Sunday, March 29, 2009

Shaham, Meyer, Wang & Chung - Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time

One of the most proclaimed chamber works of the last century, it is widely known that Olivier Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time" (for violin, clarinet, cello, and piano) was conceived and composed within the Nazi prison camp Stalag VIII A. Given this, and the fact that Messiaen was already at the forefront of musical exploration before his wartime captivity, one could reasonably presume the Quartet is heavy, discordant, and menacing. This is indeed the case at times, but it's impossible to summarize the whole piece so quickly and easily - Messiaen's fascination with bird songs, modal melodies, supernatural or "heavenly" harmonies, rhythmic augmentation and diminution, eternity, infinity, and Catholic mysticism is in full effect throughout the composition.

Particularly striking to the author is the third movement, for clarinet alone, which lasts nearly 9 minutes and features incredibly elegant and lyrical phrasing, achieving as much expression with elongated notes as with empty rests. Etienne Pasquier, cellist among the original four performers of the Quartet, sheds light on the history of this movement in an interview reproduced in the liner notes:
Among our comrades was a clarinettist who was a member of the Orchestre National and who had been allowed to keep his clarinet. Messiaen started to write a piece for him while we were still in this field [where prisoners were held] as he was the only person there with an instrument. None of us had a violin or a cello or a piano. And so Messiaen wrote a piece for clarinet that was later to become the third movement of the Quatuor pour la fin du temps: Abîme des oiseaux (Abyss of the birds). Henri Akoka, the clarinettist, practised in the open field and I acted as his music stand. The piece seemed to him to be too difficult from a technical point of view and he complained about it to Messiaen. "You'll manage," was Messiaen's only reply.
The same interview contains many other fascinating anecdotes, including that the camp directors at Stalag VIII A constituted the front row of the audience at the very successful premier performance, and that Messiaen and his fellow performers were given preferential treatment as "musician soldiers" and released four years before the rest of the prisoners.

Other highlights include the fiery, rhythmically complex sixth movement ("Dance of frenzy for the seven trumpets") and the heartbreaking eighth and final movement ("Eulogy to the Immortality of Jesus"), which according to Messiaen represents "the ascent of man towards his God, of the Child of God towards his Father, of the deified Being towards Paradise."

Each player on this recording is somewhat of a celebrity in the world of concert music, and followers of Giraffe Kingdom will already have a recording featuring Gil Shaham and Jian Wang paired together, namely on Brahms' "Double Concerto". Paul Meyer on the clarinet is as comfortable playing works by modernists like Penderecki and Berio as by giants of the Classical and Romantic eras. Rounding out the group, pianist Myung-Whun Chung is, like Shaham, a Deutsche Grammophon exclusive artist; no stranger to Messiaen's orchestral oevre, he is present on recordings of the Turangalîla Symphony, Éclairs sur l'au-delà (Illuminations on the Beyond), L'Ascension, and much more. This is his first recording of chamber work.

"This quartet is in eight movements. Why? Seven is the perfect number, the six days of Creation, sanctified by the Divine Sabbath; the seven of this rest is prolonged into eternity and becomes the eight of everlasting light, of eternal piece." - Olivier Messiaen


Friday, March 20, 2009

Ecstasy of Saint Theresa - ...fluidtrance centauri...

Fans of the melodic shoegaze stylings of Asobi Seksu will find much to enjoy about the three songs on this short EP by the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, a Czech group formed in 1990. The band's first releases, the Pigment e.p. (1991) and debut album Susurrate (1992), feature distorted guitar textures very prominently, and are heavily indebted to My Bloody Valentine. By 1993, the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa were experimenting with elements of electronic and ambient music, and ...fluidtrance centauri... finds the band honing a more unique sound. "Fluidum" opens gently with light chimes and graceful delayed guitar chords, but the chorus lets loose with some heavy distortion and beautiful wah guitar treatment. "Alpha Centauri" and "Trance (Between The Stars)" follow this dynamic approach, both featuring a lot of contrast between pretty, mellow sections and energetic rock-outs. The band has had a steady stream of releases since their formation, the most recent being Watching Black (2006). Sample it on their MySpace.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

David Darling & The Wulu Bunun - Mudanin Kata

Shangri-La does exist, but it's about 2,500 miles east of the Himalayas, in of all places, Taiwan. In the year 2000, accomplished cellist David Darling visited the Bunun people, "a tribe of Taiwanese known for their sophisticated polyphonic vocal music" (Wikipedia). The result was an album so exquisitely beautiful it simply must be heard to be believed.

At the forefront of Mudanin Kata (Journey Home) is the joyful communal singing of the men, women, and children of the Wulu Bunun. Beneath their gorgeous indigenous harmonies, David Darling provides just the right amount of accompaniment, generally remaining delicate and understated, never competitive. Sometimes he plays as little as a single bowed note, or nothing at all; elsewhere he multitracks his playing, creating a chamber orchestra effect that splendidly complements the gladsome voices. He lays down some bluesy pizzicato on "Malas Tapag" (Celebration), and in the call-and-response singing one can actually hear the smiles on the faces of the Bunun.

Then there's "Pasibutbut" (Prayer For A Rich Millet Harvest), a harrowing hymn for 8 male voices which harmonically blend in ways that were unknown to the Western world until 1943, when a Japanese scholar brought a recording of the piece to Paris, causing quite a sensation. According to the album's liner notes, "‘Pasibutbut’, which has been called the ‘sound of nature’, is said to have been created by a member of the Bunun who was inspired by the sound of humming bees, a rushing waterfall or the sounds made when crossing through a pine or bamboo forest".

On "Wulu Dream", "Wulu Mist", and "Wulu Sky", Darling takes some solo time, but half of the effectiveness of these interludes stems from the lush ambience of the thriving jungle they were recorded in, thick with the chatter of local birds and frogs. One really feels transported to another place. While David Darling is guilty of having produced some fairly drab new age music, this album is anything but, and he should be applauded for bringing the Bunun to a wider audience.


Monday, March 9, 2009

No. 9 - Mushi No-Ne

Fans of Nobukazu Takemura will potentially like this album by No. 9 - Mushi No-Ne combines ambient/jazzy-techno/computery noise into a nice, laidback album. Standout track is "Bug Beats" - great melody.