The Four Seasons
While the four concertos for violin and string orchestra that comprise Antonio Vivaldi’s 1723 Le quattro stagioni unquestionably remain the most famous as well as ubiquitous example of music inspired by the seasons, there is a long and illustrious history of other, similarly themed music. A mere 25 years later, Gregor Joseph Werner kicked it up a notch with his 1748 Calendarium Musicum by composing several illustrative pieces for each month of the year, presented in calendrical order. While Werner’s own endeavor is admittedly relatively obscure at this point, his game plan was adopted nearly a century later by Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel in 1841 and then again by Tchaikovsky in 1876 in their respective solo piano suites comprised of twelve short movements for each month. Grander still, however, was Joseph Haydn’s elaborate four-part oratorio Die Jahreszeiten, an evening-length work for soloists, chorus, and orchestra which was first performed in 1801. Perhaps the most over the top musical renderings of a year ever realized are the four large-scale symphonies representing the seasons from spring to winter (Symphonies Nos. 8-11) which Swiss-born German composer Joachim Raff labored on for three years between 1876 and 1879 (though they were not composed in seasonal order). But none of this has prevented more contemporary efforts. In the first year of the 20th century, the Russian Imperial Ballet presented what is probably the first season-themed dance music, a ballet with music by Alexander Glazunov. In 1947, Merce Cunningham crafted a completely different season-spanning ballet set to John Cage’s first orchestral score. It is divided into nine sections, and each season from Winter to Fall is proceeded by a prelude, with the initial prelude reprising as the work’s finale. Between 1969 and 1970, Nuevo Tango pioneer Astor Piazzolla followed up his 1965 “Verano Porteño” (a.k.a. “Buenos Aires Summer”) with three other similarly themed works collected under the title Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas (or “The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires”), which remain among his most popular compositions. Wendy Carlos’s Sonic Seasonings, which combines studio created electronic music with field recordings, was released as a 2 LP set in 1972 with each of the four LP sides representing a season from string to winter. More recently, Chen Yi weighed in with Si Ji (“Four Seasons”), a single-movement 15-minute orchestral work from 2005 that seamlessly weaves together four sections inspired by four classical Chinese poems about each of the seasons. So Noah Creshevsky’s expansive 2012 sample-based composition The Four Seasons, which forms the basis of his latest CD release on Tzadik, is hardly without precedent. However, it is one of the most meticulously crafted renderings of this much-traversed concept and is arguably the most elaborate of all of his musical creations thus far.
Creshevsky’s output has been extensive and well-documented on a series of recordings released by Centaur, Mutable, Pogus, Tzadik, and EM Records. For over 40 years, he has been mining samples to create a fluid compositional language he describes as “hyperrealism” in which pre-recorded snippets of music and other sonic ephemera are exaggerated and somehow heightened. Unlike the musique concrète of an earlier generation of composers, Creshevsky’s hyperrealism eschews obfuscation, yet surprisingly all of his sonic materials, despite being culled from myriad sources, seamlessly fit together and yield narrative arcs that are very effective. There probably is still no better primer on Creshevsky’s idiosyncratic technique than the lengthy exegesis of it by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz that we published on NewMusicBox in 2006. So I won’t attempt a detailed analysis of how Creshevsky’s compositional method works in The Four Seasons. But since the present composition didn’t exist at the time of Báthory-Kitsz’s writing, it does require and merit our attention.
The previous recordings of Creshevsky’s music offer collections of miniatures whereas The Four Seasons, though multi-movement, is one large integrated musical statement. It’s something of a summation of hyperrealism, but it also explores new sonic elements. Many of the samples featured herein were created for this recording and feature vocalists and instrumentalists performing material that Creshevsky prepared for them, which then becomes the raw material for his own self-plundering. I would dare say the result is almost orchestral in scope, although clearly this is music that no orchestra would ever be able to perform live.
It would be nearly impossible to chart all of the various sonic fragments that cascade by during this nearly 47-minute composition, but a few guiding posts are worth pointing out. There are a total of seven movements—the four larger season-themed movements are separated by three brief interludes which range in duration from three minutes to a mere thirty-nine seconds. Overall, the season movements are more densely packed with sonic information whereas the interludes juxtapose spoken texts and vocal effects with samples of individual instrumental lines—the overall effect, to my ears anyway, is not unlike that of third region of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s massive electronic music composition Hymnen which includes conversations that were recorded in the studio during the making of the piece.
The larger movements are far more symphonic. The first, Summer, begins with an almost giddy duet between what sounds like a harpsichord and a vibraphone. Then a solo piano is soon interrupted by break-beat-sounding effects that would not be out of place on a 12-inch dance remix. Four minutes in, a violin enters playing Baroque-like figurations—perhaps a nod to Vivaldi—amidst what sounds like a vocal group singing a madrigal, albeit one that has been cut up and spliced back together again. Suddenly a flute joins in, a brief hint of sitar, then brass. It is easy to imagine walking down a city street on a hot summer evening when everyone’s windows are open, allowing us to eavesdrop on a mélange of sounds emanating from people’s homes. Autumn begins with a frenetic cut-up guitar solo. When the madrigal-like voices return here against a backdrop of guitar and mallet percussion they are somehow dreamier and more wistful, like the fallen tree leaves that permeate the autumn landscape. Winter is fittingly the most austere sounding of the four larger movements with its various sonic elements paced out almost like a processional. At some point, fragments that are discernibly like traditional East Asian music take center stage, continuing the overall tone of solemnity. But there is space for raucous festivity as well; this is, after all, the season in which revelers celebrate the end of the year with abandon—so toward the end an Eastern European brass-band takes over. Creshevsky, unlike his season-minded predecessors, ends his account of the year in the Spring, which most other composers take as their starting point, since Spring is traditionally perceived as a time of beginnings. By placing Spring at the end, however, Creshevsky is able to wrap up his largest musical composition to date with a euphoric sound world that constantly renews itself—it is a wild sonic roller coaster ride!