Reviews

Dr. Gregory Kyle Klug reviews Verstraete's "The Machine:

I. Inside the Machine

The extreme dynamics in individual brass instruments contribute to a sense of shocking energy. There is a brilliant organization of wildly different ideas, tones, textures, and colors. The percussive energy, wildness, and rhythmic complexity lend powerfully to the energy of the movement.

When I think about the title in relation to the music, I get the idea of something large, vastly complex, and intricate. Questions arise: 'how does this thing work?' 'what unknown craft yielded this strange machine'? The woodblock offers comic relief to the perplexity. As for emotion, there is a sense of lunatic seriousness, or else outrageous humor. More on this later.

 

II. Scotch Yoke

I had to google the title. Interesting mechanism!

Immediately the extreme registers, sustained notes and slow tempo create a sense of vast space. There is a combination of the strange and the familiar. 1'10" it's as if there are very tall things, almost horrifying. Elsewhere there are intimate violin solos that create a sense of familiarity--like finding humans on a foreign planet, or else find kind humans in a violent city. There is an alternation between comfort and alarm. At 2'00" the silence (low volume) is tense -- loud things happened. What's next? The sense of perplexity and danger continues at 3'00" -- something's going on, still unknown, mostly, like walking on an unknown, mostly waste planet. At 4'00", some tonal counterpoint creates the feeling of familiarity again.

In what follows there are vivid and original colors, such as the trumpet solo against tremolo strings at 5'00," the striking dissonance with the bassoon and long-sustained tones after.

The new idea that enters around 5'45" is very welcome. But the new idea is not developed. Rather, another one enters with the solo cello, violin, plaintive in their dissonance

The contrast between the strange and the familiar continues--at 7'10" there is an extreme low register tuba (or CB?--delightful!); and at 7'45" there's a yearning, anguished melody in the violin.

The movement's form takes crucial shape as the energy build with strong brass, very-high-register strings, and very-low-register basses. At 8'40", the monster finally appears, wreaking havoc.

Reflecting on the title in relation to the music, I think of a sense of inevitability -- slow moving energy which cannot be resisted. It must be a very *large* scotch yoke. What is this powerful force doing? Whatever it wants. At 9'45" there is a powerful period that punctuates the movement. The solo flute that's left, with strings in the background, says, "I'm little compared to that."

 

III. Cog

The drum and the bassoon enter as if limping after the encounter from the previous movement. There is regularity, as in the first movement, as sense of alarm about what might be 'out there' in the wide orchestral space. The reality feel antagonistic, especially with the snarling fluttertonguing, and wildness that follows. But the rhythmic regularity creates a 'groove' that all can understand. I like this balance between the highly complex and the highly obvious.

The silence (low volume) at 1'15" reminds me of what happened in the first movement--it creates the feeling 'what's next?' There is suspense.

Interesting things happen. The bassoon enters, but then angry brass tell it to shut up. However, they allow the higher woodwinds to go on playing a little longer. The cl. enters (2'00") with a brave line -- surprisingly chipper. It (with a friend cl) gets through without being rebuked by the brass, and laughs with the victory. 

At 2'30" the trumpets enter with loud energy. There are humorous tonal implications, with a syncopated melody. American music!

 

The high-energy at 4'00" seems to have the sense of humor of what's led up to it. The mood turns to drama with the tam-tam, but then the chipper mood picks up again.

 

Whenever horns gliss loudly, I can't help but smile.

 

The shocking energy comes in with a ragtime feel after some suspenseful silence.

The horns! It's either the old lunatic seriousness or else total hilariousness again.

The tutti colors at the end, with the triangle, become the last "possessed" pull toward the end. It ends abruptly.

 

Cog?

It also conveys a sense of inevitability. It is as if individual instruments have no individual agency; they are owned by the machine. But the clarinets (with others) laughingly seem to get free. Or maybe the machine just allowed it, by chance or whim, while squashing the others. Overall, the music unifies around the outrageous ragtime.

 

Overall Thoughts

 

Processing my emotional response, I think to myself: am I supposed to feel this outrageously extreme but seemingly 'insane' energy? If I did it would feel absurd. So I start laughing. This is my response to movements I and III.

The second movement tells of 'desolation' - like the desolation of Smaug. There's a powerful intelligence that owns my treasure. This story doesn't end well. It's serious. How can this be reconciled with the humor of I and III?

III starts serious - then it's as if individuals, and then groups, are like 'hey, let's make the best of it!' By the end, the orchestra as a whole seems to be doing just that.

So then III is offers a jocular response to the dread and desolation witnessed in II. It could be--and probably is, as orchestral music--commentary on our universe, our world, our political system, our society. There's a mixture of free agency and oppression. The oppression is greater, so let's make the most of this fucked up universe.

I can't help but laugh--nevermind the fact that the philosophical end of this becomes a whole new discussion (if I'm on track in the first place). Being able to express thought powerfully and skillfully through the orchestra is commendable.

 

It reminds me of Thomas Ades' Asyla. My emotion response to your piece is very similar to that--laughter at the comical extreme of seemingly serious lunacy. The balance between regular metric structure and wild complexity helps make this response possible.

© 2015 AlexVerstraete.com