by Ivan Juritz
Whirling Tissue of Light
Whirling Tissue of Light, the fifth work for solo piano by the German composer and conductor, Matthias Pintscher (b. 1971), was given its UK premiere by Inon Barnatan, the Israeli-born pianist known for his recordings of Schubert and Ravel, in September 2013, at the opening of a new season at the Wigmore Hall.
The piece’s title is taken from the final stanza of Pound’s “Phanopoeia,” a poem printed in Umbra, his self-curated summa of 1920 –the collection bears, beneath the poet’s name, the heading: “all that he now wishes to keep in circulation.” Twenty year earlier, Sigmund Freud had delayed the publication of The Interpretation of Dreams, finished early in 1899, until the dawn of the new century, hoping to bolster the novelty of his “royal road to the unconscious” by tying it to the opening of the new century. Pound was not unaware of the value of a new decade as a means of marking change, referring to Umbra in a letter to his father of October 1919 as the “decennial orgy.” But Phanopoeia's place within this collection is a queer one, as it looks back to Pound’s earlier involvement with Imagism as much as it looks forward to the evolved poetic of Personae or the Cantos. The lasting reach of Imagism can be felt in the poem’s focus on a fragile, isolated moment of perception. This is seen most clearly in its closing quatrain:
The whirling tissue of light
is woven and grows solid beneath us;
The sea-clear sapphire of air, the sea-dark clarity
stretches both sea-cliff and ocean.
As with Pound’s most famous poem of the Imagist period, “In a Station of the Metro,” the quatrain seems to describe the experience of reading as much as the original act of perception. The tissue of the poem itself is stitched together by the unnatural crossing of solid and ethereal substances, with words shifting their allegiance between adjective and noun. “Sea-cliff” in the final line feels weightless after the ambiguity of “stretches” – a stretch of ocean, or clear air stretching the other elements. It also catches the hex-like pull of “sea-clear,’‘sea-dark,” which might be the shifting play of light on water, or an observer filtering their perception of the sea through competing metaphors for bodies of water: the clear reflection of pools, or the ocean as Caligula’s unfathomable foe. The ambivalence is fitting for a poem that, in a collection bearing the Latin word for “shade,” holds a Greek name meaning “the art of making clear.”
While Whirling Tissue represents the first allusion to Pound in Pintscher’s work, it is in line with his many forays into other artistic forms, marked by a strong focus on images. When he is not actually borrowing from the visual arts –he lists Kiefer, Twombly and Giacometti as central to his work; and his renowned orchestral suite Osiris was inspired by a work of the same name by Joseph Beuys –his literary sources are celebrated for their visual quality. Rimbaud is praised for his “images sonnantes”; E. E. Cummings, whose poetry Pintscher has set for voice and chamber ensemble, “allows our memories to circulate,” rather than “forcing a story on the reader” (a dictum not far from the definition Pound would give to “phanopoeia” – this time as one of the three “kinds of poetry”– seven years after Umbra in How to Read). But Pintscher doesn’t deal in figurative evocation. He does not share in the ambition to evoke the world through music that one sees in the operatic rhetoric of Liszt or the impressionism of Debussy and Ravel – no chromatic falls marking a lover’s sighs, nor cascading sixths a fountain. Nor does he opt for the grander synesthetic displays of Scriabin (a composer to whom, in other ways, Whirling Tissue’s colourful washes and ambitious pianism are in debt). The visual sources on which Pintscher draws are always translated into the medium he sees to be the orchestra’s own –sonority.
There are, nonetheless, clear parallels between Pound’s poem and Pintscher's piece. The music alternates between crashing, sforzato chromatic runs, with constant changes of tempo, and periods of a more measured harmonic progression – a setting that closely resembles Phanopoeia’s play between movement and repose. And just as Pound’s poem orchestrates a crossing of opposing qualities, Pintscher's dynamic markings work in counterpoint to the nature of these two modes: the runs in the upper register of the piano are loud and crudely accented – the opening bar moves from fortississimo to forte back to sforzato fortississimo (figure 1) – while sustained chords in the bass are marked with equally extreme levels of piano (figure 2).
The destabilising effect of the “sea-dark,” “sea-clear,” “sea-cliff” refrain in Pound’s poem –in which repetition creates the feeling of what is solid melting into air – is matched by the repeated, arpeggiated chords whose texture thins until only a single note remains (figures 3, 4 and 5 below). The dynamic marking, poco stringendo – present each time this figure returns – means “gradually getting faster.” The persistent use of this term, relatively rare as a musical direction, should give us pause. Its Latin root stringō means “to compress or tighten”; its cognate in Old English streccian, gives us the modern word “stretch,” the word on which the shift and pull of Pound’s poem hinge.
Just as Pound's lines, which seem to be cycling through familiar metaphors for the ocean's play, Pintscher’s other key repetitive motif – a fortissimo minor second played against sustained dissonant chord clusters (figure 6) – is marked by allusion to his artistic forebears. The repeated minor second, resolving to a major or minor third, is a key feature of the sonatas with which classical piano repertoire begins.
But, like Pound’s muddy tread between “sea-dark” and “sea-clear,” which finds only an unstable foothold in “sea-cliff,” the dissonant semitones in the right hand here do not resolve, but move to an unrelated note (the repeated e flat of figure 7).
It is a resolution that, like the numerical schemes of Arvo Pärt, makes sense in terms of geometry, but not in terms of classical harmony, a language Pintscher refuses even as he quotes it. Once more, the tempo directions seem to be in on the gag: “senza misura, ma in tempo!” [Without measure, but in time!] (figure 6). A playfully literal reading of Pound’s Imagist injunction “to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome.”
Whirling Tissue of Light will be performed again on 21st March 2015 in Paris by the Ensemble Intercontemporain (of which Pintscher is currently the Musical Director), alongside works by Ravel, Boulez and Olga Neurwirth.