Thursday, August 27, 2009

Spaced out

Last night we managed to get a babysitter and get out a little, a rare event in our lives in the past three months. The destination? The Helsinki Philharmonic's performance – complete with asteroids and downgraded planetary bodies – of Holst's The Planets, one of my favorite orchestral works of all time. Hell, it's my absolute favorite. I've never heard it live, always seeming to miss it whenever it came to a concert hall near me. It was the first recording (Dutoit and MSO, natch) I wore out from repeated listening, the first orchestral score I ever bought as a teenager, and the one that still lies within arm's reach on my desk whenever I'm working on an orchestra piece. "How did Holst do it?" is the question I ask most frequently when orchestrating, and that score, with its clear, diamond bright sounds, always provides an answer. It's the piece that made me want to be a composer, before I even knew that people still did that these days. (Shut up. I grew up in a small town.) I know it well, probably every note of it, except a few, as I discovered last night. More about that in a bit.

It was an event happily populated by youngsters brought by their music teachers, as well as the Phil's more usual audience, and a few living composers as well, come out to hear the add-on pieces before the warhorse, a series of "asteroids" commissioned by the Berlin Phil to fill out a Planets evening, and a new one by local composer Kimmo Hakola. Also featured was the addition of "Pluto" by Colin Matthews, perhaps the only composer I can think of who could have acquitted himself of that unenviable task so elegantly, and without trying to out-Holst Holst. The draw for the students, I imagine, was the video projections thoughtfully provided to make the music more interesting, a concept I have yet to see really take flight in concert. Apparently designed to follow the music's atmosphere and form, the graphics had an unfortunate screen-saver-like quality that prevented them from contributing much to the performance and, judging by post-concert conversations, were generally ignored. Unignorable, however, was the incessant coughing of what seemed like nearly everyone in the audience, at three-second intervals throughout the concert. Soft sections after climaxes seemed especially attractive to the hackers – no doubt thinking they had a few more seconds to finish their fits – none of whom were apparently at all concerned with muffling their outbursts.

So in light of this, I compiled this brief guide to coughing etiquette at concerts:

Don't cough at concerts.

I also prepared a helpful FAQ to accompany the guide:

Q: But what if I can't stop myself from coughing?

A: Yes, you can.

Q: What if I'm sick, can I cough then?

A: No. If you're sick, you probably shouldn't be at a concert. Swine flu and all that.

Q: Can I cough in loud parts? Nobody can hear me then.

A: Yes, they can. See guide.

Q: Can people really hear me in loud parts?

A: Yes. Aside from being audible, the related risk of sudden pianissimo exposure is significant.

Q: What about between movements? Can I cough then?

A: See guide.

I hate to go all on concert-goers, and love and defend all attempts at audience building and outreach, but something's gotta give. I've had several concerts in the past year utterly ruined by this bad habit (and that's what it really is), the most memorable being last year's celebratory performance of Elliott Carter's Symphonia at which a patron judged the appropriate moment for a single hack to be three seconds before the end of the final movement, which had spent ten minutes wafting gently upward, disappearing incrementally like a vapor trail into a single pianissimo piccolo note. Seriously. It's disrespectful to the players, who are giving their all, and to the other audience members who paid good money to sit and listen to you cough. Stop it. Right now.

Anyhoo, Holst. As I said, I know The Planets extremely well, every rhythmic punch, every tutti brass chord, every bit of percussion glitter. With the exception of "Saturn". That was the one movement that didn't really speak to me when I was younger and fancied myself an old-fashioned Romantic. I used to routinely skip it, preferring the more obviously directional, big-line, big-event forms of "Mercury" and "Jupiter". The subtleties of the slow, static processional of "Saturn" were utterly lost on me, to the point where I'd forgotten how it ended. So I got out my score again today for a listen, and was transfixed by the simplicity of what Holst achieved in this piece. The planing whole-tone flute-and-harp chords of the opening, whose unvarying voicings nonetheless seem to shift in the light, the simple rhythmic intricacy of the syncopated climax, further distorted by the resonance delay of the tubular bells, making one feel thoroughly ungrounded in the pulse, the magnificently patient working out of that initial treading theme, it was all a revelation brought about by familiarity breeding contempt.

Most striking was the ending, a shimmering field of uninflected, rhythmicized yet pulseless, completely diatonic loveliness whose existence I had somehow overlooked, ever so slightly linear in its drive toward the final cadence, but sustained by nothing other than its unchanging orchestration. The line between the final minutes of "Saturn" and John Luther Adams' In the White Silence, another piece I've been studying lately, is short to the point of non-being. It's as if Adams took a chunk from the middle of Holst's texture – before it resolves, however inconclusively – and stretched it into the infinity the aesthetics of Holst's time would have frowned on in a concert piece. In a similar vein, I've been working with Mahler a lot lately, and the end of Das Lied von der Erde strikes me as occupying that same category of late Romantic invocations of an otherworldly stasis that would have to wait for a movement like minimalism to truly reach its potential, rather than remaining the inklings they are, a vision of a time to come reached by the logical, linear temporal drive of the nineteenth century. Mahler as proto-minimalist? I may be lost in my research, but it doesn't seem like much of a stretch to me. Hmm...

So Holst, Mahler and Adams are now on my desk as I start sketching my upcoming "concerto" for horn and strings, a piece that doesn't seem to want any fast music. I'm not quite sure what the result will be, but with this combination of disparate models, I'm kind of looking forward to finding out.


Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

I too attended and enjoyed this concert, taken by a local friend while on a business trip. I can find the Berlin Phil recording of the Planets + 4 'Asteroids'on EMI. Does anyone know if there is a recording available with the new Kimmo Hakola piece?
Many thanks.

Ian Murphy
Bristol GB