Ouch my ears, pt. 2

This is part two in a three-part miniseries previewing The AFC Challenge, a concert at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum this Thursday, December 7 at 7pm. The program promises to be an invigorating course of immersion therapy for those wary of the avant-garde in music (and a fun survey for those who love it).

(Read "Ouch my ears, pt. 1 here.)


Christopher Hossfeld: “…AND ZOMBIES” from concerto GROSSO

Accused of: an 18-part fugue is not a thing!


With Christopher Hossfeld’s “…AND ZOMBIES” we’re now getting into the meat of the program (or should we say: the “braaaaiiiiiins”), so it’s probably time to talk a little about dissonance.

The first three pieces on The AFC Challenge (by Glass, Cage, and Shostakovich) still operate within the classic dichotomy of dissonance vs. consonance, creating that familiar feeling of harmonic tension and release we're accustomed to. From this point on, though, we’ll be looking at composers who embrace dissonance, to varying degrees and ends.

“…AND ZOMBIES” embraces dissonance because it’s fun; like blowing raspberries or teasing a friend or doing a touchdown dance, it takes great glee in misbehaving. To do this, Hossfeld employs one of the most learned and advanced techniques in Western music, the fugue, to comic effect.

In a typical fugue, like those of J.S. Bach, the appeal lies in the attainment of improbable order: three, four, five, even six independent voices somehow coexisting harmoniously. It’s not only a powerful artistic statement, but a philosophical one as well, suggesting that peaceful coexistence is achievable, despite the odds.

Here then, too, coexistence is achieved... in a manner of speaking... through an eighteen-voice fugue... about zombies. 

Highly recommend, also, to listen to the full piece (approx. 20 mins.), which, apart from this light-hearted interlude, is an incredibly touching work, ending with a gorgeous, extended passacaglia. Click here to view.


Anton Webern: 5 movements, Op. 5

Accused of: expressio-bitionism!


“A cinquain for Anton Webern”

Succint, profound.
A poet versed in sound.
Novels in the blink of an eye;
A sigh.

It’s tempting to leave Webern’s "defense" on that cryptic note, but we’ll expound a bit. The cinquain (like a haiku but 2-4-6-8-2) above references a quote from Webern’s mentor Arnold Schoenberg, who said of his Bagatelles: “think of the concision which expression in such a brief form demands! Every glance is a poem, every sigh a novel in a single gesture.” This is Webern’s music in a nutshell, short in minutes, dense in content, like the famous six-word story attributed to Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

In that spirit, too, the dissonance in Webern’s 5 Movements is serious, coming as it does from 1909 and a Europe headed towards World War I. Here it’s useful to compare the music to currents in visual art. Both Webern and Schoenberg began their careers composing tonal music in an intense and highly Romantic style (pieces like Transfigured Night and Langsamer Satz), a style akin to expressionist artists like Klimt, Munch, and Kokoschka. It doesn’t take long, though, for them to move to composing in atonal and “12-tone” styles, reflecting the work of more abstract artists like Klee, Miró, and Kandinsky. Like those artists, Webern’s music is still this side of fully abstract (not yet Pollock or Rothko): there are still recognizable forms, dance types, expressive gestures, and nods to conventional harmonies, but the lines are very obscured.

Coming, as it does, pre-loaded with the reputation for being concise and dense, it might actually be advisable not to “stare” too hard at Webern’s music. Be present, rely on your trusty musician(s), and focus on the afterglow; are you left feeling disconcerted, rapt, pondering, blue? Then Webern got you.

Listen to rest of the Webern, and hear more music from The AFC Challenge here.