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Hugh Levick: The Unimagined - Preparations For The Unknown

Levick / Diotima
Release Date: 01/14/2014 
Label:  Signature   Catalog #: 11079   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Hugh Levick
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 3 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

So, are you reading this because you were curious about its weird and meaningless title? Presumably, composer Hugh Levick is hoping a similar motivation will compel at least some listeners to check out this recording of his music. For unless you already know Levick and care about his work, there’s nothing here on first appearances to invite more than a confused shrug. We’re not even specifically told what kind of music we can expect to hear should we dare to venture past the surreal cover photograph–or beyond this “description” on the outer package: “Hugh Levick’s cultivation of the fragile instant, the instable fragment, the uncertain moment, draws the listener into an extraordinarily novel world where aesthetic parameters seem almost Read more intangible.” It goes on to say something about “exploring virgin territory with a rich new sound palette.” Well, if, after all that, you make it as far as listening to the music, you’ll find three string quartets, competently written, in a technical sense, and very well played by the French ensemble Quatuor Diotima. The “sound palette” is in fact nothing new–Levick employs the usual sounds and techniques familiar in string quartet music at least since Ravel and Bartók and Shostakovich. It’s no doubt challenging for the players, and as mentioned, this quartet is first-rate and plays with exceptional ensemble precision, sharply defined articulation, and what seems like tremendous enthusiasm for the music. Without a score, it’s impossible to know just how successfully they interpret these three works, but there’s certainly no lack of spirit or solidity of technique.

More than three weeks after receiving The Unimagined: preparations for the unknown, and giving it several hours of listening, I’m afraid that my preparations for the unknown, or even understanding what music has to do with such things, are not any farther along than before. What does this title mean? Is it intentionally vague, its meaning provocatively unknowable? If you search for answers in the liner notes, you will find a little essay: “Imagining That I Am ‘I’” (from conversations with Hugh Levick). Here we learn about the 13-year-old Levick, running his hand over the “light beige railing of the curved stairway” in his house, ascending to his room to listen to Elvis while his father plays Haydn string quartets downstairs. He “ignores the mowed lawn and artificial lake, to watch the swaying, beckoning elms.” We learn how Levick used to call himself a writer in Paris, and “struggled with the narrative form”; about having no electricity or running water in Spain; discovering Ornette Coleman; living in a railroad apartment in New York’s East Village; writing unperformed operas; and so on. When we finally get to a mention of the string quartets, we learn only trivial details about where Levick was living when he found out someone wanted to perform and record them, along with some odd poetic insertions (complete with footnotes). Finally, at the very end, we read: Thus, on this CD is a recording by the extraordinary DIOTIMA Quartet of three string quartets by Hugh Levick. At last–but couldn’t they have just stated that in the beginning, on the CD cover, even?

But wait, later on William Kraft attempts to give us some actual musical analysis to explain what Levick is up to. Unfortunately, we get more of the same tangled descriptive language (“…the music flows through the gamut of emotions eschewing grating conflicts and violent distractions…”), followed by a discussion of such things as the “Levick motive”, which supposedly “serves as connective tissue” throughout the quartets. Its four-note structure is supposed to be significant because of its intervallic relationship to the famous B-A-C-H motive–except that it’s actually different from Bach’s and no explanation for Levick’s particular choice of pitches is given. And all hope for understanding what’s going on in the title piece is out the window when we read this, regarding its first movement, which consists of five “miniatures”: “Levick pushes the limits of ‘connective tissue’, i.e., phrases or gestures are radically different one from the other. In this way Levick mirrors the ‘macro pointillism’ of the miniatures in the ‘micro pointillism’ of the breaks and ruptures that separate juxtaposed materials within each miniature.” (And perhaps we should be on the edge of our seats waiting to read that he also just invented the note “L”.)

Again, lacking a score or a clearer description of what’s going on or why it’s important, we can only respond: “If you say so.” Perhaps all of this would be relevant to the listener if we could only hear it in the music–or understand what it has to do with anything. If you just listen, without any prior knowledge of Levick or his motive–or motivation–for writing these pieces, you will simply hear some gritty, often repetitive, often aggressive, rarely lyrical, yet mostly very listenable, technically challenging string quartet music. And this gets to the root of the problem with this music and much other “new” music, revealed by Levick himself, in his insistence that his music is about things–intangible things, such as the ruin of the world economy/colonization by corporate power; the mystery of love; reaching a higher level of being. The trouble is, music doesn’t/can’t represent any of these things–it only does if someone tells us it does, and even then the connection is only nebulous and artificial: the same music could “represent” a lake, morning, sadness, peace, death, a dream, the sun, the moon, hope, etc., etc. For a composer to presume to create this kind of specific meaning out of musical sounds and claim it as the basis for his music’s importance–indeed, for its drawing us into some kind of “novel world”–is just, as a publisher I once worked for used to say: hooey.

The first movement of Morning Evening Love Bears All is called “Morning”–but the music could be about anything–or nothing. The title work is supposed to invoke “the possibility of reaching–as elucidated in the philosophies of the East–a higher level of being”, based on the “exercise of walking a labyrinth.” Again, even having read the explanation telling you what you are supposed to hear, when you listen to the music you can only respond, “Now, tell me again, how is the music about that?” Which brings us to the final point: If you have to tell people what your music is about, to direct them to think in a certain way about what they are going to hear, to assign meaning to the notation and structural form of sounds that is not inherent in the music itself or otherwise apparent to the listener, then you don’t have a successful work of art; you have an idea that you are imposing on a form that can’t fully, independently support or explicate it.

What this whole project comes down to is not about music so much as it is about the composer. Instead of pages of irrelevant poetry (with footnotes), more pages of color pictures of the quartet at the recording sessions, gobbledegook about fragile instants and instable fragments, more irrelevant details about the young boy sliding his hand on the bannister, or the young man living without electricity in Spain or struggling with narrative form in Paris, we should have been given some score excerpts in the liner notes pointing to examples of “Levick’s motive” or “micro-” and “macro-pointillism”, and perhaps some pertinent examples showing us something of what the mystery of love looks like on the page.

And perhaps the point of this review is not about the music either, and that is the sad fact evident in projects like this: we can become so distracted by all of the pretense, the extension of the necessarily self-absorbed nature of the creative process to an assumption that the ultimate audience for the creation will care intimately about its creator, to the point that we will clamor to read his poetry (and that of his friends) and want to know about something he did when he was 13, that we find it difficult to just sit down and honestly listen to the music as music–pure, totally imaginable, and knowable. Does it say anything to us personally? Can it exist all on its own, in case we don’t any longer have the little paper telling us what we’re supposed to hear? You will have to judge that for yourself.

-- David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com
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Works on This Recording

Empire, Inc., for string quartet by Hugh Levick
Period: Contemporary 
Date of Recording: 02/2012 
Venue:  Radio France 
Length: 21 Minutes 26 Secs. 
Morning Evening Love Bears All, for string quartet by Hugh Levick
Period: Contemporary 
Date of Recording: 02/2012 
Venue:  Radio France 
Length: 22 Minutes 56 Secs. 
The Unimagined: Preparations for the Unknown, for string quartet by Hugh Levick
Period: Contemporary 
Date of Recording: 02/2012 
Venue:  Radio France 
Length: 17 Minutes 32 Secs. 

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