A New and Consistent World Entirely His Own

Alen Profile

The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have witnessed an extraordinary and almost indefinable cross-fertilization among artistic disciplines and styles. New technologies have facilitated new ways of creation and new ways to present works to audiences. Much of this activity has occurred in the theater, and some of the most impressive achievements have included a significant role for music, for instance Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Licht cycle (1977–2003), John Cage’s Roaratorio (1979/1983), and the so-called video opera of Steve Reich and Beryl Korot, Three Tales (2002). The creative activity of the Serbian composer and artist Alen Ilijić—and in particular his most recent project Ongevarfen (“Disordered”), which takes as its departure point homage to Arnold Schoenberg—belongs to this tradition but extends it into altogether new terrain with respect to both theater and technology.

Indeed, Schoenberg’s life and work present a congenial, albeit preliminary, introduction to Ilijić. Schoenberg engaged deeply in the artistic movements of his time—he was for a time equally committed to both painting and music—but he never turned his back on the world he lived in. He was a Jew living in the twentieth century, and he lived through the horror of the rise of fascism and World War II. He was also wholly committed to the establishment and safety of the Jewish state, and his return to Judaism was borne out of a genuine revulsion for the evils of the world around him and a feeling of certainty that he needed to make a profound connection with his heritage.

Ilijić, too, engages deeply with the artistic movements of his time, but in ways that Schoenberg could scarcely have imagined. After studies in as well as composition (including film music), orchestration, electronic music, and sound engineering, he worked in London as a singer–songwriter and guitarist. His band Zealot greatly affected artists involved in experimental rock and noise of the 1990s. In the music that followed, he has continued to make use of the techniques and gestures of his work with Zealot, but integrated these with more varied post-tonal materials. Like Schoenberg, Ilijić also works in visual art; whereas Schoenberg felt he had to make a decision between art and music, however, Ilijić’s work includes extensive and ongoing activity in visual art, which in turn informs and is informed by his music and his performance. And Ilijić’s profound Jewish faith, as expressed in his work, speaks out against new and almost unthinkable acts of destruction and bloodshed as new forces of extremism stand poised to threaten world peace again.

Indeed, it is in performance that the various strands of Ilijić’s work coalesce, and through which a most important connection with the artistic present can be made. The forcefulness and extraordinary range of his work emerges most clearly when one sees him perform, as in the recent work Red Faces, most recently staged in January 2016 in Tel Aviv. He makes use of his entire body during the course of the twenty-minute work. At first, he stands silently, sometimes moving his arms in wide, elegant gestures; his hands execute complex rhythms on the piano case; the music alternates sweeping glissandi, slower and lyric melody—often doubled by his voice in the extreme upper register—and violent, often disturbing stabs of sound and tortured passagework. In involving so much the visual element of performance with his body and stage lighting, Ilijić suggests parallels with classic and recent work in performance art, but his expertise in music and visual art creates a more holistic union of the various components.

Audiences may find some of the work troubling, but can respond to this music because the force and ineffable authority of his artistic personality demands complete attention; like Schoenberg’s free atonal compositions, Ilijić’s music is guided by an unerring intuition, revealing unexpected connections among the wide variety of utterances that mark the extraordinary richness of the total musical world available today. But, like Schoenberg, Ilijić has forged from the materials around him a new and consistent world entirely his own—what’s more, his engagement in visual art, performance, and theater promises a renewal worthy of the great multidisciplinary works I mentioned above, but one that exceeds the sum of its parts because they all originate the single source of his inspiration.


The Great Cage Recordings: Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (1)

It makes sense for me to begin with Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes; I’m a keyboard player and most of the music I review is for one kind of keyboard or another. It’s one of the first Cage pieces I actually encountered—I must have heard them as early as high school, or certainly no later than my undergraduate years, and like almost everyone else, found the timbre of the prepared piano enchanting. My later difficulties with Cage—which extended through the rest of my undergraduate and graduate years up to 1992—resulted from bad information, shortsightedness on my part, and terrible recordings, all of which made me unwilling to grapple with most of his music for a long time. Even so, one of my last Master’s papers at Peabody was an analysis of The Perilous Night (in Margaret Leng Tan’s superb performance, still available on New Albion), which my professor thought showed promise.

When I began reviewing recordings for American Record Guide in 1993, I got some Cage recordings and became friendly with Brian Brandt, the owner of Mode Records; he gave me a number of the recordings. The fine Sibley Library at the Eastman School of Music, where I was completing my doctorates in harpsichord performance and musicology, had many others. Sometime during those years I rediscovered the Sonatas and Interludes and they became important to me as a music-lover and as someone who wanted to talk about the pitches in Cage’s music. They are for me Cage’s most important composition before 1950, and one whose greatness he usually only matched in all of the best music he made afterward. There’s that great line in the “Lecture on Nothing” on his deliberately choosing quiet sounds in the advent of World War II; this fact, plus Cage’s own acknowledgment that the work responded to the seven permanent emotions in Indian aesthetics—including the erotic, mirth, the odious, all of which tend toward the final one, tranquility—makes the Sonatas a kind of expressive line drawn in the sand: an eloquent statement in the face of other works from the time aiming for a much grander (and sometimes frankly patriotic statements) on both sides of the Atlantic: Americanist symphonists like Harris, Schuman, and Copland, Messiaen’s Turangalîla, Britten’s Peter Grimes. It poses the possibility of an avant-garde serenity, a possibility hardly considered in the 1940s. No wonder Cage won a citation from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a Guggenheim on the basis of this piece.

There are a number of fine recordings of the work. I’ll consider only one here; later entries will discuss others along with shorter critiques of ones that aren’t as successful.

My friend and colleague Louis Goldstein recorded the work on December 20, 1994; it was released as Greenseye Music 4794 in 1996, along with a concert performance of Dream from December 11, 1995. Louie can do anything, but his readings of Cage and Feldman are striking for their expansive but vital character.

In the Sonatas and Interludes, he plays a large piano, which results in deeper sounds and, at least to my mind, more heterogenous ones, too. He has a grand conception of the piece: the tempos are usually broad (but not overly so) and the gestures measured but also somehow noble. When the damper pedal is engaged the sounds can reverberate for a long time.

The performances are full of small details that lend to the piece the grandeur I noted above. In the first sonata he uses very subtle rubato: first a noticeable (but nonetheless slight) pause after the first unexpected thudding sound. Then, near the end, he speeds up a bit to make the sudden appearance of mostly unprepared A-minor triads more dramatic.

Sonata 2 contrasts with the first: it requires a more rhythmically incisive manner, and once more Goldstein responds brilliantly. The variety of sounds adds to the appeal. Rubato is present here, but much more moderated (It appears, for instance, midway through the second half after one of the most metronomic passages in the performance). The different sounds also have an effect on the ending of the sonata, which sounds more abrupt than it does in other recordings.

Another highlight is the First Interlude. The preparations give a microtonal flavor to many of the notes that suggest a definite pitch. Still, the overtones are rich and very complex, another reason to favor a larger instrument. Later in the piece, the music gives way to several groovy, asymmetric ostinatos. He doesn’t play these as mercilessly as others have: they sound more mysterious, somehow. This particular movement is one I find it very difficult to stop listening to (Always a sign of a good performance.)

As the cycle unfolds, Goldstein projects a very clear and compelling structure for the whole, which for me culminates in the dramatic arc for the pieces beginning with the Third Interlude. This he plays more aggressively than most of the other performances I know. Thereafter, Cage seems to become increasingly preoccupied with the interaction between prepared tones and unprepared ones: these pieces remind me of Schoenberg’s famous remark that Cage would come to a wall because he had no sense of harmony, to which Cage responded that he would spend the rest of his life beating his head against that wall. By juxtaposing prepared and unprepared tones, Cage poses (perhaps in spite of himself) a new possibility for harmony.

I described the final Sonata XVI as “a music box quietly playing in some distant reality” (John Cage, 51). No performance I know suggests that effect better than Goldstein’s. It begins in a Gouldian tempo with a Fürtwängleresque expression in the first half; but in the second, everything becomes otherworldly, motionless, and serene—all the more so because of his choices for the first half.

Checking today online, I don’t see any evidence that the recording is still available, but in the meantime, a 1982 performance gives a sense of his great artistry.

Finding the Emotion in “Left-Brain Music”: A Response to Robert Baksa (Part 2)

When I hear any music in an unfamiliar style for the first time I’m often (maybe always) unable to judge or understand it deeply, and I’m certainly not able to respond with any deep feeling to it. Never mind whether the music has triads in it or not. For example: the first time I heard Monteverdi (it was Wendy Carlos’s realization of excerpts from L’Orfeo) I was baffled—I thought it was awful and boring. But once I got used to how it went, I found that I could respond intellectually and emotionally.

I’ll be the first to admit that a lot of our twentieth-century music has a much sharper learning curve. But I learn, with time. After many listenings, I find Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra beautiful; the variety of melodies and rhythm, and above all the sense of timing move me just as I’m moved when I hear Brahms’s Haydn Variations. And I’m excited and thrilled by the psychological drama Elliott Carter creates in his second string quartet. After spending some time listening with the score in hand, I find I can hear the dialogue Carter tries so hard to create in the music and perceive the very different personalities of the four instruments. And all this is in addition to what I intellectually understand about the compositional techniques in the music.

And surely some popular twentieth-century music can be very dissonant indeed. Think of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which speaks clearly and easily even to the most uninitiated audiences. Now for me, the Rite is one of the most overrated pieces of our time. Still, I can’t deny the emotional power it has over me and over its audiences. There’s a lesson to be learned here. What if I had convinced people to believe, as I do, that The Rite of Spring should be retired from the repertoire? I wouldn’t have all the wonderful music written by men and women who have been inspired by it. And I have no doubt that it will inspire others to compose other music that I might love in the future. So will I discourage people from loving it, from learning more about it, from listening to it? No, of course not. I believe that we have no way of knowing what positive effects music can have, so why not allow it in? Why lock the door? This is, rightly or wrongly, what I think Mr. Baksa asks us to do—and all because he can’t respond emotionally to some twentieth-century and contemporary music and can’t accept the possibility that some of us do.

As a Cage enthusiast I couldn’t help but be irritated by Mr. Baksa’s facile and completely ad hoc dismissal of his music. Already I think there’s a wide appeal for some of Cage’s early work; the Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano has been recorded over a dozen times and many people think it is a masterpiece, for instance. And now that we have a wide variety of Cage’s music available in wonderful recordings (the ones on Mode are the best for my money), I imagine other pieces will begin to make their mark, too. I will suggest two that I loved on the very first hearing: First, Roaratorio, that ebullient and richly textured glossing of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake on Mode 28–29 and Wergo 6303 (American Record Guide, Nov/Dec 1994). The world of sounds and music that Cage assembles evokes so many emotions in me, from a concert-hall reverence (the operatic aria) to wonder and joy. And of course Cage’s voice, reading his unfathomable mesostics on Joyce’s name, always moves and reassures me. A second work, of a much different sensibility, is Fourteen, a kind of concerto for bowed grand piano and thirteen instruments on Mode 57 (ARG, May/June 1998). The bowed piano has a stunning, gorgeous, lyrical sound; the other instruments, playing so simply and so unobtrusively, make me tranquil and attentive. In that piece I experience time in a way I never have before, and I’m certain others can respond positively if the music is here for them to experience.

In 1967, the great American scholar Leonard B. Meyer (in Music, the Arts, and Ideas) predicted a pluralistic musical culture in which diametrically opposing musical styles would co-exist: he advised listeners to stop attempting to judge which style was better and, instead, judge each according to its own standards of excellence and elegance. Now, more than ever, we must heed Meyers’s advice. We must build bridges to other styles, other generations—let alone other cultures.  For if we continue to fight over who is right and who is wrong, what is emotional and what is intellectual, what we should cherish and what we should discard, we may find ourselves with no classical music at all.