Matty J Hifi
Classical Rough and Ready
, March 2010
If someone wrote a piece of music today and included in the score the recorded sounds of arctic birds we would immediately assume that the composer was, cynically or earnestly, cashing in on the green wave of eco-climatological-enviromentalismology. If someone wrote such a piece forty years ago then they might still be a bleeding-heart, Rachel-Carsonian, tree hugger, but at least they couldn't be called a joiner or a yes-man or a poser. And such is the case with Rautavaara and his "Cantus Arcticus."
I've read enough about the piece to know that it must be listenable - when divergent critics can come together to universally praise a contemporary work then there has to be something to it. There are several recordings available - another sign that the work offers at least some modicum of value. So I took the plunge and here is what I found.
At first it's very hard to listen to those chirping birds and not feel that the whole thing is a little gimmicky. But that's because that is the kind of preconception that anyone would bring to the piece and be thinking about before the first notes ever sounded. After giving the work just a few minutes I confess I was wholly won over by the composer's conviction as well as his talent. The liner notes refer to the Cantus as a "neo-romantic work with a soft impressionist touch." Well, that sort of makes me feel like I'm looking at factory art in a motel room - it's true without being very accurate at all. By "neo-romantic" they mean that it is essentially tonal. True. By "impressionist" they mean that at no point are you slapped in the face with the musical equivalent of the Jackson Pollack splatter. Also true. But a more accurate snapshot might call your attention to (yes, I know my slip is showing here) Vaughan Williams' 7th symphony albeit without the angst. There may be a degree of Sibelius there as well - I'm not familiar enough with him to say. At any rate, I found the Cantus to be a compelling and very beautiful expression of… of what? I suppose from a late 20th century composer we have to call it "conservationism." I prefer the old days when art didn't always (or ever) have to be so politically conscious and we could simply call it "pastoralism."