Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Landmarks (30)

Wolfgang von Schweinitz: Plainsound-Sinfonie (2003-2005) für Bassettklarinette, Ensemble und Orchester, op. 48

A product of long research -- often in collaboration with the remarkable Canadian violinist and composer, Marc Sabat -- into musical intonation, the Plainsound-Sinfonie is also a profoundly learned, but also nostalgic and whimsical, homage to an orchestral tradition, beginning with late Mozart and making a unique trajectory from there. I hear bits of Weber, Wolf (the other one), the Skryabinistes, the composer's colleague, James Tenney, and his teacher, Ligeti, whose own late works share an interest in making old instruments do new (or rediscovered) intonational tricks. Other recent pieces of Schweinitz pass through territories as disparate as Schubert, Wagner, and Morton Feldman. Schweinitz, recently appointed as Tenney's successor to the Disney chair in composition at CalArts, is a composer with a unique set of credentials (he studied in both Germany and the US) but more critically, a unique set of sensibilities. Von Schweinitz was very early on, and inaccurately as these things always are, stamped with the label of the Neue Einfachheit, primarily on the basis of his early (1976-77) orchestral Variationen über ein Thema von Mozart. The label stuck, but Schweinitz moved on, ever further along his own trajectory, and that has often included works of substantial scale and duration, among them the opera Patmos (setting the entire text of the Apocalypse of St. John) and an 81 minute-long piano trio Franz & Morton. It should be apparent that an element of excess is everywhere in Schweinitz's music, an excess that can be identified with the early seventies, but a classical impulse is everywhere as well, and the art here is holding the two factors in balance.

Let me mention a couple of features of the Plainsound-Sinfonie. Its genre is, as to be expected from Schweinitz, both classical and excessive, and as such is at once symphony, concerto (for bassett clarinet, the extended-range instrument for which Mozart originally composed his clarinet concerto, and not to be confused with the bassett horn), overture, and tone poem. The microtonality of the piece is no abstract exercise but is designed rather to project a tonal scheme that begins with classical dimensions and then moves into territories more strange, in particular through the use of a tuba tuned to the rest of the ensemble via a subharmonic ratio of the number eleven, and thus, effectively, a quarter tone off, a relationship that is, at times, comic, at other times, tender.

Scores and sound samples of Schweinitz's works are available here.

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