Friday, October 24, 2014

One-Offs of the Damned - Fartein Valen's The Churchyard by the Sea

There are few more enduring images in horror than the graveyard, especially those final resting places that appear ruined and abandoned, reminders that our feeble attempts at spiritual consolation and relative immortality are futile in the face of Nature and Time.  Old graveyards and crypts appear so often in horror that it's a wonder that anybody has lived on Earth more recently than a hundred years ago, and there are plenty of classical pieces that use cemeteries as inspirations for some startlingly beautiful music, most memorably our dear friend Clairs de Lune by Abel Decaux.  Most old cemeteries don't have to do anything to haunt us - their static presence is enough to grab us in the darkness that we cannot solve.  While it's hard to beat Decaux in my book, one of the worthiest attempts to top the Graveyard Smash Hits came from an unlikely source - Norwegian serialist Fartein Valen.

Not content to merely copy the Second Viennese School, Valen developed a sophisticated and unique approach to dodecaphony that placed a big emphasis on polyphony and harmonic richness.  While it's probably worth doing a whole article on his work on this blog I can't think of a better way to introduce him than with one of his most colorful works, The Churchyard by the Sea.  Those with even a passing knowledge of geography know that Norway is a country gashed open by fjords, shoreline canyons familiar to Seattlites by their other name, sounds, and as such Norway is a nation run by its harbors.  One can only imagine what the winds must be like on the shore, and before the industrial revolution the only buildings strong enough to forever withstand whatever pounding storm the North Sea can lob East would have been churches.  This brings to mind the horripilative image of generations of gravestones being worn down to nothing by the harsh judgment of the elements, and this is from where Valen draws his ink.  

Valen's approach to depicting a is not strictly horror and most certainly not liturgical, but rather atmospheric, opting for a very slow burn to evoke distant forces making their way towards a last bastion of human faith.  Valen had a great ear for melody and allows a handful of motives gradually emerge in scattered instruments, aiming for accumulation rather than overconfidence.  Absent are stereotypes of orchestral tone-painting (especially those God damned wind machines) as Valen stencils fine lines into each other to let the storm clouds gather, as if standing on a cliff's edge, peering towards a vast Approaching without truly understanding its power.  Orchestrational prowess eventually peers an icy eye our way, as flutter-tongued flutes and sul ponticello violins form a seething drapery behind an eerie horn solo, and the piece remains for the longest time a showcase for section leaders as soloists dominate the melodies.  And just when you think the storm has passed the whole land is engulfed, rocked by vaulting sevenths in the brass and vast string surges.  And then it's gone, leaving whoever is still standing uncomprehending of the storm's intent, knowing only the way it changed the face of his soul and the world around him.

"Sure," you may say, "that's all fine and good, but what's the horror in some rain splashing on rocks?  I thought you said this was a chop-'em-up."  And you'd be right - there's no supernatural elements or explicit deaths, but The Churchyard by the Sea manages to frighten by the sheer power of setting a tableaux, and that's no small feat considering that we literally see nothing.  Horror is such a visual experience that we often forget about the mind's eye's ability to create images more terrifying than anything we can see in the real world, and Valen's sound world here is singularly haunting in a way words can hardly express.  His horror is both visceral and existential, cool to the touch and impossible to forget.  Horror's first principle is that we are always more afraid by what could be than what isand few orchestral works are steeped so fully in that truth than this one.


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