Lee Sandlin     Squibs    Essays    Books    Home 

Music: Divine Cacophony

Helsinki Philharmonic, Angel of Light (Ondine Records)

Music review, April 18, 1997

I don't know how honest used-car dealers or aluminum-siding salesmen are these days, but the old con games are alive and well in classical music. This recent release from the contemporary Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara is a textbook example of bait and switch. Everything about the packaging and promotion of this CD is designed to make you think Rautavaara is one of those ultratrendy neomedievalist composers following in the wake of current cult superstar Arvo Part, who composes droning monodies in praise of the austere glories of the Russian Orthodox Church. The cover art is a faux primitive religious icon. The two compositions on the disc, a symphony and an organ concerto, have been given titles resonant with hushed spirituality: Angel of Light and Annunciations. And the program notes, written by the composer himself, are heavy on Jungian religious archetypes and claim that the word "angel" chanted as a mantra will begin to "radiate energy." Listeners will be forgiven for thinking they're going to get yet another disc of ethereal monk Muzak, like a transmission from a medieval monastery on Venus.

But Rautavaara's music has nothing to do with chanting or the Dark Ages or the release of primordial spiritual energies. He's a hard-core, unreconstructed modernist. These two compositions occupy the ground between late Romantic lushness and full-throttle serialist cacophony -- anybody expecting a rapturous trance session is going to bolt for the eject button about two minutes in, when the speakers emit the first explosive dissonance.

That would be a shame, because Rautavaara is intriguing enough that he doesn't need to be smuggled out to listeners under a false passport. This disc is a good introduction to his style, and the conductor is one of the finest alive -- Leif Segerstam, who, like most great maestros, excels at making the strongest possible case for unfamiliar music and happens to be particularly skilled at making routine modernist hackwork sparkle with surprise and delight. (Try his enthusiastically eerie performances of the contemporary Danish composer Poul Ruders on Chandos.) Of course Segerstam's presence does raise the vexing question of how good the music would sound if somebody else were conducting it. I have to say that other Rautavaara CDs I've heard haven't been anywhere near this impassioned. But what the hell -- it's not as though we're drowning in great new symphonies. I'm willing to give Rautavaara credit just for writing pieces that give Segerstam a chance to show his stuff.

So what we get in Angel of Light is a symphony that starts out with a nebulous slow movement, marked "tranquilo," in which bits of disconnected melody drift against rising groundswells of strings. It's lovely but frazzling, like looking at a fogged-in harbor where ships glide past each other without quite bumping. The mood grows exponentially more tense with the second movement allegro: a furnace blast of constructivist noise, all shrieking brass and tumbling timpani. Then there's another slow movement, marked "come un sogno" -- "like a dream." Rautavaara, like most composers, has a boring notion of what a dream sounds like; he thinks it means something pleasantly moody. But at least this movement actually is pleasantly moody: a long cascade of string legatos trembling just on the edge of dissonance. However, it's the pesante movement that follows that really makes the symphony worth listening to: Rautavaara stirs up a hair-raising storm, with exhilaratingly prolonged horn crescendos swarmed by weird swirling masses of flutes and strings, all rising together with imposing grandeur before melting into a delicate finale that's like a hint of blue sky above a thundercloud.

The Annunciations organ concerto that follows is edgier. Its single movement starts off with a sustained passage of mounting anxiety: a jittery ostinato on the organ overlaid with an assortment of orchestral collisions and avalanches and interspersed with weird trilling birdcalls, all of which builds to a shrieking horn crescendo. There follows a long middle section of tumultuous dissonances, like a tour through a nasty fun house. After an abrupt exit through the last trapdoor, we're sent off with a cold and ethereal organ solo whispering into the silence.

It's impressive stuff, made even more effective by Segerstam's rip-roaring conducting -- he's not the sort of maestro who'll soften the discord so as not to flutter the more timid members of the subscription audience (in fact, he seems to take a boyish glee in seeing just how much noise he can get an orchestra to make). The only problem with the piece is that it seems to have less to do with the stated theme of annunciations than the symphony had to do with angels.

But what is it that makes a piece of music religious? If you subtracted the titles, the cover art, and the program notes would you ever guess that Rautavaara's music was about sacred things?

That's not a problem with the neomedievalists like Arvo Part. Throw away the packaging on Part's discs (they're all so austere that the silhouette of a bare tree on his Te Deum seems as gaudy as a porno magazine) and what you get is a bunch of monks chanting Latin -- and what could be more religious than that? As it happens, Part once upon a time composed music just as ostentatiously modernist as Rautavaara's; his earliest symphonies, written in the 1960s, are filled with all kinds of teeth-grinding dissonances and freaky tone colors. But that was before he turned his back on every instrument, chord, and scale that could possibly be read as "secular" -- which for Part means just about every aspect of music since the Protestant Reformation. His music these days is so redolent of primordial sanctity you expect photographs of him to be in stained glass.

But then you don't have to be as doctrinally rigorous as Part to think that there's something hopelessly profane about modernist music. The wild tonal contrasts and free-form clamor of a piece like Rautavaara's Annunciations Concerto are about as far from the serenity of received faith as you can get. The work comes off like the sound track for some moralizing documentary about the soullessness of contemporary urban society -- the kind with a lot of speeded-up shots of traffic jams and people swarming up and down escalators. Maybe we make such associations because of the old idea that certain scales are inherently religious and others secular, but the sound world of modernist music automatically seems cosmopolitan, humanist, atheist. Whatever its intention, music like Rautavaara's sounds like a lot of ungodly noise.

I don't know though. Sacredness -- or the lack thereof -- can't be strictly a matter of tradition and cliche. I've been listening to some of Hector Berlioz's sacred music, on a spectacular new set from RCA collecting the classic Berlioz recordings made by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the 1950s (Munch Conducts Berlioz, a perfect match of composer, conductor, and orchestra), and I keep coming up against the question of what Berlioz did or didn't believe about religion. His Grande messe des morts and his oratorio L'Enfance du Christ are surely among the most exquisite works of sacred music ever composed (and have never sounded better than they do with Munch conducting): nothing ever sounds incongruous or forced or impious, every bar seems to breathe respect for the long tradition of mass and oratorio and hymn in the Western church. And yet there's a weird air of insincerity hovering over it all -- one gets a maddening sense that Berlioz didn't believe in any of it for a moment. It's not as though you can point to a single bar anywhere in these immense scores and call it spiritually dishonest, but somehow -- maybe just because of the sheer effort Berlioz puts into being so stylistically appropriate all the time -- one comes away with the conviction that the music is obeying the letter of the law, not the spirit.

This same problem comes up again and again in the great religious music of the Romantic movement, from Beethoven's Missa Solemnis to Verdi's Requiem: the traditional forms of sacred music are imitated with extraordinary fidelity and are sometimes brought to life with deep emotional power -- but what's missing is any sense that the music is pointing to something beyond it. You don't think of God when you listen to the Missa Solemnis, only of Beethoven; and if the Requiem makes you think of the church, it's only as a hidebound obstacle in the way of Verdi's democratic ideal. The only traditions Beethoven or Verdi really had any interest in following were musical: the Missa and the Requiem are intended as soulful and impassioned gestures of respect, not to the doctrine of Christianity but to the past composers who so inscrutably believed in it. The real gods hovering over the sacred music of the Romantics are Palestrina and Monteverdi and Bach.

This is the same complaint I have about Arvo Part and the neomedievalists. Under the guise of ostentatious piety, they're practicing a covert version of the old Romantic agnosticism -- one where only the forms matter. I have no doubt that Part is a devout believer in the Russian Orthodox Church, and I'm sure his music is intended as a wholly sincere and committed expression of his faith. But I refuse to believe that his music is communicating anything essential about faith in the real world. It's based on such an unyielding rejection of modernism and secularism that there's nothing left for listeners to connect with, except a kind of nonsectarian blur of archaic holiness. It says that only the most rigorously pure and traditional modes of music are capable of expressing religious belief, because every musical sound not immediately traceable to some Slavonic chant current around AD 1000 is the mark of the devil. It assumes that no sacred life is possible outside the monastery.

But the greatest religious music was written with a fine heedlessness about what was or wasn't an appropriate form of devotion. The music that communicates a profound and living sense of faith -- Bach's Mass in B Minor, for instance, or Monteverdi's Vespro della Beata Vergine -- casually mixes up the traditions of sacred music with all kinds of strictly secular genres: lilting madrigals, melodramatic arias, exuberant dances. Both the mass and the vespers are encyclopedias of the prevailing musical genres of their times, from the formally devout to the sensually profane. And why not? Any music at all can sing of faith -- a children's jingle can be as holy as a church service.

In a way, even modernist music in all its furious ugliness could be a more suitable medium for religion than the frosty loveliness of the neomedievalists. At least modernism forces a response out of you; it doesn't sink you in a soothing bath of primordial murmuring. After all, faith itself isn't soothing. It's enlivening, infuriating, distracting: it gets in the way of what you want to do and forces thoughts on you you'd rather be without. You just can't use it for background music.

This was certainly true for the century's major composer of religious music -- who was a big influence on Rautavaara -- Olivier Messiaen. Messiaen wrote modernist music so intransigent it makes the crashes and bangs of the Annunciations Concerto seem as bland as the score for a TV commercial, but he was blithely certain that every weird swooping shriek of the organ, every cataclysmic fanfare of the horns, was a direct expression of faith. He even provided bizarre program notes explaining the more esoteric points of his doctrines involving the Bible and color symbolism (typical examples: "The second piano takes up the theme of Creation....Underneath the melodic lines of the violins, the music combines gold and brown to orange striped with red. A full crescendo takes off on the blue-violets and greens"). But leaving aside these "jewels of the Apocalypse," as he called some of his effects, what comes through most powerfully in his music is the way the idiom of modernism can be used to represent the sheer strangeness of God's shaping hand, the harshness and cragginess of his created universe. Messiaen's enormous suite for piano and orchestra, Des canyons aux etoiles, is filled with eerie noises that don't fit any known tradition of music, and yet they work as powerful symbols of a divine landscape: desert winds, rough cliffs of orchestral crescendos, strange pulsings like radio signals from other stars -- and constantly, endlessly, the twitter and cry of his trademark birdsong.

Rautavaara is also fascinated by the idea of incorporating natural sounds into his music -- particularly birdsong. Birdcalls recur throughout Annunciations and in several of his other works: strange trillings and plangencies that recall the sonic wildernesses of his native Finland. But where Messiaen's bird effects are the result of relentless experiments with getting instruments to mimic the odd melodies of various bird species, Rautavaara has gone a more direct route and incorporated real birds. His best-known piece before Angel of Light, the Cantus Arcticus, blandly billed as "a concerto for birds and orchestra," uses tapes of birds as a kind of solo melodic line, around which a full orchestra weaves moody accompaniments -- from the softly mournful tones of the first movement, "The Bog," up through the ecstatic finale, "Swans Migrating." I don't know if it really amounts to more than a stunt -- though it's impressive that Rautavaara was able to devise accompaniments that sound appropriate, given how little birdsong resembles human music. But what does come through is a feeling of depth and mystery; it's as though we're getting a little glimpse into a nonhuman world.

Nevertheless, the Cantus comes off as slick and undermotivated compared with the ferocious oddity of Messiaen's birdsongs. Messiaen used birdsong as a symbol for divinity, because it was proof that music isn't a human invention -- it's woven directly into the transcendent texture of the world. Rautavaara's birdsongs don't carry that kind of weight. He's liltingly vague where Messiaen is bizarrely vivid; Rautavaara breaks things off before the audience gets restless -- the Cantus barely lasts 20 minutes -- while Messiaen was perfectly capable of writing works where the birdsong goes on for hours, as it does in his opera on Saint Francis. Once again, it comes down to belief: Messiaen's music constantly forces you into some kind of confrontation with his peculiar faith, but in the end I don't think there's much to Rautavaara's Cantus besides its picturesqueness.

On the other hand, one of the things I find most tiresome about modernist music is its refusal to be picturesque. In the name of abstract formal virtuosity, the doctrine of modernism rejected all such humble musical accomplishments as evoking a mood or implying an emotion. At least Rautavaara uses the modernist idiom as though it might mean something -- anything -- beyond itself. I think this is why the most impressive piece by Rautavaara I've heard is the terrific fourth movement of the Angel of Light Symphony, that maelstrom of bellowing crescendos and mad flutterings. Maybe I was cued by the packaging, but I really did think of angels when I was listening to it -- probably not the angels Rautavaara had in mind, but angels as primordial powers, as beings at home in the vastness and wildness of creation. I find in this an eloquent message: if you want to hear an angel's wings, the place to listen isn't in the silence of the monastery, but at the heart of the storm.