Isn’t that life, in a way: trying to accommodate dissonance
In the realm of disco or heavy metal, we’re told to turn up the volume. I saw something new, though, on the booklet for Eve Egoyan’s CD 5. The recording of five posthumous pieces by Ann Southam has the following instruction clearly spelled out:
This music is intended to be quiet.
Please adjust your playback level accordingly.
That’s a new one to me.
But oh that doesn’t mean the recording doesn’t reward the listener who turns it up. Sorry Eve (and Ann), I did try it loud as well. I submit that it makes more sense to listen as we’re instructed, and sorry if i am disobedient. I can’t help but think that i was being a sophomoric male, in being loud and disobedient. The fact is it’s lovely with the piano murmuring quietly rather than booming. The CD has dynamics but they’re always understated, and within a narrower range, the difference something like what happens when you switch from a larger-than-life player banging out Liszt or Rachmaninoff, to a collaborative pianist accompanying a lieder singer. This is a recording of wonderful intimacy, showing a respectful treatment of materials from after the composer’s death. We are hearing something hushed as though we were in the presence of something magical, and if i didn’t know better i’d say it’s reverence for the composer.
That’s a beautiful thing to encounter.
When I looked into the liner notes I saw something rather astonishing that in retrospect makes wonderful sense. Let me explain my astonishment by quoting the liner notes:
In a 2010 interview, in remarks that we can safely extend to the pieces on this disc, Southam described Returnings I [a very similar piece to what’s on this CD, one of Southam’s last compositions] as the continual asking of “Why?” each time in a slightly different way. She also spoke of a “red dissonant line” that she literally saw running through the very consonant, repeating patterns in so much of her music – the dissonance created by a 12-tone row.
“Isn’t that life, in a way: trying to accommodate dissonance” she said.
For those of you who know what a tone-row is, you probably have something in your head, corresponding to the dissonance of a composer such as Webern or Kurtag.
Now of course, this example –or any of the other twelve-tone compositions that come to mind –is nothing like what Southam has accomplished, in her lovely and gentle compositions. In a nutshell, she’s taken the dissonances that one normally finds in a tone-row, and removed the usual edginess. Removed? No that’s wrong. She’s taken the diamond blade that would usually cut us and suffused it in soft velvet. Imagine Berg given acid, and –in the latter, reflective part of his trip—making tone rows with the meditative calm of Philip Glass. Of course this isn’t the usual framework, because there are lots of extra notes, lots of diatonic patterns to accommodate the chromaticism, grounding & calming. If nirvana is a kind of enlightened peace, this is what it sounds like, an acceptance and even love of dissonance, reinvented and reframed as assonance.
I can’t avoid the gender subtexts.
I have had Southam in the back of my mind for a long time. I was working on a movement-theatre piece in the 1990s called Dreams of the Goddess when I was also aware of a dance work with a score by Southam called Dancing the Goddess. I won’t deny I was frustrated and perhaps jealous:
- Because I was working with students, not professional dancers
- Because I was ignored and never dreamed anyone would notice me (yes the green-ey’d monster had me in thrall). No i am not proud of my sentiments.
- Because the people I invited to see the work (fool that i was and still am) judged the work solely on the competency of our movements (wonderful as our performers were, they were not professional dancers… duh!), and didn’t bother talking to me about what I was trying to do, seemed to have no concept of dramaturgy or music. Oh well, I suppose I should have been grateful they had even shown up, but I became very uninterested in types of dance that seemed only interested in how well people could move, perhaps as my own over-reaction. And yes some of you know I am obsessed with the issue of virtuosity. This is part of that ongoing conversation.
I only mention that because there might also be a feminist subtext here as well, and that, unfortunately, in my single-mindedness, I clearly lost track of Southam, an important composer. So now, so much later, I want to think about this all over again and hopefully catch up.
Speaking of feminism, I’ve sometimes felt that modernism is a particularly gendered phenomenon, music that follows rational patterns as though music has no reference anymore to feelings or emotions, to cultures & reference points. It was the soundtrack for a period of music history that was box office poison, because let’s face it: it’s not tuneful or popular, and has never broken through to any sort of mainstream acceptance. The tone-rows you get from Webern et al struck my ear as a very lonely and essentially male phenomenon, even when the main character onstage –thinking of Berg’s Lulu—might be a woman. While there are brilliant productions of the opera that are sensitive to the sexual politics of the work (for example the La Monnaie production reviewed here), I am merely speaking of the broad modernist project I saw. When you’re telling a story of anguish and alienation such as Lulu then by all means, give us the sounds that match those emotions.
Southam’s music is truly another kind of music, a music of reconciliation and accord, rather than brash discord. I can’t help reading something feminist into this, as though she were attempting to re-boot and reinvent the style, without the angularity and dare i say it maleness that jars you.
I think you’ll find that once you start listening to Egoyan’s CD, you could easily leave it on your player for quite a long time. It doesn’t invade your sonic space and so easily becomes a comfortable background for your life.