When I happily took a mandatory music appreciation course in college, I assumed my classmates and I would delve into the vast and multiple worlds of music. I was sad to discover snoozing students and a professor who actually worked part-time as a wedding DJ. Our final exam consisted of classical music trivia and identifying the titles and composers of songs after listening to a ten-second clip. Sure, I can identify the intro of Mussorgskyâ€™s Pictures at an Exhibition and I discovered Verdiâ€™s La Traviata (still my favorite opera), but I also came to a few incorrect conclusions about music that have taken many years to undo. It was also several years before I discovered my deep love for chamber music, and wish that the course would have more carefully covered the many classical sub-genres.
My primary conviction after completing the course was that I absolutely, positively did not like dissonant music. We didnâ€™t learn that there are degrees of dissonance, and we certainly didnâ€™t learn about any avant-garde composers. The only modern music covered was early rock â€˜n roll.
Two weeks ago I attended a performance by the Reval Ensemble here in Tallinn. Theyâ€™re a chamber group that mainly performs works by contemporary and modern composers, especially Estonians. I actually didnâ€™t know that before I went, but I was itching for a concert. They played eight pieces by five composers: Galina Grigorjeva, Erkki-Sven TÃ¼Ã¼r, Toivo Tulev, TÃµnu KÃµrvits, and Arvo PÃ¤rt. For some reason, Iâ€™ve never been very fond of the flute, though the flutist (Neeme Punder) was extremely animated and obviously inspired by the music. I was less inspired. Something I like about modern classical is that lots of it is in a minor key, but a flute played in a minor key sounds like a depressed bird. At certain points, particularly in â€œLamentâ€ for alto flute by Grigorjeva, it sounded like the bird was trying to commit suicide.
Nonetheless, I was pleasantly surprised by the TÃ¼Ã¼r piece â€œDedicationâ€ for cello and piano. If I had to choose a favorite instrument, it would probably be the cello. Its rich, resonating sounds are stunning. In that particular piece, the pianist would occasionally strum the strings and the result was harsh and dissonant. I appreciate the questions those strums raised for me regarding dissonance and the role of themes in music. I donâ€™t mind dissonance like I used to, but the strums here seemed so out of place that the tension created was too artificial. It almost seemed like harshness for its own sake.
One personal goal in coming to Estonia this summer was to hear PÃ¤rtâ€™s compositions (not all of them) performed. The last two pieces were composed by PÃ¤rt, and they were by far the most conventional pieces that relied more on simple melody than anything. â€œSpiegel im Spiegelâ€ for cello and piano was a beautiful and uncomplicated piece, and I thought it similar to a lullaby. â€œVariationen zur Gesundung von Arinuschkaâ€ for piano was more complicated, and I came to the conclusion that PÃ¤rtâ€™s music must surely appeal to a wide variety of listeners. Like the best avant-garde should, it incorporates many genres and PÃ¤rtâ€™s influences stretch back to early choral music and come forward to the present time.
Next week Iâ€™ll explore my thoughts on PÃ¤rtâ€™s music, dissonance, and modernism a bit more.