Bright Blue Music


As a followup to last Wednesday’s post, here is another exuberant slice of musical postmodernism by American composer Michael Torke (b. 1961).

Bright Blue Music (1985) is a celebration of one of the most basic and fundamental building blocks of tonal music: the pull of the V chord (the dominant) back home to I (tonic). Throughout the twentieth century many composers avoided tonal relationships altogether, which makes the opening of Bright Blue Music, with its conventional dominant-tonic resolution, particularly shocking. Keep listening, and you’ll hear that this music takes great joy in prolonging the dominant, increasing tension and listener anticipation. For all of Bright Blue Music’s fun-loving bombast, the final, lasting resolution comes at one of the piece’s most intimate moments. A few bars later, the final chord evaporates into a surprise afterglow, heard in the woodwinds and string harmonics.

Despite an outward feeling of motion and development, in many ways Bright Blue Music stays in one place. It’s obsessed with a simple, ascending four note motive, which pops up in unexpected places (listen carefully at 2:25). The entire piece is in D major. Torke describes his series of “color” pieces:

you start by establishing a “room.” Then you move out of that room into different musical spaces. But in writing the color music, I wondered what would happen if I just stayed in one room and didn’t leave it. I thought, what happens in life when you don’t want to leave a room? When you go to a really great party, for example, you don’t want to leave—you want to stay and celebrate that room. So I decided to do a composition in the “room” of E-major—which is a powerful green—and to celebrate that bright green “room” for all it was worth.

Since early childhood, Michael Torke has experienced synesthesia, a neurological blurring of senses. Musical keys take on involuntary associations with colors. D major is blue. Here is Torke’s description of Bright Blue Music:

Inspired by Wittgenstein’s idea that meaning is not in words themselves, but in the grammar of the words used, I conceived of a parallel in musical terms: harmonies in themselves do not contain meaning; rather, musical meaning results only from the way harmonies are used. Harmonic language is then, in a sense, inconsequential. If the choice of harmony is arbitrary, why not use the simplest, most direct, and (for me) most pleasureable: I and V chords; tonic and dominant. Once this decision was made and put in the back of my mind, an unexpected freedom of expression followed. With the simplest means, my musical emotions and impulses were free to guide me. Working was exuberant: I would leave my outdoor studio and the trees and bushes seemed to dance, and the sky seemed a bright blue.

That bright blue color contributed towards the piece’s title, but in conjunction with another personal association. The key of D major, the key of this piece (from which there is no true modulation) has been the color blue for me since I was five years old.

At moments, I hear faint hints of the Spanish flourishes of Manuel de Falla. See if you agree. This is David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony:

Happy Birthday, Carl Flesch

violinist and pedagoge Carl Flesch (1873-1944)
violinist and pedagogue Carl Flesch (1873-1944)

Yesterday marked the anniversary of the birth of influential Hungarian-born violinist and pedagogue Carl Flesch (1873-1944). As a teacher, Flesch produced some of the twentieth century’s most notable violinists, including Henryk Szeryng, Ginette Neveu, Josef Hassid, Ivry Gitlis, and Ida Haendel. His book, Art of Violin Playing and his Scale System are still used today.

Boris Schwartz, a student of Flesch and the author of Great Masters of the Violin, writes:

His dominant quality seemed German, marked by a classical approach to music based on scholarly study, purity of style devoid of showmanship, a sturdy sense of rhythm tending toward slow tempos, and a deliberate objectivity of interpretation.

Schwartz stresses that Flesch’s approach to playing and teaching was deeply intellectual, often at the expense of “emotion” and “impulse”. “Use your head for your technique and your heart for your music” was one of Flesch’s mottos. He modernized violin technique, helping students to analyze their own problems and develop solutions. A master of well-thought-out fingerings, Flesch collected and catalogued possible fingerings for various passages in the violin repertoire.

In the final years of his life, Carl Flesch fled the Nazis, and settled eventually in Switzerland. In 1931, following the stock market crash of 1929, Flesch was forced to sell his 1725 “Brancaccio” Stradivarius. He replaced the Strad with a fine Petrus Guarnerius violin.

Here is Flesch playing Paganini’s Caprice No. 20. The piano accompaniment was written by Polish pianist Ignace Strasfogel:

Here is a singing, Romantic 1936 performance of Handel’s Violin Sonata in A major:

Flesch called the Beethoven Violin Concerto,

One of the most difficult works because it is built on introspection. The first movement consists almost entirely of embellishments, of passing notes into which one must put expression and life. Most of the time one hears it played like an etude-there are not three or four violinists in existence who play it well.

Here is his 1943 recording with the Lucern Orchestra:

Here is Jota by the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla: