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Positive Feedback ISSUE 49
may/june 2010


Notes of an Amateur: Notes of an Amateur: Dusapin and Shostakovich
by Bob Neill



Pascal Dusapin, 7 Solos for Orchestra. Orchestre Philharmonique de Liege Bruxelles. Pascal Rophé, conductor. Naive MD 782180.

Modernism is a house of a great many rooms, the result, Irish modern poet William Butler Yeats warned us, of the old world coming to any end: "things fall apart; the centre cannot hold." For Yeats, the rise of modernism meant that "mere anarchy" would soon be "loosed upon the world." More progressive minds called this anarchy freedom and commenced to write modernist literature and music, paint modernist paintings.

The modernist room occupied by highly regarded French composer Pascal Dusapin's 7 Solos contains music to warm the cockles of the heart of the Dean of Modernism, Pierre Boulez. Uncompromising, seemingly unstructured dissonance, sometimes bordering on cacophony. Composed over seventeen years from 1991 to 2008, it amounts to a serial musical statement by a composer who had a strong vision he wanted to realize in a cycle of several closely related forms. He composed a great many other works during this period, so he clearly feels this is a coherent group of parts that belong together.

As a listening experience, it puts us in the not unfamiliar challenging position of how to take some of the boldest contemporary avant-garde works of art. Early in the twentieth century, ‘dissonant' modernist art was intended and received as a critique of what was thought responsible for ‘the old world coming to an end.' It was, in a very real sense, modernism written in the spirit Yeats: modernist technique and style used as weapons to project a satiric vision in defense of the essence of the old world, not to abet its falling apart: Eliot's The Wasteland, Picasso's Guernica. But a generation later, artists began using this same technique to assert a new tough-minded affirmative vision. And so here we are: In 7 Solos, we are confronted with either a passionately critical vision, an extension of the angriest and most frightening passages in Shostakovich (symphonies and string quartets) and of Kanchelli, both of whom wrote dark critiques of life under totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe. Or, as in a great deal of contemporary avant-garde music, we have a whole new musical vision, designed to reprogram our heads: to win us to its world on its own terms and ‘free' us from the traditional musical world. From most writing about this work that I have read, it has been received according to the latter view: as a new habitable musical vision. And since Bartok's String Quartets once struck many of us as uninhabitable, I came to this music with hope.

By the time I reached the third section (or Solo, as Dusapin calls them), my comfort level had risen from very little to some, which at least caused me to postpone the question Yeats implies. (Should we be comfortable here? Should we try to be? What will it cost us to become acclimated to such a violent and seemingly anarchic musical world, assuming we can?) By the time I got through my first hearing of all seven Solos, I concluded that I was aesthetically and/or spiritually over my head.

Mainly I could not get out of my inherited state of mind, which hears this music as a dark, angry, and hellish vision, belonging to the literature of the Gulag and similar versions of human made nightmares. As such a vision, 7 Solos, especially in its uncanny ability to communicate musically without the solicitude of song, is very powerful stuff. And the second time through, as we accommodate ourselves somewhat to its quality of assault, it does change, as much difficult music will. But to hear it as anything but a dark vision truly does require a fundamental reprogramming, one in which black must almost literally become white. Dusapin is one of France's best known and most widely performed composers, so I felt compelled to look further, to see how his vision works itself out in a smaller medium, the string quartet.



Pascal Dusapin, String Quartets and String Trio. Arditti Quartet. Aeon AECD 0983.

This album is programmed in reverse chronological order, so I am listening to it backwards, to follow Dusapin forward from 1980 to 2005. 

The first work then is a String Trio (1980), which brings to mind philosopher Thomas Nagel's famous essay, "What is it like to be a bat?"! This is the kind of mental exercise I find I have to perform to hear this music as anything but pure otherness. Nagel writes in another work that as humans we are capable of imagining "a view from nowhere," that is, of taking a position outside human experience. How else could we do science? Or write music like this! From within normal human experience, or from within the tradition of western music, this eight minutes is hauntingly nightmarish, which I take it on faith was not the composer's intention.

Quartet No. 1 (1982; 1996) is considerably more interesting. We are still ‘out there,' somewhere else, but this dreamscape is more habitable. I can see here why the Arditti Quartet, longtime supporters of Dusapin (they premiered four of the works in this album), would be drawn to this this. One can never be sure one has ‘gotten' music like this but I find it fascinating to listen to.

Quartet No. 2 (1989), by far the longest of Dusapin's quartets at 38 minutes, is almost lyric, in comparison with the Trio, Quartet No. 1, and 7 Solos. Lyric in an utterly modernist way. It is broken up into twenty-four mini movements called ‘Time Zones," whose moods vary considerably. This quartet sits comfortably among the likes of quartets by Legetti and Carter, both of whom create sonic landscapes that can be interesting, even compelling, without being conspicuously structured. Dusapin feels musically freer than either here, but it is as if he has at least joined the conversation. This music is generally introspective, though certainly not always at peace with itself. Bartok is sometimes audible in the background, especially during the last two movements. This quartet gave me great hope for M. Dusapin and for bringing this whole review into more encouraging territory.

Quartet No. 3 (1993) is a snarling work which seems initially to glory in its dissonance and relish its rhythmic games. In the second of its four movements, it becomes more introspective but remains quarrelsome. In the third, the mood becomes grudgingly lyric. The final movement returns to the mood of the first. As a whole, I find the quartet unsettling and unresolved.

Quartet No. 4 (1997) is striking for the degree to which the four instruments speak as one, minimizing counterpoint and creating a modulating ribbon of sound. The voice is bold, full of sonic whiplash. The last third of the quartet retreats into resistant shadows. Both #4 and #5 are single movement works.

Quartet No. 5 (2004-2005) strikes a new, quieter note, opening with pizzicato notes which arrive like random drops of water falling into a pond while the first violin keens above them. Gradually the pizzicato notes become extended note and the four strings create emotionally engaging conversational counterpoint. Then the low strings become drone-like while the violins in their middle range chant in and out each other's paths above them. Just past the midpoint of the quartet the music become furious before returning to a more vigorous version of the initial pizzicato. And so on. This work is nothing like the earlier quartets, which is why I have dragged you through this detail, though it feels more like an evolution from them than a change in direction. 

As a body of work, I came to like the string quartets and expect I will grow to like them even more over time. Like most contemporary modernism, it will challenge all but the most ‘up to date' listeners with its uncompromising demand that we ‘move on' to the new, freer musical world it proposes. On first hearing, the quartets make a less difficult case for their world than 7 Solos does. But I'll have to confess that the Solos do begin work on you if you give them world enough and time. It is music that will test and stretch its audience.



Shostakovich, The Preludes and Fugues, Opus 87. Alexander Melnikov, piano. Harmonia Mundi. HMC 902019/20

I have only heard this glorious, major late modern (1950) work played by two other musicians: Tatiana Nikolaeva, whose performance of Bach's Well Tempered Clavier inspired it and for whom the music was probably written; and Keith Jarrett. Nikolaeva plays it (originally on Melodya, now licensed to Regis; also Hyperion) as classic European repertoire, looking back to ‘Father' Bach. There is a decorum to her playing that keeps the power of the music just slightly in check, sometimes building toward great emotion as a result. Jarrett plays it as jazz and ends up giving us little more than its surface.

Melnikov, whom we recently met playing the Beethoven's Violin Sonatas with Isabelle Faust (, plays it as Shostakovich. Mercurial, passionate, brooding, percussive - virtually without emotional limits. In his hands, the work leaps free of Bach (though he visits from time to time!) and insists on its own life. Even in its most Bach-like moments, we can feel energy just below the surface, trying to break through the decorum of the fugues. Melnikov neither neglects nor overpowers the lyricism of the most melodic pieces but rather lets them rise and run away with themselves. By the time we reach Fugue No. 8 in F# minor, the longest section of the twenty-four, we are in a darker place than we can imagine in any Bach work outside the passions. Two fugues later, No. 10 in C# minor, we have recovered and are almost almost in Bach land, the notes tumbling regularly over each other, smiling on the Father before taking off again into the more impish games of No. 11 in B Major. And on it goes. Mercurial indeed.

One of Shostakovich's most characteristic moves, setting notes octaves apart, both in chords and in succession, is evident throughout the work. It gives the fugues in particular striking power and eloquence. Melnikov plays these with great clarity, setting them in proper relief. 

Moving from one set of preludes and fugues to another, sometimes even within one prelude, we often get the feeling that we are moving from innocence to experience, and the move can be sudden. This is another quality of the work that Melnikov's bold approach gets especially well. 

One of the most interesting aspects of the work is the presence of other musical voices: Debussy, Prokofiev, and Chopin, in particular. Melnikov keeps these voices from disappearing into that of Shostakovich. There is a whole world of music in here!

Challenging and problematic music is easier to talk about than extraordinarily successful music. I could find things to say about Dusapin all day. But Stravinsky's Opus 87 leaves me (relatively) speechless. It is one of the most compelling pieces of music of the twentieth century. Had the composer written nothing but his his string quartets and this work, he would still be considered the major figure that he is. Melnikov reveals more about the work than I knew was there, and this is no criticism of Nikolaeva, who hears more Bach in it. Do not miss this release. It will be among the very best of 2010. 

System used for the audition of the CD's: Audio Note CDT3 transport and Dac 4.1 Balanced Signature. Blue Circle BC 3000II GZpz preamplifier and BC 204 amplifier. Jean Marie Reynaud Offrande Supreme loudspeakers. With Blue Circle BC6000 line conditioner. Audio Note Pallas and Sootto interconnects; Audio Note Sogon speaker cables.

Bob Neill, in addition to being an occasional equipment and regular music reviewer for Positive- Feedback Online, is also proprietor of Amherst Audio in Amherst, Massachusetts, which sells equipment from Audio Note, Blue Circle, and JM Reynaud, among others.