Knocking It Off

Pianist Gloria Cheng recently released a recording of newish music on the Telarc label, which included a few pieces by Esa-Pekka Salonen, the composer. And of course, there’s a bevy of reviews.

However, rather than attack these one by one, I thought it would be fun to stream together some of what was written about the works, because...shit...I’m more confused now than before I read them. See if you feel the same way after this short survey of the Salonen.


[Cheng] plays music by three composers on the CD. What about Salonen?

An apt question, if I do say so. Let’s get going!

[...] Salonen’s pieces have their turn to enchant and seduce the ear, with their shimmering filigree, streams of notes, and often-gentle aura.

Ms. Cheng on the Salonen:

“The earliest work, Yta II (1985), takes its title from the Swedish word for surface. He’s written a series of three Yta s for different instruments, written mostly in the 1980s for friends while he was still based in Finland. He writes in his notes about how surfaces, for a Finn, are often snow-covered and can appear either blurry as in a blizzard, or clean and sparkling as in ice. That imagery appears in the music. I also find a great deal of humor in Yta II , and can’t help but imagine a high-strung little creature that goes through a transformation into something rich and beautiful by the end of the piece.”

Mr. Salonen's ''Yta II'' (1985) is a seven-minute whirlwind of hyperfast riffs and runs that spiral across the keyboard.

The deft Philharmonic soloist punches out the Finn’s übervirtuoso writing as if it were “Chopsticks.”

Imagine an atonal Art Tatum.

Art Tatum, snowflakes and a little metamorphosizing, high-strung creature.* Got it.

Ms. Cheng, again:

“Dichotomie, the major piece by Salonen on this disc, was composed in 1999–2000. The first movement, ‘Mécanisme,’ is just a romp, and I’ve confided to Esa-Pekka that I find this movement to be all about misbehaving (laughter). It’s like a kid who insists on jumping on the bed and making all sorts of trouble, but every so often has to come back and behave, and does so with passages of great eloquence.”

Mécanisme also...

[...] has a vigorous, toccata-like opening, with transient “robotic” tendencies that alternate with a definite dance-like esprit.

Sometimes eloquently dancing robots misbehaving vigorously. Check.

Also, also wik:

Mr. Salonen's ''Dichotomie'' (2000), a fearsomely difficult work, begins like some fractured Finnish avant-garde update of Stravinsky's ''Petrouchka'' with oscillating chords and relentless, headily dissonant repetitions.

The second movement of Dichotomie, entitled ‘Organisme,’ was conceived with the metaphor of a young willow in mind, a tree that bends in the wind. The sensibility of that movement is very French.

Finnish interpretation of France and their trees. Yes.

“Organisme,” showcases prickly, experimental rhythmic patterns that steer in the direction of a Cecil Taylor lesson in free jazz.

Art Tatum plus one free lesson from Cecil Taylor. Check.

The exuberant second movement climaxes in fitful bursts of leaping cluster chords and shimmering glissandos for both hands.

There are three preludes, too.

In the first prelude, “Libellula meccanica,” a mechanical dragonfly lazily drifts on a hazy summer’s day before darting hither and yon with more vigor. The steady rhythmic motion of the second prelude, “Chorale,” seems to grow out of the even pacing of traditional chorales but also has its quicker moments.

It also has quicker moments. Well said.

And now for something completely Ms. Cheng, again:

“[...] the last of the three, ‘Invenzione a due voci,’ is the hardest piece I’ve ever laid eyes on, with two independent lines that are parallel, and yet not, unrelenting, gnarly, and requiring a sound that is completely effortless and relaxed.”

“For a two-minute piece, it’s a huge challenge for the pianist.” Reflecting on her superb performance, [Robert Schulplaper] commented that however daunting its appearance, it’s obviously playable. “But almost impossible. Of course, some 14-year-old will come along and just knock this stuff off.”

It’s so difficult that some 14 year-old can knock it off? Don’t you mean, “tear it up,” “bang it out” and other appropriate clichés? Or did you really mean this: Urban Dictionary?

The French influence, which was clearly Ravelian in the Lutoslawski, is in Salonen’s works, as in Stucky’s, less definable, but perhaps no less real.


Comma, confusion!

[Robert Schulslaper] could invoke the usual clichés—clarity and elegance, Ravel’s lapidary technique, Debussy’s artful portrayals of natural phenomena, as well as Messiaen’s bird portraits—and indeed they apply. But the best way to appreciate where Salonen, Stucky, and Lutoslawski fit into the French continuum is to listen to their music.

The works by Salonen [...] encapsulate the emergence of a compositional wisdom.

But how has that compositional wisdom manifested itself?

In an April talk-back session at Symphony Center, Salonen addressed the question of whether living in America influenced his writing: “If it didn’t, I wouldn’t be alive,” he said.


Well, consider him mystically undead. This mostly Frenchy-Euro [edit: Frenchy-Euro-American] modernist fare calls to mind the nascent music breeding ground of early-20th-century Paris.

Much of this piano music feels nostalgic, referential and pastichelike, rather than something wholly new. But that’s not a knock; as Jean Cocteau asked, “Doesn’t all good music resemble something?”

Only a Sith deals in absolutes, Cocteau.


*What I learned about Esa-Pekka’s music today:

Art Tatum, snowflakes and a little metamorphosizing, high-strung creature.
Sometimes eloquently dancing robots misbehaving vigorously.
Finnish interpretation of France and their trees.
One free lesson from Cecil Taylor.
It also has quicker moments.
It’s so difficult that some 14 year-old can knock it off [sic].
Cocteau was a Sith Lord.


Links to the reviews at: Time Out Chicago, Fanfare Magazine, ArkivMusic.com, NY Times, soiveheard.


Sator Arepo said...

I'm confused. That was confusing.

Are there mechanical dragonflies or not?

Also, what?

Gustav said...

It's amazing how little all these Deep Thoughts about music really say.

Empiricus said...

Once again Gustav, you nailed it on the head.