Friday, June 05, 2015

Our music's history has more texture than the textbooks say

Received music history and the repertoire or canon that comes alongside it is necessarily streamlined and condensed.  It's got to fit into concert programs, program notes, survey course semesters and textbooks and, whether as advocates or critics, we tend to try to make it fit some larger arc, trajectory, argument or narrative.  And so both works of monstrous extraordinariness and ordinary repertoire get selected and fit, and much gets lost, forgotten or simply set aside as inconvenient in the process.  And that's mostly okay, because most musical ventures can be lost or forgotten without major loss, making room for further refinement, other voices, and even some altogether new ideas. But the inconvenient omissions often require some attention, if only to tug at the edge of our certainty with regard to our arc, trajectories, and narratives and see if we needn't recalibrate or retell them.

Here's a narrative-challenging example, from my work on the Douglas Leedy Nachlass, a previously unpublished and — I believe —  publicly unperformed piece dated 5 April 1964 with the title Spatial Rotation of 10 to 20 Like Instruments:


The 10 to 20 instruments — the composer suggests either clarinets, French horns, trumpets, violas or cellos, providing fingering charts for clarinets or horns — are to be distributed widely throughout the performance space.  Each of the instruments may begin at the beginning of any measure (excepting those measures in which a tone has already begun), continuing left to right, top to bottom (and back to the top), continuing strictly to a common tempo which varies by and is exactly proportional to the number of players, until returning to the initial point.  The pitches consist of the outer tones, b and e'' and eight tones microtonally spanning the interval between a raised f#' and lowered a', so that a maximum-content static but internally continuously changing sonority is produced which could be though of as an inversion of a triad on e, in which the internal tone is varying, blurred, and beating within the space among the plausible thirds above the tonic.

I have not heard this piece except in a rough mock-up on my computer, so I will reserve judgment about whether it "works" or not as a concert work, but I do think that it has a distinct character and internally engaging sonority that could only be richer in a live performance in a real space.  To the point, now, it is very striking in its historical context, reflecting the individual concerns at that time and place of the composer and the "scene" in which he was then working, and I believe that it presents some real challenges to our sense of how music history subsequently went, in particular as there as aspects of the piece which strongly connect to some music of the 80s or 90s by composers including Cage, Feldman, Tenney, or  Lucier.  To understand its position in the Bay Area scene, consider that it was written at approximately the same time as Terry Riley's In C, the Spring of 1964 (In C would receive its first performance in November of the same year) and that it was written while the composer was in the graduate composition seminar at UC Berkeley.  The surviving materials suggest that it had been read through in some form by student musicians for the seminar but not in a public concert; indeed it is difficult to imagine the piece getting played on either practical or aesthetic grounds in that setting and my suspicion, based on conversations with the composer is that he was discouraged both by the unlikelihood of gathering 10 to 20 like instruments with players sympathetic to the piece and the lack of sympathy from Berkeley professor Seymour Shifrin. But nevertheless, the score represents a nexus of Leedy's  interests: a non-developmental or even uneventful environmental music, a static harmony based on a fixed gamut of tones,  a degree of indeterminacy, canons, intonation, mathematically-determined time lengths, and something broader with regard to texture that looks forward to — and perhaps helps explain — his stay in Poland during 1965-66.

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Score example Copyright 2015 Estate of Douglas Leedy & Material Press, Frankfurt am Main

1 comment:

Sara Loren said...

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Bethany Kapell