Poème Dansé for one speaker, choir and large orchestra (1980-82)

This is a monumental work of two hours duration, featuring large-scale orchestral music of immense, visceral power and tension and, in a less prominent role, choral music of primal expressionism. It was inspired by the poem by Antonin Artaud, The Rite of the Black Sun (reprinted in the CD booklet, Hänssler Classic). As refined and complex on the compositional level the music is, it is always imbued with a remarkable ‘raw feel’ – it is music as a ‘raw state’ as the composer outlines (CD booklet, its English translation from German slightly modified here):

"On first reading the Artaud text: stream of music, music crash.
As if round a magnet: layering of music. Soon not only the poem as point of departure, but the conception of Artaudian theatre.
First ideas of a choreographic realization only with this music and Artaud’s artistic vision, leaving behind subject-action theatre (related individual characters) for a ritual theatre that is itself subject (sifted collective).
Consequence for the music: it can no longer be a linked figuration, an arrangement of more or less historically established models, but must come to us – an old wish (of mine) – in a raw state, as itself, naked, as a state of music. It must become a cry.
Behind the idea of the stream of music: the desire for a liberated, free music, subject only to its own urges, "life force" of sounds, harnessed in a diktat of the imagination.
At root, the desire for total freedom, no regulation other than the laws of one’s own nature. But this grows ever keener, tauter, more impatient and explosive: because music follows painstakingly precise notation."

First part
First Image
(Invocation…the black hole…)

Section 1 (CD 1, track 1, duration about 14 min.)

The music starts with a solo of flute repeating a single pitch in a rapid manner, almost tremolo-like. The playing is interrupted in irregular intervals, interspersing the music with small pauses and introducing considerable tension. Eventually, it is echoed in the brass, and subsequently, orchestral outbursts provide release. They are followed by a rather quiet episode that at first mostly features ‘point-like’ music – single brief sounds that are separated from one another by pauses. The suspense then is prolonged in subdued sustained string chords, with some added rumble in percussion and double basses. Finally, at around 5 minutes, there is a sudden outbreak of a relentless barrage of fast beating of timpani, lasting for more than two minutes. It marks the, fully intended, psychological instability of the music in a dramatic fashion. Powerful strokes on timpani and drums continue after a break, yet in a less fast-paced, more irregular manner. Energetic passages involving full orchestra flank another quiet, even hushed, section. At around 11 minutes brass and strings play in unison a relentless motoric repeat of a rhythmic figure, which gradually changes in timbre and undergoes shifts of pattern during its prolonged duration, and culminates in another series of tutti.

Section 2 (CD 1, track 2, duration about 20 min.)

Growling lower strings and woodwinds, countered by shrieking high-pitched interjections from violins, introduce a brooding, explosive atmosphere. The music is at war with itself. It strives to establish forward momentum in periods of rhythmic churning, and sporadically the impetus is extended in, or supported by, intensely burning held notes and chords in higher registers. Yet the momentum is unsteady, the appearance of conflicting rhythms at different speed destabilizes it, and forceful interjections of brief, sharp sounds persistently attempt to disrupt and suspend it.

At about 10 minutes held chords in brass, at moderate dynamic level, are introduced that are of remarkable color. They are steely, yet nonetheless warm and luminous. The ambivalence in sound is made to lean towards the ominous by accompanying string figures. About a minute later the texture leads to the rise of a slowly unfolding sequence of chord changes in brass sounds that induce an ever-shifting spectrum of colors. In the process, the extended brass sounds become more and more forceful. The sound development is of mighty and terrifying character, yet at the same time it is beautiful, as a result of the richness and control of harmonic proceedings. The brass sounds are followed by high-pitched string and woodwind sounds that are also sustained; brief eruptions in heavy percussion and in other orchestral sections are aftershocks of the power of what had just been heard.

Around 14 minutes a rhythm played by soft tympani leads to figures in strings, softly supported by low brass, which for the first time in this movement introduce firm rhythmic stability – and prepare the ground for the first appearance of male choir voices, initially singing at low volume, a few bars later. It is a remarkably organic and efficient transition within the music. The voice textures (unconnected syllables and vocals) feed upon the pronounced instrumental rhythms and then carry them into an a cappella passage, soon augmented by hand clapping and culminating in high-powered textures featuring agitated female voices and extended ‘shouts’ of male voices. Brooding orchestral textures briefly take over, yet they quickly crumble. Small sound groups in light percussion, pizzicato strings and later, woodwinds, continue to carry the tension. A few more massive sounds are heard from the orchestra, and eventually the movement ends with woodwind figures of characteristic timbre that in similar form will resurface in the next movement.


Second Image (black and red dances…the horse…)
(CD 1, track 3, duration about 18 min.)

Also here the music tries to build pronounced forward momentum, which tends to develop in a more feverish and hectic manner than in the previous movement, and now and then even trips over itself, as it were. Several times forward pushing passages are electrically charged by ‘tremolo’ patterns in light wooden or metallic percussion, or by fortissimo high-pitched chords in violins. These ingredients can also blend together.

Unlike in the previous movement, there are few disruptive elements that would constantly interfere with forward momentum as it strives to establish itself. Instead, as momentum is broken or runs out, which happens remarkably easily, separate passages of more static music contrast with it. On several occasions a somewhat plaintive figure in the woodwind section is heard, featuring a quite unique timbre that appears to include a tight blend of English horn and flute sounds.

Just after the 13-minute mark a frenzied rhythmic pulsation in strings introduces the most feverish passage of forward pressure, fomented by forceful interjections of brass. Yet quickly this gives way to orchestral gestures participating in an energetic and tense game of leaping forward and holding back. Any directional thrust is effectively halted. While it resumes shortly after, also these flames are doused before too long.

At about 15 minutes, a little while before the end, a primeval rhythmic gesture in lower strings, raw yet somehow lacking energy, is heard similar to a passage about 2 minutes into the movement. Despite all the agitation, not much progress in overall momentum has been made throughout this movement. It ends with a fleeting attempt at yet another episode of highly charged impetus that lasts just a few seconds.


Third Image (the Peyotl Dance…the last sun…the shouting man…)
(CD 1, track 4, duration about 26 min.)

After a few introductory bars the portrayal of the Peyotl dance begins, in which at first just light percussion is heard. Then more orchestral forces chime in, beginning with a figure played by a unison blend of piano, wind and percussion instruments, yielding an amazing sound color. The music unfolds as a primal, barbaric dance ritual on rather stable rhythms that change from time to time. At 8 minutes a powerful block of frenzied, erratic music takes over, interspersed with reappearances of the previous barbaric dance rhythms on timbres of also charged intensity. At around 12 minutes a brief return of feverishly agitated figures from the previous movement is heard. After 14 minutes the orchestra releases shouts of held fortissimo chords in brass, which soon give way to shouts of human voices, those of speaker and choir. A little while later, on a pronounced rhythm, the speaker utters a freely invented series of syllables that, as usual in this work, do not yield entire words. A relatively quiet episode follows, vacillating between dreamy, brooding and menacing moods, at times presented simultaneously in different orchestral sections. Around 20 minutes the orchestra slowly awakens to greater strength and agitation, leading to a series of screams in the brass, additionally charged by surrounding high-pitched held notes in strings and woodwinds. These foreshadow another, final episode of human shouts. Yet after these have sounded, accompanied by another appearance of the barbaric dance rhythms in the orchestra, the music ends quietly with whimpering of the speaker.


Second Part
Fourth Image
Crosses…the horseshoe…[the six men…the seventh]
(CD 2, consisting of one track, duration about 38 min.)

The orchestra has left the scene, and on the instrumental side the music features exclusively six percussionists. The composer:

"The free, wild calls of the first part are given pure pounding in answer: the beat as the beginning of music and its end … (free or wild are simply no longer categories here)."

The percussionists unleash a relentless barrage of sounds from mostly heavy drums and large snare drum, but the playing also involves other percussion (and at the very end, hi-hat and cymbals). On the surface, the music may at first seem monotonous in color and gesture (the composer: "towards the end, extinction of color"), yet there is a sizeable amount of complexity in the composition that holds the listener’s attention upon concentrated listening. For a large part the music is barbaric and obsessive in character, and the energetic impact of the pounding on drums is exciting (a good subwoofer is recommended for the experience). Yet there is also room for considerable refinement of musical proceedings, and for subtlety of detail. Relatively unison beating of drums alternates with more polyphonic passages, and rhythmic patterns can be intricate. The development of patterns employs a gripping play with tension, both from one moment to another and over larger scales.

The choir only appears sporadically and for brief periods, with speech-song and shouting of loose sequences of syllables. Its primal vocal utterings blend well with the character of the percussive music.

The work is recorded on a Hänssler Classic double CD (widely available, e.g. at Amazon).

© Albrecht Moritz 2011