Tuesday, August 14, 2012

In which she thinks of Boulez and the War.

This post has been a long time coming, and now that I'm finally a) in possession of a working internet connection which isn't as mercurial as I am, b) relatively free-r, first draft duly out of the way, and c) in a position, slightly removed in space and time from the enormity of all I heard while away, I can actually posit an attempt to make the sounds cohere with what I know of life lived and life in the process of living. For the uninitiated, what I'm on about is this: whilst in London, thanks to the generosity of spirit of one I've long admired - my friend, my aunt, my lovely Farida - I was able to catch Bryn Terfel (one of the finest tenors alive today) in concert, singing a selection of opera classics, at the Royal Festival Hall. This was followed by an even more spectacular event. Aforesaid patron of the arts took me to listen to the most sublime programme I've ever been confronted with to-date. I saw a life-long hero, Daniel Barenboim (Why, you ask? Because alongside Edward Said, Barenboim came up with the East-West Diwan project where the idea was to use music as a means of conflict resolution: making musicians from Palestine and Israel come together to perform across their respective borders), conduct his East-West Orchestra as they went through Beethoven's First and Second symphonies, with Boulez's shattering Derive II separating the two. When Terfel sang Te Deum from Puccini's Tosca, I cried. I don't know what came over me (That's a lie: I've thought about it, and have decided it was the conjunction of the church bells, that tonal life-flow which is the majesty of a church organ, and the timbre of his voice as he plays that betrayer Scarpia; the resolution of the home phrase prised by the string section (reprised by the horns), which raises more questions than it seems to answer; I'm choking up as I hear it again right now - here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xMGX19eBf7E - listen, and you'll spare me the trouble of feeling too keenly to explain myself more clearly).

However, there were no tears when, at long last, I heard Barenboim and his people do their thing. No tears. Just infinite sadness couched in the sheerest ecstasy this side of morphine. Beethoven's first is a light, bright piece - thirty-odd minutes of delicious movements which stun you with their levity and affirmation of life. It is decidedly yellow. I tasted it, I know. The second, while still bright, has a moment of doubt, a profound questioning half-way through the third movement, which makes you stop and reconsider whether this brightness is a shade...contrived; whether it masks some shapeless, formless (yet) beast you cannot presume to know or name. It passes; resolves. Orange, I decide. Deeper and more organic, but nowhere near earth or root. That will come later in this cycle of nine. The piece I want to write about though, really, is the one that separated these musings on life and living which are the symphonies - Boulez's Derive II. I can preface what I'm going to say next by stating up-front that if you were to ask me whether I 'liked' this piece, I'd stare at you blankly, unable to muster an answer. What I can say, however, is that this is the most challenging piece of music I have ever been faced with as a listener. Challenging not just in its execution - I'm hoping you take that as a priori - but in its scale and scope to speak, to divulge, to scream. I can tell you that even without knowing a thing about either Boulez or his music (or music altogether), coded into this piece is the information that it *could* only have been created in a world which had known the World Wars. If it put me in mind of anything, it's closest ally (and other) in literature would be that much bandied (but shamefully misunderstood) movement known as the theatre of the absurd. Point and counter-point; instruments, sections even, running in diametric opposition in their wrought ascending and descending of scales, bringing to mind every trope you associate with western classical music - heck, you've just heard Beethoven's first a few minutes ago - and challenging you to dispense with it, only to put these tropes together again till they speak a new language, or the beginnings of one anyway: think of Coleridge. He held that to imagine was to think of a table, blow it to smithereens, and then reassemble another form from those particles; recycle, re-iterate, re-new goddamnit. And that's what Boulez does here. He's playing with the tropes of tonality whilst making coquettish overtures at a-tonality, the cheeky bastard! Forty-five minutes of this. I saw the audience at the Royal Albert Hall shuffle their feet. Check their phones. Even, gasp, send SMSs. But you have to stick with the metaphysical conceit to the end, if you want to *get* where Boulez can take you. I tried. I did. I don't think I'll ever be able to listen in the same way again.    

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