Monday, July 09, 2007

Virgil Thomson: almost experimental?

Of the mid-century mainstream American composers, Virgil Thomson is the one whose music was the most consistently provocative and to a large extent, the provocation remains, in all senses of the word. Thomson's reputation now is largely based on his work as a critic, and his reputation as a critic was justified: he was always a fun read, chatty, opinionated, clear, but also fond of leaving his most biting judgments between the lines. His two scores to films by Pare Lorenz are fine and have a captive audience in 11th graders learning about the depression in US History classes. His three operas jostle among one another to surface every couple of years, but only Four Saints in Three Acts has ever got the production it ought to have, and even that has faded from living memory. From time to time, one of the pieces will emerge -- most recently it was the 3rd Symphony, a sweet and crazy piece -- and once again, we kick ourselves for having forgotten Mr. T..

Thomson was a unique bridging figure between his establishment contemporaries (Copland, Sessions, Harris, Piston et al) and the more experimental composers (in particular Cowell, Cage, Harrison (with the group of whom he even joined in co-composing a set of "exquisite corpse"-modeled pieces)). But he never exactly fit into either grouping -- although a Harvard man and a student of Boulanger, he was a mid-westerner, and never lost the ability to speak or write in the plain and direct tone of Kansas. A musical Francophile, he was perhaps the first American devotee of Satie but the references in his music were always to middle America, and not approached -- as in the case of Copland, one may well argue -- as material to appropriate, but rather -- like Ives -- as ones own material, with no license required for its use. His connection to Gertrude Stein was a connection to another, earlier avant garde, and also to a uniquely American talent curiously displaced in Paris; Thomson came by his identification with Stein's words honestly and set them entirely in that spirit: loving them, but never bothered by the irrelevant act of pretending to understand them.

I am particularly fond of a style of writing about music, and implicitly, a style of music theory, that connects Thomson to Harrison and Cage and back to Cowell and Seeger. It is a descriptive style, focused on the materials, and the task in writing is close to that of composing: trying to clarify relationships among materials, without attempting to attach meanings or values to those relationships. This closeness to composition is important because it is basically an experimental attitude, more in the constructive, "what if" mode than in a platonic mode, dictating from inspiration the reflected sound-image of a musical ideal, or a formalist mode, in which the task is to best use the musical surface to project an abstract underlying structure. (The analogy I've made here to the foundations of mathematics is naive, but honest).

Thomson gets closest to the experimental aesthetic in pieces like the early Stein song Susie Asado, with a small set of accompaniment figures applied almost randomly (Thomson frequently used accompaniment figures that became displaced from their melodies -- like the triple metre oom pah pah at the opening of Four Saints in Three Acts), the polytonality of the Sonata de Chiesa, or the Missa pro defunctis, in which sections are based upon a single harmonic idea -- parallel major triads; b5 triads (which are ambiguously heard as inversions of a dominant seventh or subsets of a wholetone scale), parallel major seconds with frequently crossed voices, or an imitation of organ mixtures through massively parallel harmonization. But as experimental as they may get, Thomson seldom risks not making capital-M Music, and when his pieces fall apart, it's not often a falling-apart that creates its own interest. The greater number of his many Portraits -- composed to sitting models: rich, famous, and other objects of his affections -- disappoint, in that judged as Music, they tend not to flow as music, while judged as experiments, they tend to flow too much. Virgil Thomson: almost experimental.

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