The Holy Trinity

Brief reflections on my three favorite contemporary* composers.
(*Contemporary in that their lifespans overlapped with my own.)

Alfred Schnittke: Chiaroscuro in Music

Find me another composer as adept at suffusing his canvas with darkness, laying on the thick impasto of a late Rothko. You’ll find plenty of angst and agony among the rest, but you’ll never find a musician working in such satisfying gradations of blackness as Alfred Schnittke.

Listen to how notes sustain, suffusing the air like smoke. This is a consistent element of Schnittke’s style, from the early days of the first string quartet right up to the austere works that he wrote after dying and coming back to life (not making that up!) Even his zaniest moments are like Pennywise peering out of a street gutter.

This reaches its apotheosis (as does his entire stylistic vocabulary: his melodicism, the crunch of his orchestration, his Beethoven-like motivic development) in the 8th symphony. I can think of no other music that so thoroughly captures the sound of the universe’s empty blackness.

Sondheim-Tunick: Pure Music and its Embodiment

Stephen Sondheim is the heir not only to the artistic legacy of Gerswhin, Arlen, and Rodgers, but he’s also a direct inheritor of the musical legacy of Maurice Ravel. His music is to Ravel’s as birds are to dinosaurs. 

Sondheim writes in short score, the purest articulation of the musical art. His music is not written to be played as such, and so it must be translated, either expanded (orchestrated) or condensed (for piano.) His main translator has been the orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, and because I’m an orchestral musician at heart, to me, “Sondheim” really means Sondheim + Tunick. 

And here’s the thing: Sondheim agrees. I’ll let him explain:

Can I love a Sondheim song when it’s stripped down to just piano and voice? Of course. After all, Sondheim is the kernel and Tunick is the husk. But honestly? I’ll never love it as much as when it’s enrobed in the voluptuous garbs of Jonathan Tunick. After all, Sondheim is the diamond and Tunick is the jeweler.

It’s worth noting that every Sondheim has been awarded the Tony for Best Score, he’s taken the opportunity to single out Jonathan Tunick as a collaborator (and often to bemoan the fact that there was no Tony awarded for Best Orchestrations.) Sondheim is a lover of orchestral music; it’s well known that he mainly listens to Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Ravel. Let’s just say, he gets it.

[Coda: When the Tonys finally did institute an award for Best Orchestrations in 1997 (!!!) Jonathan Tunick was the first awardee.]

Alberto Iglesias: The Master of the String Quartet

It’s not just me who calls Alberto Iglesias the master of the quartet — it’s Pedro Almodóvar himself!

How did he come by this mastery? I only recently learned the answer.

Pedro Almodóvar does not use temp scores for his editing, but he wants music. In fact, he wants the music that’s going to be in the film — or the closest possible approximation. So he asks Iglesias to create a sort of temp track of his own.

The thing is, neither of them likes midi. So, starting early in their collaboration, whenever Iglesias would write a piece of music intended for string orchestra, he would hire a string quartet to record a reduced version of the cue. Pedro would end up falling in love with the quartet version. Eventually, Iglesias got wise and started writing the pieces as quartets.

Thus the greatest exponent of the string quartet since Debussy came into being.

But man, just listen to what he can do when he has a full string orchestra at his disposal:

To quote Penélope Cruz: