bach or all-Chopin CDs, and generally challenges accepted notions of what a modern pianist should do. He plays tons of new music, and is a fierce advocate of the composers he works with, but isn't really a "new music player". His work in transcribing everything from Romantic staples to heavy metal makes a case for the transcription as an ever-evolving art form, and he constantly proves the worth of his aesthetic choices by making a convincing case for pieces generally thought to be less valuable than the Top 100 Hits of the piano repertoire.

So imagine my delight at getting to write something this far-reaching for him. That he learned and made it through a solid hour of challenging, largely brand new piano music would have been enough. But that his performance was formally integrated, poetic, colorful, and energetically focused from beginning to end was more than any composer could ask for. Much of the last book of four pieces has only existed for a few weeks, and he played the new ones with total command, especially my sprawling prog rock tribute Song of the universal, which takes off from the texture of Chopin's "Ocean" étude in C minor and doesn't let up for ten minutes. Every time I thought his energy would give out, he just got better. Then for good measure he came out and played August Stradal's Himalayan transcription of Liszt's Les Préludes. One hell of an encore. The radio broadcast is Thursday, I'll post a link for it when it becomes available on demand.

In all, it was a great experience to bring to fruition a project like this, and getting to work with someone with a similar taste for large-scale forms. Over the last week, I kept thinking back to a comment made by my former teacher at Stony Brook, Perry Goldstein. He'd just heard my first tape piece, and quipped, "Wow. Even when you're working in electronics it's epic!" It's true. I have an unfortunate tendency to think in epic terms when I start composing, and it gets me in trouble occasionally when a piece runs over length. (On the other hand, nobody's ever complained about not getting their money's worth when they commission me.) What starts out as a few minutes of music usually ends up being a cycle of some sort, lasting twenty minutes or more. I had a great conversation about this at the festival with Kalevi Aho, a composer with a similar tendency toward big statements.

Even in grad school I wasn't much good at the seven-minute piece, preferring to work in large, multi-movement or multi-sectional forms. Not that all my work back then was particularly successful – and I went through a period a while back of writing shorter pieces while trying to figure out some aesthetic problems – but I think my formal predilections were evident from the start, if not as well executed as I would have liked. Now, however, I finally feel like my chops are able to keep up with my ambitions, and am consistently happier with some of my longer essays. I still have trouble with the long line of musical argument, the large-scale symphonic logic popular hereabouts, but I'm getting better at stringing smaller things together into a convincing narrative, I think, and creating a kind of formal unity through juxtaposition of disparate things rather than linear development.

Another pleasant aspect of the week was the festival itself, ostensibly a celebration of the piano with some chamber music thrown in. As a composer, I often find myself on the outside looking in at new music events. There's a level of appreciation of certain aesthetics that I just can't get to, a taste for some types of music, notably loud, noisy, grating ones, that I can't cultivate no matter how hard I try. I thought it was a phenomenon restricted to composer circles that I'm not really part of. Imagine my surprise to find a similar underground cult in the piano world, devoted to extremes of virtuosity, sound production, technical execution and stage flair. The organizers and performers in Mänttä, vibrant and driven people, with a few exceptions all quite young, had prepared a program very much by and for piano enthusiasts, exploring corners of the repertoire I'd never really paid much attention to. The taste for the epic was much in evidence, case in point being Henri Sigfridsson's titanic undertaking of playing the complete Transcendental Études of Liszt in one sitting. Not all of it was to my taste, but I couldn't help noticing that the proceedings were colored by something all too often absent from new music events: a relaxed sense of fun. There was pure joy in the air at all the concerts, a feeling that radiated off the stage, joy at the chance to play, at taking on huge, risky, virtuosic pieces, joy at making music together. It was infectious, and my window into this little corner of piano geekdom gave me a vantage point from which to appreciate the goings-on of a passionate community in my business, but outside my field.

One reads frequently in newspapers abroad of the miracle of the Finnish music system. The same questions keep coming up. How do they do it? Why are there so many musicians here? What's their secret? Let me tell you: the summer festivals are a huge part of it. In few other countries that I know does a resource like this exist. At the beginning of June, music in the cities ceases completely, and the musical lifeblood of the country rushes out to the extremities, with almost every one-horse town hosting a music festival of some sort. The locals are intensely devoted to attending, the organizers extraordinarily competent at putting together big programs on limited budgets, with the result that people get to hear music being made on the highest possible level without having to go far for it.

On the last night in Mänttä, I commented to festival director Niklas Pokki, who helped build the festival from the ground up eleven years ago, that I was still unsure how I'd managed to become a professional musician, given that nothing like this festival existed where I grew up. I never heard a professional orchestra until university, despite being an hour from Montreal, nor a real professional performer on any instrument. (Niklas mentioned that one of his primary motivations for creating the festival in his hometown was a similar musical starvation as a child.) I somehow stumbled into being a musician despite the disadvantages of no early training and limited technical abilities on my instrument, probably due equally to stubbornness as much as whatever talent I may have.

But imagine being a child in a town like this, who gets to hear high-caliber performances early on, be inspired by it, and with access to a system of music schools whose primary purpose is to identify talented kids and get them playing. The educational system here does have its advantages, but if you ask me the real glory of the Finnish musical world is the summer festivals, which reach out to "real" people, as opposed to industry insiders in the city, bringing good music, old and new, to their communities – affordably – and embed the art form in their lives. Seriously, can you imagine many places where an unknown composer would get a platform for a 60-minute piece on a small town summer program? That's why classical music survives here, and will hopefully continue while other countries, beset by endless budget cuts and philistinism, slowly strangle the life out of their music.


Jorma said...

Google directed me to this blog when I searched for the words of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. I lost the Mänttä program insert that had the poems. The Lied and Art Song Texts Page is a wonderful resource when one tries to find the words of a particular song. The site seems to have the lyrics of every conceivable song ever composed. There are several settings of single songs in Whitman’s collection. (Maybe you would like to suggest an entry for your Leaves of Grass). It turns out none of the songs in your cycle have been composed by others. So that was of no help. I was looking for the words because I wanted to have them for the broadcast yesterday. I never like to follow the words when listening to music for the first time. Because your composition is not a song cycle anyway I just listened to the music. I saw the microphones and was sure the concert would be broadcast some day.

How lucky we are to have radio broadcasts of interesting concerts. It shows the limits of one’s capability to absorb information to hear something for a second time soon after and notice that there was so much one could not register at the first hearing. I liked your Leaves of Grass very much. Listening to it in a more relaxed setting at home brought vivid images of autumn mists, crispy days with clear skies, turning leaves falling and forming a mosaic on the grass. I like autumn and its sounds, smells and colours so mine were pleasing images. I also became much more aware of the structure of your Leaves. When one does not know what to expect it is difficult to appreciate the architecture of a composition but when one already knows what is coming one has the liberty of concentrating on both detail and overall shape. On the whole I thought Risto Matti Marin was excellent although he made much of the pauses between each part making the work sound almost disjointed at times. However, the second time around I thought I was able to discern a cyclic (trying to avoid symphonic)structure. Development does not have to be linear to achieve unity.

I taped the concert (sorry Teosto, apologies to composer) and I can’t get enough of Book III and the Song of myself. I was completely bowled over by the melodies and harmonies already in Mänttä and I now enjoyed a bis as soon as the programme was over. The piece gives me sensory, almost sensual pleasure. It is an exciting work and I hope it will soon get more airings. The duration may be a problem in that sense but, hay, why limit oneself to six minutes when one can have the whole hog. I feel at home with large structure. I find it a question of breathing technique. Having done some yoga-type relaxation, concentration, de-concentration and breathing exercises helps with appreciating large musical form. Breathing deep slows the pulse and makes one forget that the first act of Götterdämmerung is ten minutes longer than all four acts of La Bohème. I prefer the longest edition of each Bruckner symphony and always feel short changed when a conductor makes a cut. The shock causes my musical nerve system to feel short circuited for quite a while and after the concert I feel cheated. So keep those epic pieces coming! It is a gift, not an unfortunate tendency.

The infectious exuberance of the Mänttä festival is a pianistic phenomenon restricted to that specific time and place in Finland. Bound by civilized and urbane behaviour from August to May it feels liberating to let your hair down in June and enjoy every hackneyed piano transcription there is and to hear them played with "extremes of virtuosity, sound production, technical execution and stage flair.”

Oh, I almost forgot, how can I get the Whitman poems?

Jorma Koskinen

Matthew Whittall said...

Many thanks for your kind words, Jorma! It pleases me to no end that people seemed to like the piece so much.

I should add that the intent of the set isn't necessarily to always be performed as a cycle, or even as laid out in the three books. I imagine that many successful mini-sets of the pieces are possible, much like with Debussy's preludes. I simply arranged them in the order in which I felt they worked best as a cycle. However, I did enjoy hearing them all together, and finding out that they do indeed hold together as a totality. It's a thrilling, and somewhat humbling experience to be given that much time to play with. I'm glad I filled the time well for you.

The Whitman poems are all available online if you just google the titles. I've seen individual poems in Finnish versions, but I don't think anyone's attempted a complete translation of "Leaves" yet.