• Jeu de Tarot
: Review

This is fascinating. David Felder wrote Jeu de Tarot, a chamber violin concerto, for Irvine Arditti and Ensemble LINEA in 2017. Interestingly, Felder takes his tarot card names and correspondences from P. D. Ouspensky. The book A New Model of the Universe, 1917, is the source quoted, although Ouspensky had previously produced a slim booklet, The Symbolism of the Tarot, in 1912, in which he states that tarot was a summary of the Hermetic Sciences (kabbalah, alchemy, astrology and magic). Taking Ouspensky as basis for these musical reactions to the tarot’s Major Arcana means that what most tarotists know, thanks to the current ubiquitous nature of the RWS (Rider-Waite-Smith) deck, as “The Magician” is here “The Juggler”. (The respected esotericist and occultist S. L. Mathers of The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, in 1888, had similarly used this term in his book on the tarot, and the earlier Marseilles tarot used “Le Batteleur,” a street performer.) A juggler is of course one type of magician, but the term “magician” also takes on board the more esoteric type of magic that may be defined as, to quote the great occultist Aleister Crowley, creating change in accordance with the Will. The Ouspensky designations are intriguing, though, not least because (although not one of the cards depicted in Felder’s suite) the sixth Major Arcanum is there called “Temptation,” while traditionally it is called “The Lovers”. Ouspensky also claimed the Major Arcana (the trumps of the tarot that are neither court cards nor from the four suits) could only be understood in terms of specific pairs: for example, Juggler/Fool; or High Priestess/Hermit.

The piece itself begins not with 0 (traditionally, “The Fool”) but with 1, “The Juggler”. Just as Ouspensky’s writing frequently describes encounters on a road, here we have the act of creating sound (music) meeting archetypes and creating a crossroads; at which there is a third element, that of the listener. One might hear elements of doctored Stravinsky at the very opening of Jeu de Tarot. The titular reference to Stravinsky’s Jeu de Cartes is obvious, but there is another Stravinsky element, perhaps that of The Soldier’s Tale (although perhaps that character’s itinerant nature could more easily be linked to “The Fool”?). The busy nature of the writing is shot through with potentialities. Fascinating to hear a harpsichord, an instrument associated with an older time but which composers such as Xenakis have wrenched into the twentieth century. The energy is that of a chaos that does not even seem to want to form itself into coherent patterns. A weighty energy informs “The High Priestess,” perhaps reflecting the depth of her wisdom (although her iconography is far from earthly or chthonic; more watery, in fact); the blossoming of the music to higher realms via the violin’s pure, high register is impeccably judged both by composer and by Irvine Arditti. Interiorization is perhaps an inevitable part of “The Hermit,” before the rhythms of “The Empress (Whorld)” strive towards the motoric. The next card, “The Heirophant,” invites seemingly contradictory readings. A Church elder, at one level there might be spirituality but on another the surface beliefs of inherited, placidly accepted religions that mask spiritual truth. There seems to be significant mystery in Felder’s setting, although it is not a comfortable sense of the unknown. The final section is named “Moonlight” (as opposed to the more traditional “The Moon”), a movement that in its silvery dissonances one might say courts beauty from afar.

Throughout Irvine Arditti and Ensemble Signal under Brad Luhman display a remarkable sense of communion with Felder’s sophisticated language.

Written for the Arditti Quartet with electronics and optional film, Netivot (2016). The title is Hebrew for “paths”. There are three movements, the first two of which, “Devekut” and “Hitbodedut,” refer to two different types of prayer the first deep and meditative, the second a private and spontaneous conversation with the chosen God. The final movement, “Pillars of Ice and Fire” refer to the two pillars that the Judeo-Christian God guided the Israelites out of the desert in “Exodus”. Certainly “Devekut” has a vulnerability nowhere found in Jeu de Tarot, its spectral harmonies aglow. The depiction of “Hitbodedut” is rich and many-layered, indeed more of an implied dialogue with its peaks and troughs. The harmonic spectra of the piece are derived from vowel formants, entirely apt given the subject matter of prayer. Felder finds some astonishing sonorities from the quartet in the second panel, at one point sounding like electronically-generated scraped metal. Mysteries of the Divine, one feels Felder is saying, need not be all fluffy pink clouds. Amen to that: and at over ten minutes, this is a significant musical statement

The final movement of Netivot, “Pillars of Clouds and Fire,” seems to hold consolation expressed memorably in Felder’s primarily dissonant vocabulary, the close poignant in its dissolution into silence. It seems as if another sound is impossible, and indeed there is a significant amount of silence built into the close of the track; until the piece Another Face for solo violin arrives (1987/8: the track listing gives 1988, the booklet notes 1987). One of a series of pieces for solo instruments under the umbrella heading Crossfire, it was written for János Négyesy. The violinist here, Irvine Arditti, has in fact prepared his own edition of this work. Based on Kobo Abe’s science fiction novel The Face of Another, the theme of the piece is identity and its meaning. The booklet notes (by the excellent Tim Rutherford-Johnson) suggest that Felder’s manipulations of two-note cells is a comment on today’s impermanent, social media-drenched World. The softer, more lyrical end offers some hope of a depth that is, after all, immovable despite what goes on at the surface.

The Arditti Quartet has previously worked with Felder on Stuck-stücke on an Albany disc (Fanfare 34:1). This is fascinating, stimulating music, although not for the faint of heart. It demands much, but gives much in return. Colin Clarke

Five stars: This is fascinating, stimulating music, although not for the faint of heart. It demands much, but gives much in return