Thursday, March 15, 2007

You can't do this here

(An encore posting from 25 July 2006)

I read through the score of Stravinsky's Movements this morning, a favorite piece* and realized that the old man does a lot of things younger composers can't get away with anymore in the American concert hall, between sharp breaks in continuity and a steadfast anti-tonality.

Tragic but true: when the smoke had cleared, the new music wars had been won not by towners up or down or coasters east or left, but by a rear guard of trained symphonic band composers from big state universities in the middle of the country. The surviving rebels were exiled, retrained, or forced into dayjobs in data processing and direct telephone sales.


* One thing I like about Movements: It positively resists ending the analysis with a description of the technique used for selecting the pitches**. Listening closely suggests connections to other musics, including some musics which share no technical means with Stravinsky's , and even musics with which the composer was presumably unfamiliar, from the Ars Subtilor to the cuing pieces by Christian Wolff. Like late 14th century music, Movements has a tonal environment in which mo(ve)ments dominated by acoustic consonances border directly with mo(ve)ments that resist the ear's favor, and those borders give the music part of it's quirky, crispy character. Like the Wolff pieces, Movements is composed of fragments, pushing our ears to follow successions of continuities, sharp cuts, and simultaneities which cohere only with great uncertainty. And the music flies by -- the grace note (Stravinsky had always been a grace note consumer, but the influence of Webern's grace notes plays a role here, too) has been elevated to a basic pulse, or rather a basic presence, its duration removed or stolen from metrical time. (In Wolff's cuing pieces, the use of a "zero" time unites both the stolen time of the grace note with the non-metrical time of caesuras, fermatas, and the outside-of-the-movement time between movements; Nono's late, great string quartet would later use a scale of fermatas). This music is quite literally composed of a series of contrasting movements, with distinct tempi and rhythmic profiles, sometime reappearing, sometimes disappearing (a pre-emptive challenge to Stockhausen's notion of a "moment form"?) But in the end, the old craftsman Stravinsky knows that the fragments are defined as much by the places where the join, or playfully fail to join, as by their own substance. In fact, there is something random-sounding about the details here -- Stravinsky grabbed from his "verticalized" row-charts in very much the same spirit in which Wolff invites his players to select from pools of pitches here and there on the score -- but it's entirely in keeping with the composer's wisdom that constrast and complementarity need not be understood immediately and in detail, but can be discerned in an impressionistic way.

**Descriptions of the sort can be found in all of the usual places by all of the usual suspects, among whom Josef Straus is particularly, if not unusually, good.


Anonymous said...

Yep, Stravinsky and grace notes, I was wondering how many others have realized how important these are, and just how GOOD he was at it.

David Ocker said...

>>>> when the smoke had cleared, the new music wars had been won not by towners up or down or coasters east or left, but by a rear guard of trained symphonic band composers from big state universities in the middle of the country. <<<<

I could feel my muscles jerk a bit when I read this. Not because I thought what you're saying is wrong - but because I have no real idea of what you mean by "winning" (and presumably by "losing" since the two usually go together.)

I can identify who you mean by "towners" and "coasters" - but in my mind I can't conjure the names of any Big U. band composers.

What a surprise it would be to discover that a whole phalanx of deep-feeling, highly emotive, creative, talented, successful, important red-state composers with tenure have snuck up behind me and captured the entire genre of new music while I was huddled in my blue-state cocoon. Kind of like recent politics.

Or maybe you were just kidding and I overlooked some smiley emoticon in your post.

Daniel Wolf said...

It is a bit of fiction, and an exaggerated fiction at that, but one, I think, that has a kernel of truth. (The paragraph was in italics, hoping to signal that the reading had to be something other than literal).

Without naming names, it has been my experience that in the US, the pieces that take prizes and get played in large institutional contexts are the pieces which exhibit best a certain, "professional", skill set: well-made orchestration, forms with well-defined orchestration, and a default tonality with respectable voice-leading. And the parameters of that skill set, I believe, are determined by a viewpoint about music that would not include, as in my example, the late music of Stravinsky.
And new repertoire which attempts to stretch the definition of music, or put forward new ideas about what music may mean, are basically excluded from the concert hall.

I can't quite make a red state/blue state analogy fit, but there is some truth there, too. While we were busy imagining a big fight over bloody nothing between the up- and downtowners, institutions looking for composers-in-residence and tenuring teachers tended to make safe, conservative choices. There are exceptions, of course, but institutions are conservative by nature and they have institutional service responsibilities that have to be covered. So they hire the composer who can teach a "standard" harmony or orchestration class, and has a good record of getting along with others, so that they can network in professional organizations, and do their committee service without making waves. It's all well-behaved and perfectly respectable, but WTF does making a new music have to do with being well-behaved and respectable? Making new music is, fundamentally, a violation of an existing order, and you have to either accept and embrace that violation or decide that you'd rather be the musical equivalent of a civil servant.

David Ocker said...

Daniel, that's a good answer. Thank you. I agree with what you've said.

The academy is not a place for people who want to shake the music world - at least until after they've done their shaking and have gotten recognition and need a steady income. Then, even if they don't play well with others or smell funny or whatever, they will be an asset to "the department."

In my opinion, musical rules are made to be broken. Except in school where they represent objective standards used to rate pieces against one another. Many composers, long out of school, still give their own music mental grades. They console themselves by claiming "I'm doing my best work."

Personally, I think composition should not even be taught in college. Teach harmony, orchestration etc - yes. If a kid wants to be a composer let him do it on his own time; don't add compositional shackles by trying to teach the unteachable. If he or she wants to follow rules or make up new ones, great. But If he (or she) wants to break rules and seek a new musical course they should get therapy. (Okay, that is a joke. Sort of.)

Fortunately for all of us, most people (musicians included) are happy to follow rules, to believe what they are told in church and to select between the right wing candidate and the ultra far right-wing candidate. The rest of us, a small minority I trust, must take our pleasure in complaining. And in writing music because we enjoy writing music. And in avoiding the trap of a dual career as both composer and professor.

P.S. Italics mean tongue in cheek? I didn't know that. (I didn't even notice italics in my browser in your first post.)

Anonymous said...

Wonderful to hear that Movements is a favorite of yours. Mine too, for many years.

It's one of those rare pieces that look as gorgeous as it sounds.

A tremendous display of great craftsmanship. And a confirmation that no matter what style I.S. adopted, he was the master .. the greatest 12-tone composer ever.