Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Dreams, Piano and the Tyrant of Men

Lebensessenz is a pianist and songwriter who presently lives in Brazil, but would like to get gigs in the U.S. While his music is often lyrical and compelling, what's just as compelling is the intense personal story behind the compositions.

You can get hints of that story both in Lebensessenz's song titles and in his autobiographical essay "A Monologue About Lebensessenz," which can be found on his My Space page.

Lebensessenz says the motifs of the music are derived both from his "hard times" and "strong emotions." The hard times sometimes find musical expression in songs about dreams. (At least three songs have the word "dream" in the title.) The "strong emotions" aren't necessarily negative; for instance, Lebensessenz cites "happiness" (and perhaps in particular happiness over the recent birth of his daughter) as one of them.

But what's usually underlying his music is a keen sense of, and sadness about, loss or abandonment. Hard times related to loss have made Lebensessenz's music sensitive to matters related to love, intimacy and the denial of these. He's written a song cycle on The Sorrows of Young Werther — the best known literary work about unrequited love. And one gets an almost physical impact from the starkness of his 2008 CD title: "Tu deorum hominumque tyranne, Amor!" ("You, Love, Tyrant of Gods and Men." One of the record's songs is titled "Cruelty.")

As for the losses and abandonments that shook him hardest, in his essay he's explicit that these relate to his treatment at the hands of a distant father and to two important intimate relationships that ended badly. One reason we know the almost constant distance and apparent indifference of the father are important is that Lebensessenz writes a great deal about his feelings of rejection and sense of inattention on the part of his father and the effects of those feelings on Lebensessenz’s composing and compositions.

His father, who was, he says, a "fabulous musician," didn't live with him. The father, who was big on music theory, felt his son "needed to play with the correct methods" -- not something Lebensessenz was keen on at the time. As time passed, says Lebensessenz, "I wanted his help and his teaching, but, through a reason that I don't know," the father didn't want the same thing.

Even when the father was present, he seemed somehow absent. We are told he didn't comment on the early recordings of his son's music. “Why doesn't he say anything about what I do?" wonders the son. "It hurt me so much, but with time I just tried to forget it."

The result of all this was a son who was self-taught when it came to playing the piano. After the son’s composing began, the Father did, at one point, overhear the son playing the composition "Der Walzer von Lotte" ("Lotte's Waltz" – one of Lebensessenz’s most moving pieces and a surprisingly energetic work). The father told Lebensessenz 's mother that the songs were "sounding good." This Is the first time the father is seen as being aware and attentive to his son. It’s a moment Lebensessenz will mention more than once.

In a song cycle based on Schiller’s work The Robbers ("Die Rauber"), one song, “The Letter,” is about a character in the Schiller novel who writes a letter asking to be forgiven by his father. The son experiences "anxiety waiting for an answer."

Part of the result of Lebensessenz’s father’s distance and apparent indifference is the composer’s feeling of loss of the father. In the long process of creation behind the body of Lebensessenz’s work, there are times of fragmentation and total loss, at least as far as the work is concerned. He says that two early tapes of his music got lost in mysterious ways. In 2006, he says, he started to write a romance, but, in a statement that is itself mysterious, he says the romance now exists only in fragments.

Both in his writing and music titles, Lebensessenz makes frequent reference to states one easily associates with a sense of inattention at the hands of a valued object, or rejection by, distance from, loss of, such an object. The composer returns and returns to references to night, solitude, melancholy. "Most of my compositions,” he tells us, “emerged through nocturnal moments." The waltz Lebensessenz writes based on material in Werther is danced in the night. In 2005 he uses a computer to compose "Der Abend des Abschields" ("Farewell Night"). The title’s twin reference to night and separation is linked to music built on "longing, platonic passions" – the sort of passions one can develop for much sought-after objects who aren’t available. A 2006 composition is titled "Das Drama de Einsamkeit" (“The Drama of Solitude).”

When he became an adult, Lebensessenz asked his father "to help" him "with some exercises, but he was not so interested." He rationalizes his father’s lack of interest by considering that the father may think the son will lose interest. There is, perhaps, more rationalizing; in "refusing to help me,” writes Lebensessenz, the father wanted to give him “an answer to find my own way"

As years pass, Lebensessenz will engage in rationalization about his father that is more elaborately conceived and less convincing; he will state that he’s come to the realization that his father’s "silence of old times had its importance. He said few things, but it was sufficient ... “ And at about the time Lebensessenz realized this, he experienced a loss whose existence we don’t need to conjecture about: “In the same year, I lost him." In 2009, he is still rationalizing for the father; his album is titled Ihr Leben war fur mich ein Beispiel" ("Your Life Was An Example To Me"). But one song is titled "Days of Voluntary Exile." The solitude that has so often been the legacy he’s taken from his father is still with him.

After inattention, perceived loss, real loss of the father and a loss of two crucial intimate relationships lost as finally and as mysteriously (that is, with as little description) as the loss of the early cassettes, it is small wonder that Lebensessenz chooses to title a CD "Tu deorum hominumque tyranne, Amor!" ("You, Love, Tyrant of Gods and Men"). His music at this time is, he says, melancholic, introspective; his music continues to have "melancholy, sadness." Solitude remains, entrenched, and with its sometimes companion fragmentation: "Again I see myself alone.” Fragmentation of work still reflects fragmentation of life by the loss of key people; he says he remembers "the ruins of things that ended badly.”

But it is a distortion not to note the degree to which Lebensessenz says his music has been formed by feelings of happiness. The happiness is also expressed in the writings, and in particular in statements of such individuality that they are heartening and show the composer is driven by an energy that is, at least during much of his composing time, able to match the weight of the loss he carries. Here are some examples of the sort of aphoristic statements that Lebensessenz seems to be able to put to express with great facility:

The work, he says, is "a learning"
"There are no secrets in what I do"
"When I face good or bad situations, I play; when I'm quiet also, I play with all my heart."
"There are things that only me and my piano knows."

The music, which Lebensessenz calls neo-classical, always sounds like music of the 20th century and the first decade of this century. Quiet passages can sound like Satie or Poulenc. (There are also rare, extremely sparse passages that are reminiscent of Morton Feldman.) More complex, and slightly louder, post-Romantic stylings may sound a bit like, say Scriabin.

Then there are the pieces in which Lebensessenz performs in the neoclassicism so popular at the moment — a kind minimalist neoclassicism. While his pieces of this ilk can sometimes sound as calm and simply melodic as those of Harold Budd, more often they have the fast, driving quality of Robert Moran or Michael Nyman. In these driving pieces, which are liberally flavored by lyrical passages, the melodies are simple. The chord sequences are simple enough, and close enough to those used in rock, that even those who've never listened to classical music will be able to appreciate the music immediately.

A visit to Lebensessenz' My Space page will give you seven or eight MP3s of his songs to listen to, his blog, information about his CDs and books of essays, and ways to download or order.

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