It is incredible to imagine that Homer's Iliad had not been translated into Danish before the version published in October 1999. Yet the whole raison d'être of this present CD is based on this fact. Perhaps some books or portions of books had been previously given in Danish? Or maybe anyone who wanted to read the text set about it in the original Greek or in English or German. I must never forget that the Scandinavian people have a greater command of languages than most of their Anglo-Saxon contemporaries. Yet the response of some of the composers who provided music for this CD suggest that they had not approached Homer's masterpiece until receiving this commission. Having been exposed to this great work in one way or another since primary school days, I find this incredible. Yet perhaps it is just a matter of opportunity. Many school children these days, in all parts of Europe, have probably never heard of Priam and Helen and Achilles.
The music on this CD was conceived as an accompaniment to the public reading of the Danish text; not to accompany the voice as such but to provide an introduction and epilogue. To set the scene as it were. Apparently the same piece was played before and after the reading.
The Danish National Arts Foundation had a number of options. Firstly was to provide easily accessible music of the 'film' variety. Secondly it could have scoured the musical archives of five centuries for appropriate pieces or thirdly it could have attempted to provide contemporary Homeric music - music composed for the 'aulos' and the 'kithara' and 'chorus'. Finally they could commission works which are totally new; works which reflect the 'best' of Danish musical talent.
For better or worse they chose the last option. So far
so good. But the decision went further - it was decided to approach
composers noted for their adherence to 'Electro-acoustic' musical technologies
as opposed to more traditional ensembles. Each composer had to come
up with music for four books of the Iliad.
Part of the justification was that although the Iliad was written in about 700BC the concerns of the poet are the concerns of the 21st century: human short-sightedness, heroism, struggle catastrophe, war and death.
The programme notes explain how some of the composers were quite shocked by the impact of the Danish translation. Much of the horror of war was brought home in a vivid way which presumably bowdlerised school tales and half-remembered images did not. The music, then, is supposed to reflect this horror and also the undeniable romance of these 24 books.
A few words about the Iliad itself and also about the concept of 'Electro-acoustic' music are in order. It is a fault of much artistic criticism that assumes that we all know what we are talking about all the time. So at the risk of teaching granny…
The Iliad is Greek epic poem, which is probably the result of oral tradition. It is not a through-composed work by one individual with all the details coming from the author's imagination. It was probably written down by 700 BC and is attributed to Homer . The title comes from Ilion, which was the Greek name for Troy. Basically, its topic is the anger of the Greek hero Achilles at the loss of his concubine Briseis, and at the demise of his friend Patroclus, during the Greek siege of Troy. The poem concludes with the slaughter of the Trojan hero Hector at the hands of Achilles. The stories deal with military values, social structures, and the lives of a heroic group of warriors, supported or opposed by the gods. More to the point it shows the gods as being totally capricious in their dealings with human beings. This work along with the Odyssey had an immense influence on Greek society and culture and has provided inspiration for countless tales down through the ages.
The second concept we need to consider is the idea of electronic or Electro-acoustic music. Basically computer generated music played back over a multi-channel loudspeaker system.
This is not the forum for a history of the medium. However a few brief notes might help to put this music into some kind of perspective.
Electronic music came into being as a result of two parallel developments. Firstly the attempt by composers to distance themselves from the tonal hierarchies of the Classical Romantic traditions and secondly the development of appropriate electronic devices. Confusion often exists between music that is written for conventional instruments and is then played on electronic medium and music written on or for electronic technologies. Of the former we need only think of the rip-roaring success of the Bach arrangements for the Moog Synthesiser which was such a hit back in the early seventies. In the early days of experimentation, use was made of developments in thermionic valves. For example the Ondes Martenot and the Theremin. Great advances were made in this medium once the art of tape recording and editing had been perfected. However, the resources of electronic music have always managed to keep up with latest technological developments. It is hardly surprising that the computer has been used so effectively by many late twentieth century composers.
The computer allows a composer to store vast amounts of data -so entire compositions can be programmed and manipulated with relative ease. Since the advent of digital recording techniques and the demise of the magnetic tape, composers have been able to handle their material in an increasing complex yet relatively easy manner. It is possible for the computer to generate any sound; for example a solo violin. But more than this it can produce an infinite number of variations to this basic sound. It can produce a variety of random noises; complex rhythmic experiments which would be virtually impossible to replicate by a soloist or group of soloists. Moreover it allows the composer to have complete control over his music. He can do away with the performer. Every aspect of the music is under his or her jurisdiction.
The pieces of music given on this CD are a diverse group. The only communality is the computer. The critic does have a problem with this kind of music. There is no score. Each performance could be different if the composer decides to 're-programme' the computer whilst the composition is being played.
The programme notes give an adequate description of each piece - at least as far as it is possible to describe this kind of music in any objective or analytical manner. Each composer writes a short resume of what the Iliad has meant to him and how he has tried to interpret this in the music.
None of the composers represented here are mentioned in Grove although brief biographical notes are provided.
What are we to make of this music? First of all it is really 'incidental' music rather than concert hall pieces. The music was designed for a particular event and a definite textual performance. So it is perhaps not fair to judge any of these pieces as stand-alone works of art.
There is no doubt that there is a tremendous variety of tones and textures in these six works. Everything seems to be fair game to these composers. Any style is available. Some of these pieces involve 'virtual' voices or choral effects. There seem to be individual instruments playing recognisable musical phrase. Then there are great washes of sounds. Sometimes the phrase or pattern is allowed to go round in a loop -eventually breaking out into some complex of white noise. There are noises that seem like a steam locomotive shunting a goods yard and even of a dog barking. There are passages that sound like a boat builder's yard complete with riveters. One piece - presumably a battle scene - appears to be like someone breaking up the china shop. Some of the music is unbelievably quiet. Great long passages of whisper; some music seems like an instrumentalist tuning up.
People of my generation who do not belong to IRCAM, had their first exposure to 'electronic music' when they saw Dr Who on BBC Television. The Radiophonic Workshop provided much 'film' music for these great episodes.
And that is what I feel this is - a latter day version of a Dr Who film script.
All sounds are possible. Tune is not a requirement - and that is fair enough. It is the images that matter. And often these images are only obvious to the composer himself.
One obvious problem is that these pieces do tend to sound alike. I cannot imagine myself or many others hearing a 'computer piece by these six composers saying' Oh that sounds like Teller or Siegel.'
I do not think it easy to define a composer's style. Although the cognoscenti will say that it just my lack of exposure to this kind of music. And they would be correct.
Do I like this CD. The answer is evasive. Yes and no! Firstly it is not my kind of music. I find it difficult to assimilate the crossover this kind of music requires. From Rock to Musique Concrète and from Gregorian Chant to Jazz - often in the same piece! For me it is a different world to what I normally enjoy in music; I find it difficult to enter into the intellectual and acoustical world created by the composer. I find the contrast too great. I range from finding a passage truly beautiful to thinking the composer is a 'chancer' all within ten seconds of music. It lacks, to my ear at any rate coherence.
DaCapo have produced a nice package. However they are somewhat short on the music. A total of ninety minutes on two CDs does not seem particularly good value. The programme notes are helpful and the sound quality is admirable.
There must be a market for Electro-acoustic music. However, I cannot imagine that the market is particularly sizeable. Yet it is a niche which DaCapo have sought to fill. Obviously the rendering of the Iliad into Danish was an important artistic event in Denmark and this CD seems to provide a reasonably interesting commentary on it. At the end of the day, I do not know what I would have done if I had been tasked with providing incidental music for this event. Perhaps it is interesting and quite appropriate to contrast the very old with the very modern? Who knows what Homer would have made of it, though? Generally not as bad a CD as I first thought it was going to be!