Tag Archives: minimalism

Changing of the seasons

Antonio Vivaldi composed The Four Seasons (‘Le quattro stagioni’) in 1723. A work of unmatched artistry and elegance, it would become one of the most popular pieces of baroque music, if not classical music in general. It is also an early example of program music, with the four concertos named after the different seasons and following closely a set of corresponding sonnets.

The Four Seasons is an integral part of the violin repertoire, a work literally hardwired in the brain of every violinist. As might be expected, there is an abundance of recordings: approximately 1,000(!) different recorded versions of The Four Seasons have made their appearance since 1939 by various soloists and orchestras.

My personal favorites include the recording by Yehudi Menuhin and Camerata Lysy Gstaad from 1981, as well as Nigel Kennedy’s popular 1989 recording with the English Chamber Orchestra. Kennedy had studied with Menuhin as a child, and his recording of the The Four Seasons would become one of the best-selling classical works of all time. An eccentric figure, Kennedy has never hesitated to introduce improvisatory elements in his playing, which often makes his live performances electrifying.

Inevitably, some approaches to Vivaldi’s great composition have proved to be more daring and stylistically innovative than others. This is the case with French pianist and composer Jacques Loussier (b. 1934), whose main claim to fame have been his magnificent jazz adaptations of J.S. Bach. Apart from its sheer musicality, the fact that Loussier’s rendition manages to capture the essence of the original work by means of a piano trio alone is impressive.

More recently, British composer Max Richter (b. 1966) offered us a truly astonishing re-composition of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons (its premiere was on 31 October 2012). In describing the 1st movement of his Summer, Richter talks about “relentless pulsed music”, adding that perhaps he “was also thinking about John Bonham’s drumming.” He has also referred to the connection between the harpsichord’s sound in the 2nd movement of his Autumn and the style of various pop recordings, including Abbey Road and several albums by the Beach Boys.

The metamorphoses of The Four Seasons throughout the ages show how a baroque masterpiece can survive in modern times through assuming different forms and incorporating elements from such diverse genres as jazz, pop, hard rock and minimalism. Seasons may keep changing, yet Vivaldi’s music remains.

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The music of suspended time

Ten minutes. The time it takes to water the plants, do the dishes or read the daily news. At least in the conventional sense of “time.” Because there exists another, parallel dimension where time can be suspended indefinitely and a single moment can signify an eternity. In this dimension, which is no other than the realm of abstract music, ten minutes of “normal” time assume a new importance and are long enough to open a portal to a radically different perception of reality and the cosmos.

Ten minutes is approximately the duration of Spiegel im Spiegel (“mirror in the mirror”), a piece by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) written in 1978 for piano and violin. If there was ever a musical synonym for absorbed meditation and contemplative stillness, this would have to be it.

Arvo Part

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt

Spiegel im Spiegel is written in the compositional style of tintinnabuli (from the Latin tintinnabulum = bell), a technique invented by Pärt himself and influenced by his mystical experiences with religious music. Although his early works are characterized by a variety of styles ranging from neoclassicism to serialism, his preoccupation and study of choral music, Gregorian chant and the polyphonic music of the Renaissance eventually led Pärt to develop an idiomatic style characterized by simple harmonic structure and rhythmic patterns, alluding to the ringing of bells.

Tintinnabulation”, says Pärt, “is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers – in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity.” Of this type of music, Spiegel im Spiegel is one of the earliest and finest illustrations. It is also one of his most popular works and has been repeatedly used in films, as in Jean-Luc Godard’s In Praise of Love (2001) and Guy Ritchie’s Swept Away (2002).

That a work by Pärt such as Spiegel im Spiegel has been so well-received is a bit of a contradiction. One can hardly think of more introspective, detached and unfashionable music than this. And yet it contains a certain quality that defies time and space, speaking directly to one’s heart and inner self. As Steve Reich, one of the founding fathers of minimalism, once put it: [Pärt’s] music fulfills a deep human need that has nothing to do with fashion.”

It is not just the ten sublime minutes of Spiegel im Spiegel. Much of Pärt’s music is of profound expressivity and unfathomable beauty (his Tabula Rasa is another case in point). The composer once compared his music to “white light which contains all colors”, its division being possible only through a prism, which could be “the spirit of the listener.” At its best, this music indeed offers that which only divine light could ever promise to reveal: a glimpse of the eternal.

Philip Glass and Schubert’s glasses

Born on January 31 (the same day as Franz Schubert), Philip Glass is regarded as one of the most influential composers to emerge during the twentieth century. Although he evolved stylistically in his later works, the American composer has been mostly associated with minimal music, a style that has its origins in the underground scene and alternative spaces of San Francisco and New York of the early 1960s.

My first encounter with Glass’s music was back in the 1990s, through a compilation CD that contained key works by contemporary composers. The piece was the 1st movement of his Violin Concerto No.1, which still ranks among my favorite pieces of modern music – or any music for that matter, as I consider it a masterpiece by any standards.

Many years later, I had the chance to see Philip Glass performing with his ensemble at the Muziektheater in Amsterdam. It was one of the lengthiest and most demanding music performances I have ever attended: a total duration of 5 hours over which Glass’s large-scale work Music in Twelve Parts was executed in its entirety (a rare event).

It is true that the repetitive structure and recurring musical elements in Glass’s works and minimal music in general can be somewhat off-putting without the listener’s engagement and active participation. On the other hand, I find this style of music relatively easy to follow (at least when compared with most of atonal music) and highly rewarding for a set of persistent and appreciative ears. Glass, after all, describes himself as a “classicist”. He was trained in harmony as well as counterpoint and, under the guidance of French composer and conductor Nadia Boulanger, he has studied the compositions of J.S. Bach, W.A. Mozart and, well, Franz Schubert…

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Interestingly, the relationship between the latter and Philip Glass extends far beyond a shared birthday. Glass’s fondness for Schubert’s music can be traced throughout his oeuvre, most notably in his writing for piano. According to Dutch pianist and composer Jeroen Van Veen, an example of this can be found in Glass’s Mad Rush, which alludes to the opening piano part of Schubert’s beautiful Lied Du bist die Ruh.

Glass’s appreciation and respect for the Viennese master with the iconic glasses of steel frame and spherical lenses appears, then, to be well-grounded. In all likelihood, Schubert too would approve of Glass’s creative approach in using relatively simple forms to produce works of high dynamics and powerful emotion. Not to mention his soft spot for round glasses. It’s all in the name, it seems…