Saturday, May 11, 2013

Guest blog entry: Jorge López (Part I)

Dear Friends,

Get out your scores, find a comfortable chair, and get ready to learn something. For those of you who are active on the Pettersson groups on Facebook, you surely have read the many highly informative and enlightening contributions by Jorge López. I am pleased to say that Jorge has agreed to share his very eloquent and comprehensive thoughts on both the Symphony No. 6 and 11, based on a Pettersson seminar which he moderated in Vienna earlier this year. There is a lot of material here, so dig in and enjoy!


17. January 2013: About 20 people showed up, including a lady from the Swedish Embassy in Vienna, whose financial support had made my work possible.  The conservatory’s Professor Susana Zapke, who had organized the seminar, provided an introduction, while Dr. Peter Kislinger of the Vienna University, who has done some excellent radio programs for the Austrian Radio ORF on composers such as Pettersson, Eliasson, and Aho, kindly served on short notice as moderator.

I kept the Pettersson biography short and simple.  The arthritis was certainly crippling and real, but that Gudrun had money so that Allan could compose also seems to be real.  Just reeling off the same highly emotional AP quotes about this and that is in my opinion, 33 years after Allan’s death, essentially counterproductive.  What we have and what we should deal with is HIS MUSIC.

He had studied not only in Stockholm with renowned Swedish composers but also in Paris with René Leibowitz, and through Leibowitz thoroughly absorbed the music of the Second Viennese School.  And this often comes through—when I hear the beginning of AP’s FIFTH I sense in the four-pitch groups something subliminally reminiscent of Webern’s (weak and cramped) String Quartet—here set free by Pettersson into experiential time and space.

Ah yes, time and space.  There is a concept or model or field or archetype for Scandinavian symphonic writing that I find to be fundamentally different from that of Central European thinking: one grounded not on consciously worked-out contrast and dialectic but rather on the intuitive experience of the symphony as JOURNEY through time and space.  So I called the score of Pettersson’s SIXTH a MAP, and holding up a topographic map of the mountainous Sarek National Park in the far north of Sweden, referring to my personal experience, called that map a SCORE.  If we hike a rugged circle around the multi-peaked massif Akka, its continuous presence and changing form yield a rondo-like Gestalt.  If we camp to the northwest of the mesa-like mountain Kisuris and then ascend to the icy lake at 1254 meters to the east of its summit, we are totally enclosed by somber talus slopes.  Scrambling to the top of one of these slopes yields a view, an open panorama, and a complete transformation of the experiential musical tissue.  A journey of several days from north to south or from east to west will involve lots of uneventful monotonous marching between gradually transforming shapes, whereby memories recur and fantasies develop: a symphony in time and space.  More prosaically, I remember reading how Kalevi Aho drew on mountain shapes in northern Finland for the melodic lines of his Tuba Concerto.

Back to Allan Pettersson and to the beginning of his SIXTH.  A bass creature appears, apparently self-sufficient, “soft but sonorous”: G#-B-F-E-F#.  Here I have to think of Pettersson’s study with Leibowitz: is this part of a Webern row?  NO: it remains self-sufficient, circles irregularly around itself, its slow dragon breathing slightly pulsating: longer, shorter. 

I call this first field Das Vorhandene, that which Exists.  The upper strings trace soft lines over the sleepy dragon; the shapely sequence G-C#-C-A-G#, sluggishly but repeatedly intoned by the second violins and violas, though not the highest voice, achieves a profile within this primal ooze. 

At Figure 6 this sequence, transposed a fifth higher, in a faster tempo, tonally supported by wobbling F minor pillars, acquires the status of a theme.  I call it Das Ich, the Self.  In the course of the work it will prove persistent:  sometimes inhibiting, sometimes initiating.  Characteristic for “the Self” is also that it has by Figure 8 already begun to disintegrate into four-note groups (which suggest the workings of the ELEVENTH … but I’m getting ahead of myself).  In the voice played by oboes and high cellos in the third and fourth measures after Fig. 8 one actually finds key four-note cells from the ELEVENTH (B—C—D—E) and TENTH (F—E—D—C#) symphonies, micro-premonition within this brief disintegrating field which is then stiffened at Fig. 9 through an E—G—B—D#--F# sequence repeated three times by low woodwind and low strings.  I call it Riegel, Bolt.   Its harmonic compression E—G—F#--D# is then after Fig. 10 also repeated three times by low winds, brass, and percussion.  I call it Fluch, Curse.  These repetitions do not convey reassurance.  They suggest rather a morbid fairy tale: things I tell you three times are TRUE!  The interval molecules, capable of building up into melodic compounds, also suggest to me the influence of twelve-tone thinking, transmitted through Leibowitz.

Five measures after Fig. 11, over an ascending snake drawn out from the last three tones of that which Exists, violas and then timpani hurriedly tap uneasy triplets on F.  These triplets will often return. 

One measure after Fig. 13, over the snake and the triplets, a new aggressively descending idea is hammered out by the violins.  I call it Knote, Knot.  Its sequential extension leads only to empty space and then, one measure before Fig. 16, to a more extensively worked-out return of the Self (the theme-like structure of Fig. 6), which is then connected back to the Knot in the third and fourth measures after Fig. 18.  

From here up to three measures before Fig. 29, the music, with its extensions and intervallic expansions of already existing cells, has aspects of classical Durchführung, development.  Then a new acoustic space appears: that of suspended empty waiting, where violins sustain B natural in three octaves while high woodwinds and other strings twine around (or struggle to untie?) the Knot.  Different event densities, that of concentrated development and that of empty almost eventless suspension, are here juxtaposed, in a manner different from but parallel to that of juxtaposing different thematic or harmonic structures.  This variation in event density will turn out to be the ultimate forming principle for the macrostructure of the whole symphony.

This brief seminar is not the place to get into an exact blow-by-blow description of every motivic happening and detail.  The point is that Pettersson works up his music here through differing combinations and extensions of several more or less related molecules, not through the presentation of contrasting groups.  Phases interpenetrate one another.  Starting three measures before Fig. 41, the cell we named that which Exists (the idea of the Introduction) returns in the bass register, underpinning figures of the Knot and the Self

Four measures after Fig. 43, the descending tritone of that which Exists underpins a new cell: high woodwind playing the ascending tones F—A flat—G.  I call this Raubvogel, bird of prey.  Starting one measure after Fig 44, it provokes a transposed spinoff of the F—E—F# segment of that which exists: violins repeatedly playing G flat—F—G, in rapidly dashed-off dactylic rhythm.

And the figures further interact.  Reaching Fig. 49 I note that the cells have no clearly laid-down primary or secondary roles, but seem rather to be the acoustic equivalent of figures in a landscape: what one sees (hears) depends on where one turns one’s head, or on where the composer’s composing consciousness turns.  I recall Pettersson’s statement: “the work of art lives deep in the subconscious.   I’m just a kind of gate-keeper, helping it to get out.”

We don’t have time here to detail every development, but I do want to point out one remarkable new shape: that played by piccolo and xylophone starting at Fig. 89.  I call it Kakerlaken, cockroach.  At first it crawls with wriggling antennas through a moronically insistent rhythmic ostinato of flutes and tenor drum, laid over molecular instabilities of the Self in the low register.  Starting two measures before Fig. 92, other woodwinds, some brass, and the second violins provide a slimy chromatic background enabling more rapid and effective crawling.  A more coherent version of the Self played by first violins and trumpets starting two before 95 leads, not unexpectedly, to cockroach-like behavior of the entire orchestral apparatus, which finally (one measure after 104) has knocked, shaken and wriggled its way through to an intensive statement of lines derived from the Self, a statement which shows how this self has developed: the parts are marked “desperate”.  I also note the ascending lines played by the low instruments from two before 105 to three before 106.  I hear these as being a premonition of a much later phase of the work.

The hypertrophic tutti starting two before 114 and going up to two after 115 astounded many of those who were at the seminar hearing the piece for the first time: Richard Wagner meets Edgar Varèse: several cells contrapuntally combined over the thunder of timpani and SIX percussionists.

But of course it dissolves.  And when the intensive triplet movement returns, at Fig. 118, it does not just carry out an empty expectant or threatening pulse but presents rather an (how could Pettersson be so academic? This must mean something!) AUTHENTIC FUGATO!  The density and velocity of this fugato quickly transform it into a noise-like background for a dense counterpoint of more coherent albeit distressed figures related to the Self and the Knot

This field breaks off, one measure after Fig. 123, as high woodwind and first violins sustain the third B—E flat.  The second violins—and ONLY the second violins—play the first five notes of the Self.  Here the topos of suspension has been welded to what seems to be the most thematic essence of the piece.  And the second violins repeat this cell, with the last two notes drawn out.  I’ve asked myself if this might perhaps be a miscalculation in the matter of orchestration.  After years of thinking it over (and also relating it to my own compositional experience), I think Pettersson was right on target here.  It is sometimes dramaturgically appropriate or even essential that essential ideas be delivered “from the side” or “from behind”.  They MUST struggle and strain to be heard.  A spotlighted orchestration of this repeated utterly important cell would be banal.  

What follows at Fig. 125 is regarded by virtually every listener as the turning point (peripetia) of the symphony, and has for me the character of an epiphany: a deep sudden awareness that will never be repeated.  I call it Todesbewußtsein, awareness of mortality.  The C minor tonality is completely unambiguous.  The line played by the trumpets has the character of a chorale, but also anticipates—while only suggestively and inexactly-- another important long-drawn-out line that we will later hear.  The counterpoint of the horns and second violins draws upon developed elements of the Self and the Knot.

That the minor ninths so quickly turn into octaves C—C is not rationally justifiable.  It has rather the character of a miracle, or a very sudden change in the weather or of a fluid camera pan over the figure of an androgynous Shiva.  And, two measures before Fig. 130, C major is there.  The epiphany was tough but at least briefly sweet.

At this point, I stopped the CD player.

I asked the participants for their reflections on what they had just heard and on their thoughts about how the piece might continue.  I must mention here that I had in almost the last minute decided to use the 1976 live recording with Okko Kamu conducting the Norrköping orchestra.  While the recently released BIS CD studio recording with Christian Lindberg conducting the same orchestra is in almost every aspect the best and most accurate realization of this work available on CD, I finally felt that the earlier recording still makes the best introduction to the piece.

I asked if the chorale-like passage just heard might perhaps turn out to be the heart and eventual culmination of the piece, an idea now to be subjected to development and evolution, but didn’t get much in the way of answers.  Reservation and puzzlement seemed ubiquitous.  One young Austrian lady studying horn at the conservatory was very impressed by the heroic horn playing she’d heard in these 25 minutes and asked me if six or eight horns were used.  I could only reply that there are four parts in the score, whereby it’s conceivable that the orchestra might have staggered these among six players.

So: we continued.  The tones F and A flat soon color the C major triad.  Emphatic clockwork pushing and shoving on the part of trumpets and horns intensifies and at two before 134 the triplet pulsation on the insistent F returns.  Starting at two before 136, we experience the extension and expansion of the three-note group that we first heard at Fig. 44.  Pettersson’s way of gnawing and expanding upon a little intervallic cell sometimes subliminally reminds me of some aspects of Indian classical music.  One can at least fantasize the microtones in the Raga AP 6.

Once again: this seminar is not the place to get into every magnificent little detail of this score.  But as I remarked on the “ticking clock” character of the Pettersson viola F triplets starting at Fig. 145, Dr. Kislinger made the interesting observation that digital technology will (or already has) made this association virtually obsolete.  I don’t want to get too off-topic, but would like to mention that the Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer has suggested “museums of extinct or endangered sounds”.
Starting at four after 157, oboes and clarinets play a line that indirectly suggests the trumpets’ statement heard at the epiphanic Fig. 125.  At Fig 159 this line is fragmented into smaller interval groups.  Three before 161, the upper strings, “Con accento doloroso”, draw us definitively into the sorrowful hollow of E flat minor.  When the strings (and only the strings) reactivate at Fig. 166, with moving bass lines and some interconnecting dialogue between the voices, this has for me the character of a vestibule: a space that one most briefly go through to again reach the main hall of the piece.  Two after 166 and two after 167, first violins and the upper cellos emphasize the cell D flat—C—F.  This looks back to the epiphany and forward to a coming open acknowledgement.  Some figures in this vestibule, particularly the ascending cello line starting three after 171, also look forward to the TENTH and ELEVENTH symphonies. 

At Fig. 172 we see that this tangent has only served to draw us back down into the E flat minor hollow, even deeper.  But at Fig. 176, the bass note changes to F.

Three measures after Fig. 177, I stopped the CD player, and we cut directly without interruption to another (small portable) CD player with rather tinny sound, positioned BEHIND the listeners, playing Han ska släcka min lykta, #24 of Pettersson’s Barefoot Songs.  At the end of the song: a direct cut back to the SIXTH.  This montage had an effect not unlike some passages in the music of Charles Ives, for example from his Fourth Symphony or Second Orchestral Set.

I find it significant that Pettersson presents his long-drawn-out song line through mixed timbre, that of cellos and English horn.  Might it be conceivable to also have an alto voice sing along, not to the fore but blended in, so that the words of the text could be just half-perceived, with dreamlike or hallucinatory effect?  This section also has a generally soft but insistent almost-martial tenor drum accompaniment, marked “sempre solo” in five-measure phrases that cross against the phrasing of the song.  Presenting this appropriately in the sense of orchestral balance is certainly not easy.  I have the feeling that the brain splits here: hypothalamus and frontal lobes are occupied with the song and its accompaniment, whereby the ticking of the tenor drum happens in the cerebellum, a mechanical process manifesting the eroding progress of time.  If I could conduct and were to conduct this piece, I would at least experiment with having this passage played by a distant (offstage) tenor drum, playing ff, heard in the hall as piano.  This radical opening-out of the acoustic space might perhaps correspond to Pettersson’s (half?) conscious thoughts.   Such things in this section also remind me of Birtwistle’s orchestral piece The Triumph of Time, composed in 1971.

I find it quite good that the line of Han ska släcka min lykta corresponds only elliptically to the line played by the trumpets in the above-mentioned epiphany at Fig. 125.  But if the trumpets had in the second measure after 125 played as their second tone not D but D flat … another world … such small details have the capacity to decisively change the effect of a long work.

The oscillating minor third E flat—C hangs on insistently two measures after 193 and then even more emphatically at Fig. 213.  These are two of the moments in what we perceive as the second half of this symphony where I recall Stockhausen’s vocal sextet Stimmung, composed in 1968.  Pettersson lets a black Aeolian harp hang in the breeze, like a background drone instrument in Indian classical music, a harp that yields the tones B flat—C—D flat—E flat—F—G flat.  Stockhausen’s B flat overtone structures and the E flat prelude to Wagner’s Das Rheingold are, for my way of hearing, not far away.  Christian Lindberg’s recording does in my opinion the best job of expressively animating the contours of these drone-filled Petterssonian fields of sorrow.

Ah yes, songs and drones.  I take it that the title of Pettersson’s Barefoot Songs was suggested by the text of Schubert’s Der Leiermann (The Hurdy-gurdy Player), the 24th and last song of the Winterreise: Barfuß auf dem Eise wankt er hin und her” (barefoot on the ice, he staggers here and there).  Han ska släcka min lykta is also #24 of its cycle and has clear harmonic connections to Schubert’s model.

Insistent fast triplets on F, probably the “little light” of the song’s title, are played by the piccolo starting at two after 215, then joined by the first violins (playing in harmonics) at two after 221.

The line played by the first trumpet, flutes, and clarinets starting at Fig. 212 incorporates the little three-note chromatic figure we first heard at one after Fig. 44.  I love this aspect of Pettersson’s large-scale forms.  Relatively small details can be presented 30 or 40 minutes apart in time and experiential space, and have for me the effect of the same mountain seen from different angles in the course of a long trek.  Two after 218 flutes, oboes, and clarinets (a distinctly Mahler-like sound here) begin to play and to draw out a diatonic version of the same contour.  Its repetitions lead me to microtonal fantasies. 

After this figure has been expanded with octave leaps (Fig. 226-227, in a faster tempo) we can feel the hush two before 228 as a new element of mostly offbeat stabbing chords infiltrates and then takes over.  These are of course the pitches of the previously mentioned ubiquitous black Aeolian harp.  I described the passage from three before 229 to three after 234 as a “Blanketparty für den Protagonist”.  I didn’t know how to express this in German but most people understood after I referred to a scene in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and after Dr. Kislinger noted that the idiom ihm die Decke geben was current in Austrian usage up into the 1960’s.  But one could also think of Allan’s blacksmith father hammering away.

Two contrapuntally intertwined melodic lines struggle to be heard through the stifling stabs of brass and percussion, second violins and violas.  Both have motivic connections to the song.  The higher line, marked “espr. molto”, played by the first violins doubled by the flutes and later also by the piccolo, gets through.  The lower line, “con passione”, played by the cellos on their (highest) A string, has a harder time.  I find this to be perhaps an error of Pettersson’s orchestration.  The two clarinets, which rest in the first part of this passage and then join the oboes in unison two after 231, adding little to the sound, should in my opinion play together with the cellos throughout this entire passage.  Actually, two BASS clarinets might work well here, playing in their clarino register parallel to that of the high cellos.

The ascending line in the bass instruments starting three after 232 suggests Parsifal, and has, as I previously pointed out, been fleetingly anticipated at two before Fig. 105.  It clearly serves the processes of dissolution and reconciliation, processes furthered by the descending line of the first violins starting at two after 241, a line that we had first heard from the woodwind at four after 157.

The eighth note triplets on F which we first heard at three before Fig. 12 show up for the last time two after 248, quite strangely: played by the first desk of basses, interspersed between glissandi where they moan a minor ninth down from their high G flat.

After Fig. 250 B flat minor is total and we hear the last long line of the piece, drawn from the song, played by the first trumpet and first violins.  Four after 257 F major, pp; and then B flat minor to the end.  Pettersson will reverse this at the end of his NINTH.  The last sound of the piece: a soft bass drum roll and the contra B flat of basses and contrabassoon, whereby I would have the contrabassoon play an octave lower, sub contra B flat.

After a couple of minutes of near-silence it gradually became possible for Prof. Zapke, Dr. Kislinger and I to draw out reactions from the twenty or so listeners.  Connections were felt to Bruckner and Sibelius, and at first also to USA minimalists like Glass and Riley. But we soon agreed that Pettersson’s use of repetition is fundamentally different from that of the more-or-less-mellow minimalists, in that his repetitions tend and intend to convey psychic disturbance and oppression.  Dirk d’Ase, who teaches composition at the conservatory, referred to Pettersson’s repetitions as “verbohrt”, a word that means something between “pigheaded”, “stubborn”, and “cranky”.  He also pointed out the tendency to use the orchestra as more or less a mass, with relatively little use of solo instruments, including a quasi-choric use of the percussion, with the persistent triangle in unusual contexts getting a particularly thorough workout.  The young lady hornist felt that “die Musik vermittelt Leid, und JA, man kann mitleiden (the music conveys sorrow, and yes, one can feel along).

I tried to provoke thoughts as to whether a dramaturgically different unfolding of the symphony after the epiphany at Fig. 125 might have been possible.  Could this chorale-like idea have entered into conflict with what we had previously heard, and then either lost out, or perhaps come to dominate the work?   Or could the opening cells of that which Exists, or the theme-like structure of the Self, perhaps have played a crucial role in the work’s later phases, either linearly or as compressed harmonic structures?  And was the ultimately hymnic presentation of Han ska släcka min lykta consciously planned from the beginning of the composition, which stretched out from 1963 to 1966, and is said to have been interrupted for reasons of poor health?  My intuitive feeling is NO.  I suspect Pettersson decided on the so prominent presentation of the song at some point around or somewhat before the middle of the composition.  The fact that the motivic cells of the song begin to clearly emerge only after the epiphany speaks for my theory.  But we would need to see his sketches (in the Uppsala University archives?) to know for sure.

Then we got into what is in Vienna certainly a relevant theme: comparing Allan Pettersson’s way of integrating his songs into his symphonies with that of Gustav Mahler.  Just considering Mahler’s first four symphonies, we find on the one hand songs which are actual symphonic movements (Urlicht in the 2nd, then the fourth and fifth movements of the 3rd, and the last movement of the fourth), and on the other hand movements where the original song is expanded and serves as a source of “material”: the first and third movements of the 1st, the third movement of the 2nd, and the third movement of the 3rd.  There is no movement in any symphony by Pettersson that just consists of a song.  In our SIXTH the song is gradually arrived at and then presented whole like a faded picture from an old family album.  In the FOURTEENTH the song basically functions as a passacaglia theme.  In the Second Violin Concerto the long culminating presentation of the song is something that is striven for.  In other symphonies (such as the unfinished FIRST) the song appears as a brief image or quote.

And then we talked about the global form, the Gestalt of Pettersson’s SIXTH.  In almost everything written about this work one reads that the second half of the symphony is some kind of “coda”.  I disagree.  In the terms of the Viennese classics a coda carries on a further phase of what happened in the course of the development, drawing further conclusions, and fundamentally using similar principles of formation, albeit perhaps in a concentrated or diluted way.  What happens in Pettersson’s piece is for me quite different.  The epiphany situation of Fig. 125 acts to dissolve the music’s ability to form complex syntax and is (despite several polyphonic protest rallies along the way) the inciter not only of time extension but also of musical tissue degeneration, meant here not pejoratively but existentially.   In the terms of dream logic the symphony’s shape is not that of ONE or of TWO, but that of ONE WHICH IS BROKEN, quite original and unusual in the symphonic literature.

Yes, dream logic.  Sigmund Freud spoke of Verdichtung, Verschiebung, und Verdrängungas being the fundamental processes of dream (or art) formation.  Condensation, displacement, and repression (or: supersession) are concepts that can help with the understanding of Pettersson’s music.

What about the stature and value of Pettersson’s SIXTH?  I agree with Christian Lindberg’s opinion that AP’s SIXTH is on the level of Mahler’s SIXTH, and could (should) several decades after Pettersson’s death become as well known and highly regarded as Mahler’s SIXTH did in the course of the 1960’s and 70’s.  The reactions of the participants to this statement were generally thoughtful and reserved, but not negative.

We took a break.  An Iranian student who had been deeply impressed and was fascinated by the idea of “Scandinavian symphonic thinking” showed me the information on Pettersson recordings that he had collected through spotify on his smartphone.

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