Friday, 22 June 2012

Songs of a Hallucinating Muezzin?

At the end of my post on the Mexican Romantics I added a bit on Juventino Rosas after experiencing a 'Wow!' of delighted recognition on hearing his waltz Sobre las Olas, but the 'Wow!' that came when I began exploring the music of Manuel Ponce's older contemporary, the long-lived Julián Carrillo (1875-1965) was a different kind of 'Wow!' See if you experience something similar when you first listen to his Preludio a Colón (Prelude to Christopher Columbus). 

After listening to the music of the younger Ponce, the soundworld of Preludio a Colón (composed in 1925) came as an even greater shock to me. Were you taken aback too? 

The work is scored for soprano, string quartet, flute, quarter-tone guitar, and sixteenth-tone harp. Yes, there's a flavour of the sort of oriental exoticism found, say, in the middle-period works of the great Pole Karol Szymanowski (such as the Songs of an Infatuated Muezzin) but Preludio a Colón is something else entirely. We are in the world of "Sonido 13", 'The Thirteenth Sound'. This was Carrillo's revolutionary experiment in microtonality, an adventure in adding microintervals between the twelve tones of the Western chromatic scale. The term 'Thirteenth Sound' is likely to mislead you into thinking that he was merely content to divide the scale up into thirteen tones rather than twelve. This is far from being the case. He was far more radical than that. (Wikipedia has lots on Sonido 13). I have to say that after the initial shock (when the 'Wow!' was mixed with an 'Aaargh!') the piece has not only grown on me immensely but I now think I'm at risk of becoming hooked on it! It is stunningly strange and beautiful. 

With Preludio a Colón ringing in your ears, please take a listen to Carrillo's String Sextet. I did just that and experienced yet another 'Wow!' moment and again a different kind of 'Wow!' This piece is early Carrillo (1900) and is in G major. My surprise here came from hearing just how far the composer had moved in 25 years and just how traditional a composer he started out as (sounding for all the world like an Eastern European late-Romantic), His First Symphony in D major (1901) is just as traditional (also sounding for all the world like an Eastern European late-Romantic). Both works have particularly beautiful slow movements, that of the Sextet full of pathos, that of the Symphony very genial. 

When I saw the title of a later symphony I expected something along the lines of Preludio a Colón. Again my expectations of this composer were dashed. His Third Symphony of 1940 bears the subtitle 'Atonal' but isn't written in on Sonido 13 lines. It still uses the old twelve notes of the familiar tempered chromatic scale but most certainly isn't a twelve-tone piece. Don't let the sub-title put you off as this is highly approachable music, so approachable it doesn't sound especially atonal at all. (At times, it very clearly isn't - just listen to the tune that serves as the second subject in the finale). It's an impressive and enjoyable piece, with a genuinely very exciting tempestuous opening movement, a beautiful and atmospheric nocturne-like slow movement, a charming (yes, charming!) scherzo and an 'epic' finale. There's really no weak link in this engrossing symphony. 

As you might have guessed, I'm rather bowled over by how fine a composer Julián Carrillo can be. He is a real discovery.

Sonido 13, whole sixteenth tones

Let's go on. What happens when Carrillo writes a piece for piano and orchestra where the orchestra plays in the traditional way but the piano plays in the Sonido 13 style? You can find out by listening to Balbuceos (1958). The piano here is, of course, a transformed one, which places Carrillo alongside that great American maverick Harry Partch and, of course, John Cage as a preparer of pianos. The effect is disconcerting as the orchestra is playing approachable tonal-sounding (plus chromatic and whole tone) music while the transformed piano is slowly and eerily (often siren-like) moving up and down fragments of Carrillo's microtonal scale (without leaping around much at all, though it does have one discernible melody). I'm not sure if this piece convinces me that the two systems go together like a horse and carriage but, my goodness, it's fascinating stuff. 

Talking of John Cage, what do you make of this rather Zen-like piece of Carrillo's for microtonal harps, Cometa? I think it's quite extraordinary and completely enchanting. Every piece of his feels like a new beginning. 

In that spirit, for further listening you might like to investigate what further surprises and delights this composer has to offer by beginning with his nostalgic Prelude for piano No.2 and following that with the Debussyan Prelude for piano No.6 (both 1920, and both beautiful miniatures) and follow them by re-entering the microtonal world with the otherwordly Meditación & En secreto (particularly expressive) for 24 EDO (quarter tone) string quartet (1927). Then, for a journey back into the past, why not try the String Quartet No.1 in E flat major for an old bog-standard string quartet (1903)? And there's more (without any pre-preparing of the ears by me - so no dates even, only titles!!)...

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