Sunday, June 27, 2010

Still Fruitful Paths

Recently, I did one of my hit and run spells of teaching "composition" (I insist on the quotation marks, as my understanding of the term is often somewhat unorthodox) to a group of young musicians. One day, one of them made some jokes about serial music (you know the kind — about music for people with 12 fingers, or asking if you take milk and sugar with your serial?, etc.) so I decided to push the issue a bit and take a quick detour through the 12-tone and serial experience.

There was something of a cod liver oil taste to this proposal, but I find, sometimes, that it is useful and surprising to take a new look at a subject that would appear to have been dismissed from further exploration. For example, in one of my reading binges, I decided to re-read as much of the sci-fi and speculative fiction I had consumed in High School and College as I could get a hold of here. As might be expected, I found most of the novels awkward and very hard-going, and was, in general, disappointed with my old enthusiasms. But a significant minority of that stuff actually held up very well, either for ideas or for writing (rarely for both, but that's a high expectation for any fiction, no matter what genre). The more "social science" fiction generally held up better than the hard science fiction and space operas, especially the big space operas. Le Guin's anthropological fiction (a really graceful writer; I like the Hainish cycle, where her writing is best, while I have no patience for her fantasy writing), for example, or Dick's more psychological (Martian Time-Slip and Time Out of Joint are my favorites, examples where he was in control of a writing habit which tended to lose control in a messy, but not reliably interesting way). Others that, books I really enjoyed coming back to included the obvious classics like Cat's Cradle, and some titles that seem to have disappeared from memory: Jeter's Doctor Adder and Billias's The American Book of the Dead. It seems to me that there is still a lot of potential for social science fiction.

The parallel voyage of discovery into all that 12-tone and serial music (AKA the stuff which was supposed to be oppressing to us experimentalists) also turned up some real surprises. Of course I like the Schoenberg String Trio and Phantasie and the Stravinsky Requiem Canticles or Movements, and Webern's vocal music is really the core of his achievement (if somewhat obscure to many musicians who focus on the instrumental music). I had always been fond of Hauer's music, having played some of the piano pieces for more than 30 years, but discovering more details of his technical achievement (the harmonic band technique, especially, which can insure a constant flow of a variety of triads with very smooth voice leading is extremely rich in suggestive possibilities) more than made up for his naivety and arbitrary quirks (like his preference for beginning or ending with minor or major seventh chords). Ernst Krenek was another case altogether; although my own introduction to 12-tone technique came, in 9th or 10th grade, with Krenek's little Counterpoint book borrowed from the Claremont Public Library, and I had actually met the man , Palm Springs tan and all, I had never actually liked any of the music, including the early tonal music, which has always left me with some suspicion that the was just not particularly musical. However, some very beautiful performances of choral works by the RIAS Kammerchor (which have made a specialty of Krenek, singing his works for decades, beautiful to hear, but somewhat disturbing to watch with the constant banging of tuning forks against their skulls to keep on pitch) and a CD by Ensemble Recherche of string trios and solo string music has changed my mind somewhat. Perhaps his music really suffered from bad performances. Perhaps choral music was his genre: the neutrality of the pitch world, mixed with a pseudo-renaissance choral style just seemed to click with the mysticism in Krenek's chosen texts. In any case, we do owe Krenek as a teacher some debt: Robert Erickson was an important composer and I am curious to hear some music sometime by Gladys Nordenstrom, Krenek's student and widow.

It was no surprise that a re-encounter with Goeyvaerts's early pieces (famous in some texbooks, but not often actually heard) was very positive, as with Lou Harrison's Suite for Piano and small opera, Rapunzel, some works of Dallapicolla and of Roberto Gerhard (especially some later chamber works: The Concert for 8 and Gemini, Libra, and Leo (what is it about twelve-toners and the zodiac?!)) All of these examples were pretty straight-forward, technique-wise, but much of the 12-tone/serial repertoire rapidly moved beyond straight-forwardness, especially with the goal of making works of significant length. In the postwar high serial era, it was precisely this issue — of creating large-scale pieces in which the order and deployment of 12-tone or serial resources was anything but arbitrary — that became a central focus, whether in Babbitt's techniques for the composition and projection of arrays or the moves of Stockhausen or Boulez into groups or constellations of elements.

The two best descriptions of the nitty-gritty of compositional technique in the high serial era I found were Stockhausen's booklet about his In Freundschaft and Lake's article about Babbitt's Fifth Quartet. I'm not a great fan of either composer, and certainly much less a fan of their respective camp followers, but each have works in which envelopes of the truly weird have been opened and the musicality of the results are abundant enough that we shouldn't allow ourselves to be prejudiced by our expectations. The key serial works of Stockhausen, for me, are the early piano pieces and tape pieces, while Babbitt really comes into his own with the move into super-array compositions, in which the dogma of 12-tones gets loosened by the so-called "weighted aggregates" and it becomes more than clear that the real substance of the work is not the pre-compositional array (indeed, he uses and reuses a small collection of arrays, some of them second-hand arrays, assembled by others) but the actual composed-out surface of the music, the notes, some of which are very nice, some teasingly naughty, and others nothing much to write home about. (Here's a homework assignment: what features of In Freundschaft share techniques associated with Babbitt? what features are shared and what are different in the arrays of Babbitt and Boulez and the charts of Cage? compare and contrast partitioning operations in Babbitt and Boulez... Okay, okay, this stuff was just built for classroom instruction...)

The music of Barraque remains very puzzling to me, as the scores are all messes, in many cases without a final, definitive form, and the proliferating series technique generates a series of rows in which there are simply no audible clues for connecting one to any other. Nevertheless, there is some real style to his writing, maybe the inexhaustible source of rows was simply an impulse to improvise while insuring a continuous circulation of pitches.

The two pieces I began my little survey with a bit of a tease, but still very close to my own sensibilities: a solo flute piece by Howard Skempton and the Christian Wolff Duo for violins, the first of which is transparently, tunefully 12-tone, the second of which uses 12 discrete pitch configurations but not 12 pitch classes; I found that these usefully and transparently illustrated a number of polar aspects of the entire 12-tone/serial project, and pointed to aspects that remain vital concerns for composers, including melody, order, variation, variety, pitches versus pitch classes, the relationship between horizontal and vertical projections of material, collections, tonality versus an even distribution of pitches, particular versus undifferentiated collections of intervals, etc..

Of course, when you start taking such a broad prospective, moving away from the "classical" four row-form technique described by, say, Eimert or Krenek, it becomes less and less tenable to speak about a uniform and hegemonic technique and repertoire. This is a good thing, on the one hand because it is much closer to the historical reality, a reality in which, for example, early minimalism came, in part, out of concerns that cannot be entirely separated from the serial project, but on the other (and more important) hand, because attending to such historical diversity can be highly suggestive of the potential for new compositional ideas.

1 comment:

Lisa Hirsch said...

This is GREAT and I linked to the posting today while writing about complexity and Terry Teachout's recent article in the WSJ.