Friday, April 15, 2011

Usefully Informal

Composers, as craftspeople, tend to overemphasize the professional, the formal, the finished, and the perfected. However, a lot of useful and valuable music-making is not professional and not yet formal or finished, let alone perfected, and this emphasis can often be a distraction from opportunities for music-making — indeed most music-making — in situations, environments and on occasions which may well be informal, provisional, and yes, (cheerfully) far-from-perfect.

New music, in order to thrive, has got to go wide and deep into our musical culture, an established if dynamic presence, emphasizing not only the most prestigious occasions and institutions and requiring only the most virtuoso musicians. This means music for amateurs, music for children, music for pedagogy, and music for private use as well as civic and institutional functions.

Fortunately, we have some very good models of composers writing pieces designed to reach wider sets of players and audiences which are nevertheless integrated into their work as a whole. For example — and looking only at piano music (we could as easily look at vocal music or music for guitar or recorder or school instrumental ensembles) — the collections of small-scale piano pieces by Bartók — most famously the six volumes of Mikrokosmos — and, later, Kurtág's Játékok (Games) and transcriptions for piano two- and four-handed, or Virgil Thomson's two collections of piano Etudes and the large series of Portraits. Mikrokosmos was compiled initially as piano lessons for the composer's son, Péter, but grew to be a progressive collection, varying from sketches to substantial pieces, illustrating nearly all of Bartók's technical concerns as a composer and pianist and in many cases serving as a sketchbook for other concert works. The Játékok includes repertoire intended for private and public use by the composer and his wife, occasional pieces for friends and colleagues, and, like Mikrokosmos, preliminary and intermediate steps to major concert works (the various metamorphoses of the enig- and emblematic Virág az ember materials as particularly fascinating.) Many of Thomson's Portraits, likewise, find their way into substantial concert works, often orchestrated, but the origins, as portraits of named persons who sat for Thomson in the manner of a portrait painter, were opportunities for the composer to experiment without the pressures of the formal, finished and professionally polished, often executed in the kind of automatic writing that, despite Thomson's insistence on his professionality, indulges in the advantages of — as Buckminister Fuller put it — daring to be naive, echoes the practices of modernists in other disciplines (i.e. Stein, the surrealists), and reliably delivered Thomson his most interesting music.

Among more recent examples of the usefully informal, I would add the scores of exquisite small-scale piano pieces by Gordon Mumma (some of which are available as scores from Material Press, and the recent double cd of these, played by the great Belgian pianist Daan Vandewalle is highly recommended) and also mention Lloyd Rodger's The Black Book, a project of composing approximately a piece a day for year, in ink without edits. (I haven't seen the scores, but I believe that they are in open score form, again, a very useful idea.) This seems to resonate with Lou Harrison's suggestion, for the "stuck" composer, of composing a whole piece each day, every day: the idea is not to try and write perfect pieces, but to practice writing performable complete pieces, however small the scale or modest the ambition, to concentrate and focus and practice craft, allowing the ambitious, formal, polished, and perfected to emerge on its own terms.


Anonymous said...

Maybe slightly off topic, but speaking of perfection, especially when it is combined with youthful drive, curiosity and depth, I have no choice but to mention Zoltan Kocsis' recording 1984 of the Art of Fugue.

Bach's ambitious project, the Art of Fugue, can be seen as a combination of the formal and the informal, of stretching and twisting the material in ways which some observers would call erratic and offbeat (e.g., in Contrapunctus 2).

However, Kocsis seems willing to play down the formal inconsistencies, and transformational paradoxes Bach's work - of course, the work of genius - and allow his, Kocsis', own perfectionist and polished sound to transmit to the listener a sense of what I could call "flow", the uninterrupted flow of energy.

Average music always seems to stumble against something, and there is no sense of flow.

Same with performance of great works.

I've heard Pierre-Laurent Aimard's relatively recent performance of the Art of Fugue, and kept thinking: I am impressed by the pianist's craft, he does give the listener a sense of space and dimension, and you can even here the lego-like construction of the architecture of the piece.

But something was missing every time I was re-listnening to that particular recording. Every time the music seemed to be stumbling across something.

Well, clearly it could not have been Bach's fault, because Bach was very serious about his own craft, as we now know.

Lacking in Aimard's recording was a sense of flow, which lets the musical material move itself.

In the performance world, of course, this level of freedom must be supported by a 100% reliable and solid technical ability, and a deeper understanding of how form unfolds, of its flow, as it were, not ONLY about the architectonics of a given piece, where Aimard seems to have stopped - and maybe it IS his limit, and that's fine.

Kocsis' performance IS perfect. In addition to what I said above, Kocsis' performance not give you the feel of him saying: "looking back at life, I feel I know more, but my knowledge is filled with grief, and a deep sense of gloom and doom". That's what some performers feel what the Art of Fugue is about.

To the contrary: the youthful, vibrant outbursts of musical energy, produced by Kocsis, tell you through sound - even if you didn't know - this IS a young person playing.

He is full of hope, and his playing conveys a sense of looking into the future, not nostalgia, often mistakenly injected into Bach's optimistic and genius work.

There is a nostalgic effect, however, but it is extrinsic, so to speak, arising from the context of the performance.

Thinking of my own hopes in 1984, Kocsis' "forward-looking statements" and optimism, you just keep saying to yourself: "I wish I felt like THAT now".

It's a very eighties' performance too.

Apologies about the nostalgic gloom.

But with the presidential elections coming up here in Russia, and with only two presidential candidates of dubious quality - Putin and Medvedev - on the scene, you just keep thinking that progress in this part of the world is impossible, and it feels like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Stravinsky have become completely irrelevant to the behavioral patterns of the ruling elite.

Archivist/Cultural Liaison said...

Hindemith composed many works with the non professional in mind, as well of giving this subject a prominent place in his "A Composer's World".

Daniel Wolf said...

Kraig, I was afraid that someone would bring up Hindemith's Gebrauchsmusik; I'm interested more in a continuum of musical work, while Hindemith's Gebrauchsmusik was a segregated portion of his work, implicitly less important, sophisticated, or valuable, and often painfully didactic in character, and I think that's a real mistake. Music for young players or private music-making or functional music should also be an opportunity to be every bit as daring and inventive as in music for professionals and big institutions. Hindemith missed this opportunity in a major way.

Archivist/Cultural Liaison said...

I wasn't aware of the difference between these works and the rest. Thanks for the correction and I agree with you. It seemed that politics might in general broke his spirit to be innovative and daring as he payed what little he did with exile.
There is no reason to talk down or simplify for the masses or the workers. As someone who worked in a factory for 30 years i find pieces like 'workers union' very downgrading. no worker i know would like it. Even Cardew falls into this same trap. yes the man on the street was Jackson Pollock