Sunday, February 4, 2018

A Composer's Musings

Just by chance I ran across an item in the Wall Street Journal from several years ago in which composer Morten Lauridsen muses about what inspires him.
At the core of my work as a composer over the past 45 years are seven multimovement vocal cycles, each centered on a single poetic theme, most often by one author -- for example, "Les Chansons des Roses" on Rainer Maria Rilke's delightful poems penned in 1924; the "Madrigali 'Fire-Songs'" on Renaissance Italian poems; "Cuatro Canciones," my chamber settings of Federico García Lorca's poems about time and night; and the "Lux Aeterna" on sacred texts about "light." And for each cycle I've selected my musical materials -- harmonies, melodies, rhythm, formal construction, orchestration, etc. -- to complement aspects of the texts I've chosen, including their style, content, language and historical context. The musical settings range from accessible and direct to atonal, abstract and highly coloristic.
The piece he is talking about in this essay is "O Magnum Mysterium" premiered in 1994 by the Los Angeles Master Chorale under the baton of Paul Salamunovich. Here is a performance from YouTube:


Somehow he manages to make the harmonies sound fresh and interesting, which is a pretty neat trick (no, not a trick, a method).

I ran across this reading an article in American Digest titled “O Magnum Mysterium:” The Persistence of Sacred Beauty
It is a commonplace that the overwhelming mass of our contemporary art that is “exhibited” has devolved into mere “exhibitionism.” Vapid, disposable and preening the works are doomed to be buried in the gaping garbage pits of marketing-driven museums, and crapulous galleries that hold most contemporary American and European art. Still, great souls persist among us and great art, though it is often obscured by poseurs and perverts and pallid imitators of all stripes, can still emerge when talent and skill are wedded to inspiration and belief.
It is too easy to simply condemn most contemporary art as garbage even though a great deal of it may be. The Lauridsen piece is absolutely lovely in a way that slightly reminds me of Arvo Pärt, but it does exist in a delimited realm. All I mean by that is that it renders homage to great vocal music of the past a bit too literally. If we set all ideology to one side, as we should, then music like this deserves a place in our contemporary musical world. But so does, for example, Lux Aeterna by Ligeti:


Yes, that is a bit disquieting, but we do live in disquieting times so we need music like this as well as music that soothes. We also need music that explores, like this piece by Morton Feldman, Rothko Chapel:


Perhaps we even need music that challenges us, like this piece, Poem No 1 (1959), by Galina Ustvolskaya:


Is there any reason that we can't make a place for all of these different kinds of musics?

5 comments:

Patrick said...

A wonderful pro classical pianist stated to a group I was in that he thought Ligeti would go down as one of the most consequential 20th century composers. We will never know, too far into the future for us living now. IMHO his (and others) expression of our zeitgeist, the spirit of our times is the most compelling. And the evocation of eternity and stasis in pieces like Lux Aeterna, and other Messiaen pieces such as L'Ascension is beyond convincing, a seeming true glimpse of the beyond.
Hat tip to Bryan - the Ligeti harpsichord piece a few posts back was such a kick, and what an incredible player! Isn't it great to take an instrument thought of by many as antique and using it for such modern ends. Thanks for bringing that and all the other clips to our attention.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Patrick! Entirely my pleasure.

Steven Watson said...

If I may stray off-topic slightly, here's an anecdote about Lauridsen that might interest you in particular Bryan, if you don't know it already... In the 1980s he spent two years setting up a film department in the USC Thornton School of Music. Among others, this department can boast Bear McCreary, composer of the Battlestar Galactica soundtrack, as an alumnus! (source)

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks Steven! I did not know that story. Bear McCreary did some great work on Battlestar Galactica.

Will Wilkin said...

If I had the skill and talent to be a composer, I would write sacred music. Morten Lauridsen is one of my very favorite composers, a treasure of modern traditionalism.