Formal Insanity

The Brothers Balliett streams Thursdays at 3 pm and Sundays at 8 pm on Q2 Music

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Thursday, March 05, 2015

Orchestral Suite (William Rowlands/Flickr)

What is the form of a symphony? Is it four movements: fast, slow, fast, fastest? What about an opera? Is it five acts with a good love scene? And what about a concerto? Is it possible to write a concerto for "short", or "accented", rather than an instrument? This is why it's a great time to be alive – composers are asking these questions right now, and some of the answers at which they arrive are startling. 

This trend may have begun with Igor Stravinsky, who in 1920 wrote his Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Here Stravinsky uses the word "symphony" in it's original, broad meaning: "sounding together." It's a single movement work that had a massive impact on composers ranging from Feldman to Birtwistle. Also expanding the definition of a form is a Helmut Lachenmann work entitled Concertini. This would seem to imply many small concerti, and one might be tempted to imagine a kind of concerto for chamber orchestra. But in fact, Lachenmann is writing concertini for different musical parameters. Sound confusing? Tune in, all will be elucidated!

Finally, early music enthusiast Jonathan Dawe gives us a remarkable opera – at five minutes long, his Dafne might hold the record for world's shortest opera. And yet it includes scenes, ensemble numbers, ritornelli, recits, arias, and fascinating orchestration. Not to mention that characteristic Dawe sound we all love.

So tune in to the Brothers Balliett this week, and broaden your definitions of tired old music terms. It's about time!

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