“Aurally fascinating and neatly scored” Gramophone
The four works on this CD by Lars Graugaard (b. 1957) were composed especially for the ensembles of New York University Steinhardt in a joint search for a new rich and varied musical discourse. Endeavouring into the complex relationship between composition, perception and emotion, Graugaard uses the computer as a sophisticated performance vehicle and a compositional tool in scored and interactive music, creating a unique and radical sound experience.
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Lars Graugaard’s Venus and other orchestral works
by Alejandro Guarello
Strictly speaking and without reference to semantic or other forms of meaning, music is essentially an organized relation of sounds over time that acquires meaning as it connects to our memory. However, if we look at the history of music across human civilisation we see that for centuries, if not millennia music was merely an efficient underpinning for the word, the ritual, worship and dance. A function that it still has today when it performs the role of an obedient and efficient servant in cinema, stage and image, or for the popular and commonplace poetry that is so abundant in the marketplace of the music industry. Music as a construction exclusively in sound is sometimes referred to as being absolute and first appears as instrumental versions of vocal music, shortly after reaching its first proper autonomy as an incitement to dance. If we accept the notion that sound by itself has no other purpose but to expose us to the nature and placement of its source and concerns our self-preservation in what one could term biological hearing, achieving actual meaning in a sequence of sounds – that is, composing – is no minor feat.
Lars Graugaard’s four compositions on this CD is a fitting example of such absolute music as it endeavours into the complex relationship between composition, perception and emotion in a sonic configuration that is far removed from the conventions of a commercial, simplistic and formularized music. There is no intention here to re-take or re-invent traditional or popular melodic shapes and awaken former times’ treatment of musical feelings. Instead, the aim is to discover within a strictly contemporary sonic configuration those variables that will allow the composer to project distinct and discernable emotions that in turn can form the basis of a rich, varied and intelligible musical discourse.
For this purpose, Lars Graugaard designed a piece of software that uses the findings in recent years’ experimental studies into the correlates between emotion and score notation, performance qualities and audio attributes, all independently of musical style. The software shows a particular musical emotion’s delimitation in notation and performance instructions, the latter being those features that musicians subjectively manage during performance. Exposing those boundaries allows the composer to apply his compositional techniques in sequences of emotional significance, steering the music through real emotions – besides unnamed and transitory yet derivatively true emotions that in turn are readily perceivable by the listener.
The most radical example on the CD is Three Places, the title referring to three locations on the emotional palette that are juxtaposed, recurring and transformed in a script that outlines the composition’s temporal development, exposing its inner, non-verbal meaning.
On the other hand, Book of Throws for solo piano and an ensemble of 12 musicians explores and stress-tests the robustness of Lars Graugaard’s concept as the through-composed ensemble score of emotionally guided elements of instrumental combinations and colours, articulations, dynamics, ranges, intervallic organisation and rhythms is juxtaposed with a soloist that acts as an improvisatory free agent. The main feature of the composition is not so much that the pianist is required to improvise, but that he cannot have any prior knowledge whatsoever of the music that will accompany him in the performance – neither through rehearsal, recording or score – thus being forced to relate in situ his playing as an immediate and intuitive response to the musical make-up and the emotional charge of the ensemble. In this way the score both carves out a free space for the soloist and fashions his inhabiting it, which makes the piece unique and fresh in each performance, together with the score’s three solo cadenzas whose duration is controlled by the conductor. The composition even permits the pianist to initiate the work and as he has no prior familiarity with it he must adjust the improvisation as the ensemble enters, by means of the emotional affect exercised by the imprint of the ensemble’s sonic surface. The version on this CD is an example of this particular situation.
But why the need to address the issue of music’s inexplicable nature and apparent absence of sense?
Music is a sonic stimulus that primarily addresses a listener’s emotions and elicits a response according to expectance and background in very much the same way as any experience will move us. This is what makes absolute music convey emotion even when the composer has not had any particular intention of doing so. On the other hand, for a composer to mentally sustain a particular emotion or feeling for the entire process of composing is difficult if not impossible as this may extend into days, months or even years. What Lars Graugaard seeks, and of which the compositions on this CD are examples, is enhancing the composer’s options as a sculptor of sound by incorporating empirical evidence on notational delimitations of emotion responses. This allows him to safeguard the consistency of his compositional ideas and materials, and at the same time keeping the music within the intended emotion and its proper transition as the musical proceedings unfolds.
A similar circumstance can be seen in the shared interpretation of facial expression across regions, periods and cultures where basic emotions of happiness, sleepiness, sadness and anger etc. are clearly discerned. Recognition of facial expressions that represent complex emotions such as fondness or melancholy is related to subjective feelings or states of mind rather than actual emotions and therefore less distinctive. But are such visual perceptions transferrable to the area of sound?
Without recurring to representative or descriptive music we can at least ascertain that many of nature’s sonic phenomena communicate the same message to us all, and this behaviour allows us to consider a certain synaesthesia between our environment’s sonic landscape in general and our topic in particular. An example of this is the loss or decline of energy. Independent of the circumstances, we easily detect a decrease or dropping of energy or the inevitable dying away. In music this is manifested by the dissolution in a decrescendo, the descent in pitch, a rallentando, the reduction of simultaneous sonic elements as notes or instruments etc., and this will inevitably make itself felt as leading to the end of a section or the entire composition. The sudden impact of an unexpected sonic event always generates surprise, agitation and concern, in much the same way as an abrupt forte in an otherwise quiet musical passage. This is an unfailing reaction, but deliberately transmitting specific feelings and emotions as it can be done by the rich semantics of language or picture would seem a dream hard to attain.
We should welcome any intent to convey meaning to a wider audience through contemporary music’s marvellous sonic discoveries. But the only transcultural means to establish enduring contact with the audience and to create and maintain interest is based on the capacity to adequately manage changes, contrast, development and mutation of the musical discourse, particularly when conventional elements of melody or harmony and similar elements to which the audience is accustomed to are absent. The compositions Venus as well as Layers of Earth and Three Places are the result of this emotional adventure. Yet independently of this we still find within them the well-founded use of formal elements – motives, themes and melodic or gestural ideas, clearly set against complex and even tarnished textures that serve as an evocative backdrop for the melodic and rhythmic gestures. In short, an engaging musical offering that compels us to continue reflecting on the function, reason and need for listening, performing and creating music today, without falling into the marketable conventions of an omnipresent music industry.
Alejandro Guarello (b. 1951) is the leading Chilean composer of chamber and symphonic music of his generation. He teaches composition at the Music Institute of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and is the President of the Latin-American Alliance of Composers and Authors of Music, ALCAM.