Monday, November 19, 2012

The Origin of Table Manners

(This is the third in a series of items which begun with The Raw and The Cooked and continued with From Honey to Ashes).

When a rule of etiquette first appears in the historical record, it enters as a corrective, not yet a norm: an instruction to use a knife and a fork indicated that people were eating without the use of knives and forks; an injunction against unpleasant noises indicates that meals were once taken in the company of conspicuous sounds.

It's actually the other way 'round with composing.  Our rules of etiquette, found in treatises by Fux and Morley and Schenker and Hindemith and dozens of MacHoses and others even more deserving of obscurity, have to be read — if read at all — as invitations to misbehave: every rule represents a path not taken, but damn likely a path worth revisiting if we are at all to move forward.  The etiquette for table manners is all about ever-more narrowing the range of possible behaviors; the etiquette of composition, in contrast, is all about expanding the range of possible behaviors; the composer's task is to make a convincing case, within a piece of music, for doing something that was previously forbidden.


In the back of a used book shop I recently came across a copy of Heinz-Klaus Metzger's translation of Ernst Krenek's deceptively titled Studies in Counterpoint, a pamphlet from 1940 which was probably the most widely read introduction to 12-tone technique in the '40s and '50. (I had actually read the English original, from a copy borrowed from Claremont Public Library when I was in Junior High, and even produced a set of small pieces, "inventions" as Krenek styled them, which my band director seriously didn't like, preferring that I learn figured bass from his well-worn copy of the dreaded (but, to its credit, proto-algorithmic) MacHose.  Probably just as well.)

I believe that Krenek's little book was very important in transmitting just enough practical information about Schoenbergian technique into the community of working commercial composers that at least some aspects of the technique became permanent staples of the film music menu.  Suspense? Angst?  Krenek's little book had a usable formula for accompanying scenes of extreme emotional content.

Revisiting the Krenek after all these years is, as one might expect, a curious experience. To be honest, part of the curiosity comes from the vague familiarity of reading a book I encountered in English as a teenager now in German and with a more substantial exposure to the repertoire behind me.  But the larger curiosity comes from the sense that there is now nothing particularly urgent about  the 12-tone or serial projects and there is now substantial and useful distance in any re-reading.  In particular, it has become clear that Krenek was working at a now-distant juncture between method and style and that many of the "rules" he presents  (restricting the repetition of pitch classes to the same octave, for example), can emerge, with the benefits of hindsight, as much less essential  — when not altogether unnecessary — and deconstructing (if you'll pardon my po-mo) the theory to recover the underlying style (or vice versa) is not uninteresting and — may be/kind of/sort of/possibly/absolutely not — of compositional interest.


In contrast, Henry Brant's Textures and Timbres: An Orchestrator's Handbook needs no deconstruction as he is absolutely upfront and candid about the nature and limits of his project, which is restricted to balancing and mixing instruments.  His recipes for homogenous and well-balanced combinations can be used as is, or, perhaps more productively, as negative examples.  For me, the greatest utility of these recipes often comes less in following them exactly than in figuring out where they can be varied, whether substantially or in detail. So I have a bunch of bletting medlars in my kitchen, but no useful medlar recipes.... haul out the old copy of The Joy of Cooking and I look for variations:  medlar in place of pumpkin in pie, in place of banana in nut bread, and in place of persimmon in pudding.  Likewise, Brant's cookbook provides similar openings for innovation in the orchestra.


1 comment:

Archivist/Cultural Liaison said...

I always like Krenek's Modal Counterpoint book too as another example of his brevity. He understood also how to get other composers into the most dissonant formations of the style quickly.