Frederic Mompou: El eterno recomenzar.
About ten years ago I visited the Trappist monastery of Gethsemani, near Bardstown, Kentucky, where Thomas Merton, the prolific spiritual writer, lived as a monk from 1941 until his untimely death in 1968. While in the reception area, I heard a man tell the monk at the desk that his uncle was a monk there for many years. When the monk heard the name, his eyes widened and a smile blossomed on his face. 'Tour uncle was a very holy man," he said, adding that he was quiet and seldom spoke, but was always available with a healing presence and a generous heart when someone needed help. Then he added, 'You know, most people who come want to know about Merton, but many holy men have lived here, and your uncle was one of them. He was a very holy man."
This encounter came to mind as I read Adolf Pla's revealing book on the introverted and humble Spanish Catalan composer Federico Mompou. Frederic Mompou: El eterno recomenzar (hereinafter El eterno recomenzar, which I render as "The Eternal Fresh Start," in place of the more literal "rebeginning"; translations throughout this review are my own). The book is Pla's invitation to listen to the music of this quiet man, which is overshadowed by that of his more well-known Spanish and French contemporaries. Pla informs us that Mompou was a very pious and deeply spiritual composer.
Mompou was born in Barcelona in 1893 and died there in 1987, although he spent two long, formative periods in Paris, returning to Barcelona for good in 1941. He wrote almost exclusively short pieces for piano and songs for voice and piano, with his music showing the influence of, or kinship to, Chopin, Faure, Debussy, Ravel, and Satie, as well as the folk music of Spain. Yet Mompou found his own distinctive artistic voice early on, and spent the rest of his life refining and consolidating it as he gained more confidence, conviction, and skill.
Pla, a professor of piano at ESMUC (Escola Superior de Musica de Catalunya), is an accomplished concert pianist and conductor with a long association with Mompou's music. His recordings of the complete music for piano solo accompany El eterno recomenzar as a four-CD set. (The book and CDs won the Spanish Codalario Prize from La revista de mimica clasica for the "Best Musical Product of 2013.") In 2002 Pla created, along with photographer Marc Llimargas, a multimedia concert called "The Sound of Light" (El sonido de la luz [SoL]), which juxtaposes Mompou's piano music with Llimargas's photographs of the work of Antoni Gaudi, the renowned architect from Barcelona. The concert is usually held in conjunction with an exhibition of Llimargas's photographs and a variety of effective and engaging installations--including sound and video--on Mompou and his music. Pla and Llimargas sense a strong kinship between the composer and the architect, and they offer SoL in part to open discussion about points of contact between both artists. SoL has been presented in twenty countries since its inception. (For video excerpts of the concert and a guide to the exhibition, see Pla's Web site, http://www.adolfpla.com/#!the-sound-of-light/clm4e [accessed 27 June 2014]).
The form and content of El eterno recomenzar derive from the various presentations of SoL and, with its dozens of photographs and illustrations, make for a visually beautiful and accessible book. Like SoL, it is intended for a broader, musically knowledgeable public, rather than a more specialized academic audience. (Pla is currently working on just such a study, which should be finished by early 2015.) Since the main focus of the book is Mompou's music, particularly the piano music, the relationship to Gaudi is not emphasized (e.g., only eight photographs of his work are included in the book, compared to about forty in the SoL concert). The variety of images, as well as poetry and anecdotes, evoke a sense of Barcelona's environment, especially the stunning quality of light, acknowledged by both artists as important. For Mompou the ambient acoustics of the location would also shape his sonic imagination.
The images most impressive to me are the fourteen photographs of Mompou that capture aspects of his powerful, haunting presence. We see him at the piano with the wide-eyed daughter of a family friend--perhaps four years old--looking on in wonder (p. 24), or in an obviously animated conversation with a young gypsy woman (p. 96), or as a dapper young man with his great uncle flanking an enormous bell at the family foundry (p. 72).
The text itself is divided into seven chapters organized around themes or threads that weave throughout Mompou's creative life. Biographical information is included only as it pertains to the themes. The definitive biography is Clara Janes's l.a vida callada de Federico Mompou (Madrid: Vaso Roto Ediciones, 2012). Janes, a poet, novelist, and close family friend of Mompou and his wife, has written a moving, detailed account of the composer's life, which, however, does not include music examples or analyses. In El eterno recomenzar, Pla approaches Mompou through his music, showing how he used music as a spiritual path.
The introduction and chapter 1, "Mompou, A Master of the Future" (un maestro de future), provide an overview of the book and a convincing vision of Mompou's place in history, which, as the title implies, is indeed an impressive legacy, both in his music and his creative process. In chapter II, "Consciousness without Limits" (una conciencia sin fronteras), Pla traces Mompou's fascination with mysticism from an early age, particularly with Asian religions and philosophy. He had an abiding interest in the process of unifying or integrating opposites, particularly sound and silence. Indeed, Pla shows how this commitment to synthesizing diverse or opposing elements was a lifelong quest.
In 1919, the year he turned twenty-six, Mompou wrote: "Simplicity. Simplicity of strong emotion. Our modernity in art is a return to the primitive. No, it is not a return, it's a 'Fresh Start.' A Fresh Start with everything we [already] know" (p. 186; Simplicidad. Simplicidad de fuerte emocion. Nuestra modernidad en el arte is el retorno a lo primitivo. No, no es retorno, es 'recomenzar.' Recomenzar con todo aquello que sabemos). He reveals here two basic aspects of his creative process: simplicity and Fresh Start.
Simplicity (and primitivism) involved a quest for essence, which Mompou described late in life: "I enjoy suppressing, eliminating all that I consider unnecessary or superfluous, until I find the essence. Then I'm happy" (p. 195; Yo disfruto suprimiendo, eliminando todo aquello que considero innecesario o superfluo, hasta que me quedo con lo esencial. Entonces soy feliz). Fresh Start was a "re-beginning," a return to "beginner's mind," that is, to a spacious stillness that allowed a life's experience to mix with intuition to give birth to something new, at the edge between sound and silence, between past and future.
Mompou discovered the means of bringing diverse elements into synthesis as a teenager, announcing in 1910: "This chord is all my music" (p. 75; Este acorde es toda mi musica). He would later refer to his "mystic" sonority as the "metallic chord" (p. 75; el acorde metalico). For Mompou it recalled the haunting sound of the large bells he heard in the distance as a child, which seemed to be at once consonant and dissonant. Chapter III is devoted to this chord and its capacity to harbor unity within diversity. Pla refers to a basic chord, F#-C-E[flat]-A[flat]-D, as an archetype from which a diversity of other chords are generated. His vivid analytical display of the basic chord (pp. 84-85) visually reveals its intervallic complexities and possibilities. The chapter includes music examples from six different works, showing how varied its transformations are.
Chapter IV is devoted to salient aspects of Mompou's style, while chapters V-VII are short essays on reclaiming a Catalan musical style, the composer as musician-poet, and interpreting the music. Four appendices follow a brief epilogue: (1) a selection of Mompou's own writings (pp. 185-200); (2) nineteen color facsimiles of music manuscripts, journal entries, and drawings (including his design for a quarter-tone piano keyboard; pp. 201-7); (3) a collage of thirty-six snapshots creating a family photo album (pp. 208-9); and (4) a chronological chart of the composer's life within the broader historical context (pp. 210-11). Much of this material is from the Mompou Foundation and the archive at the Biblioteca de Catalunya and is published here for the first time. The volume is well indexed and contains a helpful selected bibliography, to which should be added: Richard Paine, Hispanic Traditions in Twentieth-Century Catalan Music (New York: Garland, 1989) and Wilfrid Mellers, Le jardin rebrame: The Music of Frederic Mompou, 1893-1987 (London: Travis & Emery, 2007).
I need to comment further on chapter IV, which is the longest and weightiest in the book, especially on Pla's discussion of silence, resonance, and brevity. Silence for Mompou was not separate from sound but "a continual presence bound to the presence of the sound" (p. 106; una presencia continua ligada a la presencia del sonido). The interdependence and coexistence of sound and silence takes us beyond the relative world, where things are separate, and into the realm of paradox and transcendence. We find a similar expression of this paradox in the Buddhist "Heart Sutra," where "Form is emptiness and emptiness is form," but where emptiness, like silence, is vibrating and full of potential. For his magnum opus, the four volumes of Musica callada (Silent Music), 1951-1967 (first volume published in 1959), Mompou drew inspiration from the poetry of the sixteenth-century mystic, Saint John of the Cross: "The tranquil night / at the time of the rising dawn / silent music, / sounding solitude / the supper that refreshes and deepens love" (p. 61; la noche sosegada / en par de los levantes de la aurora, / la musica callada, / la soledad sonora, / la cena que recrea y enamora). With such a state, resonance assumed the utmost importance for Mompou's musical expression, being for him the point of transformation between sound and silence, like bells heard from a distance, when one could still sense the vibrations after the sound had ceased. Pla points out that the piano, with its unique harmonics, is the only instrument that could produce the resonance Mompou perceived in silence, and thus his narrow compositional focus on the instrument.
As Mompou moved to greater brevity of expression, the music's meaning resided in the sonority itself, sound that could stand alone without the need for complex development or dramatic climaxes. Stephen Hough captures the significance of Mompou's bell sounds in saying they "are not so much a call to prayer, as a prayer itself--an abstract orison celebrating a sacredness in the very quiver of the metal" (notes to Piano Music by Federico Mompou, Hyperion CDA 66963 , CD). And in the prologue to El elemo recomenzar, pianist Arcadi Volodos commented that he felt that more than being heard, Mompou wanted to become one with the listener through the "sounding silence" (p. 16; silencio sonoro).
It takes a special state of mind in both performers and listeners to contact the transcendent consciousness Mompou aspired to express in his music. Early in his life he evoked the world of magic, as heard in two important sets of pieces: Cants magics (1917) and Charmes (1920-21). The inspiration for these and other early pieces came primarily from images and memories of childhood, from the ordinary magic of direct perception, unclouded by the stress and complications of the adult life. His are not "childish" works, as are some of Satie's impish essays, but express the wisdom of a wide-eyed connection with the phenomenal world. As Hough commented, "without a spirit of childhood in the listener Mompou's 'kingdom' is closed and some of his music can seem almost infantile" (notes to Piano Music).
Pla's CD-set of the complete piano music is a treasure and a valuable complement to the book. This is not the space for an in-depth review, but suffice it to say that Pla's formidable technique and longstanding connection with Mompou and his music have produced an authoritative and deeply moving set of performances, at once playful and profound. There are other recordings of the complete works, by Mompou himself late in his life and Pla's colleague at ESMUC Jordi Maso, but Pla's interpretations are distinctive and welcome additions.
The book and CD-set are well worth having in larger music libraries as well as smaller institutions where the Spanish (or Catalan) would not be an obstacle for patrons. German and English translations are being planned and could be ready during 2015. The recordings alone would be a welcome addition to any library. Pianists and adventurous listeners who are looking for a "Fresh Start" would do well to add both book and CDs to their personal library.
Writing about sensuous experience is never a substitute for the direct experience, but words can guide us and lead us back to the experience. El eterno recomenzar is a compelling and joyful invitation into Mompou's sonorous world, and the recordings make it easy to travel back and forth, from thinking mind to open heart, from sound and back to silence. We can be grateful to Pla for pointing out that Mompou was a very holy man, and that through his music we, too, can rediscover the essence he sought.
LANCE W. BRUNNER
University of Kentucky