O/Modernt, Confidencen, Ulriksdals Slottsteater, Solna, Sweden, 9–17 June 2013

Combining the pursuit of excellence with highly imaginative program- ming, the Stockholm festival, O/Modernt, founded and directed by the British-born violinist, Hugo Ticciati, goes from strength to strength. Re- flecting its growing success, O/Modernt 2013 took in four new venues in and around Stockholm. These were in addition to Confidencen, the lovely rococo theatre in the grounds of Ulriksdal Palace that provides the festival with its main stage. Also new this year was a literary event, curated by Si- mone Kotva, in which specially commissioned pieces in Swedish and Eng- lish, reflecting on the festival theme, were performed at Confidencen (Sun- day 16 June, 12 noon). Taking part in these recitals were the distinguished actor, Björn Granath (whose brilliant Sprechgesang was embellished with improvised violin accompaniment from Ticciati), and the soprano, Kjerstin Dellert, whose unfailing energy over the past forty years has been the driv- ing force behind the revival of Confidencen as a home for the performing arts. These works by several hands in prose and verse (including a new poem by Robin Kirkpatrick, translator of Dante, and Emeritus Professor of Italian and English literature at Cambridge) have been collected into a bilingual volume entitled Vertical realities | Vertikala verkligheter (ed. Kotva) that also contains a spectacular series of photos, ‘Rock-balancing still lifes’, by the artist Michael Grab.

Under the heading ‘Rameau and the Vertical’, the starting point for O/Modernt 2013’s multifaceted schedule was the work of the French composer and theorist, Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764). The idea of musical ‘verticality’ alludes to the theoretical writings of Rameau, particularly his historic Traité de l’harmonie (1722), a book that for the first time system- atically presented the principles of tonality that had, in practice, been the dominant approach to musical composition since at least the 1690s.


Prior to Rameau, the prevailing trend in musical analysis had been to treat music in terms of melodic lines interacting according to the rules of coun- terpoint. Music was understood polyphonically as the sounding together of multiple voices, each tracing an individual, horizontal path (so to speak) from the beginning of a composition through to its end. Building on the baroque convention known as ‘thorough bass’ (in which the bass notes of a piece are accompanied by numbers and other notational signs specify- ing the intervals that should be played along with the bass note), Rameau argued that the elemental musical unit was the chord. Starting with a ‘basse fondamentale’ (or ‘fundamental bass’), Rameau describes how the ‘perfect chord’ is constructed by adding the third and fifth notes of the scale above the bass note (or root). The perfect chord is a complete and stable tower of sound, built vertically, as it were, from the bottom up. Introducing other notes (most importantly, for Rameau, the seventh) produces instability or dissonance. Music, says Rameau, proceeds by artfully creating chordal dis- sonances that require resolution; harmony is the purposeful progression of chords, governed by the dynamics of dissonance and resolution.

In characteristic eighteenth-century fashion, one of Rameau’s overriding preoccupations was to discover a basis in nature for his theory of harmony. Subsequent to the publication of the Traité de l’harmonie, he found this in ongoing research into the series of harmonic overtones produced by a ‘corps sonore’: a vibrating body capable of emitting a tone. The classic example of the corps sonore was the vibrating string, and it was noticed that, in addition to the principal tone, a plucked string also produces a series of faint, higher-pitched sounds. In 1701 Joseph Sauveur (1653–1716) pre- sented a paper to the Académie Royale des Sciences in which he describes how a string made to vibrate sympathetically, by plucking a second string placed next to it, exhibits a series of more or less still points (called nodes). These nodal points, Sauveur concludes, divide the string into ‘aliquot parts’ (determinate fractions of the whole) that make it capable of vibrating at numerous frequencies at the same time. These multiple vibrations create the ‘sons harmoniques’ (harmonic overtones or partials) that enrich the principal tone.

Radically simplifying the matter, in several works that followed the Traité de l’harmonie, Rameau repeatedly declared that the corps sonore emits three sounds: the principal tone or octave; the perfect twelfth, which is the fifth raised by one octave; and the major seventeenth, which is the third raised by two octaves. According to Rameau, that is, the perfect chord, consisting of a fundamental bass (or root) plus a third and a fifth, is nature’s own creation. ‘Harmony’, Rameau writes in his Génération harmonique (1737), ‘which consists of an agreeable mixture of several different sounds, is a natural effect’. The predilection for tonal music is implanted in us by nature. As Thomas Christensen summarises it, for Rameau: ‘Since all mu- sic seems to be an elaboration of the basic proportions contained in the corps sonore, this natural phenomenon is the unique source and generator of music.’

Again in accordance with neoclassical thinking, Rameau believes that mu- sic’s purpose is mimetic, its particular task being to imitate nature in the form of human passions. This is no servile copying, however, but an art- fully constructed selection from nature’s abundance that aims to achieve the most perfect portrayal of its subject. As Charles Batteux expressed it in 1746, the object of imitation is not nature per se, but nature idealised, ‘la belle Nature’: ‘Ce n’est pas le vrai qui est; mais le vrai qui peut être, le beau vrai, qui est représenté comme s’il existoit réellement’ (Les Beaux Arts, ch.3). Rameau maintained that music could best achieve such representa- tion by using nature’s own medium – harmony, as manifested in the corps sonore. Bypassing surface profusion, this allows music to copy nature by making use of rational proportions: the profound inner structures given by nature herself.

Anyone with no more practical knowledge of music than how to strum three or four simple chords on the guitar will immediately recognise the importance and ubiquity in the subsequent history of western music of the approach to harmony outlined by Rameau. In the 1750s, however, Rameau was dragged into a furious argument over the relative priority of melody over harmony. His formidable adversary in this polemic was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who contended, with characteristic verve, that the expressive powers of music derive from music’s relationship with the sound of the human voice, especially the capacity of speech to convey emotion. Hu- man language is the music of nature, and music’s fundamental and most powerful mode of expression is not harmony but vocal melody. The de- bate quickly shifted on to nationalistic grounds, focusing on the merits of Italian versus French as the language of opera. In the so-called Guerre des Bouffons that raged in Paris, Rousseau championed the visiting Italian opera buffa company (the buffoni) over the French operatic tradition as represented formerly by Lully and now by Rameau. Since Italian is a more expressive and melodious language than French, Rousseau argued in his controversial Lettre sur la musique française (1753), Italian opera is inher- ently superior to anything the French could produce.

Rameau countered, insisting in his Observations sur notre instinct pour la musique (1754), that melody is only able to express human passions because of its subservience to harmony: ‘The stirring of the passions is due solely to harmony; melody draws its force only from that source, from which it emanates directly.’ In many ways, however, the debate was a cul- de-sac. As Nicholas Cook remarks in The Cambridge History of Western Music Theory (2002, p.80), what Rameau lacks is ‘the concept of arbitrary signification’: the idea that music communicates not because of its truth to nature, but by agreement, by the acceptance of learned conventions.

This, of course, is the domain of Michel Foucault, who speaks of the his- tory of the relationship, after the seventeenth century, between artifice and nature in the organisation of human language: ‘if natural, a sign is no more than an element selected from the world of things and constituted as a sign by our knowledge’ (The Order of Things, p.61). Descending from Rameau, the theory of harmony depends on forging meaningful conventions on the basis of a rapidly growing and changing body of knowledge (one which Rameau himself drastically condensed). Harmony, to put the matter sim- ply, is an intricate and infinitely engaging web of artifice whose capacity to express emotion depends on the interrelationships between arrangements of chords in given contexts.

Under the banner of ‘verticality’, these are some of the issues that O/Modernt 2013 set itself the task of exploring in a compellingly eclectic and entertaining week of concerts and associated events. Naturally, the mu- sic of Rameau played a major role here, but the subsequent history of the theory of harmony propounded by Rameau, along with the idea of early music as ‘(un)modern’ (to paraphrase the Swedish ‘O/Modernt’), allowed the organisers to range far and wide in their choices of material and line- ups. To give a brief overview, these included: extensive passages from Rameau’s operas, ballets and works for harpsichord; several premières of pieces expressly commissioned to reflect on Rameau’s achievements; a wide-ranging programme of works by later French composers; a lecture by Ben Quash on the place of God in Diderot’s Encyclopédie; exhibitions of twenty or so marvellous paintings and drawings by the artist, John Dai- ly; a performance of Hearing Solar Winds (1983) by David Hykes and The Harmonic Choir; and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Stimmung (1968). The week began with a concert of ‘Show Stoppers’ (Sunday 9 June), presenting works by Bach, Villa-Lobos, and Monteverdi plus a host of less familiar names, among them Sverre Indris Joner (b.1963), whose Con cierto toque de tango received its world première; and the festival closed with ‘Time- less Masterworks’ (Monday 17 June), in which Angela Hewitt played the first ten movements from Bach’s Art of Fugue (eloquently and informative- ly introduced by Hewitt herself), followed by a breathtaking performance of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (1941) with Hewitt (piano), Mi- chael Collins (clarinet), Hugo Ticciati (violin) and Torleif Thedéen (cello).

On Saturday 15 June an adventurous and exuberant concert entitled ‘Rameau, Reich and Hip Hop’ opened with two arias from Rameau’s comic opera, Platée (1745, also referred to as a ‘Ballet bouffon’). ‘Formons les plus brillants concerts’ and ‘Lance tes traits, Amour’ were superbly sung by the soprano, Elin Rombo, who delighted and amused in equal measure. This was Rameau with a difference, however, as the accompanying band included marimbas, or Latin American xylophones: resonated percussion instruments played with soft mallets. The same instruments were used in the accompaniment to two arias from Rameau’s tragic opera, Dardanus (1739), again sung with ravishing expression by Elin Rombo. Punctuating these contrasting dramatic pieces by Rameau were two captivating works in which the marimbas (played by Johan Bridger, Christoffer Gräntz, Pat- rick Raab and Marcus Wall) took centre stage: Nagoya Marimbas and Mal- let Quartet by the revered American minimalist composer, Steve Reich.

Defining Reich’s pivotal contribution to the recent development of modern western classical music, Richard Taruskin adds a further connotation to the vertical/horizontal dichotomy discussed above. With the advent, in the second half of the twentieth century, of sophisticated, yet cheaply available recording and communications technology, says Taruskin, every kind of music from every time and place became ‘simultaneously and equally ac- cessible to any musician in the world’. The ‘vertical’ transmission of styles in the western literate tradition of art music – a chronological sequence focused on a canonical succession of (almost invariably) white male com- posers – was thus supplanted by a ‘horizontal’ process of diffusion that washes away the old hierarchies in a virtual tsunami of musical diversity.

Reich, who studied philosophy at Cornell, began by experiencing mu- sic not primarily through texts (as he would have as a music major), but ‘horizontally’ via recordings. His epiphanic moment came at the age of fourteen, when he heard, in quick succession, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.5 and some bebop (a type of jazz nota- ble for its complex harmonies and rhythms). As Taruskin describes it (The Danger of Music, 2009, pp.98–9), Reich’s ‘happily unprejudiced ear’ dis- covered a link between these pieces in their ‘subtactile pulse’: the ‘rock- steady rhythmic unit’ or metronomic click, often submerged in a classical symphony, that is forcefully stressed in other kinds of music, including The Rite of Spring, Brandenburg No.5, bebop, West African drumming, Indone- sian gamelan and, of course, western rock and pop music.

With the introduction of marimbas into his comic and tragic arias in the first half of ‘Rameau, Reich and Hip Hop’, Rameau’s music was partly ‘horizontalized’ (to adapt Taruskin’s usage). After the intermission that pro- cess was pursued to some splendid and surprising extremes. Firstly, Henrik Måwe improvised a piano impromptu, Rameau meets Reich, that was cut off in its prime when two scene-shifters appeared on stage and removed his piano, mid-phrase. Next, Daniel Savio, aka Kool DJ Dust (whose albums include The Disco Opera, 2008), mixed first the chords and rhythms from Reich’s Nagoya Marimbas and Mallet Quartet, and then harmonies and ex- cerpts from the Rameau arias sung by Elin Rombo into an extended hip hop track. DJ Dust has coined the term ‘skweee’ to describe his style, which is rich in its use of Taruskin’s ‘subtactile pulse.’

DJ Dust’s Rameau-Reich Mix provided the musical setting for two pairs of dancers: Ksenia Zvereva and Jana Schultz (classically-trained balleri- nas); and the breakdance duo, Grounded, made up of Victor Mengarelli and Robin Johansson. The pairs performed separately and together. In care- fully choreographed sequences, the ballerinas drew on the contrast between classical positions and the expanded range of movements characteristic of contemporary ballet to achieve expressive power and beauty in a distinctly modern context and idiom.

Breakdancing is an extraordinarily difficult, acrobatic discipline, requir- ing enormous physical strength and stamina, and a highly developed sense of rhythm. It has its own repertoire of extremely demanding moves, in- cluding Uprocks, Switches, different kinds of Flares, Handstands, Swipes, Windmills, Headspins, Jackhammers, Hand Hops and many more. Like the process known as ‘capping’ in an ancient Greek poetry competition, it also has a competitive dimension: one dancer executes a complex sequence of moves which the second dancer then tries to better. Accompanied by DJ Dust’s Rameau-Reich Mix, the utterly spectacular set pieces performed by Grounded, had the audience (a typical classical-concert demographic) bursting into spontaneous gasps, whoops and cheers – googling Air Flares, Hand Hops and Windmills will provide some insight into the reasons why!

In his welcome note at the beginning of the handsomely-produced guide to O/Modernt 2013, Hugo Ticciati quotes the whimsical musical direction inscribed by Erik Satie at the head of a piano score: ‘Ouvrez la tête’. It’s a fitting motto for O/Modernt, which does a fabulous job of imaginatively opening up familiar and unfamiliar repertoire in ways capable of engaging modern sensibilities. Ticciati also announces in his welcome note that the Wigmore Hall in London and the Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ in Amsterdam will soon be hosting selections from the festival. These are concerts that will certainly be worth looking out for in the coming seasons.

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