Friday, March 25, 2005

Bebel Gilberto + Pierre Boulez

Can these two figures--Bebel Gilberto and Pierre Boulez--really inhabit the same sound world? For me they do.

GilbertoBebel Gilberto's scrumptious Tanto Tempo was one of the top CDs of 2001 and provided track after track (in original and remixed versions, by Suba, Kruder & Dorfmeister and countless others) for lounges and lounge lizards all over the world. (It actually became one of Brazil's best-selling CDs ever, matching her famous father João Gilberto's efforts.)

Last year she released her long-awaited followup, the eponymous Bebel Gilberto, which actually improves upon her debut issue. Gilberto tries out and succeeds with a wider range of musical source material and collaborators while keeping this new CD as mellow and melodic. She sings tunes these often ethereal sounding tunes in Portuguese, English and a mix of the two. As with the first CD, her music rooted in my ear while also seeming ripe for DJs' and mixers' re-visions.

My favorite tracks so far are "Aganjú," a Candomblé-flavored song written by Bahian impresario and musician Carlinhos Brown (most recently of Tribalistas fame), featuring a danceable melody and rhythm--and it actually conjures the Yoruba orisha it invokes; "Simplesmente," which is as simple and lovely a meditative song as its title suggests; "Winter," a slow and seductive charmer that is at least a season away from the chilly weather outdoors; and "All Around," another English-lyric song, written with Japanese musician Masa Shimizu, which Gilberto has said is her personal favorite; it even features a complete string orchestra accompaniment. Its refrain, the almost-banal but beautiful "Never forget that when / I think of you / You're not alone" keeps running through my head. Gilberto's music manages to enchant and relax at the same time, and here it falls more on casting its spells.

I missed Gilberto during her summer and fall tour of the US, so I hope to hear her perform some of these songs live eventually, but I also want to hear what remixers--and she attracts some of the best out there--stir up in the meanwhile.

Tomorrow marks the 80th birthday of the one of the 20th century's former infants terribles, the extraordinary French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez (1925-). After taking a degree in mathematics he later studied with the inimitable Frenchman Olivier Messiaen, and René Leibowitz, the doyen of the Darmstadt School. Boulez originally became famous for his extreme, authoritarian pronouncements about music, such as that opera houses should be blown up, or, having dismissed most of the music of his predecessors in favor of the serial technique pioneered by Schoenberg, his subsequent triumphant declaration that Schoenberg was "dead!" Ah youth! In fact, Boulez was dismissive of almost all his peers as well, including such notable American composers as John Cage and Morton Feldman (some of whose chance techniques he soon incorporated into his works), arguing for a strict, scientific approach that emphasized atonality and organized every aspect of a composition (he did study math!). Boulez was known to be especially cutting and frosty in person, and Feldman in particular rants quite a bit about him, though he was hardly alone. Having killed off his father, Schoenberg, he then went out at wrote a piece in 1954, "Le marteau sans maître," whose debt to Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire" is so obvious it's painful--but it feels, at the same time, almost sui generis in sound, like music beamed down from Jupiter. It wasn't only the Austrian father he slew; having symbolically shot down French daddy Claude Debussy (so little variation! all that static harmony! that Hispanophilia!), Boulez then incorporated the poetry of Stephane Mallarmé into one of his major works, "Pli selon pli" (as Debussy had done in his greatest composition, the orchestral masterpiece "Prélude de l'aprés-midi d'un faune")....
But, with time for some comes maturity (also known as the combination of perspective and a little wisdom), and so it was with Boulez. He began conducting in the 1960s, and gradually became one of the most noteworthy interpreters not only of early 20th century avant-garde music (especially Berg, Schoenberg, Webern, Stravinsky, Debussy, Bartók, Messiaen, Ligeti, and Carter), but also of some of the Romantic composers he so harshly decried, such as Mahler (some of his versions are among the best), Wagner, Bruckner, Dvorak, and...yes, Beethoven! The destroyer of institutions later led both the London Philharmonic (1971-1974) and, gods be stilled, the New York Philharmonic (1971-1977), conducted at the Bayreuth (!) and Paris Operas, and in the late 1970s founded both the l'Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM), one of the leading institutions of electronic music in the world, and the Ensemble InterContemporain, an outstanding contemporary music performance group. Boulez has been a guest conductor for many years with several other major establishment orchestras, including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and before that with Cleveland's great symphony, and is supposedly now much more generous, not only to fellow composers, but to musicians and concert attendees. (I hope to see him conduct Berg's "Chamber Concerto" in Chicago later this spring.)

As for his own music, he began to relax some of his strictures by the late 1950s, and has rewritten or reworked a number of his pieces. Others he has withdrawn. Some of the compositions since the mid-1960s not only have tone coloristic qualities that echo Romanticism and much of the 20th century's sonic experiments, but moments approximating an emotional presence and warmth. A number of the later pieces are fragments, which seems quite fitting for a composer who called for total serialization and organization, while sniffing at others who were writing in standard key signatures and using traditional forms. (If you throw out all the foundations, well, you've got to come up with new ones!)

Of course there are many who still loathe him, or at least the idea of him. Grudges die hard, and the man has long held considerable power and is the embodiment of the contemporary, moribund classical music establishment, which is enough of a crime for many people. Josh Ronsen came up with a novel way of expressing his Boulez-disgust, while the leading American composer John Adams and the young British composer Thomas Adès both offer up deliciously waspish thoughts (scroll down to the bottom) about Boulez's historical significance. Pre-mid 60s Boulez is often harsh, rigid and suffused, I think, with an anger born of arrogance and superiority, an attempt to surpass, and in a certain sense, erase all else that has come before, while the later works often appear to battle through their failures to live up to his grand designs. His struggles are audible throughout them, with their often ghostly instrumental pairings and multiples, their insistent harmonic bleets, shimmers and moans, and the sometimes thrilling racing or glacial tempi. As formal artifacts that convey intellectual beauty or conceptual possibility more than emotion, they strike me as better musical analogs of Mallarmé, for example, particularly the Mallarmé of the "livre pur" than anything Debussy composed.

I personally like a number of his later compositions, including "...explosant-fixe..." and the related works "Anthèmes" and "Anthèmes 2," and "Mémoriale"; "Messagesquisses"; "Dialogue de l'Ombre Double"; "Répons" (I've gone back and forth with this one); and "Dérive I" and "II." The early piano sonatas and "Notations" (for piano--I like the orchestral version) I can stomach on an exceptional day, like "Marteau." As a conductor, I think he's one of the best with the Second Viennese School, the French composers, and Bartók, Mahler, and Stravinsky. In truth I'm rather glad to have Boulez around (still), especially since I've never had to deal with him in person. The music, often beautiful and often strange, stands on its own.

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