It’s the simplest thing to come up with a new sound. Sinister resonance, cosmic pulses, aftertones of infinity: whatever you want, any sound you like. Even after a century of Weberns and Lachenmanns, that which is done is not what will be done, and there’s plenty that’s still new under the sun. What’s harder, what takes real chops, what presupposes genuine creative insight, is knowing what goes after that first unheard-of sound. And after that. (And after that.) You might even say it’s where the compositional act truly begins – especially today, when anything is possible and all is permitted. We have a veritable CGI of global musical history at our disposal, which only means that even the most audacious sonic booms will provoke ennui without being assimilated into a convincing compositional narrative. It’s what separates the syncretists from the revolutionaries, Isaiah Berlin’s famous foxes from his hedgehogs.
Color Julian Anderson (b. 1967) a fox. On the evidence of the present disc, this British composer’s range of musical reference may well be broader than that of anyone else working today, encompassing the old (Janáček, Messiaen), the new (Grisey, Adès), the obscure (C.P.E. Bach, Tippett), the really obscure (Ohana, Niculescu), the “popular” (Japanese gagaku, cartoon soundtracks), ad infinitum et ultra. Not that any of it would matter if all of Anderson’s influences, his models and prototypes, hadn’t been thoroughly assimilated, sublimated into something more than the mere sum of their parts. Music of paradoxes, this: consonant but not tonal, sumptuous but not spectral, accessible but never pandering, Anderson eschews cheap thrills without wishing away the vanguardists and trailblazers of yore. If the work manifests a remarkable melodic fluency, a hard-won sureness of form, and an unimpeachable “harmonic conscience” (as the late Henri Dutilleux would have had it), that’s only so that Anderson can reanimate even the most timeworn sonic flotsam and jetsam with a new, hitherto unlooked-for inner life. Inattentive listening will reveal something vaguely familiar, attentive listening something familiar yet strange.
While his catalog covers most of the important genres, this new release, the product of an ongoing residency with the London Philharmonic, confirms decisively that the most congenial outlet for Anderson’s talents is orchestral music. He positively gushes in the liner note: “Working closely with a major international orchestra is always the greatest privilege and joy of a composer’s life.” The benefits are most apparent in the earliest composition, The Crazed Moon (1996), a ruminative, tenebrous cortège sharing something of the hieratic flavor of Boulez’s Rituel. Bookended by keening offstage trumpets, the harmonic unfolding is deliberate and extremely perceptible. At first, strict chordal writing dominates, but as the piece progresses melody – or more precisely, heterophony – comes increasingly to the fore, only to collapse in a climax all the more terrifying for its utter lack of bluster. Along the way, there’s a klezmer-hued interlude, a series of strident Gamelan-like fanfares, and a succession of piquant, lapping chorales. The LPO has been performing Moon since 2003, and it shows in this harrowing, knife-edged account, which may even outdo an earlier studio recording by the otherwise sympathetic Oliver Knussen.
If Moon succeeds as a somber spin on the concert opener, the Cleveland Orchestra-commission Fantasias (2009) is au fond a refurb of the concerto for orchestra. The piece began life as an investigation into various species of discontinuity and unmotivated contrast – hence the title – which seems an accurate impression coming after the comparatively focused Moon. Yet as one commentator has also observed, symphonic rhetoric predicated on montage and hyperactive jump-cuts has become so much the norm that Fantasias doesn’t often register as particularly extreme. Instead, Anderson’s hyper-caffeinated compositional éclat makes for a thrillingly virtuosic orchestral vehicle, albeit one built according to an unusually ingenious architectonic plan. Casting a sidelong glance at Janáček’s Sinfonietta and Stravinsky’s Agon, the first Fantasia is a breathless brass-only fanfare. This fans out into the more diversified wind-and-string textures of the second Fantasia, which is succeeded by the third Fantasia’s rainforest nocturne. One of Anderson’s most inspired achievements, it teems with all manner of harlequin birdcalls and cockeyed insect-noises. The scherzino fourth Fantasia ups the ante by introducing zany detuned sonorities, while the final Fantasia, hitting on the unity latent in disunity, incorporates elements from the four foregoing movements. So that the work has been quietly widening the sonic gyre, ensuring that each Fantasia feels fresh relative to the earlier ones. Still, if there’s one knock on the finale, it’s that it’s really more of a “synopsis” than a true denouement. Without something akin to a “big tune” – as in, say, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra – it can hardly hope to upstage its predecessors.
Last but not least, there’s The Discovery of Heaven (2011), an evocative triptych whose atmosphere is in many respects rather more fantastical than Fantasias. The title comes from the eponymous novel by the Dutch writer Harry Mulisch, a book featuring a strong vein of dreamlike, musicalized prose. (Mulisch, a one-time Louis Andriessen collaborator, was long fascinated by music.) Though he disavows tone-poem literalism – Mulisch’s tome being so riotously Byzantine that there could be no question of musical symbolization – Anderson does wrest a certain intuitive emotional veracity from the book’s heady, phantasmagorical ambiance. As a thematic successor of sorts to the large-scale Heaven Is Shy of Earth (2006, rev. 2010), the new work alternates between the sacred and the profane, or what you might call super widescreen and XCU, before undertaking to wed the two in the final panel’s serenely inconclusive peroration. If the first part, with its disembodied post-spectral timbres, responds to Sibelius’ exhortation that one must “compose” resonance when writing for the orchestra (which lacks a sustain pedal), the second, with its more earthy and sharply-etched, Copland-cum-jazz sonorities, feels a bit like a large ensemble rendering of one of Stravinsky’s wonky, malfunctioning pianolas. But overall, the impression offered is of a great panoramic vista, peopled by a diverse myriad of characters come from both near and far: not unlike a modern reimagining Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights.
Though his music has been played by the orchestras in Boston, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, Anderson, a former head of composition at Harvard, is not yet a household name on this side of the Atlantic. All the worse for us, since he’s a great fit for American audiences: approachable enough for the season ticket holders, yet distinctive enough for the intrepid young creatives. With the New York Philharmonic slated to give the U.S. premiere of Heaven this April – not to mention his new opera Thebans, which one can only hope makes its way to these shores forthwith – Anderson’s stock only looks set to rise. In the meantime, this sensationally well-played disc is as good an introduction as any to a body of work at once bracing, stimulating, and fastidiously inventive.
[Ed. Note: Matt studied composition with Julian Anderson from 2007-10.]
Julian Anderson, Vladimir Jurowski (cond.), Ryan Wigglesworth (cond.), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Orchestral Works (LPO, 2013)