Archive for April, 2012

Musical Silence

A reflection on the article ‘Silent Music’ by Andrew Kania[1]

The question of whether a ‘silent’ piece can be considered as music is central to Andrew Kania recent journal article Silent Music. In an attempt to draw the line as to where music ends and only sound remains, the author first argues for the importance of silence within music, then moves on to consider John Cage’s famous 4’33” alongside other less well-known candidates for a silent piece.

While Kania’s analytical description of “measured”, “quasi-measured” and “unmeasured” silences seems logical in theory, I find it hard as a performer to draw even such sketchy lines between them.[2] Pauses within a movement of a symphony are indeed measured, but measured at the discretion of the conductor or performer’s musical inclination. By contrast, the ‘unmeasured’ pauses that frame works are at times as integral to the performance as those that are internal. In 2010 I played in a concert of Mahler’s 4th Symphony conducted by Simone Young. From the very first rehearsal, she warned us that the final pause would be held for a while, much longer than the final note (a morendo in the double basses) would sound. Ms Young’s goal in this, I believe, was to make the audience question where the sound ended and the silence actually began. Did Mahler intend such a long pause? Is this a measured or an unmeasured silence? I think that most performers, if asked to describe the duration of such a silence, would say only that it was what felt right.

The subsequent discussion of totally ‘silent music’ presents difficulties from many angles. Kania argues that “4′33″ is not a piece of music, since Cage intended the sounds audible at its performances not to be listened to under traditional musical concepts”[3]. Can this intention fundamentally separate music and non-music when the composer cannot be sure of what the audience is actually listening to? In our society, we generally expect to listen to or for something, and I feel that in the absence of musical sound we are much more likely to listen to ambient noise than to attempt to focus solely on the silence of a performer (in the Mahler, the audience were listening for the double bass note even if it no longer existed). Even if the audience of Kania’s Composition 2009 #3 were instructed to focus on the ‘music’ of the silence, I wonder whether some of their attention might not be taken up still with ambient noise.

[1] Andrew Kania, “Silent Music,” The Journal of Aesthetics and art Criticism 68 (2010): 343-353, accessed March 24, 2012, DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-6245.2010.01429.x.

[2] Ibid., 343.

[3] Ibid., 348.


Friday 20th April

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra – Piano/Director: Olli Mustonen

It’s one thing (and by far taxing enough) to play two Beethoven piano concertos over the course of a single concert. Then add directing from the piano, and having one’s own work for symphony orchestra played in between, and you have Finnish renaissance man Olli Mustonen.

Far less well-known than its Emperor cousin, Beeethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 is nevertheless a gem. Mustonen approached it with enthusiasm and zeal, leaping out of the piano stool at every opportunity to drive the orchestra on. That said, it was certainly when seated that the best magic was woven, with the daring, ever so flirtatious cadenza to the first movement being particularly impressive. The orchestra were not afraid to feel the pesante weight of the rondo as the piano danced brilliantly over the top.

Mustonen’s own piece – Jehkin Iivana – was given its Australian premiere with no less enthusiasm. Drawing on Finnish history and folklore, the music wove together fragments of kantele song ( a plucked string instrument using modal tuning, here reproduced by the flutes), church hymn-like melodies, and soundscape sections reminiscent of Finland’s winter wilderness. Despite its atonality, the work’s lilting melodies and constantly shifting texture invited the ear with its contemplative expanse.

In his return to the piano stool, Mustonen confirmed that it is here that his talent and musicality are at their best. The sparkling slow movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, soaring over the already mesmerised audience,  was without a doubt highlight of the evening.

Another piece of music for the screen, this time from the British war film Dangerous Moonlight (1941). Running to only nine minutes in a single movement, it can barely be called a concerto, rather something of an epic miniature for piano and orchestra. Addinsell manages to fit a huge emotional variety into these nine minutes without the listener feeling at all rocked about by it. Nowhere is this contrast so great as between the tense, brooding entry and the beginning of the central theme.

It is undoubtedly this theme that makes the piece, giving it a popularity that has gone well beyond the life of the original black-and-white film. It first appears in the piano as a meditative, almost introverted solo, which grows gradually to encompass the orchestra. The focus shifts continually back and forth, giving the impression of the piano drifting in and out in a rather improvisatory manner. The show-stopping moment is without a doubt the lush violin melody soaring over the soloist’s flurries of chords in the piece’s final buildup.

It is said that Addinsell  modeled this piece on Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, and it is easy to hear the link. Miniature it may be, but this is a work that at once achieves intimacy and a majestic beauty.

For a glimpse of the film, have a look at:

The scene isn’t a full performance, rather (I think) the first time the piece is introduced as an American journalist and Polish officer meet for the first time in the ruins of Warsaw. Once again, quality isn’t fantastic.

Thursday 29th March

Melbourne Chamber Orchestra – Director: William Hennessy

Three cheers for the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra! It takes something special to make the well-worn favourites glitter once again and this group, with their program of Mozart and Beethoven, was out to do just that.

Beethoven’s Triple Concerto is certainly something of an odd beast, demanding a chamber music feel from both the soloists and the orchestra. It has very much become the domain of established piano trios, and while violinist Katherine Lukey, cellist Michelle Wood and pianist Timothy Young each did an admirable job of their own part, chamber-style interaction was noticeably absent. The three lined themselves up along the front of the orchestra in an arrangement that suggested each would be competing with the others for dominant solo position. It must be said that each gave a solid soloist’s performance; Lukey’s ascending lines and Wood’s melodic arcs in the first movement were executed with flourish and keen attention to style. Though there was certainly give and take of lines – particularly through Wood and Young’s discursive interjections in the third movement – the orchestra’s joy and ease of moving as rarely flowed through to the soloists.

After the interval, however, Mozart’s Jupiter symphony was a showcase of exactly what the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra does best. As has become the norm, the group played standing, with director William Hennessy leading through gesture and sheer musical willpower. The resulting interpretation was fresh and utterly engaging, with attention to detail and seemingly effortless balance between the winds and strings. Rather than rushing through the third and fourth movements, the orchestra sat on the tempo just enough to let the intricacies of Mozart’s writing sparkle and dance.

If you’re particularly quick, the MCO is presenting this program again at 2:30 this afternoon (April 1st), once again in the Melbourne Recital Centre.