Sunday, February 26, 2017

Eivind Buene: Landscapes and Ruins

This week’s post introduces the work of Norwegian composer Eivind Buene, who will be a faculty composer at this year’s June in Buffalo festival. For nearly two decades he has been active on the European new music festival scene, with commissions from Ensemble Intercontemporain, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, and Fondation Royaumont, and performances at the Berlin Philharmonie, Centre Pompidou, and Carnegie Hall. The scope of his artistic activities is unusually broad, with frequent collaborations with improvising musicians, and, since 2010, the publication of multiple novels and collections of essays. He is currently on faculty at the Norwegian Academy of Music.

This year’s June in Buffalo will feature live performances of four works from Buene’s Possible Cities/Essential Landscapes cycle (2005-2009): Grid, Landscape with Ruins, Ultrabucolic Studies, and Nature Morte. The cycle as a whole consists of nine pieces for varying chamber ensembles that explore processes of growth and decay, as well as hybrids of cyclic and organic form, inspired by Italo Calvino's book Invisible CitiesA recording of the complete cycle, performed by the Cikada Ensemble—also a guest at this year’s June in Buffalo—is available on Youtube and Spotify.

The cycle is built from elemental, pliable building blocks, for instance, as Grid begins with three such building blocks: glissandi, double-stop sequences, and sustained tones. In this case, the elements are characterized most strongly in the domain of pitch; elsewhere in the piece, their identities have more to do with their physical process of production, for instance in the sustained “scratch tone” (performed with unusually high bow pressure) that enters later in the piece. These elements are subject to wide ranging transformations, and indeed this is where the music’s interest lies. Sequences of elements sculpt kinetic energies in a compelling drama, one that does not overtly reference earlier formal models but engages in a dialogue with earlier tonal music’s preoccupation with accumulation and dissipation of momentum. In less skilled hands, the music’s (perhaps deliberately) anonymous materials might come across as lifeless and academic, but Buene’s successful use of sectionalized, often proportionally imbalanced forms together with inventive ensemble textures lends the materials a striking character, depth, and energy.

Landscape with Ruins for piano trio is a striking example of Buene’s capacity for textural invention. The piano and the string instruments (violin and cello) seem to inhabit different worlds, and yet seem to coexist in an inexplicable way. For much of the first half of the piece, the piano’s material is chordal and measured, referencing tonal sonorities and occasionally barely disguised tonal chord progressions (the influence of former UB professor Morton Feldman is evident), while the string instruments’ material is floridly melodic and restless. While the two layers frequently follow independent phrase structures, they occasionally converge on common points of motion and repose. The layers struggle to communicate with each other but depend on each other in some vital way, something that is made manifest as the piano and strings effectively switch material identities towards the piece’s end.

Perhaps the “landscape” of the title refers to this multiplicity of perspective; traditionally, the landscape is the opposite of the portrait, offering expanse and multiplicity in place of the portrait’s closed, singular perspective. In Buene's work, polyphony refuses containment within the interiority of tonal models of counterpoint. Landscape with Ruins: disintegrating traces of human(ist) culture—traces of historical tonality, with their connotations of the “civilized” European Enlightenment—are embedded in a scene that exceeds tonal countepoint and its reductionist modes of listening.

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