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Moritz EGGERT (b. 1965)
Muzak (2016) [42:19]
Number Nine VII: Masse (2008) [17:58]
Moritz Eggert (voice)
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/David Robertson (Muzak), Peter Rundel (masse)
rec. live, Herkulessaal der Residenz, Munich, 5 February 2010 (Masse), 4 June 2016 (Muzak)
Reviewed in SACD stereo.
NEOS 11730 SACD [60:21]

Back in March 2017 I had the good fortune to play contrabass flute with Asko|Schönberg at the première of Moritz Eggert’s opera Caliban in Amsterdam, and with that extremely positive experience still fresh in the memory I was delighted to see this composer’s name again in two world première recordings of substantial orchestral works.

Muzak is a term you will have heard applied to the kind of background music you will hear in department stores or elevators. As the composer writes, the initial impulse to subvert or to “infiltrate and expose this Muzak-music” soon became something different; more about “the subcutaneous and incalculable ‘memory of longing’ of so-called ‘trivial’ music which sometimes contains more truth than most academic New Music… This memory of longing contains something that repeatedly wants to communicate something to all of us: a small affirmation of what it is to be alive.”

This results in something of a post-modern melting pot – full of allusions if not direct quotes, using pop clichés, romantic ballads dripping in sentimentality, hard-rock moments, Strauss-a-like waltz-schmaltz, film music, madcap cartoonishness, a loose thread of Mahlerian orchestral inflection here, a brief wave of the American minimalist flag there, and just about anything else you can name in between. The composer’s vocal contribution includes closely articulated rhythmic declamation, choirboy heights of singing and a chameleon-like ability to express a range of styles from jazz scat to rock belting. The text is printed in the booklet.

This is a remarkable and impressive work, indeed full of those ‘memories of longing’ like the musical equivalent of catching a whiff of a familiar perfume while walking through city streets. As a fan of ‘classical’ music you might anticipate needing more rock and pop savvy than you think you have, but you will also probably find you pick up more references than you expect. That’s the whole point of ‘muzak’: it will tend to sound familiar even if you can’t quite place an exact name to a band or genre. The work is ‘dedicated to the memory of David Bowie’, and who hasn’t heard of David Bowie. Even if you don’t know much of his music you will have some idea of him as a multifaceted cultural icon, and that is in some ways the essence of Muzak: all of our musical icons, from Delius to Jamiroquai, pass by at some stage, so you’re bound to find connections and have a fun and thought-provoking time as well.

Number Nine VII: Masse is a combination of two ideas: an attempt “to find an individual answer to the ‘symphonic Gretchen question’… how does one write for the orchestra today? Like the piano, the orchestra is an historically ‘burdened’ medium, and this presents a special challenge to a composer.” Secondly there is a little anecdote in which the composer is confronted by someone who has attended an orchestral concert and wonders why many of the musicians have nothing to do for much of the time. “I wanted to take on this aesthetic challenge and write an orchestral piece in which all of the musicians would have to play without pausing.”

At this point I see raised eyebrows from the string sections, but we get the point. In this way the orchestra is turned into a “wild beast”, the conductor its “tamer”. This experiment results indeed in a powerful mass of sound, but a dramatic and regimented world is created in which there is plenty of dynamic energy and inner conflict. It’s like an extended crowd scene in which the actors are all skilled in playing musical instruments and determined to let us know about it. Surges from winds, brass and percussion all threaten to overwhelm the rest at various stages, but the strings hold their ground on the battlefield, and the final theatrical apotheosis makes all the bruising argy-bargy very worthwhile indeed.

This is a very well recorded and superbly performed pair of fascinating and stimulating works. Moritz Eggert has clarity of vision and a serious amount of craftsmanship both conceptual and practical, qualities from which the rest of us composers and listeners can all learn a great deal.

Dominy Clements

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