Unsolicited musical review: Exaudi at Wigmore Hall

Exaudi is a choral group founded by James Weeks and Juliet Fraser ten years ago to perform the choral compositions of contemporary composers. It’s been a lively and successful ten years, so to celebrate, they had their tenth anniversary concert this evening at Wigmore Hall, and what an evening it was. They concentrate on contemporary composers, as said, but in the past have veered off into madrigal territory, particularly Monteverdi and Gesualdo, those stalwarts of madrigal composition. This is not unusual—20th century composers such as Stravinsky and, in particular, Schoenberg spent considerable time and effort coming to grips with Renaissance polyphony, particularly the later madrigals of Gesualdo, and this attention continues into this century as well.

(Full disclosure—I sang for James Weeks for about a year and a half before he left conducting the good old Orlando Chamber Choir to move north to Newcastle. Therefore, I’m predisposed to give a positive spin to all this. So shoot me.)

This evening’s concert illustrates why. Not only have madrigal composers such as Monteverdi and Gesualdo contributed some of the most glorious pieces of choral music ever written to the western canon, and not only have they, from time to time, inspired other composers through the centuries—they’re still inspiring them today. This evening’s performance consisted not only of some of Monteverdi’s and Gesualdo’s loveliest and most emotional madrigals, it also presented madrigal compositions from five contemporary composers, four of them commissioned for this evening’s event. And the form is alive and well. It has morphed into the 21st century, and the wide range of compositional styles of current music—but they’re still madrigals.
Just what makes a song a madrigal? First, it’s a secular song, usually a choral piece, although occasionally one comes across a madrigal for a solo voice. Usually, they’re sung a capella (although the solo pieces are often accompanied), by anywhere from two to eight singers. Most importantly, the form of the madrigal is what’s called “through-composed”—each line may be different, with each line mirroring or amplifying the text, down to individual words, if need be. And the text is critical—when madrigals first emerged, this emergence was part of a broader process of humanistic thinking, embodied in the writings of Erasmus and, critically for Italian madrigal composers, Petrarch. Many of the madrigal pieces of the late Italian Renaissance were poems by Petrarch, Tasso, or other Italian poets—but Petrarch was the ideal. Petrarch’s sonnets were highly regarded as exemplars of deep emotion, and if the madrigal form stood for anything, is was putting emotion into music. This is some of the most emotional music ever composed.

So this evening we had a full range—Monteverdi madrigals mostly from his Third Book of Madrigals, published when Monteverdi was 25 in 1592, and Gesualdo later madrigals (from Books Five and Six), which were probably composed around he same time but not published until 1611. (Gesualdo had one of the most interesting, if not outright bizarre, lives of any composer of any time—see Glen Watkins’ The Gesualdo Hex: Music, Myth, Memory for an interesting biography and musical appreciation of Gesualdo.) Gesualdo, while a composer of his time, often sounds, as James Weeks notes in his program notes, entirely his own, composing “music that has wandered so far from the outside world…that these books seem like alien airs from another planet.” So we were treated with some glorious old chestnuts: Monteverdi’s paeans to desire, Sovre tenere erbette and the glorious Rimante in pace; his sardonic twist on desire, Io mi son giovinette; and the tragic Vattene pur, crudel; and from Gesualdo, pretty much all doom and gloom, which is what one would expect—Merce! grido piagendo, Asciugatei begli occhi, and Languisce al fin, although these were partially offset by the more lively and humorous Ardita zanaretta, dedicated to a gnat who will get to expire between his lover’s “fair bosom.” Classics all.

The modern pieces were more varied, but all adhered to the madrigal form as outlined above. Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino’s Tre madrigal (2008) were based on some haiku of the 17th century Japanese poet Basho; Larry Groves gave us Sherpa Tensing stands up from the piano, says something quiet, and walks outside, a piece that did, in fact, include a refrain, and is clearly part of a longer work that has the potential to be equal parts bafflement and humour, based on the poetry of Matthew Welton; Christian Wolff brings us pieces of ordinary life, based on the poetry of John Ashbery; Morgan Hayes’ E vesuvio monte provided a lively re-enactment of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius as witnessed by Pliny the Elder; Evan Johnson gave us one of the quietest pieces I have ever heard, snatches of a series of musical conversations, sadly interrupted by some dim bulb’s mobile phone going off; and Michael Finnessey contributed a wonderful example of dueling madrigal choirs, in this case one singing something that sounds a whole lot like Gesualdo, and a second choir swooping around with amplifications of the first choir. All of it interesting, and much of it delightful.

All this was a pretty good representation, whether by design or by accident, of some modern compositional techniques, and why audiences (although not this particular audience) get flustered when hearing some contemporary music. In this context, all the pieces worked, because they were all anchored in a particular musical tradition. Exaudi has, in fact, begun what will hopefully become a longer term project, getting more composers to bring us more Italian madrigals—they’ve started the Exaudi Itlalian Madrigal Book, and hope to be adding to it over the years. This is wildly ambitious, of course, but is so obvious one has to wonder why no one has come up with this concept before. I’ll be following with this interest.

Oh, yes. The concert was superb, particularly the interplay between the two sopranos, Fraser and Amy Moore. Exaudi could clearly become one of the three or four best early music groups in London (and, therefore, the world) if they were to decide to concentrate on Renaissance polyphony. Sadly, or happily, depending on your point of view, they show no signs of doing any such thing, but rather seem set to continue their current mission of presenting contemporary vocal composers. But I hope they also continue to pursue the kind of linkages they explored this evening. I notice that one of their forthcoming concerts, in Amsterdam in November, will be music by John Cage and Guillaume de Machaut—composers separated by nearly 700 years. That’s the spirit. More please.

The above stamp honoring Claudio Monteverdi was issued by Germany in 1993.

Sen. George McGovern, 1922-2012: a liberal sorely missed

I voted for George McGovern. After his astonishingly lopsided defeat at hands of Richard “I am not a crook” Nixon in 1972, I got the bumper sticker, too: Don’t blame me. I’m from Massachusetts. Two years later, Nixon waved goodbye to his corrupted presidency from the open door of a plane, a man ironically liberal by today’s Republican standards.

No one could accuse McGovern of being unpatriotic in his profession of liberalism and progressivism. He knew the horror of being shot at: He flew dozens of missions over enemy territory in a B-24 Liberator during World War II. He knew the blood and treasure cost of war — any war. That deeply informed his opposition to the Vietnam War, the beginning of a series of American tragedies of undeclared, costly, and divisive wars of choice.

In today’s New York Times, David Rosenbaum reflected on McGovern’s liberalism.

To the liberal Democratic faithful, Mr. McGovern remained a standard-bearer well into his old age, writing and lecturing even as his name was routinely invoked by conservatives as synonymous with what they considered the failures of liberal politics.

He never retreated from those ideals, however, insisting on a strong, “progressive” federal government to protect the vulnerable and expand economic opportunity while asserting that history would prove him correct in his opposing not only what he called “the tragically mistaken American war in Vietnam” but also the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

McGovern’s only 17 electoral college votes came from my home state. And we’re proud of it. Notes Joseph Kahn of The Boston Globe:

We may not always pick a presidential winner or put forth a candidate (Dukakis, Kerry) capable of taking the Electoral College by storm (Romney gets his chance next month). But we’re as maverick-y as any when it comes to voting the courage of our convictions. And to seeing through the political chicanery of a candidate like Nixon, who’d barely deigned to speak McGovern’s name during that campaign and who would resign in disgrace two years later.

George McGovern was an irreplaceable, progressive American politician. I can only imagine the sadness with which he must have viewed the decades-long descent of American politics into rancor and empty rhetoric.

If there’s such a thing as reincarnation, Senator McGovern, please hurry back.

ArtSunday: Are we seeing more character development in genre fiction?

Not long ago a good friend asked me if I’d take a look at this novel he was working on. He felt it was one of the best things he’d written, but was getting no bites from publishers. He was committed to making it work, and he wondered if I had ideas about what might be missing. So I read it.

The novel set out to be a genre piece – sort of a mystery story with a little bit of thriller thrown in at the end – but I could see why nobody wanted it. Truth was, the plot and action didn’t crackle like a successful genre novel, and while it had some very promising characters, none of them were sufficiently developed to stand the book as a “literary” work.

He was caught in the no-man’s land of contemporary publishing, and as our friend Jim Booth has suggested, that’s no place to be in 2012. My observation was that, the perversions of the publishing industry notwithstanding, what this particular novel wanted was to be more literary.

If you don’t follow what I mean by my opposed usage of the terms “genre” and “literary,” here’s the short version. Genre literature encompasses things like murder mysteries, adventure thrillers, horror, science fiction, fantasy, romance, etc. They’re driven by plot, and the characters tend to be static, not really evolving or growing a great deal during the course of the narrative.

Literary fiction is more or less the opposite. It’s all about character development, and in some cases you can read hundreds of pages without anything noteworthy actually happening in the way of plot. And we find ourselves in a place economically where not only are publishers not generally interested in manuscripts that are caught in-between, the culture of writing itself is divvied into opposed camps. I think back to my creative writing program. At the risk of over-simplifying to illustrate the point, the lit types regarded the genre types as little better than $5 whores working the docks while the genre types sneered at the self-indulgent navel gazing of the “serious” writers. The mutual contempt was palpable.

Hopefully not all writing programs are like mine was in this respect, but the general tendency I describe will serve us for this conversation.

What I told my friend, then, is that there wasn’t enough in the way of action to sustain a true genre novel, but if he spent some time fleshing out the characters – especially a couple of the female protagonists – he might have something with significant literary depth to interest potential literary publishers.

He has now conducted a major revision and I’ll be diving into the manuscript right after I finish Christopher Moore’s Bite Me: A Love Story.

I found myself thinking back on the literary/genre discussion recently as I read Mark Todd’s Strange Attractors: A Story About Roswell. This book sets out to be a science fiction tale that, as the title might suggest, reimagines what went down in the New Mexico desert back in 1947. Todd follows an unusual path getting to Roswell, to be sure, and in the process forces us to think more closely than we might like about the implications of certain kinds of biotechnical research being conducted in the here and now. I won’t spoil the twist – instead, I’ll encourage you to read it for yourself. (Be patient – the first part of the book was driving me nuts because I couldn’t get a grip on what had happened, but then the wheels caught, as it were, and from that point on it got more and more interesting.)

In other words, Strange Attractors is a successful genre novel, mining the increasingly untenable terrain of science fiction. Intriguing premise (doubly so, given that it engages with real-world events), solid continuity of scientific plausibility, a narrative strategy that keeps you driving in the direction of revelation, unanticipated twists, etc. (One of the things I didn’t see coming was especially gratifying in that it explicitly violated some of the conventions of genre and forced me to question how formulaic sf can be. Loved that.)

But. I found myself repeatedly noticing, as I read, that much of what was most compelling wasn’t baked into the plot, per se. Yes, the mystery pulls you forward, but you find yourself diving ever deeper into the two main characters: research scientist Morgan Johanssen, who is unwittingly a critical pivot in human history (if you know the language of Chaos and Complexity theories, she is an archetypal strange attractor) and the odd alien ingenue, Gamma Ori. As with my friend’s novel-in-progress, I found myself drawn more to character than is perhaps common for genre lit.

All of which set me to thinking. The truth is that the genre novels I enjoy the most tend to have the most interesting characters. Neal Stephenson comes immediately to mind (not for REAMDE, of course – that’s a roadtrip into the heart of pure thrillerdom), but for the assortment of Waterhouses and Shaftoes (and the Baroque Cycle‘s divine Eliza) in CryptonomiconQuicksilverThe Confusion and The System of the World. Then there’s the cast around which the remarkable Anathem revolves. These novels are unarguably genre – very much plot-centered and not even remotely averse to bursts of intense action – but the characters are far from static. As the books unfold, the characters grow and our understanding of them deepens. Not only that, when you consider the conjoined saga of the Waterhouse and Shaftoe families, which spans centuries, we’re past character development and into the intricate evolution of bloodlines.

William Gibson, my other genre hero, also enjoys getting inside a character’s head (especially if it’s a female protagonist) and he does so in ways that extract all kinds of resonance from the dynamic between personality and material culture (a la Cayce’s phobia of labels, logos, trademarks and other trappings of consumer brands), which is as quirky a hook as you’re likely to encounter in the world of mainstream genre fiction.

Maybe I’m imagining things. Or maybe not. For sure, none of the works I’m talking about here are Salingeresque in their character obsession. And as I admit earlier, the literary/genre divide is abstracted to make a point. I mean, it’s not like nothing exciting happens in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

Still, I have hated for years the kinds of sniping I saw in grad school and the ways in which those kinds of ideological rivalries balkanized literature. That the publishing and marketing landscape reinforces this artificial stratification of literature only exacerbates the problem. I mean, I’m not sure that Twain thought of what he was doing in these terms. He probably imagined that a good story and interesting characters sort of naturally went hand in hand.

In any case, don’t take this as an attempt to pronounce anything conclusive about The State of Literature at the Present Time®. Rather, consider it more something that I think I’m noticing and that I like, if in fact it’s really happening. Also, as always, take it as an invitation to comment and enlighten me if I’m missing something.