17 November 2009

Surveying The Landscape Again

I'm not ashamed to admit that part of what gets me so worked up about the blogospheric trendiness I referred to in the previous post is the utter certainty on the part of the writer that by merely describing their relationship with an artist's work, they're somehow doing the rest of us this huge favor by shaking us out of our ivory tower complacency. Well, since it's Blog Month here at My Fickle Ears Dig, why not take a break from all the bellyaching I do the other 11 (and a half, it seems) months out of the year to advocate rather than castigate?

I really wish I saw Lutoslawski's name on my computer screen more often. In fact, I'm not sure this is even the first time I've said that here, but if it is, I've certainly been thinking it for some time now because it seems like I say it to myself all the time. Lutoslawski is quickly becoming one my of absolute favorite composers, and in fact threatens to be the first composer I'd ever feel comfortable naming as my one favorite composer. As I remarked earlier this month, naming favorites is a tenuous proposition when it comes to composers because few of them are consistent, and hence, most anyone's favorite composer undoubtedly wrote a lot of music that person wouldn't want to have to listen to, or at least not very often. Even so, I'm so consistently enraptured by Lutoslawski's music as to consider going that far.

What prevents me from going there right this minute is that my depth of experience is not yet great enough to warrant it. There could be a bunch of turds lurking around the corner that by sheer happenstance have somehow managed to elude me, though I doubt it. I was first introduced to Lutoslawski's music by attending concerts by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, who often programs his music. Later, I started a Pandora station, "Witold Lutoslawski Radio." I primarily use Pandora to investigate pop-oriented music that I'm merely curious about but don't want to pay for, and not usually so much for the jazz and classical idioms that I'm more committed to and perfectly willing to pay for. However, I thought it would be appropriate and funny to have at least one station centered around a thorny new-music type of artist, and Lutoslawski's name was just long enough to make it perfect for the task.

Holy shit was I in for an awakening. Though I'm hard-pressed to name specific pieces (Pandora doesn't allow specific requests; you can "bookmark" songs that pop up simply to remember what they're called, but I neglected to do that), the station seemed to be feeding me mostly pieces for solo string instruments and orchestra, probably because "a prominent cello" is a defining characteristic in their system and once I clicked thumbs up on a cello concerto, that was that. Not that I'm complaining, though; I myself have come to enjoy writing concertos more than simply writing for large ensembles because I feel like having a clear soloist forces me into writing melodies in a way that I've never been inclined to otherwise, or at least thinking more melodically rather than just texturally. This has sparked an interest in various different kinds of pieces for soloist and orchestra, and Lutoslawski's music is a good an argument as any for the continued vitality and viability of the concerto format (he rarely seems to use the word "concerto," so I guess I'm using it more out of convenience).

Most recently, through the miracle of iTunes, I purchased in digital format a 2 disc set of Lutoslawski's orchestral works for less than what a single disc fetches in the physical realm these days. I'm not yet done working through it and am already blown away. The opening track is called "Symphonic Variations for Orchestra." It was the first thing I listened to, and was not what I expected. It is very much a "crowd pleaser," or something like that, a raucous, very accessible concert-opening type of work that one would think could find its way onto programs anywhere and everywhere. Mind you that I forfeited my right to authoritatively label a piece as "accessible" in the abstract sometime around the time I was 17, when my full kookiness began to become apparent, but that fact notwithstanding, I would hope that there's a bright future for pieces like this one, which seems to me to be one of those exceedingly rare pieces that has something for everyone without stooping to the level of mere orchestrational parlor tricks. I wonder if anyone ever plays it?

The "Mi-Parti" is very different, very much what I was expecting out of this set, and a perfect example of what, to me, makes Lutoslawski's music so special. This piece is as modern sounding as anything else, totally "out" in the parlance of the jazz community, and it knocked me out of my chair the very first time I heard it. In fact, that's been the case with the vast majority of Lutoslawski's pieces that I've heard. Even for this avowed new-music kook, that's quite unusual. I can't think of an initial experience I've had with another composer's music that's even close to comparable. Elliott Carter's "Variations for Orchestra" and Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony are two other favorite pieces of mine which I'd locate roughly in the same stylistic ballpark as Lutoslawski, yet I remember vividly that both of them left me rather underwhelmed on first hearing. In fact, the Shostakovich had no impact on me whatsoever, and frankly, being about halfway through his complete symphonies at the moment, that's about as much impact as any of them ever have the first time, or even subsequently. The 4th was different, for whatever reason; hearing it for the second time was probably the most purely flabbergasted I've ever been while listening to music, not only due to the weight of suddenly "getting it" all at once, but from recalling what bits and pieces I remembered clearly from the first hearing and simply wondering how it could be so different the next time.

Something about Lutoslawski is different, and I couldn't possibly try to explain what it is at this point because I don't know. I'd be happy to go on not knowing if the whole thing didn't make me so damn curious. Of course, it's external factors that are responsible for that curiosity, namely the odious bickering over the very validity of atonal music and the specious overgeneralizations about the people who write it, play it and listen to it. Exhibit A amongst those overgeneralizations is the idea that the music cannot be accessible, that it can fruitfully only be studied, not heard, and that it cannot make a positive impression on first hearing. I'm just one person, but those observations simply do not resonate with me, and they never did, even back when my naivete entitled me to quite a bit more authority as a "regular audience member" than I have now that I've been to music school and tried to make a career of it. While in past years I may have searched momentarily for an example, I now have one at the immediate ready. Lutoslawski's music, as atonal and modernist as it gets, is some of the most accessible music I've ever heard. I'm wondering if no one else agrees with me, or if it's just that none of them have a blog.

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