Thursday, June 20, 2013

Alphabetized Winterreise

Here's a new score by Eric Carlson, a composer previously unknown to me, Alphabetized Winterreise.   The piece is exactly what the title says it is: Schubert's song cycle Winterreise, disassembled into its individual words which are then reassembled in alphabetical order.  There is some precedence for such re-assembly of the contents of an existing work (Christopher Hobbs's The Remorseless Lamb does, measure-for-measure, something of the sort, and both polyphonically and randomly, for a four-hand arrangement of Bach's Sheep May Safely Graze) and there is a body of experimental literature in which alphabetizing lexicons of texts is a formal move (Walter Abish has done this brilliantly, first a paragraph, then the alphabetized list of words which, emptied of their word-order-driven syntax, have a emotional power of their own.)  But Carlson's piece seems to me to be a uniquely virtuoso effort within this field, and reading through the score has been an experience quite unlike anything else I've heard or played.  The music is crazy and obsessive (in the best possible sense, and well it should be, given the crazy and obsessive compositional procedure), non-relenting in its stuttering, jerking continuity, but the wonder here is that it has a definite continuity, a trajectory even, if driven only by the structure of the alphabet and the background radiation of the source song cycle.  Zwei zwei zwei Zweige zwischen. It has moments of great humor and lightness, but also moments of tenderness, melancholy, even despair, everything that the original Winterreise had, but is a very different journey altogether.  Why does Winterreise work so well for this purpose?  I honestly can't imagine the same procedure working for Dichter Liebe or the Spanisches Liederbuch and, while I can't prove it, I suspect that its due to a previously unrecognized degree of stability in large scale musical-lexical correspondences in Schubert's setting of the Wilhelm Müller texts. I am really looking forward to hearing a performance of this piece.

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