July 19, 2018
(++++) THE MEANINGS OF “MODERN”
John Williams: Movie Music. Dallas Winds conducted by Jerry Junkin. Reference Recordings. $19.98 (SACD).
Villa-Lobos: Chôro No. 7; Ginastera: Pampeana No. 2; Webern: Ach Jüngen Lieder; Alicia Terzian: Yagua Ya Yuca; Les Yeux Fertiles; Berio: O King; Boulez: Dérive; Franz Schreker: Der Wind. Grupo Encuentros conducted by Alicia Terzian. Navona. $14.99.
Scott Barton: Breeding in Pieces; Eroding Mountains; Opus Palladianum—Voice and Drums; Effusion; For Steps That Grow When Climbed; Carried by Currents; Through the Rain. Scott Barton, guitar and vocals. Ravello. $14.99.
Modernity depends, by definition, on the time at which the word is used. Consider the Handel and Haydn Society, the third-oldest musical organization in the United States, founded in 1815 with the express purpose of presenting both older music (Handel) and modern works (Haydn). The notion seems quaint nowadays, but really is not: so many works deemed “modern” in their time are now part of the standard repertoire or even considered old-fashioned, even sometimes deemed passé. Furthermore, in the 20th and 21st centuries, as composers have drawn on wider and wider spheres of influence to produce their works – and more and more venues through which to communicate them – music may sound “modern” in a great variety of ways, depending on how and why it is composed in addition to the date of its creation. In a sense, for example, all movie music is modern, since film as an entertainment medium is essentially a 20th-century phenomenon, with music absolutely integral to its effects since the days of silent movies and continuing right through to today – although the use and importance of music have changed substantially. John Williams (born 1932) is one of the grand masters of movie music, a field that has also attracted such notables as Prokofiev and Shostakovich – for whom, however, film and other theater music were sidelights. For Williams, during his six-decade career, movie music has been the main event, and many of the films with which he is associated have become classics of the genre: in the 1970s and 1980s alone were The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman, 1941, The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Return of the Jedi, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Empire of the Sun, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – the list goes on and on. And on. Williams has produced concert music as well, but it is for his film pieces that he is best known – those, plus some of his TV work, such as the Olympic Fanfare and Theme that he wrote for the 1984 Summer Olympics and that opens a very fine, very upbeat new Reference Recordings SACD featuring the Dallas Winds under Jerry Junkin. The 13 works here, all arranged for wind band, show how Williams uses modern compositional techniques (primarily of rhythm and harmony) while producing easy-to-listen-to, generally upbeat movie material that fulfills its primary function of supporting the visual action while at the same time carrying the film audience along effectively from scene to scene. There is nothing deeply emotional on this release, and little of that sort in Williams’ film music as a whole: swelling violins and discordant electronics convey love, warmth, fear and the like quite well enough on the big screen, and these are not Williams specialties. What Williams produces is music that sweeps the audience into alternative worlds and pulls them along beautifully from place to place. The Dallas Winds pick up on all the nuances of this material – which, to be sure, is not especially nuanced – and deliver performance after performance that will have listeners sitting up in their seats when they are not marching around in time to the music or their memories of the movies. Included here are The Cowboys—Overture, the march from Superman, excerpts from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, “With Malice Toward None” from Lincoln, the main title from Star Wars, the Imperial March from The Empire Strikes Back, “Scherzo for X Wings” from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, “The Jedi Steps” and the finale from that same film, the theme from J.F.K., “Adventures on Earth” from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the march from 1941, and, in conclusion, The Star-Spangled Banner – which Williams did not write, of course, but which in its bright and upbeat mood fits everything else on the disc beautifully (and never mind that it originated as an 18th-century British drinking song). There is nothing deep or particularly thoughtful in any of the Williams music heard here: it is all escapist fare, as are most of the films for which Williams wrote this material. And although the music is quite clearly tonal, it is also quite clearly modern in its approach and in the way it evokes the emotional uplift called for by the film directors with whom Williams has worked so successfully for so many years.
The slippery nature of being modern is especially clear from a new (+++) Navona CD featuring Grupo Encuentros under the direction of its founder, Alicia Terzian. Actually, although the disc is new, the performances date to 2008, making them a decade less “modern” than if they had just been done. But the recording date is not what makes it interesting to consider just what modernity in music means; nor is it the CD’s title, “40 Years of Contemporary Music,” although that too will show modernity to be a slippery concept at best and will make listeners think about just what “modern” means in different time periods. It is the mixture of music and of composers that really raises the question of what it means to be “modern” in music, and whether that designation is even of value in considering how to perform pieces and how to respond to them. Thus, the first two tracks juxtapose a 1924 work by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos with one from 1950 by Argentine’s Alberto Ginastera. These two pieces, of almost identical length, are both examples of classical music making use of folk and native sounds and forms by adapting them to the concert hall: Villa-Lobos uses Amerindian material plus some drawn from the polka and waltz, while Ginastera adapts an actual Argentine folk melody within a work of considerable virtuosity. Villa-Lobos writes for chamber ensemble (Fabio Mazzitelli, flute; Ruben Albornoz, oboe; Matias Tchicourel, clarinet; Maria Noel Luzzardo, saxophone; Ernesto Imsand, bassoon; Sergio Polizzi, violin; Carlos Nozzi, cello), while Ginastera uses only cello (Nozzi) and piano (Claudio Espector), but the contrasts between their pieces have more to do with their treatment of the themes than with the performing instruments. The rest of the CD is somewhat less focused than this. Anton Webern’s Ach Jüngen Lieder includes eight songs, seven of them very short, sung by mezzo-soprano Marta Blanco, with Espector on piano. They date to 1899-1903, before Webern became a true enfant terrible of the Second Viennese School, although their miniaturization does look ahead to his later work. There are two works here by Argentinian composer Alicia Terzian (born 1934): Yagua Ya Yuca (1992) for percussion (Arauco Yepes) and Les Yeux Fertiles (1997) for mezzo-soprano (Blanco), flute (Mazzitelli), clarinet (Tchicourel), piano (Espector), violin (Polizzi), and cello (Nozzi). The first of these is an intriguing representation of a dance from a lost Argentine culture. The second is more self-consciously “modern,” combining bits of poems by Paul Eluard into new poems and relying on ample use of microtones and a requirement that the musicians both play and sing. Luciano Berio’s O King contains only the word “King,” referring to Martin Luther King, Jr. – it dates to the year of King’s assassination, 1968, and is for mezzo-soprano (Blanco), flute (Mazzitelli), clarinet (Tchicourel), piano (Espector), violin (Polizzi), and cello (Nozzi). The work is a very “modern” musical obituary and tribute, and contrasts in some intriguing ways with the next piece on the CD, which is a tribute of a different sort. This is Pierre Boulez’ Dérive, which Boulez dedicated to William Glock on his retirement from the Bath Festival. The title refers to the drifting of a boat in the wind, but this is also a work derived from six chords that are manipulated in fairly typical “modern” ways. The piece dates to 1984 and is for piano (Espector) with flute (Mazzitelli), clarinet (Tchicourel), violin (Polizzi), cello (Nozzi), and percussion (Yepes). Finally on the CD, there is a “contemporary” work more than a century old, Der Wind by Franz Schreker. It dates to 1909 and is for violin (Polizzi), cello (Nozzi), clarinet (Tchicourel), horn (Gaston Frosio), and piano (Espector). The piece is “modern” for its time entirely by intention, combining elements of Impressionism, Schoenbergian expressionism, and intended (and now largely obscure) links to Symbolism. Although well-crafted, it is a work that does not wear particularly well by its own modernistic standards – it seems rather dated, in much the same way that self-consciously “modern” music appears to be when it is tied too closely to a particular time period or set of precepts.
For analogous reasons, it is unlikely that the works on a new (+++) Ravello CD of the music of Scott Barton will have much longevity. Barton is very much a composer of or in the moment: these pieces, which use traditional instruments plus electronics (a sure sign of seeking the “modern” nowadays), contain the usual contemporary bows to multiple genres and forms, but do not break any new ground or presuppose any particular inclination toward non-superficial communication with listeners. Breeding in Pieces (2009) and Through the Rain (2017) are for guitar, which Barton himself plays; Opus Palladianum—Voice and Drums (2013) requires voice, which Barton himself supplies. There are some purely electroacoustic works here: Effusion (2016) and For Steps That Grow When Climbed (revised 2011). And there are two pieces for multiple instruments: Eroding Mountains (2014) for narrator (Art Cohen), voice (Barton), and piano (Aurie Hsu), and Carried by Currents (2017) for flute (Anthea Kechley), oboe (Elizabeth England), clarinet (Amy Advocat), and bassoon (Gregory Newton). The intertwining of electronic material with sounds produced by traditional instruments is done skillfully, and the inclusion in some pieces of sounds reminiscent of rock music and psychedelic experience makes portions of several works intermittently interesting. There are also signs of rather wry humor here from time to time, notably in the contrast between the smooth narration of Eroding Mountains and the dissonant pizzicati that accompany and compete with the words. The moods here tend to be fleeting and neither considered nor developed in depth: just as a listener starts to feel as if he or she has fastened on a particular theme or emotion, Barton goes in an entirely different direction. And while this is a thoroughly “modern” approach to music in the way it pushes and pulls the audience hither and yon, it does not produce a very satisfactory auditory experience. Barton’s works here sound a great deal like many other consciously and self-consciously “modern” ones, encased in their techniques and contemporaneity in a way that leaves them trapped in the amber of their own time.