Smitten with Britten part 4: influences

Many pieces and events as well as his own life influence Britten’s violin concerto but in my approach to the piece, the musical influence I studied the most was Beethoven, largely because of the following excerpt from the Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten:

“The strongest influence up to the middle of 1926, however, was Beethoven. Later diary entries show the extent of Britten’s admiration for him. On 13 November 1928 he declared Beethoven to be ‘First…in my list of Composers…and I think will always be’, while on 24 June 1929, after, hearing Kreisler’s recording of the Violin Concerto, he enthused, ‘Oh! Beethoven, thou art immortal; has anything ever been written like the pathos of the 1st & 2nd movements, and the joy of the last?”

Before my performance of the Britten with the Shepherd Symphony, I wanted to work on the Beethoven Concerto and see for myself how Britten was influenced and how the pieces might be linked. Beethoven is my favorite composer (I know we aren’t supposed to have favorites…) and I’m in the middle of my own project of doing all of the Beethoven Sonatas in recital but I took a break from just sonatas last semester and did a recital with Beethoven’s 7th sonata as well as his concerto, mimicking the Beethoven/Britten album of one of my own musical influences Janine Jansen, who’s recording of Britten was the first time I heard the piece many years ago. Here’s an excerpt of the second movement from my recital last semester…the audio is slightly muted for the first few seconds for whatever reason…

Smitten with Britten part 3: program notes

The Violin Concerto, op. 15 was written in 1938-39 when a young Britten of 25 was composing in an atmosphere entrenched with the brutalities of the Spanish Civil War and the tension which would lead to the outbreak of World War I.
More locally, young Benjamin Britten was feeling increasing artistically isolated because of “the low status music had in Britain and how oppressive militant officials of parochialism could be.” His left-wing politics, homosexuality, and friendships with openly gay writers such as Auden also put him at odds with his country politically, and he left for America in 1939 where he finished his violin concerto.
While the piece is not programmatic, most of the music in the concerto can be loosely categorized as being rigid or sensual and one can hear in the struggle between rigidity and sensuality the other dualities of war and peace, artistic freedom and parochialism, society and individual, law and homosexuality, morality and desire.
The violin concerto was clearly shaped by the external and internal struggles of Britten’s time as well as those eternal struggles shared by all of humanity.

The first movement starts with a quiet timpani flourish which repeats, stirring the rest of the orchestra to enter. The strings sigh and the timpani flourish continues in the bassoon to set the stage for the solo violin entrance. The solo violin starts by singing a beautiful melody. Like shadows on a clear day, the song darkens and lightens until the accumulated intensity launches the next section where the solo violin barks militaristic rhythms and tries to sing through melodies broken into jagged lines.
The agitation infects the orchestra; they take the cubist shapes and militant barks as the solo violin tries to heroically sing on the lowest string, lashing out for high notes only to fall again.
Slowly, the solo violin ascends, struggling through scales and constant failed attempts until it finally reaches the highest point. The solo violin stops here, insisting on it’s place in repeated octaves as the militant orchestra, also at its highest point escalates and pushes the solo violin down an octave-glissando rabbit hole.
The orchestra joins the solo violin in the fall and they revel, taunting and celebrating with heightened intensity in war-like rhythms. The orchestra’s raucous celebration comes to an end when they disagree between the notes F and F# (the same ambiguous notes which end the piece,) both are played at the same time causing a dissonance which gapes like a wound and allows enough uncertainty for the solo violin to enter again.
Tentative and wounded, the solo violin begins a series of questioning bird-calls which eventually lapse into an anguished presentation of the melody it first began the piece with. Just as the solo violin gains enough courage and makes it up to the note it begins the piece with, the timpani plays the militant rhythm, haunting the solo violin.
The solo violin immediately writhes and retreats, but the woodwinds now sing out fragments of the questioning bird-calls, encouraging the solo violin to keep going. It isn’t enough, however, and the solo violin begins a slow descent, helplessly sinking, all the while trying to reach higher and higher in arpeggiated twitches.
The solo violin reaches it’s near-death and left alone by the orchestra, begins to rise slowly, happening on rescue and resurrection with harmonics which lift the weighted violin part into the air.
The orchestra and solo violin change places in the recapitulation. After recent harrowing experiences, the solo violin resolves to be rigid, taking on the timpani flourish of the beginning as well as the militant rhythm in pizzicato as the orchestra plays the song. Like sirens, they try to cajole the solo violin to join, but the solo violin part gets more agitated, unable to sing because of it’s angularities.
The orchestra reaches their highest point in the opening song and the solo violin plummets in response, giving up on it’s resolution and sings the song too in its most impassioned and desperate form. The solo violin loses steam and starts to question and reason its recent indulgence with pleading arpeggios and weighty scales before surrendering into the last iteration of the opening melody; here only the solo violin and percussion play- the orchestra and the opening melody are both reduced to a shell of what they once were.
The timpani plays the now fatal motive from the beginning, marching the solo violin on. The solo violin part, shackled with the sinister heartbeat of the timpani tries to play doublestops and chords, clutching to any and all passing notes, but is unable to hang onto anything. Just impressions of sadness and regret are left, depicted in sighing duples before the violin is rescued again by harmonics.
The movement ends this way, with the eerie hollow singing of the violin harmonics over the orchestra’s spectral pizzicato of the militant theme.

Devilish, caustic, and malicious, the second movement begins suddenly, mid-dance.
It recalls the militaristic taunting of the previous movement and is also somewhat palindromic in form.
The movement begins with urgent scale runs from the orchestra and the solo violin is treated as a percussion instrument before beginning a louche duet with the bassoon and other woodwind instruments.
The orchestra joins in, mimicking the grotesque smearing gestures of the solo violin part, crying out like newborn harpies until the percussive solo violin re-enters with octaves and sneering glissandi, challenging the orchestra which responds with full-bodied menace.
The violin takes the scale runs the orchestra has at the beginning of the movement beginning rhetorically and ending insistently, passing the scales and urgency off to the orchestra.
The orchestra tries to end the movement emphatically by repeatedly cadencing but on the final cadence, the violin begins the pleading middle section to this movement. Starting intimately and lost, the solo violin gets more sincere, tenacious, and high in range with each repetition of the theme. In the last repetition, the solo violin and oboe cry out the same pleading theme offset from each other- their inability to find each other though struggling with the same painful theme emphasizes the lost feeling of this middle section.
The solo violin melts into a lower range and quietly pleads, seeming only to go through the motions. The lower strings quake beneath the pleading with the percussive opening material, which now with one note removed, is the same gesture as the fatal timpani motive from the first movement.
The solo violin in response drags itself slowly upwards, hoping for a harmonic rescue like the first movement, but unable to find one, starts to spin in place at the highest range of the violin. The piccolo enter here continuing the high-frequency register and motive of the solo violin and the tuba begins an ominous lurching theme at the lowest register.
The dance of depravity from the beginning of the movement returns in a hushed disembodied echo. The orchestra and solo violin gain corporeality by way of dynamics and gesture as the dance continues until an outbreak of scales in the orchestra bring back the percussive opening gestures of the solo violin in a frenzied riot as the orchestra screechingly deplores behind the madness.
The solo violin ends as the orchestra continues in an unrelenting lament, crying the pleading theme from earlier in the movement as the woodwinds and brass drone the ominous tuba theme. The solo violin joins in the wailing just as the orchestra reaches its climax and the violin is left alone thrashing furiously at the beginning of the cadenza before plunging to the depths of the instrument’s register.

Alone for the first time in the piece, the solo violin begins a monologue, dealing with the aftershocks of the previous movements by recalling previous themes and motives and agonizing over them. The first movement fatal timpani motive is followed by the pleading second movement theme and both are then repeated in apparition-like harmonics coming to the rescue once again. The harmonics are interrupted by the timpani and militaristic theme and this time the harmonics follow, fully converted to the militaristic theme. The solo violin resolves again to be rigid, playing repetitions of the barbed timpani motive, losing more and more control until finally, we get the turning point of the piece- the moment where the dualities of militant/rigidity and melody/sensuality fracture. The solo violin plays the melody and plucks the militant theme in the left hand simultaneously- this is the first time the solo violin plays both of the main themes and characters at the same time. Because this technique on violin of playing and plucking at the same time is more difficult, it is almost impossible for the melody to sound beautiful.
Britten imposes this limitation on beauty for the violin here to prove that the two themes can’t co-exist.
The fracture of this duality destroys all former modes/themes of existence for the solo violin and leads to the honest searching and unknowing of the last movement.

There is no break between the second movement cadenza and the last movement. As the dualities presented in the piece fractured in the cadenza, so did any hope of maintaining a normal or expected “form” for the piece.
After the realization that the two themes can not co- exist, the solo violin begins a leaden and despondent scale into the last movement which is joined by the trombones who play the theme of the movement. While the trombones play the new theme (which is almost the first movement song in reverse,) the solo violin is playing the first movement song, but because the new theme alternates between whole and half-steps making the key ambiguous and the solo violin is seemingly in a completely unrelated key, there is no center discernible, mirroring the now-brokenness of the piece.
As the solo violin fades away, the rest of the orchestra slowly enters, creating a bleak and desolate landscape. Emerging from an almost drug-like stupor, the numbness slowly mixes with pain as dissonances are created by the overlapping scale lament from all voices. The orchestra seems to come to a standstill at the most deafening dissonance.
Here, Britten writes the first variation almost as a recitative- the solo violin comes in speaking, murmuring and sobbing, getting more restless as the orchestra plays disquieting chant-like figurations underneath.
The second variation continues the turmoil of the first with writhing solo violin arpeggios and statements punctuated by pointed writing in the woodwinds.
The conflict in the second variation thaws into the third variation- a relaxed and undulating oboe solo, the first time since the beginning of the piece without tension.
In the fourth variation, the oboe hands the solo to the solo violin and the solo violin plays the theme playfully trying to get free from the underlying stricter rhythm of the orchestra.
In the fifth variation, the solo violin sings in octaves, inverting the theme before mimicking the orchestra’s ornamental scales. In both variations 4 and 5, echoes from the first movement start to surface- the more rigid strictly accompanimental figures are related to the militant theme as well as the heroic octave leaps in the solo violin part which are allowed to cascade and sing in earnest this time.
The sixth variation is a march, alluding to the first movement once again, with double stops and scale flourishes alternating between solo violin and orchestra.
The seventh variation is a bassoon solo over the violin playing mosquito-like music, light and similar to the ghostly piccolo part in the second movement. The seventh variation erupts into the eighth which is the grand orchestral finale.
The weighty and despondent scale we heard as the bridge to the last movement in the violin is now transformed as the orchestra plays it and allows it to resolve. This movement, once so uncertain, is now noble, sonorous, and definite. The solo violin comes in, joining in the triumph of this certainty, but there are still remnants of uncertainty and doubt. These remnants are the undoing of the closure obtained in the eighth variation, but they free the solo violin for the last.
The solo violin lapses into the last variation, surrendering to uncertainty as the only certainty and unknowing as the only knowing. The last variation consists mainly of a four-chord chant-motive pulsing in the orchestra and the solo violin, finally free from duality and the need for it, singing, searching, and improvising around that motive. In a piece where the solo violin and orchestra have been primarily at odds with each other, the last variation brings them together. The solo violin repeatedly wanders and resolves on one note of a harmony, which the orchestra then completes, helping the solo violin bloom, encouraging and affirming the violin to continue. These harmonies are strange, unexpected, and more beautiful than the things we could expect from our knowledge of how formal harmony should function. The climax of this variation is the solo violin singing a treacherously high melody on the lowest string. Singing at this range on the violin is nearly impossible and the violin seems instead to be choking, desperately supplicating. This is another instance of Britten imposing a limitation on beauty which leads to the exhaustion of the solo violin part- collapsing into the piece’s last doubting mournful moments.
The piece ends with the solo violin searching, alternating between two pitches before it trails away, leaving no closure, all of us unknowing.

Living and Music: Beethoven op. 130 and vulnerability

The reason I first started this blog close to a year ago was because I had just finished working on Beethoven’s Quartet op. 130 and the Grosse Fugue and though it wasn’t the first piece I ever loved, it is the first piece that I felt loved me back. That sounds funny as I type it out, but it’s true. This was when I started understanding music as something you can have a tangible relationship with…something that can reflect and show you a lot about yourself and your surroundings and change you. Since working on the piece, I was preoccupied afterwards with the idea that something could be so emotionally familiar without being actually familiar. It was like meeting someone you had an instant connection with…you don’t understand why you connect with the person and you don’t see all the mechanisms behind the connection like nurture, nature, life experience, etc. but you feel it. In my very first entry I proposed a first theory that maybe Beethoven’s music is familiar because it is unfamiliar and in its’ unfamiliarity, mirrors the way our lives are. Even though we have structure in our days and we make plans (similar to how even the most simple or complex musical pieces have form of some kind) there are unplanned elements every second which shape our lives in ways we may not even know. Here is, a year later, my second theory of why Beethoven’s music is emotionally familiar.

I remember practicing the 3rd movement of the Op. 130 by myself in the small room I shared with Denise at Aspen. The 3rd movement is possibly the hardest to grasp of the 6 in the piece because it isn’t easily put into a category. It isn’t a dance, it isn’t the virtuosic fast movement, it isn’t the slow movement, etc. It is certainly beautiful and lyrical at some points…but it is mostly quirky, adorable, and maybe a little persnickety. As I was practicing this movement, I started to cry and I was overwhelmed with this sense of being understood. This was really bizarre to me. It happens sometimes, but not often, that I cry first and figure out why later. Now I’m going to move forward to a few weeks after this initial emotional response to the music. We were working on the piece at a summer festival which takes place on a beautiful beach. During a rehearsal break, I was sticking my feet in some water and watching the ocean. Growing up, instructors have often compared musical markings and gestures to ones found in nature. One of the reasons Beethoven’s music, especially the quartets (in my small experience), is so difficult is because he requires the musicians to do extreme changes in dynamic range very suddenly. Op. 130 is riddled with these rigorous dynamic contrasts and the 3rd movement is especially demanding in this regard. There will be one measure of music with as many as 4 different dynamic contrasts required. That is, 4 different dynamics for 10 notes! It is hard to do this by yourself, let alone, with 3 other people in a quartet where everyone has different concepts of soft, loud, and middle. So I was thinking about this while looking at the ocean, watching each wave build and gently crest, and I realized that despite what my instructors said growing up, I couldn’t think of a single thing in nature that is as instantaneous in extremes as these markings in the Beethoven. If you can, right now while you read this, it is because you are smarter than me or because I just do not think enough. Probably both. And then I realized that there is something in nature that changes as instantly and as extremely as these markings and I remembered that I had cried and now I knew why. The human heart changes this way…our emotions, our thoughts are this volatile, flexible, and hesitating. I made a small video clip of myself playing and trying to explain this part.

So now I know that when I was practicing this part, I was having to constrict and free myself physically to get those higher notes and then to stay in one place before leaping physically again. This kind of leap always reminds me of when they do bars in gymnastics- there is that split second where you aren’t touching either bar or either place on a violin string. This means that as a player you feel vulnerable about your skill, your technique, your physicality. Coupled with the fact that the section is a song but takes so long and so much hesitation to get started- you feel not only physically vulnerable but emotionally vulnerable. I felt understood because this is honestly how I feel socially. In my friendships, in relationships, gatherings, my internal dreams, anything…it takes me a lot of effort to get started and keep going. This was especially the case when I was a teenager when I felt my most physically and emotionally vulnerable, though the 20’s aren’t that much easier on either front. So Beethoven, centuries ago, wrote something that, by physically enacting, I was able to experience emotionally. He showed me how I’m vulnerable and what it would be like if I just gave in, kept trying, and found the courage to sing. And once I could do that in music, it started being a lot easier to do in public.

It’s a metaphor. I’m not actually going to sing in public.
Ling Ling

Living and Music: Britten String Quartet 2 and Refusal as Essential to the Human Spirit

One of the best things about being at Aspen Music Festival and School this summer is the other group in the Advanced Quartet Studies being the Omer Quartet comprised of Mason Yu, Erica Tursi, Joe LoCicero, and Alex Cox. We’ve grown up with them at school in Cleveland and it has been a privilege to see how far they’ve gone together and how they are continuing. A couple weeks ago, they performed the 3rd movement of the Britten String Quartet 2 in our weekly quartet studio class and they had me in tears. Since then, I have been listening to the quartet non-stop trying to understand why I was so moved. While I want to focus on the 3rd movement, the first two movements play pivotal roles in setting up the 3rd movement as the emotional core of the piece so I want to touch briefly on how they create and then destroy the stability of the key of the piece.

The first movement starts with a graceful C major chord expansion. This C major chord suspends, becoming the backdrop for the other voices which are safe to wander. They stay close at first, just loosely weaving in and around the chord. This opening always strikes me as mystical and not yet awake…or perhaps even pre-sentient. The weaving voices develop preference or primitive urges to stay on certain notes…this slight defiance by the weaving voices to the backdrop chord motivates it to change to something which will hopefully offer more stability. The Chord goes to G and then D… all this time, the voices are still searching. They get excited at the D chord and hover around it, obsessively cadencing until everyone suddenly dissolves into a high C, nostalgic for the opening. After this there are empty gestures made by the weaving voices, now utterly confused about their key after the remembrance of the C. One of the violin parts now starts working towards some kind of consciousness while the others pulse and suddenly we have sentience or the start of a new day. The whole quartet alternates leaping fast notes and little existential shrieks. It reminds me of being in a city in the morning when things are getting started and everyone is declaring or celebrating their lives, hawking their wares. Something particularly impressive about Britten’s compositional writing in this quartet is all the ways he can bring the personal and the universal into juxtaposition or conversation with one another. The opening is so universal with just a hint of the personal being formed. The part I see as a city seems almost like a birds-eye view of universal life with little zooms and flashes of people falling in step with each other, with you. Then everyone lapses into anxious utterings again, searching and the parts are written to be not quite together so that you hear the personal searching and loneliness of every voice (personal) but because they happen together, it reads also as universal. This happens the whole quartet- the same gestures and expressions happen in all the parts but at different times, creating universal personal emotion. The first movement ends cradled in the mystical C major chord of the opening. But while the C major chord expands, the other voices tiptoe the main rhythmic motive of the movement with pitches that still every so slightly defy the C major safety of the chord by wandering.

The second movement starts with unison fast figures while others do unison lurches or barks. These fast figures start becoming just one note apart from each other, giving the impression of trying to and being unable to catch up. The fast figures here do not seem unrelated to the anxious utterings of the first movement- without the score I would guess they are close to being the same figures sped up and closer together in pitches, giving them an even more harried feeling. These fast figures are paused a couple times when an instrument has an outburst of drunken hysteria which then return to the fast figures once again. The movement ends with the same lurches as the beginning, so consecutive as to give an eerie rocking back and forth instability.

The third movement begins with the lurches of the second movement, now much slower. This is no longer a reflex, primitive or careless as it was in the previous movement. This motive is now deliberate and profound. All the voices have the theme of the third movement and the difficult task of surpassing these lurches to the C Major of the piece together. They get there, but immediately, the viola lapses back to the Bb which starts the piece. Now everyone alternates two notes of the theme…calling out to each other or murmuring to themselves. Here as the other voices start to become personal and move, the cello part keeps insisting F to C. When the voices continue to wander, the cello part moves up a range and goes G to C, trying to show the way back to C with a stronger and brighter cadence. This is the seed of struggle which not only launches this movement but also the whole piece. Is it in our nature to question, to seek what isn’t safe?
Once again in the opening of this movement, Britten shows off his ability to make the universal and the personal one thing compositionally by giving them all the theme together at the same time and then breaking it into small pieces for each voice to speak out, still at the same time. The movement puts the voices through melancholy and resignation, unintelligible garbling, and pure anticipation in the form of the insistence of repeated gestures. There are moments where it seems the music has completely lost pulse as well as key…everyone in the aether, unrelating to each other, sequencing, going in circles latching on to nothing. Slowly, aimless melodies start to have purpose and the cello once again starts scales with trills at the tops cadencing back and forth in C major, showing the way. The first violin gets inspired and does the scales in the cadenza but gets lost…this affects everyone as they start playing again, ghostly trills almost in horror while the cello plays the theme, clearly lost as well. This is where I started to really lose it in the Omers’ performance. The cello cadences at the end of the theme, but this cadence hardly registers because we are traumatized by the randomness of intervals and purposelessness of everything that has occured in the last 10 minutes. The soft trills in the other parts miraculously cadence with the cello, giving us our first tentative taste of real C Major chord. The first violin, emboldened by this first taste launches into a C major scale but gets rerouted to the theme now encapsulated in outrageous, bewildered chords. The other voices tremolo, moving their bows as fast as they can in frenzied anticipation, wondering if they can find their way back. At the end of the theme, instead of going down, the first violin in these wild chords finds a way to change the direction of the theme to cadence up instead of down. This is finally what gets the other voices in their tremolo to find C Major. The first violin then takes the victorious plunge of a C major scale but slips into the Bb which starts the theme we have been struggling with the whole movement. But this time, the other voices immediately step in with an enormous C major chord, not letting any doubt in. The whole thing searching theme is played now again but between every note of the theme is a violent unshakeable C major chord. And this is what moved me so much. Because the chords keep going. And they play these chords together except for one part where they alternate, once again making the universal personal.

Of course these chords could be anything. But I like to think of them in the context of refusal. Britten had just visited the concentration camps and seen horrific things. The bleak and desolate landscapes in the third movement seem like they could have been influenced by his experiences. So do the senselessness of the drunk interlewds and the unintelligibility of the fast figures in the second movement. After everything that has just been emotionally invoked on us, the strength the piece ends with is incredible. This end translates for me personally into defiance. Refusal to accept certain things in the world as they are, refusal to be passive about certain things in the world and most importantly, it shows me that refusal and defiance are essential for the human spirit and for the Arts. I am encouraged to be violently impassioned for the things, ideas, and people I love.

like this quartet, which I will one day study with the score and write about in a paper. but for now, there is blogging. Just go listen to the piece. I’m doing it no justice…
but I refuse not to try,
Ling Ling

Living and Music: Mahler 10 and it all comes up roses

As my first school year at Rice comes to a close, I have Mahler on my mind…and not just because of the wonderful Mahler 2 the Shepherd Symphony performed Friday. In my mind, no composer quite captures sehnsucht the way Mahler does, and that is just how I feel at the end of this school year…at the close of the last 2 years. I remember a few years ago, I got to see this concert- of The Cleveland Orchestra doing Mahler 10. I knew nothing about Mahler 10- had never heard it or even heard of it. I was seized. The symphony starts with the viola section in unison, sounding bitter and paranoid with miserly half-steps and persnickety rhythms. And then, Pierre Boulez gives one big solemn flap, a gigantic tock, and the rest of the orchestra comes swooning in. I remember not being able to breathe because of the beauty, and so unexpected after the unison viola prologue. I remember thinking that this must be what it is like to be in love. And I guess I was right because I found out later that while writing this piece, Mahler’s life was a mess. He had found out about his wife’s infidelity (though on the last page of the score of this piece he wrote for her “To live for you! To die for you!”) and his heart was failing. He wouldn’t finish the piece, in fact, before dying.

This piece is painfully dissonant. I guess the last couple of years have been hard on me because I understand the desire to be alone all the time…and I have experienced new heights of bitterness, paranoia, and distrust not unlike the opening of the Mahler 10 Adagio. There is a dissonance in that opening, but nothing like the dissonance which happens in the soaring beauty of the whole orchestra when it comes in. And I get it now. That cliche about bad helping us understand and value good. There is dissonance and pain worth experiencing… because is there anything as beautiful as when the whole orchestra comes in? And there is pain and dissonance not worth experiencing. Dissonance in community, with people and as a result of people…with the whole orchestra- there is beauty there. Different from the pain and dissonance of being alone and angry. I’ve been listening to Mahler 10 a lot this week in light of things not making sense. Things don’t make sense every moment in the world, but with the Boston Marathon, things made no sense a lot closer to home and people I love. Listening to the complexity of pain and beauty in Mahler helps me understand how communities should respond to tragedy by grieving together, not alone. It reminds me of the roles and responsibilities, even capabilities, we have to help each other and to swoop in with swooning beauty when others are being unison viola sadness.

And it helps me personally. Because Mahler was going through some tough times, but out of all this- facing infidelity, mortality…he was able to contribute to society, to humanity…a work of yes, dissonance and sadness, but incredible beauty. When I listen to Mahler sometimes, it is so beautiful I feel like I am drowning, drenched, steeping in roses

Ling Ling

Living and Music: Arcadiana, O Albion and Friendship

I’ve mentioned a little in previous posts (Beethoven 127) how much I think music can teach us about how to improve as communities, people, etc. I wanted to write about a piece which is really teaching me. My quartet this semester is working on Thomas Ades’ Arcadiana and it has been an amazing piece to work on. Every movement is challenging and so compositionally creative while still inferencing the past in a clever and resonant way. The heart of this piece is the 6th movement, O Albion. You can listen to it here-

First of all, this movement really reminds me how amazing string quartet playing and orchestral playing can be. You can take 4 people, or 70+ people from all different walks of life who have all had different days who walk at different speeds and play different instruments and breathe and beat their hearts at different rates, expanses, directions and they can sit down at an agreed upon place and start and finish something together.

So the beginning of this movement, the four of us align our breaths, exhale, and play together on that exhale. To be alone a whole day and suddenly to share breath is an insane experience I overlook everyday. But immediately, one of us diverges. We keep diverging from each other, stepping out on our own and meeting again on the same notes. I wonder if this is how rivers and lakes would feel- independent and meeting and diverging. Always, the gesture is a response to the impetus of the very first. In a string quartet, you are always trying to find the sound of another and the right way to respond to another, especially in a piece like this. I wonder how my friendships and relationships would be different if I put the same effort and ways of searching into them. Whenever one person plays the collapsing gesture, another person rushes in to do the same, like the way waves slowly hit upon the same things. I can see this in choreography so easily- clean white room, sparse birch floor, 4 people standing, take a step at the same time. Because of some inner yearning, an accidental step, arms fling out, and slowly close in again. Another person, either unconscious or aware of the other, has the same inner yearning, does the same. The end of the movement finds the two violinists and the cello resolved on an Eb chord. The viola however, keeps doing the gesture slowly and instead of finally meeting us where we are, the 2nd violin unresolves and joins the violist in unknowing. This is also a beautiful example of friendship- to leave the comfortable place to be in solidarity with another. You may not both have found the Eb chord, but you have found each other, is that better? Worse? Who can say.

I guess all I have to say is that I’m inspired by this piece to search deeper in my friendships and not to overlook the importance of sitting down with people from different walks of life who have had different days, etc. (which is everyone) and really connecting with them. This movement reminds me with one simple gesture passed around by all four people that a lot of us, if not all, are made of and act out of the same fears, needs, and loves. Day to day, I overlook others’ fears/needs/loves in favor of viewpoints that support my fears, needs and loves.

I’d like to stop,

Ling Ling

Society and Music: Wozzeck and music as incrimination

There are a lot of the things the Arts can be. Uplifting, beautiful, harrowing, etc. In the past few years I had decided that what I found most valuable in my experiences of the Arts could be summed up in two words; nourishing or enjoyable. Lately though, I have been thinking more about the kinds of responsibilities the Arts have.
Today I saw the open dress rehearsal for Houston Symphony’s Wozzeck. They will be performing March 1 and 2. I was blown away by the production- the orchestra and singers sound great, but most of all, the story, written 100 years ago is so relevant today. The gross differences in decadence and poverty of the times it was written in are no different from our OccupiedWorld. At the heart of the story is a man Wozzeck and his wife Marie (the 99%) who are so oppressed and hurt by the world around them it becomes inevitable that all they can do is hurt and oppress each other. Wozzeck from the beginning has, in this order, his intelligence, morality, and then sanity questioned because of his poverty. Wozzeck is a neglectful husband and father because he is so plagued by his demanding work for the Captain and his medical trials for pay by the Doctor. (These titles instead of names for the 1% equivalents in the opera make them even more relatable to big banks and corporations and bring up interesting associations in our presently war-driven and over and under medicated world) Because of this his wife Marie embarks on an affair with the Drum Major. She is found out by Wozzeck who is then continually bullied by the Captain, Doctor, and Drum Major about her infidelity. They drive him to madness as he murders Marie and then commits suicide. The opera ends with their child all alone after being bullied by other children telling him his mother is dead.
Yeah, not really a feel-good opera. But I was inspired. When Marie first resists the Drum Major, he says “I can see the devil in your eyes!” she then gives in to him saying, “So be it. Everything is going to hell.” This is a woman who does not believe she has choices which can change her life or the world around her. This opera shows us the danger of that kind of mindset.
So I left inspired to make choices for myself and the world around me, but I was also inspired by this new role of the Arts …new to me anyway, of holding an audience accountable and in a sense, incriminating them. Berg in a way was making a political statement with this opera about how societies can oppress…he was exploring social, cultural, and mental health issues of his time. I am so inspired by how this opera participates not just in music history, opera history, history of music theory (because it is an important and highly impressive work on all those accounts), but how it participates in history and transcends opera and music to be a work of humanity in response to the world. That is what makes Wozzeck for me, an enduring work.
So go see it if you can…March 1 (technically tonight) and March 2.