Construir un mundo a través de la música / Building a world through music

By Belén Pérez Castillo
(Notes for the booklet of the CD "José Luis Turina. Música de Cámara". CD Verso VRS2131, 2012)

This is the Verso label's second CD of music by José Luis Turina (1952). Although the first was entitled Retrato (Portrait), it probably did not complete the picture of the composer's personality, so this second, indispensable recording is now offered, of five significant chamber works in which the fruits are perceived of a close relation with performers who are familiar with and able to convey the key aspects of the composer's style, to establish a communication with listeners.
Turina is one of a generation of musicians who, in their training, valued both the scholarly teaching of the avant-gardes from Darmstadt but also the example of alternative, anti-academic musical manifestations. His far from early incorporation into the creative world allowed him to escape the rigours of serialism and feel himself freer, unatached to any aesthetic line, to integrate apparently irreconcilable influences and focus his interest in admitting diverse material, whether classical or characteristic of the avant-garde. There is no suggestion of nostalgia in the choice of this path but rather a reflection of a conciliatory personal attitude in a quest for a balance between tradition and modernity: "I believe a composer in any age must have one foot in the past and the other in the future, to find a vital paint of equilibrium. I try to apply this attitude not just to music but to many aspects of my personal and professional life".
That intention, of integrating past and present, is the base linking a substantial part of the works in his catalogue with music from former times, sometimes in direct references in the form of quotes or variations on ideas from the traditional repertoire, at other times by using certain procedures or instrumental resources, or else more conceptually. José Luis Turina has a soft spot for the period of Spanish music from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, making it hardly surprising that the recreation of styles from those times is to be found in works such as Fantasía sobre una fantasía de Alonso de Mudarra (1989) or in the piece which opens this disc, Variaciones sobre dos temas de Scarlatti, written for a double trio of winds and strings (flute, oboe, clarinet, violin, viola and cello). These scores respond on the other hand to the compositional current of creation using historic models which was a feature of the panorama in Spain fundamentally in the eighties, frequently associated with the celebration of a wide range of special occasions. These Variations for example were composed in 1985 on commission from the Second Autumn Festival of the Community of Madrid and destined for the "First Spanish Music Week" on that occasion featuring the figure of Domenico Scarlatti, and were premiered at that Festival by the Círculo Group conducted by José Luis Temes. As an aside, it must be mentioned that the variations on theme A and on theme B are dedicated in turn to the two coordinators of that Week: José Luis García del Busto and Alfredo Aracil.
In this case the composer turns to quotation which also enables him to reconcile more classical moments with others of contemporary, even open writing. In fact, right from the choice of the materials, Turina uses two contrasted Scarlattian themes which are juxtoposed from the introduction itself on one hand, the diatonic theme from the Sonata in G major L. 349 (theme A), ideal because of its language, atomising the material in the service of a large gesture, itself a consistent succession of highly contrasted elements susceptible to fragmentation, On the other, a chromatic theme, that of the "cat fugue" in G minor (theme B), suitable for modern treatment. The approach to the structure of these Variaciones responds, as Turina himself explains, to an alternative:

«The basic difference between these variations and those written at the time is that the aim is not to link a set of sections which differ among themselves while sharing a harmonic or melodic nexus but rather, while maintaining the same formal plan […], these variations become small "developments of cells, also small, which may be either melodic or harmonic, rhythmic or even formal, however in all cases derived from elements arising from the two themes brought into play.
So, after an exposition in which the two themes [...] are fragmented and interlinked in changing and contrasting form (tempi, character and timbre, each theme from each sonata entrusted to one of the two trios) then toward the end fusing to create bimodal superimpositions, there are in all six variations and a coda, [...] deployed as follows:

1st variation: developed as arpeggios on the chords from theme A along with the first two notes of theme B, within the formal scheme of theme A (classical single-theme sonata).
2nd variation: a development of the "timbre" of the head of theme B, accompanied by a sequence of dry, percussive chords.
3rd variation: development in arpeggios, in the wind, of the second element of theme A.
4th variation "Fugato" on the "cat fugue (theme B). Linked without interruption to the
5th variation: development in the strings of the third element of theme A, within its formal scheme.
6th variation: development of elements derived from both themes, merging straight into a "coda" where, along with the development by the aboe of the head of theme A, various repetitive structures are "self-generated", leading to a closing "stretto".»

It can be seen from his notes for the pieces on this disc that Turina is an eloquent, didactic composer not afraid to refer to both the stimuli and to the techniques of his creativity. He has even stated that "nothing con aid better in understanding a work than to have the author him or herself explain it to us". (1) Some of his assertions make it possible to delve for example into Titulo a determinar, written in 1980 at the request of the Group Koan, then directed by José Ramón Encinar, and premiered in spring the following year in Madrid. The reasons for the intriguing heading are somewhat prosaic, as Turina himself confesses:

«The expression "Titulo a determinar" [Title to be determined] was used for this work because of its habitual connotations (programmers have the appalling mania of asking for the name of a commissioned work before it has been composed) but, once written and when it came to naming it at the urging of its recipients, it was impossible for me to find a suitable title. Finally, after turning the expression over so many times in my mind, I finished up liking it, to the point where I decided to leave it as the piece's final name.»

The sense of humour and apparent unimportance with which Turina presents his work point in no way to a lack of transcendence: this is precisely a score which is fundamental in his stylistic development, written at a key point in his training:

«Titulo a determinar was composed in May 1980 during the final weeks of my nine-month stay in Rome where, during that year, I attended the Composition Finishing classes given by Franco Donatoni at the Accademia Santa Cecilia. Those months marked a profound transformation in my aessthetic interests, not so much from what Donatani taught, of which little can be trawled from my music, as from the discovery of the music of Salvatore Sciarrino, in which I perceived a fascinating synthesis of traditional constructive procedures and a timbral realisation of them, as novel as original, which truly captivated me. My string quartet Lama sabacthani? dates from January of that year a turning point in my manner (although not so much in the substance) of composing from the long, sustained, broadly drawn lines of my previous works (Crucifixus, Movimiento), to the fragmented, pulverised use of the material, yet always at the service of long equally sustained gestures. In short, and in pictorial language, from the "broad" to the fine, almost miniaturist brush with which I have composed all my subsequent music.»

Turina's metaphor is by no means trivial in establishing a parallel between musical and painterly techniques. It must be remembered that the latter weighs as much in his family history as the musical antecedents and indeed, for Turina, the manner of approaching a canvas, of selecting a colour or mixing it, is similar to his work as a musician: "I often feel that I am as much painting music as writing it", he asserts. In Sciarrino, he was drawn by "his way of integrating a homogeneous discourse, full of content, through absolutely timbral elements, virtually devoid of aspects relative to melody in the traditional sense nor even to harmony or to polyphony". He has since then developed a personal interpretation of this creative vision, accentuating attention to timbral procedures and care for detail in the instrumental writing, allowing tradition to act as stimulus:

«The conceptual point of departure of Titulo a determinar was hearing Beethoven's celebrated Septet op. 20, better known to us as the Septimino. This work is written for a most unusual ensemble (clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello and double bass) where middle-deep registers predominate, leaving the upper register almost exclusively to the violin and the clarinet, given a major role. My work was composed for the same combination of instruments and, I cannot deny, with a secret hope -admittedly somewhat naïve- that it might one day become companion on a single programme to Beethoven's, something which has yet to occur.
[...] The number seven is of crucial importance in Titulo a determinar, not just inspiring the forces but also the physiognomy of the main thematic element, a septuplet of seven different quavers, which opens and closes the work
Finally, the number seven also underlies some thing as important as the very formal structure, the work being made up of seven sections which, while nearly always contrasted, are in some cases very closely related because, beyond any possible speculation, there is always a motor driving a development [...] as a permanent search for continuity without which it could not exist.»

This seven-note motif is the real backbone of the piece, appearing in various guises through out the sections and contributing a defined personality to each, integrating into a style which succeeds in combining the lyrical and the consonant with contemporary dissonances, ecstatic moments and the mysterious ambience with an agitated or ironic atmosphere using a variety of effects in the instruments,
A similar compositional treatment defines his Kammerconcertante whose German-Italian title is in response to a conceptual game in respect of the use, with criteria of continuity, of traditionally Germanic thematic development applied to "small melodic, rhythmic and purely timbral cells distributed evenly throughout the entire ensemble (in the Italian style)". Kammerconcertante is a "double concerto" reduced in duration and the density of the resources, for two soloists in virtuosic discourse -flute in G and bass clarinet and a string quartet (violin, viola, cello and double bass) "whose treatment oscillates between the merely ripieno and virtuosity dialoguing on the same level as that of both soloists". It was composed in June 1988 on commission from the 17èmes Rencontres Internationales de Musique Contemporaine" in Metz (France), in whose Temple Neuf it was premiered on 18 November by the Círculo Group -to whom it is dedicated- conducted by José Luis Temes. Its atomised technical procedures are perceived clearly in the third section, "Molto allegro", where there is virtually no difference in the writing from instrument to instrument and they are treated in very tight polyphony. The thematic coherence combines with a distinctive structural coherence:

«The work is articulated into six sections, the last three a "gloss" of the first three. Thus, in sec tions one and four (Molto tenuto), soloists and strings engage in highly differentiated procedures which tend to equalise in sections two and five (Più mosso) and merge completely in sections three and six (Allegro) [...]. Brief cadenzas for both soloists asymmetrically serve at times to separate and sometimes to link some of the sections.»

That clear bipartite structure was used by Turina in a group of works produced at very different times from Two duets (1988) to Five quintets (2005) -but in which the treatment is of the same sort, based on a series of sections which are then repeated in glossed or re-elaborated form. The emphasis on structure, so characteristic of his output, evidences his expressive and communicative will. The use of references -not necessarily explicit, tonal or with by specific quotes- points to his wish to involve the listener, in the exercise of the perception of the work, with the rules of contemporary musical language.
If in the Kammerconcertante the mastery of instrumental language is evident, particularly in the strings, what is most notable in Túmulo de la mariposa (Tomb of the butterfly) -composed in December 1991 for clarinet (with bass clar inet), cello and piano- is the use of contemporary timbre resources. The work emerged from a commission related to the Madrid Regional pavilion at the Universal Expo in Seville in 1992 The project, entrusted to José Ramón Encinar to whom the piece is dedicated, foresaw publication of the study Música en Madrid, given over to composers working in that city, and a disc with works commissioned from six of them including Turina. Only the book was published while the scores, already composed, had to follow independent paths. Túmulo took a fortunate line and was premiered in March 1993 at the Cervantes Institute in Paris by the Group Manon. The following is the opening verse of the first of the "Lyric Poems” by Francisco de Quevedo from the reading of which the work arose, and the composer's interpretation of it:

Here lies a painted lover
of love of light, dead by love,
elegant butterfly
who adorned roses and Rew with flowers
and fire, jealous of its raiment,
burned two Springs in its wings.

«The suggestive image, so full of contrasts, synthesised in the poem's very title, of the insect -pure colour- which meets its death trapped in the flame of a candle, in this case provided the base for a strictly musical work in which the main elements of the poem are nevertheless described symbolically the alternation of the lugubrious and the sombre on the one hand and, on the other, the lightweight. almost inconsequential, making up a piece composed of just one movement [...].
Thus [...] there is an abundance of dizzying changes of dramatic sections and others of a markedly scherzando character, all combined with enormously virtuosic instrumental writing likewise alternating conventional treatment with numerous passages where present-day timbre resources are exploited (direct percussion on the piano strings with hands and drumstick, or drumming with the fingers and knuckles on the body of the cello), creating a piece of the greatest difficulty, not just in each individual part but also in the ensemble work, made even harder -or simpler depending on how you look at it- by the absence of bar indications and dividing lines in all those lively passages [...].»

In this way, prompted by the skill of the soloists, along with classical procedures the piece reveals barely tuned resonances, multiphonics and muted sounds, linked to an interplay of components which are almost antagonistic, inspired by the image of the butterfly of Quevedo's poem.
New contrasts of timbre come together in the Cuarteto con piano composed in 1990 on commission from the Juan March Foundation and premiered at the foundation in February the following year by the pianist Menchu Mendizabal and the Arcana Quartet. With this score, Turina once more establishes a link with tradition by using a classical chamber ensemble and a three part structure, without explicit quotes from any work in particular "all being written in free atonality but with the language of the past always there, along with the present, from the very outset”. This commencement comprises a motto set out three times in all the instruments, followed by "a very fragmented, atomised discourse with the material". The enigmatic tone of the section is built with material similar to that underlying the secret ambience of Berg's Lyric Suite, made of whispered conversations and occasional lyrical explosions. As in the "Allegro misterioso" of Berg's Suite, the movement falls back in the exposition of the various materials and ends up with the initial theme. For its part, the second section reveals the influence of linguistic structures in his compositional procedures, something which configures other non-vocal works such as Seis metaplasmos (1990). Here, using a contrapuntal language, snippets of phrases begin to articulate, growing in intensity and making explicit the insistent message leading to the lyricism of a fragmented melody. The third movement also makes use of short motifs, more rhythmically and somewhat "tango-like". Turina makes use of the symmetry of a rondo form through which the refrain alternates with a series of sections dominated by the scherzando, easy-going character, giving great lightness to this last movement, as in eighteenth and nineteenth century quartets with piano".
The last work on the CD, Scherzo para un hobbit, points to something infrequent in Turina's production which is more oriented toward the conceptual, a defining title which directs the hearer toward descriptive contents which are indeed to be found in the piece. It was composed in the summer of 1997 on request from Carlos Galán, director of the Cosmos Group, for its tenth anniversary programme, and was premiered in Granada in April 1998. The original ensemble for the work arose from the form of the group at the time -clarinet, bassoon, violin, viola and piano-. However, the composer later made a version with cello instead of viola, which is the one heard on this disc and that most often played. Poetry and literature are the double inspiration for this music:

«The first approach revolves around a poem of Luis Cernuda with whose poetry I have felt particularly closely linked since the composition of Ocnos. Música para orquesta sobre poemas de Luis Cernuda which earned me the Ferrer Salat Foundation's Queen Sofia Prize in 1988. The title of that poem is Scherzo para un elfo, and I had been thinking about it for some time, given its great musicality. But at the last minute I decided to trick the character and replace it with another, of quite different origins but with similar characteristics: the hobbit. My children were ultimately responsible for this decision, at that time absorbed in reading The Lord of the Rings [...].
The Hobbit's personality tries to be reflected in this music with a large quantity of very diverse and changing materials, always of scherzando character, free-and-easy, attained in the great agility in the treatment of the material which is shared by the different instruments and so transforming according to the timbral and expressive personality of each one [...]
As suggested by Tolkien's character -and also by Cernuda's elf- a scherzo does not sometimes conceal a great capacity for lyricism, and the premeditated alternation between the two seeks to help to effectively clarify the work's formal structure.»

The literary references and traits drawing the character are by no means foreign to Turina's style: constructions like the start, where the cautious introduction of the melody ends up in nervous gestures, fit perfectly with the astonishing ease of the development work which is his hallmark. Once again, the play of the rondo invites us to recall the main motif in between passages where the piano, bassoon or clarinet are the protagonists.
What is common to these and other works from Turina's catalogue, including those prior to 1980, is an expressive thirst which has never allowed a coherent and powerful technique to become a value in itself. Turina has made use of certain keys from the past, viewed in present-day terms, as the stimulus for his output and a tool by which to express himself in a recognisable, up to date syntax suitable for communicating a personal yet accessible world. These elements -basic no doubt to understanding his Art- are not sufficient to define the essence of his work, which distinguishes only a few composers: the ability to build a universe through music.

(1) The quotations come from private conversations, from pre-performance lectures on some of these works by the group featured in this recording, Plural Ensemble, at the Círculo de Bellas Artes on 13 October 2009, and from the composer's website where there is wide-ranging information on these and other compositions.