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Monday, August 22, 2005
an overview of the music of maria de alvear

Maria de Alvear is a composer of Spanish/German descent who currently resides in Germany. There is an abundance of information about her on the Web, including the Wikipedia and the composer's own site, so I would like to provide more of an overview of her music. It is fortunate that a great deal of her music is available on CD, including the composer's World Edition label.

While de Alvear's music has been compared with the music of Feldman, there are many differences. Maria de Alvear's music is frequently quiet, influenced by art (the composer is also an artist and sculptor), often long and focused (I hate to use the term repetitive, since it implies something her music is not). However, her music is deeply spiritual in a way that Feldman's is not, and often combines instrumentalists with a vocalist (de Alvear herself in several recordings) who intones words in a fashion similar to sprechstimme. Rather than repeating small fragments, de Alvear is more concerned with focusing on chords that gradually grow louder and more forceful. Single tones are also important to her, as they are to Young and Cage, but are treated very differently. Her notation is also often free, with tempo and durations to be interpreted by the performer. Very importantly, the music of Maria de Alvear is inspired by indigenous cultures, including those of Native Americans. Finally, de Alvear wants to break down cultural and social taboos, including those surrounding sexual issues.

The first work of Maria de Alvear that I became familiar with is her piano composition En Amor Duro. It is a work lasting around 50 minutes and remains my favorite work of hers. There are moments that are beyond beautiful, particularly a section near the end that repeats a chordal structure many times very quietly. The piece is often near silent or very loud, and is notated in a fashion that invites, if not demands, careful interpretation. According to the composer, the work is about pain, but I find it more passionate than dolorous.

Now onto the more controversial works. As mentioned, de Alvear desires to destroy taboos, and this is evident in her works Sexo and Vagina. Sexo is described as a ceremony for acting vocalist, violin and orchestra, while Vagina is a ceremony for voice and chamber ensemble. In the composer's words, " a passionate examination of all the taboos and all the advantages and disadvantages involved with sexuality." The CD liner notes makes reference to all forms of vulvae, including the vulva sacra, vulva erecta erecta, etc., none of which they ever taught me about during my gynecology residency. Moving between several different languages, the vocalist in Vagina presents an impassioned description of an experience the composer had with the Iroquois in North America that has been described as "a pure merger with Spirit."

Other works that are similarly infused with spirituality include the piano work Llena, Libertad, and Baum for voice and percussion ensemble.

Two works that I am particularly captivated by are World and Thinking. World has been described as a two-piano concerto, but I'm not sure that really does it justice, nor is it entirely accurate. World certainly is scored for two pianos (tuned a quarter tone apart, much like the pianos in Ives' Three Quarter Tone Pieces) along with orchestra, but one piano is particularly dominant. Again, many repetitive chords present themselves, with an incredible section in the last five minutes of the piece that builds to a climax. The contrast between the two pianos is particularly noteworthy. Thinking is for violin and piano in conjunction with a video. With very rare exceptions, the violin never plays more than one note at a time. However, there are sections where the violin plays rapidly in its extreme high register, and this is clearly done for the music's sake, not effect.

One important thing about de Alvear's music is that it is not written to any system, architecture, or other external constraint. She just writes it, based on the music itself. The purity of her approach, and the intense discipline it requires from performers such as Hildegard Kleeb, Ensemble Modern and Marc Sabat, is nothing short of extraordinary. I should also add that her music is not always "easy" to listen to. There is a rawness and purity of spirit to it that compels me to listen to those works that I might not have entirely warmed up to, and eventually her music wins me over. There is really nothing quite like it. While I suppose she owes something to her teacher Mauricio Kagel, her music is her own. Its theatricality, passion, intensity, extended lengths, extremes of dynamics, unconventional notation and other attributes place it in a unique category. A short review such as this one cannot due this music justice---the only way to understand the music of de Alvear is to experience it for itself. This is music, indeed, that begs to be experienced, not just listened to.


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