Another Timbre TimHarrisonbre
at143 Messiaen + Linda Catlin Smith
Linda Catlin Smith ‘Among the Tarnished Stars’ (1998) 28.13
Olivier Messiaen ‘Quatuor pour la fin du temps’ (1941) 48.38
Apartment House: Anton Lukoszevieze (piano), Mira Benjamin (violin)
Heather Roche (clarinet) & Philip Thomas (piano)
Interview with the members of Apartment House
I asked you to record Messiaen’s ‘Quatuor pour la fin du temps’ after hearing a performance at which I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated by the playing style. It was performed perfectly competently and in what I suppose is the standard way, with a lot of dramatic and rather romantic phrasing, quite a bit of vibrato and so on. This is probably what Messiaen expected, but for me these stylistic adornments got in the way of the music and I wanted to be able to hear it afresh, played in a simpler and less rhetorical way. I felt that might give the music a new strength and clarity. When I asked if you were interested in recording a new version, I left it up to you to work out the details of your interpretation. So how did you approach it, and what did you discover?
Philip Thomas: In many ways I chose not to approach it differently from any other time I had performed it. What was enticing was to play it with colleagues with whom I have considerable musical empathy and knowing that what they would bring to the table would be very different from what musicians with whom I had worked previously on the piece had brought. So more than anything I was curious as to what would happen, knowing that most probably it would be different in some way, both from previous performances I had been involved with and from standard practice (if such a thing could be said to exist regarding this piece).
I have always regarded Quatuor pour la fin du temps as in many ways an experimental piece – the first movement especially, and parts of the seventh, in which distinct and entirely separate layers of music co-exist across a generally flat aural plane. The static, timeless elements of Messiaen’s music are those which are most attractive to me (see also much of the landscape elements of the Catalogue d’oiseaux). Beyond those factors, I was curious to hear how the string players might approach their solos (movements 5 and 8), and then also how we would deal with the more extravagant, possibly vulgar, elements of the music. (I recall John White likening the Turangalila Symphony to Disneyland.)
But in terms of how I approached the piano part I really did nothing different other than to respond to my fellow musicians, but that’s true of all performance. I was keen not to go into rehearsals with a particular conception of the piece that might in any way be seen to adopt a dogmatic, or ‘experimental’ practice – that I felt would be the death of the music, and also of our performance practice as an ensemble. I trusted the musical sensibilities of the musicians and sought to figure out the music through praxis. I assumed that probably the string players would adopt a practice of generally non-vibrato, though I hadn’t anticipated either how radically that changed the sound, nor quite how difficult that would be. I also knew that in order to play the music in ways that engage our curiosities, we’d probably be adopting a practice that might contravene historical practices and even specific directions in the score. Though when Messiaen writes ‘très expressif’ in the cello part of movement 5, that, for me, has nothing to do with vibrato, rubato, dynamic inflections, etc and everything to do with what is inherent in the music. That is to say, a simple change of harmony alongside a sustained melodic note has the potential to be a deeply expressive, achingly felt moment, and our job is to allow the music to do that as simply as possible.
Heather Roche:I think there were two distinct but interconnected aspects of approach. One being my approach to the clarinet part. This was to make an attempt to have a fresh take on the score, as though I'd never seen or heard the piece before, but was also inescapably a reaction to the recordings I knew. For me, interpreting the clarinet part meant obeying Messiaen's dynamic markings as closely as was possible, creating very long lines with the breath and not adding any extraneous gestural material. I wanted to let the composer's lines, his musical material, his bird calls, to speak/sing for themselves. While the music is not easy by any means for the clarinet - maintaining a quiet dynamic while jumping between extreme registers, for example, is rather tricky here - I wanted as much as possible to go to extremes in my attempt to obey his dynamics and tempi while making it sound with ease, giving it a kind of floating quality.
The other aspect is in the approach to the other musicians. But in this case, it wasn't difficult, as my three colleagues are musicians whose playing and thinking I love, and we work together in a way that fosters trust, so that the process is arduous, but one in which we all felt we could be open in our ideas and wishes.
Anton Lukoszevieze: I always approach a work as notated material. This may sound obvious, but I try not to have any preconceived ideas about 'how' to interpret a work.
Of course I play in a certain way, as does everyone, it is their signature. After working on a piece for some time I get a clearer picture of its identity. I am wary of falling into the gestural trap. Expressivity is embedded in the music, not in me. Richard Strauss and Webern sound very different, even though they wrote music within the same period.
Quartet for the End of Time, what a great title! I see this work as a series of woodcuts: Messiaen delineates each part very clearly, as if cut with a tool, each instrument or movement he uses a different type or size of tool. Within the final print of each woodcut or movement he chooses different colours to fill in our lines.
The famous Louange movement for cello and piano is to my ears a very slow blues, the expressivity is within the piano part, not the cello part, the harmonic changes create that expressivity, rather like Bill Evans' playing, but with a little more reserve. In other movements I sometimes use glissandi to connect notes, as I can often hear an Ondes Martenot in my head.
The other day I read a quote by Wittgenstein on death: "Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present." For me the end of time is happening now.
Mira Benjamin: My friend Jennie Gottschalk, in her book Experimental Music Since 1970, has written:
‘Experimental music is challenging to pin down because it is not a school or a
trend or even an aesthetic. It is, instead, a position—of openness, of inquiry, of
uncertainty, of discovery. Facts or circumstances or materials are explored for their potential sonic outcomes... These explorations are oriented toward that which is unknown, whether it is remote, complex, opaque, or falsely familiar.’
This principle of experimentation with and through music is important to me because it holds at its core the value of inclusivity. So yes, I agree wholeheartedly with Philip that we can approach a practice of this piece, like any other, as experimental. An experimental practice, for me, foregrounds active listening and an ultimate curiosity about what music can potentially be.
It is in this spirit that I have approached both these recordings — Messiaen’s ‘Quatuor…’ and Linda Catlin Smith’s ‘Among the Tarnished Stars’. Both pieces might be heard as predominantly gestural, and invite a certain sense of dramaturgy in the approach... yet both also present very intricate gradations of sonority. In foregrounding this latter quality of the music in my listening, I discover unexpected ways of relating to these pieces, which then guide how I approach the material as a player.
Linda Catlin Smith