Monday, May 09, 2005

Hammertime

It's almost rare enough that a new issue of The Wire reviews an album I have already purchased, that such would merit a post here. But compound that by being able to compare reviews in May issues of The Wire and Gramophone? O, how could I resist?


The album, as you may already have guessed, is the new Deutsche Gramm recording of Pierre Boulez's Le Marteau sans maître (with Derive 1 and Derive 2).

Maybe it is a sign of a shared cultural heritage (or careful cribbing from the liner notes) that both reviews quote Stravinsky, who said the the piece was "the only truly significant work of the new age." The piece, whose title translates as "The Hammer Unmastered," consists of three interlocking cycles based on three poems by René Char: the titles of the sections and of the whole piece come from Char's work. I admit that it is difficult to hear the lyrics (of course, my French leaves much to be desired), but the liner notes for the album include the text and translations.

The Wire review (written by Philip Clark) opens:
Pierre Boulez's jowly face breaks into a broad grin on the cover of this new recording of his Le Marteau sans maître--his record company would like you to think Boulez, now in his 80th year, is cuddly. OK, his demeanour is more sober on the Piano Sonatas disc, but Deutsche Grammophon are doing the best to sweeten what for many listeners remains a bitter pill.

It is true that Boulez is the big maestro on campus these days, and the DG recording of him conducting the Bartók Piano Concertos is mighty fine. But it is a far cry from Boulez's own compositions, which, though they might merit a place in the Difficult Listening Hour, are fascinating and repay keen listening.

In Gramophone, Arnold Whittall notes that by his count this is Boulez's fifth recording of the piece, but I admit is the first I've heard. Philip Clark says that in some earlier recordings, the opening has "had a big girl's blouse quality," while this time it is "clangorous and faintly demented." This is a good thing.

About the mezzo-soprano part, performed by Hilary Summers, and seizing on my favorite aspect of this piece, Philip Clark says,
Boulez confuses the point where text ends and music begins. The voice is heard in its familiar guise as a solo line, but then gets buried deep within the ensemble as the instruments assume a vocal quality.

Maybe this is the perfect examination of the relationship between poetry and free verse. The meaning from the poetry comes as much from the music as the language, but you cannot predict the relationship.

About the instrumentation, Arnold Whittall says,
Flute, guitar and viola are never overshadowed by the more resonant sounds of the percussion duo, and there’s the kind of edge-of-the seat interplay which can only be achieved by players who have the music in their bones as well as under their fingers. As for the final duet for flute and metal percussion, this stands out for its incantatory gravitas, and for the hint of un-Gallic pathos that underpins its eloquence. It might not please the great composer/conductor to realize it, but Le Marteau has become a modern classic.

I close with my own cribbing from the liner notes, with another comment from Stravinsky—one that better speaks to my experience with the piece. He said,
I will not explain my admiration for it but merely offer a variation of Gertrude Stein's answer to the question of why she liked Picasso's pictures—"I like looking at them"—and say "I like listening to Boulez."

Listen to it several times, and several ways—listen straight through, with the text in front of you, along the paths that let you explore the interlocking cycles.


p.s. If you do not subscribe to The Wire, then you have not received in your mailbox their latest sampler, Marke B 05. Centering on May's Marke B festival, which showcases "Berlin's network of electronic music labels," the disc has tracks from Non Standard Institut, ISAN, Duran Duran Duran (track? "I hate the 80s," with fab destruction of a Yaz sample), Dominique, Barbara Morgenstern, and my favorite, Frivolous, whose name I might have to steal. If I were as fancy as The Cod, I'd give you MP3s, but then I'd probably get hauled off by the FBI, and what fun is that?

2 comments:

freeman said...

There is actually no need to worry about offering mp3s on a website or blog if you wish to. There are a number of what are known as "audioblogs" out there where people write about and post mp3s of officially released material. They generally only keep the mp3s posted for a few days and they of course encourage people to buy the albums.

A favorite audioblog of mine is Xanax Taxi. I know that you were enquiring not too long ago about good music from the Tzadik label. I don't have much from the label myself aside from albums by John Zorn's Masada and Naked City, along with violinist Jenny Schneimann's Shalagaster. There is a recent post on Xanax Taxi about Masada, and the post ends with a link to an article highlighting some good albums from the Tzadik label, along with descriptions of them.

I'll admit that I've never listened to either Boulez or Stravinsky, although I've been aware of them for some time and plan on checking their works out sooner or later. I learned of both artists through my love of Frank Zappa's music. He was influenced by both of them, and there is even an album (I have yet to listen to it) that was produced by Zappa where the music was composed by Zappa but conducted by Boulez. In case you were unaware of the more instrumental side of Zappa, as opposed to the silly satirical rock side (I actually don't care for much of his lyrics), you may want to check him out sometime.

Isis said...

Thanks, freeman, for all those tips. I just started checking out Xanax Taxi at your suggestion and I like it a lot.

(The real reason I can't post mp3s us that my computer skills don't allow it. I'm not proud of this.)

This was my first introduction to Boulez's own compositions, but I am a Stravinsky fan. Recently I've been listening to more of his "neo-classical" stuff from the 1930s: does not sound revolutionary the way Rite of Spring or The Firebird did to folks earlier on, but really interesting.