Thursday, January 18, 2007

Composing a Storm

Hurricane Kyrill is at work over Germany at the moment. It's been mild in Frankfurt, but much damage has been done, and lives taken, on the coast and in the central mountains.

Storms are acoustically rich and musicians have sometimes sought to emulate, if not imitate, that richness. As a kid, I liked playing J. S. Bach's unusually programmatic Capriccio on the Departure of the Beloved Brother (BWV 992), with its evocations of weather good and bad. Two more recent composers, John Cage and György Ligeti, abandoned major projects involving storms.

Cage wanted to set the "Ten Thunderclaps" from Finnegans Wake, intending to use electronics to transform vocalizations of those ten hundred-letter words, intending an experience that would be "more like going to a thunderstorm than to a concert." While some of the ideas for the piece were apparently taken up in his Lecture on the Weather, to texts from Thoreau, the Ten Thunderclaps piece was never made -- whether for lack of the right technology, or lack of a commission (Cage, a very practical man, never composed without a clear commission or prospective performance), I don't know.

Ligeti wanted to compose his storm as the opening for an operatic setting of The Tempest, and preparation for the piece involved some study of the complex dynamics of heavy weather. Indications were that he was investigating the application of some serious computing to realize his storm. But Ligeti abandoned The Tempest for an Alice in Wonderland-based project, which was not ever really abandoned, but was never finished.

So, if you happen to encounter a composer who insists on talking about the weather, please don't assume that she or he is just talking about the weather, that is to say, about nothing at all. Talking up a storm may be pre-compositional cogitation: we take the weather seriously.

1 comment:

Samuel Vriezen said...

As the composer of "The Weather Riots", I whole-heartedly agree.