Notes from the underground

Hello again, readers! I hope that your Spring Breaks were fun and relaxing. It’s been four weeks since my last column, so I’m excited to be writing again. I’m about to lose control, and I think I like it. The last time we had an extended break (Christmas), I came back ready to proselytize on behalf of classical music and serious listening in general. I left that crusade behind so that I could preach the virtues of a fiber-rich diet, but my editors unfortunately didn’t want me to fill up space with talk of nutrition, so I’ll just stick to music for the time being.

This week, we’re exploring one of the most accessible and beautiful CD’s that I’ve heard recently. It’s a disc of the music of Einojuhani Rautavaara, a Finnish composer with an enormous name. That is really all I knew about him until I listened to this CD (CD R27 1), which totally blew me away. Like many of my favorite composers, including Ravel and Lutoslawski, Rautavaara creates sound-worlds that are made up of shifting colors and textures in addition to the usual melodies and chords. A good composer will give the ear something that it deems “familiar” throughout the course of a given piece. In these works, what is familiar might not be a melody or chord progression so often as it is a particular texture or color in the ensemble.

The first work on the disc, “Cantus Arcticus,” is a concerto for recorded birdsong and orchestra. Unlike the composer Olivier Messiaen, who emulated birdsong with standard instruments, Rautavaara does not imitate the recorded sounds with the orchestra. Rather, he creates a delicate, balanced relationship between the two “forces” of birds and humans; each supports the other as they blend together and yet remain obviously separate voices. The orchestral music here would be quite campy (almost “Hollywood”) in any other context, but it feels extremely sincere in this work. Rautavaara succeeds in finding a way of using classically “pretty” harmonies in a novel way, and the result is an extremely beautiful piece of music that evokes the mysterious Arctic world that inspired the title.

The second work on this CD, the String Quartet No. 4, is a work that greatly contrasts the first. The harmonic language, while still quite traditional, is spiced up considerably in comparison to the “Cantus Arcticus.” However, the three-movement work is toned-down in all other areas; most of the work is spent in a very limited range of notes and emotions. This serves to create a very subtle sound-world, and when Rautavaara allows us to venture beyond his self-imposed limitations, the emotional height seems even higher relative to where he started us out. It’s as if you were fed oatmeal for a week and then were given a piece of fruit – the fruit would seem especially sweet and delicious in comparison to your previous diet. Although the last movement has more energetic sections than the other two movements, it nevertheless maintains a feeling of uneasy stasis. One is never certain where the piece is going; it usually simply continues to do what it has been doing, which is surprising in an interesting, post-modern way. One expects change and is surprised by its absence, just as one might expect dissonance and be surprised by consonance.

The final work on this CD is Rautavaara’s Symphony No. 5, which contains one of the most arresting openings that I have ever heard in a piece of music. Huge major chords swell throughout the orchestra and then explode into clouds of resonant dissonance. The work seems to deal with the potential for chaos inherent in any period of calm; the opening sequence sets up a feeling of perpetual unease throughout the rest of the Symphony. Rautavaara is an excellent orchestrater, and even when very little is happening in the way of musical development, the orchestral colors shift around the fundamental musical idea until the piece is ready to progress. In many ways, this work reminds me of one of my favorite musical compositions, the Symphony No. 3 of Witold Lutoslawski. Both begin with tremendous statements, then play around for a while before descending into extended slow sections. But where Lutoslawski ends big, Rautavaara concludes his Symphony with a passionate, sorrowful melody in the violins that eventually dies out into nothingness. Rautavaara’s Symphony is the more immediately appealing of the two, as it generally uses a more conventional language and orchestration, but it does not have the tightness of form or extra-brilliant use of the orchestra that characterizes Lutoslawski’s masterpiece. Nevertheless, this is an extremely compelling and worthwhile work, one of the great symphonies of the late twentieth century. When you listen to a Symphony, you want to know that you have just listened to a very important work, and this piece definitely makes the listener feel that way.

This is a CD that I will add to my collection very soon, and I urge you all to go listen to it right away. Unfortunately, the library has no other Rautavaara CDs, but there are some LPs stored upstairs that should be worth a listen. In closing, I have to mention that the liner notes to this disc suggest that Nordic and Eastern European composers have benefited from the isolation provided by their surroundings; if that’s so, then I and the other composers on campus should be famous in no time.