Anthony Coleman of the Contemporary Improvisation faculty has invited CI students and faculty to engage with the playfulness of composer György Kurtág in a way that only the composer-improvisers in this program can. The result will be a "Post-Classical" concert taking place on April 28. Coleman writes here about why he believes he and his CI colleagues bring something authentically Kurtágian to Kurtág. We then hear from other participants in this concert.
Anthony Coleman on György Kurtág
Over the last few years I have found myself more and more compelled by the music of György Kurtág.
His music certainly doesn't hit you over the head like gangbusters; it is allusive, elusive, elliptical, full of stops and starts …
Kurtág didn't sign Opus 1 to a piece until he was past 30. As a result, we can imagine him as belonging to a later compositional generation than Ligeti, although the two met early on, and remained lifelong friends.
Why Kurtág for a Contemporary Improvisation concert?
Several years ago I began to notice a trend: pieces from Játékok were appearing more and more often as "encores" or "bonbons" on classical piano recitals. And, more ofter than not, the performers' relation to the game-like nature of these little gems seemed terribly forced.
Finding that privileged space where Composition and Improvisation interact is one of my principal interests and fascinations. Could we rescue the space of "Serious Play" found in these Játékok (Games)?
To whom do these pieces belong? To whom should they belong? Are they "Classical Music?" Or just Music?
References in Kurtág's music to Schumann and Webern led me down one path. But references to Cage and Christian Wolff led me down another (references to Beckett, Kafka, and Celan led me down still another).
And then, there's the Deep Hungarian-ness of this music—all those cimbaloms … "Folk Influenced?" That doesn't seem to be the right way to put it.
Atomized language and the relationship between language and silence have inspired previous CI concerts that I curated (Beckett Play, Monk/Webern, Special Oulipics). Is Kurtág a kindred spirit? Do we Composer-Improvisers have something to say in his language?
Anna Patton, Valerie Thompson on Koan from
Tre altri pezzi per clarinetto e cimbalom, Op. 38a: III
Part of a series of Kurtág’s compositions from 1996, inspired by the scrapbooks of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. We learned this movement by ear, the way we would learn a folk tune. We begin with an improvisation: a Koan is a riddle to be answered only with another riddle.
Bert Seager on Faltering Words/Homage to John Cage
One of the great things about the Contemporary Improvisation department is its big tent: everyone, all styles welcome. All are encouraged to find and nurture their own voice. Anthony Coleman, the curator for this concert, introduced many of us for the first time to Kurtág’s music last December. As you will hear in this concert, we often chose specific Kurtág pieces as models for our recompositions. Anthony encouraged us to remain aware of how we were relating to our model.
For me, Kurtág’s music invites a new, deep kind of listening and willingness to remain in the state of not knowing what to expect next. I mostly write and play music that includes a repeating song-form that acts as the harmonic structure for my melodic improvisation: in a sense, finding freedom in a setting that includes knowing what to expect next. Kurtág put this on its head.
A line by Kurtág called Faltering Words/Homage to John Cage in his Signs, Games and Messages for solo viola particularly appealed to me. The challenge was to go from the halting solo line for viola to a richer piano sound, without losing either the arc of the music, Kurtág’s sense of the unknown, or my sense of expressing a more personal musical purpose. I hope you will find something of Kurtág and me in this music. I am grateful for the sense of wonder that Kurtág’s music—and Anthony’s direction—has inspired.
Hankus Netsky on Doina
A Doyne is a concert piece based on the traditional Romanian shepherd’s lament. The form has also become a traditional part of Hungarian, Greek, and Jewish repertoire. We approach Kurtág’s Doyne from the point of view of a Jewish folk music ensemble.
Kody Glazer on After “Játékok”
When will I ever again get the chance to play piano in Jordan Hall? Right?!? With that in mind, I thought of the idea to compose my own Játékok-esque pieces. The first four movements were transcribed from a tape of myself improvising after listening to an album of Kurtág’s Játékok. My goal was to reproduce the mindspace/mood/place that Kurtág’s music brought me to.
The last movement was inspired by a live performance of Alvin Lucier’s Silver Streetcar for the Orchestra—a piece for solo triangle in which the performer pulses a triangle for 15 to 20 minutes in order to reveal the acoustic characteristics of the triangle and the performance space. I wanted to write a similar piece for piano which uses minimal material to achieve some kind of the same goal. Hope it works!
Anthony Coleman on …quasi una fantasia
…quasi una fantasia… is a 10-minute, 4-movement masterpiece for piano and chamber orchestra. There is much I could say about it, but I don’t want to distract you. As they say about small towns on the highway, “blink and you’ll miss it”
Daniel Pencer on A kerten…
“In the garden, nothing egregious quote
idol heat looms,
will cobwebs little wrinkled hands
I was bored and dab the foliage.
The puddle gently pile of dust”
Leo Hardman-Hill on Mi Is A Szö
This is a piece modeled off of Kurtág’s composition for actress/singer Ildikó Monyók, composed to the text of Samuel Beckett’s poem “What Is the Word.” Both the poem and Kurtág’s composition deal with finding one’s speech after it has been lost. Samuel Beckett originally wrote the poem for the actor/director Joe Chaikin, after Chaikin had suffered an attack of Aphasia. Kurtág wrote the piece at the request of Monyók, after she too was struck by Aphasia. In my piece, certain musicians play instruments that they are not accustomed to playing, so it is as if they, too, have lost their speech and have to search for “the word.”
American Roots Ensemble on Hommage à Nancy Sinatra
Kurtag’s dedication. Our reinterpretation. Are you ready boots? Start walkin’
Alexandra Greenwald on Uh Huh Oh No
This piece was inspired by the vocal inflection used by two old ladies gossiping about things that are none of their business.
Cristi Catt on Badminton by Starlight under the Poplar Trees
For me a connection to the music of Kurtág is his fascination with chant. As I learned Kurtág’s haunting Attila Fragments #8 with its images of silvery poplars, bits of Hildegard von Bingen’s O Choruscans Lux Stellarum (Glistening Starlight) came to mind. I tried to imagine what kind of game these two composers might play together … badminton by starlight under the poplar trees?
Dylan McKinstry on 22
Inspired by the playful and adventurous nature of Kurtág’s Signs, Games, and Messages, while attempting to recreate the conceptual single-ness of purpose found in the Játékoks, this piece was written after a dream involving one performer surrounded by guitars. It’s meant to explore the possibilities of beating, harmonics, and deliberate pitch distortion.
Mark Goldstein on 3
This piece is an attempt to expose similarities to Kurtág’s music in the twelve-tone work by Stravinsky entitled Epitaphium. Stravinsky is seen as a master of orchestration, but there is something dry and matter-of-fact about his plodding, exposed sonic approach in this late work that is so influenced by the works of Boulez, Schoenberg, and Webern. Although Kurtág’s explorations of texture and the harmonic series reach largely beyond such a sound world, one can hear a similar aesthetic, both in the lurking of the voices in each other’s registral space(s) and in the manipulation of time to create a feeling of infinity.
Robin Lohrey on Pallaksch, Pallaksch for Bach’s Gamba Sonata no. 1, Google Translate, and a Carpenter
What is the cognitive process before/during the product(ion) of an artistic work?
This piece is an attempt to illuminate my interpretation of some of the artistic influences present in the mind of György Kurtág, particularly in relation to his setting of Paul Celan’s poem Tubingen, Jänner. There are three separate events that occur simultaneously during the piece, each containing four elements of variation. The Carpenter, which references the Carpenter in Celan’s poem, is given four tools to create a product within the time frame of the piece. Bach, was, and is a huge influence on Kurtág’s work (see ECM New Series 1619). Bach’s Gamba Sonata is deconstructed into four phrases, one from each movement. There is also a set of four potential resonant phrase endings, referencing Kurtág’s precise attention to reverberation. The Google Translate audio material is sourced from Celan’s poem, originally in German (Celan’s first language), translated into Hungarian (Kurtág’s first language), French (Celan lived in France for most of his life, Kurtág has lived there since 2002), and English (a language both are familiar with, and it’s my first language). It was then modified using Audacity’s "paulstretch" effect to give a microscopic perspective on the language material itself. The schedule of the elemental variation within each of these events is based on a fibonacci spiral, in that the linear arc is dictated by the first two perpendicular lines of the sequence giving a climax of optional variance at the point two thirds of the way through the piece. A human idea could begin in such a way, inspiration that strikes and fades, only to come back stronger and expanded upon. This leads me to believe that perhaps there is a fractal nature to the creative process.
Kirsten Lamb on Message-Consolation à Christian Sutter
This piece is a recomposition of Kurtág’s Message-Consolation. The pitches are original to Kurtág, as are most of the dynamics and gestures. In this version, I chose to incorporate voice in addition to the bass, and to experiment with rhythm, phrase structure, and repetition.
Simon Hanes on Rapporto
The only true way that I can relate to Kurtág’s work is through the commonalities which I find between him and myself. That may be a bit egotistical, but it is what makes me feel inspired to try to develop as a composer. So be it.
A funny thing happened as I was preparing to write this essay: I was listening to the Kafka-Fragmente, Part 1. Forty-six seconds in I stopped to listen to Agua de beber as sung by Astrud Gilberto. I noticed a strange correlation—a similar relationship between foreground and background. Kurtág utilizes his ample compositional technique to create the impression of a foreground/background relationship, while Gilberto uses more conventional methods: the voices are in the front and the band is in the back. But I hear a distinct similarity in the strength of line, melodic growth, and use of space.
Anyway, here are the three important things I find to be similar between Kurtág and myself, in “composerly” terms:
Kurtág is interested in utilizing moments/fragments in his compositions. He does not shy away from Webern-esque brevity, but treats his material more like Stockhausen would—“moment form.” I am also very interested in the idea of using fragments, although mine tend to be signifiers of genres of music that stand outside the “Concert Music” context.
Kurtág is a quoter, as am I. Many of his pieces make allusions, vague or direct, to the works of past composers or to ancient music. Like Stravinsky said, good composers borrow; great composers steal. I’d be happy to be either of those.
Lastly, Kurtág went through a period where he decided to develop his personal style in a way that could be seen as a step back rather than a step forward: Right around the time of the Kafka-Fragmente, his music started to show less of a Webernian influence in favor of a more fluid, melodic, polytonal style. This could be the result of trying to combine disparate musical styles and compositional techniques.
This is exactly what I’m trying to achieve in Rapporto—to create a continuum where elements of samba, exotica, Italian film music, and contemporary concert music can exist side by side.
But my method in Rapporto differs from Kurtág’s in that I am allowing my musicians much more freedom than he would. This is a risk, certainly, but one which I’m willing to take, because I believe that if I can get the musicians to understand exactly what I need, the continuous flowing impression of different musics combining and shifting and adding will be seamless. It’s gonna be amazing.