The encounter with a new piece of music can often be a challenging affair. Even the most dedicated serious listener may struggle to find useful points of reference, no matter how rich the history of past listening experiences. Every now and then, however, such a listener will encounter a piece that, on first impression, seems utterly opaque. Yet that listener realizes that his/her approach to listening itself, even to the most familiar pieces, has been changed at some fundamental level.
It would be unfair to call Zosha Di Castri’s “Lineage,” the first piece to benefit from the New Voices commissioning program, “utterly opaque.” This was given its first West Coast performance in Davies Symphony Hall last night by the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT). At the very least the notes for the program book provided by Scott Foglesong provided a useful frame of reference. However, it also included the cautionary sentence:
There are no convenient one-word pigeonholes for artists like Zosha Di Castri.
For those inclined to the cerebral, “Lineage” has much to offer. First impressions tend to dwell on Di Castri’s attention to sonority. This is consistent with Foglesong citing the influences of two of the major spectral music composers, Philippe Hurel and Tristan Murail. This background, in turn, is likely to be associated with the far more established Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. Like Saariaho, Di Castri is comfortable working with thick textures as building blocks for her sonorities. However, through her use of quarter-tones, she distances herself from the more analytical techniques we encounter in Murail and Saariaho.
This deserves a bit of explanation requiring some theoretical language. Spectral music is based on the premise that any sound can be represented as the superposition of very primitive sounds (simple sine waves) at different frequencies. The specific frequencies tend to be (but are not always) integer multiples of some fundamental frequency, constituting what is known as the harmonic series. The interval of the perfect fifth can be found between the second and third elements of this harmonic series. The interval of the major third can be approximated (but not very well to the sensitive ear) by the interval between the fourth and fifth harmonics.
One approach to spectral music is to use pitches as if they were these component sine waves, often exploring the “natural” intervals found in the harmonic series. Unfortunately, if the fifth harmonic can only be weakly approximated by the equal-tempered chromatic scale, things just keep getting worse as you go higher up the harmonic series. As a result, several composers have experimented with the use of microtones, dividing the smallest interval on the piano keyboard, the semitone, into smaller but equal divisions. Quarter-tones arise when one divides the semitone perfectly in half.
Unfortunately, quarter tones are not that helpful in reproducing many of the upper harmonics. This can be explained through some relatively simple mathematics, which I shall ask the reader to take on faith. Suffice it to say that the quarter-tones that Di Castri uses in “Lineage” do not further the interests of spectral music; but, as we know from Foglesong’s essay, there was no reason to expect that those interests would either concern or constrain her.
Instead, she uses her quarter-tones to develop a new rhetoric of chromaticism. As a student, I had one teacher who was always highly suspect of chromatic departures from the diatonic scale. His favorite epithet was “slimy chromaticism.” Quarter-tones provide Di Castri with a richer palette of chromatics; and there is nothing slimy about any of them.
Rather, one gets the impression that she has put a lot of thought into the role of the semitone, not as the basis for a chromatic pitch but as the logical foundation of the leading tone (the interval the finishes the major scale). The adjective italicized because is a useful one, since, even in the most traditional of tonal music, the leading tone tends to define not only motion but also arrival at a destination. Thus, De Castri uses her “richer palette” to develop more elaborate logics of those basic primitives of motion and arrival.
This is not easy to apprehend. The first impression is that the melodic lines are just “noodling” (another favorite adjective of that teacher) around tightly-packed pitches. However, as “Lineage” progresses, the mind behind the ear becomes attuned to the emergence of an underlying logic that, with little stretch of the imagination, might be called a new “physics of motion.” In the midst of the density of the notes that Di Castri deploys, one is unlikely to grasp quickly very much involving those underlying physical principles; but vague impressions are sufficient for a “first contact.”
That sufficiency is established by the power of those impressions to endure. That power was manifest through the way in which MTT organized the overall program for last night’s concert. “Lineage” was the first work on the program, followed immediately by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Opus 23 piano concerto in B-flat minor (the first). As a result of the context that “Lineage” established, all those triads that begin Tchaikovsky’s concerto took on a character that was decidedly novel, if not a bit alien, so great was the discrepancy in the logic, grammar, and rhetoric of “music objects” (to borrow a phrase coined by Pierre Schaeffer). Of course it did not take long for mind to adjust and settle into this more “familiar” territory; but there was a genuine excitement in the experience of that transition.
Furthermore, the combined efforts of MTT and piano soloist Yefim Bronfman definitely made that transition worth while. Because Opus 23 is so familiar, it tends to be more vulnerable to abuse than most of the other concertos in the repertoire. The last time I listened to the piece in Davies, I ended up describing the performance as “soloist and conductor trying to out-bombast each other.” The virtue’s of last night’s performance, on the other hand, were particularly evident in Bronfman’s sensitive attention to all dynamic levels softer than forte and in the ways in which MTT could always shape the balance of his orchestral resources around those dynamic levels.
The result may well go down as the most nuanced performance of this concerto I have ever experienced. Furthermore, in the midst of all of that nuance, that “Di Castri effect” continued to linger. Through the increased transparency of both the piano and instrumental lines, one could be more aware that texture played as much of a role in establishing the character of this concerto as did the melodic lines and imaginative blends of instrumental sonorities. One could say that this was a decidedly unique approach to performing the concerto enjoying the good fortune of being set in an equally unique context. MTT may be on to something here in such explorations of the familiar when placed in a framework established by the novel.
The second half of the program consisted entirely of Sergei Prokofiev’s Opus 44 symphony in C minor (his third). First performed in 1929, this dates from the composer’s time in Paris and his work on the opera The Fiery Angel, which he completed in 1927. Because he could not get the opera performed, he used the symphony as a vehicle to air out much of its thematic material. In other words he “repurposed” themes from the opera, recasting them in the relatively conventional form of a four-movement symphony.
However, while the themes themselves are perfectly accessible, they are couched in the thick dissonances of the modernist rhetoric of that time. That aforementioned use of the word “bombast” would not be out of place here. This music is aggressively brash, seizing the attention immediately with the layering of percussion over melodic lines. The problem, however, is not one of getting attention but of holding it. There are only so many shocking gestures Prokofiev can summon before they are not shocking any more.
To some extent the problem last night can be attributed to MTT as much as to Prokofiev. Because this is still a symphony in formal terms, there are any number of ways in which its episodes can be organized and prioritized around the expectations associated with four-movement symphony form. Unfortunately, MTT never managed to summon that sense of an overall narrative arc that establishes a journey through the four movements. This was disappointing, since he can convey the arc through far longer symphonies (think of Gustav Mahler) so well. Thus, this performance may have been one of those regrettable cases of the music getting less attention than it deserved on the side of the performers and thus registering with weakened effect on the side of the audience.