Sonograms is a new recording, released this past Wednesday, that explores the work of six composers, all of whom were concerned with the limitations of conventional music notation. The name of the album comes from the title of the work of one of those composers, the Bulgarian Georgi Minchev, whose Sonograms suite, composed in 1980, carries the subtitle Five Concerto Reminiscences for Piano. For the record, the source of these retrospective reflections is Minchev’s own concerto for piano and orchestra, as well as the Romantic tradition that inspired it.
However, the noun “sonogram” has its own semantic interpretation. It refers to a graphic representation of physical sound with particular attention to the time-based properties of the signal. It is usually a two-dimensional graph, one of whose dimensions (usually the horizontal one) is the time domain. Nevertheless, there are also sonograms that capture more than two dimensions; and, as a result of computer visualization technology, these can often be quite sophisticated. What most concerns Eric Salzman, who wrote a highly comprehensive set of notes for the accompanying booklet, is that a sonogram represents physical properties “that cannot be represented in conventional musical notation.” Thus, a subtitle for the recording might be something like Adventures in Representation.
These adventures are undertaken by an interesting collection of performers. The Bulgarian Angela Tosheva is the pianist for Minchev’s Sonograms, as well as two other compositions, Iannis Xenakis’ “Evryall,” composed in 1973, and two studies by Paweł Szymański, composed in 1986. The other major performer is the German Benedikta Bonitz, who performs on recorders of different sizes, sometimes with one or more other musicians. Finally, the members of the Panorama Quartet, violinists Hansjuergen Froetel and Laurentius Bonitz, violist Tor Røynesdal, and cellist Richard N. Eade, perform Walter Steffens’ Opus 2b single-movement string quartet, “Ecstasy.”
As the title of the album suggests, each of the seven pieces on this recording is motivated more by the exploration of sonorities than the pursuit of melodic, harmonic, and/or contrapuntal inventiveness that can be denoted in conventional notation. Of the composers represented, the one best known for his attentiveness to sonority is Arvo Pärt. Regardless of any attention to specificity of instrumentation in his other works, the two pieces on this recording, “Arbos” and “Pari Intervalo,” are both scored for wind instruments without further specification. (“Arbos” is actually scored for seven or eight winds and three percussion instruments.) This may be the first recording in which those wind parts are taken by recorders. However, those who have heard any of Pärt’s music performed on organ should recognize the “family resemblance” of those sonorities to those of the recorders.
Still, I am not sure how significant it is that any of the works on this recording go beyond the expressiveness of traditional notation. The fact is that the performance of music has always had to “go beyond” notation, pretty much for as long as notation has been used. In other words we have been living with the limitations of the world of symbols to capture the physical world for centuries, if not millennia.
Nevertheless, if this recording encourages the listener to think more about sonority and less about themes or harmonic progressions, then I think it performs a valuable service. The fact is that all of these compositions are highly accessible, as are the sonorities that they evoke. (I write that last sentence as one who tends to get impatient with composers whose “adventures in sonority” never seem to get beyond an excess of sul ponticello bowing.) I was particularly fascinated by the way in which Walter Steffens approached the sensitivity of the recorder to breath, creating both microtonal and polytonal effects in his Opus 63 suite of four movements, each inspired by a watercolor by Paul Klee. Thus, to reflect back on my proposed subtitle, the real adventures on this recording are adventures in performance, rather than any of the representations that occupied the contributing composers.