“You cannot imagine the unimaginable”

I almost criminally let the 50th anniversary of 2001: A Space Odyssey pass without comment (and without rewatching the film). But here I am almost two months late.

The best thing I’ve read for the anniversary is Dan Chiasson’s piece for the New Yorker, rich with details I’d never heard.

In a movie about extraterrestrial life, Kubrick faced a crucial predicament: what would the aliens look like? Cold War-era sci-fi offered a dispiriting menu of extraterrestrial avatars: supersonic birds, scaly monsters, gelatinous blobs. In their earliest meetings in New York, Clarke and Kubrick, along with Christiane, sketched drafts and consulted the Surrealist paintings of Max Ernst. For a time, Christiane was modelling clay aliens in her studio. These gargoyle-like creatures were rejected, and “ended up dotted around the garden,” according to Kubrick’s daughter Katharina. Alberto Giacometti’s sculptures of thinned and elongated humans, resembling shadows at sundown, were briefly an inspiration. In the end, Kubrick decided that “you cannot imagine the unimaginable” and, after trying more ornate designs, settled on the monolith. Its eerily neutral and silent appearance at the crossroads of human evolution evokes the same wonder for members of the audience as it does for characters in the film. Kubrick realized that, if he was going to make a film about human fear and awe, the viewer had to feel those emotions as well.

Of course, it’s also an appropriate time to link back to my piece on the music from the film. (Part two, on A Clockwork Orange, is finally underway.)

Review: Misunderstandings, Trickery, and Guile

Lastly, my review of Irish National Opera’s The Marriage of Figaro, starring Tara Erraught and Jonathan Lemalu. INO is firing on all cylinders, and off to an excellent launch year. (I’m especially looking forward to Duke Bluebeard’s Castle in October.)

Erraught and Lemalu were a delightful pair, exchanging chaste kisses and loving glances as often as frustrated huffs and glowers. Their voices danced around the trickier passages so readily it was easy to miss the virtuosity.

Review: Bill Whelan’s Orchestral Music

Next, Bill Whelan’s recent album of orchestral music. Short version: it wasn’t quite for me, but I thought it did what it did very well, and it was catchy as hell.

There is in Whelan’s work an admirable self-assurance; a tightness in orchestration and harmonic structure, and an unapologetic sweetness in melody. It may be too much for some, too tidy, too sentimental, too carefully designed. These are two sides of the same coin. It’s Whelan’s control of musical design, and his direct emotionality, that have allowed him to create the most popular Irish piece of orchestral music of the past fifty years.

Review: Leaving Nothing Behind

As I begin to catch up again on my writing (I’ve been at work, just not very publicly), I realise that I have again left behind a number of recent reviews I’ve written for the Journal of Music.

First, the Kaleidoscope Gala concert felt like it was made for me; I’d be very surprised if it isn’t my favourite concert of the year.

Two refrains amongst classical music listeners are that contemporary music is difficult to programme alongside more traditional works because of the stark difference in style, and that alternative concert venues provide suboptimal listening experiences, and potentially noisy audiences. Smorgasbord concerts like this epitomise the nonsense of these arguments. Four more variegated works would be hard to find, but the audience – as full as I have seen the Sugar Club – was rapt.

Irish Opera 2: The Sleeping Queen

And in January, I saw a much more intimate staging of Michael William Balfe’s operetta, The Sleeping Queen, another Irish work. This one was a bit older and a bit less ambitious in scope than Eithne (though, I think, much more successful in execution).

During her introductory remarks, Hunt noted the strong possibility of influence from Balfe’s operetta on the later work by Gilbert and Sullivan. I’m convinced: the works share a playfulness and a strong sense of tonal melody; even the libretto shares lyrical characteristics with the later pair’s work (A neighbouring king ‘Proposes an alliance / Offensive and defensive / With treaties most extensive / Immense and comprehensive…’).

The work has some nice musical tricks, though it burns its best one very early on: the second song features a rapid-fire duet between Agnes and the Regent; a ‘Repeat-after-me’-style oath, broken down to the syllable and shot back and forth between the two characters without room for breath or break.

Irish Opera 1: Eithne

Looking at the most recent entry on this blog, I see that somehow I’ve let six months slip by between posts. Time to start catching up.

Back in October, I was lucky enough to cover a unique event for the Journal of Music: a restoration of a century-old opera written in the Irish language, Eithne, by Robert O’Dwyer. While the music didn’t work for me, the night was one to remember. Audience and musicians alike seemed to feel that they were participating in something special:

In hearing the music, perhaps the most striking thing is often the language itself. There was a minor vogue in the early twentieth century for writing opera in the Irish language, but, for a variety of reasons, it never caught on. It is a pity, because the language suits the medium, perhaps surprisingly well. It is bold, earthy and rich, with hard, throaty consonants and long, warm vowels.

When it came to the music, I couldn’t help but feel out-of-step with the audience’s rapturous response, in spite of both the historical significance of the work and the quality of its performance. A review of the 1909 première described O’Dwyer, somewhat damningly, as influenced by ‘what he knows of Wagner’. That more or less gets at the core of the music, in ways both positive and negative. The music of Eithne is superficially Wagnerian: it has Wagner’s warmth of tone, his full-bodied orchestral sound, but it lacks Wagner’s mastery of structure and counterpoint.

What it really lacks, though, is Wagner’s adventurousness. Any time the harmony approaches something daring, it gets cold feet and backs away. In the turbulent musical climate a century ago, it must have felt downright old-fashioned.

The Passing Sound of Forever

My July was so busy that parts of it are still leaking over now that we’re in the second week of August.

As a result, I never had a free moment to link to my latest piece for the Journal of Music. It’s a review of Jane O’Leary’s recent CD of chamber music, The Passing Sound of Forever.

O’Leary knows her musicians well, and writes to their strengths. A considerable part of the album is spent exploring tiny sounds – col legno bowing in the passing sound of forever…, or the alto flute’s echoing of the violin’s resonances in A Winter Sketchbook, or the impossibly distant cello harmonics at the opening of …from hand to hand.

In this way, texture and colour and sensation provide the interest for most of the album, and narrative, clearest in the first work and the last, often seems a secondary concern. So there’s a palpable sense of alarm when the passing sound of forever… develops, seemingly from nowhere, a propulsive, energetic beat. Content until now to be appreciated like a painting, the music suddenly grabs you by the scruff of the neck and pulls you away with it.

Idle Thoughts on Silence, John Cage, Sound Design, and 2001: A Space Odyssey

I don’t know if John Cage ever saw 2001, but I expect if he did, he’d have loved how Kubrick used silence. As I said in my main 2001 article, the bulk of the plot of the movie takes place during a long silence, 46 minutes without any accompaniment music. There is dialogue, and there are sound effects, but both are scant, and the latter is often indistinguishable from background noise anyway. The only relief is for the intermission. (Some versions of the film omit the intermission; I think the length of that silence alone is reason enough to include it.)

But during the long silence, there are different types of background noise. They get less comment than the soundtrack because they’re less obvious, but Kubrick’s types of silence are as carefully chosen as his music. In the first half of the “Discovery” act alone, there’s:

  • The electronic hum of the ship
  • Frank’s oxygen supply hissing, and his breathing, during his spacewalk
  • Dead, echoless silence while Frank and Dave conspire against Hal
  • White noise as Hal reads their lips

The white noise even carries on when the intermission begins, a little of the tension of the film carried into the real world.

The weight and tension and meaning in the silence in these scenes is as significant as any music could be.

Consider the later scene, as Dave re-enters the ship without his helmet: we sense the vacuum of space because while we see a jet of gas, and we see Bowman tossed around like a ragdoll, and we see him pull the lever to close the hatch, we hear nothing. Just for those few seconds, and bracketed by probably the two noisiest effects in the film (alarms in Dave’s pod, and oxygen rushing into the airlock), sound is totally absent from the film.

These scenes are pretty much a demonstration of the philosophy behind John Cage’s (in)famous 4′33″: there’s no such thing as silence, and the world is full of interesting sounds if we just listen. And in complete silence lies death.

Gash Collective

Niall Byrne, in the Irish Times:

“People think that women don’t want or have no interest in music technology, even in terms of sound engineering, production or setting up their decks,” says Cork woman Ellen King.

King started Gash with some female friends (and makes music under the name ELLLL) and was inspired by similar collectives around the world, such as SIREN in London, Discwoman in New York and Apeiron Crew in Copenhagen, along with Female:Pressure, an international resource of talent and mailing list for multi-disciplinary women who share knowledge and advice.

Electronic music is a field that was largely pioneered by women, so it’s sad that something like this has to exist, but at least groups like Gash Collective are doing something to redress the issue.