Our guest blogger today is John N. Failey, President of the Ensemble Music Society and co-presenter of the upcoming JACK Quartet performance in the Toby.
The Ensemble Music Society did not set out to have a “theme” for the upcoming concert by JACK Quartet at the IMA, it just happened. We wanted to present the Quartet (1964) by Polish composer Witold Lutosławski because 2013 is the centennial of his birth. György Ligeti’s Quartet No. 2 and Tetras by Iannis Xenakis were both stunning sonic wonderlands of sound and textures that have become contemporary classics and have never been performed in Indianapolis. We liked selecting Xenakis too because he was once as an Associate Professor of Music at Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University from 1967 to 1972.
But a larger underlying theme emerged in the life experiences of these three composers. Darkness as they were all uprooted and tormented by the World Wars and civil upheaval that stripped them of all personal possessions, Indeterminacy as they faced an uncertain future or nearly certain death during these struggles, and later found Rebirth and new beginnings with freedom to express their musical ideas.
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, presented last weekend in the Toby, was described in Eric Grayson’s blog post as “still a stunning and fresh experience.” Besides the cinematic elements that make this film so impressive, the use of music by classical composers heightens the experience. The two pieces most familiar to traditional music audiences in the film are Johann Strauss’ Beautiful Blue Danube Waltz and Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra. It is somewhat odd that both of these nineteenth century pieces were featured in a movie about the future, however most of the other music in 2001 was by composer György Ligeti. Definitely on the leading edge of contemporary music, Ligeti was better known in avant garde art and music circles. Three works by Ligeti were in the movie. Excerpts from “Requiem” are heard during the monolith scenes and “Lux Aeterna” is another recurring motif. Ligeti’s Atmosphères is heard in its entirety in the film. Kubrick returned to Ligeti again for piano music to the masked orgy in Eyes Wide Shut.
Ligeti was born to a Hungarian Jewish family in 1923. During the Austrian occupation of Hungary and the rise of the Nazi movement, Ligeti was sent to a forced labor brigade, his brother to a concentration camp and his parents to Auschwitz. His mother was a nurse and the only other member of his immediate family to survive. When Soviet troops violently suppressed the Hungarian uprising of 1956, Ligeti escaped to the West, hidden in a railway baggage car. Kubrick did not seek Ligeti’s permission to use his music for 2001 in advance. While the juxtaposition of his music with that of Richard Strauss’ did not make him happy, it did result in a top selling film and soundtrack recording.
Witold Lutosławski’s father was killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918 when he was five years old. He and his mother moved to Warsaw where, from 1939 to 1945, war was besieging the country. They narrowly escaped the retreating Nazi army that destroyed nearly 85% of Warsaw, but they lost everything. They endured a repressive Stalinist regime that tightly controlled the type of music he could write. The string quartet composed in 1964 came after an easing of government control and uses an aleatoric or random chance technique in each performers part. Each performer within certain structural boundaries has the freedom to express the music of their part as they feel best. If much of life is indeterminate, so is his music.
Iannis Xenakis was of Greek heritage and born in what was then Romania. In his student days living in Athens, he was politically active and fought against British troops and other efforts to restore the Greek monarchy during the Greek Civil War. In the midst of the fighting, Xenakis was severely injured, losing sight in one eye and having his face permanently scarred in a shell attack. He then escaped to France in 1947 after he was first sentenced to death by the right wing government of Greece. He practiced architecture in France with Corbusier as an illegal immigrant. He was also a brilliant mathematician. He studied music composition with Olivier Messiaen. Xenakis wrote a collection of texts on applications of stochastic processes, game theory, and computer programming in music. Tetras is one of the most spectacular works in the entire string quartet repertoire. It is an athletic piece that’s powerful and dense — worlds away from the airy styles often mistakenly associated with string quartet music.
Hear these works performed by contemporary music ensemble JACK Quartet in the Toby on Thursday, February 21. Pre-concert discussion with ISO Music Director Krzysztof Urbański begins at 6:45 PM, Concert at 7:30 PM.