Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Encountering Babel
John Adams: On the Transmigration of Souls
Osvaldo Golijov and others: Ayre

In 1906 Charles Ives wrote the original version of perhaps his best-loved piece, The Unanswered Question. Against a floating, calmly disqueting unresolved series of chords from a string section, a solo trumpet plays stately, unresolved melodic fragments of great beauty, which a chorus of flutes answers. By leaving the question not only unanswered, but also unverbalized, Ives leaves us to fill in our own question. “Why?” may be one. “Why existence? Why are we here? What are we doing here? How did we get here?” My questions -- in my life, and as I project them onto Ives’s wonderful piece -- revolve around these unanswerables.

Today I listened to John Adams’s 9/11 piece, On the Transmigration of Souls. Adams begins with voices speaking in fragments, naming the names of the 9/11 missing. Gradually an Ivesian texture of calmly unresolved chords emerges. Adams borrows from the rhythmically detached cloud-chords from the end of Ives’s 3rd Symphony as well, with a lovely floating piano. The way he puts together contemporary classical uses of fragmented speech with Ivesian orchestration is masterful.

And then a few minutes into it, Adams brings in a solo trumpet, strongly reminiscent of The Unanswered Question.

And it pisses me off.

The atrocity of September 11. What a tangle of inarticulable emotions. Grief, horror, anger, fear. Followed by -- horror at America’s response. And then -- the realization that yes, I’m an American, the murder of Americans in New York and Washington affects me more deeply than Shock and Awe in Iraq. My knees don’t shake at the mass murder of Iraqis by the American government. My knees do shake at the mass murder of Americans by Islamic terrorists. It’s closer -- I’ve been to New York, close friends live in New York, I love New York in a personal way, not as part of an abstract love for humanity in general.

Mass murder was not the answer I was looking for when Ives asked his question. Political intractability, the human lust for destruction and murder -- I had never associated these with Ives’s question. “Why is there evil in the world?” was not the question that came to mind when listening to Ives’s piece, and if that is what Adams intends with his allusion to The Unanswered Question, it is a gross reduction of what Ives was about.

I cursed John Adams. I cursed him, inarticulately grasping at what he was provoking in me, listening to his piece.

Because, his piece says, the answer to Ives’s question is . . . Evil. The fundamental nature of life is evil. The human heart is evil.

And, John Adams be cursed, maybe he’s right.

He masterfully makes the case. He’s a masterful musician. He corrals those Ivesian forces and techniques with tremendous skill, and weaves in contemporary sound collage expertly and pointedly.

Adams’s expertise perverts Ives’s idealism in an utterly contemporary way -- this is the Ives of George W. Bush, the evil heart of American faux-idealism. Adams’s music does not endorse Bush’s perversion of American idealism; he simply lays it bare. Ivesian/Emersonian idealism = evil; democracy = murder. This is the world of those ideological twins Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush.

This is the world-of-thought that Adams’s juxtaposition of reciting the names of persons missing from 9/11 with Ivesian poetry and an allusion to The Unanswered Question threw me into.

And then Adams’s piece moved on again. A choir sang quotes from testimony of the loved ones of the missing. Singing in a bland, flat, 20th-century choral style. And the line comes, “I am so full of grief.” And tears come to the edge of my eyes. And I think, yes, Grief, that is the answer to this particular question, this riddle of how to respond to the atrocity of September 11, 2001. To the whole tangle of unspeakable emotions at the event itself and the events that followed and are still following. I am so full of grief. The bland flatness of the music suits the text. Sorrow sorrow sorrow -- sorrow drained of drama. It almost makes the specificity of the Ives allusion OK for me.

But, unfortunately, Adams doesn’t stop there. He goes on with more quotes from loved ones of the missing, more specific and personal images of particular people, and the piece goes on, and it builds to a horror of a climax, borrowing from the mood-repertoire of Hollywood horror master Bernard Herrmann. I had been listening to compilations of Hollywood scores before putting on Adams’s piece, and Adams seemed up to Herrmann’s skills as well as Ives’s.

The piece ends with spoken text. “I love you.”

And that, apparently, is Adams’s answer to the Ives’s question. (I have not read the booklet notes beyond the credits, which I read after listening. The credits state that Adams used The Unanswered Question with the permission of Ives’s publisher -- and it’s depressing that the work is still under copyright, 100 years after it was written and more than 50 years after the composer’s death.)

Adams’s “love” doesn’t convince. The music is weak here. By leaving his conclusion spoken rather than sung, it is as though he has conceded that he has no musical rhetoric for love. And that’s a pity.

Furthermore, the speaker
’s tone is weak and vague. Not the power of love -- it sounds like the “I love you” that someone says when their beloved has just announced that they are leaving -- a pathetic love that hopes to confer or remind the beloved of an obligation to return the love. This sentiment strikes me as wrong for the context -- the beloved did not leave, the beloved did not renege on a promise of love returned, the beloved was horribly taken away.

grief was convincing. And his grief included love. Because without love, there is no grief. “Love” as a conclusion seemed didactic -- more wished for than felt. Dramatically wrong. Bernard Herrmann wouldn’t have made the mistake.

The unconvincingness, dramatic wrongness, and musical abdication of Adams’s concluding “love” called to mind Blake’s critique of Paradise Lost: “Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell.” Same is true of Adams in this piece -- except grief is not hell. Angels weep too.

I applaud Adams for the seriousness of his ambition and intention as well as his deep musical skill. But his piece left me in a bad mood. What he did with Ives profoundly alters Ives’s intention and reduces Ives’s wide river of thought into a narrow, if powerful, cataract. And Adams’s musical skill, expert though it is, did not sufficiently convey his ideological hope in this piece. He should have stuck with grief.

* * *

I’ve been listening to Ayre, the recent suite for voice and small ensemble. The CD lists Osvaldo Golijov as the composer, but he is one of four or five for the suite -- the main one, and the leader, but not the sole one. That the nominal composer has opened the piece up to include contributions from his collaborators is one of many interesting facets to Ayre.

Ayre is essentially a world-music fusion album, blending klezmer, Sephardic, Arabic, classical European, and techno styles, sometimes within one movement, more often discretely. But it’s a world-fusion album from a classical milieu and point of view, which brings strengths as well as weaknesses to the table.

The chief strength of the classical milieu as represented here can be summed up with one name: Dawn Upshaw. What a vocalist! As lovely as anybody could desire from a soprano on the trad. classical numbers, and with a fierce, harsh timbre on the fusion-y bits.

The piece was commissioned specifically for her and dedicated to her. And the dedication is worth it. It’s hard to imagine anybody else pulling the piece off.

The biggest weakness is the thinner, weaker ensemble texture that a notated score provides when compared to a semi-improvising working band playing in the small-band dance-related styles sometimes on exhibit here. Passages in the suite’s first and last movements in particular have the feel of semi-improvisation, but with a sense of tentativeness in places when compared to, say, semi-improvised passages by the Klezmatics or a master Arabic musician like the late, great Um Kalthoum.

The thinner texture goes beyond the semi-improvised-sounding passages (which may or may not have been semi-improvised). Many working bands have a stronger, more joyous sense of groove than the band Golijov put together (but which, tellingly, he did not play with). Much of Ayre is not groove-oriented, but the passages that are leave me hankering for a stronger sense of ensemble accenting, ensemble attack and phrasing, than this group manages. Former Klezmatics clarinetist David Krakauer understands groove, and putting him high in the mix almost carries the day for
Golijov’s band, but it still does not quite sound like a working band to me.

Another classical weakness may not make any sense to anybody else, but I felt a 20th-century classical taste for “the gesture” in Ayre, particularly in the pacing between the first few movements. For the first third of the suite Golijov alternates lyrical quiet movements with bracing dissonant ones. The dramatic gesturing of the juxtapositions feels like show-boating to me -- not in a good way.

Which brings me to the composing. I don’t have a lot to say. It’s a nice world-fusion record with a fantastic lead singer. Some of the writing is very beautiful, some of it exciting, none of it bad but some of it only OK. It having been commissioned for a vocalist, unsurprisingly it is a collection of songs. And in the setting of songs, Golijov shows a hesitancy that interestingly parallels Adams’s.

None of the texts are from English: Ladino (the language of Sephardic Jews), Arabic, Sardinian, Hebrew, Spanish. Fine -- nothing wrong with that -- it’s a world-fusion record, after all. But
a poem by the contemporary Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish is translated into English. Evidently, Golijov wanted his primarily Anglophonic audience to connect with this particular text.

And he didn’t set it. It’s spoken. Track number 8, “composed” by Osvaldo Golijov, consists of Dawn Upshaw reciting an excerpt from an Arabic poem that has been translated into English. When Golijov wants to convey a text with maximum effectiveness, he leaves his music out of it, much as the conclusion to On the Transmigration of Souls. This lack of faith in the composer’s side of songwriting disappoints and troubles me. (An annoying classical tic to the recording: Even though Ayre contains overdubs and electronic percussion and sound-samples, they have mixed some of the dynamics “naturalistically,” with the result that the spoken track is too quiet to hear when listening to the record as a whole at a comfortable volume.)

I mentioned that the record reflects the work of four or five composers, but only Golijov and one other receive credit. The other named composer is Oscar-winning soundtrack composer Gustavo Santoalalla, who is credited with writing (and playing) a nice guitar solo which functions as the introduction to one of the prettiest lyrical numbers, as well as with writing a brief song of no particular distinction. The two or three unnamed composers include Upshaw, who recited the key text (and I’m assuming that Golijov did not notate her speech); hyper-accordionist Michael Ward-Bergeman, who “designed and performed the hyper-accordian effects,” making his instrument sound like a cross between an accordian and a ‘70s prog-rock synthesizer on an extended cadenza to open one number; and Jeremy Flower, credited with “sound design & laptop.” “Designing” sound and effects seems like composition, or at least arranging -- however they want to dole out the credits is fine with me. I do think it is healthy for a composer to receive input from his band -- and to credit them as Golijov has done.

Golijov intends his cross-cultural fusion as an effort in the search for world -- especially Middle Eastern -- peace. It may or may not be gutsy for a Jewish composer to highlight the work of a poet associated with the Palestinian independence movement. But I wish Golijov would have left world peace out of it. Make music for the sake of beautiful or exciting music. If Arabic music inspires you, go for it. (The last movement feels like a western dream soundtrack of North Africa, and it’s gorgeous -- one of the suite’s highlights.) Sticking a klezmer-style clarinet (played by klezmer clarinet star Krakauer) on top of an Egyptian-style string passage makes me shrug, at least as it happens on one of the movements here.

There’s been a lot of interesting world-fusion music in recent years. Projects which overlap with Golijov’s geographical territory include work by the Spanish studio group Radio Tarifa, whose 1997 album Temporal includes traditional flamenco and Sephardic tunes as well as a piece of 12th-century French processional music. Frank London’s Klezmer Brass Allstars recorded with a brass band from Cairo with thrilling results on Brotherhood of Brass. Recent work of the Klezmatics (of whom London is a member) reflects North African as well as klezmer influence, and rock and pop and Caribbean influence too, and with a skill at mating words to music that neither Golijov nor Adams comes close to matching on these albums.

On the classical side of the record store, Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble has produced some stunningly beautiful music, and I love Kronos Quartet’s encounter with the music of Mexico on their 2002 CD Nuevo, much of which was arranged by Golijov and which was produced by Golijov’s credited co-composer on Ayre, Gustavo Santaolalla.

All of these projects have been generated by the players. Kronos and Ma commissioned composers and arrangers; the Klezmatics and Radio Tarifa composed and/or arranged their own music. It is unclear whether Golijov’s piece was generated by a performer, but it was commissioned for Dawn Upshaw. Golijov’s is the least convincing as a gesture for world peace (and London’s is as explicit in its shared, stated intention), but Upshaw is phenomenal and some of the music is gorgeous, and none of it is merely dull. I will be listening to it with keenness.

* * *

Regarding the images: John Adams used a similar photo of the ruins of the World Trade Center for the inside booklet cover of On the Transmigration of Souls. I found this photo uncredited on the web. The booklet for Adams’s CD reminded me of the 1563 painting Tower of Babel by Pieter Breughel the Elder, a different version of which Frank London used for the cover of Brotherhood of Brass.

By juxtaposing the images, I do not mean to suggest that the murder of almost 3,000 Americans on that horrible day five and a half years ago was the result of the wrath of God, or that it was punishment for overweening human ambition. On the Transmigration of Souls does not allude to Babel, but Golijov, Frank London, Yo Yo Ma, and others seem to be trying to cure the ills that have come from the confusion of tongues. Here's hoping.

Now it is Memorial Day, a day in honor of warriors who have fallen in battle. Disasters of war. Inarticulable emotions -- grief, anger, horror. Unanswered questions.

* * *

UPDATE, next day: I read the booklet notes to Adams’s piece, an essay called “Memory Spaces.” Originally published in the Atlantic Monthly by composer David Schiff, it gives a much more generous listen to the piece than I gave it. (It has a horrible subtitle, which was probably written by Schiff’s editors: “John Adams's On the Transmigration of Souls finds redemption in September 11.” Finding redemption in other people’s murder is reprehensible.)

I disagree with Schiff’s assessment, overall and in many particulars; I don’t hear that Adams is “building on” Ives in any cognitive way; it sounds more like bringing Ives into a technically unimpeachable personal pastiche to me. More basically, On the Transmigration of Souls does not expand our notion of what music can be with its melding of sound collage with a live performance -- not only is this a commonplace in pop music, but it has many precedents in the classical concert milieu.

But I wanted to bring Schiff’s essay to your attention because he fundamentally hears Adams’s quote of The Unanswered Question differently than I do, and his hearing is not only valid, but undoubtedly closer to Adams’s intention. The atrocity of 9/11, in Schiff’s hearing, did not inspire Adams to attempt an answer to Ives’s question, but merely to wonder at it again. I’ll give the disc another listen, and try to hear it this way, but I am doubtful that it will work for me dramatically. I fear that the technique and the pastiche are too self-assured to persuade me that this is Adams grappling with life-ultimate questions. Again, the impression sought feels more wished-for than achieved. In any case, quotation is a volatile business, and a composer cannot impose his or her intention onto someone’s hearing.

But the quotation works for Schiff, and I have to respect his experience.

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