May 23, 2013
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Christopher Hacker's smart and compelling debut novel The Morels asks big questions about art, imagination, and life, and is as entertaining as it is thought provoking.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Hacker earns all the stereotypical accolades of a debut novel—promising, ambitious, sincere—but his execution is far more original, and the result is an odd alloy of kitchen-sink family drama and metafictional inquest."
Music has always been a big part of my life. I studied piano and cello as a child and went to a music conservatory every Saturday, where, in addition to private lessons, I took ear training and music theory. I performed in the orchestra, in monthly group recitals, and prepared a yearly solo recital. When I went off to college, I majored in music composition. Since the mid nineties, however--the year I graduated--I drifted from the world of string quartets and tone poems as my creative interests shifted to literature, and I lost contact with most of my fellow musicians. What remains is a wall of meticulously curated Deutche Grammaphone recordings and an abiding love of the Twentieth Century repertoire. It's music that still has the power to make me faint from pleasure--or shock me awake. To bring me back to the humid wood air of the practice room, the cool brass knob of the backstage door. This is the music that inspired my forthcoming novel.
What follows is an annotated discography. A-Side: Music to Swoon to. B-Side: Music to Wake You the Fuck Up.
A-Side: These recordings brought me to the table of classical music. Each piece is pure bliss, suffused with imagery and emotion, music that, because of its lushness, is easy to fall in love with:
Debussy, Nocturnes for Orchestra
The three nocturnes are inspired by a series of paintings by Whistler of the same name. I'll tell you the truth: I've never been able to see the pictures Debussy was supposedly illustrating with his music. In fact, I find the notion of musical "impressionism" kind of nonsensical: painting is painting, music is music. Oh, but what music! In the first movement, the reed section meanders over a lush cloud of chords. In the second, the orchestra comes alive in a nighttime fete. But the reason to stick around is the third movement, which introduces a woman's choir. The ethereal beauty of these sirens has kept me enthralled since I first discovered the piece, 25 years ago.
Stravinsky: L'oiseau de Feu
This was the piece that made young Stravinsky's career, a huge hit at the time. It has all the romantic high drama of Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky's mentor. The slow sections are lovely, tremolo violins supporting a plaintive oboe. There is a bright, brassy theme that ends the piece grandly and recalls the "Ode to Joy" sections of Beethoven's Ninth. But the real greatness here is the driving percussive sections in the middle that presages the insanity of the ballet he would introduce three years later, cementing his reputation as the enfant terrible of modern music: Le Sacre du Printempts.
Mahler, Symphony No. 10 [fragment]
In school, I developed a soft spot for Mahler, a man who—while others of his generation were forsaking grace for the grotesque, giving up on the old forms and dismantling the very foundations—was still writing beautiful symphonies. It was a music that palpably ached, that longed for—phrases dissolving one into the next, never resolving, wandering like a Melville sentence for hours at sea, in pursuit of some impossible desire.
Vaughn Williams, The Lark Ascending
Not knowing much about this piece other than my absolute love affair with it when I was a teenager, I read the Wikipedia entry now and see that I am not alone in my adoration: This fantasia for violin and orchestra was voted number one for five years in a row by Classical FM, and chosen in a public radio poll by many New Yorkers as the piece to commemorate the September eleventh attacks. The freewheeling cadenzas do suggest birdlike movements, sometimes flitting from phrase to phrase, other times soaring octaves above the rest of the orchestra.
Ravel, Concerto for the Left Hand
Commissioned in 1929 by a pianist who lost his right arm in the Great War, this piece rumbles forth with a vengeful, hurricane like force. The three major sections run together into a single long movement lasting roughly 19 minutes. Part of the magic here lies in the sheer virtuosity required of the pianist. One listens, incredulous at just how much music five fingers are capable of making, a testament to the human will behind it, determined to overcome every adversity.
Barber, Adagio for Strings
I won't lie: I first heard this piece in 1986, along with millions of others, paired to the bloody climatic firefight in Oliver Stone's Platoon. This was before it was commonplace to lyricize violence with elegiac music, and, I'm ashamed to say, the scene and the music had a profound effect on me. But hey, I was fourteen! The best versions are the epically slow ones--like Neville Mariner's St Martin in the Fields recording--each note spun out to its absolute breaking point.
Scored for the oddly specific 23 solo strings (ten violins, five violas, five cellos, and three double basses) this symphonic elegy was supposedly written after Strauss visited the remains of Munich at the end of the Second World War. The halting, lilting main theme is passed from violins to violas to cellos and back again as it swells and breaks and swells again, one iteration cascading into the next, endlessly, spiraling into the void. This is what pure grief sounds like.
Gorecki, Symphony No. 3
This symphonic lament, subtitled "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" is comprised of three slow movements, scored for orchestra and solo soprano. It has a pure liturgical beauty that is every bit as cleansing as a good cry. The first movement is a canon, rumbling first through the double basses, picked up by the cellos, passed on to the violas and then up to the violins, an epic crescendo that culminates in the soprano's entrance, Mary lamenting the death of her son. When she is done, the canon is taken up again, but in reverse, descending from the violins, back down to the violas, the cellos, and ending where we began, barely audible grumbling through the stage's floorboards.
B-Side: These are recordings I discovered in college through mentors and fellow students, which took time for me to open up to. Each is delightfully crazy, the product of a generation of composers tearing down the very foundations of tonality, erecting in its stead a strange and, at times, terrifying place.
Stravinsky, Le Sacre du Printempts
This ballet caused a riot when it was first premiered in 1913. From the plaintive opening oboe call, one wouldn't know why, but as the second movement rolls in with its relentless percussive note-clusters, it becomes clear enough what the fuss was all about. But for all its bombast, the intervening century has softened its edges somewhat. The piece is thoroughly enjoyable to listen to, even at its most dissonant: You find yourself absently tapping your foot and moving your head to the beat, and in the slow movements you can clearly hear the lyricism of L'Oiseau.
It's amazing to think that Webern wrote this only three years after the premiere of Mahler's Ninth. It is, in many ways, the polar opposite of a Mahler symphony: tentative, affectless, sparsely scored, as much silence as music. In this piece, no phrase lasts more than a few notes, and a leisurely performance of it clocks in a just over three minutes. Although it sounds upon first hearing like the accidental plucks and chirps of four musicians setting up their instruments, repeated listening reveals this short masterwork to be the carefully wrought miniature that it is, a perfect jewel-like distillation of music's very essence.
This is perhaps the most misunderstood piece of music ever written. Instruments and number of players are unspecified. There are three movements. For each of them, the performer is instructed not to play. The nothingness of it often provokes a kind of incredulity, a feeling that one is being duped, one's time wasted. But this entirely misses the point. There is music to be heard here, only it's not the composer or the performer who is making it. Live, one might hear on a given night the quiet music of coughing, sighing, the rustling of programs and clothing, and the squeaking of seats. Listening to it at home, one might hear a different sort of music in the privacy of one's apartment. It's a study in negative space. Cage turns the tables--a characteristic move from a composer with a lifelong interest in Buddhism and the chance games of the I Ching.
This post-war Greek composer was trained as an architect and mathematician before coming to music and the pitch systems he employs are informed by this expertise. This piece is inspired specifically by the spatial-temporal theories of Le Corbusier and Einstein. Each of the 61 players is playing 61 separate parts (as opposed to most ensembles, arranged in sections--thirty violins, for instance, playing the same part) and the sound masses that ensue are as impressive and impenetrable as any that Le Corbusier ever built. His scores are impossibly complex, a kind of theoretical music that seems only playable by a nitrogen cooled supercomputer, but the Luxembourg Philharmonic does an amazing job of it in this recording from 2008.
Penderecki, Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima
Listen to this piece along side Strauss's Metamorphosen for a lesson in how the expanded language of the Post War era was able to capture the inexpressible nature of horror and sorrow. The high register sound clusters and exaggerated slow vibratos feel very much like the full-on alarm of new grief, the thumping on the backs of instruments and the clacking of the wrong side of the bow against the strings a fitting analogue to breast-beating and teeth-gnashing.
This musical collage, scored for orchestra and eight voices draws on texts from Samuel Beckett and the music of Mahler, Ravel and Brahms, among others. The third movement is the main event, a chaotic vortex of sound, scraps of Debussy and Strauss floating by as voices shout and sing out from the center of the chaos, occasionally commenting, it seems, on the music itself. Although cacophonous, it manages also to be graceful and humorous and, at times, downright beautiful. An exciting, theatrical piece.
Crumb, Black Angels
This is no ordinary string quartet. In addition to their instruments, the four members of the quartet make use of maracas, crystal glasses and their own voices to evoke an epic battle between good and evil. The extended techniques the performers employ here run the gamut, from bowing across the fingerboard to clicking along the strings with thimbles and fingerpicks. The reference recording is, as with most avant garde string quartets, the masterful Kronos Quartet album from 1990.
Lerdahl and other composers of his generation have been attempting to bring Post War modernism in line with a more lyrical expression. As a theorist, Lerdahl makes use of cognitive psychology and has developed a musical "grammar" that informs his own pieces. Waves is like a magic trick, moving back and forth, almost imperceptibly, from a clear, tonal Mendelssohnesque theme to a dense, thorny Stockhausen-like wilderness.
Christopher Hacker and The Morels links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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