Two Quotes; Two Questions

These are quotes from Arnold Whittall’s Serialism in the Cambridge Introductions to Music series.

“The distinctiveness of American thinking about serialism is difficult to assess when opportunities to hear the compositional results are so limited.”

Have the Babbitt Solo Requiem, the Martino Triple Concerto or Wuorinen’s New York Notes ever been heard in London? My guess would be no, but maybe I am wrong.

“Le Marteau’s serial background projects surface interactions between fixity and freedom, its proliferating materials demanding choices of the composer at every stage of the creative process.”

Forgive me, but how does that make Le Marteau different from any other piece by any other composer? I’m not aware of any pieces where choices were not demanded of the composer at every stage of the creative process. (I suppose some Cage pieces would be the exceptions that prove the rule.)

It’s worth spending some time with Whittall’s book, from which I’ve learned a fair bit. It attempts something rather difficult in that it offers insights both into technical nuts and bolts matters and into the critical writing around serial music, all in a compact volume. Being a composer, my own interest is primarily in the nuts and bolts, and from that point of view, I would recommend another Cambridge volume more highly than the Whittall, Joseph Straus’s Twelve-Tone Music in America.

Recent Reading and Viewing

Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos. Voigt, Dessay, Mentzer. Margion, Gunn; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Levine. Virgin Classics DVD.
Amazing performances throughout, but I find it difficult to connect emotionally with the piece, despite the score’s great beauties. The peculiar juxtapositions of romance, myth, and comedy keep the listener at a distance, wondering how seriously to be taking all of this; I suppose seriously and not seriously, all at once. Yet there are touching moments: the passion of the young Composer as portrayed by Susanne Mentzer was especially striking. A small detail: I had never noticed before how when the Composer speaks of revealing the mysteries of life, the orchestra seems to be playing Erda’s leitmotif from The Ring. I imagine the score has other in-jokes that I have yet to pick up.

Musical Composition in the Twentieth Century. Arnold Whittall. Oxford University Press.
As Eurocentric as one might expect from a British book (there is room for Robert Simpson and Vagn Holmboe but not for Crumb, Rochberg, Ashley, Shapey, etc.) and written in a style lacking the poetry and elegant concision of another historical survey I wrote about here. Yet, it was good to get some additional perspective on composers like Donatoni, Henze, and Nono whose work I’d like to know better. Some of the most interesting writing in the book is when Whittall is expressing skepticism about the work of composers like Copland, Schnittke, and Maxwell Davies.