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.

Bravo, Mario

Mario Davidovsky is best known for his work in the electronic medium, with his series of works for live instruments and electronic sound called Synchronisms serving as exemplary models for the genre. But Mario, who was my mentor during my days as a Columbia University doctoral student, has mostly worked in instrumental music for a number of years. There were samples of instrumental, vocal, and electronic works heard at Friday’s all-Davidovsky concert at Miller Theater in New York. The performances by the International Contemporary Ensemble were very strong, although the dry acoustic of Miller robbed their playing of some of its vibrancy. The ninth and twelfth Synchronisms were heard, played respectively by violinist David Bowlin and clarinetist Joshua Eubin. There were three purely instrumental works from the ’90s as well. All this music continues to dazzle, not just for the scintillating rapid gestures, but for the intensely lyrical lines that constitute the heart of the piece – “heart” both in the sense of telling affect, and of inner structure.

I think one reason Davidovsky’s instrumental music is less widely known than it should be is that his music resists ready labeling. Although he is usually bracketed with so-called “uptown” composers such as Babbitt, Wuorinen, and Martino, his music stands a bit apart from those masters because it is not really serial music – twelve-tone (fully chromatic), yes, but rather more non-systematic than genuinely serial works. (Or should I say “even more non-systematic”?) Good luck trying to trace rows, etc. in Mario’s music.* There are games with hexachords (go through the piano Synchronism), and strategies involving the deployment of registers. But Mario, though he admires the surfaces of various kinds of serial music, relies on different forms of rigor than someone more closely aligned with serial techniques.  It is a rigor that springs more exclusively from the play of forms, the interaction of motifs, from the fantastical patterns woven from vivid, passionate gestures.

The most memorable performance of the night was given by soprano Tony Arnold, who lent her clear, pure sound to Mario’s settings of Spanish folk poetry, Romancero. The final song in the set is about King David lamenting Absalom. Here the accompaniment is very spare, with hushed cantillation from the violin. Tony’s singing was utterly heartbreaking, all the more powerful for the restraint of Mario’s setting.

Interviews with Mario here and here. Three works can be heard at Art of the States. Picture above taken at last Friday’s concert.

*It is interesting that Joseph Straus omits Mario from his collection of short analyses of music by 37 twelve-tone composers in his recent book on the history of twelve-tone music in America; I would say he is the most important composer left out. Of course, Straus couldn’t cover everyone of importance, and if anyone can figure out the technical aspects of Mario’s music, Joseph Straus can. But still, I wonder if the non-systematic nature of the music played a role in Straus’s choice.

Boulez/Coke vs. Cage/Pepsi

I am pretty sure I can taste the difference between Coke and Pepsi, but I have to admit I have never tested this experimentally, blindfold and all.  And I am pretty sure I can hear the difference between the Boulez Third Sonata, and Cage’s Music of Changes. But, again, I have never actually confirmed this.

This post by Kyle Gann makes me think about the Coke/Pepsi problem. Gann notes some of the wackier ways of generating notes that can be found in Boulez’s Marteau, then comments: “What I can’t see is why this method of generating pitches has any significant advantage over Cage’s chance processes, which Boulez so vehemently rejected.” Now, please note that Gann isn’t saying you can’t hear the difference between Cage and Boulez. But his wondering about the advantages of the different techniques led me to think about the difference in the listening experience. Usually the dichotomy is laid out as Babbitt vs. Cage, the idea being that maximally and minimally intentional pieces end up sounding pretty similar. I have never found that convincing; the persistent density of a Babbitt piece is unlike the more variegated textures of Cage. But pitting those Boulez and Cage piano pieces against each other might prove tougher to discern. I think I can hear a certain degree of intentionality in Boulez, but am I just being fooled by the names on the CD boxes?

Of course, hearing something as admittedly vague as “intentionality” is a lot different from truly getting something meaningful out of the pitch games the composer is playing. And what does “getting something meaningful” mean anyway? What is it that I get out of Don Martino’s music that I don’t feel I get out of Babbitt? It probably has to do with the vivid gestures in Martino that are absent in Babbitt, but I still feel the pitches make sense to the ear in Fantasies and Impromptus in a way that they don’t in Partitions.  The latter piece is simply over my head. In Cage’s chance music, you aren’t supposed to “get” the pitches anyway – the music goes around my head. The Boulez Third Piano Sonata tries to be both Cage and Babbitt – irrational and hyper-rational – and ends up being neither. To me, Boulez is something of a naked emperor until Rituel, and even then I think he is overrated.

I am not saying twelve-tone music in general doesn’t make sense. There are too many ways of writing a twelve-tone piece to make generalizations of that sort. Joseph Straus’s excellent recent book, Twelve-Tone Music in America, amply demonstrates this. (More about that book in the Martino/Shapey post I still hope to finish at some point.)

I am in total sympathy with Gann’s esteem for Rochberg’s Second Symphony, and his Serenata d’Estate. That symphony truly deserves a revival, at least as much as – or more – than those of the “American symphonists” – Schuman, Piston, Diamond, etc.

Update: Kyle Gann stresses here that Coke definitely does not taste like Pepsi.