Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Landmarks (46)

Karel Goeyvaerts: Nummer 1 (1950) (Sonata for two pianos).

The name of the Belgian composer Karel Goeyvaerts is probably encountered most in discussions over who did or didn't compose the earliest completely serialized work (a pissing contest that won't be entered here.) The handful of serial pieces Goeyvaerts composed in between 1950 and 1957, for instruments or magnetic tape, are each remarkable, on their own immediate musical terms, above and beyond their technical features. Nummer 2, for thirteen instruments, for example, is a work that finds company well next to pieces like Babbitt's Composition for Twelve Instruments or Wolff's Nine, which are a pair of pieces you wouldn't ordinarily expect to encounter in the same neighborhood.  

Nummer 1, originally given the title Sonata for two pianos and also known as Opus 1, is something of a strict process piece, and to some extent, this process-character makes the piece more like some experimental repertoire than other "classic" serial pieces.*  It is frequently mentioned for a controversial public reading, by the composer and Karlheinz Stockhausen, at Darmstadt, a performance that definitely troubled some critical listeners (Adorno among them) for the piece's stubborn refusal to appeal to traditional musical rhetoric.  Goeyvaerts's ideal was not a music in which tonal relationships unfolded in and articulated time dynamically but rather tonal events were placed in time as elements of a larger, static tone structure.  There is a closeness here, both to Cage's filling-in of a predetermined time structure from charts of possible materials and the static harmony of the radical music with reduced means that would later emerge on the west coast of the US with La Monte Young and his cohort. At the time of composition, Goeyvaerts's closest professional friend was Stockhausen, and it is impossible not to recognize shared elements of both technique and aesthetic in the subsequent work of the two composers (Kreuzspiel, for starters), but one is equally aware of the substantial aesthetic difference between the two, and that, I think, can be located in Goeyvaerts's dark, gentle, and slightly grotesque choice of tones, which would later allow the composer to fashion a more-generalized notion of a static harmony underlying materials more conventionally tonal in character (indeed, sometimes close to later minimal musics) as well.   

At the time of their most active exchanges, both Goeyvaerts and Stockhausen were reading Sein und Zeit and Doktor Faustus and Das Glasperlenspiel, continental philosophical and literary sources with a mixture of ratio and mysticism which were perhaps even more urgent influences than in the music of Messiaen, Schoenberg, or Webern.  The handful of works Goeyvaerts made under this influence, however, hovered around a existential minimum that Stockhausen did not seriously approach in any completed work, and this was perhaps the immediate cause of a halt in compositional output for several years until his re-emergence as a para-minimalist in the late 1960s.    

*A technical footnote, for those inclined: Let me describe some of the procedures in the second (of four) movements, whose retrograde makes up the third movement.  It involves the simultaneous rotation of two ordered seven-tone sets, each sharing two common pitches which are fixed in register, the eb below middle c and the second a above middle c.  The remaining pitches contract in register through the movement, a process that is perfectly audible, especially when you have the two fixed-register pitches in the back of your ears.  Goeyvaerts serializes additional parameters in a way that ingeniously associates pitches with durations, dynamics, and types of articulation through assigning numerical values to a pitch's intervallic distance from the two fixed pitches; a value to each available duration based on distance above or below a median durational value; a value to each of four dynamic levels; and a value to each of two forms of articulation.  Each individual tone then, through the combination of interval, duration, dynamic, and articulation, has a sum numerical value that Goeyvaerts does not allow to exceed seven. The effect is a net, if subtle, reinforcement of the attraction of the two tonal poles of attraction.  The ways in which the two sets are distributed between the pianos and then between each pianist's hands are fascinating as well, partitioning organized as broad gestures in pitch space, yet not parse-able as thematic material.  


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