Saturday, May 29, 2010

Adventures in the Archives

Where serious listening is concerned, EMI has one of the most interesting collections of archives that one is likely to encounter. I first appreciated this back when I was living in Singapore and accumulated, one by one, the three volumes (each with three CDs) of The Elgar Edition, which is the best (only?) recorded document of Edward Elgar as conductor of his own music. lists all of these as "Currently unavailable," which is too bad from a historical point of view but understandable in the context of the limitations of recording technology. Recently I have used my pulpit to wax enthusiastic over the more recent releases of the complete recordings that Pablo Casals made for EMI, with particular emphasis on the documents of his trio performances with Alfred Cortot and Jacques Thibaud, and the even more exhaustive Mstislav Rostropovich collection, which includes not only all of his EMI sessions but also the recordings he brought with him when he left the Soviet Union. Both the Casals and Rostropovich boxes are still available; and serious listeners have much to learn from both of them, particularly in comparing their respective approaches to the Johann Sebastian Bach suites for unaccompanied cello.

More recently, EMI has been putting out 2-CD sets for those with an interest in archives but a more limited budget. Thus, the Casals recordings of the Bach suites are available as a separate package, which is also the case for the Rostropovich recordings. Similarly, the first two CDs in The Walton Edition, which feature William Walton conducting his violin and viola concertos (both with Yehudi Menuhin as soloist), his first symphony, and "Belshazzar's Feast," are available separately. More interesting, however, is the 2-CD collection of the music of Arnold Schoenberg as interpreted by three conductors with three different points of view, John Barbirolli, Daniel Barenboim, and Simon Rattle.

I have been reflecting on this packaging because I have spent almost three months facing the prospect of writing an piece for the release of such a collection for Iannis Xenakis. This composer has been on my mind ever since I encountered a copy of Musiques Formelles in the library during my student days, which left me so perplexed that I wondered if the only way I would be able to get my head around it would be to translate it into English. I was far from alone in my puzzlement. Even George Balanchine, who probably encountered the same vinyl recording I had purchased (now in a CD version), seems to have decided that the only way to understand "Metastasis" and "Pithoprakta" would be to translate them into choreography. I never got beyond seeing that choreography in rehearsal, which left me with only two impressions. The first was that Balanchine seemed more influenced by the diagrams in Musiques Formelles than he had been by the music; and the second was intense sympathy for the rehearsal pianist trying to get a piano to play an approximation (possibly Balanchine's) of what Xenakis was demanding of a full orchestra. My procrastination in producing my own English version of Xenakis' texts was eventually rewarded by the efforts of Christopher Butchers, who took on the task with Xenakis' cooperation; and in 1971 Indiana University Press published (under the title Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition, now available in a revised edition by Pendragon) an English version of the six essays in Musiques Formelles along with three more recent ones. By the time I purchased this volume I was teaching computer science at the University of Pennsylvania and found myself "volunteered" to prepare a seminar session on Xenakis. This turned out to be little more than an explanation of how Xenakis was using flow charts and what was lurking in the FORTRAN printouts contained in the book.

The fact is that this kind of algorithmic approach to formalism was very popular half a century ago. Pierre Boulez had indulged in experiments of his own, although, ironically, the task fell to György Ligeti to document the actual algorithms in Die Reihe. (Was he, too, "volunteered" for this task?) However, where Boulez was concerned, I could still address the nature of the listening experience without descending into all of the algorithmic detail; and I have yet to make such a claim about Xenakis. This is why, in this case, I really did volunteer to write about the recent EMI release. I know from having listened to the Harmonia Mundi CD of his Oresteïa that he can be a very visceral composer; but this composition may be an exception, because he was working with a dramatic narrative, rather than with formalism for its own sake. All I know for certain is that my current plan is to avoid any consultation of his writings while engaged in listening to the EMI CDs. I have no idea what will result, but I think I have finally reached the point where I am ready to undertake the adventure.

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