Music's Music: Voices Past and Present
Arvo Pärt: De Profundis | Anton Bruckner: Locus iste & Os justi meditabitur sapientiam
Andrea Clearfield: Dream Variations | Johannes Brahms: Ave Maria
Steven Sametz: Music’s Music | Nico Muhly: Expecting the Main Things from You
By Thomas May
The spartan but pregnant simplicity of Arvo Pärt’s music is like a mantra that washes the listener’s consciousness free from distraction to center it on the paradoxical timelessness of the present. The study of medieval choral music served as a key inspiration for developing his mature style. One of its secrets lies in the composer’s signature fascination with the literal and metaphoric acoustic of ringing bells—the rippling resonance of the simplest materials, termed “tintinnabuli” technique by Pärt, which is the basis for such pieces as De Profundis. He composed this setting of Psalm 129 in 1980, the year his family left the Soviet Union to settle in the West.
The impression of stasis in motion conveys an austerely beautiful counterpart to the Psalm’s impassioned expectation. Writing for four-part male choir, organ, and percussion, Pärt sets each syllable to the same length in an even procession of beat and after-beat, attended by a gradual increase in volume and pitch. The music, subtly underlined by the organ accompaniment, then slowly recedes like the waves receding from a struck bell.
We don’t tend to think of Anton Bruckner as a miniaturist, but some of his most persuasive music can be found in his motets, or short choral pieces to sacred texts. As do his mighty symphonies, these compositions lift us from an ordinary sense of time by building—albeit with far simpler means—a sense of reverberant spaciousness, of sanctuary beyond the horizon. In fact, both motets that we hear, written for four-part unaccompanied chorus, were intended for specific churches.
Locus iste, from 1869, is an invocation for a new cathedral and calculates stirring silences into its elegantly transparent harmonies. In Os justi, which comes from a decade later, Bruckner restricts himself to ultra-simple harmonies in the archaic Lydian mode (F to F on the piano’s white keys) but expresses an emotional terrain as vast in its own way as that found in his symphonies, from sublimely assured counterpoint to a capping stone of unornamented plainchant.
Along with the reverberation of bells and spaces, the vibrancy of poetic language itself can be a powerful trigger for a composer’s imagination. Andrea Clearfield’s Dream Variations—which is receiving its world premiere—comprise a colorfully textured gamut of musical images inspired by the poetry of Langston Hughes (1902-1967). In response to the Debussy Trio’s commission for a piece on the various cultural perspectives that are part of being an American, Clearfield—a richly lyrical Philadelphia-based composer—gravitated toward Hughes’s musically vivid verse.
“His poems jump off the page with their innate musicality, in their rhythm, and in the form, which alludes to spirituals, jazz, and folk,” observes Clearfield. “They’re also filled with an opposition of images—dark and light, black and white, hard and soft—that are inviting to play with as a composer.” Clearfield chose three Hughes poems—all of them related to acts of dreaming—to set as a cantata, linking them together via two instrumental interludes. Her scoring is for four-part chorus with organ and a trio of flute, viola, and harp (the so-called “Debussy trio” named for the French composer’s celebrated use of that particularly sensuous combination). Dream Variations traces a trajectory from remembered history through present-tense experience to the future-oriented “Daybreak in Alabama,” which, Clearfield points out, is “about the joy of creativity and what is possible in America—its hope and dreams.”
In “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” after a brief instrumental prelude, the chorus immediately intones a concise four-note motif that “came right from the words” and undulates in chantlike fashion through the movement. It becomes the theme as well for the ensuing organ interlude, which segues into the bright “Sun Song.” Here Clearfield was influenced by “the joyful expression of African rhythms” and has the male singers tap out an ostinato pattern. A reflective interlude for the instrumental trio expands with strands of solo vocalise from the chorus into the spirited, high-energy “Daybreak in Alabama.” Clearfield colorfully juxtaposes choral and instrumental textures in flourishes of unbridled optimism.
It was as a choral conductor that Brahms first made his mark, and the warmth of vocal counterpoint left a profound imprint on his inner ear. We hear an example from the very first choral work Brahms published, his setting of the Ave Maria from 1858 for four-part female choir with organ accompaniment. The lilting and gentle 6/8 rhythm in F major has an archaic touch that makes its occasional harmonic departures—especially near the end—magical in their untethering effect.
Los Angeles Master Chorale’s long-time associate Kathie Freeman and her husband, Alan, commissioned Music’s Music from Steven Sametz, an influential composer, conductor, and teacher in the world of choral music. Kathie Freeman, who retires at the end of this season after years of service, requested a piece that ensembles beyond the Master Chorale might also be able to perform. Sametz is perhaps best known for several pieces recorded by Chanticleer, including his piercingly beautiful a cappella setting of the e.e. cummings poem “in time of.”
A sensitively text-driven composer, Sametz was struck by how appropriate the poetry of Megan Freeman—Kathie’s and Alan’s daughter—seemed for the commission at hand, which honors a life’s dedication to music. Sametz collaborated with Megan Freeman to cull excerpts from a cycle of poems called Mother Music. The phrase “music’s music” in particular captivated him: it seemed to speak, Sametz recalls, “of an interior landscape—an ‘inscape’ as Gerard Manley Hopkins would have put it—that is beyond the meaning of the words, indeed beyond the power of words to express,” suggesting how music has the power to “capture our hearts, enter our souls, and invite us to a lifetime of unfolding richness.”
Initially Sametz intended to write for four-part choir alone, but the piece soon expanded to double choir, with clarinet and harp obbligato. He notes that the music started becoming “such a personal statement” that he decided to set much of the text for solo mezzo, who in effect becomes a portrait of “a singer at the end of her career, living with the realization that something which she’d done naturally since childhood was no longer easy, and that there would be a time when she would have to leave it behind.”
Thus Music’s Music begins with the unaccompanied solo singer, who is then joined by the clarinet and harp for a few measures and at last cushioned by the double chorus. The opening delicately enacts the very process of being comforted by music that is the poem’s subject, as the phrase “music’s music” recurs in a rising-then-falling, echo-like refrain. “The choral parts took on an encompassing, comforting quality,” Sametz notes, “almost like the singer’s inhalation and exhalation: her unconscious and deep connection to a world accessed through the breath of singing.” As the voice soars and bends the metrical mold in supple phrasings, Sametz embodies the liberating force of music.
An omnivorous and engagingly unpredictable musical imagination has already singled out Nico Muhly from other under-30 peers who have yet to establish a similarly animated voice. The prolific and dazzlingly articulate Muhly has been composing since his mid-teens. He blends an insatiable curiosity for observation with an instinct—uncanny in its precision—for the revealing sound image most of us would otherwise overlook. Expecting the Main Things from You, a 2005 work receiving its West Coast premiere tonight, is as rich in delightfully surprising gestures as it is honest in its response to the vigor of the texts from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass that Muhly was commissioned to set. “Right away I had a flash of the thousands of incorrect decisions I could have made, like using brass instruments. I wanted to keep the acerbic and political and urgent tone of Whitman’s poetry,” Muhly says.
The piece unfolds as a three-movement cantata for full chorus, string quartet, organ, and percussion ensemble. The strings and organ make what Muhly calls “a nice buzz to back up the choir,” while his assortment of tuned and untuned percussion bring an extra edge and immediacy. The first movement, “I Hear,” is the longest. It presents a characteristically original response to one of Whitman’s catalogs: Instead of merely “illustrating” a variety of workers at their crafts, Muhly zooms in with a lengthy instrumental interlude of process music—with the violin’s arpeggio patterns audibly coalescing into harmonies—to indicate that “manual work actually takes a long time.”
The middle “Farm-Picture” meshes a pastoral, percussively inflected idyll with a Morse code-like tremolo from two-thirds of the chorus; their vocalization suggest a quasi-electronic vibrancy the composer says was inspired “by watching satellites pass overhead in the middle of the woods in Vermont—the now-omnipresent invisible haze of technology even in the fields.” Whitman’s challenge to the future in the last movement, “Poets to Come,” calls for the work’s most energetic, activated gestures. Framing it are the chugging, repeat-note vocalises—what Muhly calls “wordless pulses”—that also mark the ends of the other two movements, evoking a sense of Whitman’s vistas sprawling into the distance ahead.
Thomas May is the author of Decoding Wagner and editor of The John Adams Reader. He writes frequently about music and theater.
Program notes are posted online at LAMC.org approximately two weeks before each concert.