Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

In recent posts I have presented the music of familiar “classical” composers: Claude Debussy, Sergei Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky, and Dmitri Shostakovich. I also presented less familiar modern composers, of the New Viennese School: Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern. Here I will present a very different group of composers, the New York School. The New York School arose in the early ’50s when John Cage and Morton Feldman met at a performance of Anton Webern’s work. Their music is typified by accident, improvisation, novel textures, and open and extended forms – in particular Feldman, some of whose pieces are five hours long. Another important characteristic of the New York School is their experimentation with novel forms of notation (click the images below) which would allow them to diverge from the traditional scoring that enslaved musicians to the autocratic will of the composer. As you listen to this music, you should hear a world of difference between it and the expressive but insular abstraction of, say, Schoenberg and the manic, or mantic, repetitiveness of, say, Terry Riley, a Minimalist composer on whom I will post more later. Please listen and enjoy. Comments are always welcome and encouraged.

You might want to consider the relationship between the composers who called themselves the New York School, and a group of extremely important painters – all descendants of Jackson Pollock and Clement Greenberg – who also called them selves the New York School: Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Willem DeKooning, Franz Kline.

greenberg pollock krasner frankenthaler

Jackson Pollock and Clement Greenberg
at the beach, with the artists
Helen Frankenthaler and Lee Krasner (and an unidentified child)


John Cage
(1912 – 1992)
“The Seasons – Prelude III, Summer”
“The Perilous Night”
“Totem Ancestor”
“A Cage of Saxophones – Five”


Morton Feldman
(1926 – 1987)
“Rothko Chapel (4)”
“For John Cage (10:00-20:00)”
“For Christian Wolff”
(sample of 3-hr piece)

Browne Available Forms FAC-10775

Earle Brown
(1926 – 2002)
“Solo for Trumpet”

Wolff Edges Score

Christian Wolff
(b. 1934)
“Dark as A Dungeon”


left to right:
C.W., E.B., J.C., M.F.

More music for you!

A great deal of purism is the translation of an extreme solicitude, an anxiousness as to the fate of art, a concern for its identity. We must respect this. When the purist insists upon excluding “literature” and subject matter from plastic [visual] art, now and in the future, the most we can charge him with off-hand is an unhistorical attitude. It is quite easy to show that abstract art, like every other cultural phenomenon, reflects the social and other circumstances of the age in which its creators live, and that there is nothing inside art itself, disconnected from history, which compels it to go in one direction or another. But it is not so easy to reject the purist’s assertion that the best contemporary plastic art is abstract. Here the purist does not have to support his position with metaphysical pretensions. And when he insists on doing so, those of us who admit the merits of abstract art without accepting its claims in full must offer our own explanation for its present supremacy.

– Clement Greenberg, “Towards a Newer Laocoon” (1940)


The great 20th-century art critic Clement Greenberg, in the passage above, is alluding to three of the greatest abstract painters of the 20th century: Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian and Kasimir Malevich. Each of these men wrote a manifesto (see and click the images below) in which he explained the nature, production and effect of abstract painting in emphatically spiritual terms. Greenberg eagerly asserts that the work these abstract artists have produced is indeed the very greatest of the day. However, he insists that, when it comes to these artists’ explanations of what they were actually up to when making their work, they are, sadly, completely mistaken. Rather than resorting to high ideals and spiritual principles, Greenberg insists that abstract art, like all art, must be explained exclusively in terms of the historical and material conditions under which is what produced, and that is must be appreciated in material, not spiritual, terms.




A student in a class I recently taught thoughtfully expressed concern over the fact that Greenberg dismissed the school of painting known as Symbolism, which according to popular understanding, sought to achieve spiritual effects through a return to mythology and a world of pure illusion emancipated from our own. Greenberg exemplified Symbolist painting by referring to the work of Gustave Moreau. Elsewhere, however, Greenberg commended the music of the “symbolist” composer Claude Debussy for its “escape from literature”, its abstract purity.

Music, in flight from the undisciplined, bottomless sentimentality of the Romantics, was striving to describe and narrate (program music). That music at this point imitates literature would seem to spoil my thesis. But music imitates painting as much as it does poetry when it becomes representational, and besides, it seems to me that Debussy used the program [by which Greenberg means attempts to create the effect of stories and landscapes, as in say, Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony] more as a pretext for experiment than as an end in itself. In the same way that the Impressionist painters were trying to get at the structure beneath the color, Debussy was trying to get at the ‘sound underneath the note’.”

In your own words, what do you think it is that Greenberg is hearing in pieces such as those below?

Once I was asked in class if Greenberg would consider dance, in particular modern dance, to be a viable form of art. I wouldn’t say he would hate all ‘arty’ dance, though I must confess I believe his opinion of it would be relatively low. Serious thought and criticism doesn’t really have much to say about dance until a moment slightly after the one we’ve arrived at in our readings. It is the Jackson expressionism of Jackson Pollock, often called Action Painting, which clears up a space for bodily performance. Now, it was Greenberg in fact who discovered Pollock. But what Greenberg valued in Pollock’s paintings were their material and formal qualities, not their expressivity.

Rather than dance, Greenberg declares that it was only music which was powerful enough to break literature’s hegemonic control of other forms of art. So, what would Greenberg think of the music below? Would he consider it Art or Kitsch? And, why? Does this music remind us of what we heard in the Debussy tracks I posted earlier? In what ways does the music of Debussy, or that of the Russian composers I posted a few days ago, compare and contrast with the work of these Viennese composers?

(Please let me know if listening to music like this is interesting and helpful to you. It takes me a while to get this up here, but I’m certainly willing to make the necessary effort if you want me to.)

The experience, you will notice, the elements which enter the presence of the transforming catalyst, are of two kinds: emotions and feelings. The effect of a work of art upon the person who enjoys it is an experience different in kind from any experience not of art.

–T. S. Eliot

I wonder what anyone will make of these recordings, from the 1970s, of the very famous Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, author of the famous essay “Let’s Ban Applause!” (1962). The YouTube comments are total nonsense, of course. But perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from watching people make idiots of themselves by failing epically in their attempts to praise or blame. The same appalling spectacle can also be seen regularly over on, and I invite you all to have a look, when you get a chance, at customer reviews there. Horrifying, but instructive, and indicative of just how important it us for us to have decent critics in our culture. But enough of general issues. What’s actually going on in these specific videos? What would the author of our current readings have to say about these performances? What do you imaging Gould is trying to achieve here? Is he succeeding wonderfully, or is he yet another epic failure? Why? How?

Orlando Gibbons
“Lord Salisbury’s Pavan and Galliard”

William Byrd
Galliard No.6

But why in the world would Gould ever want to ban applause? And what might that have to do with arguments put forth in the critical writings of T. S. Eliot? Will the following piece of music offer any assistance as we attempt to answer that question?

Just for the record, this stuff, the good stuff, is some of my favorite music, ever. Tchaikovsky? Yuck.

Uh, your grade will go up if you listen to these tracks. I might not even be kidding. If nothing else, you may as well get an education as long as you’re in coolidge. Just saying.

The vast interval separating the “out” and “in” should be self-evident. Just one comparison worth noting is the way that Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto #1 sounds as if it were written as a deliberately ironic parody of Tchaikovsky’s very famous piano concerto. Perhaps listening to Prokofiev’s piece in isolation would not cause many people chuckle. But after hearing Prokofiev’s ironic take on the older composer’s aching pathos and pompous bluster, it’s hard to go back and listen to Tchaikovsky’s piano music without laughing out loud. I laughed anyway. Prokofiev, it must appear to us, is writing quite deliberately to render Tchaikovsky entirely obsolete, indeed ridiculous. What, to make another comparison and contrast, do we hear when listening to Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” back to back with Tchaikovsky’s?”



Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
(1840 – 1898)

“Symphony Pathetique”
“Serenade For Strings”
“Violin Concerto #1 in D Major”
“Piano Concerto #1 in B-flat Minor”
“Romeo and Juliet – Fantasy Overture”



Sergei Prokofiev
(1891 – 1953)
“Romeo and Juliet – Introduction”
“Piano Concerto #1 in D-flat Major”
“Violin Concerto #1 in D”
“‘Classical’ Symphony #1 (Allegro)”
“Piano Sonata #7 in B-flat Major”
“Sinphonietta (Allegro Giacosso)”

Igor Stravinsky
(1882 – 1971)
“Dance of The Firebird”
“Petrouchka (Russian Dance)”
Violin Concerto #1 (Toccata)”

Dmitri Shostakovich
(1906 – 1975)
“Jazz Suite #1 – Foxtrot”
“String Quartet #2 in A Minor”
“Piano Concerto #1 (Allegretto)”
“Violin Concerto #1 (Nocturne)
“Violin Concerto #1 (Passacaglia)”


Piet Mondrian
Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue, 1921
Oil on canvas, 39 x 35 cm

The difference is not a simple difference of degree between poets. It is something which had happened to the mind of England between the time of Donne or Lord Herbert of Cherbury and the time of Tennyson and Browning; it is the difference between the intellectual poet and the reflective poet. Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. . . . In the seventeenth century a dissociation of sensibility set in, from which we have never recovered; and this dissociation, as is natural, was aggravated by the influence of the two most powerful poets of the century, Milton and Dryden. Each of these men performed certain poetic functions so magnificently well that the magnitude of the effect concealed the absence of others. . . . But while the language became more refined, the feeling became more crude.

–T. S. Eliot, “The Metaphysical Poets”

Some music for your consideration and enjoyment. Feel free to respond to any or all of this. Have you heard similar music before? Why is this relevant to Eliot’s argument about art and poetry? What exactly happened, as far as Eliot is concerned, to the English mind in the transition from the 16th to the 17th century, and why is it so significant?

“fidelity to thought and feeling”

Thomas Tallis
(1505 – 1583)

“If You Love Me”
“A New Commandment”
“Out From The Deep”


William Byrd
(1543 – 1623)

“Prevent Us, O Lord”
“O Make Thy Servant Elizabeth”


Orlando Gibbons
(1585 – 1625)

“See, See, The Word Is Incarnate”
“O God, The King of Glory”

Surprisingly, or not, Eliot would have considered the following music a serious step downward. Where is this suggested in his essays, and why would he have thought that?

“a dissociation of sensibility . . .
from which we have never recovered”