Stillness and Eternal Motion
Ascoltare Newsletter #6
Winter gives you a lot of opportunities for appreciating silence. The limiting environment begets introspection, especially given the current circumstances. I hope this piece offers you a loud reminder for silent pondering. Grab a cup of coffee or tea and dive in.
(TL;DR - Listen to this and this)
I’m going to mention two composers that don’t have a lot in common, except the two compositions that uniquely link them.
Gustav Mahler was the bridge between the late romantic era and the beginning of the atonal, free forms of musical composition.
Arvo Part was inspired by the progeny of Mahler, including Shostakovich.
Their styles are in opposition in a sense that Part is a minimalist and Mahler created grand symphonies, with abundant orchestration.
But these two “foreigners” meet in their early works.
Dreams of the Soul
Mahler’s Piano Quartet seems like it was written by a different person. A hidden gem of simplicity and fiery intensity.
It has a simple beginning. The piano introduces a murmur and the violin “cries” as viola and cello answers, slowly getting more anxious to break free of the stillness.
At 1:18, the run begins. Chaos ensues.
Then, at 2:10, we return home, back to reality.
This inflation and deflation continues. Movement and stillness.
At 5:50, a “drunken” march begins. Notice the constant 1-2 rhythm implied from the piano chords and cello’s lower register.
Something is coming, the whole thing descends to madness.
Then, there’s the conclusion, with major scale undertones, but very much highlighting sorrow and yearning.
Unfortunately, there’s only one movement from this quartet. We don’t know whether Mahler never finished the rest of it or the bombing of Dresden destroyed the copies. Truth is, there are mentions of quintets and other chamber music in his journal.
(There were some notes of a second movement that have led many composers to attempt to finish Mahler’s composition, most notably Schnittke’s )
Then, on the other side, we have Arvo Part with his “Fratres”.
The genesis of an idea, a dream, a transformation of the soul. Movement through stillness.
Fratres don’t have fixed instrumentation but for the sake of this comparison, piano and violin will suffice. This version is perhaps one of my favorites.
The first time I head this piece, I experienced what I can only describe as a spiritual transformation, something the composer may have intended to happen.
It begins with the arpeggiation of the tonic triad, showcasing the tintinnabuli style of composing.
It’s almost a philosophical statement, the sound that contains everything.
Imagine you’re in your car, passing through the woods and the sun is quickly hiding and reappearing behind the trees, flashing your eyes.
Through the white light emitted from this music, you can see all colors.
And then BAM, at 1:21, it stops.
The piano slowly forms a fluid structure that enables eternal motion. The soul, the violin, is playfully discovering its innocence.
At 2:40, it tries to break free falling into formulaic expression but the piano is simply not having it.
Then, at 3:44, you put your foot on the gas pedal and you try to escape. The violin tries to burn this whole thing down but the piano is following in serenity. It follows knowing where this will go.
And then, when everything stops once more at 4:17, the piano, life, continues as nothing happened.
This whole interdependent relationship matures as the piece progresses. Violin and piano are now working together to harmonize the piece.
Both pieces are characterized by simple phrases, often repeating liberally. There’s a constant flux of supplementary movement from the “background” instruments.
In my opinion, these compositions were a product of an internal understanding of reality. Perhaps unintentionally, they borrow from programme music in the way they try to describe emotional inflection in the face of movement and serenity that comes from intermittent breaks.
The paradox here is that we need the chaotic crescendos to appreciate stillness and vice versa. And that applies to music too…
Most of the music we consume today is a often created to be background noise. Something to supplement our downtime.
In this case, these two compositions should, in my opinion, be listened with pure focus. Like watching a movie or being part of a religious ritual.
They don’t contain a story, but they provide you with the tools to discover your own.
I invite you to check out a few more compositions from these 2 composers:
Share this with every musician, uninitiated pop listener, classical music connoisseur, snob aristocrat, the bourgeoisie or proletariat: