19.12.08

Carter at 100: Part 11

Bonus Tracks

There are lots of notes in Carter’s music. Lots of them. But for my development as a composer and listener, the passages (or entire movements) where Carter allows one note to carry the entire musical argument or at least the expressive content have been most telling.

The seventh Etude of Eight Etudes and a Fantasy (woodwind quartet, 1950) is a study on one note. The expressive arc of the piece is described through dynamics, accents, and changing instrumental colors. After composing his Brass Quintet for the American Brass Quintet in 1974, Carter gave them a Christmas gift called A Fantasy about Purcell’s “Fantasia upon One Note”. Carter’s arrangement of Purcell’s viol piece emphasizes the drone that sounds throughout the piece with changing colors and dynamics.

Carter’s Piano Concerto (1964) is a dramatic work exploring the relationship between an expressive individual (the soloist) and an oppressive group (the orchestra). Late in the Concerto’s second, and final, movement, the orchestra gradually builds a chord that leaves only one note in the middle silent, and the piano is “forced” onto that note at the climax of the work. In the Oboe Concerto (1988) the orchestra keeps coming back to the somber, sustained music that it plays at the beginning. Eventually the soloist repeatedly honks her lowest Bb (the lowest note on the instrument) repeatedly, in an attempt to get the orchestra on to another expressive mode.

Carter’s use of one-note passages in widely divergent expressive contexts has been a valuable lesson to me, not only in technical terms, but as a direct lesson in how important context is in determining the meaning of musical events. Additionally, I’ve thought of it as something of a bridge to my equal love of music that is more thoroughly built on limited means, like that of Morton Feldman and John Luther Adams. The commonalities between seemingly incompatible styles is often much more important than the differences.

Part 1: Sonata for Cello and Piano (1948)/Duo for Violin and Piano (1974)

Part 2: Night Fantasies (1980)

Part 3: Enchanted Preludes (1988)

Part 4: Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei (1996)

Part 5: Boston Concerto (2002)

Part 6: Clarinet Concerto (1996)

Part 7: A Mirror on Which to Dwell (1975)

Part 8: String Quartet No.5 (1995)

Part 9: Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano with Two Chamber Orchestras (1961)

Part 10: Concerto for Orchestra (1969)

17.12.08

Carter at 100: Part 10

1. Concerto for Orchestra (1969)

By the last part of the 19th century, the make-up of the symphony orchestra was largely standardized. The core of the orchestra was a large body of strings. The woodwinds and brass were in pairs, sometimes three, and the percussion consisted of a timpanist and maybe one or two additional percussionists, depending on the piece being played.

The music composed for the orchestra naturally reflected its make-up (and vice-versa), with the chief melodic burden carried by the strings. More specifically, the violins carry the melody most of the time because tonal harmony was built from the bass up. The orchestral music of Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss shook this model up some, as they frequently put the winds in the role of melody-carrier for the bulk of a piece, with the strings more in the background. Much of the orchestral music of the first half or so of the 20th century was cast in the strings- or winds-centric tradition or treated the orchestra as a collection of chamber groups, rarely using the whole orchestra.

Claude Debussy went further than many composers in imagining an orchestral sound not based on strings, or on the opposition of strings and winds. He proposed seating orchestras so that winds sat near the strings that were in their same register—for example, flutes would sit near the violins. When Carter was asked to write a piece for the 125th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic, it seems appropriate that he took that particular occasion to rethink the orchestra along those Debussian lines.

Carter wanted to celebrate the ability of the modern orchestra with this commission. (One of the salient facts of the history of the orchestra in the 20th century is its explosive virtuosity. There are some effects in Strauss’ music that were written to be blurs; he knew the orchestras of his day could not play them precisely, whereas today’s student orchestras can and do.) Accordingly, Carter wrote a concerto for orchestra, rather than symphony. He wanted to portray the orchestra as a group of individuals—highly skilled, expressive members of a functioning society—so almost every member of the orchestra gets a solo or at least a prominent moment.

Given that Carter’s music was no longer thematic in nature nor was it composed along tonal lines, he took Debussy’s notion and used instrumental register as the organizing basis of the form of the Concerto for Orchestra. The Concerto is in four sections (the music is continuous), each one featuring instruments in a given range. The first section is scored for tenor-register instruments (cellos, trombones, bassoons, etc). It is written in decelerating phrases that start faster and get slower at each appearance. The second is written for soprano-register instruments like flutes and violins. It is fast music in even note values that slows down over the course of the piece. And so on.

Not surprisingly, the sections don’t appear one after the other in order, though it is true that the first one dominates the first quarter of the piece, the second the second-quarter, etc. Rather each movement is briefly interrupted by the other three according to a structural polyrhythm of 10:9:8:7. There is something cinematic about how Carter cross-cuts between different kinds of music, music that develops over the course of the entire piece.

The Concerto came near the end of Carter’s exploratory period. Writing an orchestral work with fairly thick textures presented a problem for the composer—how do you write chords for substantial groups of orchestral instruments without resorting to octaves? (Octaves tend to emphasize a pitch and make it sound like a tonal center.) In the Second Quartet Carter assigned intervals to each instrument. In this Concerto he assigned intervals to each group, and piled up these intervals into chords of as many as seven notes. In this way each group has a large repertoire of chords that are used to give each section its own distinctive sound.

Each orchestral group has a particular three-note chord fixed in its characteristic register—the four trichords add up to a twelve-note chord that represents a kind of home base for all of the harmonic materials of the Concerto. This chord appears at important structural points like the cross-cutting of the sections.

Midway through composing the Concerto Carter read Vents (“Winds”) by the French poet St. John Perse. Vents is an epic poem about America being swept by great winds of change. The colorful, ebullient music Carter was writing seemed to him to fit the broad ideas of the poem as well as the tenor of the times. The Concerto fairly sings of the turmoil and passions of the 1960s and places them and American concert music, in an artistic and cultural context.

The first several measures of the Concerto for Orchestra are concerned with setting the stage for the work. The percussion plays long rolls on drums and cymbals while the notes of the “home base” chord are introduced. Once all of the chord’s notes have appeared, a harp glissando triggers the whirling activity that leads up to the beginning of the first section. After the winds sweep through the orchestra during the main body of the piece trombone glissandos (only the second glissandos of the piece) signal the beginning of the raucous Coda. The Coda is marked by ringing bells, as if heralding the new world the winds have brought to life. The bells die away, the piece ends quietly. We have our new world, what are we going to do with it?

Part 1: Sonata for Cello and Piano (1948)/Duo for Violin and Piano (1974)

Part 2: Night Fantasies (1980)

Part 3: Enchanted Preludes (1988)

Part 4: Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei (1996)

Part 5: Boston Concerto (2002)

Part 6: Clarinet Concerto (1996)

Part 7: A Mirror on Which to Dwell (1975)

Part 8: String Quartet No.5 (1995)

Part 9: Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano with Two Chamber Orchestras (1961)

15.12.08

Carter at 100: Part 9

2. Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano with Two Chamber Orchestras (1961)

Between his 80th and 100th birthdays, Carter completed some 40 compositions, from occasional pieces for solo instruments to two of the biggest pieces of his career, the Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei (47 minutes) and the composer’s only opera to date, What Next? (1997, ca. 40 minutes). Between his 40th birthday in 1948 (the date of the Cello Sonata) and his 60th in 1968, he completed nine works.

Those 20 years found Carter exploring the nature and potential of musical materials—especially those relating to pitch and rhythm. In the Cello Sonata, the First String Quartet, Eight Etudes and a Fantasy, the first six of the Eight Pieces for Four Timpani, the Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord, and the Variations for Orchestra (all of which were composed between 1948 and 1955), Carter conducted these explorations in a mostly tonal environment, and where the rhythmic innovations could still be readily heard within the context of a beat or of multiple underlying beats.

Carter’s explorations bore decisive fruit in the two works he composed at the same time in the second half of the 1950s: the Second String Quartet (1959) and the Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano with Two Chamber Orchestras (1961). In the Second Quartet, as we have seen, Carter applies his researches to the idea of establishing a distinct musical character for each instrument.

The request for a piece for harpsichord and piano immediately presented Carter with problems of a distinctly sonic nature. The piano is much louder than the harpsichord and has a much wider dynamic range; the harpsichord, through the use of stops, has a wider range of colors available; the piano sound can resonate for quite sometime, while that of the harpsichord cannot. The solution that Carter chose was to give each instrument a small orchestra that would soften the differences between the soloists—for example, three of the four brass instruments are assigned to the harpsichord’s orchestra, to make up for the difference in volume.

Each orchestra includes two percussionists playing a large battery of unpitched instruments. Both solo instruments have an element of percussion in how they produce sound, so the narrative of the Double Concerto comes, in part, from the soloists bridging the gap in their own ensembles between pitched and unpitched instruments. The music moves between extremes of percussive noise and pristine chords in the winds and strings.

The Double Concerto begins in noise. Carter’s research into pitch and rhythm led him to link them in ways very different from those adopted by the serialist composers working at about the same time. The cymbal and drums rolls of the beginning move in waves whose durations are related to specific intervals—in this way pitch and rhythm are tied together but not in a mechanical way. As the intervals are gradually introduced the waves of percussion meet in works first climax, which dies away and joins to a movement featuring the harpsichord, with piano commentary.

At the center of the work is a chorale for the winds and strings. At the same time the soloists and percussion whirl around the chorale in phrases that accelerate and decelerate against the steady music of the winds and strings. The climax comes at the end of the chorale with single high notes on antique cymbals (the only pitched percussion in the entire piece).

Carter has described the Double Concerto as being analogous to a world coming into being from chaos (the noise at the beginning) and functioning as a working living organism. After final spectacular solos from both the harpsichord and the piano, the music pauses. Then a great percussive crash signals the beginning of the Coda, which is really an extension and composing-out of that crash. The music moves back towards noise while quietly dying away. Carter has said that he took inspiration from poems by Pope and Lucretius about the beginnings and endings of worlds, but the music is really much more direct: From noise you came and to noise you will return.


Part 1: Sonata for Cello and Piano (1948)/Duo for Violin and Piano (1974)

Part 2: Night Fantasies (1980)

Part 3: Enchanted Preludes (1988)

Part 4: Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei (1996)

Part 5: Boston Concerto (2002)

Part 6: Clarinet Concerto (1996)

Part 7: A Mirror on Which to Dwell (1975)

Part 8: String Quartet No.5 (1995)

13.12.08

Carter at 100: Part 8

3. String Quartet No. 5 (1995)

One of the hallmarks of postmodernism is art about art. There has always been meta-art, though more often than not the references to art-about-art were localized within a given work, but recent decades have seen the idea raised to a controlling principle in a great number of works in all artistic media.

The string quartet, as both medium (the combination of two violins, viola, and cello) and as genre (pieces for string quartet that make full musical statements, as opposed to occasional pieces), has been an important part of Carter’s development for most of his career. In the Second (completed in 1959) and Third (1971), Carter pushes the genre in new (for him) poetic directions.

The four players in the Second Quartet are given distinct musical characters and expressive styles, which are derived from individual interval content and rhythmic characteristics. The drama inheres in how these four individuals communicate—and how they don’t. In the Third Carter reconfigures the ensemble into two duos and asks that they be seated as far apart on the stage as possible. He then gives them a different number of movements to play (one of the duos has six movements, the other has four) and arranges them so that each movement of one duo is played simultaneously (at some point in the piece) with every movement of the other duo.

In the Fifth Quartet Carter takes this idea of anthropomorphizing the instruments into characters acting out what Carter has called “auditory scenarios” to the meta-art level. Here the instruments/characters are members of a string quartet in rehearsal. The Quartet is structured along lines that are a familiar part of Carter’s late late style—a kind of returning music alternates with contrasting movements, which are more or less fully developed. In this piece, as opposed to the returning “rain music” of Boston Concerto, the links between movements consists of fragments. The fragments consist of snippets of previous movements, hints of what is to come, and brief improvisatory phrases based on each instrument’s interval repertoire.

The links convey the feeling of being in a rehearsal. As the ideas are tried out and lines “practiced”, agreement is eventually reached on what kind of music to rehearse. The Quartet’s six movements are examples of most of Carter’s characteristic textures and modes, especially from his quartets. These include “scorrevole” (“scurrying”, one of Carter’s favorite, regardless of medium), energetic, slashing chords, and serene chorale phrases.

A favorite narrative strategy of Carter’s is overlapping forms. This is a natural outgrowth of his interest in structural heterophony. I mentioned that the duos in the Third Quartet have different numbers of movements and that all possible combinations of movements between the duos occur over the course of the piece. The most telling moments of the piece happen when a new movement starts in one duo while the other duo continues playing its own movement.

This strategy is pervasive in the Fifth Quartet. The fifth, and final, Interlude is dominated, for the most part, by the fantastic, aggressive phrases of the first violin, while the rest of the group attempts to “rehearse” other parts of the piece. Finally, the rest of the ensemble begins the last movement (“Caprriccioso”) several measures before the first violin finishes her own capricious playing.

This final movement is a dance played entirely pizzicato (plucking the strings instead of bowing them)—the pizzicato playing in the other instruments is one reason the overlap is so apparent here. The strumming and plucking continues to an exuberant climax and a brief relaxation, only to suddenly build to another climax. This is followed by a very brief (less than three measures) bowed section—it moves to a kind of resolution. The rehearsal ends.

Part 1: Sonata for Cello and Piano (1948)/Duo for Violin and Piano (1974)

Part 2: Night Fantasies (1980)

Part 3: Enchanted Preludes (1988)

Part 4: Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei (1996)

Part 5: Boston Concerto (2002)

Part 6: Clarinet Concerto (1996)

Part 7: A Mirror on Which to Dwell (1975)

11.12.08

Happy Hundredth

As you may have heard, today is composer Elliott Carter's 100th birthday. If his appearance on Charlie Rose last night is any indication, he will be around writing music for quite a while longer.

My series on Carter's pieces that have meant the most to me over the years begins here, and will continue shortly.

10.12.08

Messiaen

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of the great French composer Olivier Messiaen (he died in 1992). What stays with me about his music is its brilliant color and the sheer exuberance of it, bordering on ecstasy, and often crossing that border.

One of the great privileges of my life as a musician was to lead a performance of the composer's Oiseaux exotiques (Exotic Birds) with the extraordinary John Salmon as pianist. The short concert (the rest of the program was given over to chamber music of Morton Feldman, who produces his own kind of ecstasy) was held in the sanctuary of the Episcopal Student Center in Tallahassee--the design of which is kind of a Scandanavian Modern, with lots of stone and curved walls. The reverb was intense and Messiaen's birds had plenty of room to take flight.

An article I wrote on Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps ("Quartet for the end of time"), can be found here.

Alex Ross has details of Messiaen 100 celebrations here and here.

9.12.08

Carter at 100: Part 7

4. A Mirror on Which to Dwell (1975)

Carter has always been a literary composer. He majored in literature as an undergraduate, and read and studied the works of the first wave of 20th century American Modernists (including, Eliot, Pound, Frost, Stevens, and Williams) as they appeared. He was friends with some of the poets of the second wave, Robert Lowell in particular.

More directly, many of Carter’s major works from across his entire career have literary backgrounds. Carter’s note frequently point to literary works and images that either guided his work or came to him after a composition was completed, and the allusion could performers and listeners find their way into a piece. Carter’s early career is filled with choral works and pieces for voice and piano. It’s a little surprising then that nearly thirty years elapsed between vocal works, after the appearance of Emblems (chorus) in 1947.

A Mirror on Which to Dwell was commissioned by Speculum Musicae (“mirror of music”) for soprano Susan Davenny Wyner. Since the commission was for a woman’s voice, Carter wanted to set the words of a female poet. Lowell pointed Carter to the work of Elizabeth Bishop, a rough contemporary of Lowell’s whose poetry turned out to appeal to the composer very much.

Bishop’s language is precise and abstract, much like Carter’s music. By “abstract” I don’t mean that her words and images are untethered to experience. Quite the opposite, in fact—her images are very much grounded in the world as we observe it. Her images reflect the way an observant mind works; she puts together things and ideas that would seem not to go together. After she has shown us that they do, we wonder how it was we never connected them ourselves.

One of Bishop’s lifelong concerns was with the borders that separate us, one from another, and from fully experiencing the world. This seems to me to parallel Carter’s interest in simultaneous streams of music—streams that occur at the same time, but something keeps them apart.

The six poems Carter sets in Mirror are not connected; this is not a song cycle as such but a collection of lyric pieces. Carter has arranged them so their focus narrows from general at the start to more specific at the end. The collection nature of the piece is emphasized by the instrumentation, which is different for each song. The vocal line tends to be angular, but the words come through clearly, as the rhythms are very much like those of spoken American English.

Carter’s settings are really more like expressively annotated readings than they are song or recitative. The musical materials are directly related to the poetic content of the poem, from the skittering oboe music in “Sandpiper” to the musical entropy that mirrors the diminishing energy that characterizes “Anaphora”.

Music in performance is an intensely collaborative artistic endeavor. Composing is much less collaborative, though working with a given performer or an ensemble when writing for them is certainly a collaborative effort. Setting pre-existing texts written by someone whom you may never have met, who in fact may have lived long before you read their work, is a special kind of collaboration. When there is artistic sympathy, a deep understanding of the words and what can be done with them, borders are crossed; connections are made.

Part 1: Sonata for Cello and Piano (1948)/Duo for Violin and Piano (1974)

Part 2: Night Fantasies (1980)

Part 3: Enchanted Preludes (1988)

Part 4: Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei (1996)

Part 5: Boston Concerto (2002)

Part 6: Clarinet Concerto (1996)

Carter at 100: Part 6

5. Clarinet Concerto (1996)

Given two of Carter’s nearly career-long interests—in structural heterophony and in writing music that plays to the strengths and musical personalities of the performers—it isn’t surprising that solo (or duo) concertos make up a significant portion of his catalog. In the Piano Concerto (1965), for example, the soloist can be heard as representing expressive individuality, as opposed to the orchestral mass, whose massed forces surround her. In the Piano Concerto Carter gives the soloist a seven instrument supporting concertino, which plays the same kind of music as the soloist, against the more monolithic music of the orchestra.

In the Clarinet Concerto, Carter reimagined the relationship between the soloist and orchestra, resulting in a soundworld and formal layout that came to be characteristic of his recent music. The Concerto was composed for Pierre Boulez’ Ensemble intercontemporain (and its clarinetist Alain Damiens), and the Ensemble’s unusual instrumentation—13 winds and percussion and 5 strings—created a balance problem that Carter saw as an opportunity.

The structure Carter devised for the Concerto is a collage; it consists of seven short sections, each scored for a small subsection of the orchestra. Each, that is, except the last, which is the only tutti section in the piece. More important, the tutti section is the only part of the Concerto that has the orchestra playing in opposition to the clarinet. In the first six sections, which are short, self-contained musical character-statements, the clarinet is accompanied by small concertinos, as in the Piano Concerto, which offer support rather than opposition. The only orchestral tuttis occur in short links between the movements, while the soloist moves from one concertino to another—this movement from small group to small group is a visual cue that the clarinetist is a partner with the groups that play each section.

The backbone of this Concerto is the clarinet melody, which spins out over the course of the entire work, changing mood and character as the soloist joins a new concertino group. The melody is not built from scales or from collections of notes (a practice Carter uses frequently, but not here). The melody is instead built from a small collection of intervals Carter assigns to the clarinet—the other intervals are assigned to the orchestra, but the general practice in the orchestra is to build chords from the intervals. The clarinet melody is extremely free, therefore, and gives the impression of improvisation, especially in the sections that have a slightly jazzy feel.

This freedom of expression characterizes most of the solo parts in Carter’s concertos, regardless of whether the orchestral forces are with helpers or hinderers. In the Clarinet Concerto, the soloist even has the last utterance, a loud final note. Not the still, small voice, to be sure, but the last word nonetheless.

Part 1: Sonata for Cello and Piano (1948)/Duo for Violin and Piano (1974)

Part 2: Night Fantasies (1980)

Part 3: Enchanted Preludes (1988)

Part 4: Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei (1996)

Part 5: Boston Concerto (2002)

7.12.08

Carter at 100: Part 5

6. Boston Concerto (2002)

Carter spent the 1960s and 70s developing his musical language (mostly) outside of mainstream musical institutions and without resorting to trends like serialism, minimalism, and neo-Romanticism. Since that time he has written a series of pieces that have seemed to flow almost without effort and with what many observers hear as a new lucidity and transparency of texture and of musical discourse.

One vehicle for this transparency has been the composer’s frequent use of a kind of alternating form reminiscent of the baroque concerto grosso form. In a concerto grosso, sections of recurring material are played by the full orchestra (tutti). These tutti sections tend to be fuller and weightier than the sections that link them.

In Boston Concerto Carter reverses this idea—the tutti sections echo these lines from William Carlos Williams’ “Rain”:

As the rain falls
So does
your love

bathe every
open
Object of the world –

Seven watery, ephemeral tutti sections alternate with six brief (the longest is just under two minutes and the whole piece lasts but seventeen) “movements” scored for sub-divisions of the orchestra. For example, a movement marked “Lento, sostenuto” (Slow, sustained) is scored for the brass section after that section had been silent for the preceding tutti. With its constantly changing scoring, the color of Boston Concerto is kaleidoscopic in nature. The piece, like so much of Carter’s recent music, offers references to musical procedures of the past, colorful, virtuosic, and transparent instrumental writing, and collage-like forms in which musical characters appear and disappear before becoming fully developed.

After the final movement, “Maestoso – molto espressivo” (Majestic – very expressive), angular, craggy (in the finest New England tradition) lines for violins and cellos, comes the concluding tutti. Instead of a climactic peroration of the material of the concerto, this ending is quiet, slightly lingering, like a soft rain.


Part 1: Sonata for Cello and Piano (1948)/Duo for Violin and Piano (1974)

Part 2: Night Fantasies (1980)

Part 3: Enchanted Preludes (1988)

Part 4: Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei (1996)

5.12.08

Carter at 100: Part 4

7. Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei (1996).

The symphony is typically a four-movement orchestral work that stands as a musical whole. The ways it can be made whole are tremendously varied—there can be a key scheme that holds it together, there can be thematic relationships between the movements, etc. The vast majority of symphonies have a first movement that makes a rigorous musical argument in what is called “sonata-allegro” form, a form whose properties are not at all relevant here. They also have last movements usually end in triumph (cf. Beethoven’s Fifth) or in resignation (Mahler 9); in either case, things get wrapped up.

Carter’s Symphonia: Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei is more of a triptych than a symphony, though it has the heft and size of a symphony. The composer takes his inspiration (and his subtitles) from Bulla ("The Bubble"), a poem (in Latin) by the 17-century British metaphysical poet Richard Crenshaw in which a bubble “represents” change and all that change means for life and art. The subtitle (“Sum Fluxae Pretium Spei”) means “I am the prize of flowing hope”.

The piece is suffused with irony, Carter’s favorite artistic mode—after all this is a 47-minute symphonic work about a bubble. The first movement (though “panel” seems more appropriate) is Partita (“I am the star of the sea, as it were, the golden wit of nature, the rambling tale of nature, the brief dream of nature”), which is not a reference to the baroque suite form, but rather the word is taken as it is in Italian, to mean “game”, as in a soccer match. There is no “form” as such, and the music does take on the aspect of something happening on the fly, as in a game. Partita is fast, rambunctious, and urban—the fast pace of much of Carter’s music is as direct an expression of modern life as there is in art. It is colorfully and clearly orchestrated, with virtuoso episodes for virtually every section in the orchestra. It embodies experience as explosively alive and vibrant.

The second panel, Adagio tenebroso (“I am the glass of the blind goddess”) is in stark contrast with Partita. Where the former is full of life, its changes and surprises, Adagio tenebroso seems haunted. It is a slow, irregular but inexorable march—Carter employs his structural polyrhythms closer to the surface here, sounding like an approaching army unsure of its course. The music builds and recedes in waves, promising resolution but withholding it. Withholding it, that is, until a big noisy passage right before the end, after which, the music dies away, with brief snippets of what had come before.

The first two panels of Symphonia deal, respectively, with light/life and dark/death. How does Carter resolve these two irreconcilable world views and give his work its proper symphonic conclusion?

The answer was the third panel, Allegro scorevole (“I am the brief nature of the wind. To be sure, I am the flower of the air.”). As the title (“fast, scurrying”) and subtitle implies, Allegro scorevole flies up and down through musical space with incredible speed, interrupted from time to time by episodes of sustained lyricism. The predominant mood of the piece is that of thoughtful lightness, with music that flows and tends to be soft rather than loud.

The trajectory of the scurrying music is upwards, while the contrasting lyrical passages are rather more earthbound. After a climax of the lyrical material, a coda briefly combines the lyrical and the scurrying until a lone piccolo in its highest register quietly ends the piece.

So maybe Carter does resolve the tension of the first two panels, in his own ironic way. An answer to the 20th century’s increasing urbanization and its attendant alienation, as well as the century’s seeming love of death, may be an ancient one: the still, small voice.


Part 1: Sonata for Cello and Piano (1948)/Duo for Violin and Piano (1974)

Part 2: Night Fantasies (1980)

Part 3: Enchanted Preludes (1988)

4.12.08

Carter at 100: Part 3

8. Enchanted Preludes (1988).


“Above all, I hope to have shown that there is such a thing as a lightness of thoughtfulness, just as we all know that there is a lightness of frivolity. In fact thoughtful lightness can make frivolity seem dull and heavy” –Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium.
Carter used the phrase “thoughtful lightness” as part of his title for Con Leggerezza Pensosa (clarinet, violin, cello; 1990) but the philosophical and aesthetic point-of-view Calvino’s statement articulates could apply to most of the music Carter has written since the late 1980s. Many of these pieces are relatively short and have a textural transparency that was new to the composer’s music, except in special circumstances.

Carter’s career has been marked by periods of intense exploration, where new techniques and resources were discovered and studied, followed by periods where the advances in resources are explored and developed. The former periods are characterized big pieces that took the composer a long time to write. The latter periods include shorter, occasional works along with the big pieces.

Carter’s late late period is definitely one of the latter types. Since the late 1980s new compositions have appeared quickly—in fact, the pace of new works from Carter’s desk seems to be accelerating even now. One reason for this increased output since around the time he turned 80 is that the composer’s explorations have given him a set of resources (a limited number of chord types, for example) and techniques (structural polyrhythms and twelve-note all-interval chords, among others) that have proven to be versatile and flexible.

One of the first products of Carter’s late late period is Enchanted Preludes. It is scored for flute and cello and is in one short (about six minutes) movement. The music plays out as a series of high-spirited scherzo-like episodes. It is tempting to hear the cello in a secondary role, but I don’t think that’s the case. Most of the music lies in the cello’s upper register, to be sure, and it is more difficult to make the instrument speak as forcefully there than in its lower register, but the part is as nimble as the flute’s and as expressive.

Enchanted Preludes is built around a twelve-note all-interval chord (as opposed to the 88 such chords used in Night Fantasies), and the intervals are partitioned between the two instruments. For example, the flute is assigned the perfect fourth, while the cello plays perfect fifths, which are inversions (upside down) of perfect fourths. The instruments share the tritone, which is half an octave (six half-steps), and can’t be inverted.

The overall pace of the piece is set by a 45 (flute);56 (cello) structural polyrhythm, and the flute plays primarily in triplets and the cello in 4s. Most of the piece is, not surprisingly, fast, and it is very light on its feet. That is probably one reason the cello plays in its upper register most of the time.

The sprightly sound world of Enchanted Preludes is heightened by the frequent use of slightly extended performance techniques like flutter-tonguing in the flute and harmonics in the cello. These effects, along with the short phrases made of skittering notes or the little bursts of repeated notes that occur throughout Enchanted Preludes, give the piece that quality of “thoughtful lightness” that Cavino mentions. In fact, there are no emphasized downbeats in the entire piece—it never even touches the ground.


Part 1: Sonata for Cello and Piano (1948)/Duo for Violin and Piano (1974)

Part 2: Night Fantasies (1980)

3.12.08

Carter at 100: Part 2

9. Night Fantasies (1980)

By the time Carter wrote Night Fantasies in 1980, the structural heterophony of the Sonata and Duo was an integral part of his musical personality. Night Fantasies was commissioned for four prominent pianists—Paul Jacobs, Gilbert Kalish, Ursula Oppens, and Charles Rosen—each of whom experience with the composer’s mature style, having played the solo part in either the Double Concerto (harpsichord and piano) or the Piano Concerto, so they were well-versed in Carter’s style.

Writing for four distinctive artists, each of whom would play the piece in terms of their own personalities, seems to have given Carter to express the multiple musical characters of his earlier works through one instrument. The metaphor through which Carter realizes this internal heterophony is that of “fleeting thoughts and feelings that pass through the mind during a period of wakefulness at night”.

The musical “thoughts and feelings” of Night Fantasies are indeed fleeting. The ca. 20 minute, one movement piece is composed of dozens of contrasting, highly-characterized episodes. These character-episodes appear like unbidden thoughts, only to vanish and reappear later, altered and juxtaposed with different episodes. The expressive arc of the piece moves rapidly between moods and contrasting shades of light and dark.

Night Fantasies is a treasure trove of techniques that came to occupy Carter during his late period and his current late late period. The harmonic world of Night Fantasies is built on a collection of 88 twelve-note all-interval chords. These chords are made of one of each of the twelve pitch-classes (All C#s are members of the pitch-class C#, for example; therefore, an twelve-note, all-interval chord would contain one-and-only-one C#) deployed in musical space so that there is one occurrence of each interval (there are eleven intervals between a unison and an octave, ranging from the minor second [one half-step] and the major seventh [eleven half-steps]). These chords span five-and-a-half octaves, which is less than two octaves shy of the range of the piano, accounting for one of the sonic characteristics of Night Fantasies—the music moves over the range of the piano at a dazzling rate. It glitters in the piano’s upper register while the shadows loom in the lower.

While the use of twelve-note all-interval chords facilitate the rhapsodic placement of character-episodes in different registers when they reappear later in the piece, Carter’s use of a large-scale structural polyrhythm provides a temporal grid (note that the “grid” is one of the most potent metaphors in Modernism) on which to project the fantasies of the music. A cross-rhythm of 216 beats against 175 beats plays out over the 20 minute span of Night Fantasies—every beat sounds, but almost none of them are emphasized. Since the beats move at slightly different speeds, the temporal relationships between them are constantly changing, so the relationships between the various character-episodes are always changing.

None of this is meant to be “heard” on the surface of the music, like themes and motives would be. Rather, the chords and the cross-rhythms provide an underlying structure for the 20 minutes of flights of fancy and nocturnal rumination. It is often in this tension between technique and inspiration that one finds the frisson of artistic discovery.


Part 1: Sonata for Cello and Piano (1948)/Duo for Violin and Piano (1974)

2.12.08

Carter at 100: Part 1

Many readers of this blog know how important Elliott Carter’s music has been to me, and as we approach the composer’s 100th next week, I began thinking about which of his pieces have meant the most to me, and why. Naturally, that thinking has led to a list. So, beginning today and running through the 11th, the composer’s birthday, I’ll post an annotated list of the ten Carter pieces that have meant the most to me over the years. Some of them because of what I’ve learned from them, others because I heard them at the right time, and all of them because I just like them as music.

10. (Tie): Sonata for Cello and Piano (1948)/Duo for Violin and Piano (1974).

OK, so there are going to be 11 pieces in this top 10.

An important element of Carter’s music throughout his career has been the raising of heterophony (a textural term dealing with the presence of two or more more-or-less equal musical voices or lines) to a structural/dramatic value. In many of Carter’s works two or more streams of intensely contrasting music proceed simultaneously. The drama is in how they relate to each other as their foreground/background relationship shifts over the course of a piece.

The Sonata for Cello and Piano is Carter’s first thoroughgoing essay in structural heterophony, as well as an accessible and challenging piece for performers and audience alike. Carter was still writing music based on tonality at the time of the Sonata (it was completed on his 40th birthday in 1948), so the characterization of the cello and piano is based largely on rhythmic behavior patterns and the expressive style of the two instruments.

The beginning of the first movement is a direct statement of the idea of structural heterophony as well as the first example in Carter’s music of what would become an obsession with him. In this opening statement the piano moves in regular beats (what the composer would come to call “chronometric” time) and the cello plays irregularly expressive phrases with no specific link to any meter (“chronoametric” time). This passage echoes through the rest of Carter’s career.

The Duo for Violin and Piano dates from 1974, 24 years after the Sonata, and well after Carter’s massive stylistic change that was, I believe, triggered by the Sonata. The contrast between the violin and piano parts—Carter’s music was, by that time, pantonal, and the musical materials are partitioned between the two instruments by two-, three-, four-, and five-note sets as well as by the chronmetric and achronometric rhythmic personalities of the Sonata—is so integral to the musical content of the piece that Carter’s performance note suggests that the players be as far apart on the stage as possible.

In addition, much of the expressive drama of the Duo is created from the simple acoustic reality that the piano, as an instrument, is characterized by the fact that the performer has little control over a note once the key is struck while a violinist exerts a great deal of control over a note—including the ability to make it grow louder, which the piano cannot do, except by rapid repetition. The Duo, then, is a superposition of two distinct and expressive personalities, much like a marriage. (The piece is dedicated to Helen Carter, the composer’s wife, who died in 2003.) As in the Sonata, the Duo stakes out its poetic territory from the beginning, with the impassive tolling of rich, dissonant chords on the piano juxtaposed against mercurial phrases from the violin. Carter has compared this opening to “a man trying to climb a glacier”.

The Duo is one of the most “difficult” pieces from a composer known for his difficulty. It’s just this difficulty that has, in recent years, drawn more and more performers to Carter’s music—they see it as an artistic and technical challenge; a challenge worth accepting. When heard through the notion of two contrasting personalities trying to make a go of it together, the difficulty becomes part of the pleasure and the poetry.

12.11.08

Briefly Noted (II)

What "Briefly Noted" is.

Elmar Oliveira gives authoritative performances of substantial violin concertos by Ernest Bloch and Benjamin Lees (Artek AR-0042-2). Both of these works, while providing plenty of opportunities for virtuosic workouts, are in the serious, concerto-as-symphony-for-soloist-and-orchestra. The accompaniment of John McLaughlin Williams and the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine matches Mr. Olivieira's impassioned playing and provides for him a solid foundation.

Isabel Bayrakdarian sings songs transcribed by Gomidas Vartabed, "the most important figure in Armenian music history" (from Atom Egoyan's notes) on a lovely release from Nonesuch (511487-2). The songs, arranged for orchestra or piano by Serouj Kradjian (who plays the piano accompaniment) are generally introspective and pensive. Ms Bayrakdarian, a Canadian-Armenian soprano, sings them with warm expression.

Neeme Järvi leads the Scottish National Orchestra and its Chorus (with contralto soloist Linda Finnie) in rousing performances of music by Sergey Prokofiev, on a digitally remastered release of late 1980s recordings on Chandos 10482 X. The big piece here is the Suite from the score to Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky, which I've described elsewhere as "a big, friendly, kind of stupid, fluffy dog of a piece". I find it a little less so in this duskier reading, but I think it's still an apt metaphor for the composer's music in the out-sized mode of Nevsky and of the other works on the disc, the Scythian Suite and the Suite from The Steel Dance.

Johannes Moser plays the complete works for cello and orchestra of Camille Saint-Saëns with the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR, Fabrice Bolton conducting, on hänssler classic 93.222. This is not is my wheelhouse, repertoirely-speaking, but I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. I particularly like the First Concerto (a minor, Op. 33), with its taut, convincing one-movement form. Moser is a fine musician--he really digs in to this music, playing with understanding and panache.

Richard Stoltzman has been one of the world's premiere clarinetists for years. With Tashi, he made a definitive recording of Messiaen Quatuor pour la fin du temps. A new disc from Navona (NV5801) has him playing short pieces by Carl Maria von Weber (Concertino), Giovanni Bottesini (Duetto, with Richard Frederickson on bass), and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Herbstlied, arranged for clarinet and string quartet by Toru Takemitsu). In addition Stoltzman gives a commanding performance of Weber's second Clarinet Concerto (Eb, Op. 74). The highlight for me, though, is his richly expressive reading of Claude Debussy's Premiere Rhapsodie (1909-10). The Rhapsodie is a great introduction to the composer's work, with its long lines and lanquid harmonies. Stoltzman emphasizes the piece's melodic content, and Kirk Trevor leads the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra in sensitive preformances of all of the music on the disc.

11.11.08

Veteran's Day 2008

We celebrate Veteran's Day in the United States on 11 November because that is when the Armistice that ends the First World War was signed.

There are lots of reasons World War II is studied more than World War I--most of them are legitimate and some (more footage, for example) are because the Second World War is easier to study.

I've never been able to shake the idea, however, that one very big reason World War I is not talked about is that it is an utterly pointless war--nothing was won, nothing was decided, millions were killed, and the stage was set for greater carnage and unspeakable horror.

And being utterly pointless, it's a typical war. The Civil War and the Second World War decided great issues and produced substantive victories. That's not the norm for war--most of them are exercises in murderous nihilism, the result of mistakes and tragic errors.

So, we study the "good" wars so that when somebody looks at us the wrong way, the image the populace has of war is that of a great endeavor, of national purpose played out on the world stage. That way, it is easier to convince the people that war is necessary.

And it is, obviously, the men and women of the service that pay the biggest, sometimes the ultimate price for this. The committment it takes to sign up for the military is beyond most of us, and those that can serve deserve our respect, and they deserve our effort in understanding the reasons they are called to combat, not passive acceptance of the call. It's really the least we can do.

Reading for the day:

Richard Powers, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance.

Listening:

Benjamon Britten, War Requiem.

8.11.08

Cage: Number Pieces

Audio-DVD review, Sequenza21.

Liberality of Spirit

The critic John Leonard died earlier this week, at 69, of lung cancer.

When I first started writing music criticism I read everything of his I could get my hands on, and eagerly awaited his appearances on CBS' Sunday Morning, where he usually reviewed television shows. He was a fine stylist--his long, looping sentences were characterized by Whitmanesque lists and elegant punctuation.

The title of this little post is taken from A. O. Scott's appreciation in yesterday's New York Times.

FSU Opera: Clemenza di Tito

NOTE: Due to a dispute between the paper and Florida State University, this review was not printed in the Democrat.

An opera lives and dies by its music. A production of an opera, taking this truism a step further, lives and dies by the singing. If Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito (1791, libretto by Caterino Mazzolà after Pietro Metastasio) depended on its story (spoiler alert: the title gives away the ending) we likely wouldn’t see it performed outside of completist Mozart festivals.

Clemenza contains some of Mozart’s most beautiful music, however, as was demonstrated in the Florida State Opera’s production this past weekend at Opperman Music Hall. Stage Director Matthew Lata and Scenic and Lighting Designer Peter Dean Beck provided a talented cast with a vital setting from which to project the music, music that goes far deeper into character and its expression that the story demands.

JamisonWalker was a convincing and charismatic Tito, emperor of this production’s mid-20th-century Rome. He got off to a slow start, having a little trouble with pitch in his early scenes, but he recovered nicely for his central role in the second act. Tito’s right-hand man Publio was sung and acted with authority by Young Ju Lee.

Emma Char (as Sesto) and Rachel Hendrickson (Annio) gave solid performances in their difficult “trouser” roles (male characters played by women), and Rebecca Shorstein was radiant in the supporting role of Servilia.

But the evening belonged to Christina Villaverde as Vitellia, the driving force of the story. Ms. Villaverde has a very strong, attractive voice and compelling stage presence to go along with it.

The chorus was solid and well-prepared. FSU Director of Opera Activities, Douglas Fisher, seems to have Mozart in his blood. He led the Opera Orchestra in a well paced, tightly-knit performance. Of special note was the clarinet playing of Julie Schumacher, whose many solos were delivered with flair.

5.11.08

4 Nov 08

Happy Days Are Here Again!

One of the most moving nightas of my life.

17.10.08

Briefly Noted

From time to time, editor Jerry Bowles of Sequenza21 will send me compact discs that don't really fit in with S21's mission. This is usually because of genre or because the music isn't recent enough. After consulting with Jerry on this, I've decided to mention these discs here, with extremely brief descriptions and catalog information. This is not to in any way dismiss the recordings or the artists that make them--I figure mentioning them here is better than not mentioning them at all.

Book III, by Transvalue, is big band contemporary jazz, with a literary bent. It swings and it rocks. Most of the words are rhythmically intoned, rather than sung or spoken, and either you will like that, or you won't. More information, including ordering information and sound samples, can be found at Transvalue's Book III website.

Cellist Marcy Rosen plays sonatas for cello and piano (with Lydia Artymiw) by Ludwig Thuille and Ernst von Dohnányi and a Sonata for two cellos (with Frances Rowell) on a recent release from Bridge Records. The playing from all three performers is top-notch, and the music is solid, mainstream composition. More information, including purchasing information, can be found here.

Books

There is an abundance of books concerning 20th century concert music--anlytical, historical, polemical--you name it, someone has written about it.

I have some favorites and I imagine some/most of you do, too. I'd like to compile a list of some of the best of the bunch, mostly as resource, but also in the hopes of coming across something I haven't heard of or that I have meant to read.

I'd like suggestions for the list, in the following three categories:

1) books by composers;
2) books not by composers; and
3) fiction and poetry in which 20th century concert music plays an important role.

Please offer suggestions in the comments, or feel free to email me.

23.9.08

Congratulations!

Congratulations to Alex Ross, winner of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" fellowship. The honor is very well-deserved.

I wonder if he has 20 bucks I can borrow until payday.

18.9.08

Mauricio Kagel

The Argentinian composer Mauricio Kagel, whose music exhibits a very Modern sense of serious play, has died in Germany at the age of 76.

Matthew Guerrieri writes about his former teacher here.

27.8.08

Flavorful

Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to see me list Kaija Saariaho as one of my four favorite living composers. I've been listening to and reading about her music for nearly ten years now. I've been very gratified to see the major play she's gotten since the turn of the century and especially this summer.

It was disconcerting, then, to read this opening, from the highly respected Martin Bernheimer's review of Ms Saariaho's La Passion de Simone:

Katja [sic] Saariaho must resemble the flavour of the month among composers. Her music - emphatically progressive, generally complex yet hardly forbidding - tries valiantly, often with success, to fuse tradition with adventure. She treads a precarious line between the cerebral and the emotional, and sometimes sustains the delicate balance.

The review is on the negative side--I haven't heard the piece, and that's beside the point--but I found the "flavour of the month" thing passive-aggressive and belittling to the composer's overall achievement and stature. I think Mr. Bernheimer shows a little consciousness of guilt when he includes the weasel words "must resemble" in front of the phrase. The rest of the review was defensible, this bit just seemed a little insecure to me.

(h/t to Lisa Hirsch for pointing me to Mr. Bernheimer's piece)

Workshop (X)

I noticed recently that it's been a pretty good while since I wrote a blog post. I've been composing a lot lately (in addition to taking a couple of trips) and I realized that composing seriously interferes with my word-writing because of the time it takes (of course) but even more because the mental space composing takes up pushes other music out of my ears/head. (That's the main reason I've gotten behind on CD reviews. Sorry, Jerry.)

I'm beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel of my percussion concerto, and I'm reasonably sure that light isn't an oncoming train. As of now I'm looking at a spring 2009 premiere. I'll have more details, including titles, specific instrumentation, and the premiere date later.

I wrote a short piece for solo trombone called American Song during a trip to visit family. It's four minutes long and has lyrical and "technical" sections. I'm having some difficulty with converting it from Finale 2009 to pdf, but a score will be available when that is resolved.

Finally, I want to thank Karl Henning (clarinet) and Peter Cama-Lekx (viola) for their perceptive and expressive performance of The Rings of Saturn (2006), the recording of which I received this past weekend. They are artists and gentlemen, and I deeply appreciate their efforts.

10.7.08

Malcolm Goldstein: a sounding of sources

CD review, Sequenza21.

If I Were a Rich Man

So, when I've won a substantial jackpot from the Florida Lottery, my big project (after assuring that me and mine are never again subject to The Man and his markets) will be to establish, endow, and run an ensemble dedicated to new and recent music.

A Board of Directors would develop an artistic vision and mission along guidelines broadly laid out by me (Hey, it's my unearned wealth!). The centerpiece of the project would be a core group of musicians, with the following instrumentation:

-string quartet (two violins, viola, cello);
-one of each of these wind instruments: flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, saxophone, forn, trumpet, trombone, tuba;
-two keyboard players;
-two percussionists;
-one laptop artist; and
-one conductor (I would be Assistant Conductor).

Each performer would receive a full-time salary and benefits (all of which would be open to negotiation), and would be free to teach and to play other gigs, in addition to their strivings as a member of Steve Hicken's MetaMusical Entity (or a better name, if possible).

The endowment also would fund a development officer and a robust publicity operation (including web presence). Outreach programs would target schools and civic organizations, and would include low- and no-price tickets for underserved populations. Tickets would be inexpensive to begin with, as the group would operate in an econmy of abundance rather than one of scarcity. There would be a commissioning component to all of this as well.

The question of home base is an interesting one. The home base should be enough of a music center that the performers could readily find other gigs. At the same time, it should be in an area that is undersupplied with performances of new and recent music. Unfortunately, it won't be hard to find places that meet that requirement.

Anyway, if I were a wealthy man.

"Why don't you like it?" "Because it sucks."

Joe Queenan holds his breath; turns blue.

Tom Service sends him to his room without dessert.


Gowron says: "Impudent wretch."

4.7.08

The Fourth

Here's a link to last year's Fourth of July post.

And in a change of pace, here's a poem by Elizabeth Bishop, "View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress", which was set by Elliott Carter in A Mirror on Which to Dwell.

View of the Capitol from the Library of Congress

Moving from left to left, the light
is heavy on the Dome, and coarse.
One small lunette turns it aside
and blankly stares off to the side
like a big white old wall-eyed horse.

On the east steps the Air Force Band
in uniforms of Air Force blue
is playing hard and loud, but - queer -
the music doesn't quite come through.

It comes in snatches, dim then keen,
then mute, and yet there is no breeze.
The giant trees stand in between.
I think the trees must intervene,

catching the music in their leaves
like gold-dust, till each big leaf sags.
Unceasingly the little flags
feed their limp stripes into the air,
and the band's efforts vanish there.

Great shades, edge over,
give the music room.
The gathered brasses want to go
boom - boom.

17.6.08

Tomorrow in Boston

Obsession & Digression Duologue & Monologue
[ Listening to the Early 21st Century ]

Steve Hicken, The Rings of Saturn (cl/va duet; premiere)
Joshua Sellers, Dithyramb (cl solo; premiere)
Karl Henning, Irreplaceable Doodles (cl solo)
Henning, Blue Shamrock (cl solo)
Henning, The Mousetrap (cl/va duet; premiere)

Karl Henning, clarinet
Peter Cama-Lekx, viola

Wednesday, 18 June 2008
12:15pm
The Cathedral Church of St Paul
138 Tremont Street, Boston

10.6.08

ELGAR: Part-Songs

CD review, Sequenza21.

New Resources

I want to draw your attention to two new resources for concert music on the web. Classical DJ is a compilation of web radio stations that play concert music. Medici TV hosts filmed performances of concert music and concert music documentaries. (NOTE: My understanding is that some of Medici TV is free, and some is pay-to-play.)



Both of these resources look very promising. I've added links to them on the right side of the page, under "Links and Resources".

16.5.08

Lisa Hirsch on Women Composers

Blogger Lisa Hirsch has written a fine article (published in New Music Box) surveying the status of women composers in today's musical world. Lisa covers the isue from a variety of angles, and notes the need for discussion of the music as well as discussion of the situation facing these composers.

Check it out.

13.5.08

Robert Rauschenberg, 1925-2008

New York Times obituary here.

John Cage said that fear in life is the fear of change. If I may add to that: nothing can avoid changing. It’s the only thing you can count on. Because life doesn’t have any other possibility, everyone can be measured by his adaptability to change.

27.4.08

Henry Brant (1913-2008)

Composer Henry Brant, best known for his use of musical space, has died. Some tributes (I'll add more as they come in):

Kyle Gann

Daniel Wolf

26.4.08

Me and My Meme

Tagged: by Alex Shapiro.

1. Pick up the nearest book.
2. Open to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you.

Sentences 6-8 from page 123 from Andre Dubus' Finding a Girl in America, (the story is called "The Winter Father"):

'Isn't that where people go to drink?' Kathi said.
'It's afternoon too,' David said.
Not for Peter; the sky was grey, the time was grey, dark was coming, and all at once he felt utterly without will; all the strength he had drawn on to be with his children left him like one long spurt of arterial blood: all his time with his children was grey, and night coming; it always will be; nothing would change: like three people cursed in an old myth they would forever be thirty-three and eight and six, in this car on salted roads, going from one place to another.

Tagging: Lisa Hirsch, Daniel Wolf, Scott Speigelberg, Darcy James Argue, and Phil Nugent.

24.4.08

Holland Days

The New York Times' chief correspondent on the musical attitudes and tastes of Bernard Holland, Bernard Holland, has written another article (in a limitless, numberless series) on the musical attitudes and tastes of Bernard Holland. The composer whose music provides Mr. Holland with another reason to revisit this admittedly compelling subject is George Perle, who turns 93 next month.

There's a lot to criticize in this piece, and others have done a good bit of the heavy lifting. To my mind, the most important of these is Tim Rutherford-Johnson's post, which points out the radical ahistoricism of Mr. Holland's opening paragraphs. I would only expand on Tim's fourth generation of atonal composers by pointing out that even younger artists like Michael Hersch represent a fifth or even sixth generation of composers writing what I prefer to call "pantonal" music.

Mr. Holland argues that the "passing" of pantonal music will not be noticed by the general public "given that not many people knows it ever existed". Concerts are full of pantonal music, and the Times itself reviews quite a bit, so I'm not sure exactly what Mr. Holland means, even if one were to accept his faulty premise that pantonal music is passing. What percentage of the "general public" would note the "passing" of classical music itself?

I come not to fisk Mr. Holland ("Sator Arepo" does that thoroughly, if not completely effectively) but to raise an eyebrow at some of his assertions:
It sounds reasonable to say that Anton Webern’s Piano Variations take up where Brahms left off. I admire the Webern; I even like it for its strangely satisfying space-age spirituality. I don’t think it has anything remotely to do with Brahms.

Both Brahms and Webern made very clear (and often showy) use of learned contrapuntal techniques in context of extreme expression, in forms of the past. Both composers were unusually fond of placing the burden of the musical arguement in highly active middle voices. Both composers relied on variation form/technique throughout their careers. The line from Brahms to Webern is very clear, but since the subject of the piece isn't music, but rather Bernard Holland's attitudes about it, there's not much to argue about. If he can't hear the connections, he can't hear them.

While arguing in general that pantonality is something other than peachy, Mr. Holland does praise Mr. Perle's music. And it is indeed praiseworthy. A correspondent tells me that the article did make him interested in hearing the music, so it must be granted that the article fulfilled that important function. I found the description of the music so general as to be all-but-meaningless, but it was fairly accurate, as far as it went.

Somebody at the Times did their homework--the caption on the picture of the composer uses the phrase "Twelve-tone tonalist". This is a play on the title of the composer's book about his compositional techniques. I was going to say it is about his "very personal approach to 12-tone technique", but I've never encountered music written using 12-tone techniques that weren't "very personal". I was hoping to read something about this in the article, but it was not to be found.

In the end, Mr. Holland uses Mr. Perle's music as a club which he uses to beat Elliott Carter over the head:

I recently came across a television program about Mr. Carter, who, at the end, hoped that an increasingly complicated world would breed a public smart and alert enough to appreciate his music. That is a dangerous presumption, one that offers soap to an unwashed public as yet unworthy of his greatness.

Mr. Holland doesn't name the "television program", which is Frank Schaffer's film A Labyrinth of Time, and I'm pretty sure I would have left out the title, too, if I were going to so completely distort a quote from it. I can see why Mr. Holland might dislike Mr. Carter, since the 99-year-old active composer throws less-than-flattering light on the critic's pride in what he clearly sees as his hard-earned laziness.

This article has its defenders, notably Kyle Gann (musical politics also make strange bedfellows) and A. C. Douglas (regular fan of Mr. Holland's work). Kyle's post is especially thoughtful and nuanced.

The point of this is not to deny that Mr. Holland is entitled to his opinions. Of course he is. But he's not entitled to his own facts.

11.4.08

Elsewhere

Daniel Felsenfeld points to a fascinating blog called The Detritus Review, s a meta-critical look at music writing. In his post about the blog (which has been added to the blogroll), Dan rightfully calls on the bloggers to drop their anonymity, which seems only fair given the nature of the subject. I imagine they will do just that in due course.

Alex Ross posts an appropriately bleak photograph accompanied by some lines from Wallace Stevens' "The Snow Man". Brazenly, I take the opportunity to mention that my solo piano piece, A Mind of Winter, title taken from the same poem, is part of Daniel Wolf's album of pieces written in response to the season, which is long past in these parts.

7.4.08

Congratulations!

To Alex Ross, whose The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, was a finalist in the General Nonfiction category of the Pulitzer Prizes. An honor well-deserved, in a very large category.

Also to David Lang, whose Little Match Girl Passion is the Pulitzer Prize winner in Music Composition. David and I were classmates together at the University of Iowa, when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

Tanguy: Cello Concertos

CD review, Sequenza21.

12.3.08

Interpretation and Recording

On my morning commute today I heard a recording of Johannes Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn (Op. 56a, 1873) by an orchestra whose name I didn't catch, conducted by Pierre Monteux. The orchestra sounded French, because of the oboes. Maybe somebody more knowledgeable about such things could comment.

The Haydn Variations is (to my knowledge) the first stand-alone set of orchestral variations ever written, and it set a very high standard for those that followed. The Theme's DNA is very clear in all of the variations, regardless how distant the surface of the music may sound in a given variation. Because of this, Brahms' compositional processes are directly audible, and the work achieves a virtually complete identity between technique and expression.

Monteux' performance emphasized the rhythmic content of the Haydn Variations in a way I had never heard before. The Theme (probably not by Haydn, by the way) obsesses over the number five. It is replete with fives, in phrase length, repeated notes, etc. This performance was built around brigning the fives (as well as the usual 3:2 hemiolas of which Brahms was so fond) to the foreground through accents and balance. These fives are an importan component of the thematic DNA that informs each of the variations, especially the Finale, which is a passacaglia (variations over a repeating figure) whose ostinato (the repeating figure itself) is five measures long. In addition, these rhythmic quirks were highlighted through the generally quicker than usual tempos Monteux took throughout the performance.

It was an electric and illuminating reading. But I noticed that I fought it for a while because I was used to hearing it a different way. That's what listening to recorded performances does. It places an image in your ears that's hard to dislodge when you are presented with performances that are this different. If the score is in your head, this is not as big a problem, but it's still there.

I arrived at work safely, with a new way of hearing one of my favorite pieces, and without spilling so much as a drop of coffee.

29.2.08

Milton Glaser: "Art and Propaganda"

Milton Glaser is a graphic designer. His talk on "Art and Propaganda" was delivered at a symposium at the City University of New York Graduate Center on 15February. I'm generally uncomfortable with statements about the "purpose" of art, because I think that thinking of art in those terms can lead to some pretty uncomfortable places, but this quote from Glaser's talk is worth holding on to:

It's from Horace, the Roman philosopher and critic, who wrote, "The purpose of art is to inform and delight." I've been thinking about the purpose of art all my life and Horace helped me to arrive at an understanding. Art is a survival mechanism for the human species. Otherwise, it never would have lasted so long.

Glaser goes on to illuminate and expand on the implications of Horace's dictum and how dangerous it is when "inform" is changed to "persuade". Good stuff, and well worth a few minutes of your time.

28.2.08

Komei Abe: Orchestra Music

CD review, Sequenza21.

Where Credit is Due

I've criticized New York Times music critic Bernard Holland before for, among other things, being dismissive of new pieces without giving us enough about the music to know how seriously to take his dismissal, as well as occasional glibness, but his review of a Chicago Symphony concert conducted by Pierre Boulez includes this telling insight:

Mr. Boulez, now well into his 80s, commands by getting things right. I don’t think I have ever heard the “Petrouchka” played so vividly yet so precisely. He is not the inspirational conductor exhorting players to great things, but rather a man so in control of every detail, and so reliable in matters of gesture at critical junctures, that players enjoy a confidence that lets them be themselves.

That's a formula for exciting music-making.

I would like to have more details on the Quatre dédicaces of Luciano Berio than Mr. Holland gives--"short and intense, punctuated by sudden explosions and great splashes of color". Happily, blogger Bruce Hodges provides a little more:

. . . four miniatures written between 1978 and 1989, for orchestras in San Francisco, Dallas and Rotterdam. This performance (and the ones in Chicago) are the first time they have been performed as a set. All four are extroverted, brilliantly written squibs that show off what a large orchestra can do.

Mr. Hodges concludes with a wish for a recording of Quatre dédicaces from M. Boulez and the CSO sooner rather than later. Add it to the list!

27.2.08

George Rochberg: Symphony 1

CD review, Sequenza21.

A Hit by Varèse

Greg Sandow has a series of posts up about popular vs high culture. (Nothing new about that.) Several times he (or someone he is quoting) refers to Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men and Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood as works of popular culture, and this brings up what I think is an interesting issue.

The project of postmodernism to remove the taxonomic wall between "popular" and "high" culture has been remarkably succesful. In fact, it has been so succesful that there are signs that it is being rebuilt, this time with "popular" culture occupying the "superior" turf, with its "authenticity" and "audience ownersdhip" tropes carrying the rhetorical day.

It looks from here as though this new wall is as artificial as the old one, and the seemingly automatic classification of There Will Be Blood as a product/artifact of "popular" culture is an example of its arbitrariness. Under what criteria is Mr. Anderson's film on the same side of a defining line as, say, Blades of Glory, and on the opposite side of that line as Edgard Varèse's Amériques or Elliott Carter's Piano Concerto or Symphony of Three Orchestras (not to mention Wagner's Ring cycle), all of which have much in common with There Will Be Blood?

I have some ideas about this, but I am interested in reading your thoughts and reactions first. Please leave a comment if you are so inclined, and I promise not to drink your milkshake.

8.2.08

The Dawn of Man, or The Future Isn't What It Used to Be

Some thoughts on seeing Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) yet again.

--As anyone who has seen the film knows, 2001 is full of moments of tremendous power and beauty. Some of these are directly tied to music (all of which is pre-existant, a trademark of Kubrick's mature work), others, like the sudden cut from a bone floating in the air to a part of a space station in space, are not. One of my favorites is very close to the end. Astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) has just been transformed into a fetus on a bed, with the black monolith standing near the foot of the bed. Kubrick shoots the monolith from the bed--it's a classic Kubrick visual composition, with the 'lith in the center of the shot, and the other objects in the room symetrically on either side. The camera begins to move slowly towards the monolith as we hear the fanfare from Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra begin. The camera accelerates and at the first orchestral entrance following the trumpet's rising figure, the camera seems to enter the monolith and suddenly we are looking at earth from space. It's a stunning gesture in a film full of them.

--Stanley Kubrick is often thought of as a cold, cerebral, and misanthropic artist. He may well have been all of these things, but the man had a sense of humor as well. 2001 has several instances of Kubrick's disdain for bureaucratic functions, two of which involve momentous occasions being delayed for the taking of photographs. Then there's the close study of the instructions for a zero-gravity toilet. And I've always found the synchronization of the opening credits with the fanfare at least a little humorous.

--2001 was released forty years ago. At that time, no one had been to the moon, let alone walked on it. That happened the next year. Until 20 July 1969 no person had visited another celestial body. After that day it was, for a long time, unthinkable that once again no living person will have walked on a celestial body. Yet, we are approaching that day--all of the 9 surviving (of 12) astronauts who walked on the surface of the Moon are over 70. What does this mean for our race? (I don't know, and I'm not convinced it necessarily means anything.) What is our future?

7.2.08

Corporatism and Art

Kyle Gann has posted about a musicology class he spoke to at the University of Kentucky. He begins by describing the way the class' usual teacher structured the session:

The group had been reading my book American Music in the 20th Century, and he had each person prepare a question, the questions all asked in turn without being immediately answered; after which discussion could proceed with all the questions in mind.

I agree with Kyle that this sounds like a great way to structure an appearance by a guest scholar. It forces (or rather guides) the lecturer to relate the questions to each other and to answer them as a whole. The questions Kyle got led him to think about our current situation, which can be described as "music under corporatism":

We used to think the state was the government, but it's now become obvious that the state, in the U.S. at least, is the corporations that own and control the government, and the state's only interest, musically speaking, is in providing mass distribution to the music that can make the most exorbitant short-term profit, and squelching any musical outlet that threatens to pose competition to that profit.

I think this is a spot-on and very creative response. Corporatism dominates public life in the United States these days, and its effect on the arts is far from salutary. I don't have much to add to Kyle's analysis, I really just wanted to make sure you didn't miss it.

If I were to quibble, I would only object to the use of "populist" and "elitist" in this:

An elitist and a populist would certainly choose different paths through the socio-musical pinball machine, and there's little reason one might not be as successful as the other.

I know what he means, or rather what he means to mean, but I think it's a little sloppy, but not enough so as to undercut his very important argument.

30.1.08

In Concert

Yesterday, I quoted Alex Ross on the value of concert attendance:

Recordings capture only a fraction of what makes classical music compelling—the social experience of listening with a crowd in real time, the physical and psychological effect of hearing natural sound reverberate in a room.

Today, Eric Alterman publishes a letter from Roger H. Werner that reads in part:

I once heard a marvelous Russian pianist play Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, music I've heard a thousand times. The people sitting next to me must have though I was crazy because the music was so beautiful it made me cry. And I recall the first time I heard the 1812 Overture live more than 20 years ago, and it's something I shall never forget. I've been to a hundred rock concerts, and while most were enjoyable, they mostly blend together and all I can recall are the awful concerts.

[If you go to the letter, make sure you click through to the letter that prompted Mr. Werner to write his.]

I'm sure many rock/pop concerts provide the kind of experiences Mr. Werner recounts here, and this is by no means an attempt to downgrade that particular communal experience. It is to point out that performances of concert music are not exercises in the celebration of the past or of the establishment/enforcement of cultural hierarchies.

At their best, performances process the expressions of one heart through the body of another into the vibrations of an instrument (or voice) that sends waves into the air, where the ears and minds of other hearts make them their own. And that is magic; living and breathing magic.

Noisy

"Why should I listen to the 20th century? It was pretty loud."
--Stephen Colbert to Alex Ross, The Colbert Report, 29 January 2008.

29.1.08

Elsewhere

Kyle Gann posts a fine talk on Morton Feldman he delivered last week in Seattle. I might quibble with Kyle on a few details about the atmosphere in the seventies and the meaning of Feldman's achievement for composers, but it's a compelling and well-thought-out read. Among the gems:



One of my favorite stories Feldman liked to tell was of Marcel Duchamp visiting an art class in San Francisco, where he saw a young man wildly painting away. Duchamp went over and asked, "What are you doing?" The young man said, "I don't know what the fuck I'm doing!" And Duchamp patted him on the back and said, "Keep up the good work." In music, it was Feldman, more than anyone else, who gave us permission not to know what the fuck we were doing.

Jen Carlson, of The Gothamist, interviewing Alex Ross, asks what he would recommend to a new classical music listener. Alex responds, in part:



First, go to a live concert. Recordings capture only a fraction of what makes classical music compelling—the social experience of listening with a crowd in real time, the physical and psychological effect of hearing natural sound reverberate in a room.

This advice can't be repeated enough. Alex notes that there are cheap concert tickets to be had, even in New York City. In a college town like Tallahassee, Greensboro, Iowa City, or Ithaca, there are literally hundreds of free concerts and (especially) recitals to attend.

Matthew Guerrieri meditates on the idea of composers having a "late style":

Elliott Carter, who continues to cheat the actuarial tables at the age of 99, has become a fount of energetic, bracing, quirky works that defiantly insist on being encountered on their own terms, rather than through the prism of their composer's age. It's those of us who think we have a fair amount of time left that are concerned with stage-managing our exit; closer to the deadline, it seems that the best revenge is often just to keep on keeping on.
Matthew is quite right when he argues that when he hear autumn in music, it's more us than the music itself. I'll add that that's a good general rule--when we leave the "text" of the music, usually what we say about it reveals more about us as listeners than it does about the music under discussion.

Listening:

Beethoven--Quartet in a minor, Op. 132; Guarneri Quartet.

Michael Hersch--The Vanishing Pavilions; Michael Hersch, piano.

Feldman--Rothko Chapel; UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus; David Abel, viola; Karen Rosenak, celeste; William Winant, percussion.