The delightfully prickly Frederic Rzewski once commented somewhere that he couldn’t abide French musique spectrale because it all sounded like warmed-over Debussy to him, what with all the emphasis on timbre and the so-called “acoustic” scale. Rzewski was probably exaggerating for effect – that’s his well-known schtick - but his admittedly facile mot does lead to an interesting question: with their unprecedented reliance on tone color as a structural element, why haven’t more spectral composers revisited Debussy’s idea of “painting music”? Neither the best-known spectral pioneers, Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail, nor the more catholic post-spectral composers, such as Magnus Lindberg and Kaija Saariaho, have shown much interest in exploring the gap between visual and musical representation. Perhaps it’s a function of fashion, at a time when writing a tone poem seems quaint and one daren’t admit that one enjoys Pictures at an Exhibition for fear of everlasting humiliation in the eyes of the all-knowing cognoscenti.
“In 1967, a young astronomer detected in the heavens a rapidly varying radio signal, in the form of periodic impulses 1.3 seconds apart. The discovery caused a sensation. The impulses were so regular that for a while they were taken to be signals coming from extraterrestrial civilisations. Then astrophysicists revealed a truth that was just as surprising: the signals were being emitted by a pulsar, the fantastic compact residue created by the supernova explosions that long ago disintegrated the massive stars.” -Jean-Pierre Luminet, Astrophysicist at the Paris-Meudon Observatory
I used to be able to count the number of profound, live musical experiences I’ve had on one hand. It began with the Chamber Orchestra Kremlin performing an arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, op. 70. The second movement was perfection, and the violin/cello duet therein left me with an indelible memory of the event. The next such performance was hearing Krystian Zimerman perform Chopin’s Ballade no. 4 in F minor, op. 52. I had heard recordings of this piece, live performances, and had even played it myself, but this was a revelation. The lessons I learned about pacing, rubato, and control from a single note in ms. 56 I’ve not forgotten.
More recently, the most stunning experiences I’ve had have been of new music: Charlemagne Palestine performing Schlingen-Blängen, hearing MAX!MAL BL!NDMAN give a concert in Belgium, and spending far too little time in La Monte Young’s Dream House. Now I’m going to have to add the JACK Quartet’s “In the Dark” concert to this rather exclusive list. I will not soon forget their performance; this program is not to be missed.
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