Music as an Instrument of Human Cognition: a Leap Through Five Centuries

Original date of publication: 22 December 2017 (Art Around the Globe)

Les Arts Florissants with Monteverdi ‘Selva morale e spirituale’ (9th December 2017), Nikolaj Znaider and LSO with Mozart and Tchaikovsky (7th December 2017) and the day of Total Immersion into the works of Esa-Pekka Salonen (10th December 2017)

9th December 2017. Monteverdi by Les Arts Florissants

It surely was not planned by organizers of three different musical events in the Barbican this week, but they seem to have formed a line of exploration of the relationship between music as an instrument of knowing the world and the fleeting time. The chronology began with Monteverdi’s piece ‘Selva morale et spirituale’ (translated as ‘moral and spiritual forest’) performed by a renowned ensemble specializing in baroque music – Les Arts Florissants led by its musical director William Christie on 9th December 2017. The piece, a collection of sacred music, was the last written by the 73-old composer and in many respects it seems to be his philosophical exploration of life. Texts of Francesco Petrarca and Angelo Grillo form part of its canon, while others are based on biblical texts and psalms. All of them are contemplative in style, and open the questions of life and death for the listener, as well as alerting their audiences to the smallness of a human life in face of the universal events ruled by divine forces.

This philosophical contemplation is structured by Monteverdi in a chamber, almost intimate style. William Christie, his musicians (a chamber orchestra playing a lyrone (Nora Roll), a Violone (Douglas Balliett) and a theorbo (Massimo Moscardo) among more common instruments) and his singers (8 performers with two sopranos and the whole spectre of male voices present) have been faithful to the tone and hidden philosophical inclination of this music. All pieces were beautiful in their dimension of thinking through music – be it the pleading ‘Pianto della Madonna sopra Lamento d’Arianna’ (performed by Emmanuelle de Negri with utmost expression) or more playful pieces with wonderful fiorituras based on Petrarca’s poetry (performed by varying trios of male singers, where Carlo Vistoli’s countertenor particularly stood out). The whole ensemble united in the first and the final pieces of the concert – ‘Gloria’ (which sounded an occasion to express the victory of life over death) and ‘Beatus Primo’, both festive and celebratory in nature. The voices or the performers and the sounds of the accompanying instruments of the 17th century were so clear, transparent and beautiful that it gave the whole evening the atmosphere of communal prayer where music served as our channel of addressing the divine forces.

7th December 2017. Znaider and LSO performing Mozart and Tchaikovsky

Nikolaj Znaider and London Symphony Orchestra, performing Mozart’s violin concertos №2 and №3 with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony №6 on December 7th 2017 opened the audiences approaches to cognition of the universe developed in the 18th and 19th centuries. Znaider, the accomplished violinist and conductor, was both leading and solo performing with LSO during the evening. In a way, his style of taking these two role into his hands reminded us of Mozart’s era when Mozart himself performed, composed and led his musicians during the evenings of music. Both violin concertos were masterfully delivered by Znaider with such purity and beauty of sound that no doubt was left that it was through elegance, harmony and sheer beauty of the musical line that the exploration of the unknown was done in Mozart’s time. And then the second half of the concert suddenly made us make a step into the 19th century. Tchaikovsky’s music suddenly plunges us into the intensity of emotions which seem like an account of a composer’s own life or more likely a course of a human life in the universe in general. The Symphony’s four parts seem like seasons of human life: with the changing mix of youthful passions, aspirations, mood swings and lyrical contemplation marking the first two parts, then the brilliance and vigor marking human life’s highest achievements during the middle age and then suddenly and unprecedentedly descending into tragic innuendos and final silence in ‘adagio lamentoso’ of the final part. The human life has indeed ended – both ours (just for the split second – when we descended into the depths of this music) and the composer’s – as due either to fate or to a coincidence of events Tchaikovsky died nine days after conducting the ‘Pathétique’.

10th December 2017. Total Immersion into compositions of Esa-Pekka Salonen

And then finally the 10th December brought us to the 20th and 21st century in a full swing. This day Barbican hosted a unique, once-in-a-lifetime event – the total immersion into the works of the Finnish composer Esa-Pekka Salonen. Salonen is known to all music lovers in London as an eminent conductor, this year marking his 10th year of residency as principal conductor and artistic adviser of the Philharmonia Orchestra. The day of total immersion explored the second part of Salonen’s enormous musical talent and presented his composing career from the 1970s to the recent days. It started with the film ‘Anti-maestro’ directed by Emmanuelle Franc, continued with Salonen’s chamber works performed by young musicians of Guildhall School of Music and Drama, was then followed by an interview with Salonen himself. The day proceeded with choral works of both Salonen and his teacher Einojuhani Rautavaara performed by BBC singers (Nicholas Chalmer conducting) and culminated in the evening concert featuring Salonen’s orchestral works including Wing on Wing (2004), Karawane (2013-2014) performed by BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC Symphony Orchestra (Finnish maestro Sakari Oramo conducting).

The day revealed how a modern person, our contemporary, ventures the exploration of the universe through music. The relevance and immediacy of music as a medium of human cognition was revealed to the listeners both through Salonen’s words (in film and in his conversation with Andrew McGregor) and through his works which seem to explore the synthesis of media to complement the music which in itself is ultramodern and challenges the listener by its constant change of rhythmic foundations and tempos. For instance, in an orchestral piece ‘Wing on Wing’ (2004) written for the opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall, the metaphors of wind and water are used through the use of audio recordings of a fish making noises in the local Californian waters, the voice of the building’s architect Frank Gehry and the shrilling voices of two sopranos (Anu Kosmi and Piia Kosmi) as both the ocean furies and the figureheads of the piece sailing through the ocean of the unknown. Similarly, Karawane (2013-2014), written on Hugo Ball’s dadaist poetry which consists of words of non-existing language and creates its rhythm by sounds oddly, explores additions of human voices (whispers and talks of the BBC Symphony choir), musical renditions of sand sweeping through the desert and requires the use of 10 different percussions. Mimo II (1992), a piece for oboe and orchestra, is planned for a virtuoso musician (Nicholas Daniel was performing on the night) whose face, according to Salonen’s original idea, could be producing shadows if painted in white, and whose hands moving through an impossibly swift and challenging succession of notes, would also be part of a mime performance.

Esa-Pekka Salonen himself proved to be a philosopher and a connoisseur of the world’s music with a very acute sense of humour, revealing his ever-doubting side and his constant challenging of his own boundaries. Salonen touched on many important aspects which helped the audience to understand the place of music as a medium in the composer’s life. He spoke of solipsism and his view of music as an attempt to overcome our solitude, a way to communicate with the world. He spoke of how the perception of music is less an intellectual endeavour possible to explain with words and professional terms, but rather an emotional response which he would be interested to capture and which is ingrained in human species and thus is able to cross the boundaries of nations and languages. He also spoke of changing times: how what he and his contemporaries did was considered difficult, how modernism did not accept jokes, how everything you did was supposed to be serious and hard to understand and how today’s youth treats his pieces with enjoyment and ease. He showed himself as a man of vast knowledge of different movements and developments in art and music, always bringing some of his boyish humour into the moment when revealing different moments of his life. For instance, Salonen recalled that when his teacher did not like the piece the young composer brought to him, he just made a strange remark about how each dog owner seems to resemble his dog, which stupefied the composer and made him wander off absent-mindedly, not being even hurt by obvious dismission of his work. Salonen said that this little moment taught him a lesson which stayed with him for life.

He also traced the way of how music transformed him personally: from a lonely child who did not find easy to adapt to the world to someone who found ways of communication and cooperation with people around him. Salonen finally revealed his fragility when speaking about solitude, a wish to be understood, heard and listened to, while jokingly mentioning two ladies as the only audience of his first concert as a composer. He spoke about his constant choice between the pleasure of conducting a hundred of people and the adrenaline one gets from moving around the world and meeting different orchestras, and the opposing need to isolate himself and compose what only he can bring to the world. And here again, as a much needed counterpoint, the joke was made about Richard Strauss locked down by his wife and passing her pieces of music in order to be able to drink beer with his friends. It is interesting to mention that even Salonen’s voice and manner of speech was rich with changes of intonation and voice rhythms, as though shreds of yet uncomposed music were floating through his mouth as he spoke. The man was evidently breathing and living in a way where a person is constantly attuned to hidden musicality of each moment, and he made us feel we could do the same as long as we tuned our attentions in well enough.

As if to prove this, Salonen often spoke about the bandwidth of human mind, revealing to us that the brain can only take in and process that much of orchestral music or of life’s activity at every single moment, and thus consciously comparing people to musical instruments constrained by their own physical dimensions. Salonen also linked two professions by explaining that he tries to imagine himself a composer of a piece when he is conducting other people’s music and to get an objective view of his music when is conducting his own. He made us understand how every intellectual and emotional activity of an individual can be unwrapped through music: from social adaptation to personal growth, from inner fears and complexes to personal achievements and self-realization. He mentioned how the normal life within a box of good education, nice matters and normal intellectual upbringing is not for him and spoke of his need to constantly challenge these structures, making us feel he is as much of a rebel now when he is reaching his 60s as he was in his youth. His music seemed to echo his words and his world, which was now more clear to us as listeners, and revealed to us the depth of his roaming mind and his constant cognition of the contemporary world, with the elaborate structure of his music constantly reflecting the growing complexity of the world. If music be the food of mind, play on!

Originally published on Art Around the Globe