Thursday, January 18, 2024

Inner Sanctum: The Star-Crossed Music of George Crumb and Yoshiko Shimizu

KAIROS Records, 2023.

“Whatever you think can’t be done, someone will come along and do.” – Thelonious Monk

“Don’t play the piano part, I’m playing that, and don’t listen to me: I’m supposed to be accompanying you.” – Thelonious Monk

This new KAIROS recording of works by the esteemed American composer George Crumb, played by the stellar Japanese pianist Yoshiko Shimizu, is a poetic work of the highest order. In addition to being an intensely uplifting collaborative love letter between a composer and his primary performing interpreter, it also contains one of my favourite musical titles ever, Celestial Mechanics, composed by Crumb in 1979, which might be a pinnacle in the annals of works for piano in the four-hands format. It is not a stretch in this case to claim that Crumb’s challenging but rewarding works constitute a unique domain: astrophysics for piano achieved via contemporary recording technology. If that sounds somewhat scientific, allow me to return to my preferred poetic license: these are diagnostic investigations into the human heart. Even friends or readers familiar with my reasoning may pause and ponder: astrophysics for piano? How does this work? Well, it works exactly the way it sounds. The movements of interstellar masses in space through time usually refers to large objects such as planets in their elliptical guided tours of various galaxies; however, it also occurs within an inner sanctum of silence where microscopic movements of sub-atomic particles collide with each other in a kind of unexpected resonance. And they all dance to a sacred tune, one Crumb calls “Cosmic Dances for Amplified Pianos.”

Instead of the massively huge trajectory of the stars, this composer and pianist take us along for a road trip through the domain of the infinitely tiny murmurs of mountains so infinitesimal that they might be considered invisible. Yet they are nonetheless real, just as real as the palpitations in the hearts of listeners attuned to their particular vibrations. As an aesthetic notion, celestial mechanics originated in a faraway time and place, with Johannes Kepler in 1619 when the very beginnings of the Baroque epoch were just stirring, via his influential studies called “Celestial Harmonies of the Planets” and “Harmony of the World.” Later studies by Isaac Newton confirmed Kepler’s reveries via his own revelations of gravitational forces about 1786, while Einstein was still trying to adequately explain the paradoxes of the immensely large and the immensely tiny, back in 1916, followed by Bohr and Heisenberg’s delving into the metaphysics of uncertainty. But along with physics and astronomy, the art of music too underwent dramatic and radical shifts in the borderlines of harmony and dissonance, revealing the whereabouts of certain tonal transgressions that are nonetheless uplifting to our ears, once we get used to their sonic accents and dialects. Tonality is still king, even in its apparent absence, while in the presence of a furious splendour such as this.

The pianist conferring with the composer (Photo: Natsumi Shimizu)

With this new album, Yoshiko Shimizu not only presents her second recording of works for amplified pianos by Crumb (I wrote about her first one previously in my article on an earlier collaboration called American Maestro), but she also becomes the only pianist who has created solo realizations of his compelling compositions Celestial Mechanics: Makrokosmos IV: Cosmic Dances for Four Hands,” Zeitgeist: Six Tableaux for Two Amplified Pianos (1988), and Otherworldly Resonances: For Two Amplified Pianos (2005). And it is a remarkable achievement indeed. Mr. Crumb agrees wholeheartedly: “I consider her to be one of my very finest interpreters. Bravissima!” Recently the culture critic Mattilda Sycamore asked a pertinent yet perplexing question that is applicable here: “Is the purpose of art to bring us into ourselves or to bring us out of ourselves?” Although unrelated to the present subject, and being beyond all medium borders in fact, it nonetheless brings us to the crux of what the purpose of such sterling new experimental music as this is actually about. The answer, of course, is that art’s purpose, and perhaps especially music’s chief function, is to do both of these things for us, and in the best of cases, such as this one, to do both at the same time. This is the case simply because the farther we plunge into own inner spaces the farther we enter into outer space. What we encounter in both places, as per the mesmerizing conclusions of quantum thinking, is pretty much identical: the evaporation of all walls dividing us from everything else around us.

Not being a composer, a musician or a performer myself but rather merely an avid new music listener with a seeming way with words, I availed myself of a thought or two about Crumb from a distant but close friend, Larry Delinger, a composer, musician, performer, and most importantly perhaps, a teacher. “I love his music. Eine Kleine mitternachtmusik is a special favorite because he used Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” as the spine for the piece and even throws in Debussy’s “Golliwog Cakewalk” in an original way. Crumb was also a fan of Bartok, who I admire greatly. Thus he made Makrokosmos with an ensemble of two pianos and percussion which echoes Bartok’s sonata for two pianos and percussion. I like Crumb’s use of echoes and clusters of notes that smear tonality this way and that. For me, Crumb gave me the courage to use whatever I needed to make the music I wanted to make.” Needless to say, this got my combination tumblers rolling in the proverbial search for evidence of a pattern behind such cogent and clear musical intimations as Crumb. Indeed, a certain synchronicity almost immediately emerged from my deep immersion into his powerful and evocative work: we are in the presence of a Neo-Baroque epoch. Quite different from the outward shapes of the earlier era, to be sure, but nonetheless still fueled by an appetite for sensory and spiritual overload. The sound of stars bumping into each other.

Poetry in motion (Photo: Natsumi Shimizu)

“Echoes and clusters of notes that smear tonality this way and that”: with that basic observation of the pleasures to be found in sonically losing our bearings and setting out on a brand-new ocean of sounds waiting to be discovered as if they were never before seen continents, Delinger touches the foundational nerve pulsating in Crumb’s poetic but challenging composing style. His works, especially muscular ones such as Otherworldly Resonances and Zeitgeist, that pianist Shimizu explores with such deft doubling (providing all four hands herself) on their new album are celebrations of temporal drift passing through a shimmering veil of sizzling silences, punctuated with eruptions of a kind of quantum lava flow. Shimizu’s revelatory self-accompaniment in carrying such compositions forward is a mutual tribute to the intimacy with which they both approach their task: the sounds they make together, so to speak, abide where they reside momentarily, before vanishing back into the quietude from which they emerged. As such they cherish the similar revelations of a Neo-Baroque in reverse, commencing perhaps with the great and gifted Yank Charles Ives, and progressing through the DNA of Carl Ruggles, Henry Cowell, Bela Bartok, Harry Partch, John Cage and moving ever forward through Terry Riley, Steve Reich and culminating in the operas of Philips Glass. This is the trajectory within which George Crumb elegantly orbits elliptically.

All very different, to be sure, but all equally immersive. And it’s useful to remember that that continuum also extends to another musical vibe shared between Crumb/Shimizu and the old school tag team innovators in the jazz piano idiom, Art Tatum and Thelonious Monk (he who, unbeknownst, provided us with the ideal descriptor for that fabulous Shimizu dexterity: “Don’t listen to me, I’m supposed to be accompanying you”). Of these esteemed composers, I feel sure that both Crumb and Shimizu might agree with my assertion that Bartok and Cowell are the premiere touchstones of their startlingly brave new KAIROS recording. Crumb composes with and Shimizu performs and records with an innate awareness of precursors, in the best possible way, making ample and satisfying use of two of Cowell’s seminal innovations, first the tone cluster technique, which requires the performer to produce gangs of notes with either their fists or whole forearm à la Cowell’s Adventures in Harmony (1913). And this Crumb/Shimizu menu also features another equally startling and brilliant Cowell innovation as well: what is termed the “string piano,” where in addition to using the keys, whether singly or in clusters, the performer also reaches directly in/on to the interior strings of the instrument. The results are magical in their intensity and immersion into what I’ve somewhat flamboyantly called both the inner sanctum and the neo-baroque.

 In the presence of mutual greatness (Photo: Natsumi Shimizu)

As Bob Pollack has commented in In The Muse blog of the Library of Congress Performing Arts: “There is a story that both Henry Cowell and Béla Bartók were in England for some event and were both staying at the same house. There was a piano and Bartók heard Cowell playing and using his tone clusters. Bartok, the ultimate gentleman, sometime later recalled hearing this innovative sound and wrote to Cowell asking for his permission to use that technique in a piano piece he was composing.” My response is that the ghost of Bela would undoubtedly have bestowed the same gift on the gentlemanly Crumb, equally proud of his ongoing pianistic encounters with the gifted Shimizu. Thus this recording is the living document of a star-crossed musical synchronicity in action, and the journey from Mikrokosmos to Makrokosmos is an exhilarating one, since the four hands of the talented Shimizu are seemingly capable of producing arpeggiated clusters, decorative colourings, aggressive pluckings, strummed string caresses and vibrantly smoldering glissandi.  One senses palpably, in quite a haptic manner, the inspiring links between Bartók making the small become very big and Crumb making the incomprehensibly huge become almost infinitesimally tiny.

His silence intervals, telegrams from the origin of all sounds, operate, it seems to me, in the manner of a Macroscope. That item of near-science fiction, as you might imagine, is the exact opposite of a microscope. A macroscope, if it existed, would bring to us the entire big picture, or at least the big soundtrack of the big picture. Bartok looked outward toward the future, but Crumb looks inward to the only place the future could ever exist: inside of us all. In fact, his music reminds me a favourite French poet, Paul Eluard: “There is another world, but it is inside of his one.” This new recording of Crumb for four hands and amplified pianos is such an ambitious shared project, but then again, the gutsy Shimizu is a force of nature, apparently a secret storm with a sonic twin sister to accompany her playing here, and our treasured Crumb, of course, is his own metaphysical weather pattern. And both share a kind of murmuration effect, that way that flocks of birds have of all shifting direction in a totally synchronized and almost unconscious aerial pattern at the same time. I suppose we could attribute that touching feature to the true intimacy which must exist between a composer and his musician interpreter, as if they were both the parents of something being born.

The musical constellations, or flocks both ascending and descending, have been embodied in a most propitious manner indeed here, and their orbital trajectory through silence having been consummated with alacrity and elegance on their way to the sanctus sanctorum, their liminal echo seems to go on forever. As Shimizu evocatively reminded us of Crumb’s original notation on his score, a chromatic line in the middle register was added to the concluding bars of Celestial Mechanics: “The chromatic line (with pizzicato) is marked ‘quasi subliminal, like a breath’.” That poetic notation describing the desired impact for a piece is music is haunting in both its brevity and profundity. It reminds us of the place where all great music actually originates: in the beating heart of a music lover. The finale of the four-part Celestial work, “Delta Orionis,” proceeds in a stately fashion towards a dirge-like breathlessness. Zeitgeist, considerably more volatile in tone, ends with its sixth part, “Reverberations,” wafting into the waiting arms of we know not what realm. Perhaps it’s what, pace Delinger, Crumb has referred to as the ‘echoing phenomenon, that most ancient of musical devices.’ And the third part of Otherworldly Resonances, “Palimpsest,” does somehow evoke the layered sonic effects of writing, upon writing, upon writing. Another kind of echo.

As Crumb expressed his approach, “I had long been tempted to try my hand at the four hand medium, perhaps because I myself have been a passionate four-hand player over the years. The best of the original four-hand music occupies a very special niche in the literature of music . . . The majestic movement of the stars does indeed suggest the image of a cosmic choreography.” If Crumb is a choreographer of dancing stars, and I believe he is, then that makes Shimizu’s breathtaking piano skill his principal dancer. And Zeitgeist, the name of one of the three major constellations featured on this record, also has another more literal meaning than the customary ‘spirit of the time,’, and one which I personally prefer. Like poltergeist (noise-ghost), I enjoy the reverie of considering zeitgeist to be a time-ghost. And that, in the end, is the sort of ballet-oriented concept being celebrated on this record, ‘a dance to the music of time,’ to borrow from the novelist Anthony Powell. The meaning of the term inner sanctum, often used figuratively but more impressive when taken literally as I do, is a very private room or place, a space where one is never interrupted. That is the place this music composed by Crumb and shared by Shimizu takes us to. What you do while you’re there is, of course, up to you.

Yoshiko Shimizu, the pianist with four hands, and sometimes six (Photo: Natsumi Shimizu)

 Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the recent book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, as well as the biographies Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, 2018, and Tumult!: The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner2020, and a book on the life and art of the enigmatic Yoko Ono, Yoko Ono: An Artful Life, released in April 2022. His latest work in progress is a new book on family relative Charles Brackett's films made with his partner Billy Wilder, Double Solitaire: The Films of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder.


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