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Ravel and Berg

Yesterday's music post was mostly a list of names of composers I'm currently listening to. Here are a few words about some of the music.

Considering how much I like Debussy, I'm not at all sure why it has taken me so long to dig into Ravel. I guess it's a bandwidth problem, amongst other things. So much music, so little time. Previous to this I was most familiar with Bolero and the string quartet. Now I'm listening to Daphnis et Chloé (the full version), and it instantly leaps into the pantheon for me. This is exactly the melodic, sensuous kind of music that I love! And of course I can hear all the ways it has been influential on later composers, too. In particular I'm struck by how much Jerry Goldsmith borrowed for his score for Ridley Scott's Legend (1985). (A score that was replaced in the American release by one by Tangerine Dream, but can now be heard in all its considerable glory on the alternate version of the film released to DVD a number of years ago.) Goldsmith borrowed parts of the wordless chorus, some of the harp washes, and some of the eerie crescendos. Fairy music! Well, he also borrowed from Bartok's Music for String Instruments, Percussion and Celeste, which I'm also now listening to. (Update: Just watched Miyazaki's Ponyo again, and Joe Hisaishi's score quotes Daphnis et Chloé as well, including the eerie wordless chorus.)

Then there's Alban Berg's opera, Lulu. I've only watched it once (it was the 1996 production at the Glyndebourne Festival), and I almost gave up on it in the first act. Musically I didn't find it very appealing, particularly the vocals. Unmelodic, that's for sure. What kept me going were some non-musical factors (although to be fair I was also interested in the music for non-musical reasons). I was interested in the story, because it was based on two plays by Frank Wedekind that were also adapted by G.W. Pabst into the brilliant silent film, Pandora's Box (1929), with Louise Brooks. So it was also interesting to me that this production of the opera consciously modeled the look of Lulu after Louise Brooks in the movie, starting out with her famous bob and later slicking it back in a more severe style that was also used in the film. (Berg composed the opera after the film came out, but I don't know whether he was influenced by it at all. His idea for the opera, which he didn't complete before he died (it wasn't completed until after his wife died in 1976), was to have a silent film interlude at one point to cover Lulu's time in prison.) I also found the costuming and mechanically elaborate stage interesting, and Christine Schäfer, who played Lulu, was fascinating in the role. Very sexual, of course, but in a much more forbidding way than Louise Brooks. The opera covers a lot more ground than the movie, but it does cover most of the events in the movie, with slight variations. Well, some not so slight. In the movie, for example, it's ambiguous who pulls the trigger when Dr Schön is killed (he and Lulu are wrestling over the gun), whereas in the opera Lulu plainly shoots him several times in the back. The Lulu in the opera is more of a monster than the Lulu in the film, although still with the "earth spirit" quality (Wedekind's first play about her was called Erdgeist) that makes her seem like a force of nature.

So while I found the music occasionally trying (especially since the opera is three hours long) and mostly not interesting even when not trying (with the exception of a couple of instrumental interludes), I did actually find Lulu interesting over all. I might even watch another production of it at some point, who knows. One thing that struck me about the music was that the style of the vocal lines was probably an influence on Kaija Saariaho in L'amour de loin, particularly the final scene where Clémence rails against God but then seems to transfer her anguished love to Him (Who offers her the ultimate "love from afar"). I'm not savvy enough to describe what I found similar, but Saariaho's music also avoids melody and the vocal lines have a similar plangent, anguished, abstract quality. What's different about her score, which makes it more appealing to me, is that it's more lush and chromatic than Berg over all. Berg not only lacks melodies, but he lacks anything that I can identify as harmonics as well.

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