by Richard Whitehouse
Early in 2002, anyone who acquired Hänssler Classic’s collection marking the 75th birthday of Michael Gielen (now mostly incorporated into SWR Music’s multi-volume archival series) might have been surprised to read about this conductor’s ‘‘view of the works of music history from Johann Sebastian Bach to George Lopez’’. Could this statement merely be identifying a convenient endpoint, at the turn of the new millennium, from which retrospectively to survey the 250-year heyday of Western musical culture, or is it something more closely akin to fact?
Jorge E. López (he now prefers the original Spanish version of his name), whose 65th birthday falls this Monday, can look back over four decades of creativity which has resulted in a select catalogue of mainly large-scale works which has provoked and intrigued listeners throughout Western Europe. A composer, then, who has taken the path less trod to recognition, yet whose music has few equals among that of his contemporaries in the scope of its ambition and range of expression. Not that López was an early starter. Born in Havana, he emigrated to the United States in 1960, growing up in New York and Chicago prior to studying at California Institute for the Arts. Of greatest benefit here was his exploration of the Second Viennese School with Leonard Stein, while the distinctive surrealist aesthetic of the Australian artist and film-maker Don Levy was to have decisive consequences. López sketched without completing any major works when living at Portland and Seattle in the later 1970s, while his frequent and extensive excursions into the nearby mountain ranges were in themselves a potent source of inspiration.
It was one of those pieces López went on to write that established him as a composer. In the autumn of 1981, he sent several pages from the still-unfinished Landscape with Martyrdom to Michael Gielen, then principal conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra – whose positive response encouraged him to proceed with its realization. Having taken on the SWR Symphony Orchestra in Baden, Gielen oversaw its premiere in Donaueschingen in October 1987: a performance that, commercially issued five years later, gained widespread attention.
For composers nearing thirty can have produced an Opus 1 as represents a creative blueprint for all that followed, but Landscape is one such piece. Its title taken from a canvas by Pieter Breughel, these 35 minutes unfold a narrative engendered by, in López’s words, ‘‘the stream of sound which is in a state of incessant transformation’’. That such an eventful and intricate process is realized at what might be termed an ‘aural remove’ is just the most striking aspect of music whose emotional intensity operates as if in inverse proportion to its dynamic impact. Close listening, however, confirms an evolution at least methodical and at most symphonic in its highly personal mode of developing variation; one which subsumes what López terms the ‘‘three poles … of inanimate nature, of the individual and of the individual in violent conflict with society’’. Multiple parallels could be drawn across various art-forms – though, at least in musical terms, a synthesis drawn from the idioms of Ives, Varèse and Schoenberg is brought to a fruition that others in the later twentieth century had often attempted but seldom attained.
The outcome of this premiere was twofold: López remained in Europe (first in Germany and, since 1992, in Austria) where subsequent performances have almost all taken place; while the association with Gielen was continued with first hearings for the large-scale orchestral works Breath-Hammer-Lightening in its revised version, and Dome Peak in its original and revised versions. These both build on the potential of ‘Landscape’, albeit with a more visceral impact and, in the latter piece, a spatial element built into the discourse as was to take on increasing significance over the next decade. There were also intricately wrought ensemble pieces such as Blue Cliffs and Das Auge des Schweigens (its title taken from Max Ernst, whose art-work has been a recurring point of reference), and Tagebucheintragungen 1975-79 – whose rather matter-of-fact title, while accurate in indicating the use of material from that time, belies the intense power and pathos as well as sheer sense of emotional space in what ranks among the most poetic and also affecting orchestral statements from the final quarter of the last century.
The remainder of the 1990s saw several works as confront the conventions and artificialities of concert presentation head-on. Chief among these are Schatten vergessener Ahnen, with a scenic element of primal oppression and its apparent overcoming, or Strada degli Eroi where conductor and organist are locked in a remorseless conflict for supremacy over the orchestra. That neither piece risks indulgence or hubris says much about López’s control of long-term formal and expressive tension; with a serious point made as to listeners’ essentially passive expectations. Nor is this seriousness at the expense of a certain sardonic humour – hence the earthy onomatopoeia of the William Burroughs-inspired Gonzales the Earth Eater with its distinctive use of Wagner Tuba, increasingly a key component of López’s musical armoury.
The culmination of this phase is Gebirgskriegsprojekt, where the natural environment of the Austrian Alps finds contrast with activities of the Italian army on the Alpine front. Archival footage, the filming of which during the First World War itself constituted an act of heroism, is duly integrated with a pre-recorded ensemble such that sound and visuals are brought into inextricable accord; natural and human phenomena imbued with an awe both inspiring and alarming. Comparable interplay of opposing sources is evident in the earlier ensemble work Kampfhandlungen/Traumhandlungen, which yet adopts a more systematic trajectory akin to Xenakis’s arborescence processes, while also anticipating the personal accommodation with symphonic thinking which has become predominant in López’s output over the past 15 years.
Following the orchestral Disparates, with its evocation of Goya’s ‘black’ canvasses as well as allusions to Beethoven’s contemporaneous Op. 126 Bagatelles for a sequence that exudes unnervingly ominous humour, came Symphonie Fleuve whose two movements constitute a horn concerto like no other. Here, soloist and orchestra are drawn into a musical flow where confrontational and dreamlike aspects undergo evolution itself rationalized by development and reprise, albeit with no sense of a coming together in those darkly annihilistic final stages.
That López was directed thus comes as no surprise for one who, from his earliest years, was drawn to the radical avant-garde but also the alternative symphonism exemplified by such as Havergal Brian and Allan Pettersson. As he himself hears it, ‘‘symphonic composition is for me honesty and self-realization’’, and there could have been no more explicit demonstration of this than in the four so-designated works which followed. That the initial two of these are scored for relatively modest ensembles does not detract in any sense from their overall scope.
In four continuous movements, the First (Chamber) Symphony finds its motivic components in a continual state of flux – an underlying momentum emerging in spite (or maybe because) of those sharply defined ideas whose mutability overrides sectional divisions before reaching fulfilment, albeit oblique, in the final movement (which the composer has since extended, this yet un-heard definitive version likely proving more conclusive). Its subtitle ‘The Last Spring’ derived from Hungarian poet Endre Ady, the Second (Chamber) Symphony unfolds over five movements that might suggest a Mahlerian trajectory – though, once again, it is the long-term potential of seemingly casual motifs which afford continuity and cohesion in the face of more disjunct gestures; with a conclusion the more inevitable for seeming to emerge out of nothing.
López’s subsequent symphonies both project their formal and expressive concerns onto larger orchestral canvases. Beethoven’s final piano sonata has been cited as precedent, to which the Third Symphony’s trajectory is not beholden in any overt sense; rather – several other pieces resonate to a greater or lesser degree for what becomes a process of transformation from one movement to the other, so that the persistence of memory plays a more than usually decisive role in determining the ultimate outcome. Such is also true of the Fourth Symphony, but here the three movements proceed as a 45-minute continuity which has been likened to ‘morphed Bruckner’ in its overall scale and grandeur. If this also suggests a reaching across musical or cultural epochs, any such desire towards integration hardly equates with that ‘going back’ in much recent symphonic writing. It is still tempting to recall Elliott Carter as saying the most provocative act a living composer could make would be to write a Brahms Fourth Symphony for the present. Whether or not this were López’s intention, it might just be his achievement.
Since the premiere of that latter work, López has composed a Concerto for Bass Trumpet and written most of a First Orchestral Set which will incorporate orchestrations of Alkan and Ives along with original material. He is currently finishing a Fifth Symphony, the second of its two movements featuring extracts from the novel Juliette by Marquis de Sade, as well as planning a stage-work on the last evening in the life of the Transylvanian mathematician János Bolyai – a visionary whose musical successors have had a major role in determining López’s outlook.
Meanwhile, López’s works continue to be championed by such conductors as Peter Eötvös, Ilan Volkov or Marin Alsop; and by organizations as the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra or Klangforum Wien. The presentation of his works in the UK, however, remains an ongoing concern: music of this overarching ambition and unequivocal impact might seem logistically problematic and, more to the point, aesthetically unfashionable, though this does not lessen the need for first-hand and authoritative appraisal such as only live performance can provide.
Landscape with Martyrdom – Intercord INT860.918
Gebirgskriegsprojekt – Wergo DVD WER2061-5
Symphonie Fleuve / Symphony No. 3 – NEOS 11425
Gonzales the Earth Eater – Wergo WER6864-2
Kampfhandlungen/Traumhandlungen / (Chamber) Symphony No. 2 – NEOS 11912
Numerous other compositions can be heard online:
Further information about Jorge E. López can be found at the following websites: