Beaudoin gives musical voice to Harvard Thinks Big

by Victoria Aschheim

"[Richard Beaudoin] makes the expressionist melodrama come alive with such refinement and consistency that the work becomes an engaging listening experience."

— Martin Schrahn, "New Music: Inquiries into our Existence" in Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, referring to Richard Beaudoin's song cycle Nach-Fragen, based on Christa Wolf's novel Nachdenken uber Christa T, in which she critically examined life in the GDR.

"With academic references to Schubert, Bach, and Janacek, the Harvard Lecturer created a highly expressive dramatic miniature that approaches Sprechgesang, with artful symmetry and a transparent piano part."

— Sonja Muller Eisold, writing about Beaudoin's "impressive work" in Westfaasche Rundschau

Richard Beaudoin, lecturer on music at Harvard and four-time winner of the Harvard University Certificate of Distinction in Teaching, is one of the speakers in Harvard Thinks Big, 8 p.m. February 17 in Sanders Theatre. In recent days he has had his chamber opera, a tableau for two voices and ensemble, The After-Image (Das Nach-Bild) performed by the Boston Lyric Opera which commissioned its composition. It was envisioned by the Boston Lyric Opera to be the prologue to the Victor Ullmann one-act opera, Emperor of Atlantic, of Death Quits (1943), which Ullman composed while imprisoned at the Terezin concentration camp. After the rehearsal of the production of Ullman's opera (written with poet Petr Kien) at Terezin, its performance was cancelled and Ullman was sent to Auschwitz where he perished in the gas chamber.

Allan Kozinn wrote in the New York Times of the gentle wistfulness of Beaudoin's opera which uses the same small ensemble instrumentation as Olivier Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time), 1941, which Messiaen composed when he was a prisoner of war of the Nazis. In The After Image, Beaudoin employs the texts of Rainer Maria Rilke, Friedrich Ruckert and a 19th century photography pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot. Beaudoin said that The After-Image takes up the themes of photography, war, and memory — the way that photographs create our collective memory of war, and become personal objects that we use to memorialize its witness. This theme of combining music and visual art is one that has great personal significance for me as I have written on photography-based historical memory as a means of bearing witness as exemplified by the music of Steve Reich and art of Gerhard Richter. Here, I interview Richard Beaudoin.

Your moving chamber opera invokes historical memory through photography, combining music and art. Were you inspired to compose The After-Image by the Boston Lyric Opera's commission involving the Ullmann production or is historical memory (with the linking of music and art) a theme which evokes your compositional process in general? Some of your work has been based, for instance, on a 1933 photograph of Andre Kertesz, a painting by Glenn Brown, etc.

All three pieces you refer to — The After-Image (2010), Kertész Distortion (2009), and The Real Thing (after Glenn Brown, 2009) — are part of a series called "Étude d'un prélude" (The Study of a Prelude). These works, along with eight others, inaugurated a new compositional process involving millisecond-level micromeasurements of recorded performances. They have links with both photography and the musical practice of cantus firmus, and are based to varying degrees on Martha Argerich's 1975 recording of Chopin's Prélude Op. 28/4. I don't have the space here to say more, but I gave a lecture last spring at the Centre for Music and Science at Cambridge University which discussed the process.

Tell us about your "Artist and his Model" series of compositions, again engaging music and art.

The Artist and his Model is a topic painters have been exploring for centuries; most notably, Picasso. Given that my compositional approach enables a quasi-photographic transcription of a performed event, I am able to take up this idea musically. The basis for these works is Cortot's 1931 recording of Debussy's piano work "La fille aux cheveux de lin" (The girl with the flaxen hair). An earlier work by Debussy shared the same title and was a setting of a poem by Leconte de Lisle, which itself was a paraphrase of a poem by Robert Burns. And so there are a lot of artists, and a lot of models, within my pieces. The first work in the series, "La fille floutée" (The blurred girl), was recently recorded in London by Mark Knoop.

Can you give us a preview of your "Harvard Thinks Big" lecture? Will the future of new music, trends in the field of musicology, and other such subjects play a part in your lecture?

I will speak about "Experiencing Time in Music." There will be no slideshow, only the grand piano. We will investigate some musical time together.

[Caption: Richard Beaudoin]