Recorded at Kanneltalo, Helsinki 9/1995
Fragments of Kafka, in song
Kurtag composition interweaves prose and music
NEW YORK: Kafka and Kurtag. This natural coupling of writer and composer telegraphs with alliterative grace a century of modernism, a deeply felt spiritual condition and a grasping for personal expression through violently impersonal times.
The Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag was born in 1926, two years after Kafka's death, but their sensibilities are interwoven in one of Kurtag's most effective works, "Kafka Fragments," for soprano and violin. These settings of short excerpts from Kafka's diaries, letters and notebooks were performed this week, ending Thursday, by the soprano Dawn Upshaw and the violinist Geoff Nuttall, in a new staging directed by Peter Sellars, as part of Upshaw's Perspectives series at Carnegie Hall.
Franz Kafka, the German-speaking Czech-Jewish writer, requires little introduction. But Kurtag, 78, a reclusive giant of contemporary European music, is not as well known.
His relatively small body of work contains music of flinty surfaces and fierce emotional compression. He is a master of the aphorism, the terse bundle of notes whose intense Webernian concision can mask vast landscapes of raw and disarmingly personal expression. Listening to his music is like peering at the ocean through a keyhole.
"Kafka Fragments," completed in 1987, is one of Kurtag's longest works, lasting almost an hour. That is a taxing length for music of such compact communication and unrelenting honesty. Imagine taking 10 "normal" song recitals, boiling down their emotional essences into a single concentrate, then pouring it into a series of bracing epigrams.
Upshaw herself, speaking from her home in Westchester County, said that when she first listened to the work several years ago at Sellars's urging, she found it almost unbearable. "I was devastated by the piece as a whole, both Kafka's work and Kurtag's reaction to it," she said. "I didn't really feel like I was up to the job."
She put the work aside and became better acquainted with other music by Kurtag. She also read more Kafka, including "The Blue Octavo Notebooks," from which many of the "Fragments" texts were chosen. When she returned to the settings a few years later, she was completely taken by them. "What I initially understood to be darkness in the piece," she said, "I now see as a purity and extreme clarity of thought."
Upshaw has worked often with Sellars. He directed her this autumn in a staging of the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's opera "L'Amour de Loin" at the Helsinki Festival. Other projects have included successful productions of Handel's oratorio "Theodora" and John Adams's oratorio "El Nino." After their years of working together, Upshaw said, she implicitly trusted Sellars when he suggested that "Kafka Fragments" was ripe for staging.
One of Sellars's ideas was to surround each fragment with a kind of negative space. Silences would allow the music to breathe and allow listeners to absorb its concentrated power. Upshaw, too, relished the time to recover between fragments, since the work's technical demands can be punishing for a singer.
The violin part is no easier. Nuttall, the first violinist of the St. Lawrence String Quartet, described it as "borderline unplayable, some of the nastiest stuff I've ever seen in terms of technique."
Sellars has been yearning to stage "Kafka Fragments" for more than a decade, despite the fact that it was not explicitly written for the stage.
"Kurtag is a hugely theatrical composer," Sellars said. "It's just that his theater is Beckett. It's a theater of restraint, of hidden worlds, hidden meanings and hidden emotion, which surface unexpectedly and disappear without a trace." He disclosed few details about the staging but promised something minimal that "connects, as Kafka does, to the texture of daily life."
The work is broken into 40 brief settings, ranging from less than 20 seconds to more than four minutes. Each fragment uses a short scrap of Kafka's writing, and the cycle as a whole offers glimpses of the writer's many faces, some better known than others. There are simple yet evocative descriptions, like the text of the second fragment, which also hints at the music's uncanny ability to conceal its own tracks: "Like a pathway in autumn: hardly has it been swept clean, it is covered again with dry leaves."
Other fragments are decidedly darker, reminding us of a more familiar Kafka, the plainspoken chronicler of human cruelty. One fragment sets a single sentence: "The onlookers freeze as the train goes past."
There are also more private glimpses of Kafka, the fiercely devoted writer at his desk. In one, the soprano sings: "I will not let myself be made tired. I will dive into my story even if that should lacerate my face." On a similar note, in a text that might have resonated in equal measure with writer and composer, the soprano expresses in just five words a radical, double-edged isolation: "My prison cell - my fortress."
Kurtag sets these lapidary texts, sung in German and to be projected in English, with an astonishing sensitivity and vividness; not a note is wasted. The vocal line sometimes skitters fleetingly, sometimes lunges violently across giant intervals and sometimes glides serenely through the texts.
Elsewhere, the violin is much more than support, shadowing the vocal line in eerie, hushed quarter-tones or disturbing the peace with a brutal, serrated sound, generated with a crushing pressure of the bow. In a few fragments, after the voice falls silent, the instrument takes flight into a dark and enveloping Bartokian night.
Ultimately, the power of Kurtag's music lies in its ability to communicate pure emotions in a spare, rugged and stripped-down language. There is nothing gauzy or mystical here; this is an avant-garde of tenacious intellect but also immense heart. The music mirrors a fractured and disenchanted reality, yet in the very honesty of its contact with that world, it preserves the possibility of a personal truth.
Much of Kurtag's music contains these qualities, but the Kafka settings benefit from a rare synergy between writer and composer.
The biggest challenge of "Kafka Fragments" as a whole may be unifying all of its disparate parts. The problem reflects a larger tension in the work, since, after all, Kafka rarely wrote in fragments. His force as a writer builds cumulatively through his unrelentingly patient and measured prose.
In a way, Kurtag has imposed his own fractured aesthetic onto a world whose frightening disintegration Kafka masked (and amplified) with the haunting poise and precision of his words, the unfractured nature of the bureaucracies his characters encountered and the faceless facades that concealed acts of cruelty and barbarism.
- Jeremy Eichler (published: Wednesday, January 12, 2005)