Category Archives: Analysis

What I’m Listening To – 6/12/2012

Another installment of “What I’m Listening To”!  Today’s piece is Louis Andriessen’s Nuit D’été for piano 4-hands.  I was somewhat surprised when this came to my attention because this is not the type of music I think of when I think of Andriessen (I think of things like Worker’s Union, which is a fabulous piece that you should also listen to – it is very loud and angry…not at all like today’s piece, which perhaps shows a mellower side of the composer).

So who is Louis Andriessen?  He is a Dutch composer who was born in 1939.  His music has been influenced by a lot of disparate sources (including jazz and improvisation).  I actually met him briefly at the Royal College of Music in 2005 when he came to talk to the composers – he was having a conversation with Julian Anderson about himself, his experiences, and his music.  I am sad to say that I don’t really remember what they talked about (although I did hear Worker’s Union around that time) – but I do remember being told that after the concert of his work (that was very difficult, apparently), he stood up at the back and gave a thumbs down to the (extremely hard-working) singers (one of the singers told me this afterwards…I did not actually see the thumbs down).  So maybe he was a bit of a…meanie?

Enough about that – I find it is dangerous to judge people’s music based on their attitudes (although the latter is sometimes reflected in the former).  I had a very ethereal mental image of George Crumb until he came to visit Carnegie Mellon and proved to be a very down-to-earth man with a strong West Virginia accent.  So now I just listen to the music (as much as possible).

And there is music to listen to here.  First thing’s first – this is a fairly early piece for him.  It was written in 1957 and is certainly not of the prevailing style of the Darmstadt school (which was into total serialism (a difficult topic to sum up in a parenthesis, but basically where everything from the notes to the rhythms to dynamics, range, timbre was based on pre-written sets – for dynamics, say, you’d have f, p, mp, ffff, pp, mf and so on – you’d repeat them in that order (or a permutation, inversion, or retrograde of that order)…hey – leave me a comment and we’ll discuss it later!)).  So what is it?  Well – on the surface, it has a fairly simple structure with a clear rhythmic motive to tell the listener what’s happening. The structure is ABA and that rhythmic fragment for the A section is:

Figure 1: Main Motive (I'm guessing at the 6/8)

You can hear Andriessen juxtaposing contrapuntal uses of this fragment with rich and jazz-infused chords that gently sway back and forth (although they start out quite thin).  He explores this for about 20 seconds and then returns to the opening material (00:22).  This time he thickens up the chords before continuing with the counterpoint.  This second mini-section is longer than the first, and explores a denser polyphonic texture.  It all reduces to a single note by about 50 seconds in, and by 00:55, we’re back to the beginning.

This time, however, the counterpoint is introduced right away (I imagine that the composer, rightly, feels that another extended introduction to the main melody (not quite the right word) is unnecessary by this point in the piece).  In this version, at 1:09, we hear a clear statement of what will become the glue for the B theme – a very simple but effective 3 eighth notes following the same pattern as in figure 1.  Here it continues downwards, which will be another feature of the B section.

Finally, for A, we get a coda (ending section) where the first three notes of the main motive are repeated rising up to a new registral high-point, followed by a soft low note.  This closes off the section and very quickly segues into B.

The first part of the B section is tied together by eighth notes rocking back and forth, but quickly expands into a middle line that has its own melody and character.  The first thing I thought when I listened to it was that it reminded me of the Brahms Rhapsody in G-Minor (go to 00:50 for the specific moment, but listen to the whole piece!) – the constant eighth note motion ties things together there (and in the end of the development, where Brahms links it to the first theme).  On top of this, Andriessen writes more big, rich chords (that still show a jazz influence).  It’s a really nice section – especially when (at 1:53) the downwards scales (which I mentioned above) begin.  At first, this descent is really brought out (in this recording, which features the composer), but becomes more subtly integrated as the section progresses.

We return to the start of the B section at about 2:13, with a return of the eighth notes, and again follow a different path in which the “glue” stays fairly static in terms of pitch (and rhythm).  It finally transforms back into the A material (figure 1) at 2:44, and to a literal repeat of the beginning at 2:50(ish).  This section is basically the same as the opening, so I won’t belabor the point.

I think the title fits the piece perfectly – it is totally reminiscent of a hot summer night in the city – a little lazy, a little jazzy…All in all, an attractive and tightly constructed piece that showed me a new side of a composer whose music I enjoy.

Did you enjoy it?  Leave me a comment!

(biographical information from:

What I’m Listening To – 5/29/2012

This is the first of a weekly series that will either focus on the music I’m listening to (and what I think about it) or be a guest post from another composer.  I decided to focus on one piece per week instead of a list of pieces (as I do listen to more than one piece a week…).  I also hope that this will engender discussion – tell me what you think of the piece, or if you disagree with the way I see it (or agree, for that matter).

To that end, I’ll also try to pick pieces that have youtube videos, so we can all be on the same page.

So this week, one of the pieces that I listened to was “Fanfares” from the Ligeti Etudes.  This piece was written in 1985, and was part of the first book (of three books).  I was listening to it in particular for a couple of reasons:  a) I’m (slowly) learning to play it, and b) I’m gearing up to write a piano piece, and so I’m picking up some inspiration (I wouldn’t be surprised if next week’s WILT is also a piano piece).  Oh…and I really enjoy listening to the Ligeti Etudes!

(Note on the recording:  I chose this one because it had some helpful explanations of what is happening in the piece.  It does have a few errors, though – there are many recordings to choose from if you want a “perfect” rendition.)

So what makes “Fanfares” (and most of the etudes) tick?  All in all there seems to be a pre-occupation with time and the subversion of our expectations regarding it.  Ligeti approaches that subject differently in many of his etudes.  Here, he supplies a continuously running ostinato that switches from hand-to-hand and octave-to-octave.

Ostinato from "Fanfares"

On top of this ostinato (which is interesting because it has an uneven beat structure – 3+2+3 – which Ligeti requires the pianist to emphasize) is a fanfare-like configuration, which is also generally made out of twos and threes (in terms of eighth notes).  When the piece begins, the ostinato beat pattern and these fanfares tend to line up (although not necessarily with the first beat of the bar – the idea of the bar becomes more and more irrelevant as the piece progresses).  The idea is that you should hear the fanfare as the beginning of a temporal grouping (that is, as a beat 1), and the fact that it lines up with the beats of the ostinato encourages that way of listening.

Things begin to break down at measure 46 (around 0:42 in the recording I linked).  We suddenly lose the dyads and their longer note values, making this section feel much more contrapuntal.  The hands are still accenting beat-groups together at the beginning of this, but a few measures in, the right-hand plays a group of three while the left-hand plays a group of two.  While the accents are re-aligned when the left-hand takes over the “melody,” they quickly fall out of sync again.

When the longer dyads come in, the rhythmic stability returns for a brief while before being subverted by strings of quarter notes (which go against the 3+2+3 rhythm of the ostinato).

At measure 116 (around 1:42 in the recording), the right-hand has a stable rhythm.  Unfortunately for the pianist, this rhythm has seven beats to the ostinato‘s eight.  That means that the beginnings of the patterns will only line up after every 8 repetitions of the right-hand pattern (and what happens at that point in “Fanfares”?  The hands switch so that the right-hand has the ostinato and the left the 7-beat pattern).

This breaks up in measure 137, where both hands have the ostinato for a few bars (around 2:01), but then it’s back to business as usual.  In this section, Ligeti plays with the dynamics of the fanfares, suggesting, perhaps, that whoever is “performing” them in the musical world is moving away from and towards the listener.  There are also some shocking dynamic changes (pppp to ff in m.171) that add drama.

Finally, towards the end of the piece, the “fanfare” lines start to get longer and feel slower (because of longer note values), and finally the ostinato travels all the way from the bottom of the piano to the top, which signals the end of the etude.

Why is it exciting?  Ligeti manages to subvert our metric expectations even though he has a constant eighth-note figure running throughout the piece.  I enjoy listening to all the etudes, but this one is a good introduction because it is the easiest to grasp (aurally) in terms of what’s going on.  I also like the way that the piece ends un-synced.  There is a tendency for me (as a composer) to want to finish a composition with a burst of “togetherness” (or something like that).  Here, Ligeti’s ending creates fascinating polyrhythms which, combined with the rise of the ostinato from the bottom to the top of the piano give the piece a very satisfying ending (although I must admit to being a little puzzled at the last note in the left-hand, which seems to be left hanging – it’s like the piece has been an explosion of perpetual-motion energy that finally gives way to physics in the end, and comes to a full stop).

So that’s the first installment of What I’m Listening To!  If you think there is something I should be listening to, leave me a comment and maybe it will show up here one week!  I’m still getting a feel for how these posts should run – more analysis/less analysis vs. more of my feelings about the piece/less feelings?  I’ll experiment – let me know what you think.