Lost in music: Greenwald, Behzadi

Monday 7 November 2022

How much of a piece of music do we hear as itself, compared to what we hear in it as a reflection of our selves? Perhaps its greatness may lie in what it personally reveals in the listener, previously unsuspected. Having said that, the number of times I’ve heard a piece which seemed normal enough, only to find the critical consensus is that it is weird or disturbing in some way, is often enough to make me wonder if I listen with a childish naivete or with a somnolent inattentiveness. Some of this is probably because I don’t buy into expressiveness much: if any art starts to get too emotional with me I suspect it of chugging.

The upshot is that with so much music around, us listeners, no matter how enlightened, are in the position to dictate terms. Perhaps that’s why there seems to be a new generation of composers emerging from North America who all appear to be Polite Young Men. (This may be a trait amongst the women composers too, under-exposed as always, but the only one I’m aware of Caroline Shaw.) A lot of perfectly nice pieces by pleasant people who are quite sure they don’t want to make too much of a fuss. It’s hard to care too much about this music, and I haven’t even found a critic yet who says that it’s quietly subsersive about something or other. Perhaps there is and I haven’t paid the right attention, a thought that occurred to me only after the sixth time I played Apartment House’s recording of Kory Reeder’s seventy-minute chamber piece Codex Vivere on Another Timbre. It’s not just the length, but the odd shape it contains and the elongation of passages that are obviously more than note-spinning that suggest something deliberately off-kilter at work below the surface.

On the other hand, there’s Andrew Greenwald’s cycle of chamber works A Thing Made Whole, seven pieces totalling seventy minutes, collected on a new release on Kairos. Here, surface and substance merge in a queasy uncanny valley of sound. The music is all activity, but at a dreamlike pace and with appropriately elusive results. Extended techniques are used to make pitch quiver and rattle, while the ensemble playing never unifies into a coherent image. Although self-contained (with different recording ensembles, venues and dates), each piece follows on from the last as an effective suite, much like Feldman’s Durations or Vertical Thoughts; the opening piece being an extended solo for violin comes across as an homage to Grisey’s viola Prelude. Four longer pieces are followed by three shorter ones, as an extended coda. The music wears its mysteriousness on its sleeve: in A Thing Made Whole II the piano part sounds like a battered upright in an empty hall, although no electronics are indicated in the sleeve notes. The pseudo-electronics are carried on by the trombonist using his mouth piece to layer white noise over the strings, while vibraphone rolls in the background simulate pure overtones. While the details are busy, the atmosphere is hushed throughout, with the biggest disruption occuring in piece number five, where a clear-voiced piano unexpectdedly plays a gentle pastorale above a strained string quartet. The opening piece is played by violinist Austin Wulliman, with Wild Up and Ensemble Pamplemouse performing the next two works; the rest are from the Contemporary Insights Ensemble. I can’t imagine how their interpretations could be technically improved, given the consistency in their calm approach to the finicky scores (examples reproduced in the booklet) while injecting the right amount incongruous eclecticism when needed, which all adds to the precisely blurred dream quality.

Like I said, expressiveness doesn’t necessarily do it for me, and I don’t want to have to do background reading to find out what the big deal is. Take that admission of crassness as a caveat that I might be missing something even more important when I say that the TAK Ensemble’s recording of Ashkan Behzadi’s Love, Crystal and Stone is a damn fine piece of craftwork. Behzadi studied architecture in Tehran, and his cycle of seven songs draws inspiration from tapes he heard at that time of Iranian revolutionary poet Ahmad Shamlou reading his Farsi translations of Lorca. The TAK Ensemble (soprano Charlotte Mundy with Pierrot minus cello) stage a tour de force in presenting Behzadi’s finely detailed settings of Lorca. Any Spanish or Persian exotica is strictly sublimated, or present only through association. It can make for compelling listening when you focus on each moment, but I haven’t made all forty minutes hang together in my head to make something more than the moments. That might be helped if you splurge on the whole package, which comes with an art book and parallel translations.