This Thursday, I'll be talking onstage at Miller Theatre with composer Jason Eckardt and poet Laura Mullen, who have collaborated on Eckardt's Undersong, a cycle of four works ending with the world premiere of the distance (this), completed in 2008. Vocalist Tony Arnold and Ensemble 21 will be joined by David Fedele (flute) and Christopher Finckel (cello), all conducted by James Baker.
Eckardt is one of a number of composers in the "new complexity" movement, characterized by a fascination with often densely layered textures which (needless to say) sometimes present harrowing difficulties for the players to surmount. Get a feel for his idiom here. He and Mullen met at the MacDowell Colony, where she shared a draft of the poem that would ultimately find its place at the end of Eckardt's cycle. Her work is often startlingly visual, with words and punctuation marks (not to mention parenthetical expressions) rigorously arranged, in elegant dialogue with the printed page itself.
Few recent directions in composition have been as compelling as the so-called spectralists, who (in a nutshell) use timbres obtained from computer analysis of a note's wave forms. One of the movement's founders was Gérard Grisey (1946-1998), whose Les espaces acoustiques (1974-1985) was a touchstone of the genre, and a unique aural adventure.
So here is a downloadable live performance of the piece from the Munich Biennale (recorded May 2, 2008), with Stefan Asbury and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. The entire cycle of six pieces runs about 90 minutes, and if you are unfamiliar with this compositional style, you are in for an extraordinary experience. Read Liam Cagney's beautiful review here, and Anne Ozorio's (of Classical Iconoclast) here.
Over the weekend, a friend with an exceptionally decent sound system (to put it modestly) replicated a recent concert by Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra at Berlin's Tempelhof Airport, vividly described by Alex Ross here. (The airport closed on October 30.) The program: Messiaen's Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (1964), followed by not one, but two performances of Stockhausen's Gruppen (1955-57), for three orchestras.
In a slight variation on Rattle's concept, my host compared two different recordings: one from 1996 with the Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by Claudio Abbado, Friedrich Goldman and Marcus Creed, and a more recent one with WDR Sinfonie Orchester Köln led by Arturo Tamayo, Jacques Mercier and Peter Eötvös, released in 2006. (Side by side, the latter seemed ever-so-slightly preferable.)
The Messiaen I've discovered recently, thanks to Boulez's Cleveland recording and a live reading last month by James Levine and the MET Orchestra, but surprisingly, Gruppen was new to me. It is nothing less than a sonic spectacular and with any justice, someone will unleash it in New York's Park Avenue Armory.
A candidate for worst news of the week, arts-wise: Gérard Mortier will not be coming to New York City Opera. His projected first season would have been a stunning array of Messiaen, Stravinsky, Glass, Britten, Janáček and Debussy, all apparently torpedoed by the fractured economy.
Tuesday night I was with about 20 people on West 86th Street in Manhattan, with one television tuned to CNN, and a second to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's giddy, subversive campaign coverage. At one point a correspondent was speaking in front of an animated forest background from Bambi, with bluebirds fluttering behind his head as the title character ambled onscreen, in front of him. Later a "McCain spokesperson" spoke while posing against a background of M.C. Escher's 1953 lithograph Relativity, a Bermuda Triangle of endless staircases.
About 10:30 or so, one woman leaped up excitedly after getting a text message from a friend in London, "They've called the election!" We were all a bit shocked since the statistics noted "3% of precincts reporting." But a short time later Obama's win was more than speculation.
Many at my party wept during Obama's stirring speech in Grant Park, another oratory triumph. (A singer friend in the U.K. called the next day, commenting on his delivery, pacing, phrasing and intonation, all perfectly calibrated to give his content maximum impact.)
Three of us left about 1:00 a.m. going downtown, and had to take the subway since there were no taxis. At each stop, the train doors would open to shouts of "Obama! Obama!" from the platform. We arrived at 14th Street and went above ground, where we found crowds milling around, excitedly talking on cell phones, with people driving by and shouting from open car windows.
Since it was almost 2:00 a.m., it felt unwise to call people in this time zone, so I dialed as many as I could think of on the West Coast, where it was "only" 11:00 p.m. All were elated, albeit tempered by grim predictions on the fate of Proposition 8. After a half-hour of conversation, I finally went home, and watched more campaign coverage until about 4:00 in the morning.
With just three hours' sleep, the next day was a fuzzy blur, yet I couldn't stop smiling. And I still can't.
And if worrying about tomorrow's election is turning you into an insomniac, tune in tonight to WNYC-FM (online as well), where singer Haleh Abghari is guest hosting a portion of Overnight Music, as she will be for much of November. Recently she asked if I had any requests, so I mentioned Sofia Gubaidulina, and she responded by programming her Bassoon Concerto, which should appear shortly after midnight.