Monday, January 17, 2005

Landmarks (1)

(This is the first of a series)

Night Music
(1960) Richard Maxfield

First heard on the lp New sounds in electronic music [1967] (including works by Reich and Oliveros, ODYSSEY 32 16 016)

Night Music caught me first for its sound and then, later, for the elegant technical means - what you hear are only the difference tones between the supersonic bias signals of a tape recorder and a supersonic oscillator tone. Gordon Mumma pointed out that as Maxfield was essentially performing with the erase head, this is synthesis without input. But the novelty of vituosic performance techniques in music is (for me) short-lived. The aspect of this piece that has stayed with me is its form, which strikes me as uniquely balanced between what James Tenney calls Ergodic form - statistically flat, without formal landmarks - and its references to a long tradition of pieces about figures in clearings, starting, perhaps, with Beethoven's 6th, "Pastorale" Symphony, and continuing through Berlioz, Ives, and Messiaen. But Maxfield is not giving us single figures in his clearing, instead he populates his landscape with such numbers and every manner of insect or bird, that he achieves a density that borders on stasis.

We really need to have more of Maxfield available. And not just the electro-acoustic works, which have received some welcome attention from the latest generation of electronic musicians. He studied with Sessions, Henze, Babbitt, and Cage. Before his turn to the studio, Maxfield had been a prolific composer of notated works for chamber and small orchestral forces, beginning with neoclassicism, in Berkeley moving on to 12-tone techniques, and continuing these at Princeton. After Princeton, he took -- and then took over - Cage's course at the New School, making a major change of allegiance to the experimental side. This transition from academic to experimental music making catches my attention. Was Maxfield one of the first to recognize the Princeton path as a dead end?

(It's a kick now to look at the list of 12-tonish composers in Babbitt's 1955 essay, "Some Aspects of Twelve-Tone Composition": roughly a third of the names are obscure, or obscure as composers, another third made significant changes in allegiance away from 12-tone techniques (Maxfield, Robert Erickson, Rochberg), and the rest used techniques that deviated seriously from 12-tone orthodoxy (Riegger, Perle). I've never bought either the Babbitt-line on the centrality of 12-tone technique or the anti-Babbitt-line claiming a hegemony for 12-toners over the awarding of academic prizes and positions. Babbitt himself has composed and written about music with integrity and a certain charm, filling out the ramifications of a narrow, precisely defined space in the universe of possible musics, another eccentric figure in a culture full of musical eccentrics. Babbitt's true camp followers are few and lack his invention and wit, and as bitter as the battle often seemed, Babbitt is in may way closer to the experimentalists than to the standard-issue musical academics. The friendships between Babbitt and Feldman or Babbitt and Cage were genuine, if not marked by much comprehension for each others' projects, and many composers were enriched by study with Babbitt - believe it or not, La Monte Young (later a close friend of Maxfield) had planned on studying with Babbitt, but Babbitt's injury in an auto accident intervened in his plans and Young ended up at Berkeley, becoming, in two years, a central force in the west coast scen, and a pivotal figure in minimal music. (And, in truth, most academic prizes and positions go to the harmless, hardworking harmony instructors in music departments with large bands and well-fed football teams.) That said, there is definitely a ergodic aspect to Babbitt's music, as any given sample of any work of his is going to tend to have a flat distribution of pitch classes, registers, instrumental combinations, dynamics, placement of tones within the prevailing metre, etc..

1 comment:

henk said...

hebben jullie de advance lp.