Mauled by Music in Time


Following my prime Piccolo interlude yesterday afternoon, a short jaunt across town took me to the College of Charleston’s Simons Center Recital Hall, where the first of Spoleto USA’s four cutting-edge Music in Time Series programs was about to blast off. The featured composer was Wolfgang Rihm, probably Germany’s most prominent contemporary composer, and the creator of Proserpina.

From his opening remarks about the music, you could tell that series director (and conductor) John Kennedy was clearly pumped about this concert. He described Rihm’s music as a kind of rebellion against post-World War II avant-garde modernism in Germany, as exemplified by composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen. He re-infused modern German music with some of the time-honored traditional techniques and building blocks of music, like (gasp!) basic diatonic triads. Perhaps Kennedy’s most telling comment along these lines was when he spoke of Rihm’s method of “translating rhythmic energy into extraordinary breadth and intensity of sound,” much as Beethoven had done. Finally, before tearing into his selections, he warned us to expect “very powerful music that will leave some of you feeling exhilarated, and others feeling like you’ve been beaten.”

The music, played by a roughly 20-piece ensemble of diverse instrumentalists from the superb Spoleto Festival Orchestra, consisted of four pieces from Rihm’s 1980’s-vintage Chiffre cycle — “chiffre” being variously defined as “ciphers, signs or signals,” according to Kennedy. Such signs or signals took the form of certain themes, rhythmic sequences, or instrumental effects that kept popping up throughout all four numbers. One example of this was a recurring series of high, tinkly piano notes (courtesy of modern piano specialist Lydia Brown), which often led into the next resurgence of musical chaos. This was not easy music to play, but the SFO's players delivered it with terrific skill and aplomb.

I won’t attempt to distinguish between all four pieces, because they are, in effect, variations on each other, and covering each one separately would be boringly repetitive. But generally speaking, this is music driven by rhythm, sonic textures, and extreme dynamic contrasts rather than by melody or harmony. The music first seemed rather random and disorganized in nature, with seemingly disjointed instrumental shrieks and yawps and savage drum-blasts tumbling all over each other. But, with time and close attention, the material began to take on a kind of coherent thrust and design. Dynamics ranged from nearly inaudible to ear-splitting. Chugging, manic episodes of sheer, Stravinsky-esque sonic violence gave way to soft, warm eddies of relief — but the relief never lasted for long.           

After it was all over, I felt both exhilarated and beaten. It was an amazing, though not altogether pleasant musical experience, and one that I’m not likely to forget soon. And now I’m more determined than ever to hear Proserpina.

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