Interview with Mark Lieb of the Phoenix Ensemble
Mark Lieb and the Phoenix Ensemble have two releases now, the earlier on Innova and now an all-winds program on Albany. In each case the group has tackled major works from the 20th-century repertoire of high innovation, music that poses real challenges for both the skill of the musicians, and for the concentration of listeners. I find the results very satisfying, and was intrigued by the philosophy motivating Lieb and his fellow musicians; this interview goes some way towards revealing their approach and underlying assumptions.
RC: It’s been about three years since we last talked, on the occasion of your earlier Innova release of Feldman and Babbitt clarinet quintets. In that interview you hinted at this release without defining it. How did it come about to choose these two modernist monuments?
ML: In our Feldman/Babbitt release we chose two defining works by these composers written for the same instrumentation, clarinet and string quartet. In this current project we chose defining works (this time for winds) of Schoenberg and Stockhausen. Schoenberg’s Wind Quintet, op. 26, is very important historically, as it is his first ensemble piece written in strict 12-tone. His systematic break from tonality has of course had a dramatic influence on 20th- and 21st-century art music, and his wind quintet is a real “coming out” moment. The piece represents a turning point in music, and all classical composers certainly know the score, and have studied it, although strangely many wind players are not aware of it.
Stockhausen’s role in the lineage of 20th-century music is a very important one, and I hope that this recording helps to illustrate that. I think that Stockhausen’s music deserves more attention than it currently receives, and
, even today almost 60 years later, comes across as very new and progressive. The score, with its unique notation, and wild demands on the performers, creates intense and expressive moments, and is written with elegance and humor. I found the challenges of making sense of the piece very exciting.
So I feel these are two extremely important works that deserve more attention, complement each other well, and that when experienced together on the same recording create an interesting and enlightening perspective. For example, hearing
first actually makes the Schoenberg wind quintet sound more traditional and tame, which I think is a good thing. It exposes its romantic soul. Even well-trained musicians still have a bit of an issue with Schoenberg. I think it’s a strange psychological reaction to his being the first one to officially cross that line. He gets blamed for all the “modern” sounds in art music today. In reality though, I think his music is expressive in a very late romantic way, emotionally powerful, and in the scheme of things very accessible. I first played the Schoenberg wind quintet as a student at the Juilliard School in 1990, and had a great experience with it. The Phoenix Ensemble then performed it in 1994, and I became even more drawn to it. It is a really “big” piece, not just in length, but in musical scope, and I think it took this long for me to feel comfortable enough to tackle it in a recording project.
Ever since I was in high school, in the 1980s, I have loved Stockhausen’s music. I owned all of those great Deutsche Grammophon LP recordings of his works. I understand that the deal that DG tried to make with Stockhausen to put those LP recordings onto CD did not work out, which I think is a shame. Those recordings were very inspiring to me, including the London Sinfonietta recording of
. I must have driven my parents crazy listening to so much Stockhausen when I was a kid (our stereo, turntable, and speakers were in their living room), but his music had a very strong impact on me. In the 1990s, I even asked a composer friend to write me a wind quintet, an “American Zeitmasze,” so the music has been on my mind for a long time now.
RC: These particular pieces have a reputation as two of the thorniest in the literature. I can’t help but feel there’s a certain chutzpah in undertaking and pairing them (a little like the Feldman/Babbitt pairing of your earlier CD). Is there a particular point you want to make in taking on this challenge?
ML: Well thorny maybe, but I think first of all that all of these pieces, the Babbitt clarinet quintet, the Feldman clarinet quintet, Stockhausen
, and Schoenberg wind quintet, are truly important works, and deserve to be looked at more closely. I don’t want to sound like I am getting on a soapbox, but I love this music, and I want more people to hear and see the value that I hear and see in it. Also, personally I find these intense and challenging projects very exciting. This recording took two years to complete, and as grueling and time consuming as it was, I enjoyed every bit of it. I think each new generation has a fresh take on these masterworks. I promise you the Schoenberg wind quintet looks, feels, and sounds completely different to my generation than it did to those who first tackled it, and I see it as a responsibility to dig in and give these “difficult” and “thorny” works another look.
RC: One of the things I was particularly struck by in the Schoenberg is the overflowing wit, especially in the second and fourth movements. You speak in the booklet notes of the lyricism of the third movement. Could you speak on what expressive aspects of both pieces you’ve tried to accentuate, perhaps counter to the common wisdom?
ML: It’s funny; after working on a piece like the Babbitt clarinet quintet, Schoenberg sounds as traditional to me as Mozart. What I have become more aware of is that even though Schoenberg’s 12-tone works are not in a key or tonal in a traditional sense, this does not mean that he did not incorporate elements of traditional harmonic writing into the music. Throughout the wind quintet there are harmonic resolutions or small references to harmonic changes that you would hear in any tonal music. These may be isolated and they might last for only a second or two and dissolve into something else, but once you get more acquainted with Schoenberg’s language, they become just as satisfying as they are in traditional tonal music. That said, I find parts of the third movement, the slow movement, particularly lyrical and tuneful. Five minutes into the third movement you hear a very nice expressive oboe solo incorporating the main theme, followed by a flute solo that is just stunningly beautiful. The rest of the group accompanies the flute solo with a kaleidoscope of resolutions and harmonic changes that may not relate to the solo in a traditional tonal sense, but complement the flute line. To me this is just as gorgeous as any tonal music, and throughout the piece we tried to bring out these more traditional expressive elements of Schoenberg’s writing.
What we really worked on in the Stockhausen was to make the very humorous and expressive aspects of his music shine, in tandem with the obvious brainy and intellectual method in which it was composed. Stockhausen originally composed
as a vocal work for alto voice accompanied by flute, clarinet, and bassoon, based on a poem by Heinrich Strobel: “trying; to find; something; but really; not knowing; what to look for; exactly; and that’s the truth.” This humorous poem about a kind of ultimate unanswered question I think sets the mood of
. Stockhausen later arranged this initial piece for the current instrumentation: oboe, flute, English horn, clarinet, and bassoon, with the English horn getting much of the vocal lines from the original. In the very opening of the piece, the first entrance in the bassoon, followed by the short three-note motive in the flute, states this “questioning” theme, which is repeated often and scattered throughout the piece. The music is full of humor and playful writing that we really tried to make apparent for the listeners.
RC: The Stockhausen is an encyclopedic essay on performance techniques that stretch time. Could you speak about some of them, and how you mastered them through rehearsal and recording?
ML: The title
literally refers to “tempos” or measures of time, and the whole piece is a wonderful experiment with the concept of time in music. Considering Stockhausen’s personality and ways of thinking, I am sure he had a very philosophical view of the meaning of time in music, probably in reference somehow to Einstein’s theories, or even Picasso’s cubist ideas (looking at the same image simultaneously from multiple points in time), and this piece was his way of approaching that. I can give you a more detailed answer about performance techniques, but I will have to get a little wonky, so I apologize in advance.
What usually is talked about first regarding this piece is Stockhausen’s “improvisational” writing through the use of aleatoric notation. But actually 75 percent (50 pages of the 77-page score) is written in a traditional manner, with a common shared pulse. So to comment about that part of the piece first, his manipulation of time would consist of very sudden changes (pushing and pulling of tempo), for example, indicating a ritardando where the tempo slows drastically by 100 metronome clicks in only two or three measures. There are sections where tight and fast passages are immediately followed by moments where time seems to stop, and we are asked to play long, very drawn out chords at very slow tempos. Also within this traditionally notated part of the score, he uses elaborate polyrhythms. There is a point in the score where all five of us have the same tempo marking: quarter note = 84; but the oboe plays rhythms with nine subdivisions to the measure, the flute seven subdivisions, the English horn six subdivisions, the clarinet eight subdivisions, and the bassoon five subdivisions. The effect is that, even though we are all playing with the same metronome marking, it actually sounds as though we are simultaneously playing in five different tempos.
In 18 pages of the score (about 25 percent of the piece), Stockhausen uses aleatoric notation, which seems to be inspired by his meeting John Cage, and hearing his music and ideas based on indeterminacy. Basically in these sections, pitches and rhythms are written out in the score, but are to be played “loosely,” not together, without a strict ensemble pulse. The score is notated in a spatially correct way, so we have clear boundaries set as to when these loose sections should start or end, and how they should generally happen in relation to the rest of the group. There are always, in these sections, one or two members of the group that have parts that are traditionally notated, with a stable solid pulse. Those that have the stable pulse guide or give visual cues to make the section hold together. So Stockhausen figured out a way to write music that, in effect, is very free and improvisatory, and yet still quite controlled. And we really had a great time making these sections work. Robin Maconie, in his book
Other Planets: The Music of Karlheinz Stockhausen
, describes these free sections as “little disasters inserted into the structural tightness of the work, where the music springs apart and has to be reassembled in order to continue.” Stravinsky even commented about the piece, saying “the free but coordinated cadenzas are an innovation of great value.”
Then there are three pages of the score that call on the group to literally play in four different tempos simultaneously. On page 52 he marks the oboe and flute as eighth note = 64; English horn as eighth note = 80; clarinet as eighth note = 96; and bassoon as eighth note = 112. Again, the score is laid out in a spatially or visually correct way, so we have a good idea of how all of the parts relate to each other. We used the bassoon as the “anchor pulse,” and concentrating on her cueing, and looking at the visually correct score, we made our parts line up properly, at the same time keeping to our individual tempos. It was certainly a challenge, but it ended up, after a good amount of rehearsal, feeling quite natural at the end. When I was a student at the Juilliard School, the Juilliard Quartet was rehearsing and preparing to record the Elliott Carter string quartets. Much of that music is written in the same way, in simultaneously played multiple tempos, and I learned then that they used a very similar method to keep together.
RC: Can you speak about any other special or unusual aspects of the process leading to the final release?
ML: What you often hear about the Schoenberg wind quintet, as well as other works of his (the Chamber Symphony, op. 9, for example) has to do with problematic balance issues, referring to the difficulty of allowing the lead line or thematic line to be heard clearly. Most of the time, probably 90 percent of the time, there is a clearly marked tune or lead line with a clearly marked accompaniment. Schoenberg meticulously marks the lead lines in the score with an “H,” which stands for the German word “Hauptstimme,” meaning primary voice. I think the problematic part of this is that Schoenberg is a composer who notated his works with “relative” dynamics. If we are a five-member group all marked with an equally loud dynamic, we cannot all play equally loudly if the flute has the “H” or primary voice, but must adjust so that what should be heard, the flute tune, is in fact heard. Other composers would mark the flute with a louder dynamic and the rest with a softer dynamic so this would happen more naturally. This obviously means that we could not play intuitively, but had to, measure by measure, dig into the score and make the lead lines distinctly heard. The answers were all clearly marked in the score, but it was a grueling and time consuming rehearsal process to physically produce what we saw in the score. In a 12-tone piece this is even more of a difficulty, because it is not always so obvious what the tune or lead line should be, as it is with more traditional music like Mozart or Brahms.
The biggest issue with the Stockhausen had to do with reading from the full score. There were individual parts printed for performances, but we found, because of the unusual nature of the piece, with the odd cueing and “loose” notation, we were a bit lost reading from those individual parts. We had to rig our music stands to hold large cardboard pieces that would enable us to read from the full score, so we could be completely aware of what the whole group was doing, and how our individual efforts fitted into the total. It made a huge difference in holding the music together accurately.
RC: A somewhat geeky question—I noticed a particular type of recorded sound you don’t hear as much nowadays. Very clear and clean, but close. The effect is really like being in the room with the ensemble, maybe first row, and very little reverberation. Does this reflect a particular sonic philosophy on your part, and does it relate in some particular way to the music of this program?
ML: This is actually a subject that Jeremy Tressler, our engineer, and I talk about often. I do have a particular philosophy about the “closeness” and reverb. There are three main reasons we shoot for that sound. First, these works are very complex, with layers of rhythm, intricate lead lines and supportive writing. In the Schoenberg the writing is very thick and dense. All five of us are playing together pretty much all the time, with very little transparency. With too much reverb, the detail and subtle interplay that holds the music together, and gives it definition and understanding, is lost. Secondly, we all, as musicians, work very hard to acquire a unique individual sound. Clarinetists in particular are real “sound philosophers,” probably more than other wind players (believe me, you don’t want to be stuck in a room full of clarinetists talking shop about a sound’s “core,” “focus,” “darkness” versus treble, etc.). I feel that with too much reverb, all of those years of work trying to find that special signature are lost in the “soup.” Thirdly, this is chamber music, and most decent live experiences hearing chamber music are more intimate and up close. I prefer that the listener feel that they are in the front row. We really did work quite a lot in the end of the project on getting the right balance between the necessary artificial reverb, and the organic natural sound of the group.
RC: Mark, thanks so much for your time and engaging observations on this repertoire and your approach to mastering it.
ALBANY 1371 (49:59)