Sunday, December 6, 2009
Where The Wild Things Are: the opera by Oliver Knussen
h/t to Tom Service of The Guardian (and the best music critic currently at a British newspaper). Oli Knussen is that rare thing, a modernist of the bang/clang/slang school whose music is still accessible. Like many university-trained composers he writes music in which the design is so rigorous that it often can't help but sound to an unaccustomed ear like cacophany (and sometimes to accustomed ears too). But Knussen is an altogether different kind of modernist. He surely knows his Berg and Stravinsky (late Stravinsky seems an odd passion of his), but he also studied with Gunther Schuller (creator of Third-Stream Jazz) and was encouraged in his early career by Benjamin Britten. These influences don't show up much in the raw materials of the music, but they show up in spades in his fearlessness engagement of a more modern world (he not only collaborated with Sendak on Where the Wild Things Are but on an opera based on Higglety Pigglety Pop! too). This is the great paradox of music by Knussen and only a handful of other composers. How can somebody write music so dissonant and uncompromising, and yet make it sound every bit as expressive as tonal music? The music sounds cacophonous, and yet it also sounds fun, poignant and human. Complex music can express simple themes just as well as simple music can express complex ones. One day high modernism may come back into vogue. But if it does, it will be because of composers like Knussen (and Alban Berg, and Karl Amadeus Hartmann, and Gyorgy Ligeti, and Hans Werner Henze, and Luciano Berio and Witold Lutoslawski) who coupled mindbendingly complex techniques with extremely human emotion.
(Flourish with Fireworks by Oliver Knussen)
Click here to hear Sendak talking about Oliver Knussen...and I'm a sucker for Yiddish cursing stories about Beverly Sills.