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Nonsemble 6 : Pierrot Lunaire!

Pierrot Lunaire: Cover
These days I’m rarely blown away by a concert, especially new music concerts. Same old folks in the audience, musicians on stage staring befuddled and morose at their music stands. Nothing new, really. No electricity. Nothing to talk about later.

Not last night, however. Something different happened.

The local SF ensemble called Nonsemble 6 performed a staged version of Arnold Schoenberg’s 1912 Pierrot Lunaire. And it was over the top and beyond remarkable.

First of all, Pierrot  is one of my favorite pieces from that era. And, it’s 100 years old this year! (1912 was a remarkable year, because it’s also the birthyear of John Cage, Conlon Nancarrow, Peggy Glanville Hicks, and Alan Turing, in addition to Pierrot Lunaire!) Pierrot marks for sure the end of the 19th century and the beginning of modernism and the 20th C. It is cast in the shadows of  fin-de-siècle Vienna, bordering on the hysterical and histrionic. But it also makes a big break with the past. The music has no tonal center and defies analysis according to any system. And the text, German translations of the poems by the Belgian poet Albert Giraud, goes beyond symbolism and Dada into some Freudian nightmarish pre-surrealism:

Valse de Chopin:

Like a pallid drop of blood
Colors a sick man’s lips
So reposes in these tones
A charm seeking annihilation.

Wild air’s accords disorder
Despair’s glacial dream-
Like a pallid drop of blood
Colors a sick man’s lips

Hot and jocund, sweet and tasty
Melancholic dusty waltzes,
Never come into my senses!
Hasten me on my conception
Like a pallid drop of blood.

The other remarkable thing about the work is that Schoenberg requires a speaking voice that sometimes sings, but mostly mondestrunken.jpgspeaks, and the score notates the spoken text. This sprechtstimme, spoken voice, was intended for an actor, Albertine Zehme, and subsequently it has always been performed with a female voice. Schoenberg was very specific about how to perform the vocal part, but subsequent performances have taken liberties. Even Pierre Boulez has stated that it might be impossible to perform Pierrot exactly as Schoenberg requires:

In the Preface to the score Schoenberg provides the following instructions relative to Sprechstimme.

The melody given in the Sprechstimme by means for notes is not intended for singing (except for specially marked isolated exceptions). The task of the performer is to transform it into a speech-melody, taking into account the given pitch. this is achieved by:

I. Maintaining the rhythm as accurately as if one were singing, i.e. with no more freedom than would be allowed with singing melody;

II. Becoming acutely aware of the difference between singing tone and speaking tone: singing tone unalterably stays on the pitch, whereas speaking tone gives the pitch but immediately leaves it again by falling or rising. However, the performer must be very careful not to adopt a singsong speech pattern. That is not intended at all. Nor should one strive for realistic, natural speech. On the contrary, the difference between ordinary speaking and speaking that contributes to a musical form should become quite obvious. but it must never be reminiscent of singing.

Moreover, I stress the following concerning performances:

It is never the task of performers to recreate the mood and character of the individual pieces on the basis of the meaning of the words, but rather solely on the basis of the music. the extent to which the tone-painting-like rendering of the events and emotions of the text was important to the author is already found in the music. Where the performer finds it lacking, he should abstain from presenting something that was not intended by the author. He would not be adding, but rather detracting.

That said, Nonsemble 6 probably broke everything Schoenberg cautions against. But, as Boulez indicated, it’s probably totally impossible to satisfy the composer’s intentions here. The vocal part was sung more often than spoken, and the musicians added  more than detracting from the text. Other groups have tried to follow Schoenberg’s admonitions with little success, and so many recordings I’ve heard fail due to excessive singsong speech patterns.

Still, the performance was far more engaging, far more theatrical and powerful than anything I’ve heard or seen since! And what made it all even more incredible is that all the performers MEMORIZED their parts. They played without music stands, or sheet music, and therefore were free to move about the stage as part of the scene. And, they were costumed and face-painted!p41.jpg

Memorized their parts! That seems so impossible. The work is over 30 minutes, comprises 21 separate pieces with different instrumentations and complexities. And some of the pieces are extremely dense and complex, as shown on the right.

One has to wonder if this is really possible. I know I’m incapable of memorizing anything, especially music. But with memorization, especially something as complex as Pierrot Lunaire, how do we know the performance was note-perfect? (Does it matter?) It would be so easy to sorta make it up, and a player could have convinced themselves that they were playing the right notes, but, in fact, they’re not. Only a recording could tell for sure.

I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt, so lets assume it was 90% note-perfect. Still, that is quite an accomplishment. And even tho I thought I heard some things that I’d never heard before in the four or five recordings of Pierrot I own, ultimately these musicians created something totally spellbinding.

One recording I have is with Schoenberg conducting members of the Julliard Quartet and friends, recorded in 1951. It’s a scratchy transcription of the original disks, in mono. The voice is frightening. Not something you’d care to listen to for more than a few minutes. But I’m sure this is pretty close to what the composer intended.

My favorite rendition is by the Schönberg Ensemble with Barbara Sukowa, from 1994. Sukowa is an actress  and a singer, and in all the concert performances I’ve heard, this is the one that seems to convey Schoenberg’s intentions the best. And, it’s wonderfully recorded. (And out of print.)

The group Eighth Blackbird is touring with their production of Pierrot, with actors/dancers and speaker on stage. You can see some of their production here. Apparently they too have memorized the score and perform and act. Maybe this is where Nonsemble6 got the idea. Still, memorizing Schoenberg!?.

Again, Wow! What an event. What an experience!  Nonsemble 6 needs to videotape this!  There is a rehearsal on the first piece, Mondestrunken, on YouTube. But it’s just a rehearsal, even tho they are playing from memory.



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Richard Friedman lives in Oakland, CA, is a freelance tech writer/editor, web designer, photographer, is a Director of Other Minds, wrote his first computer program in 1962 for the IBM 650. It played dice. He is also a ham radio (AG6RF) operator, and he also takes a lot of photographs, composes music, and does a weekly radio program on KALW called Music From Other Minds.
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