VIDEO PREMIERE: Kevin Clark’s ‘Eleanor & Hildegard’

by Maggie Molloy

In the 12th century one of the Middle Ages’ greatest patrons and politicians, Eleanor of Aquitaine, wrote a letter to one of the the era’s greatest composers, Hildegard of Bingen, asking for advice. Eleanor’s original letter has since been lost, but Hildegard’s reply remains.

That legendary correspondence was precisely the inspiration behind composer Kevin Clark‘s newest chamber work, Eleanor & Hildegard. Commissioned and premiered by Seattle’s own Sound Ensemble with mezzo-soprano Elspeth Davis this past February, the piece celebrates a regular occurrence that is rarely documented in history books: two influential women, talking to each other as autonomous individuals, independent of men.

Watch our in-studio video of Clark’s Eleanor & Hildegard and read the composer’s program note below.

Eleanor & Hildegard

Eleanor of Aquitaine was the most powerful woman in politics in 12th century Europe. Hildegard of Bingen was the most important woman in religion in the same time and place, as well as being a composer.

History doesn’t give us many stories of powerful women, much less of what they had to say to each other. But these two wrote. It was 1170, and Eleanor’s marriage to Henry II was collapsing. She was on the verge of a new life. The queen wrote to Hildegard of Bingen asking for advice. Hildegard’s reply survives.

This piece fills in the missing pieces. Tania Asnes wrote a poem to take the place of Eleanor’s missing letter, which begins the piece. As the composer, I brought in music Eleanor might have heard throughout her marriage by Bernart de Ventadorn. At the end, we hear Hildegard’s reply to Eleanor, telling her to flee, ‘Fuge’, from her troubles.

Within a few years she wasn’t just free from her marriage, but making war on Henry II with the aid of her son, Richard the Lionheart.

– Kevin Clark, composer


This Saturday, the Sound Ensemble turns from the Middle Ages to something a little more modern: an evening of chamber music penned by some of today’s top rock stars. You Didn’t Know They Composed features the Sound Ensemble performing music by the likes of Björk, Beck, Bryce Dessner, and more, plus a new commission by James McAlister.

You Didn’t Know They Composed is Saturday, April 7 at 7pm at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford. For tickets and additional information, please click here.

New Music for April: Music of Earth, Moon, and More

by Maggie Molloy

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Second Inversion and the Live Music Project create a monthly calendar featuring contemporary classical, cross-genre, and experimental performances in Seattle, the Eastside, Tacoma, and places in between! 

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Keep an eye out for our this flyer in concert programs and coffee shops around town. Feel free to download, print, and distribute it yourself! If you’d like to be included on this list, submit your event to the Live Music Project at least 6 weeks prior to the event and tag it with “new music.”

New Music Flyer - April 2018

 

Wayward Music Series
Concerts of contemporary composition, free improvisation, electroacoustic music, and sonic experiments. This month: drone cinema, phonetic etudes, murder ballades, and the muted colors of Morton Feldman.
Various days, 7:30/8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

Things That Break
New music merges with stop-motion animation, visual art, and theatre in this multidisciplinary concert centered around the theme of “breaking.” Four Seattle-based female artists come together for a unique presentation of world premieres.
Fri, 4/6, 8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

The Sound Ensemble: You Didn’t Know They Composed
Did you know some of today’s top rock stars and pop stars have tried their hands at classical composition too? The Sound Ensemble presents an evening of chamber music by the likes of Björk, Beck, Bryce Dessner, and more, plus a new commission by James McAlister.
Sat, 4/7, 7pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $10-$15

The Esoterics: CŌNFIDŌ
The ancient rite of the Christian liturgy, the Mass, is reimagined for modern times in this program of works by Gregory Brown, Giles Swayne, and Kirke Mechem. The Esoterics sing four settings of Mass texts that express crises of faith, criticize organized religion, and prioritize the health of our planet over any individual belief.
Fri, 4/13, 8pm, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Seattle | $15-$22
Sat, 4/14, 8pm, Holy Rosary Catholic Church, West Seattle | $15-$22
Sun, 4/15, 7pm, Christ Episcopal Church, Tacoma | $15-$22

Seattle Modern Orchestra: The Clouds Receding
Immerse yourself in the dense sonic clouds of composers like György Ligeti and Beat Furrer, plus a new world premiere by Orlando Jacinto Garcia featuring violist Melia Watras as the soloist.
Sat, 4/14, 8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $10-$25

Sound of Late: 48-Hour Composition Competition
A group of composers each gets 48 hours to compose a new piece for their assigned instrumentation, and a group of performers gets six days to prepare before they perform the works live in concert.
Sat, 4/14, 8pm, Gallery 1412 | FREE

SMCO: Songs and Dances of Peace
The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra performs a powerful program exploring Leonard Bernstein’s now-ubiquitous quote, “This shall be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” Featured composers include Bernstein, Barber, Golijov, and Tchaikovsky.
Sat, 4/14, 8pm, First Free Methodist Church | $15-$25
Sun, 4/15, 2pm, Rainier Arts Center | $15-$25

What Better Than Call a Dance?
Experimental chamber troupe Kin of the Moon joins forces with dancer/choreographer Karin Stevens and clarinetist/improvisor Beth Fleenor for a program that wildly reimagines dance music from Renaissance to waltz to tango and even EDM.
Fri, 4/20, 8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15

On Stage with KING FM: Earth Day Celebration
The Ecco Chamber Ensemble celebrates Earth Day with a program of music exploring the vital role of water in both our basic survival as well as our art.
Sat, 4/21, 7:30pm, Resonance at SOMA Towers | $20-$25

Symphony Tacoma: Earth Songs from the Harp
Grammy-nominated electric harpist Deborah Henson-Conant joins Symphony Tacoma for a boundary-bursting program ranging from blues and jazz to flamenco, folk, and beyond.
Sun, 4/22, 2:30pm, Pantages Theater | $19-$82

Seattle Art Song Society: Elemental
In honor of Earth Day, the Seattle Art Song Society performs songs inspired by the elements of fire, earth, water, and air. The program features music by Ruth Crawford Seeger, Aaron Copland, Juliana Hall, Ernst Bacon, Björk, and more, plus brand new works by Steven Luksan and Brian Armbrust.
Sun, 4/22, 3:30pm, Queen Anne Christian Church | $20-$40

Seattle Symphony: Stravinsky Persephone
A stunning cast of star soloists, dancers, and puppeteers (plus three choirs and four grand pianos!) join the symphony for an entire evening of Stravinsky rarities, including his Persephone, Les noces, “Song of the Volga Boatmen,” and Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments.
Thurs, 4/26, 7:30pm, Benaroya Hall | $42-$79
Sat, 4/28, 8pm, Benaroya Hall | $42-$79

Seattle Symphony: [untitled] 2
Symphony musicians dive into the mind of Stravinsky with a performance of his elegant Octet, a piece which first came to him in a dream. Plus, the Dmitry Pokrovsky Ensemble brings a scintillating blend of folk traditions and extended techniques to two wild works by Russian composers Vladimir Nikolaev and Alexander Raskatov.
Fri, 4/27, 10pm, Benaroya Hall | $16

NOCCO: Lost Sisterhood; Found Landscapes
The North Corner Chamber Orchestra presents a newly commissioned Cello Concerto by Philip Lasser alongside Louise Farrenc’s stunning Symphony No. 3 and Aaron Copland’s unforgettable Appalachian Spring.
Sat, 4/28, 2pm, University Christian Church | $15-$25
Sun, 4/29, 7:30pm, The Royal Room | $15-$25

Seattle Symphony Spotlight: John Luther Adams on “Become Desert”

by Dave Beck

Composer John Luther Adams describes his work with Seattle Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot and the SSO musicians as “one of the happiest musical relationships of my life.” It’s a collaboration that has resulted in a Pulitzer Prize and Grammy Award for 2013’s Become Ocean.

Five years later, that collaboration continues with the world premiere this week of Adams’ Become Desert. It takes place Thursday night, March 29, and Saturday night, March 31 in Benaroya Hall—with Ludovic Morlot conducting the Seattle Symphony and members of the Symphony Chorale.

John Luther Adams speaks with Classical KING FM’s Dave Beck in our studios about moving from tundra to desert, his fascination with immense spaces, and the importance of using the right tools—in his case, the best number 2 pencil that can be found.

Listen to the full interview below.


The Seattle Symphony presents the world premiere of John Luther Adams’ Become Desert on Thursday, March 29 and Saturday, March 31. For tickets and additional information, please click here.

The Essential John Luther Adams

by Michael Schell

Did you miss Second Inversion’s John Luther Adams Marathon on March 28? Are you interested in exploring the music of America’s most famous ecologist-composer by sampling a few key pieces? If so, check out this selection of JLA’s most indispensable albums to date.

Earth and the Great Weather

If you’re ever remanded to a desert island where you can take along a single John Luther Adams album, this is the one to pick. Subtitled A Sonic Geography of the Arctic, this ten-movement composition from 1993 was Adams’ breakout piece. It’s both an ecological oratorio of the far North and a compendium of the techniques that Adams would hone over the next 25 years: haunting drones and trills, ritualistic taiko-like drumming, and overtone-based textures inspired by his teacher James Tenney (compare the latter’s Shimmer to this album’s track Pointed Mountains Scattered All Around). It even has some things you don’t find in other Adams pieces, such as Alaska nature recordings and texts from Native Alaskan languages


The Far Country

This is another fine sampler album from 1993 that features three medium-length pieces for large ensemble. Dream in White on White is a plaintive work for strings and harp reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Orpheus. The early choral composition Night Peace openly displays its debt to Feldman’s Rothko Chapel. The Far Country of Sleep begins with a solo trumpet motif that’s almost identical to Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, but as this orchestral piece progresses, it makes clear that its philosophical affinity is with Rachel Carson rather than Nietzsche.


Inuksuit

This outdoor piece for multiple percussionists has been performed all over North America (including here in Seattle in 2015). Adams considers this recording, three years in the making and captured on location in rural Vermont, to be a definitive representation.


Become Ocean

And here it is: Seattle Symphony’s Grammy Award-winning recording of Adams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning piece. Released in 2014, it’s the first recording of Adams’ music by a major orchestra. Although the sound world of Become Ocean isn’t all that far from Ravel’s daybreak scene in Daphnis et Chloé, Adams’ instinct as an ecologist is to let his textural soundscape unfold on its own terms and at its own pace, with a minimum of intervention. Indeed, this work is so well proportioned that it seems much shorter than its 42-minute duration. Become Ocean is both a fulfillment of the trajectory of Adams’ work since Earth and the Great Weather and a searchlight illuminating the wonders yet to come from this imaginative composer.


The Seattle Symphony presents the world premiere of John Luther Adams’ Become Desert on Thursday, March 29 and Saturday, March 31. For tickets and additional information, please click here.

A Spotify version of our Essential JLA playlist is available below:

John Luther Adams Marathon: Streaming Worldwide!

Photo by Pete Woodhead.

by Maggie Molloy

Lose yourself in immersive sonic landscapes of John Luther Adams this Wednesday during our eight-hour marathon of his music on Second Inversion! Tune in on Wednesday, March 28 from 9am-5pm PST for a full eight hours of music by the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer whose newest orchestral work, Become Desert, receives its world premiere this week at the Seattle Symphony.

Become Desert is the highly-anticipated sequel to Adams’ orchestral masterwork Become Ocean, which was commissioned and recorded by the Seattle Symphony in 2013. Become Ocean is a 45-minute orchestral approximation of the ocean’s ebb and flow—and it flowed right to the top of classical music charts. The piece went on to win the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music and the 2015 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.

Living in Alaska for most of his career, Adams’ music has always been inspired by landscapes, ecology, environmentalism, and the natural world—and though he now splits his time between New York and the Mexican desert, his music is still profoundly immersed in the spirit of nature. While Become Ocean submerges the audience in broad waves of sound and shimmering detail, Become Desert takes its inspiration from stillness, space, and light of the desert. At their core, both pieces reflect on two contrasting manifestations of global warming: sea level rise and desertification. 

Adams’ work also holds a very special place in Seattle. In addition to the world premiere of Become Ocean, the Seattle Symphony has performed a number of Adams’ pieces during their Tuning Up! Festival and their [Untitled] series. Last year Emerald City Music also premiered one of Adams’ chamber pieces inspired by the sounds of the Sonoran Desert, titled “there is no one, not even the wind…”

Our marathon this Wednesday features music from throughout Adams’ career, ranging from studies on Georgia birdsongs to field recordings and Alaska Native poetry, metaphysical drum meditations, and expansive sonic geographies—all culminating in the Seattle Symphony’s surround-sound recording of Become Ocean.

Click here to tune in, and read below to learn a bit about our hosts’ favorite musical selections from our John Luther Adams marathon.

John Luther Adams: Become Ocean (Cantaloupe Music)
Seattle Symphony
Ludovic Morlot, conductor

Global devastation never sounded prettier than in John Luther Adams’ apocalyptic musical palindrome Become Ocean. Inspired by the oceans near his former home in Alaska, Adams composed this piece commissioned by Seattle Symphony as a response to what he noticed in the world around him: ice caps melting, sea levels rising, and humanity neglecting to address the changes that impact our future. The fact that human life emerged from the ocean and may soon be destined/forced/doomed to return to the expanse of water is reflected in the palindromic structure of the piece itself; from the second climax indicating a tidal surge the music is played in reverse. Despite the subject matter, Become Ocean feels less like flailing and choking in the ocean’s turbulence and more like floating peacefully on its calm surface. – Rachele Hales


John Luther Adams: The Light that Fills the World (Cold Blue Music)
Unnamed ensemble

From a distance, the Arctic tundra looks like a vast white canvas—up close, it shimmers with infinite color and detail. John Luther Adams spent much of his life exploring the intricacies of that limitless canvas, composing from a 16×20 ft. one-room cabin in the Alaskan woods. He composed The Light That Fills the World during the early dawn of spring one year when, following the long darkness of winter, the landscape was still white with snow and filled with brilliant new light.

Scored for a mixed chamber ensemble of winds, strings, and percussion, the piece captures the slow and sacred rising of the sun across that vast blanket of snow: the way the surface of the earth shifts with that cosmic change of color, the way the broad, seemingly static fields of sound sparkle with enigmatic detail—and the way the listener floats, suspended in that bright and all-consuming light. – Maggie Molloy


John Luther Adams: The Wind in High Places (Cold Blue Music)
JACK Quartet

In the JLA catalog, this piece is a favorite of mine for two reasons. As someone who appreciates places with a significant altitude component (a hiker), I connect deeply with what I perceive as this piece’s portrayal of the unsentimentality of high places. Such places, like all of nature, have no stake in your personal successes or failures, but they are often strikingly beautiful, and made more so by their neutrality.

I also love this piece for its skillful construction and bold technical limitations. The idea of a string quartet entirely made of natural harmonics (where the players do not use the left hand fingers at all) seems outlandish and silly on the surface. But, in this piece, it works. Credit for success in any decent recording of this piece certainly belongs in large part to the performers, but this unusual element also signals the composer’s skill, especially in the face of self-imposed rules. – Seth Tompkins


John Luther Adams: Tukiliit (Cantaloupe Music)
Lisa Moore, piano

John Luther Adams’ large ensemble works each feel like something that has no real beginning or end; something that has existed for eternity, like a place in nature waiting to be discovered. His solo piano work Tukiliit is different. This piece seems to have a clear trajectory, if not a beginning, middle, and end. In a Pictures at an Exhibition-like way, it seems to portray the grandeur of some timeless outdoor fixture with big, towering chords.

The subtitle, “The Stone People Who Live in the Wind,” is an attempt at a literal translation of the main title Tukiliit, which also serves as the Inuktitut word for any stone object with special meaning. The music seems to meander from stone statue to statue, taking in their cold beauty and exploring the majesty of their surroundings. – Geoffrey Larson


John Luther Adams: Strange Birds Passing (Mode Records)
New England Conservatory Contemporary Music Ensemble
John Heiss, conductor

I love learning about the creative processes of artists and how their work develops over time. There’s something totally fascinating about a human being who’s unleashed creatively, and about how artists dive into the brain’s idea factory, venture out into the world, and look into the self, seeking this nebulous carrot on a stick, i.e., finding a way to really, finally, wholly say what they mean to say about what needs to be said.   

Recently, I had the pleasure of learning about John Luther Adams’ creative process. It turns out that over time, he came up with this idea called “sonic geography” which he has said is about the “imaginary territory somewhere between human imagination and the world around us.” Which is very different from his approach on his first album, songbirdsongs. At that point in time, JLA was into direct translations of the natural world into music. He studied bird song in particular regions—each movement of the album representing a different one—and scored the bird song into…people song. The orchestration is complex and innovative, but the idea at its core is pretty simple. In Strange Birds Passing, it’s almost as if you’re hearing Adams’ first inkling of how to say what needed to be said, nearly free of his later abstraction. Both are totally compelling. But this little window into the beginning of his process is super cool. – Dacia Clay


The Seattle Symphony presents the world premiere of John Luther Adams’ Become Desert on Thursday, March 29 and Saturday, March 31. For tickets and additional information, please click here.

STAFF PICKS: Friday Faves

Second Inversion hosts share a favorite selection from their weekly playlist. Tune in on Friday, March 23 to hear these pieces and plenty of other new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre!

Max Richter: Shadow 4 (Deutsche Grammophon)
Max Richter, electronics

I’m listening to this piece again as I write. It sounds like spring in a meadow on a parallel planet—one that’s a lot like ours, with all of the sweetness of plants and animals waking up from long winter’s naps, but with none of the Rite of Spring madness. It’s bright and peaceful and hopeful, and also brief, like having a flash of realization that the world is amazing when it wants to be. The piece comes and goes that quickly. I like this piece even more knowing that Max Richter’s impetus for writing the album was that he was trying to regain the appreciation he’d once had for Vivaldi’s Four Seasons by digging into the work, recomposing it, and interpreting what he found at its heart. The idea that you can breathe life into things in your world which have become familiar and dull by reframing your own point of view is a powerful one. Plus, I’m a sucker for music with bird calls. – Dacia Clay

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 12pm hour today to hear this piece.


Christopher Cerrone: South Catalina (Cedille Records)
Eighth Blackbird

It’s always a joy when you encounter an instance of an artist putting forth a very specific idea with which you connect, especially if that idea is one that has made you feel isolated in the past. I had this perpetually rare and delightful experience as I discovered Christopher Cerrone’s South Catalina this week. Specifically, I have a long-running and deep personal connection with a feeling Cerrone outlines as an inspiration for this piece: the strange mix of enchantment and oppression that a consistently sunny climate can catalyze in people unfamiliar with that type of environment. – Seth Tompkins

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 1pm hour today to hear this piece.


Joan La Barbara: Cathing (Lovely Music Records)
Joan La Barbara, voice

Joan La Barbara spoke up for experimental vocalists everywhere with her witty response to mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian’s scathing critique of avant-garde vocal music. Berberian, who interviewed La Barbara during the intermission of one of her concerts, dismissed extended vocal techniques as at best “research” and at worse the work of “freaks” who can’t actually sing.

In response, La Barbara composed “Cathing,” a piece which takes electronically manipulated samples from the interview and weaves them into a scintillating sound-off of vocal techniques: shrieks, squeaks, whispers, wails, moans, drones, and a slew of sounds you didn’t know humans could even make. The result is eight minutes of pure vocal virtuosity—with a bite. – Maggie Molloy

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 5pm hour today to hear this piece.


Valgeir Sigurðsson: 1875 (Bedroom Community)
Reykjavik Sinfonia

Valgeir Sigurðsson’s 2017 album is titled Dissonance, something that as a musical device can have many purposes and characteristics. Dissonance can be harsh and clashing in a way that is shocking and uncomfortable, or it can be soft and subtle, adding a strange beauty to the music it colors. It can be short and punctuated, or it can be long and sustained.

1875, the three-part final work on the album, actually uses dissonance sparingly, but to dramatic effect. Its long, lingering textures have the atmospheric sounds that are typical of Sigurðsson’s palette: deep, sometimes electronically-augmented chords; twinkling string tremolo and scattered Pollock-esque pizzicato; and long, slowly-unfolding string melodies. However, the opening of 1875, a piece that details the first arrival of Icelanders in the frozen landscape of Winnipeg, Manitoba in the late 19th century, uses dissonance in a way that immediately makes a stunning impression. The grandeur of the dissonance in that first orchestral introduction with its imposing wall of sound makes the work worth hearing all on its own. Other interesting ideas are realized throughout the three movements (Waterborne, In Dead of Winter, Displaced), including bell tones that ring out not through the use of percussion instruments, but the use of orchestral strings and brass.
– Geoffrey Larson

Tune in to Second Inversion in the 7pm hour today to hear this piece.

Music for the (Un)faint of Heart: Bernd Alois Zimmermann at 100

by Michael Schell

People ill-disposed toward modern music often claim that it sounds like the work of tormented souls. It’s a philistine argument, but there’s one case where the old cliché might ring true: the German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918–1970), whose centenary has just arrived.

Born and raised in a small Catholic town near Köln (Cologne), Zimmermann spent most of his life in Western Germany. Readers attuned to historical details will have already done the math—Zimmermann’s youth encompassed the Nazi period, and he was eventually drafted into the Wehrmacht, spending over a year on the Eastern Front and in France before receiving a medical discharge in 1942. Germany’s collective shame over the Holocaust—amplified by a generous dose of Catholic guilt and Cold War apprehension—weighed heavily on Zimmermann, and he struggled with depression and anxiety for the rest of his life.

After the War, Zimmermann started writing neoclassical music in the tradition of Hindemith. His Fairy Tale Suite from 1950 displays his formidable sense of rhythm and his ease working with large orchestras. The Epilog from the suite seems to be one of the models for what became a standard Hollywood genre of triumphalist marches.

After becoming acquainted with modern composers such as Schoenberg, whose music had been suppressed under Nazism, Zimmermann wrote increasingly experimental music until by the end of his career he had fully embraced the aesthetics and techniques of the postmodern avant-garde. Like other German composers, he also became interested in African-American music, both because of its anti-authoritarian associations and because the flexible swing beat of jazz offered an alternative to the regular beat associated with the martial music that the Nazis had relentlessly broadcast to “tune in” their populace. An early convergence of these interests is the 1954 trumpet concerto Nobody knows de trouble I see, a kind of funky 12-tone fantasy on that famous spiritual.

The stylistic eclecticism on display in this concerto became a trademark in Zimmermann’s music. He called it pluralism: mixing disparate elements and influences within the same composition. His 1962 viola concerto Antiphonen is another example of this. The fourth movement begins innocuously enough with a cadenza for the soloist, but then we start hearing the voices of several musicians reading passages aloud from Dostoevsky, Camus, Dante, the Bible, and most prominently of all, the ending of Joyce’s Ulysses. Post-Webernian pointillism continues to alternate with text readings, leading to the final movement, which features slow, overlapping F♮-G♮ trills on several instruments until a soft ride rhythm emerges on the snare drum to close out the piece. Within a few years, this kind of eclecticism would burst out all over Europe and North America, often described using terms such as totalism or polystylism.

Besides quoting literary texts, Zimmermann also grew obsessed with musical references. He often quoted the Dies irae hymn (like many other composers before and since). And his ballet Music for the Suppers of King Ubu is made up almost entirely of quoted material, both old and new (even Stockhausen gets cited), creating an atmosphere of prickly levity, befitting the self-indulgent title character of Alfred Jarry’s absurdist play Ubu Roi.

But the burdens of the past never left Zimmermann, and his music took a particularly dark turn during the 1960s. His Requiem for a Young Poet (finished in 1969) is kind of an evil twin to the contemporaneous Mass (1971) by that other 2018 centenarian, Leonard Bernstein. Both works appropriate liturgical and modern texts, employ singing and speaking, mix live music with prerecorded material, move musicians around in the concert space, and blend contemporary composed styles with vernacular idioms (jazz in Zimmermann’s case, folk and rock in Bernstein’s). But Zimmermann’s Requiem has none of the manufactured optimism that prevails in Bernstein’s offering. Even the title is despairing, referring to the death by suicide of three of the poets whose texts Zimmermann set. And whereas Bernstein’s work is a pastiche, Zimmermann’s quotes actual music—from Wagner to the Beatles. It’s interesting that the greatest Requiem settings of the 20th century (including those by Britten, Stravinskyand Ligeti) all came from the 1960s, amid social turmoil in the West, the specter of nuclear annihilation, and the still fresh memories of WW2 and the Holocaust.

But it’s Zimmermann’s most famous work that really sets the bar for unmitigated cynicism: his opera Die Soldaten. Seemingly tailored for people who find Berg’s Wozzeck too soft-hearted, this magnum opus, premiered in 1965, is an angry denunciation of military power, greed and authoritarianism. In some ways it’s comparable to Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, a landmark of early opera that’s likewise set in a police state with an array of (mostly) morally compromised characters. But few music theater works mete out the pessimism quite as brutally as Zimmermann’s. As it reaches its climax, the middle-class protagonist Marie is sexually assaulted, whereupon her estranged lover Stolzius fatally poisons the aristocratic perpetrator and then himself. In the last scene, Marie is shown as a vagabond begging alms from her passing father, who does not recognize her.

Not surprisingly, Zimmermann’s music is loud, ruthless and discordant. It opens with a succession of drumbeats over shrieks and flurries in the rest of the orchestra that seem to depict a phalanx of storm troopers despoiling a city whose residents scream and flee chaotically in horror. Even the opera’s love scenes have an angular dissonance to them, implying that the participants are ultimately two-faced manipulators. Though Jakob Lenz’s original 1776 play sets the action in 18th century Lille, Zimmermann makes his intentions clear by changing the timeframe to “yesterday, today, and tomorrow.”

The absolute apogee of musical expressionism, Die Soldaten is not for the squeamish, and the sadistic violence is difficult to watch (Zimmerman saw the rape of Marie not just as a depiction of society’s pervasive misogyny, but also as a metaphor for how totalitarianism penetrates the psyche of everyone living under it). Despite this, and despite the incredible technical and financial challenges that the work presents (among other things it requires an enormous orchestra, with organ, jazz band and more than a dozen percussionists), its power and sheer audacity continues to intrigue audiences, and to attract the attention of leading singers, directorsand opera companies. As current events remind us of the brittleness of democracy and civic society, the themes of Die Soldaten are looking more ominously relevant.

If Die Soldaten overwhelms with its scale and ambition, then Stille und Umkehr (Stillness and Return), Zimmermann’s last orchestral piece, astonishes with its fragility and single-mindedness. It’s basically a ten minute essay on the note D, sustained softly and passed gently among groups of instruments to the accompaniment of a snare drum tapping out one of Zimmermann’s beloved ride rhythms, now devolved into a kind of faltering heartbeat. Above this background rise fleeting splashes of color, such as the heterophonic flute murmurings that open the piece. The heartbeat, played with bare fingers, is the only trace of a distinct pulse, and it has enough rests in it that you generally lose the beat when it isn’t playing. It’s as though we’re inside the mind of a deathbed patient whose fragmentary memories are playing out one last time.

After a few minutes, a musical saw adds a somewhat sinister buzzing sonority to the mix. Bass instruments start to be heard, and the heartbeat shifts to a deeper tenor drum played with brushes. But the mood of the opening returns, the color splashes dissipate, and the impact of this gripping soundscape lingers long after the music stops.

Stille und Umkehr is a remarkable departure for such a normally maximalist composer, and deserves to be counted among postmodernism’s masterpieces. Zimmermann wrote it in 1970 during a psychiatric hospitalization—perhaps subconsciously prefiguring his own demise. Later that year, haunted by the demons made so visceral in his music, and by deteriorating physical health, Zimmermann took his own life at the age of 52. His last work was a theatricalized setting of Ecclesiastes which he titled Ich wandte mich und sah an alles Unrecht das geschah unter der Sonne (“I turned and saw all the injustice there was under the sun”).

Few composers in any era have felt so impelled to confront the uncomfortable things around and inside them, and articulate them in a way that is musical, contemporary and provocative. In exchange for this expressive honesty, Zimmermann demands a commitment from his listeners to receive the music with patience and integrity. To engage with his work is to explore a deeply intense and personal idiom. In the end, one wonders whether the lens it offers into the composer’s psyche is also a mirror.