I flew to Berlin on WOW! airlines, an outfit touting scandalously cheap tickets for passage on a minimally-appointed, purple-painted fleet of Airbus 320s that aren’t cleared for uninterrupted travel over the Atlantic and therefore must stop in Iceland on the way to Europe. Nothing is included in the price of conveyance other than your seat and a single personal item of carry-on luggage. A small bottle of water bought on the plane will cost you several dollars.
The flight was delayed and I missed my connection in Iceland. Along with twenty other stranded passengers, I was then bussed off to a hotel near the airport to spend the rest of the long day on the vicinity and rise at 3am local time the following morning for the next WOW! flight to Berlin. Keflavik airfield and its surrounding infrastructure were once a U.S. air force base that operated from the 1950s until about ten years ago, I was told by the kindly manager of the simple hotel where we were quartered—a converted officer’s barracks on the sprawling one-time base. The manager also said that the U. S. has plans to construct a new, modern base on this same peninsula that juts out from the southwest corner of the island.
No one would ever visit Keflavik airport and the grim surrounding settlements for the fun of it. Its military past is obvious and gloomy, and as the bus passes roads called things like Valhalla Street and Thor Avenue that lead across the grassland to distant, widely spaced former barracks now converted into apartments, I feel more like am headed to a work camp to be housed in long rectangular concrete buildings buffeted by the relentless wind. The blocks are now inhabited by the locals, most of whom, one supposes, work at the airport. Even if the West can claim to have won the Cold War, Soviet-style architecture appears victorious on this treeless steppe. I imagined myself suddenly conscripted as extra for a Wim Wenders film—or perhaps a more menacing one dreamt up by Lars Van Trier. If it were the latter, I suspected I wouldn’t survive to get my flight the next morning.
It was on this base that Pulitzer-winning American composer, and my one-time Cornell colleague, Steven Stucky, who died of brain cancer two years ago at the age of sixty-seven, was stationed as a serviceman for a couple years in the early 1970s. It was less tropical assignment than one to Southeast Asia—and a lot less lethal. Perhaps Keflavik was a sleepy fishing village back then, even if the harborside settlement was still close to the Cold War American base. The town sleeps only intermittently now, what with the jets coursing endlessly overhead. Steve must have heard a lot of them in his time here, too, but in the form of fighter planes and troop transports to Europe; after all, it was not only the Asian communists who needed to be contained.
I think of Steve often since his death, so it is strangely fitting to find myself unexpectedly in a place he spent a long, unlikely stretch in. I think of his great warmth and his gentle brilliance that sparked and flamed—and brooded, too—in the wide-ranging oeuvre he left behind. Steve was not only a celebrated composer but a wonderful writer, too—a fluent stylist whose critical ear allowed him unique insights, but who never showed off with his prose or his musical acumen. He loved to talk about music, too, and it was always a hugely illuminating pleasure to learn from him in these convivial conversations abetted by food and drink.
In Keflavik that day it was very cold and windy, with intermitted rain. In the early afternoon I took a walk of a few miles from the hotel to the nearest coastline, now mostly a bleak collection of post-industrial wreckage. I did not find a harbor pub with crackling fire: the only sign I saw that suggested any sort of hospitality was that of a KFC—Colonel Saunders smiling into the wind. Abandoned machinery, derelict building sites, a few half-hearted attempts at semi-upscale apartments sprawled along the bulkhead. At a few points these “improvements” had not erased the primordial lava and its meeting with sea. I ventured out onto one of these, crossing over a narrow natural stone bridge to look back to land at the dismal waterfront and to the volcanic cinder cones in the distance, and farther beyond to higher mountains still sheeted with ice.
I did make it to Berlin the next day and one week later on a sweltering Sunday evening to a concert of the Berlin Philharmonic—one of the final performances of the famed orchestra under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle as Chief Conductor, a post he’s held since 2002.
The program was a microcosm of Rattle’s artistic mission in Berlin, demonstrating his commitment not just to the orchestral traditions of the past but of the present. The evening began with a commissioned work, then turned to a classic of the twentieth century, and finally, after intermission, a Classic with a capital C by one of the three Bs.
The brand new work was Jörg Widmann’s Tanz auf dem Vulkan (Dance on the Volcano)—a kind of souvenir, I wanted to think, for my Icelandic stopover. After the orchestra had tuned it broke into some swing music though there was still no sign of Sir Simon. After a minute or so, he slunk into the hall to laughs and applause from the audience, but motioned at waist-level with his hands for quiet. It became clear that the dance number was part of the theatre of the piece, as was the conductor’s entrance. When he got to the podium and pulled out his baton, the 1940s dance hall fun immediately gave way to modernist spurts and sputters: but it was a very tepid eruption, never molten.
Lutoslawki’s Third Symphony—recorded by the Berlin Philharmonic in 1985 under the direction of the composer himself—followed.
It was Steve Stucky who wrote the seminal English-language study on the great Pole. The book was an expanded version of his doctoral dissertation at Cornell, published first in 1981 by Cambridge University Press and reissued in 2009. Steve was an ardent and erudite devotee of Lutoslawski’s music, and had this to say about the work on the Berlin program:
“At the heart of the symphony lies the second movement, a musical argument whose size, motivic complexity, and sonata-like aspirations stamp the whole enterprise as “symphonic,” in the full, traditional sense of the word. Everything else in the work revolves about this turbulent center: the episodic first movement cunningly prepares for the second, while the highly charged recitatives and cantilenas of the slow third movement rise out of the aftermath of its catastrophic conclusion.”
Against the half-an-hour masterpiece, Widmann’s preceding volcanic foxtrot appeared a bagatelle—a theme park attraction. Rattle’s lean intensity drew from his orchestra’s expressivity a precise and tumultuous epic, the music rising at last towards what seemed like shimmering apotheosis only to be slammed back to earth by the judgmental tattoo of unison Es with which the work opens and which it shockingly ends.
After the interval the elemental magma of Brahm’s First poured out, from the timpani-troubled pedal point of the C minor opening, like lava pushing towards the sea, to the glorious tectonic structures and triumphant main theme of the C Major finale—a benediction, I couldn’t help but think, for all that Steve stood for and did with his life in music.