Nov 17

Hillborg Festival in Stockholm

I’m spending the week here in Stockholm working with the wonderful Royal Stockholm Philharmonic for concerts as part of the Anders Hillborg festival. I am so impressed by this organization devoting a serious, two week long festival to a living, Swedish composer. Anders’ towering picture is hanging between the columns in the facade of the concert hall–exactly where a contemporary composer should be, but so rarely seen.

Anders’ music holds a special place for me in the lineage of composers working with popular music as source material–a legacy dating back from Mozart and Beethoven, through Stravinsky and Bartok, to our day with John Adams and Mason Bates. Hillborg draws specifically from the electronic music studio–but not the electronic music studio of Stockhausen–more the electronic studio of the Beatles and Brian Eno. There are numerous electronic effects that Hillborg translates into live instrumental techniques, like running a tape backwards as he does in his pieces, Eleven Gates, Cold Heat, and Kongsgaard Variations. Another source of inspiration is various delay effects as one hears in Peacock Tales and the Brass Quintet. But my all time favorite is what he calls “twisted spectra” where the attacks of notes are removed so that we are left with unplaceable waves of tone modeled after natural harmonic spectra but convoluted into unnatural forms. This is most amazingly applied in Cold Heat. When we played this for the first time in Wroclaw, a cellist from the orchestra who was listening to the concert told me that as he listened in disbelief–“I thought my head was melting!”

Oct 18

Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra

It’s very exciting for me to spend the week rehearsing Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra with the Wroclaw Philharmonic. This was the piece, more than any other, that set me on the path that led me to where I am today. I still remember so vividly first hearing this music. Up until then I had been playing lots of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, all of which I adored, but as closely as I identified with the music, it was still clearly the music of a different era. Suddenly hearing Bartok’s Concerto, I heard my own era, the noise of cities, the buzz of electricity, the fear of the war and its terrible destruction, and still the hope for a better future which, amazingly, Bartok managed to maintain.

The music also highlights one music’s central paradoxes for me. This is some of the most emotional and moving music I’ve ever encountered. And yet, studying the score, one is presented over and over with abstract mathematical structures. As if to give future musicologists a hint into his compositional methods, the piece begins with a simple symmetrical motif. All starting at a single note, C, he adds the note a whole step above and a whole step below. Then another two notes are added, again in perfect symmetry, this time a major third above and a major third below. Then he squeezes these back in the opposite direction, returning to the note where they came from. All of this could be explained in simple math available to a toddler. (Admittedly, as things progress, things gets a bit more complex.) But the central mystery remains in my mind. How do these abstract structures, translated into musical pitches have such a profound emotional influence on us?