Peter Uehling

From the Complicated Grows Grace: The Modern Art Ensemble performs Berlin composers

We are so deeply enamored of the canon of beautiful music dating from the Renaissance to Richard Strauss that we are tempted to think that music is in and of itself beautiful. But the music theoretician Johannes Tinctoris reminded us in 1472, afer two centuries of polyphonic music that only recently was music composed that one could really listen to.
And perhaps the phrase coined by the composer Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf in 1998 will someday become equally famous, “that there is no longer any point in writing beautiful music, because we already have it”. The word “have” is in this case a source of irritation. Beauty is not something that one “has”, beauty must be experienced. But certainly not in the manner of “abstaining from the habitual”, as Helmut Lachenmann demands, but rather as appraching a utopian vision that no one yet knows, because it is shrouded in riddle. Otherwise it would become kitsch, something to be sought elsewhere.

Possibly no composer today writes more beautiful music than Sidney Corbett, the composer born in Chicago in 1960 and now living in Berlin. On Tuesday the Modern Art Ensemble performed two works in the Werner-Otto-Saal of the Berlin Konzerthaus whose attractive sonorities were intricately woven and compelled close listening. Behind the composite sounds one could hear tonal interval constellations, but without a central tonal focal point, as if tonality grew beyond itself and the enriched consonances expaned beyond their harmonic foundations.

The beauty of Corbett’s music does not require justification from the listener. The music sends the listener directly into a sensual waking trance. Herein the concern is with the whole, thus also with the darker side, this is not falsified or diluted by the beauty of the sound. It is not necessary to know, for example, that “The Longings” (2004) was inspired by Edmond Jabès’ “The Book of Questions”. Even without this, one can follow how time relations shift, when the confrontation of harp and strings which forms the opening begins to evolve, the harp part melts in ever broader broken chord patterns while at the same time in the strings, which at the outset were scored in blocks, discreet melodies begin to evolve. Thus one ordered structure is overtaked by another and this principle of order has nothing more in common with the formal thought processes of tonal music. That in following this process it is not always possible to track the flute part is a measure of how complex this music s, music that one can hear repeatedly with profit, and music that one indeed wishes to hear again.

This cannot be said of all the works on this evenings program. The simple building blocks in Charlotte Seither’s “Far from distance” for clarinet, cello and piano are through the compositional process hardly made more interesting. Helmut Zapf’s “Albedo VIII” for flute, cello and piano employs short contrasting gestures and works through the usual catalogue of timbral manipulations. At the end, this variety of colors mixes to a stylistic grayness.

Corbett’s timbral colorfulness on the otherhand is the paradox result of a reduced palette. In his works the instruments always sound the way we have come to know them. By reducing the forms of articulation, Corbett allows that which is articulated to appear that much more clearly. The “Gesänge der Unruhe” (Songs of Disquiet) (2003), (the title bears reference to Fernando Pessoa’s “Book of Disquiet”) is on the one hand a work with an almost narrative qualtiy, that begins with nervous and shivering string passages and ends with the subdued sounds of the bass flute and bass clarinet. But the straightforward narrative trajectory is of course balanced by a differentiated formal structure which lends the work a suspended character.

That one can hear these works in such sharp relief is in no small measure due to the work of the wonderful musicians of the Modern Art Ensemble. Here every figure is molded into an expressive and precisely formulated gesture, the ensemble playing is coordinated with analytic acumen, the most difficult music is awakened to grace filled life.

Berliner Zeitung, 05. Mai 2011

Arlo McKinnon

A sigh. A look of anger.
The electricity of nonverbal communication.
The magnificence of great architecture.
The feeling of hopefulness
amid circumstances of despair.
A glorious linear equation.
Death. Sobs and howls
echoing down a dark corridor.
The power of silence. Precision.
A newly-discovered sonority.
The search for love and meaning.

These are but a few of the impulses I find expressed in the music of Sidney Corbett. Nervous, assertive, rigorous, challenging, emotional music that reflects the man. Structurally complex, his music is technically polished yet neither pedantic nor obsessed with abstraction. Lyrically searching, it does not pander or strive for accessibility. It is music that states “I am”.

Sidney’s music does honor to ist influences without mimicking them. Among these influences are his experiences as a rock and jazz guitarist and the impact of his formal study with Bernard Rands, Martin Bresnick, Jacob Druckman and Gyögy Ligeti: His extra-musical influences include his passion for baseball and football, his quest for spirituality, and a great love for discourse and debate.

We live in a time of moral relativity and crass commercialism. In the “Age of Marketing” we desperately need people like Sidney Corbett – artists and thinkers who take chances to express their vision of truth, whether this vision is praised, scorned or ignored.

Do you dare to listen?

Arlo McKinnon, Brooklyn, 1998


Press reviews

world premiere of Noach, oct. 2001

To Christoph Hein’s text, Sidney Corbett created a singer friendly score with a sensual orchestral sound, a dancing rhythmic web of melodic lines which through their ambiguous tonality takes on a floating, irridescent character. Süddeutsche Zeitung . . .before the mind’s eye the image of a statue emerges which continually revolves slowly around itself.
Das Orchester, 6/05, S.81?

world premiere of Keine Stille außer der des Windes, jan. 2007

This work of art, a poetic vocal and instrumental symphony, is a precious gem in a time when even high culture bends to the whims of those wishing instant comprehensibility. This work resists this desire with wonderfully riddling melancholy Weser Report …a transparent continuum of sound and melody lying upon the text, gently flowing, unperturbed even when density of events might suggest more agitation. Here we have a captivating night music with enchanting vocal parts.
Das Orchester, 01.04.2007

world premiere of Symphony No. 1 ‚Tympan‛, march 93

“Tympan” is instrumentated with knowledge of and respect for the orchestra, but adorns the historical symphonic gestures in an idiosyncractic and unfamiliar way. An expansive unisono melody, beginning in the solo cello, carried on a calm breath, is drawn through all manner of musical hazards, is attacked by the timpani, nearly crushed by the shifting planes of sound and dissipates in the end at dizzying altitudes. We can look forward to Corbett’s Second.
Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, 6/99

world premiere of Exits for electric guitar and ensemble, 2005

The colorfully assembled group of instruments in “Exits” is required much more for their very subtle and diverse timbral possibilites than for their ability to add volume . . .Corbett draws on the instruments to the fullest, yet so tastefully and with great reserve.
Neue Musikzeitung, 11/01

on “Arien IV …”

This five movement suite . . . is so outstanding that it belongs in the repertoire of every advanced guitarist: a small guitaristic universe with many appealing changes between lyrical meditation and rhythmic complexity, between aural sensuality and counterpoint.
Die Welt, 01.08.1987

world premiere of “Die Stimmen der Wände”(The Voices of the Walls), june 1993

Sidney Corbetts music captivates the listener with its almost transparent texture, with utmost expression of color and sensitivity, which seems to be raised to a higher plain by the application of narrow harmonic borders and strict principles of proportion of both large and small forms.
Rheinische Post, 15.06.1993

cd release of “Detroit Chronicles”, 1999

Corbett prefers quieter sounds. His music is in a strange way ascetic yet at the same time sensual and combines constructive logic with atmospheric magic.
FAZ, 19.3.99

…and some more articles on Sidney Corbett

“Der Komponist Sidney Corbett” von Manfred Stahnke.
Programmheft zur UA von “Die Stimmen der Wände”, Ensemblia Festival Mönchengladbach, 1993

“Hören auf die innere Stimme; der Komponist Sidney Corbett” von Werner M. Grimmel.
Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, Schott Verlag, Mainz, Januar 1998

“500 Jahre Bentlager Schädelschrein – Tür zu einer anderen Welt” von Niels Giebelhausen.
Festschrift zur Bentlager Schädelschrein, Rheine, 1999.

“Some Thoughts Concerning Sidney Corbett’s Arien IV: Solo Music for Guitar” von Seth Josel.
Soundboard Magazine, Sommer 2000, Claremont, California, USA

“Sidney Corbett” von Barbara Busch.
Eintrag in Personenteil der neuen Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Bärenreiter Verlag, Kassel

“Gesänge der Unruhe. Der amerikanische Komponist Sidney Corbett und sein Hang zu literarischen Sujets. Ein Arbeitsbesuch” von Martin Wilkening.
Berliner Philharmoniker, Das Magazin, März/April 2004