Lin Liao / Basel Sinfonietta
Xenakis / Saunders / Nordin / Lindberg

Stadtcasino, Basel, 2021-03-14

4.5-star rating

2021-03-18 — Original posting



Table of contents


Introduction

Venue, date & timeStadtcasino, Basel, 2021-03-14 19:00
Series / TitleBasel Sinfonietta, In Algorithmic Waves / In algorithmischen Wellen
OrganizerBasel Sinfonietta
Reviews from related eventsReviews from concerts with the Basel Sinfonietta

Another concert with the Basel Sinfonietta, and sadly, another ghost event. While the real audience only attended via live streaming, I enjoyed the enormous privilege of being invited to attend this concert as the only (!) on-site, live audience member.


The Venue

The Stadtcasino in Basel has undergone a thorough renovation (restoration and upgrade). This was my first visit to this impressive venue. I haven’t studied the history of the building in detail, but to my knowledge, the actual concert hall was restored to its original state. Of course, it has been cleaned, is fresh-looking and shiny. The main difference is that the windows to the adjacent street were reinstated: modern acoustically isolating glass can shield off street noise as well as solid walls. In contrast to the actual concert hall (and the outer hull), the surrounding parts of the building (foyer, stair cases, etc.) were entirely, thoroughly reshaped by Herzog & de Meuron, a local, illustrious architect firm with excellent global reputation.

I won’t comment on these reshaped / renovated parts of the building. For one, the venue—especially the foyers, etc.—lives from and with the presence of a concert audience. Then, the orchestra used the foyer as artist’s room, the usual furniture was stacked up along the walls, etc., which made it hard to get the real “feel” for the atmosphere of the refreshed venue.


The Artist(s)

It is the declared goal of the orchestra’s principal conductor, Baldur Brönnimann, to share the podium with assistant and guest conductors. Already the last concert (on 2021-01-24) that I attended (as well as several over the past years) was with a guest conductor. And here it happened again:

With the Taiwanese Lin (Hsiao-Lin) Liao, the Basel Sinfonietta took advantage of a conductor with a well-proven track record and extensive experience with contemporary music. Lin Liao has worked with renowned international ensembles and institutions specializing on the performance of contemporary music, such as the IRCAMInstitut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique), the Ensemble Modern, and the Lucerne Festival Academy. The latter was founded by Pierre Boulez (1925 – 2016), its artistic director now is the composer Wolfgang Rihm (*1952). For details on Lin Liao’s career, see the artist’s Website.


Program

The concert featured of four pieces, two of which were Swiss first performances, one was a world premiere:

The title of the program “In Algorithmic Waves” (In algorithmischen Wellen) may sound cryptic: the “algorithmic” primarily refers to the algorithms that Iannis Xenakis used in the creation of his stochastic composition, see below. The “Waves“, on the other hand, is a direct reference to the world premiere in this program, the composition “Wave” by Jesper Nordin. That music also has a strong electronic component, hence again involves algorithms, see again below. At the same time, the title alludes to the last composition, “Marea” by Magnus Lindberg (another composer with a background in electronic music), which is inspired by the tidal waves at sea.

As expected, the live streaming event was performed without intermission, with the exception of the pauses required for the orchestra to switch between configurations, and to tune. These intervals were filled with interviews. There was also a short, initial introduction and some final comments / announcements—see below for details. For the interviews, the intro and the lead-out, the orchestra relied upon the pianist, music journalist, and radio moderator Moritz Weber. He filled that role already in the previous concert on 2021-01-24. And just as back then, for the introduction, Moritz Weber was joined by the orchestra’s managing director, Daniela Martin.


Setting, etc.

My seat was in the center of the second-to-last row on the balcony, with plain view. And, of course, there was no disruption through motion, chit-chat etc. by other audience members, my focus fully remained with the performance. The main disadvantage to me was that from such distance, the interviews (see below) were essentially incomprehensible, hardly audible: the microphones were not connected to the loudspeakers, but directly to the video / streaming channel.

Unless noted otherwise (composer’s portrait photos), all event photos below are © Zlatko Mićić, courtesy of Basel Sinfonietta.


Concert & Review

The program started with an initial moderation by Moritz Weber, and a welcome and greeting note by the orchestra’s managing director, Daniela Martin.

Moritz Weber ended the intro by announcing the first composition, i.e., explaining its seemingly cryptic title (see below for more on that).


Iannis Xenakis: ST/48-1,240162 (1962)

The Greek-French Iannis (Yannis) Xenakis (1922 – 2001) was a man of many talents: composer, music theorist, architect, performance director and engineer. After 1947, he fled Greece and became a French citizen. His first career actually was that of an architect, in which he worked for and cooperated with Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, 1887 – 1965).

Iannis Xenakis (© Les Amis de Xenakis)
Iannis Xenakis (© Les Amis de Xenakis)

At the same time, Xenakis studied harmony, counterpoint, and composing. He was actually rejected by most teachers that he approached. These included Nadia Boulanger (1887 – 1979), Arthur Honegger (1892 – 1955), and Darius Milhaud (1874 – 1992). It finally was Olivier Messiaen (1908 – 1992) who recognized Xenakis’ extraordinary nature and talent. Xenakis studied with him 1951 – 1953. Before that, his music was mostly inspired by Greek folk music, as well as that of other composers of the time. Already at the beginning of his career as a composer, he had freed himself from the restraints of serialism.

It was only in the late 1950s when Xenakis started gaining international recognition, ultimately as one of the most important European composers of his time. He stopped working with Le Corbusier in 1959, henceforth supporting himself through composing and teaching.

Oeuvre

Xenakis’ later compositions are the result of applying methods from physics, mathematics, and statistics, e.g., the statistical mechanics of gases, stochastics (the science of random events), including normal distributionMarkov chains, game theorygroup theoryset theory, and Brownian motion. He created electroacoustic compositions, also used computer / software systems to generate music from graphic images, some involving stochastic methods.

Xenakis produced a vast oeuvre, covering a large variety of genres (stage, orchestral, choral and other vocal works, chamber music, and solo instrumental works, as well as music for tape, and for computerized composition tools. In addition, there are some 30 unpublished or withdrawn compositions.

ST/48-1,240162

The composition in this concert is from 1962 and is named ST/48-1,240162. This is merely a kind of registry number, where by ST stands for “stochastic”, 48 is the number of instruments in the ensemble, “1” is a simple index number (the first stochastic composition for 48 musicians), and “240162” is the date when the work was completed (1962-01-24). This was the first performance of ST/48-1,240162 in Switzerland.

Note: I attended the performance with the intent to get a fresh, unbiased impression of the music. This was not only the first encounter with this piece, but the first live encounter with Iannis Xenakis’ music altogether. The term “stochastic” directed my expectations towards randomness, unpredictability (even some component of chaos?). However, from the music, it instantly was evident that with “stochastic”, Xenakis referred to the composition methods, not implying “ad hoc” random (or pseudo-random) timing of musical events, such as in aleatoric music. (Exponents of the latter are the Americans Charles Ives (1874 – 1954) and Henry Cowell (1897 – 1965), and others.)

The Music

I experienced Xenakis’ piece as a study that combined crescendo bursts with up- and downward glissandi, both in the strings, as well as in the machine timpani. No chaos, but a succession of crescendo/glissando motifs that were exchanged / wandered around between instruments, competed with each other in contrariwise motion. Rumbling, fading away into distant weather lights. The music of course is clearly not tonal, but also doesn’t feel dissonant.

From listening, one could not really sense a defined rhythmic structure. However, the conductor’s gestures indicated an underlying, continuous meter. The sequence of the motifs, the choice and combination of voices felt unpredictable (is that the stochastic part?). Yet, I felt an organic, harmonious progression in the crescendo/glissando bursts and eruptions in the percussion.

The music appeared to form big waves: the initial eruption (a slow, but big blow) was followed by retracting into background, waves in the distance, relaxing, but never dropping the expectation, holding the tension. Gradually, the sequence, the exchange (discourse) of events grew denser again, though never re-gaining the initial volume: more of a subtle narrowing / contraction, loosening again into discrete crescendo events, and leading into an open, suddenly ending build-up. Waves embedded in a giant, big breath. A true masterpiece, no doubt!

The Performance

From the moment when she entered the stage and stepped onto the podium, and throughout the evening, Lin Liao convinced with her determination, presence, and charisma. She defeated the petiteness of her stature not just with the stylishness and elegance of her appearance, but with firmness, competence, and clarity in her gestures. She didn’t need high heels to keep the orchestra’s attention: there was never any doubt that she was familiar with the scores and knew exactly what she wanted.

Xenakis’ music is not particularly virtuosic, but still highly challenging for the musicians in the coordination and in keeping track of the sequence of events in the score. Not surprisingly, the orchestra (concertmaster: Simone Zgraggen) fully lived up to its reputation, unfailingly performing with focus, concentration, and utmost attention.

Rating: ★★★★★

In the first intermission, Moritz Weber did a short interview with Lin Liao. The conductor speaks excellent German, with a clear voice. That much I could tell even from the distance of the rear balcony.


Rebecca Saunders: Traces (2006/2009)

The English composer Rebecca Saunders (*1967, see also Wikipedia) was born in London. She studied violin and composition at the University of Edinburgh and obtained a Ph.D. in composition in 1997. A part of her studies she did with Wolfgang Rihm (*1952) in Karlsruhe, and she since obtained numerous awards for her compositions. A quote from Wikipedia: Much of Saunders’s music is based upon a single pitch, or sometimes a small collection of pitches which govern large sections of music. Therefore, development and elaboration are determined more by sonority and texture rather than traditional voice leading.

The same Wikipedia article also quotes the composer with “For me, what’s really important is enabling the listener to feel the magical physicality of sound, the timbre, the colour, the mass, the weight, of sound. That’s what I feel I’m working with, almost like a sculptor works with different materials.

Rebecca Saunders now lives in Berlin, as a freelance composer. She holds a professorship at the HMTM Hannover (Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien Hannover) and is associated with the Saxon Academy of Arts (Sächsische Akademie der Künste) in Dresden, as well as with the Academy of Arts (Akademie der Künste) in Berlin.

“Traces”, for Orchestra

Rebecca Saunders’ composition Traces from 2006/2009 is for chamber orchestra. The concert leaflet describes it as “a play with silence, which the composer circles, surrounds with tones, but at times also disrupts in a rough and loud manner. Sound colors that can be detected in traces, yet always end in nothingness.” (translated from German).

The Performance

Part I

A slow sequence of deep groans, growls in the double basses, emerging from and returning into silence. Subtle, soft, later more prominent echoing in the intervals, first in the percussion, later in the wind instruments, then again whispering in the strings, highest whistling from an accordion, ear-piercing sounds from woodwinds and brass. Earthly underground noises alternating with the whispering of the wind? The growling didn’t appear really menacing. Rather, the music felt like big, cosmic breathing: calm, reflecting eternity…

Part II

Eruptive dissonant beats in the percussion, retracting into fading resonances on the tamtam. Collisions, followed by silence—a play between closeness and distance, between bursts and silence, threatening, explosive outbursts, silence. Extreme heights with microtonal intervals—silence again—alarming siren-like tones, industrial noises disrupting soft tones and distant noises. Dissonant intervals between the bursts: suffering, pain reverberating into silence, more “beating”, moments of torture building up, gradually getting more verbose, concrete. It almost appeared as if silence had given up.

However, after a culminating outburst, the piece seemed to fade into total silence. Just to re-emerge from the softest pppp, from a distance. Not very loud, but ear-piercing, microtonal dissonances at extreme heights in the accordion. Whispering with a background of distant, menacing knocking in the percussion, a long and final silence…

Rating: ★★★★½

The second intermission featured two interviews: a first one with the conductor, and one with the computer musician Robin Meier. Through these, the streaming audience learned about the technical setup for the composition that followed.


Jesper Nordin: Wave (2021)

The Swedish composer Jesper Nordin (*1971, see also Wikipedia) was born in Stockholm. Wikipedia states: “His music mixes traditional Swedish folk music, rock music, electroacoustics and improvisation.“. Nordin’s oeuvre includes orchestral works, ensemble and chamber music, vocal works, and electroacoustic compositions. The Royal Swedish Academy of Music commented the Christ Johnson Award for Jesper Nordin with “Nordin is a sound magician who explores and expands acoustic spaces with originality and uncompromising curiosity” (approximate re-translation from German).

Jesper Nordin (© Freddie Sandström)
Jesper Nordin (© Freddie Sandström)

“Wave”, for Conductor and Orchestra

For this concert, Jesper Nordin composed “Wave” for Lin Liao and the Basel Sinfonietta. It was a world premiere. The work is annotated “for conductor and orchestra”. This indicates that, the conductor plays more than the normal, coordinating role. Lin Liao wasn’t just the conductor for the orchestra, but she also controlled the electronic side of the composition. That part needs some explanation.

Electroacoustic Setup

  • At the core of the electronic setup is Jesper Nordin’s own iOS app “Gestrument (“gesture instrument”, available for purchase), tablet software that permits creating (and recording) MIDI sequences (MIDI being an electronic form of music notation) in an intuitive way, using finger gestures, swipes, tapping, pulling, etc.
  • For “Waves”, Nordin recorded a set of MIDI sequences (in this case essentially melodic pattern, often polyphonic) using Gestrument. The app was then also in use during the concert.
  • Lin Liao had the app running on an iOS device next to her music stand. But I did not see her interact with the computer screen. Rather, she relied upon an assistant, the computer musician and composer Robin Meier who worked on a desk next to the podium, selecting the appropriate MIDI sequences for the current segment(s).
  • Lin Liao on the other hand controlled the MIDI playback using two motion sensors on either side of the podium (see the pictures below). With her hands, she was able to control two acoustic channels, whereby approaching the sensor (proximity) controlled the volume, and the vertical position of her hands controlled the pitch (not continuously in this case, but in harmonic steps, i.e., modulating / “rotating” rather than just shifting up and down).
  • While the conductor was “talking to the orchestra”, she moved her hands and arms just in front of her, and sometimes she used one arm/hand to control the orchestra, while the other made gestures towards the respective motion sensor.

Rebirth of the Theremin? Not!

People familiar with early 20th century contemporary music will instantly recall the theremin, an early electronic instrument that was invented in the 1920s (patented in 1928). The theremin features a vertical and a horizontal antenna that acted as proximity sensor for the musician’s hands. One antenna controlled the volume, the other the pitch. That’s about where the similarities to the setup used in this concert end. The theremin produced simple sine waves (“featureless tones”, so to say) across a continuous range of pitches. The most “expression” produced by the theremin was in “vibrato” that the musician could create through wobbling motions.

Unlike the Ondes Martenot (a related, but more sophisticated instrument), theremins are rarely ever heard these days, if they can be found at all. Their output is relatively primitive and simply not comparable to the range of possibilities with the setup used in this concert.

The Performance — Lin Liao “In Action”

It was fascinating to observe how Lin Liao mastered the complexity of her role. She was reading the big score and controlling the motion sensors on either side with clear, precise gestures (controlling the pitch and shaping the volume). Alternating with the “device control”, or even at the same time, she was directing the orchestra with a different set of gestures, which of course had to be confined to the space right in front of her. Obviously, false or inadvertent movements towards the sensors would have caused audible disruptions.

The same way in which she shaped the synthetic sounds through lateral motions, Lin Liao also sculpted the orchestral soundscape, formed the melodies with arms and bare hands, “pulling” tones and phrases, always calm and precise, firm, controlled and steady.

The Music

The piece emerged out of silence: undulating glissandi at a distance, growing in stages. In softness, the Gestrument started contributing, like distant, chatty organ sounds. Gradually, these electronic sounds gained presence, moving from initially almost baroque harmonies / chords into short outbursts, eruptions, retracting to bursts of more distant chatting. At times, the soundscape, the mood, the atmosphere vaguely reminded me of music by Arvo Pärt (*1935). After a longer Gestrument solo, the orchestra added a soft, microtonal background to the electronic “Pärt waves”. Exchanges between Gestrument and orchestra, building up to strong, loud and dissonant eruptions, ending abruptly.

The synthetic sounds resumed, softly, interacting with the wind instruments: gentle moments of chamber music (or a serenade?) with baroque allusions, alternating with woodwind melodies and brassy waves. Harmonious, subtle transitions to the Gestrument and back to the orchestra.

Climax and Redemption?

This was followed by a rhythmic, syncopated pattern in the strings (an allusion to minimal music?), gradually, but inexorably growing: a crowd marching into foreground, bursting into violent ffff protest, even an uprising.

Once that faded away, the clarinet seemed to introduce a “blank, primal tone”, gradually gaining color through the strings, branching off in soft, microtonal waves. Fragments of gentle, slow melodies shone up, but ultimately merged into what felt like a “primordial resonance”, undulating in microtonal intervals, glissandi, gradually losing motion, moving further into the distance. The piece ends with a comforting, yet melancholic melody—longing, loneliness—forlornness or transfiguration?

Rating: ★★★★½

I was tempted to give the highest possible rating. Upon second thought I realized that a part of the fascination here was in the experience of observing Lin Liao’s “multidimensional performance” between orchestra and Gestrument. I haven’t watched the event through video streaming, which likely caught and transmitted parts of that fascination. However, this aspect is lost on people who are only listening to this music (say, via radio, or, in future, perhaps through CD). The “near-top” rating reflects the fact that I was literally all of the audience. I had the enormous privilege of being able to experience this in the concert hall, catching the full atmosphere around orchestra and conductor directly, undistracted and with undivided attention.


Magnus Lindberg: Marea (1989)

Magnus (Magnus Gustav Adolf) Lindberg (*1958) is one of the prominent, contemporary Finnish composers. He received his musical education at the Sibelius Academy, part of Uniarts, the University of the Arts in Helsinki. His main teachers were Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928 – 2016) and Paavo Heininen (*1938).

Magnus Lindberg (© Sara Vuorjoki/FIMIC)
Magnus Lindberg (© Sara Vuorjoki/FIMIC)

It was the latter who encouraged his students to look beyond the scope of traditional (conservative) Finnish music styles, into the works of European avant-garde composer. Around 1980, this led to the formation of “Ears Open Society” (Korvat auki) which included Magnus Lindberg and his contemporaries Eero Hämeeniemi (*1951), Jouni Kaipainen (1956 – 2015), Kaija Saariaho (*1952) and Esa-Pekka Salonen (*1958).

1981, Magnus Lindberg moved to Paris, where he took up studies with Gérard Grisey (1946 – 1998) and Vinko Globokar (*1934). And, of course, he profited from the IRCAM and its founder, Pierre Boulez (1925 – 2016). Further contacts all over Europe completed his formation as composer. Lindberg now states that his primary focus is on instrumental, especially orchestral music.

“Marea”, for Orchestra

As an exponent of spectral music, Lindberg strives to deconstruct sounds into their physical components. In the 1989 composition “Marea“, he returns from electronic music (based on synthetic sine tones) back to instrumental music. However, he is still using computer software as tool in the creative process. “Marea” is inspired by the monotonous repetition of the tides at sea.

Music and Performance

The initial, dissonant cluster revealed the characteristics of Lindberg’s composition(s): extended, rich, colorful orchestral textures, atonal overall, but with tonal melodic fragments. In my impression, this was the most rhythmically structured of the works that evening, possibly also the one with the most melodic motion. Still, Lindberg does not allow for a continuous rhythmic-melodic flow. Rather, rhythmic and melodic fragments emerge, just to be disrupted through loud clustered sounds.

Momentarily, I sensed what sounded like allusions to (maybe caricatures of) classic or romantic orchestral works, hidden in an artful, complex criss-cross texture. Paintings by Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956) came to mind.

The “Marea Aspect”

The music seems to express a relentless and tumultuous seascape, the to and fro of not always predictable waves at sea. The piece overall felt like a single, giant phrase—the course of a tidal wave? Interestingly, in my ear, that phrase is not (primarily) formed by simple dynamics, and certainly not by pauses, melodies or harmonic progression. Rather, I sensed a large “textural structure”, shaped by pattern density and intensity.

The music builds up to dense, menacing, last wave, then fades away, into intense birdsong, merging into what felt like celestial resonances, the clarity of the open sky…

Rating: ★★★★½

Conclusions

Many thanks to team of the Basel Sinfonietta for offering me the exclusive privilege of attending another, highly interesting concert with no live, physical audience other than myself!

Finally: note that in contemporary music, ratings describe my personal concert experience. That includes the atmosphere, the impression that the music makes on me, the acoustics, and the performance (coordination, focus, attention, etc.). Without a score, I can’t judge if the performance reflects the composer’s intent, whether it is “exactly as written”. I can only state whether the performance, the music feels authentic—and it certainly did so in this concert!


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