Question: what constitutes the ingredients of a five-star review? Is it a flawless performance? Must it involve a musical masterpiece? Or do other factors come into play: a new discovery, a unique combination of artist and venue, for example. Perhaps there has to be an emotional or spiritual dimension. Either way, the confluence of Hans Otte’s Das Buch der Klänge (The Book of Sounds), eclectic-minded pianist Ivan Ilić, and a weathered Steinway on a tiny barge tethered on the Brooklyn side of the East River on a windy Friday night did it for me.
Bremen-born Hans Otte (1926-2007) was a German composer, pianist, radio promoter, and creator of sound installations, poems, drawings and art videos. A fierce advocate of experimental American composers like John Cage, Terry Riley, and La Monte Young, Otte studied at Yale with Hindemith and went on to invite the likes of David Tudor to participate at Darmstadt. Das Buch der Klänge, written between 1979 and 1982 and recorded by the composer in 1984, is his best-known work, a series of 12 movements that employ devices typical of minimalism while pursuing an engrossing architectural arc and, in perhaps similar ways to the work of Morton Feldman, have as much to do with harmonics, the texture of sound, and the importance of the silences between the notes. There is another dimension, however, and one that Ilić was keen to highlight. Otte, he recalled, “wanted people to find themselves in sound”, believing that a performance of this multifaceted work “is an invocation to listen deeply.” And so, as the evocatively dilapidated barge dipped and rolled, we did.
The work begins with gently oscillating thirds in the right hand, bursting into rapidly repeating sequences in both hands before sinking back again. Slow, fast, slow, then fast again. A hypnotic quality is immediately apparent as the music swells and diminuendos, now progressing up the keyboard, now falling away. The barge rocks gently – and increasingly not so gently – as the distant lights of Manhattan form an evocative backdrop that seem to beckon as the pianist bends to his task.
The sound of the boat straining at its moorings adds a mysterious note to proceedings. This is music to lose yourself inside, I think, as I resist the urge to put down my pen and surrender. More forceful higher chords are prelude to an impressionistic wash of arpeggiated chords, a sort of idiosyncratic blend of Glass and Debussy. Repeated discords cast a shadow – a great deal of this music has an aching melancholy to it – and I note, incidentally, that the Steinway appears to be taped to the floor, its legs looking sawn-off and curiously bandaged.
The patterns shift around the keyboard possessed of an almost – but not quite – tangible logic. A pair of emphatic, stabbing chords appear, echoed by microscopic oscillations in the right hand. The mood is intense, angry even. The relentless car horns of New York City come and go, impinging restlessly on our ears before receding into the distance. The music draws you in by sheer sonic power, its surface rhythms demanding less attention than the buried harmonies. For a moment, the music seems to imitate a Doppler effect, a curiously appropriate reflection of the bleak streets of New York we can glimpse through the windows on the starboard side. The guy in the front row, I notice, begins to rock out, his head continuing to bob long after the music changes tack.
A series of thirds and fourths lead us into a wilderness of regret as the boat lunges restlessly, its hull wallowing disturbingly in the swell. Ilić holds his line. He must be feeling the motion, I reckon, though impressively he never flinches. Wilful minor chord arpeggios in the left hand are troubled by an insistent tone picked out with the thumb. An intermittent drilling in the right hand causes me to look away. To my right, the Brooklyn Bridge looms in he darkness casting an eerie spell. Ilić exhales as the music’s hold on him shifts, his brows arching, quizzical yet purposeful, as he concentrates. A Feldman-esque succession of lightly varying chords cast a lonely pall only to be dispersed by a series of comforting arpeggiated cascades. Ilić remains trance-like, his touch light as a falling leaf.
Rapid, tricksy figurations, the two hands almost on top of each other, are dispatched with a calm elegance. Ilić allows himself a rare smile as the music builds in rapture. The boat has miraculously become calm, the city lights now twinkling in sympathy with the glittering patterns. A calm, reflective passage lends a powerful sense of the colour blue. It’s a moment of pure beauty in which I close my eyes. Ilić glances out over the river for the first time. Measured chords – Debussy with a hint of Messiaen’s Turangalîla – herald the 12th movement, a lyrical four minutes that seem to journey inexorably towards a moment of longed for harmonic resolution. Once he’s touched it, though, Otte turns teasingly away for a final suspenseful 15 seconds, as if to say sorry, he’s changed his mind.
With only three recordings in the catalogue, I feel excused for not knowing the work before the concert. Since then I’ve purchased Otte’s own account, which struck me as definitive (which isn’t to take anything away from Ilić who – labels take note – should certainly record it immediately). Bargemusic is an intimate 100-or-so-seater with a unique atmosphere and a view to die for. Booking Ilić was smart move. Programming Otte even smarter. And yes, it all adds up to those elusive five stars.