Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Cosmic Visions of Vytautas Bacevičius

While I'll admit that I don't follow truly contemporary music as much as I should, I have been to an awful lot of concerts primarily composed of works written by my generation or slightly older, the proverbial Hope For Our Future.  While that music was many things, I can sum up 90% of it in two words: emotionally empty.  I don't know exactly what's going wrong in composition education (at least in this country), but the majority of new music I've heard from college students has a certain amount of technical polish and a professional attitude but either lacks heart or lacks the ability to communicate heart through music.  My theory is that, as more and more people are going to college and signing up for arts tracks, a higher percentage ordinary people are put into positions where they are forced to produce works that express their unique, honest voice - and that's the very thing most college-aged arts students don't express.  A big culprit is composition education's relationship to classical commercialism, and one can see the pressures facing a fledgling composer to go either commercially viable or most definitely non-commercial, with these ideas being recognizable, mutually exclusive spheres.  Classical music is often marketed on its supposed accessibility and emotional impact, and many of the biggest names in classical music today write largely tonal, crowd-pleasing programmers (such as two of the most popular contemporary orchestral works today, John Adams's Short Ride in a Fast Machine and Jennifer Higdon's blue cathedral), and so impressionable young people see emotional communication as part of the "commercial" M.O. and think that "serious" music can't have any of it.  Not helping this is the fact that many people see "emotion" in music as "sentimentality", but it's best not to get bogged down by semantics.  Education is controlled by its desire to be standardized and provable, and as such composition teachers focus on composers whose works have clear organizational principles, teaching students that they will have to explain their work in plain English (especially for thesis committees), and therefore their work needs to adhere to strict principles of their own design.  Crafting original technical parameters as well as effective emotional statements is quite difficult, and so the second big culprit is the inability of young composers to realize emotional effectiveness in the grinding work of codified composition.  It may also be as simple as a glut of ordinary people training in the arts producing a higher percentage of artists who have nothing to say, but that accusation is depressing and unhelpful (though not necessarily false).  Shouldn't artistic youth be a celebration of creative abandon?  Isn't that why we love Petrushka as much as we do?

A small solution to this would be to start teaching a new classification of composers, an elusive and brilliant class I'd like to call Pantonal Visionaries.  These composers are defined by their use of every radical modernist technique they can come up with in an effort to create transcendent emotional experiences through music, writing from enormous interior worlds and shunning normalcy.  These figures have an obvious appeal to younger artists as their work is less focused on provable economics and more on ingenious howling at the moon. The father of all of them could be said to be Gustav Mahler, whose 10 massive symphonies touched upon universal themes of man's place in the cosmos and attempted to encapsulate all of life through music.  There's a whole line (kinda) of Americans beginning with Charles Ives, who embraced classical and colloquial musics, tonality and atonality, pleasant music and noise in a Whitmanian celebration of total artistic expression.  The next in line after him would be Carl Ruggles, whose scant few works are equal in drama to the War in Heaven and were carved out by his utterly unique, trial-and-error system of atonal counterpoint.  Two acutely obscure descendants are George Flynn and Nicholas Thorne, both of whom will be coming to this blog and the latter of which is one of my favorite composers of all time.  Two other sui generis figures qualify, Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji and Dane Rudhyar, both of whom are blessed loons and whose musics couldn't be farther apart in techniques and inspirations.  I'd also be kicking myself if I didn't include Abel Decaux, whose sole composition took Impressionism to staggering new possibilities in the name of poetic horror.  And lastly, there's the great post-Chopin mystic Alexander Scriabin, who began in that wonderfully Russian tradition of piano miniatures much in the style of his contemporaries and ended far away from tonality, seeking a far-off star of private theosophy.

I've left Scriabin for last because he was a primary member of a "tradition" of which today's subject, the Lithuanian composer-pianist Vytautas Bacevičius, felt he was a descendant.  The other figures included the dreadfully underperformed André Jolivet and the beguiling ultra-modernist Edgard Varèse, and those three figures crafted masterful works enormous in their conception and dense in color and technical innovation.  Bacevičius stands apart from these men not only by his unique artistic voice but also his tragic obscurity, an issue that is slowly being resolved only very, very recently, largely due to the efforts of Lithuanian pianist Gabrielus Alekna.  It has been a while since we visited the Baltic states, the last time being many months ago when I talked about the Latvian composer Volfgangs Dārziņš, and while Lithuania is no stranger to artistic visionaries (like the fine composer and brilliant painter Mikolajus Čiurlionis Bacevičius is easily the most original and fascinating composer I've ever heard from its shores.

Bacevičius (1905-1970) was born in the Polish city of Łódź to a Lithuanian-Polish family, one whose children were taught not only music but also to celebrate both of their heritages.  Some may recognize the name of Grażyna Bacewicz, and that's because she's Vytautas's sister; he moved to Lithuania in the 20's and adopted the Lithuanian form of his name as his identity matured.   Grażyna's music is Neo-Classical, and the complete disparity of their music is not only a testament to their distinct imaginations but also to the quality of their upbringing.  After studying with Nikolai Tcherepnin (father of Alexander and grandfather of Ivan) in Paris he returned to Lithuania and had great success as a pianist as well as a composer, becoming the Lithuanian Chair of the International Society for Contemporary Music.  However, while touring in Argentina, the Nazis invaded Poland and Lithuania, cutting him off from his family and nation.  He settled in New York in 1940 and would remain there until his death, never again stepping foot in Lithuania or Poland, and his cultural and ideological isolation is most likely the prime suspect in his obscurity.  He maintained a career as a pianist and teacher, performing many of his own works, and his self-concertizing led to the publication of a number of his piano works, mostly in the late 60's by Mercury Music Corporation.  Though now defunct, Mercury was a major player in the 40's and 50's with plenty of highly regarded composers in their roster, but while their engravings of his works are excellent the covers do nothing for him, a clear indicator that they had no idea how to promote his work.  Just look at this:

Now that's just sad.  There's something deeply irritating about how small the title is, and I've seen that font used in replacement title cards for 50's monster movie trailers.  All of the Mercury editions look like this, jaw-droppingly boring introductions to wild, cathartic music, and I'm saying this as a guy with no qualms about template covers as long as they're eye-catching and classy; this template just happenes makes me think I'm about to read the bio-bibliography of an economist.  The funny thing is that the same problem affected the few scores of his published in the mid-40's by the much smaller publisher Paragon Music, as if Bacevičius actually liked the template (though with the Paragon scores you can at least read the title from more than a foot away):

If it seems like I'm harping on minutiae I apologize, but if you listened to that first track it should be apparent that Bacevičius's music is so much more creative and emotionally powerful than anything you could imagine looking at those covers.  His early works are steeped in the vaulting pantonality of late Scriabin, though Bacevičius was quick to craft his own language, harmonically and rhythmically rich and able to instinctually turn on a dime.  While he employed familiar structural phrasing in these early works he able to pack in moments of astonishing invention to break the pattern, and as his assurance in his own voice matured his lyrical instincts would progress beyond traditional phrasing and into his "cosmic" phase (but we'll get to that a bit later).  His harmonic language was certainly reminiscent of tonal chord structures and scale patterns, but his diversions from these elements lead to some of the most elaborate, refined and haunting post-tonal sonorities I've ever heard.

The pieces I've featured here are part of his seven-strong series of Mots (French for "words"), six of which are for piano (the last for two pianos) and the second for organ, and they are some of his most accomplished and representative works.  The quicksilver approach to phrasing, emotion and dramatics requires an especially sensitive and virtuosic performer to bring the pieces to life, and Alekna fits the bill with talent to spare.  The fact that Bacevičius performed these himself gives you some idea of his skills as a pianist, and hopefully more pianists can take on the gorgeous challenges these works present, though It's a shame the American scores are all way out of print.  He also wrote many orchestral works, including six symphonies and a number of concertos and genreless works, and he considered them to be superior to his piano music.  The last of the symphonies, "Cosmic" (maddeningly absent from YouTube), is one of the great works of the last phase of his career in which he strove for an artistic ideal of "cosmic" music.  For Bacevičius, "cosmic" didn't refer to outer space but rather the human interior world, and he believed the next step for atonality was to capture the infinite complexity and beauty of this horizonless interior space, the full realization of his Pantonal Visionary status.  He encapsulates this sentiment exquisitely in his praise of Varèse's electro-acoustic work Déserts, where he describes "this distant inner space which no telescope can reach, where man is alone in a world of mystery and essential solitude."  There is a Poème Cosmique for piano from this time which is wonderful, but for my money the closest he gets to this ideal in his piano works is the Sixième Mot.

Discarding both time signatures and bar lines, the Mot's musical ideas erupt organically, almost improvisatory in its instinctual freedom but showing a complete mastery of Bacevičiusian harmony.  He swings between horripilative resonance and terse pointillism, terror and introspection and everything in between with a breathless sense of discovery and charisma.  Each new idea is trumped by the next, allowing not a single moment of tedium or complacency to slip in, making performing it a minor spiritual experience as the pianist draws the listener into a mysterious and harrowing subconscious plane.  It's one of the most startlingly brilliant piano works published at the time and should be sought out as fast as you can (or as fast as I can scan the scores of his that I've got).

There's always one more out there.  Just when you think you can't find any more undiscovered geniuses guys like Bacevičius get tilled from the barren Earth like forgotten potatoes.  His work is a kind of music I can only dream of, as emotionally cathartic as it is technically adventurous, as careful to detail as it is barreling through new worlds only understood by itself.  It opens the door to the horizons that no telescope can reach, so make the plunge and never look back.


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