escher.jpg

With works composed across the last century, this program is a musical journey from a joyful expression of the man-made, through the realm of mythology and spirits, finally arriving at a resounding embrace of the laws of the natural world. Esa-Pekka Salonen’s work Dichotomie (2000) brings the journey full circle; it is also a conceptual starting point for the way the program has evolved. I became interested in extending the notion of dichotomy beyond Salonen’s mechanical versus organic, and began questioning the differences and similarities between other outwardly divergent areas (for example the spiritual versus the scientific, and the past versus the future). Out of this, the program began to represent a kind of processive unification of seemingly opposing elements. Rautavaara’s important early work, Ikonit (1955), plays a crucial role in this unification process, as well as standing alone as a landmark work whose spiritual impetus is deeply felt.

In his own preface to the published score, Salonen offers insight into the genesis of Dichotomie and its main components:

I have long been fascinated by the real the imagined differences between the two seemingly opposite ways in which musical forms can develop. The two metaphors I use are mechanism (the musical phrase is assembled from parts), and organism (music seems to grow like a plant developing its phenotype based on the genetic code, the DNA). To make a very rough generalisation: Stravinsky was the mechanic, Sibelius the gardener. Quite often, the distinction between mechanism and organism is a matter of resolution, or zoom level. Many biological processes look mechanical when observed through an electron microscope, while the lights of the Los Angeles basin look like a huge living thing from high up on the Hollywood Hills. The principal aim of the emerging nanotechnology is to do away with these categories altogether.

The title Dichotomie obviously points towards this dualism. I find the botanical meaning of the word curiously poetic in terms of composing: “division of each of a plant’s branches into two or more branches”. That is what composing is all about. Every decision creates a new problem, often with multiple solutions. You have to try to find the best one somehow.
The first movement, Mecanisme, is indeed like a machine, but not a perfect one: more like one of the Tinguely sculptures (or mobiles, they really defy all attempts to categorize them), which are very active, extroverted and expressive, but produce nothing concrete. I imagined a machine that could feel some sort of joie de vivre, and in that process, i.e. the process of becoming human, the machine would lose its cold precision. (Just think of Pinnocchio, who loses the puppet’s perfect shape when facing moral dilemmas.)
Organisme, the second movement, behaves very differently. Again, the music is busy on the surface, but breathes a lot slower and deeper. The music is completely continuous; all the different sections grow into each other organically (as opposed to Mecanisme, where one thing just follows another). Indeed, a metaphor I had in mind was a tree, not a huge one but rather a slender willow that moves gracefully in the wind but returns always to its original shape and position.

From the lingering resonances of Salonen’s humanized machine, Larry Sitsky’s evocation of ancient middle-eastern chant emerges. One of Australia’s most prolific and respected composers, pianists and pedagogues, Sitsky has often drawn inspiration from a far-reaching range of mythological and spiritual sources. Chant of Gatha Ushtavaiti is the first movement in a cycle of ten pieces for solo piano, collectively titled ‘Dimensions of Night’. The cycle was composed in 2008 for Australian new-music specialist Michael Kieran Harvey, and places exceptional demands upon the pianist in terms of physical and mental stamina and pianistic virtuosity. The title of the movement heard tonight refers to the most sacred texts of the Zoroastrian faith, the gathas. The gathas contain seventeen hymns which can be broken down into five major sections, of which Ushtavaiti (‘having happiness’) is one such section. This movement acts as a dark and ominous prologue to the whole cycle, with the chant melody constantly being infused with an ever-intensifying series of embellishments.

 The concepts of humanism and spirituality are inseparable from American composer George Crumb’s music. Crumb’s own belief that music is "a system of proportions in the service of spiritual impulse" is in fact a fine way of characterizing his work. A Little Suite for Christmas, A.D. 1979 is an aural tableau consisting of seven pieces conceptually related to Giotto’s Nativity frescoes of the Arena Chapel in Padua, Italy. Notable here is Crumb’s ability to achieve complete integration between seemingly opposing elements. Crumb melds various extended techniques together with the “standard” way in which to play the piano, effectively creating a new instrument in which all timbral possibilities exist without boundaries. Similarly, Crumb integrates the old and the new (his love of quotation is found in Canticle of the Holy Night, which includes a setting of the old English Conventry Carol) in such a way that one experiences an altered concept of time.

Perhaps the father of extended techniques, American composer Henry Cowell was one of the most innovative musicians of the first part of the 20th century. In the 1950s, Virgil Thompson wrote: “Henry Cowell's music covers a wider range in both expression and technique than that of any other living composer. His experiments begun three decades ago in rhythm, in harmony, and in instrumental sonorities were considered then by many to be wild. Today they are the Bible of the young and still, to the conservatives, "advanced."... No other composer of our time has produced a body of works so radical and so normal, so penetrating and so comprehensive.”

The “string piano” was Cowell’s own invention and was the primary inspiration for John Cage in developing his prepared piano. It was also instrumental in paving the way for other composers, such as Crumb, in their refinement of extended techniques. The Banshee (1925) evokes the banshee of Irish mythology: a female spirit usually seen as an omen of death and a messenger from the underworld, who wails when someone is about to die.

Rautavaara’s Ikonit (1955) and Crumb’s A Little Suite for Christmas contain evident similarities in terms of subject matter. And like that of Crumb, Rautavaara’s music is inextricably linked with a powerful sense of spirituality and cosmic magnitude. The impetus for this work can be traced back to Rautavaara’s teenage years, when he was taken on a visit to the island of Valamo on Lake Ladoga in 1939, just before the outbreak of the ‘Winter War’ between Finland and Russia. The intense colours, sights and sounds of this visit made a profound impression on him, which he later described as a near-mystical experience. Years later as a home-sick student at Juilliard, Rautavaara came upon a book of icons at the Public Library in New York and was driven to compose this suite. Ikonit consists of six vivid musical portrayals of Byzantine icons; unlike the tableaux of Crumb, each picture is described in great detail by Rautavaara and virtually “repainted” in sound. Even in this early work, we find many instances of Rautavaara’s distinctive approach to rhythm, harmony, timbre and symmetrical patterns.