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Thread: Weekly quartet. Just a music lover perspective.

  1. #2131
    Senior Member HenryPenfold's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Knorf View Post
    It's not my thread, but I'm not keen at all on people choosing two quartets for one week.
    As much as I am loath to do anything to dissuade a fellow CM fan from our passion, I must say I'm with you on this ....
    “The special mark of the modern world is not that it is sceptical, but that it is dogmatic without knowing it”

    G.K. Chesterton

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    Senior Member Allegro Con Brio's Avatar
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    As I said, I personally do not mind someone choosing two quartets, although I admit that I prefer one. But as much as it’s important for the nominator to choose what they like, it’s also important that we don’t cause any undue discord or potential squabbling about the “rules.” So perhaps we should formally institute the one-a-week rule. If there is anyone who objects to this possible rule, please voice your concerns!
    "If we understood the world, we would realize that there is a logic of harmony underlying its manifold apparent dissonances." - Jean Sibelius

    "Art is an attempt to transport into a limited quantity of matter, modeled by man, an image of the infinite beauty of the entire universe." - Simone Weil

    "Ceaseless work, analysis, reflection, writing much, endless self-correction, that is my secret." - Johann Sebastian Bach

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    Senior Member Bwv 1080's Avatar
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    I prefer one work as well, but always fair game to expand the discussion to other pieces by the composer or similar SQs

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    So my choice this week is:

    Kaija Saariaho: Nymphéa (Jardin secret III), for SQ and live electronics (1987)
    (The other quartet was going to be Giacinto Scelsi’s 3rd SQ, in case you were interested. I think they make for an interesting pairing. But no need to listen to Scelsi this week.)

    I'm going to postpone until tomorrow my introduction that will (hopefully) explain what Saariaho is going after in the work and how to listen to it. But for now, I'll just post the four performances I see on youtube.


    I haven't listened to the bottom two videos, but of these first two, I'm definitely a fan of the one by the Meta4 String Quartet (recorded in 2012). The electronic processing really comes alive here and adds 3-dimensional depth to the sound. I think the Kronos recording (recorded in 2004?) suffers in this regard, though it may be a bit better in hearing the inner voices of the quartet writing. I'm not sure why the electronics sound so different. It may be the differences in the acoustic space the quartets recorded in, but another possibility is that Saariaho revised the electronics part in light of the ever-evolving musical technology. In fact, it's not clear at all if the piece in its original 1987 form employed live signal processing or a tape component.

    Anyways, here are the videos. For a piece of spectral music such as this, a nice pair of headphones will do you wonders.







    Last edited by calvinpv; Feb-21-2021 at 06:31.

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  9. #2135
    Senior Member Helgi's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by HenryPenfold View Post
    I don't think that coke is something that jokes should be made about - it is a serious matter. Many of my friends have had to endure huge dental bills, due to misuse in their younger years. I am lucky, I only use it to clean my cutlery once a year (despite what people think, it doesn't have to be coke, it can be any fizzy drink that contains sugar. My friend uses Dr Pepper).
    Was a bit slow on the uptake this morning and thought that "clean my cutlery" was one of those brit euphemisms

    Re: one or two quartets, I also think sticking to one is a good rule. Maybe a poster could include footnote suggestions for further exploration in cases where there are few recordings?

    Re: this week's quartet, the adventure continues! Going to see if I can get a half an hour by myself this afternoon to listen.

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    Senior Member HenryPenfold's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Helgi View Post
    Was a bit slow on the uptake this morning and thought that "clean my cutlery" was one of those brit euphemisms

    Re: one or two quartets, I also think sticking to one is a good rule. Maybe a poster could include footnote suggestions for further exploration in cases where there are few recordings?

    Re: this week's quartet, the adventure continues! Going to see if I can get a half an hour by myself this afternoon to listen.
    HaHa, we have so many euphemisms, idioms, cliches and the like in British English!

    I've listened to the Saariaho Quartet today, and I agree, the adventure continues - a very good choice by calvinpv.

    I look forward to getting my ears around it properly, during the course of the week.
    “The special mark of the modern world is not that it is sceptical, but that it is dogmatic without knowing it”

    G.K. Chesterton

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    Senior Member starthrower's Avatar
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    I previewed the first few minutes and it sounds fascinating. I'm going to listen on headphones tonight. I've got Saariaho's Ondine orchestral set but I haven't explored her chamber works other than the beautiful Six Japanese Gardens.
    "In the beginning there was noise. And the noise begat rhythm. And the rhythm begat everything else." - Mickey Hart

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    Senior Member Allegro Con Brio's Avatar
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    Wonderful and interesting choice; Saariaho is one of the contemporary composers that I have taken a fancy to.

    Barring any further objections, the guideline is now official: Nominators may only choose one quartet per week. They are, of course, free to recommend others in accordance with the theme/style of their chosen work, but I think having the singular focus is one of the great benefits of this thread.
    "If we understood the world, we would realize that there is a logic of harmony underlying its manifold apparent dissonances." - Jean Sibelius

    "Art is an attempt to transport into a limited quantity of matter, modeled by man, an image of the infinite beauty of the entire universe." - Simone Weil

    "Ceaseless work, analysis, reflection, writing much, endless self-correction, that is my secret." - Johann Sebastian Bach

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    Senior Member starthrower's Avatar
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    Here's some discussion about the piece from the excellent Fugue For Thought site.
    https://fugueforthought.de/2017/12/3...riaho-nymphea/

    "…my aim was to broaden the colours of string instruments and create music by contrasting limpid, delicate textures and violent, shattering masses of sound..."
    "In the beginning there was noise. And the noise begat rhythm. And the rhythm begat everything else." - Mickey Hart

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  19. #2140
    Senior Member Knorf's Avatar
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    Cool choice for the Saariaho... Haven't listened to this in ages.

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    I understand this introduction is rather long -- I have a tendency to do that. Feel free to jump to the "how to listen" section at the end, if you want. And feel free to correct me if I got some things wrong or if I'm unclear.

    Kaija Saariaho: Nymphéa (Jardin secret III)

    Saariaho's music -- at least, her music up until the early 90's -- is a good example what you would call spectral music. In a nutshell, spectral music is a approach and attitude towards composition that prioritizes the inner physical properties of sound and their evolution through time, as opposed to foisting an external, abstract form onto the music. In practice, this means: choosing an acoustical system or event to study (real-life or synthetically generated); recording and digitally sampling that system if need be; breaking it down with mathematical analysis of its sound spectra (often with the help of a sound engineer); constructing a new sound model of your choosing that is nevertheless based on this original raw data; and finally either transcribing this new model for traditional instruments to play (called "instrumental synthesis") or transcribing for an electronic medium like tape.

    Implied in what I just wrote is the presence of a computer at every stage of the composition process (and even more implicitly, the presence of acoustics as a formal discipline). In fact, spectral music isn't even practical, much less conceivable, until the mid-20th century with the advent of modern computing power, given the sheer amount of data processing involved. Yes, there are some simple spectral models like the natural harmonic series that can be played around with sans computer. And you can get some incredibly beautiful music using nothing but the harmonic series -- like this SQ I was considering for this week. In fact, the harmonic series is sort of implied in the traditional 12-tone equal-tempered chromatic scale (though it's not the same). But you can only do so much with the harmonic series, since it yields a very particular acoustical experience. And using more complicated acoustic models without a computer will take eons to turn into music.

    So there must be something fundamentally different about spectral music that distinguishes it from traditional tonal or atonal music, if it took modern technology to make it possible. While I don’t know the ins and outs of this music and the corresponding technological systems, I think I can crystallize the difference as this: it's a recognition that every traditional musical parameter -- pitch, rhythm, duration, dynamics, range, tempo, timbre/orchestration, articulation, harmony, texture, form -- can be reduced and collapsed into two more fundamental parameters: the frequency and amplitude (or intensity) of an audio signal, which can both be mapped as continuous functions of time.

    That's it. A simple mindset shift, but one with far-reaching consequences. Two consequences immediately come to mind. First, a spectral approach to music will give you a more complete description of a musical event, including a widening of the number of possible values you can assign to each traditional parameter. For example, instead of dealing with a 12-tone division of the octave, you can look at the octave as an infinitely divisible continuum of frequencies, and therefore you can talk about pitch and pitch changes in minute detail.

    Second, and more importantly, it exposes the distinctions between traditional parameters as somewhat arbitrary (some being more arbitrary than others). For example, a single pitch on an instrument is, in fact, a composite sine wave made up of many different frequencies of various amplitude levels presented at different times; in plain English, the pitch middle C on the piano is made up of several other pitches with their own dynamic levels and durations. Timbre, harmony, articulation and texture can be described in the exact same way. Duration is nothing but the time a sine wave's amplitude is above a certain threshold, i.e. the time we can hear a sine wave. Rhythm is nothing but a sequence of durations. And if you start introducing results from psychoacoustics, you get some really weird stuff that highlight these artificial boundaries even further. If you make a rhythmic pulse short enough, it will sound like a single pitch; if you have two nearly identical pitches played simultaneously -- which is technically a harmony -- but at different dynamics, you'll hear only one pitch (called “frequency masking”); if you separate those two pitches a bit but not too much, you'll still hear a single pitch but with an internal beat. And so on.

    Collapsing the distinction between timbre and harmony, in particular, is probably the most important thing to know when approaching Saariaho's early music (it's also important for Tristan Murail's music; less so for composers like Hugues Dufourt or Horațiu Rădulescu). All of her early works stem from a fundamental question: what are the means by which a musical form is able to develop and unfold? Saariaho noticed that all musical forms involve periods of dynamism and tension moving to and from periods of stasis and stability, with organizational systems used for controlling the rate of change between these two extremes. For example, a period of stasis might be a single pitch or chord getting played over and over while a period of dynamism might be extreme variability of pitch or rapid chord progressions.

    These "curves of tension", as Saariaho puts it, can theoretically occur in multiple dimensions, such as pitch, rhythm and loudness, but the most well-known and successful is the traditional tonal system, which controls musical form at the level of pitch with its theories of harmony, with its complex hierarchies of pitch relationships, and with its rules for transforming one pitch into another. And yet, given the advanced state of musical knowledge in the late 20th century, Saariaho believes the tonal system is now too restrictive of an organizational model for musical form and that we should be thinking about more generalized models. One proposal is to reinterpret issues of harmony into the broader issues of timbre, given that both harmony and timbre involve the distribution of frequencies throughout time (or to keep it simple, the distribution of pitch throughout time). Saariaho carries out this proposal by

    “relating the control of timbre with the control of harmony. Initially I began to use the sound/noise axis to develop both musical phrases and larger forms, and thus to create inner tensions in the music. In an abstract and atonal sense, the sound/noise axis may be substituted for the notion of consonance/dissonance. A rough, noisy texture would thus be parallel to dissonance, whilst a smooth, clear texture would correspond to consonance. It is true that noise in the purely physical sense is a form of dissonance pushed to the extreme. At the level of auditory experience, we can compare on the one hand the perception of a tension which is related by the tonic (or by a consonance if the context is not tonal) and, on the other a noisy texture which, while magnifying itself, transforms into pure sounds: one finds a certain analogy here.”
    This “analogy” approach to connecting harmony and timbre takes on a different form in all of her pieces from the 1980s. It appears in its most extreme form in her experimental work Vers le blanc for tape where timbre and harmony are identical. The piece is a single glissando in the human voice from one three-note “chord” to another three-note “chord” for 15 minutes straight (unclear if there are three human voices or three formant regions of a single voice; there’s no recording to verify). Throughout the glissando, Saariaho is constantly modifying the formant regions of the voice so that no extra frequencies sneak into the glissando that would otherwise add that typical breathy quality underlying every voice. The result of this sustained, “non-breathing” voice is that the frequencies in the timbre are nothing but the frequencies in the harmony of the glissando and vice versa. In the locution of the block quote above: harmonic dissonance and timbral noise are exactly the same, harmonic consonance and timbral pure sound are exactly the same.

    But there are other, less extreme, examples that simply correlate harmony and timbre as opposed to making them fully identical, though even here, a simple correlation can cause confusion between the two. Laconisme de l’aile, for flute and optional electronics, is a great example of this. Even though it’s a work for solo instrument, you basically have a two-part counterpoint of sorts where one voice is the typical harmonic progression of the flute and the other voice is the timbral “progression” moving between the pure sounds of normal playing techniques and the pure noise of extended techniques. At moments when the harmony is sustained on a single note but where an extended technique is played, a weird confusion arises where you can’t tell if harmonic or timbral development is taking place. It’s pretty cool to hear, and it makes me wonder if I ought to approach every solo work in the repertoire this way, if for no other reason than it adds variety to the listening experience.

    And then there are examples of pieces, such as Sah den Vögeln, Im Traume and Verblendungen, that attempt to create an entire network of relationships between several parameters, not just between timbre and harmony, with each parameter having its own course of development oscillating between periods of stasis and dynamism. Admittedly, it’s hard to pick up these different developments at once without resorting to a technical explanation; nevertheless, you can still enjoy these pieces on a purely visceral level and get enraptured by their dream-like qualities.

    How to listen
    The reason I’ve avoided talking about Nymphéa up until now is because I can’t find any technical explanation of the piece beyond a couple program notes. So hopefully my explanation of spectralism more generally and of Saariaho’s general compositional approach serves as a nice substitute. I do suspect there’s a connection between Nymphéa and Lichtbogen (you’re not required to listen to Lichtbogen, but I highly recommend it, it’s one of her best works, imo). The latter work, written only one year previously in 1986, is based on the sound spectrum of three bow strokes on the cello: glissandi from one natural/artificial harmonic to another natural/artificial harmonic, and an increasing of bow pressure from a natural harmonic to a sul tasto on the fingerboard. Nymphéa, likewise, “bases itself on the sonority of the cello” as one program note put it, so I’m going to guess that Saariaho uses the same raw material for both pieces. Still, you can clearly a difference in the overarching form. In Lichtbogen, there’s a clear trajectory from clearer and more pure sounds to grittier and more noisy textures. As if we’re hearing a single cello bow stroke stretched out over 16 minutes, which suggests a close identification between timbre and harmony à la Vers le blanc. Nymphéa, however, sounds more episodic, as if Saariaho wants to explore different facets of the raw cello material in each section. This guess of mine is in line with Saariaho’s own program note when she mentions “different interpretations of the same image in different dimensions” (I’ll post the program note below).

    Anyways, here a few ways to enjoy the piece:

    1.If you read the program notes to her pieces and some of her interviews, you’ll notice a strong inspiration from art and nature. But she always tells you the inspiration isn’t to the point of serving as programmatic content for the music. It only serves as a point of departure. In this case, the title of the piece suggests the plant family Nymphaeaceae, or water lilies, as well as a series of paintings by Claude Monet. But from there, it’s up to you. Maybe water lilies evoke a sense of tranquility and elegance and and you want to import that feeling into the music (there is definitely something refined and elegant about the music, even the noisier textures). Or maybe you follow Monet’s dozens of water lily paintings and understand the piece as trying to approach the same physical object from different directions in the same way Monet did. Etc.

    2.The advice I gave about the Lachenmann SQ several months ago also applies here. While undoubtedly context matters, I think it's safe to say that in certain forms of contemporary music, it’s not suitable to have your ears try to parse out the different parts and create a contrapuntal texture reminiscent of traditional tonal music, except maybe in a couple moments in this work where you hear some mirroring effects between lines. By and large, in a spectral work like this, musical lines are chosen because they resonate with other lines in such a way that together a higher-order, multi-faceted texture is created.

    3.Given what I’ve said about Saariaho’s use of “curves of tensions”, I think some of the best parts of the work are the seamless transitions from extreme volatility to extreme stasis and vice versa. You’ll no doubt pick up on the obvious ones between the blankets of harsh noise and the moments of singular pitches. But there are other subtler ones as well, for example, changing uses of vibrato that sometimes swerve into trills, other times into ostinatos.

    4.I think when it comes to music such as this, a good pair of headphones is a game changer (unless you just have an amazing surround sound system in your home, which I don’t). There’s too much detail to be lost if you put some distance between your speakers and your ears. For other works, I’m not too worried about this, but for composers like Saariaho or Lachenmann, thinking about how sound diffuses across an acoustic space is very important, and the place you're sitting in right now as you listen is an acoustic space to account for. But it’s up to you. Maybe in your situation, there are better solutions than headphones.

    Further reading, if you're interested:
    An interview with Saariaho
    Saariaho's 1985 article "Shaping a Compositional Network with Computer"
    Saariaho's website with links to program notes and occasionally scores (no score for Nymphéa, unfortunately).
    The closest thing I could find to a breakdown of the piece is here
    This article analyzing Lichtbogen from a phenomenological perspective

    Finally, my introduction draws a lot from Saariaho's very interesting 1987 article "Timbre and Harmony: Interpolations of Timbral Structures", but I can't find that one on the internet. Apologies.

    Last edited by calvinpv; Feb-22-2021 at 01:27.

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  23. #2142
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    Saariaho's own Program Note:

    In Nymphéa (Water lily, 1987) for string quartet and electronics, my aim was to broaden the colours of string instruments and create music by contrasting limpid, delicate textures and violent, shattering masses of sound.

    The basis of the harmonic structure is provided by cello sounds that I analysed with the computer, through the use of some personal computer programs. The musical material is going through rhythmic and melodic transformations as the motifs are gradually converted from a trill into arpeggios, or unison rhythms into multilayered micro-polyphony. The electronic component of the piece consists of live transformations of the string quartet's sounds in the concert.

    Some images that evolved in my mind while composing: the symmetric structure of a water lily, yielding as it floats on the water, transforming. Different interpretations of the same image in different dimensions; a one-dimensional surface with its colours, shapes, and, on the other hand, different materials that can be sensed, forms, dimensions, a white water lily feeding from the underwater mud.

    A poem by Arseny Tarkovsky - the cineaste Andrei Tarkovsky's father - also became a part of the sonic material during the composition. It appears gradually, first in separate phonemes whispered by players, adding thus a vocal color to the palette of string sounds:

    Now Summer is gone
    And might never have been.
    In the sunshine it's warm,
    But there has to be more.

    It all came to pass,
    All fell into my hands
    Like a five-petalled leaf,
    But there has to be more.

    Nothing evil was lost,
    Nothing good was in vain,
    All ablaze with clear light
    But there has to be more.

    Life gathered me up
    Safe under it's wing,
    My luck always held,
    But there has to be more.

    Not a leaf was burned up
    Not a twig ever snapped
    Clean as glass is the day
    But there has to be more.

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  25. #2143
    Senior Member StevehamNY's Avatar
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    Calvinpw, very much enjoying the Saariaho! One thing that strikes me, having followed jazz music all the way past its signposted boundaries and into the "free improv" wilderness... you sorta end up in the same zip code you might have found if you had started the same journey from modern classical. I hear sonic echoes of Evan Parker's Electro-Acoustic Ensemble in this piece, a group that included the violinist Philipp Wachsmann.

    (Not a coincidence that Wachsmann grew up in the classical tradition, studying with the likes of Boulez. You see the same crossover in many free improv players, especially in Europe. Also not a coincidence that certain music labels like Switzerland's HatHut deal exclusively in either free improv and modern classical.)

    (And of course there's a whole separate discussion to be had on improvisation vs. composition, but it would have to allow for the argument that Mozart might have been the best improvisor of all time!)

    If you really want to let this music have its way with you, put on your headphones as you start to drift off to sleep. Your critical defenses will be down and the music will infect your dreams! Thanks again!

  26. #2144
    Senior Member Bwv 1080's Avatar
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    Cool piece - the sampled cello makes the electronics more organic and subtle compared to the Tristan Murail pieces I am familiar with. Spectral to me is an evolution of the late 60s textural music of Ligeti, Xenakis, Penderecki etc., moving beyond tone clusters to acoustically inspired pitch material. This piece does sounds more or less conventionally tuned to me, unlike some of Murail’s work which often is based upon very high (sometimes >30), out of tune partials (see below), this of course is easier to do with electronics than real performers



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    Senior Member starthrower's Avatar
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    I enjoyed the Meta4 recording. The Kronos version featured some less attractive sounds.
    "In the beginning there was noise. And the noise begat rhythm. And the rhythm begat everything else." - Mickey Hart

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