Sunday, May 19, 2019

Impossible Peace = Impossible Piece?

In my previous post, I wrote about saturating "Amazing Grace" with accidentals as a response to a colleague's call for a hymn harmonization "rife with secondary dominants." [← What a sentence!] When I posted my response (in even cruder form than here), this colleague wrote back:
"Perfect. And then they shall read Friede auf Erden and we will be done."
I'm proud to say I knew exactly what he meant because, about 20 years ago, I was the accompanist for a chorus that was rehearsing Arnold Schoenberg's Xtreme motet Friede auf Erden. The original version is approximately ten minutes of 8-part a cappella choral writing moving back and forth between rich Romantic harmony and intense chromaticism. The music was proving to be a big challenge for this chorus (as it would be for just about any group of humans) and there was a really important rehearsal which fell on a day of heavy snow.

When word went out that that evening's rehearsal was cancelled, I decided to see if I could use the free time to create some home practice aids to help choristers learn these challenging parts; so I entered all the notes into MIDI and posted those files online. (In those pre-broadband days, posting actual audio files [like mp3s] would've required more bandwidth than was practical, but standard web browsers could play back MIDI files, which basically just provide instructions about which pitches to play (using awkward, clinky sounds).) I believe the practice files proved to be helpful, and the final performance went well as best as I recall. In the performance, the director actually opted to have the choir perform the motet twice, once a cappella, and once with the orchestral accompaniment Schoenberg had created when he realized how difficult this music was for singers.

For purposes of demonstration in this post, it actually took me a while to find a recording that actually "works" for my ears, though there are several admirable live performances that have their virtues (such as this one). Then I came upon this recording by the English choir Tenebrae - a performance which strikes me as nothing less than miraculous:

Somehow this group manages to make even the thorniest sections sound logical and transparent, and the often skyscraping soprano part never sounds strained. Based on many other recordings I've sampled, I'm sure there are listeners who prefer a heavier, richer choral sound for this repertoire, but though the "British Light" sonority isn't always my cup of tea for Romantic works, it really works for me here. [By contrast, here's a wonderful "British Light" recording of an absolutely perfect German Romantic motet which just leaves me wanting that extra bit more of overwhelming sound for the final cadence at 2:59.]

It's also worth hearing this version, by Boston University student forces, with the orchestral accompaniment. The instrumental parts really help to focus the harmonies, and in this case support a full and sumptuous choral sound that might not tune so well on its own, but which pairs well with the style.

ANY....way, what brings me here today is that my colleague's comment made me remember that I've just had these Schoenberg MIDI files sitting on a hard drive for two decades. So much potential energy!

I made a stupid joke about combining the chromatic counterpoint with a samba beat - and I haven't ruled that out!* - but I decided that what really interested me the most was simply s-l-o-w-i-n-g things down so that the ear could have more time to process some of the fast moving brain-benders. Although Schoenberg is best-known for writing fully atonal music in which traditional harmony doesn't play a role, he also was able to work within a gorgeous Romantic canvas. But the extreme demands this music makes on the singer and listener can obscure that at times. Friede auf Erden is the kind of music that almost fights against itself - which is actually kind of cool, but also problematic.

So for now, mostly all I've done is "record" this with strings (synth strings, alas) at an almost impossibly slow tempo (synth string players have infinitely long bows), about three times more slowly than it would be performed. I chose to bathe the admittedly unsatisfying string sound in a lot of reverb so that what emerges is kind of a 30,000-foot view of the piece. I also made the choice, admittedly mostly for practical reasons, to remove tempo changes and dynamics, so what's left behind is just pure counterpoint swimming in reverb - which is kind of a fun contradiction.

Obviously, the result is NOT Friede auf Erden - it's missing the poetic language, the correct proportions, the highs and lows. But I do find it to be really beautiful, beyond just as an ambient haze phenomenon. More than anything, it tends to sound a lot like Mahler, though at various points it also reminds me of Wagner, the Barber Adagio (and a general American kind of string sound), certain kinds of film soundtracks; and I do think there's some value in - pardon me for saying it - smoothing out some of the edges of Schoenberg's work. I know that kind of thinking goes against a lot of aesthetic thinking, but I'm just being honest. Part of me actually enjoys listening to this more than the original, which admittedly would sound better in a live space than it does over laptop speakers.

What it doesn't remind me of so much is Minimalism, because the harmonies do change quite regularly, but it might be fair to say that what's going on is the application of a Minimalist time-scale to music that is otherwise quite dense and boundary-pushing from a tonal perspective. I love being able to settle into each harmony and let it unfold, and though this is obviously an enormous distortion of the composer's intent, I do think it makes a case for how beautiful this music is. (Not as beautiful as THIS Schoenberg, which is perfect as it is.)

I think it's possible that Schoenberg's original falls into the world of masterpieces which are impossible to realize perfectly, which is interesting given that the title translates as "Peace on Earth" - another ideal that can seem impossible to realize. Stretching it out to absurd lengths is not a true solution, but rather an interesting way to open up the soundworld and let the listener indulge more mindfully in each passing moment.

Oh, and unrelated to anything else, this is my 600th post here at MMmusing!


* I haven't tried adding a samba beat, but for fun, I did create this 100-second version with pizzicato strings. I'll offer no defense except that...I like it! [Yes, the impossibly fast pizzicato 8th notes are particularly surreal.]

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