Berg’s Soundwalk: The Music of the City
For the first part of the latest Berg Orchestra concert, the audience in little groups followed behind city guides with orange balloons, to listen to the sounds of the streets.
The leaders for the “Open Air – Soundwalk” pre-concert city tour Sept 1 took different routes and different approaches. One was very earnest and showed his group a map with all the places they would go. Another serenely tied his balloon around his neck. A third had a whimsical smile and walked very fast to the places where the sounds were.
He had to; his spots were pretty far apart. One was the back door of a bar, which made a steady, loud, basso hum, and another was blocks away at the river.
The audience was then brought together into St. Salvator church at the Klementinum, rather than the planned spot in the courtyard, because it was raining. The contrast between the modernist music and the Baroque architecture added an extra layer of eeriness to the experience. Much of the chapel was dark, and bits of ornament and statuary seemed to float in the air around us.
As the ushers were getting everybody situated in their seats, occasional industrial or urban sounds – a truck crushing gravel under its tires, a motor gearing up – welled out of the darkness and faded sharply away.
The Berg Orchestra performed three pieces: the world premiere of La Balade by Czech composer Jakub Rataj, Pendulum Music by Steve Reich, and Shaker Loops by John Adams. The musicians were skilful, using vibrato and less common techniques to coax unusual sounds from their instruments to express the bustle of a busy city.
The concert opened with a piece reminiscent of the bold work of the early Modernists. The sound of heavy equipment introduced La Balade (and also signalled its end). Big swathes of tremulous sound rose and fell, the agitated energy of the strings almost continuous for the length of the piece.
In Pendulum Music, the strings of the orchestra were joined by recorded environmental sounds and a fascinating apparatus that appeared to be four frames, each with two pendulums – actually microphones – suspended over its own speaker.
They were swung to create feedback, but it wasn’t a simple screech like you hear when someone accidentally pesters the sound system. The haunting, ear-piercing sound was evocative of something like the drawing of wire or spinning metal in a factory.
The third selection, Shaker Loops, had a song-like structure, with a returning refrain and themes that built on each other to produce a narrative of life in the city. In contrast to the industrial sounds uncovered before the concert and between the strings, this last section was quite lovely. After building its themes, it ended rather abruptly with a brief return to the opening theme. – oo
– Lucy Kemnitzer, Opus Osm guest author
The next Berg Orchestra Concert, Cinegogue, will be Oct 13 & 14 at the Spanish Synagogue, and in the Berg tradition, features a silent film, The City without Jews (1924) with live accompaniment performed by the orchestra. You can win free tickets to this concert (see box above).
Photo Credits: Photos by Aneta Šebelková for The Berg Orchestra