All right, then: time for a snap quiz. Ready?
Name a piece of "classical" music explicitly inspired by the visual arts that is not either Pictures at an Exhibition or Rothko Chapel.
Yes? Mathis der Maler? Cheeky: get out.
Right: there are surprisingly few of them. Really surprisingly few. As in: so many fewer than one would expect, that it is surprising. I am surprised, even if you are not.
However short the list of VizArt-inspired music may be, it has now grown, impressively, by one.
Martin Bresnick's Caprichos Enfaticos—recently released through Bang on a Can's Cantaloupe label in a recording with pianist Lisa Moore and percussion quartet Sō Percussion—is a direct musical offshoot of Goya's Disasters of War (Los desastres de la guerra), the suite of 80 etchings derived from the experience of the Napoleonic wars in Spain. Shot through with horror and despair, for Spain and for humankind generally, individual segments of the Disasters can also surprise with their mordant humor or Goya's penchant for supernatural grotesquery. Simultaneously bleak and bumptious, Caprichos Enfaticos is a fitting descendant of those harrowing, brilliant pictures.
The composer describes his Caprichos as a piano concerto, with the role of the orchestra played by the dizzying battery of percussion, tuned and otherwise, at the command of Eric Beach, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski, and Jason Treuting. In eight movements and running just a shade over thirty brisk minutes, the structure of the piece derives from references to specific etchings from Los desastres and to phrases or ideas used by Goya, and from the farándula, or farandole, "a chain dance [says Bresnick's program note] popular in Provence, . . . often in 6/8 time, with a moderate to fast tempo. In modern Spanish, a farándula is a company of actors." There is an antic air of the commedia dell'arte around this piece, though it may more appropriately be thought of as commedia della morte.
It all begins innocently enough, almost childishly, with a "Farándula simple" played on marimba, xylophone and the like. Simple it may be, but it soon lurches with increasing urgency toward the macabre. The piano enters in the second movement, "Farándula de charlatanes – No saben el camino (Farandole of charlatans – They don’t know the way)", strutting its self-importance as the percussion continues to caper skeletally about. The military arrives in "Estragos de la guerra (Ravages of war)", as the piano's attempts to play a sombre Satiesque theme are repeatedly crushed beneath the martial discipline of large drums.
Next on the scene: the worthless politicians, boisterously hopping and chattering, pointlessly pointing every which way in their "Farándula de políticos – Contra el bien general (Farandole of politicians – Against the common good)." The large drums return for "Farándula de populacho (Farandole of the rabble)," sounding now less like well-drilled marchers and more like cascades of cannon fire. Appropriately, given how little the surrounding forces are concerned for them, the general population's movement is the shortest in the piece.
Goya's most eery qualities come to the fore in the final three movements. "¡Extraña Devoción! (Strange devotion!)" (illustrated above) is fitted out with the trappings of 19th century Gothic romance: muttering voices, bells, the clanking of chains down seemingly empty corridors, the piano wandering lost in the sepulchral haze. The approach to the tomb seems complete with the "Farándula de creyentes – Nada. Ello dirá (Farandole of believers – Nothing. It will say)," the pictorial namesake of which adorns the CD jacket: the listener is left in a cavernous dark, water dripping from the ceiling, a harmonium musing mournfully. When it seems there can be no further descent, and with a suddenness reminiscent of the last-moment rescue in Poe's "Pit and the Pendulum," the concluding "Farándula doble (Farandole double)" bursts in, as the entire ensemble reprises the skewed dance tune with which the piece began, its false bonhomie recognizable now as a sort of Iberian totentanz.
From hopelessness and misery, Goya was able to derive great and frightful art. From Goya, Martin Bresnick has derived a pocket concerto that honors its source while resonating in our own more mechanized but no less brutalized age.
Disclosure: Generally, when I write about music, I have paid my own way, i.e., bought the tickets or the CD or the download, or whatever. This is a case in which, I received an advance review copy. The provenance of the CD had no bearing on my opinions of it. This being my personal blog, if I didn't actually hold the views of the piece that I have expressed above, I wouldn't have bothered to write or to post them. Fair enough, FTC?