Reinier van Houdt and René van Peer: Finding one’s way through an immense building of music (2/4)


Performing any Sorabji composition is an enormous feat. A very special skill is required to play his music — a transcendental virtuosity, a mental quantum leap to a level from which you look down on the body as though detached from it, while rendering four different motoric layers all at the same time. But it also demands a depth in interpretation — the elongated, elaborate phrases and the simultaneous, extremely diverse colours call for intensive study and practice. Another obstacle to the performance of his music is the absence of printed scores and the sheer illegibility of Sorabji’s manuscripts. Add to that Sorabji’s nearly lifelong ban on performances of his work and his feelings of alienation and hostility towards the contemporary music business and it’s obvious why his music never could take root in twentieth century music.

However, having looked through the unpublished manuscripts waiting to be deciphered and performed, I think this will turn out to be a serious blank on our musical map, for various reasons. First of all, Sorabji drew upon Busoni’s panoramic overview of tradition and perfected his mapping out the instrumental, timbral and harmonic implications. He used and enriched all the traditional techniques: polyphony, techniques of chorale, cantus firmus and variation, and ornamental Lisztian virtuosity, as well as the lush figurations in Islamic and Indian music, attaining new colours. But the mixture of these diverse elements never leads to an arbitrary, postmodern collage of quotations. They are all facets of the expanding universe of Sorabji’s all-encompassing style.

Sorabji’s innovative excursions in these techniques also have a pioneering aspect. His extensive explorations of polyrhythms and hyperpolyphony take Bach as their point of departure, but in the end foreshadow Ligeti and Nancarrow. The multi-levelled counterpoint branches out into all directions transforming into delicate fractal-like structures, resulting in an extended tonality, where the notes are consonant and dissonant at the same time, making the tonecenter wander, flicker or turn out to be a mirage. The ceaseless wild and apparently disjointed strings of notes call free-jazz pianist Cecil Taylor to mind. Actually, in most of his works, according to Carlo Grante in program notes to a performance of Opus Secretum, “Sorabji avoids the twin temptations of tonality and atonality, by juxtaposing exzplicable materials in inexplicable ways. His highly personal, freely-associated combinations of common, altered, dissonant, and modal chords rarely suggest keys or modes or pitch classes of any sort. Horizontal juxtapositions of eight to twelve pitches may span more then three octaves and often seem pasted together from fragments of common scales. (Reiterated juxtapositions within an octave, suggestive of common scales, rarely exist.) Busoni-like vertical juxtapositions of pitches create open-ended branching chains of random inner harmonies, as though by a process of fractal arborescence.”

The music is not bi-tonal or a-tonal, but rather poly-tonal. You do hear harmonic centres appear all the time. These are not fixed, however. Instead, they are ambiguous, casting their shadow forward to a multiplicity of possible modulations. It is this that gives the music its aspects of spatiality and tightly knit patterning. Sorabji did not aspire at beauty per se. It was his ideal to create a ‘Symphony without themes’ — averse as he was to regular, predictable music, in which a fence of bars nips all life in the bud —, a Symphony to be woven completely from motifs and asymmetric, labyrinthine patterns, into a bewildering magic carpet, in which each singular detail is part of a pattern at a higher level, when you take a few steps back; similar to those ‘magical’ pictures that seem to shape themselves into 3-D images when looked at from a distance.

For Sorabji music was an elusive Garden of Eden — an imaginary realm of vibrating air, saturated with intriguing harmonies (which could be enchanting as the perfume of a rose but also harsh to the point of being caustic; which could induce nostalgia as does the fading of light at dusk), with exuberant colours. Music was to him an architecture, grandiose and interwoven so as not to degrade the musical garden to a raked up plot. He is said to have told one over-enthusiastic listener, “so you saw some wonderful landscapes, with delightful odours of flowers, but did you smell the characteristic aroma of decay, of excrement and cadavers? They are there, as well!”