On Terror, Fear, Symbols and Music

Symbols: Terror cornered by compassion, unity and the wish for peace. © Charles Thibo
Symbols: Terror cornered by compassion, unity and the wish for peace. © Charles Thibo

New York and Washington. Moscow, Madrid and London. Ankara and Paris. Brussels. Terrorism has struck again. Terrorism is about fear. Terrorists mean to scare us. And terror is about symbols. Muslims dreaded the sight of the crusaders’ cross. All over Europe people panicked at the sight of Gestapo policemen in long leather coats. Evil is good at forging a corporate identity. It partly explains its power, as it connects in our brain a visual effect to the very deep emotion of fear. Today, the Islamic State wants us to tremble at the sight of their flag. It wants us to believe that it is everywhere and that it can strike at us anytime. Let’s not be tricked. We should not be afraid.

The Hungarian composer György Kurtag is an expert on symbols. Between 1989 and 2001, he wrote a set of 19 movements called “Signs, Games and Messages”. A powerful work. Full of symbols. The audience is required to interpret the symbols – that is the music – by itself. Contemporary classical music is what you make of it. Terrorism is what you make of it. Do you want to play the game of the Islamic State by giving in to fear? You could also interpret the events in Brussels as a challenge: Deny the Islamic State its victory. Be not afraid. Carry on with your life. Enjoy music.

Here is what Kurtag’s piece means to me:  peace, sadness, joy, melancholy, fear, rift, seduction, consolation, friendship, mourning, longing. It reflects the whole range of human emotions. It reflects our emotional confusion when something drastic happens. Some pieces are dedicated to other composers, others have titles like “Chromatically saucy”. Some movements are very short like less than half a minute, others last for several minutes. And all are written for the viola. Are they? Initially yes.

I can recommend two recordings, one by Kim Kashkashian and another by Maurizio Barbetti. It is interesting to listen to both recordings as the set was for some time and still is a work in progress. The two recordings are not identical. Kurtag has amended, corrected, rewritten the piece several times. He has rearranged the order in which the pieces are to be played. He has even expanded or rearranged it for other instruments. What a thrill!

From Budapest to Paris

Kurtag was born in 1926 and studied after World War II at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest. He spent a year in Paris (1957-58), where he attended a master class of the French composer Olivier Messiaen. In Paris, he came into contact with the music of Anton Webern that would influence his composition style a lot. While he composed at irregular intervals, he taught chamber ensembles in Budapest. From the 90s on, he lived mostly abroad.

I had the pleasure to enjoy some movements of Kurtag’s “Signs, Games and Messages” last night in Luxembourg. The violin version of it, that, as a whole, consists of 29 movements. Patricia Kopatchinskaja was in town. She embedded the movements into a a program featuring pieces by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Johann Sebastian Bach, Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber and modern composers that I had never heard of before: George Crumb, Martin van dee Aa, Salvatore Sciarrino. It was a delight, a  stimulation for the brain, balm for the soul, by pure chance ideally suited to balance the sad news from Brussels. Mrs. Kopatchinskaja was charming: “We should play today’s music even if we don’t do it well.” She and the pianist Anthony Romaniuk did well enough! No, they were absolutely awesome! This was not just a recital. This was a “comédie concertante”, full of wit and humour.

Going to that concert was my personal act of defiance towards the Islamic State. If fear is a poison seeping into the fabric of our society, music is an efficient antidote. I am not afraid.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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