Friday, February 18, 2011

Britten, MacMillan & inviting connections...

This picks up where I left off last night musing about Britten and the influence of gamelan music on his style. It is worth noting that of the two primary styles of Indonesian gamelan music, the Javanese and Balinese, Debussy was drawn to the former and Britten to the latter. That the Javanese style of gamelan is atmospheric with hazy textures, intimate dynamic levels and fluid rhythmic patterns might explain its absorption into the "impressionist" musical style of Debussy. Britten's delight in short, pert rhythmic motives, his fondness for the "joyful noise" percussive effects of bells, cymbals and gongs underscores his interest in the colorfully varied, rhythmically vital forms of the Balinese gamelan.

The Chorale and our guest artist, organist Brad Norris, will join me for a "meet the music" talk and demonstration 15' before the start of each of this weekend's concerts. We will share an excerpt from Britten's Jubilate Deo (discussed in the post below) and his Festival Te Deum. That piece features some of the "jolly good" and rambunctious music of the gamelan that inspired Britten. In the jaunty middle section of that work, the choir and organ exchange "riffs" on a gamelan inspired theme. The work concludes with one of Britten's most accomplished crescendoes. Formally, it is a linear and multi-layered unfolding of some of the materials that have been stratified and stacked up on top of one another.

Britten will often take a simple melody and stack its pitches vertically to form his chords of harmony. The mirror image of this technique is also common, and his tunes are sometimes linear unspoolings of vertical chords. The Festival Te Deum does this very thing, and though the formal/technical means used towards this end may be inaudible to the ear hearing the piece for the first time, the sense of direction, balance, and "rightness" is impossible to miss.

One of the most poignant examples of Britten's gamelan music occurs at the dramatic fulcrum of his penultimate opera, Owen Wingrave. The use of the gamelan throughout this made-for-TV opera reinforces a couple of associations with the gamelan. As noted below, Britten uses this "exotic" music to evoke the beyond, the "other" and the supernatural. Owen Wingrave was Britten's second opera on a Henry James ghost story (The Turn of the Screw was the first), and the gongs, bells and celeste have a haunting, other-worldly quality. In Owen Wingrave, the ghosts are dead soldiers and the gamelan is used to evoke a martial, drum-line like music that fits the military setting of the story. Owen has rejected his family's choice for him of a military career, and sings a "peace aria" which unwinds and decompresses the martial gamelan music into a "glittering symbol of tranquility and innocence" (Anthony Burton). It is among the most visionary music he wrote, and Myfanwy Piper's poetic libretto inspired in Britten music of assured depth. Its philosophical underpinnings connect Owen to a long tradition of non-violence, from Jesus Christ to the Buddha, from Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr. The connections across Britten's career of gamelan-inspired music inform our understanding of each instance of the technique. Thus our appreciation of Britten's gamelan-related choral music is enhanced by arias such as Owen's:

In peace I have found my image,
I have found myself. In peace I rejoice
amongst men and yet walk alone,
in peace I will guard this balance
so that it is not broken.
For peace is not lazy but vigilant,
peace is not acquiescent but searching,
peace is not weak but strong like a bird's wing
bearing its weight in the dazzling air.
Peace is not silent, it is the voice of love.

The gamelan music Britten wrote in his choral works and operas is music of connection. It connects the human to the divine, the corporeal to the spiritual, the earthbound to the beyond. And as in the Festival Te Deum, it can be an energetic blast of vitality, a joyful noise and source of delight. It could be considered both a stylistic and cultural bridge.

The gamelan per se is not as apparent in the music of this concert's centerpiece, James MacMillan's Padre Pio's Prayer. But it is there, and the influence of the "exotic" and other-worldly in MacMillan is indebted to Messiaen and an individualist (Catholic) mysticism that connects the natural world to the heavens. Where Britten's gamelan is most audible in the organ writing of his sacred choral works, MacMillan's visionary organ writing recalls Messiaen's "illuminations of the beyond" and the ear-catching sounds of bird-calls (symbols of grace, natural wonder and the transcendence inherent in airborne flight).

MacMillan has written of his interest in "vernacular forms of music" like folk music and other indigenous forms of music with functions as social as aesthetic. We connect MacMillan to Britten (and other composers writing for the sake of humanity, rather than posterity) when we hear his works as a bridge between "the timeless and the contemporary, the secular and the sacred."

MacMillan has written candidly about our contemporary "hunger for something to fill the spiritual void" left in the wake of postmodernism and the upheavals of the war-torn 20th century. Unlike the "new age" spiritual "minimalists" who avoid conflict and aim exclusively for transcendence, MacMillan draws on the well of musical tradition built on the dynamic of tension and resolution, from Bach & Beethoven onward.

"I need to tell a story; I need to create dramas and the best stories are the ones that have resolutions of conflict, not just resolution...I don't think we can see the light until we can know why there is light, and that involves a knowledge of the dark." (from "God, Theology and Music" in Composing Music for Worship).

That quote reminds me a wonderful song by the composer Richard Hundley, called "Astronomers." The song comes from an epigraph on a tombstone: "We have loved the stars too deeply to be afraid of the night."

And Padre Pio's Prayer connects the darkness and the light, the journey and the destination, the here-and-now and the what-lies-ahead. The organ plays several interludes that alternate between the creative tension of humanity (a chromatic mini-fugue reminiscent of Bach) and those celestial visions, either through the voices of birdcalls or the glittering of the stars (we'll offer examples of both before our concerts).

I closed my post last night by quoting Joseph Flummerfelt's apt observation on the great composers' gifts for connection. That connection being between the creative product and the impulse or inspiration that motivated, enabled or realized it.

MacMillan offers another revealing comment on this topic, in reference to the disconnect inherent in the "spiritual void" mentioned above. "The engagement between... religion and the arts is now such a faded memory for most people that a whole generation has grown up without an understanding of the true meaning and implication in the word 'inspiration.'"

He goes on to connect listening to other forms of receptivity. "Being openly receptive to the transforming power of music is analogous to the patient receptivity to the divine that is necessary for religious contemplation." And all manner of relationships. And any area in life where growth is desired.

"Music invites us to touch what is deepest in our souls...Music opens doors to a deepening and broadening of understanding. It invites connections between organized sound and lived experience or suspected possibilities. In the connection is found the revelation, a realization of something not grasped before."

Membership in any of the above-referenced sects, traditions or schools is not required. Openness is the only pre-req. I hope you will join us this weekend and hear a connection, grasp a revelation, and experience the wealth this music pours out as pure gift.

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