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Philippe Petit: Off to Titan

img  Tobias Fischer

There was only one thing Gustav Mahler hated more than people messing with the scores of composers: People messing with his own work. At a time, when what he perceived as a sloppy attitude ruled at concert halls across Europe, Mahler made it his mission to declare the written note – which he regarded as the most trustworthy expression of an artist's intentions - rather than a conductor's or a soloist's fancies, the main source for his interpretations. His occasionally mannerist and eccentric movements on the stand (captured in dozens of caricatures at the time) notwithstanding, it made him the most renowned and respected conductor of his era and a model for his profession for generations to come. So it is somewhat with surprise that, on the occasion of the strangely neglected Mahler-year, two leading experimental artists have decided to pay homage to him by possibly going against his deepest convictions: After Matthew Herbert's introspective meta-version of the tenth, Philippe Petit now takes on Mahler's first symphony armed with turntables and electronics as well as a little help of Jono Padmore on theremin. And yet, there's a world of difference between them: Compared to Herbert's conceptual requiem, which essentially worked as a sort of meta-discussion, Petit has taken the piece to its logical conclusion purely on the strength of the music itself.

It was a daunting proposition, not merely because Petit, as a self-declared non-musician, had to rely on hearing and instinct rather than theoretical training. After having only been accepted into the standard concert canon from the 70s onwards, there are, by now, more recordings of the first symphony alone than would fit an average-size record store. To be able to add something substantial to this both critically acclaimed and immensely popular work, he effectively had to leave the general discourse altogether. Petit's response to the challenge before him was as simple as it was incisive: Using old vinyl-albums, he went on to create his own version by chopping the score into pieces, selecting purely what he considered fundamental and then re-arranging it from top to bottom, making full use of contemporary production techniques. As part of this process, the entire sequencing of the work has been refreshed, with elements from the original score suddenly appearing all over the place and a new narrative logic taking sway. Although the resulting composition, at an hour's length even more epic than Mahler's, has been divided into three parts, these do not correspond to the original's in any way and bare no relation to the symphonic tradition. Rather, they take on a purely structural functionality, creating a frame for the action to unfold in.

In fact, although there is a clear sense of development to the album, one could go as far as to claim that „Off to Titan“ constitutes an act of freeing the musical material from its author. Merely separated by a short seven-minute interlude, the vast first and final movement contain the very essence of the symphony as interpreted by Petit, revolving around its emotional and musical barycentres and pitting them against each other. The latter can be taken quite literally: Not only are extensive passages of the recordings re-contextualised, sonically processed and (as it seems) at times either extended or slowed down, they are also piled on top of each other, creating textures of overwhelming richness and all but impenetrable density. Especially towards the end, there are occasionally two symphonies playing at the same time, with melodies flying from one corner of the pit to the other and an orchestra double the size of the premiere performance in Vienna – approximately one hundred musicians – creating a wall of strings, woodwinds and percussion and taking the idea of thematic development to the extreme.

It is easy to see how this could have ended in complete chaos and it is mostly down to Petit's exact knowledge of the relationships between different parts of the score that allows him to create structures of surprising transparency. Intriguingly, the addition of electronics has actually supported his strife for cohesion. Consisting of mostly vague, ghostly atmospherics, they forcefully push the musicians into the background, as though the ensemble were playing – albeit at a ferocious volume – at a mile's distance. Rather than complementing the score, except perhaps for two climactic moments, in which Podmore's theremin explodes into jubilant figures, these abstractions provide for timbral and ambient contrasts – or, if one likes, a counterintuitive soundtrack to the symphony, and a gloomy piece of Dark Ambient in its own right. While Mahler may have thought of the forests and mountains he loved so much, his music is now being played at the verge of a black hole, constantly in danger of being sucked down an infinite vortex.

In the liner notes, Petit mentions that „I believed that even though firmly rooted in the classical tradition, 'Titan' was announcing what contemporary music would become.“ „Off to Titan“ actually proves his own words wrong. Not only has Mahler's influence hardly ever expressed itself verbatim in the work of his successors, but rather through attempts at copying his phenomenal gifts at orchestration. In many ways, contemporary music would, in fact, go into an entirely different direction – with serialism, for example, brutally dismantling the very notion of the artist as a genius Mahler held so dear. As if unconsciously acknowledging this, Petit has decided to use foremost those parts of the symphony, which bear most obvious references to tradition and least of all to the „new“. And it is this striking dialogue between Mahler's past and Petit's present, rather than a mere embellishment of classical music with a few electronic effects, which lends the result its inescapable pull and fascination.

In its truly titanic ambitions, this album could never be the work of someone abusing the past as a mere source for samples, but of an artist treating a piece of music with utmost respect. It is unlikely that Mahler would have enjoyed this unashamedly over-the-top re-appropriation of his debut work. And yet, one should not forget, that he was never just a romantic, but always a maximalist as well, who would take the dimensions of the orchestra, the texture of harmony and dissonance to their extremes. Having his first symphony made even more complex, even more intense and played in outer space surely would have been a thought he would have cherished.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Philippe Petit
Homepage: Kumo / Jono Padmore
Homepage: Karlrecords

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