The fate of a writer is strange. He begins his career by being a baroque writer, pompously baroque, and after many years, he might attain if the stars are favorable, not simplicity, which is nothing, but rather a modest and secret complexity.
Thursday, March 11, 7:30 PM
ANDREIA PINTO CORREIA (b. 1971)
- Três quadros de Vieira da Silva/Fragmentos Múltiplos for Violin and Viola (2009)
Benjamin Beilman, violin • Matthew Lipman, viola
TŌRU TAKEMITSU (1930-1996)
- Rain Tree for Percussion Trio (1981)
Ayano Kataoka, percussion • Christopher Froh, percussion • Ian David Rosenbaum, percussion
JESSIE MONTGOMERY (b. 1981)
- Duo for Violin and Cello (2015)
Benjamin Beilman, violin • Nicholas Canellakis, cello
ALEJANDRO VIÑAO (b. 1951)
Scope (Dichotomy and Range)
Our ears, more than our eyes, are quick to make associations. Listening to music, we instantly analyse a sound. What instrument? How high or low? How loud? How clear? Where? A succession of sounds will arouse other questions, and already the connections are starting to accumulate—the aspects that, though sometimes called “extra-musical,” are essential to the musical experience, to how music engages the memory and the imagination. This reminds me of hiking in the mountains. This sounds like gentle waves.
In this evening’s program we have relatively short pieces, for limited forces. And yet in each case the scope is wide, the richness that often depends on how the music will find echoes in other areas of our experience: awareness of nature, emotion, other music, other art. Reverberation across a dichotomy creates range.
The opening piece, by Andreia Pinto Correia, invites us to open our listening toward folk song and visual art. An important stimulus for the work came from a recording of a rural work song from the composer’s native Portugal, Tralhoada, which offered a quick study in call-response form, in fast, emphatic rushes up to principal notes, and in hardy drive. In Pinto Correia’s piece, from 2009, the call elements are short, similar, and always repeated. The responses are longer, and mix ideas from the preceding call with others (including a quick, narrow-register dance). Violin and viola suggest a whole string orchestra. A tralhoada, in Portuguese, is a lot of little things—a meaning reflected in the Fragmentos Múltiplos part of the title. But the composer is also referring here to the work of a painter, Maria Helena Vieira da Silva (1908-92), who, like her, began life in Portugal but moved abroad (to France for Vieira da Silva, to the United States for Pinto Correia) to complete her education and settle. Vieira da Silva’s paintings are remarkable for their multiple perspectives, and for how they hover between suggesting cityscapes as seen from colliding points of view and being abstract designs of horizontal and vertical lines. The Museum of Modern Art has two Vieira da Silvas, and though these are not on show at the moment, images of them and many others may be found online.
Tōru Takemitsu’s percussion trio Rain Tree has something of a literary resonance, since here the composer was responding to the central image in a story by his friend Kenzaburō Ōe, a story the writer based on a visit to Hawaii. There Ōe saw a saman, a wide-canopied tree that, in words from his story, “has been named the ‘rain tree’ because its abundant foliage lets fall rain drops collected from last night’s shower until well after the following midday.” However, like many Japanese artists over centuries, Takemitsu found his ideals most of all in the natural world, where rain and trees held a persistent fascination for him. Rain, for a musician, will be distinguished most of all by its sound in hitting the ground, wet or dry, and rain falling just a few feet from a rain tree will surely be gentle. Takemitsu’s 12-minute piece begins with the faintest plops on crotales, on the brink of audibility, but soon, perhaps as the wind begins to stir, the arboreal shower becomes much more active, though still soft. A vibraphone comes into play, and the other two musicians eventually move to marimbas to contribute to the slowly, glowingly turning harmonies and sudden shudders. At first seemingly random, the sonic revolvings become direct repetitions, going on until the tree has loosed all its water.
We hear a pair of string instruments once more in Jessie Montgomery’s Duo for Violin and Cello (2015), which is similar in length to the Takemitsu. However, where Andreia Pinto Correia melded the instruments, often with multiple stops in each, they are now in dialogue: dichotomy. That is so from the start, where the violin spins through mostly open strings while the cello circles differently. We are reminded of one of the basic sounds of western music, that of string instruments tuning up, and this is just one way in which Montgomery, herself a professional violinist, composes from within a sure knowledge of the instruments’ properties and repertoire—including in this case the specific model of Bohuslav Martinů’s Duo of 1927 for the same twosome. It was especially the lively triplets of that work’s finale she had in mind when she came to write her own last movement, with its lively triplets. The energy here is almost corporeal, the two instruments working against each other like matched limbs in a gymnastic exercise. Before that, the slow movement, marked “Dirge,” finds a middle ground between chorale and blues, with a cello melody arriving part way through, to be recalled note for note by the violin.
This global program reaches its fourth continent with music by Alejandro Viñao, born in Argentina but long resident in London. His Formas del Viento (Forms of the Wind) is, at 18 minutes, the concert’s longest piece as well as its third duo. This time the instruments, while far apart in sound (flute and marimba doubling vibraphone), lock together in evoking evocation and magic. So much, so South American, one might think, and yet the music also refers to lines by an English writer, Rudyard Kipling:
At two o'clock in the morning, if you open your window and listen,
You would hear the feet of wind racing towards the sun.
Trees in the darkness whisper, and trees in the moonlight glisten,
And though it is still dark, you know that the night is done.
The work comprises two movements, slow (with the flutist on alto flute) and moderately fast (with regular flute, at first in synch with the vibraphone to make a “composite instrument,” as the composer puts it). Both movements have ostinato patterns on the marimba flexing and changing. In the first, the alto flute’s incantation is also constantly on the move. The composer writes of what his fellow Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges called “secret complexity,” “a feeling that there are more layers to a discourse than it appears and that we are happy to let that underlying complexity remain in the background.” “In the second movement,” Viñao goes on, “I return to one of my favorite themes: the preoccupation with polyrhythms and their ability to give the impression or create the illusion that more than one time is going on at the same time. Here the influence of Nancarrow and Ligeti is never far.”
Composer in Focus: Jessie Montgomery
Learn more about composer Jessie Montgomery and her work Duo for Violin and Cello.
What makes music sound simple or complicated?
Some contemporary music has a reputation for being complex. But what makes us hear music to be more or less complicated? How do our perspectives on the complexity of music we hear change? Music psychology researchers have investigated many questions relating to complexity in music and a few key ones are outlined here.
Many aspects of music—rhythm, harmony, texture, melodic shapes—could drive our perception of complexity. Which aspects tend to impact us the most?
Researchers have only just begun teasing out which musical elements are the most important in driving our perception of musical complexity. When judging the complexity of melodies alone, the use of smaller steps between notes as opposed to large leaps, how strongly a melody hints at a particular key, and the amount of variation in the rhythm all seem to play an important role. In music with many lines, the predictability of the melody and harmony appear to impact listeners’ experience of complexity more than rhythm. But some cross-cultural research on musical complexity has suggested that these features’ roles are probably not universal. Our cultural backgrounds influence both the kinds of music we find complicated and the particular factors that impact that perceived complexity.
How can we measure complexity in music?
One of the main ways to gauge the complexity of a given bit of music is to look at its “Information Content.” This means scoring a piece of music in terms of how much new and unexpected information it presents to a listener relative to the musical pieces and patterns they probably already know. This winds up being a fairly complex measure of complexity. But an often-used shortcut is to compare the file sizes of different versions of an audio recording of a given passage!
What is the relationship between the complexity of music and how much people like what they hear?
The psychologist and aesthetician D.E. Berlyne showed that pleasure found in visual patterns relates to complexity following an inverted-U pattern. If something is too simple, it is not particularly appealing. As complexity increases, so does pleasure, until it reaches an optimal point. Then, pleasure begins to trail off again as the experience becomes too complicated. This curve has been seen in music evaluations, particularly when listeners are asked to evaluate the beauty of melodies they hear.
Music that I know and find easy to listen to seems too complicated to other people. How come?
Our perception of the complexity of music changes when we become more familiar with that music. Many studies have shown that listening to the same piece of music multiple times can help listeners to overcome issues with complexity, shifting the inverted-U pattern to give us a higher tolerance for complicated sound. The music psychologist Elizabeth Margulis carried out one important study on responses to pieces of contemporary music by Luciano Berio and Elliott Carter. She found that by increasing internal repetition, repeating short sections of the composer’s music within the stream of listening, listeners began to experience the music as more interesting and less likely to have been randomly generated. Repeated listenings to both whole performances and shorter parts of pieces are an important way to engage with all music, but these results suggest that such repetition may be even more important for experiencing newly or recently written work, where prior encounters are impossible or unlikely.
By Nicky Swett
See resources here.