A majestic tower in the midst of turmoil

The gate of the Schirmerturm, one of the nine fortified towers in Lucerne. © Charles Thibo
The gate of the Schirmerturm, one of the nine fortified towers in Lucerne. © Charles Thibo

When I close my eyes, I can see the stone tower. The first of Cécile Marti’s “Seven Towers”. It is not very tall, but the double bass suggest it has a massive rectangular shape. Reassuring for those who find shelter in it, but a provocation for anyone else. A strident violin evokes an imminent danger, and sure enough invaders try their luck. Timpani thunder through the Berne casino, and yes, I see waves of soldiers clashing against the tower. But the building resists, it stands majestically, calm in the middle of the turmoil. Nevertheless the next wave of attackers rolls on: crescendo! It get’s really loud, and then: change of tempi, change of style!

Confusion. All instruments speaking together in dissonant notes. Dissonant with some basic structure left. Confusion on the battlefield? Confusion in the heads of those under siege? Questions. Perhaps confusion forbids logical thoughts about its sense, perhaps the essence of confusion is its inherent lack of sense. Gradually order is restored, low pitches prevail in a harmonious tune, interrupted by a high-pitched trumpet. A cry for help? I hear the tower speaking to its defenders: Calm down! You are safe. Still, the danger hasn’t gone away as the brass suggest and suddenly the initial confusion is back! What is going on here?

At this point, I take a second or two to observe the audience: some faces express outright horror, most are deeply bewildered. Which is understandable. Now that I hear Part 1 of “Seven Towers” for the second time, I know what to watch out for: the four sections and the three expositions that reflect the seven-fold structure of the 80 minutes long orchestral works. Now the piece starts making sense. The vast majority of the audience did not have that second chance. Which lets me conclude that Neue Musik needs to be explained again and again if it is to gain the hearts and minds of the public.

But back to our concert: The finale of Part 1 is remarkable: Suddenly the strident violin tune is back, ears are aching, but the timpani soon provide some relief. Tension rises, tension passes – now the danger is gone. The end. Silence.

I did not ask Cécile Marti if any of the seven sections corresponded to specific images or feelings of hers. She made it clear that the audience is to find its own interpretation – that is precisely the intention behind her way of composing. It frees the listener from the thematic restrictions of the Programmmusik, en vogue in the 19th century and the early half of the 20 century (Mussorgsky, Debussy, Smetana, Strauss to name but a few). It also requires a certain intellectual effort from the audience. A burden? Perhaps. An intellectual challenge? Certainly. Music for the brain instead of music for the heart? Not necessarily.

I did not grasp the structure of Part 1 at the premiere. But I immensely enjoyed it when I heard it for the second time. Which did surprise me. I had merely hoped to gain intellectual clarity, instead I felt true enthusiasm and remembered how I felt after listening for several times to Olivier Messiaen’s quartet. Bewildering at first, a revelation later on.

What did the composer expect ahead of the two concerts? Cécile Marti was fairly confident when I spoke to her minutes before the premiere on Thursday. She had rehearsed the piece with Berner Symphonieorchester and conductor Mario Venzago since Monday and was quite pleased.

“I am so happy now that I finally hear, what it sounds like”, she said. “The musicians, especially the younger members of the orchestra, were very responsive to this contemporary composition.” It certainly helped that music students are expected to play a lot of Neue Musik during their studies, she remarked.

Still, the different parts awaits some fine-tuning. After the premiere of Part 6 in Geneva and after this week’s rehearsals and performances of Part 1 Cécile Marti believes she might have to work on the tempi. Perhaps the strings need a little more encouragement. She relies on the recording to detect remaining imperfections, but “there’s nothing like hearing it performed in a concert hall!” she said. And beamed all over her face.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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