Some of Henryk Gorecki’s closest collaborators were the members of the Kronos Quartet. He composed all three of his string quartets for Kronos. As it happens, when the composer passed away yesterday, the group was in Poland. Late yesterday, David Harrington, Kronos’ first violinist, released the following statement:
“The three string quartets Henryk Górecki wrote for Kronos are a totally unique
body of work. With ‘Already it is Dusk’, Quasi Una Fantasia’ and ‘…songs are
sung’, Górecki extended a tradition that includes Bach and Beethoven, among
many others. When we rehearsed with Henryk, the experience was as close as
we have ever been to witnessing the raw, impassioned core in the heart of
Europe’s great invention: the string quartet. When he demonstrated phrases on
the piano for us I was always reminded of Beethoven: his fortes were shattering,
his pianissimos unfathomably inward. From us, he always wanted as much as
our bows could handle and more.
“Górecki represented a totally independent voice. He only listened inward.
There was no amount of pressure that ever pulled him away from his ideals. He
was known for his cancellations, as even the Pope discovered. Kronos waited 12
years for a piece that was so personal he couldn’t let it out of his sight until the
right moment mysteriously arrived. And I always loved him more for that
devotion to his muse.
“I learned that Henryk was a skilled furniture maker known for his beautiful
chairs. I once asked him if he would consider making me a chair. He said,
‘David, you can have the chair or you can have String Quartet #4. You choose.’ I
chose String Quartet #4. But it looks like I will have to wait.
“There is no one who can replace Henryk Górecki in the world of music. Many
others have created beautiful, passionate, even exalted music. But Henryk found
a way forward and beyond, through thickets of styles and fashions, that
resonates of the single human being in communion with the power of the
Universe. I miss him immensely.”
November 12, 2010
Polish composer Henryk Gorecki died today at the age of 76. Gorecki was one of Poland’s most prominent musical figures and, along with Estonian composer Arvo Pärt and Englishman John Tavener, is widely credited with popularizing the “spiritual minimalism” strain of Postmodern era European music.
He is perhaps best known for his Symphony no. 3, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (1976). Fifteen years after its premiere, a Nonesuch CD recording of the work, featuring soprano Dawn Upshaw and conducted by David Zinman, became a best-seller in 1992, breaking into the mainstream charts in the UK and dominating US classical sales during that year.
While the composer has denied a direct program for the work, it’s frequently been linked with the experiences of the Polish people under German occupation during the Second World War; in particular, with the Holocaust. Below is a video excerpt of the symphony performed at Auschwitz, from a film commemorating victims of genocide during WWII.
Composer Oscar Bettison sent along this report about student opera performances in Baltimore, Maryland.
Opera Etudes at Peabody
Opera Etudes at Peabody
Every other year at Peabody, the month of May means one thing for the composition and opera departments: ‘Opera Etudes.’ This project, which has been running for twenty-five years under the guidance of the Director of Opera Programs Roger Brunyate, is a year-long collaboration between graduate composition students and the opera department. Starting in the fall, composers are paired with librettists and singers to work on the creation of short staged opera scenes. These are then fully staged in Friedberg Hall, the main concert hall at Peabody, as one of the final events of the academic year. Occasionally, time pressures take their toll and some collaborations fall apart before making it to the final stage, but this year all seven projects made it from inception to the stage at Friedberg. As could be expected they were a varied bunch, running the gamut from retelling of fairytales (Jake Runestad) to tense family drama (Emily Koh), from comic opera (Josh Bornstein, Jon Carter, Zhangyi Chen) to darker subjects involving infidelity and murder (Jeff Zeiders, Daniel Gil-Marca).
The purpose of this project is to teach composers how to work with others and to provide them with the tools to create healthy collaborations. So often composers get caught up in the nitty-gritty of pitches and rhythm, failing to see the ramifications of the decisions they make in the real world of performance. The Etudes project is set to address this and to perhaps set in motion new opera collaborations in the future. All of the composers seemed to gain a great deal of experience from the process. In the first place, how often do student composers get to have other musicians spend a year learning and memorizing their work? More fundamentally, in working with all these different elements – librettists, singers and directors – composers start to see how to think in different dimensions as well as how to collaborate; both of which should stand them in good stead for the future.
The commitment from the opera department is crucial. These are always fully committed performances. The singers have, of course memorized the music, but they approach this project in the same way as they would any opera in the repertory and this is fundamentally what is so satisfying about the exercise. Finally, the environment in which the scenes are presented – a packed house in the main concert hall – really makes this feel like an event. I know from personal observation that many music schools round out the year with a big production: but how many do this featuring the music of their own students?
Ultimately all of this bodes well for the future. In years past some of the most successful projects have lead to bigger operas, again put on by the opera department. I wonder how many of this year’s works will lead to new opera productions both at Peabody and elsewhere?
I really enjoyed Q2’s broadcast tonight of New Sounds Live, a concert at Merkin Hall by the Bang on a Can All Stars that featured works by Nik Bartsch, Oscar Bettison, Christine Southworth, Michael Nyman, and David Longstreth. The first in a hopefully ongoing series of collaborations between Q2 and Merkin Hall, it was also a featured event in this week’s Composers Nowfestival.
I particularly enjoyed the Bettison work, The Afflicted Girl, in part because it’s quite affecting; but it also helps that I was able to study in advance and follow along with a perusal score sent over by the kind folks at Boosey. Funded by BoaC’s Peoples’ Commissioning Fund, the piece is what Bettison calls an “anti-pastorale.” Its based on a quote from Peter Ackroyd’s London: the Biography. It describes an afflicted girl frequently found in a busy thoroughfare, seemingly oblivious to the cacophony around her. Or, as in Bettison’s posits in his piece, perhaps she found a kind of music amidst the chaos.
Clangor is Bettison’s daily bread: many of his works employ junk metal percussion. The Afflicted Girl involves copious percussion batteries, prepared piano, a keyboard tuned a quarter tone flat, taped echoes of the ensemble, plenty of electric guitar harmonics, and a Shapey-esque scordatura tuning of the cellos C string – down to G for rumbled slackening. What’s more, all the players double on bicycle bells!
Alternately assaultive and contemplative, rhythmically charged and, briefly, eerily reposeful, its a demanding, challenging, harrowing, and memorable work.
Bang on a Can. Photo: Christine Southworth
Sad you missed out on the Q2 broadcast? Fear not: the performance will be featured on a March broadcast of New Sounds.
It’s hard enough delivering an orchestra commission when you’re hale and hearty; but despite losing most of his vision during the course of its lengthy gestation (2001-06) York Höller managed to complete his work Sphären. His efforts amidst considerable adversity have garnered him the 2010 Grawemeyer Award.
Although now almost completely blind, Höller continues to compose. Abetted by assistants, samplers, and a new software called Jaws, he is soldiering on. One hopes that the Grawemeyer’s $200,000 prize will assist in this endeavor.
So, composers, next time you’re planning to tell your commissioner why the piece isn’t done, you’ll need a pretty good excuse: Höller has upped the ante!