As those of you who come round here regularly know, I’m not a composer or musician but I am an experienced listener with limited patience for things that take too long to get to the point.  As a practical matter, that means that music I’ve never heard before has about 30 seconds to grab my attention.  I’ll listen to the whole thing but if doesn’t have that “Holy shit” thing happening in the first few bars, chances are the earth is never going to move for me.  Call it the Jerry Principle:  musical masterpieces announce their masterpiece-ness in 16 bars or less.  Go ahead, prove me wrong.

Most years you’re lucky to hear for the first time one or two compositions that grab you by the throat and won’t let go but in the last couple of weeks, I have encountered three such pieces.

First, there is a new large-scale cantata called Athanor by the 35-year-old French composer Guillaume Connesson, about whom I know little, except that he is obviously not a spectralist.  Based on an allegorical theme that somehow involves alchemy (the French are tedious with their obligatory intellectual pretentions) Athanor is relentlessly tonal and dramatic, recalling the heyday of the big bold orchestrators like Vaughn Williams and Prokofiev.  It is uncool to mention Carl Orff these days but Connesson has that kind of dramatic flair and wastes no time in making it apparent.  Supernova for orchestra, the second piece on the CD, confirms his gift for orchestral drama. 

The second piece is not that new but I just heard it for the first time–Kaja Saariho’s Graal théâtre, for violin & orchestra.  IMHO, as the kids say online, this the first absolute violin concerto masterwork to come along since Berg, or maybe Barber.  Gideon Kremer reaches deep into his considerable bag of tricks for every possible sound (and some that are clearly impossible). The rest of the CD is also marvelous–Dawn Upshaw sings the 5-song set Chateau de L’ame beautifully and Amers, for cello & electro-acoustic ensemble is a suitably gnarly antidote to L’ame’s sweetness.  But, Graal théâtre is one for the ages.

And while we are waving red flags, is there a single note of Osvaldo Golijov that is not destined for immortality?  His latest bid for the magic ring is Oceana, an impossibly beautiful setting of a poem by Pablo Neruda for guitars, percussions, chorus, and solo vocalists–in this case, the wonderful sambanista Luciana Souza.  Easy listening World Music, you say?  Phooey, I say.  Most composers would kill to have written Oceana or the other pieces on the CD–Tenebrae, a two-movement meditation on sadness written for the Kronos Quartet or the Three Songs written for Dawn Upshaw. 

Gramophone’s reviewer quotes an unnamed New York critic (was it you, Alex?) as saying that Golijov’s fans are just waiting for him to write a Very Important Work that will put him in the league with John Adams.  Speaking as someone who has hung on every note since my first spirtually-awakening discovery of The Dreams and Prayers of Issac the Blind, that wait was over a long time ago.

14 Responses to “I Know I Am”
  1. Henry Holland says:

    Golijov’s fans are just waiting for him to write a Very Important Work that will put him in the league with John Adams

    What an appalling low bar they’ve set.

  2. Eric Bruskin says:

    I’ve loved new music since I heard Varese at age 8. (Thanks, Mom.) I searched it out in Philly, and when I came to NYC in 1979 I was able to practically overdose on it. After hearning hundreds of pieces in concert, over time I came to the same conclusion as Jerry. (And I do have the full musical training.) If I’m sampling recordings, that’s pretty much my rule. I’m soooooo tired of pieces that start with a single soft note, for example.

    BUT with one proviso – if I have any reason to suspect it will be worth sticking with (e.g. Ives Universe Symphony), or if I know something about the composer that makes beginnings less important (e.g Feldman), then I suspend the “good beginning” rule.

    I think what’s behind my tempered impatience (and perhaps Jerry would agree) is that too many composers don’t know how to make a compelling statement or build up a head of steam. (And this includes slow music too.)

    Just my $20, which is what you need in NYC now to get 2 cents worth.

  3. xyzzzz__ says:

    “As a practical matter, that means that music I’ve never heard before has about 30 seconds to grab my attention.”

    Maybe you should give it up this classical bag and listen to pop music instead – its designed to grab in the first few seconds, you know.

  4. zeno says:

    judah, your last two sentence also remind me of my experience with Tan Dun. … Birtwistle, on the other hand, appears to me to have, masterfully, sustained his originality over 50 years …

  5. Judah says:

    To follow up on the Grisey quotation, here’s Harrison Birtwistle:
    “Ideas are two-a-penny. What’s really difficult is finding the context for an idea that gives it meaning. That’s what I’m searching for.”

    As for Golijov, I look forward to the “Oceana” disc. I do have to confess some disappointment on my initial hearings of both “Ayre” and “Ainadamar.” For me, the touchstone Golijov disc remains “Yiddishbbuk” (EMI), which includes the title piece, “Last Round,” “Lullaby and Doina,” and “Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind.” These pieces evince an intricate craftsmanship I don’t consistently hear in his more recent work. I think he’s at his best when he’s able to integrate this kind of attention to detail with his dramatic and lyrical sensibilities.

  6. Steve Layton says:

    Gérard Grisey:

    …I have very often been to juries for composition all around the world. When you look at the scores of young composers, very often you don’t have time to look at the scores completely. But the most important moment is the first change. The composer comes and establishes an idea that everybody understands. Everybody can have an idea. Everybody. The problem is to have a second one. This is a greater problem. And the major problem is to know where and when to bring in this second idea. And very often, you realize after a few pages that he is not a musician.

  7. I’m sorry…I just dont find any of these suggestions compelling or interesting – the first 30 seconds of any of these works leads me into the land of derivitive nausea. There is nothing interesting or compelling about Golijov for me except his regurgitation of Pat Metheny somewhere in Oceana, or the hat he wears on oceana’s web page on iTunes.

    Moreover, it’s not the first 15 seconds I mostly have a problem with. It’s the next 30-45 minutes after the first 15 seconds that tends to be dissapointing. How many recordings have I purchased that at first seemed fresh and exciting, only to discover to my horror that they are without cognitive merit – either derivitive, horribly structured or just “I don’t get it”? The list is infinite…

  8. The Rochberg rule was 60 seconds. I stand by that… 😉 I’m in or out by the merest hint of incompetence. But I’ll give you a minute to prove it.

  9. Jeffrey Tucker says:

    Does Das Rheingold really grab you in its first 16 bars?

  10. michael says:

    ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha

  11. Carmen says:

    How about that icon of “I-have-to grow-up” to get it, Beethoven’s Hammerklavier? By the way, for Golijov’s fans out there, I will be conducting Ainadamar in October. For the Reich fans…Alan Pierson wll join us in Indiana to do Tehillim.


  12. I like things that grab me in the first thirty seconds, too.

    I also like pieces that sneak up on me over longer period, Henry James Beast-in-the-Jungle style, and make me realize that my initial reaction was completely superficial.

  13. Eric Lin says:

    “Call it the Jerry Principle: musical masterpieces announce their masterpiece-ness in 16 bars or less. Go ahead, prove me wrong.”

    I’ll generally agree with that. But, there are pieces that didn’t do anything for me the first time, heard it again and I can’t live without it now. This includes almost all of late Feldman.

  14. So you don’t think the Ligeti violin concerto is an “absolute violin concerto masterwork”?