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Poul Ruders at Curtis and N.Y. Phil: Transcending notes, rests and contradictions

imgresDanish composer Poul Ruders (b. 1949) made a post-Easter sweep through the northeast U.S. – though it didn’t feel brief in the least and was never likely to.

“He strikes a huge stride over all kinds of music. Light, dark, contrapuntal, monophonic, high and low registers … he revels in extreme contrasts. And like a tight-rope artist, he’s also an entertainer,” said guitarist David Starobin, a longtime advocate of Ruders, introducing the composer’s music at an April 3rd recital at the Curtis Institute of Music.

To that, I would add that he finds chaos in order, and order in chaos.

The program of new and old works – mostly chamber pieces involving classical guitar, sometimes solo, other times with violin or a small chamber ensemble – was raucous, fearless stuff. But in the end the music achieved its own kind of logic – much like that of Elliott Carter, who followed few if any compositional systems but always knew what he was saying and where he was headed.

Yet years of listening to Ruders didn’t lead the way to his Oboe Concerto, heard in its U.S. premiere in the New York Philharmonic’s Contact! concert on April 6 at Symphony Space: It’s a lonely, wintry piece in which each movement was named after a region on the moon – still identifiably rugged, impulsive Ruders, but in a manner that was much more contained, though extreme in its own containment.

The Curtis connection wasn’t obvious: Starobin is one of the more recent faculty additions, virtually starting the classical guitar program. Without Starobin – and his Bridge Records – Ruders would be less recorded and far less known in the U.S., even though some of his major operas such as The Handmaid’s Tale and Selma Jezkova (based on the film Dancer in the Dark) have received high-profile stateside performances. It’s also possible that Ruders wouldn’t write so much for guitar without Starobin’s encouragement: The instrument’s limitations are not what you’d expect Ruders to embrace, though it’s probably that challenge that appeals to him.

What all these fancy descriptions of his music add up to is this: In his 11-movement Psalmodies (Guitar Concerto No. 1), the “Fanfare for All” section has a rhapsodic clarinet solo set against some haltingly aggressive rhythms from the guitar and other instruments, though everybody changes roles at point or another. But in other movements the entire ensemble was sometimes surprisingly of one mind, but charging like a herd of buffalo.

Ruders seems to pull even harder at the seams of his music as time goes on. The Curtis concert contained a world premiere for guitar and violin titled Schrödinger’s Cat that, among other things, had the two instruments playing such contrasting ideas simultaneously that you felt like they were playing different pieces in the same room. However, the complete incongruity you hear in Charles Ives wasn’t achieved, most likely intentionally. Even though the ideas sounded nothing like each other, they felt like they were meant to be together, though for no reason that one could describe logically.

(Footnote: Ruders’s titles are perhaps to be questioned, since he admitted he always wanted to write a piece titled Schrödinger’s Cat – the name of a paradoxical thought experiment meant to demonstrate the weirdness of quantum physics – even though the title’s meaning has absolutely nothing to do with the music.)

But the movement subtitles in the 1998 Oboe Concerto seem apt. The composer has described the piece as four miniature tone poems suggested by the “legendary, myth-shrouded celestial body,” as Ruder calls the moon in his notes. It’s barely a concerto: the solo part has few notes, but difficult ones. How could that be? The closing moments in the final movement, subtitled “Lake of Death”, were full of pitches that were high, long and plaintive, floating over a soft bed of what sounded like microtonal (and emotionally neutral) harmonies.

Though the composer warned that the music was, in his words, “gloomy”; my word would be “barren”, though not in the sense of any musical vacancy. There was less musical activity, at least with respect to earthly density, but what’s there makes an arresting impression because of the lack of any typical musical frame.

Most radical, perhaps, was a lack of inner hum in the music. Even the most spare minimalism has a motor at its core. Not this music – inspired as it is by that fascinating though lifeless hunk of rock floating in the sky. The “Sea of Tranquility” third movement was marked as being a cadenza, but it more resembled the solo clarinet movement in Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.

To say that this piece is a significant addition to the oboe concerto repertoire is damning it with faint praise. It’s a significant concerto, period, that creates a strong, alternative route for other composers to follow.

All of the works on the stimulating but playful Philharmonic program, while not resorting to anything close to modernism, went far beyond sounds created from notes and rest. Having listened to a lot of electronic music of late, I seem particularly attuned to sonorities that transcend any typical musical building blocks that have been in use over the past several centuries. I’m talking about synthetic sounds consciously or unconsciously re-conceived for acoustic instruments.  As manifested in works like Yann Robin’s Backdraft – a world premiere at the Contact! concert for which I can’t summon a descriptive vocabulary on only one listening – this is the most gratifying outgrowth yet of the forever-fringe world of computer music.


  1. Martin Bernheimer says:

    Damn, you’re good!

    • That’s a huge compliment coming from you. Thanks! With newspaper space contracting constantly, I’m so grateful to have this blog.

      • This was terrific piece of prose, it was almost like being at the concert. I imagined what I remembered of the oboe sounds in Maderna’s music, as well as had an inkling of the Messiaen allusion in general terms. In terms of Stravinsky’s dictum that music should not express anything, and in the context of having had Delius in my ears lately, the ‘third way’ of music which neither evokes nor is modernistically absent in its presence – which the author finds in the ‘lunar’ music of the Oboe Concerto – is an interesting idea to conjure with, by contrast. I feel a little for my previous critical remarks, for which I hope you will have forgiven me….

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