February 05, 2009


Rued Langgaard: Symphonies Nos. 15 (“The Sea Storm”) and 16 (“Sun Deluge”); Drapa (On the Death of Edvard Grieg); Sphinx; Hvidbjerg-Drapa; Danmarks Radio; Res absùrda!? Johan Reuter, bass; Danish National Vocal Ensemble, Danish National Choir and Danish National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thomas Dausgaard. Dacapo. $16.99 (SACD).

The City: The Original 1939 Classic Documentary Film with a Newly Recorded Soundtrack of the Score by Aaron Copland. Francis Guinan, narrator; Post-Classical Ensemble conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez. Naxos DVD. $19.99.

Two Films by Frank Scheffer: Music for Airports; In the Ocean. Medici Arts DVD. $24.99.

     Classical music splintered in the 20th century and started going in so many different directions that neither listeners nor, at times, composers seemed to be sure of where things would end up, if anywhere. Some composers looked back at the past, especially Romanticism, and tried to reinterpret it for more-modern audiences while retaining its emotional impact. Rued Langgaard (1893-1952) was especially committed to this approach – and, as a result, was something of an outsider in Danish musical life throughout his career. Langgaard’s final two symphonies, No. 15 of 1937 (revised 1949) and No. 16 of 1950-1, encapsulate his style and highlight his strengths and weaknesses. Both contain very short, very effective and surprisingly lyrical Scherzo movements, but in their slow movements – Adagio funebre in No. 15, Elegi (Elegy) in No. 16 – there is more that is Romantic in form than in emotional substance. Symphony No. 15 builds to a final movement for bass-baritone and male chorus, an effective tone painting of a poem called “Stormy Night” by Thøger Larsen. No. 16, which Langgaard himself saw as a summation of his life’s work, is more scattered, incorporating a variety of techniques and looking back at some of Langgaard’s earlier pieces. In some ways, the short works on Dacapo’s beautifully played new SACD are more interesting than the symphonies. Drapa (an Old Norse poem of homage) and Sphinx, both of whose final versions date to 1913, are atmospheric and show a strong command of orchestral color. The remaining works here, all dating to 1948, have never been recorded before. Danmarks Radio, a short series of fanfares, is nothing much, but Hvidbjerg-Drapa, for choir, organ and orchestra, is highly impressive. It recalls a 13th-century murder in a church in Jutland and is both grand and emotionally impressive – all within three minutes. The most “modern” (or modernistic) work here is Res absùrda!? for choir and orchestra. The words of the title are repeated, again and again, faster and faster, as the orchestra sends out a series of yawps in accompaniment. The piece seems an indictment of technique for its own sake, and a critique of composers who avowedly turned their backs on the Romanticism that Langgaard continued to embrace. But it is easy to imagine other mid-20th-century composers using its approach seriously.

     One composer who adopted 20th-century techniques for some pieces and avoided them for others was Aaron Copland, and the new DVD of The City shows how effectively he was able to work in media beyond the concert hall. Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke shot the film to a script by Lewis Mumford, with Copland providing the score. There is no dialogue – the movie was made for the 1939 New York World’s Fair and was designed to show how the increasing pace of modern cities ruined the qualities of life in rural America, with a hopeful ending about how those qualities could be recaptured in carefully planned communities. There is a hint of socialism in all this and more than a hint of nostalgia for earlier days: the Depression was still very much a fact of everyone’s life in 1939, and Mumford was an early and vocal critic of urban sprawl. The new DVD provides a well-presented version of the film’s narrative and an exceptionally well-played rendition of Copland’s music, which follows the visual landscape through scenes of uncertainty, despair and hope – the last in the form of the town of Greenbelt, Maryland, built as a federal experiment to try to implement Mumford’s ideals. Copland’s use of typewriters, a siren and other sound effects makes perfect sense in context, and if this is scarcely great music, it shows clearly how Copland adapted to the new needs and demands of the 20th century. One of the additional features on the DVD is especially noteworthy: a short documentary made in 2000 about Greenbelt and including interviews with three of its earliest residents.

     Go several steps beyond Langgaard’s musical explorations and Copland’s integration of music into film and you end up with the new DVD of movies by Frank Scheffer. Music for Airports was written by Brian Eno in 1978 and reinterpreted 20 years later by the group called Bang on a Can: Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe. In its new form, the work was performed at the 1999 Holland Festival, with digital photos of Schiphol Airport projected on an overhead screen. Now Music for Airports is again reinterpreted by Bang on a Can, this time with a variety of semi-abstract visuals created by Scheffer. The music, which includes voices, acoustic piano and synthesizer, was created by Eno to make airport terminals less irritating to be in. It is ambient music by design – unlike, say, Muzak, which takes works to which people were supposed to pay attention and changes them into background. Eno succeeded in making music that can be ignored as easily as it can be focused on, but in the context of a film, it would seem odd to let one’s mind wander. It does, though, because – like Eno’s music – Scheffer’s visuals can as easily draw attention or pass through the mind with little impact. As for In the Ocean, Scheffer’s second film on this DVD, its objective is to have contemporary composers discuss modern classical music, within the context of a history of the Bang in a Can musicians. In the Ocean is thus part biopic and part history-cum-analysis, but it is more interesting as the former than the latter. Although Philip Glass, John Cage, Steve Reich and other modern composers appear in the film, nothing they say adds any particular insight into the fragmentation of classical music during and after the 20th century, and there is little here to counter the impression that much modern classical music includes experimentation for its own sake and the sake of the composer, not for the benefit or involvement of the audience.

1 comment:

  1. Eno's music is the origin to many more artistic's styles that keep renewing themselves. I've enjoyed Steve Roach music for a while now because it's more of an ambience than a song. I also like a new canadian artist named Marcome. She's an ambient new age vocalist who does airy and atmospheric tracks. I used to like the hypnotic sound of Jean Michel Jarre, an electronic new age sound.