Sunday, May 27, 2007

Sonic Nature Walks


Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Robert Spano conducting
   Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 (“Pastorale”)
   Michael Gandolfi: “The Garden of Cosmic Speculation”
Thu/Fri/Sat, 24/25/26 May 2007, 8:00 p.m.
Symphony Hall, Woodruff Arts Center
[Review is of the Thursday performance.]

Nature, the universe, and humanity's place in it. It's a favorite topic of artists, and clearly one behind the programming for this evening’s concert by Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

Nearly 200 years ago, Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 6” was premiered in Vienna on the same docket as that of the far more famously furious “Symphony No. 5.” Evocative of nature and Austrian rural life, the Sixth, aka “Pastorale,” is programmatic, with a plot, storyline, and evocative titles. But Beethoven himself described the work as "a matter more of feeling than of painting in sounds," and that while it is up to the listener to conjure the specifics “Anyone that has formed any ideal of rural life does not need titles to imagine the composer’s intentions." Beethoven is being Romantic with a capital "R"—stressing strong emotion as the source of aesthetic experience, in reaction against the rationalization of nature in art. And the “Pastorale” has become the defining point for that perspective in the history of symphonic literature.

When Beethoven composed his impressions of the countryside, Heiligenstadt (which means “Holy place”) was thoroughly rural, but was absorbed into suburban Vienna a little over a century ago, now part of the Döbling district which includes some of Vienna’s most expensive residential areas as well as its largest “Gemeindebau” (public housing building). Beethoven may not recognize it today, any more than a cosmopolitan urbanite would be familiar with the day-to-day culture or day-to-day life of a community of small family farms. (Long-time Atlantans can easily relate to this.)

To some degree, it brings to mind a certain conceit shared by urban types in spandex bicycling gear—people who love idyllic imagery of nature and the great outdoors, but don’t have a clue when it comes to actually understanding rural life.

In this evening’s concert, Robert Spano’s approach to the introspective “No. 6” seemed a mix of conventional with occasional light-bulb flashes of the exuberantly personal. After a somewhat uncertain first few measures, his deep-hued rendition was warm, but mostly didn’t inspire except in sections for which the conductor seemed to have a special affinity, which fortunately became more frequent as the piece progressed. Spano clearly liked the “storm,” for example, and was able to get the piece to perk up more consistently in the latter half through the end. Though clearly engaged, perhaps he was saving his most creative attentions for the important after-intermission premiere.

It would be inviting to superficially approach Michael Gandolfi’s “The Garden of Cosmic Speculation” with the same attitude as one would Beethoven’s “Pastorale,” due to the inclusion of the word “Garden” in the title and popular presumptions concerning music about “Nature” (with a capital "N"). But that would be grossly misleading.

Through a published review, Gandolfi had accidentally come across architect Charles Jencks’ book “The Garden of Cosmic Speculation,” laden with photography, about his extensive private gardens at Portrack House, north of Dumfries, Scotland. Within these 30 acres, Jencks’ designed extensive earthenworks and installations related to contemporary theories of physics, biology, and cosmology. Jencks, who is often credited with popularizing the term “postmodernism,” is regarded as one of Britain’s premiere landscape architects, and has created similar landforms and sculptures for the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and for the Kew Gardens in London.

Fascinated with the book and Jencks’ sculptural metaphors, which jived with his own interests in contemporary physics, Gandolfi had composed several musical impressions which were successfully premiered prior to receiving an invitation from Jencks to visit the Garden in person. Gandolfi subsequently has completed 11 sections in all, two of them finished less than a month before this performance.

While Gandolfi encourages a rambling stroll through the “Garden” (he leaves the actual total number and order of movements up to the conductor, to create a personal “path”), the 11 movements are not so much a set of audio paintings of Jencks’ garden, but instead serve as parallels to Jencks’ sculptural metaphors. As Jencks’ sculptures do, the music often emulates the cosmological theories in their manner of operation. For example, “Soliton Waves” isn’t “about” soliton waves—it is a literal example, a model, of the waves’ actual behavior. This is true of both Jencks sculpture and Gandolfi’s music. For Jencks art, the “Garden” is the medium, the canvas, just as the symphony orchestra is for Gandolfi’s. So the music stands on its own, because it is about itself; as the “itself” (as the late John Cage once urged) is example rather than a mere description.

Beethoven’s work involves our feelings about what we immediately perceive and experience. Instead, Gandolfi’s involves a way to directly experience concepts most of humanity may grasp only vaguely in intellectual terms, but which intuitively ring true and resonate with our collective consciousness as symbol and metaphor. For this performance, the 11 movements were grouped into three parts, essentially forming a broad arch.

Part 1 of Gandolfi’s “Garden” began with “The Zeroroom,” which in Jencks’ garden is a cloakroom and portal for entry, a kind of pre-Google-Earth which identifies the observer’s location within the Universe—the point of origin which proves to be “you,” at once both comparatively insignificant and of ultimate significance.

It was followed by the aforementioned “Soliton Waves,” then a meditative “The Snail and the Poetics of Going Slow” (referring to an earthen mound where the paths up and down are a double spiral, where one can walk up to the top and not be on the same path as coming down), concluding with the lively, uninhibited “Symmetry Break Terrace / Black Hole Terrace,” and the Möbius-like, Latin jazz/mariachi-infused “The Willow Twist.” The last two are among what Gandolfi calls “groove pieces” in the suite.

At this juncture, the beginning of Part 2, the order of movements as printed in the program was usurped by one significant change: “The Universe Cascade” was placed before “Garden of the Senses,” so as to open the suite’s second part rather than the third.

“The Universe Cascade” begins with a “big bang”—literally and metaphorically. It is a shocking surprise after the second installment of recorded bird sounds. The movement then catapults us through history in a psychological memory tour alluding to styles and repertoire from the early Renaissance to the current day, when the orchestra is finally overcome by the sweeping crescendo of another recording, electronically produced “bug music” (the bippity-boppity kind you hear just before the giant bugs appear in a classic sci-fi movie) which then ends abruptly—like suddenly waking out of a lucid dream state, or materializing after a trip through a time tunnel.

Like a mathematical dynamical system which ultimately begins to appear chaotic, the progression from the “unity” at the movement’s beginning to “apparently chaotic” electronic music at the end leaves one with a disturbing feeling of suddenly stepping outside the system: the sudden release, the reverberation dissolving against an emptiness with as much impact as the initial “big bang.”

A more traditional formality, order, and grounded immediacy returns with the “Garden of the Senses,” a parody (in the good sense of the word) of J. S. Bach’s French and English Suites. At about 14 minutes in length it is a suite-within-a-suite, in the same manner as Shakespeare would write a play-within-a-play, and just as Jencks’ “Garden of the Senses” is a garden-within-a-garden: a 30’ by 50’ spot of neo-Baroque formality with contemporary iconographic installations. Each movement within Gandolfi’s mini-suite, therefore, is based on one of Jencks’ representations of the traditional five human senses, plus the “sixth sense” of intuition. Hence, Gandolfi’s approach was one referentially neo-Baroque but with contemporary whimsy.

Part 3 is the back side of the arch, the final four movements—“Fractal Terrace,” “The Jumping Bridge,” “The Quark Walk,” and “The Nonsense”—serving somewhat as a structural mirror to the first four of Part 1 (i.e. “Fractal Terrace” being a “groove piece,” and “The Quark Walk” slow-paced like “The Snail”). Both “The Jumping Bridge” and “The Nonsense” offer the listener audible fun and flights of fancy.

Gandolfi added two elements to the this evening’s mix directly from Jencks’ garden: First, recordings natural sounds from the Portrack Garden, bird sounds most prominently. Second, a single screen hung from above the proscenium featured titling and a sequence of images from the garden, relative to each movement, assembled by Ean White.

But Gandolfi’s music stands on its own, without extra-musical help. One important point is that, unlike many composers, Gandolfi is also an excellent orchestrator. When pointed out to him, he seems to take the comment in stride, an obvious requisite of a composer’s craft. However, it is something notable which makes his more complex musical weavings all the more engaging to hear, as well as play and conduct (something directly confirmed one-on-one by Spano afterwards, with an emphasis on the “fun” aspect and how the piece feels naturally “orchestral”). My attention was engaged throughout the piece, something that doesn’t always happen (whether music is new or old), and even though at time of completion the “Garden” had ultimately grown to be some 20 minutes longer than originally intended.

Although Michael Gandolfi has indicated that he will continue to expand his music, adding new movements occasionally as Jencks adds installations to his own Garden, Spano and the ASO will record this evening’s version of “The Garden of Cosmic Speculation” for Telarc on Tuesday. At 70 minutes duration, it’s just short enough to fit on a single disc. ■

—Mark Gresham, composer/music journalist 27 May 2007

Michael Gandolfi's artist website can be found at The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's website can be found at

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