Monday, March 18, 2013

Landmarks (49)

Roberto Gerhard: Concert for 8 (1962) for flute, clarinet, guitar, mandolin, accordion, percussion, piano, and double bass.

The Catalan composer Gerhard (1896-1970) was one of Schoenberg's Berlin students (an international group that included Nikos Skalkottas, Marc Blitzstein, Norbert von Hannenheim)  and his career bridged over the Second World War, giving an unusual breadth with some of his early works incorporating folk elements, his latter works using twelve tone techniques, electro-acoustic tape, and even some degrees of Cage-acknowledging indeterminacy.  Fleeing Franco's Spain, his latter career was spent in England, with some important teaching stays in the United States.

Gerhard's use of Schoenbergian  twelve-tone techniques was sensitive and sophisticated, but the twelve tone aspect is perhaps the least interesting thing about the Concert for 8:   it can say something about where the pitches come from, but this music is about far more than pitches and certainly more about where they're going than whence they've come. I suspect that it was his experience with electro-acoustic music that made the critical difference here for Gerhard.  He insisted on the advantages of a composer working in the immediacy of his/her own studio, with an individualized components and set-up without the apparatus of staff engineers and bureaucracy that went with the large continental studios hosted by state radio stations. Working with only the assistance of his wife in recording sounds, Gerhard's relationship to his material had an immediacy akin to that of the independent studios in the US (and he would, indeed, have a more positive relationship to the young composers at the Cooperative Studio in Ann Arbor than his colleagues at the University of Michigan.)*   Let's be clear: Concert for 8 is not electroacoustic music, it is instrumental chamber music for a highly unconventional, even unlikely combination of instruments (if I recall correctly, it was the result of a private commission from a musically gifted family with an unusual instrumentarium) including plucked strings, an accordion, and a large battery of percussion instruments mostly not of determined or even discrete pitches (using such percussion is frequently a challenge to a twelve-tone premise, particularly when the composer wants to go beyond accents and noisy ornaments to the pitch scheme**) but it is music that is so focused on quality of sound the formation of sounds into broad gestures that the assumption is inescapable that it has been informed by an electroacoustic experience  — that of concrete and instrumental sounds combined and placed into a continuity by the manipulation of magnetic tape.  I cannot help but hear Concert for 8 as belonging in the company of "textural" works of its era, like those of Ligeti or Xenakis (composers a good generation younger than Gerhard), yet this is music that sounds consistently and refreshingly right at both the level of detail and of broad stroke, a kind of anti-stochastic music, to the degree to which a stochastic approach can mean that one is disinterested in or even ignores the precise details so long as they sum up to the desired larger view.   

* For a point of comparison, consider that Gerhard's colleagues working in German radio studio, would typically have to work with the mediation of a Tonmeister,  a Sound Engineer, and  a Tape Recorder Operator, who kept a protocol of each session.
** Compare Babbitt's highly rigorous use of trap set percussion in All Set.

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