Too Much Tchaikovsky

Daughters, Part 2

Talk about in medias res. In “Daughters, Part 1” we stopped virtually mid-sentence after introducing Milica Djordjević (b. 1984), Serbian composer now based in Berlin. The waves she’s making in Europe are only beginning to lap at these shores; soon you’ll hear more. Her story is a fascinating one. Barbara Eckle’s notes for Wergo WER 6422 2 fill in some background: war-torn 1990s Belgrade; piano lessons; a newfound passion for painting, succeeded by a passion for theatre; then dual enrollment at the School of Music (piano again) and university (physics); further studies in composition and audio engineering at Belgrade’s University of the Arts; post-grad work in Strasbourg, Paris, and Berlin.

Don’t dismiss these wanderings as dilettantism. They offer compelling evidence of the opposite: fierce multidisciplinary engagement. Since the mid-19th century if not before, creative musical spirits have routinely sought inspiration in literature, visual arts, scientific discovery, and more. That trend intensified during the 20th century, with many composers becoming printmakers, inventors, and poets—not to mention a few architects and engineers, like Xenakis, who became composers. Eckle cites a Samuel Beckett quotation as Djordjević’s creed:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

It serves as epigraph for FAIL (2010), scored for cello and live electronics:

 

Djordjević has a newer album, stars – rocks – metals – light, available through the col legno website. Tracks are also provided on the composer’s website and on Spotify. (The track I most enjoyed was Sky Limited, for strings.) YouTube offers Quicksilver from that album.

I don’t recommend listening to several of these pieces in quick succession. They’re not meant to be absorbed in that way—indeed, they can’t be. Avant-garde creators expect that in performance their works will be dispersed among chunks of “standard” repertoire or else among contrasting pieces by other living composers. Otherwise, the concert-goers’ experience would become, to quote one of my old teachers (referring to an all-George-Crumb recital), “like eating three banana splits in a row.” A Djordjević “portrait” CD is intended as a document, not an evening’s entertainment. (Construct your own set list.)

Djordjević’s career trajectory shows what women in Western nations can do now; check out the prizes and awards she’s won. This is not to say that women have achieved parity—note the relative paucity of European females who have won Siemens awards and portrait CDs, for example. But it does point to a vastly better-developed support system for emerging composers. Since 1986, Wergo (a division of Schott Music) has, with the support of the German Music Council, issued a hundred “Porträt-CDs” of mostly younger Europeans.

Bear in mind that pioneering 19th-century women like Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Wieck Schumann were actively discouraged from composing at all—Mendelssohn had to publish some of her earliest music under her brother’s name. Dame Ethel Smyth (1858–1944) used social privilege to some advantage in gaining commissions and performances, as did an American, Amy Beach (1867–1944); both were tolerated in part because women composers were rare enough to be celebrated as eccentric curiosities. Almost invariably, however, their work was deemed insufficiently masculine, or somehow lacking that “divine spark,” or simply derivative.

Can we talk about derivative for a moment? Yes. We may as well concede it: everything has been done before. The last hundred years of musicking have at last exhausted every possibility out there for turning sound into meaning. (The notion of meaning itself now attracts useful counter-arguments.) Thus if you read what passes for Comments on YouTube, you’ll find an occasional wag who warns any fan of Djordjević’s Quicksilver to reconsider Schaeffer, Penderecki, and Sciarrino, “then pose yourself the question about originality and imagination again.” In other words, somebody got there first with microtextures or electronica or whatever, so that game is over, and Penderecki won.

What pointless drivel! It’s not the vocabulary that counts, it’s the way those components are shaped into narratives so that a voice—a recognizable, individual human voice—will speak to you. Haydn used variations on the same vocabulary to write over a hundred symphonies, not to mention quartets and sonatas. I guess nobody told him it’d already been done.

Djordjević actually seems both atypical and typical: exceptionally talented, but part of a growing crowd of young artists clamoring for attention. She doesn’t remind me so much of Penderecki as of Rebecca Saunders, whose music similarly tends to emerge from liminal spaces where tone meets noise, where desire and fear conjure ghostly squeaks and grumbles, where brutal explosions occur. Way back in the early 20th century, when Schoenberg and Stravinsky were forging new paths, a wise person noted that a lot of good music could still be written in C major. For today’s avant-garde, we should bear in mind the corollary: a lot of good music can still be made with tire irons and Whoopee cushions.

To round out the historical picture a little more, let’s consider Florence Price (1887–1953) and Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962). The latter is one of the most-performed American composers alive today, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Music and multiple Grammy awards. The former was the first African American woman ever to have a work performed by a major American orchestra. Although she toiled in relative obscurity during her lifetime, her music is now experiencing a “modest revival,” as New Yorker critic Alex Ross puts it.

Both these women have written violin concertos, interesting ones. (And since we’ll get back to exploring violin works in our next column, these pieces, like Lebowski’s rug, help tie the room together.) You can hear decent portions of Price’s two violin concertos online, in this New York Times article. To hear even more of her music, courtesy of WQXR’s Terrance McKnight, click on Price’s name in the previous paragraph. The value of Ross’s New Yorker essay lies in its even-handed analysis of the precarious situation Price occupied within American classical music’s neurotic confines. For her, isolated in Southside Chicago, there were no Pulitzers, Gravemeyer Awards, Music Council grants, or lively, powerful women’s networks like those in which Lisa Bielawa, Kati Agócs, and their peers thrive today.

It helps that violinist Er-Gene Kahng has given Price’s rediscovered violin concertos a really good recording. Her reputation had suffered over the years from indifferent and/or incompetent recorded performances. Here is Kahng’s reading of Violin Concerto No. 2, a single-movement work with “advanced” harmonies written late in Price’s life:

 

Antonín Dvořák famously advised American composers to stick with folk nationalism, and Price took his advice to heart, although she avoided ragtime and jazz like the plague. More crucial for her was Dvořák’s basic vocabulary, based on Brahms and seldom venturing into Wagner or Debussy territory. That’s what makes her Concerto No. 2 fascinating: it does venture, at least here and there. No. 1 is far more conservative; Ross admits that some passages are “so obviously indebted to famous Romantic concertos that one suspects Price of putting us on.” She wasn’t, though. She simply knew what a masterpiece should sound like, and she desperately wanted to be part of that crowd.

Higdon is also a conservative, but of a later era. She has been able to adapt certain components of avant-garde language by embedding them in settings that otherwise possess the lyricism and formal clarity of Mendelssohn. It’s not simply that she avoids scaring the horses. She seems to like all those sounds. Listen to the opening of the Violin Concerto (2008):

 

I love that we first hear all those twittering, vaguely birdlike sounds (violin harmonics). And then the soloist re-enters low in her range, and it’s warm, sustained, ultimately songlike too, but distinctly non-avian. The music works itself to quite dramatic heights, glissandos and such tossed toward us in an utterly natural progression of events. Terrific performance, of course.

This Violin Concerto won Higdon the 2010 Pulitzer. Here she is interviewed by her soloist (check out parts 2 and 3):

 

Higdon on Hahn: “She can play anything. So I was like, okay, I’ve gotta dream really big.” Good call. This is a big piece; it partakes of the grand virtuoso tradition, which affords the audience similarly grand pleasure.

Works of a humbler scope abound on a more recent Higdon recording, All Things Majestic (Naxos 8.559823), comprising four tone poems on scenery from the Grand Tetons, a viola concerto, and an oboe concerto. This album won a couple of Grammys earlier this year, including one for Higdon’s Viola Concerto. (None for the live recording itself, which is merely serviceable.) There are some fine moments: start with that concerto, written for Higdon’s colleague Roberto Díaz, director of the Curtis Institute of Music.

 

[Sorry if the header pic of the Haden Triplets was misleading—I was looking for a daughter-y pic that was less inflammatory (cough) than the pic on “Daughters, Part 1”—Ed.]