Monday, January 11, 2010


Krzysztof Penderecki - Matrix 5 (Polish Radio National Symphony Orchestra; London Symphony Orchestra/Krzysztof Penderecki)
I once heard David Lynch tell a story about listening to Penderecki’s music at earth-shaking volume, getting lost in the music until he suddenly realized his wife was shouting for him to turn it down. It’s no surprise that Lynch likes Penderecki. In fact, his recent films make a good compliment to this music in the way they (mostly) abandon traditional narrative structure in favor of an abstract headspace that Lynch refuses to explain, for fear his explanation will become authoritative and exclude a viewer’s personal, subjective response. Edgard Varèse once said that music could only represent itself and that might be true in if the music existed in an uninhabited vacuum. If Krzysztof Penderecki conducts an orchestra in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it still irritate Mrs. Lynch? Or does music only represent something when it is processed by a listening human being?

This compilation of performances from the 1970s is the fifth installment in the “Matrix” series from EMI, a series intended, according to the liner notes, “to open up new horizons to the music lover who is looking beyond the standard repertoire.” In Penderecki’s case, he doesn’t “open up new horizons” so much as “fill the old horizons with the glow of burning cities.” I can respond in any number of ways. I could dwell on the fact that homes and people are being incinerated, for example, or I could focus on that mesmerizing aura of color. “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” is a thrilling piece of music only marred by a programmatic title that deprives it of possibility. I know what Penderecki wants me to think about when I hear it, (the aforementioned incinerating people) but I first purchased this album shortly after receiving an iPod shuffle as a gift and as the actual CD and case rested on a shelf at home and the music came with me everywhere in MP3 form, I had only a vague recollection of the individual titles to these compositions, without which, they can mean just about anything.

The fact that so many interpretive options are available is exactly what fascinates me so much about this music. Maybe I’m the product of one too many touchy-feely Reader Response classroom chats, but I love the idea of an exchange in which the listener is at least as important as the composer and performers. Penderecki makes abstract, challenging music that does not utilize any of the emotional signifiers of traditional harmony. The listener gives the music meaning.

When he made Music for Airports, Brian Eno set out to make music that was as ignorable as it was interesting, music that would reward different levels of attentiveness in different ways. In doing so, he also succeeded, perhaps by accident, in creating music that would compliment differently whatever the listener brought to it. The music was a setting instead of a story. The compositions on Matrix 5 are also Map Music. There’s no logical forward development, just a dissonant sound-world in which things happen. If those sounds have specific meaning to Penderecki, I don’t care to know about it. I choose to live inside this music when I hear it, making meaning from whatever I brought with me.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


John Coltrane - A Love Supreme
I had a friend in elementary school whose parents were pretty well off. They bought a high end stereo because that's what you're supposed to do when you have money, and on the first and only day I ever heard music in their house, my friend and I played chess while we listened to the one CD they purchased with the stereo. They got it, I think, because my friend played the tenor saxophone in the school band. I was confused by the strange music, and couldn't make sense of the way the chords and melodies didn't resolve right (not that I would have put it into those terms at that age.) It was kind of thrilling, though, because it made me feel like I was getting a peek into something foreign and strange and it reminded me that there was a whole world out there that I would discover some day. I remembered the title, A Love Supreme, though I didn't hear it again for many years.

I had a roommate in college who had the unfortunate experience of living with me during the honeymoon period of my first Big Jazz Phase. Constant Mingus. Perpetual Miles. A Love Supreme. Coltrane didn't have that funky mud-and-incense thing I got from electric Miles, and he didn't scrape my guts out like my new hero Ornette Coleman could do with that wiry pianoless quartet, but I had to give him a shot, because that's what you're supposed to do when you have a Big Jazz Phase. My roommate didn't like any of that stuff; he mostly liked Queen and Frank Sinatra. "I don't get jazz." I tried to tell him that there was nothing to get, but I wasn't sure if I really believed that. I didn’t "get" A Love Supreme, after all.

I had a professor who, while explaining to why she passionately hated Christians, told me that "religious art" was garbage. I argued with her, because that's what you're supposed to do when you're in college. Look, lady, if you want to hate an entire group of people without even having met all of them, that’s your business, but don't knock The Brothers Karamazov or The Staples Singers. I don't think she was convinced that the former was religious or that the latter was art. A Love Supreme popped into my head, but I just wasn't moved to go to bat for that one. I was still confused by it, the way I was confused by religion.

I had a quiet morning to myself, all alone in an empty house and it was early, still dark outside. A Love Supreme. A cup of coffee. A highlighting pen and Paul Tillich in weathered paperback. A Love Supreme. A period of religious inquiry and spiritual ambiguity. A Love Supreme. Hey, this is more interesting than I remember. A Love Supreme. Who can read with this going on? A Love Supreme. And then John Coltrane played that last solo and it was a prayer and it made sense the way doctrines and creeds never seem to make sense. It's so simple: A Love Supreme.