Lutoslwski: A Conversation – April 28

The LU Philharmonic is performing Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra. If people are planning to come to the concert, tomorrow night at 8pm, here’s a bit of insight from the soloist, Christopher Gross, concert master, Michael Jorgensen, and musical director, Eugene Albulescu.


Audio file of entire conversation.

What follows transcription of a conversation I happened to record.

Why this piece?

Christopher: I think one of the great things about this concerto, not unique to this concerto specifically, but every concerto has an element of the soloist is the individual or the hero so to speak, and the orchestra is the choir or the group of people around that person. This piece especially brings that drama really to the fore. One of things that is really unique about this piece is that unlike in a concerto starts and usually plays one of the themes and then the soloist comes in later. I actually start this piece all by myself. And I play for a pretty long amount of time, almost five minutes before the orchestra comes in. And it’s sort of a flipping of the script where the soloist; I’m this character where I kind of walk on stage and you immediately set this drama of this person, this psychological character who embodies certain qualities which then the orchestra picks up and as you see later in the piece there’s sort of a reaction against. There’s a struggle there which is again similar to other concertos but I think this one is so unique in the way that it flips that script. It makes this character really come to life.

Eugene: I asked Chris to choose something for us to do. Chris is very much into new music; modern music, although this is hardly new. This piece is as old as I am [ahem] but it was very modern for its time. So he’s suggested we look at Lutoslawski. The idea was to do something that is not just nouveau, but challenges our students in ways that they haven’t done before. And even though we’ve done a lot of new music quite recently, and I’m not talking about the crowd pleasers like “Star Wars.” We’ve done some minimalist music, we’ve done a couple of premieres and what have you. They were kind of from a post-70s and 80s era where it was OK to sound tonal and pretty; more “vanilla.” Because of that, I felt there was a large swath of both classic modern techniques from the 50s and 60s that we just don’t touch because they are too “out there,” necessarily. Many of that tree branch remains in that style way after the 1980s and 1990s. There are traditions today that are far more modernistic than the sort of that’s we’ve done. In order to do that, we need to challenge the orchestra to a style that they were really unused to. So when he picked Lutoslawski, I thought it was the perfect piece. It has some things that are pretty crazy. But it has the underpinning of something that is urgent about it that is dying to get out. Our musicians really recognize, “Oh this is serious.”

The way he starts the piece off with the heartbeat pulse – with repeated notes and then things unfold from that and those pulses are the things that bind it together. With instrumentalists come in a punctuate with screams and what have you, they punctuate what’s he’s saying. They are quickening the pace of the same heart beat that he starts the piece with. I found that very appealing. It ties the whole piece together. It’s a long piece. But when you listen carefully, you realize that there are areas we call the first movement which Chris was talking about, which he plays alone. And then a second movement which unfolds when the orchestra joins him. And then a beautiful slow movement that follow, then a last movement. All of them have these repeated notes that whether they are aleatorically expressed in random fashion by whomever is playing at the time, or well structured in the traditional sense, the piece has an amazing binding unity. In fact, he finishes with the same notes transformed quite a lot. I find it a phenomenal piece and I’m looking forward to the performance.

What is aleatoricism?

Michael: One of things that I find really interesting about this piece is the fact that he accomplishes some of the sense of rioting or protest or struggle. Rather than writing every single rhythm specifically to be lines up with every single person, which was something that composers at the same time period were interesting in. Lutoslowsky gives a freedom to the performer. He gives them a rhythm that’s written out, but they can play it when and how they want within a certain structure. And then he goes back and forth between strictly written music and music that has that freedom. How does that inform the music that you’re playing in the cello part?

Chris: It’s an interesting contrast; the idea of the heartbeat and the repetition. It’s such a simple but powerful idea.

It could represent breathing, a heartbeat or the ticking of a clock. All these cycles of life that we experience on a daily basis. In contrast, in that with the chaotic or messy random texture, it’s an interesting thing to think about, “what does that embody as a metaphor?” As a group of people, we all have our own part to play. But when that happens with all of us together, whether it’s an orchestra with 80 people or just on the street with a group of people, there’s a certain element of excitement when you have a lot of people doing similar things but in their own way. Which is not just a unique sound, which I think is a great sound, but it also is an interesting idea.

Orchestras are built on this idea of coordination.

Michael: And conformity

Chris: Exactly! We’re often trying to match each other and sound like a big group that plays perfectly together, and we have the same kind of sound and everything. There are certainly elements of that in this piece. But then there’s this other thing which is more free and it’s a really cool thing.

Michael: I think it’s been a fun challenge for our students. You came a few weeks ago and really got them to think about being different and yet still having that coordination. So it’s a weird box to exist in. But getting us first to work with sounds – just making physical sounds. Remind me, you were talking about how things that we think about; things that we do consciously and unconsciously was really cool.

Chris: One of the markings that Lutoslowski writes at the beginning of the solo part is the word, “indifferent.” When I was planning the workshop for the students in the orchestra, that word struck me. There are a lot of things we do all the time without thinking in everyday life. We go through our day. We’re diving our cars, we’re washing the dishes. There’s so much of life where it can feel very monotonous. And that’s what [the piece] starts with. And what’s interesting is to think about where Lutoslowski was at this time. He doesn’t really talk about it. He kind of pushed himself away from it for political reasons. He was living in a repressed society in Warsaw Poland, where individual expression was definitely put under wraps. Composers were limited in the kind of things they could do. Although, eventually achieved a certain amount of notoriety, so he could do more than others.

There’s a sense of an entire society going through the motions. What does that represent? At the same time, it’s immediately contrasting this very competitive thing we talked about. Then the first thing is [he plays a musical flourish] which is so creative and weird. Immediately it’s like… “oh!” Even though there’s this…

Michael: rigidity

Christopher: this clicking… this ticking of the clock. In our minds, there is this whole world of thought and emotions and creativity,.. and there are all these things that you can read into it. I find it interesting that in his lifetime, which was lived largely under Communism, he made a big point of saying, “There’s not a story to this piece.” But it’s almost impossible NOT to put a story to it. And you wonder if he said that just to avoid getting into trouble.

Eugene: The classic thing in Communism was to say exactly that. “There isn’t a story here. Stop looking. There’s nothing to see here.” Because the censors could easily can a piece. But of course, in that society, that’s exactly when they started looking. Because it’s like some kid saying, “I didn’t do anything!” In fact it’s attracting attention far more to it. I’m not saying that there is or there isn’t [a story], but it was common during Communism for people to really do that. Because had you not said that pre-emptively, somebody might something in it. There’s so many repetitive notes, for instance. Well, very easy to look for some morse codes in there. Find a couple of random letters and say, “Oh look, there! He’s anti-government or anti-Communism.” And now he has some time in Siberia to reflect on his life. So you don’t want that, if you live in that type of society.

That doesn’t mean necessarily that there isn’t [a story]. Just the fact that he said that there isn’t means that clearly, even if he didn’t have something, he understood that the piece evokes something. And people will look for it.

Michael: I think it’s fascinating just the nature of his compositional voice. It’s in a sense, a protest. The idea that he’s emancipating people from having to follow the rules of time; musical time. In itself, it is an act of rebellion that goes against thousands of years of practice. But what’s amazing is that he tells you what he wants, but he lets you do it in your way.

Christopher: He actually called it, “controlled aleatorism.” A controlled randomness. It’s a sort of balancing act. He was a classical composer. Many of his pieces sound classical. This piece was written at a time when he was writing pieces which were more extreme, more modern.

It’s interesting to think about why these modern pieces were written at this time; the late 1960s, early 1970s. What was happening in that society? What was he experiencing as an artist? Sometimes people think modern music is weird just to be weird. “The composer is punishing us for some reason.” I think for most composers, especially Lutoslowski, the modern aesthetic, the style, the sound, it’s all there for expressive purposes. And it really is a concentration of what he was feeling and trying to express as a composer, as a person. One of the testaments to this piece is that it’s almost fifty years old and it still speaks to us. It does not just sound random or strange. If anything, it’s aged well. It’s gotten better because the sounds become more natural to us as musicians.

Eugene: I was thinking about two things you said about it balances between controlled and traditional and non-controlled. I was thinking of mundane life. When do you hear large groups of people behaving in that way? Of course we can think of a variety of ways today. Sometimes I was English soccer. Those people really can sing. When you hear a whole stadium sing the song of their team, it’s deafeningly beautiful. It’s scary, too – if you’re in the wrong stand and you care about the other team. But then when somebody scores, it’s just chaotic yelling. And so you have both of those things at the same time, in the same game. Everybody’s chaotically yelling, “Yes Go!” or “Yes, Goal” or “Yes, Don’t!” And everybody gasping in the same ways but in their own ways; uncontrolled. Then they start singing and it’s controlled by the mob mentality group.

Christopher: That idea for groups. It can be a very safe thing, a very enriching thing, when we are part of the group. At the same time, how quickly can that group become a mob? And it’s that simultaneity of feeling safety in numbers but then it can shift very quickly. That’s present in this piece. At first, the orchestra feels very playful. But then there’s a moment where it feels very violent. And you wonder, “How does that change happen?” It’s evocative of what happens in life. This piece really captures that.

Michael: I think one of the most interesting things about modern art and certainly the Lutoslawski fits into this, is that your’e starting to see the intention is depict the psychological, the interior in both its beauty and its darkness. If you look at pre 1900 music, art and literature, it’s there. But it’s kind of decorated. The goal of this piece is to be real. No stage lights or makeup. If you’re sad, this is what sadness really feels like. If you are experiences joy and delight then it’s just the real, unadulterated thing. Which is really fascinating to hear.

Eugene: In the context of the Communist block in Poland, had so many things going for it, but also things going against it. It was the first country to be invaded at the beginning of World War Two. As a result of that, some of the worst atrocities happened in Poland because that’s where the Germans decided to put the camps. This piece is also written before Solidarity. The two other wild cards that Poland had for it was that as part of the Communist Block, it was one of the most privileged countries. They always maintained a small form of private enterprise. Unlike all the other countries that fell under the communist block, where they nationalized everything, in Poland they made an exception for small shop people like a tailor or a shoe repairman. Because of that, they’ve always had an interesting combination of the state controlling things and some smaller forms [of capitalism]. That’s one of the things I’m seeing in this piece: the dichotomy between the imposed togetherness and the chaotic and individual which makes its own mark, but then ends up being more chaotic by definition.

The other thing is religion. Poland was the only Communist country to be strongly tied to religion, far more than the others. Because they were Catholic, Poland had the support of the Catholic Church well before one of their bishops became the Pope. While this piece isn’t religious, in the slow movement I definitely get something I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something spiritual about it. There’s an incredible moment when all of the strings coalesce to one pitch and then you have togetherness that feels like a chant. It’s really moving.

Christopher: For everybody that comes to this concert. Even if you’re not familiar with modern music, it’s not meant to be a challenge. It’s meant to be listened to. If you can bring you can just listen with you ears, notice what you notice, and notice the drama. We’ve been talking about the tension between a single person and a group, and all of the manifestations that can take, musically and otherwise. All of us have experienced feelings of aloneness, loneliness, part of a group in a good way, perhaps feeling threatened by a group. That’s a very human experience. Anybody who comes to this concert can relate to that. Beyond that, just use your ears. The music will come to you. It’s not meant to be decoded. It’s not a foreign language in the way that some people might think. It is a language that we can just understand.

Michael: It’s also important to be open to music that isn’t “pretty.” Again, this is what we’re getting at. This art and music attempts to convey in sound what feelings feel like. All the things you’re saying, they’re true. But you must have that added piece to that. Many people may think that music is supposed to be pretty and relating. This music is a more visceral experience, and the audience should be open to it.

Christopher: I think that’s a great point. I always push back when we use words like “pretty.” I know what you mean, but I feel that’s a judgement for everybody. I mean, what is beautiful? I’m reading Dante’s Inferno right now, which has frightening images. But the language is beautiful. The book is what, seven hundred years old. Art doesn’t always have to be relaxing. Maybe that’s the difference between art and entertainment. Entertainment is just for pleasure, it doesn’t take effort. Art, hopefully, challenges and rewards effort. The more that you put yourself into it, the more you try to engage with it, the more you get back out of it. That’s why it’s an enriching experience. Even if that experience might be terrifying at times.

Michael: And you’re right. That is beautiful.

Eugene: For Lehigh students in particular, I’m not too worried about them being able to try this fully. Because our campus is packed with modern art sculptures. I think it’s often more the people that are more mature in their ways, are more rigid or more resistant. On our campus, it’s our way of life that people are exposed to modern interpretive ideas, just in their walking to all sorts of industrial types of art. In the words of Wagner, the art encompasses everything from the sublime to the banal and everything in between. That’s what makes it beautiful, not necessarily the quality of every sound. That you have to put it through some prism, “Is this a beautiful or not beautiful sound?” Its beauty lies in its power. The power to free us, and to get us to a place where our spirit is free. I think this piece does that marvelously.

update, April 29, 2017 – added video and audio file above.

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