Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

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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)

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

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Morton Feldman
(1926 – 1987)
“Rothko Chapel (4)”
“Neither”
“For John Cage (10:00-20:00)”
“For Christian Wolff”
(sample of 3-hr piece)

Browne Available Forms FAC-10775

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

Wolff Edges Score

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

The-New-York-Group-use1

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

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.)

Uh, your grade will go up if you listen to this music. 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 deliberate parody of Tchaikovsky’s very famous 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?”

Ugh!

Tchaik

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”

Hot!

Igor Stravinsky
(1882 – 1971)

“Dance of The Firebird”
“Petrouchka (Russian Dance)”
Violin Concerto #1 (Toccata)”

alsop_prokofiev

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)”


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)

ryb

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

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.

Kandinsky

Mondrian

Malevich

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?

Abysmal Hybridity

Posted: February 6, 2017 in Music, Uncategorized

“Something for everyone!”
–Sarah Chang

Below is a promo for Sarah Chang’s performance of Antonio Vivaldi’s beloved “The Four Seasons”. Have a look and a listen. I won’t even bother to ask whether this is Art or Kitsch. What I will ask you instead to consider is why it is so bad. Is this kitsch through and through, or is there actually something genuinely decent buried in all this?


As for the sonnets or poems to which Chang refers, they are the same poems which Greenberg calls “oratorical and frivolous literature of the 18th century,” in “Toward a Newer Laocoön” (1940).

Lessing in his Laocoön written in the 1760s, recognized the presence of a practical as well as a theoretical confusion of the arts. But he saw its ill effects exclusively in terms of literature, and his opinions on plastic art only exemplify the typical misconceptions of his age. He attacks the descriptive verses of poets like James Thomson as an invasion of the domain of landscape painting, but all he could find to say about painting’s invasion of poetry was to object to allegorical pictures which required an explanation, and to paintings like Titian’s “Prodigal Son”, which incorporate “two necessarily separate points of time in and and the same picture”. … It was not realistic imitation in itself that did the damage so much as realistic illusion in the service of sentimental and declamatory literature.

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The Seasons
by James Thompson
(1700 – 1748)
“Winter”


See! Winter comes, to rule the varied Year,
Sullen, and sad; with all his rising Train,
Vapours, and Clouds, and Storms: Be these my Theme,
These, that exalt the Soul to solemn Thought,
And heavenly musing. Welcome kindred Glooms!
Wish’d, wint’ry, Horrors, hail! — With frequent Foot,
Pleas’d, have I, in my cheerful Morn of Life,
When, nurs’d by careless Solitude, I liv’d,
And sung of Nature with unceasing Joy,
Pleas’d, have I wander’d thro’ your rough Domains;
Trod the pure, virgin, Snows, my self as pure:
Heard the Winds roar, and the big Torrent burst:
Or seen the deep, fermenting, Tempest brew’d,
In the red, evening, Sky. — Thus pass’d the Time,
Till, thro’ the opening Chambers of the South,
Look’d out the joyous Spring, look’d out, and smil’d.
THEE too, Inspirer of the toiling Swain!
Fair AUTUMN, yellow rob’d! I’ll sing of thee,
Of thy last, temper’d, Days, and sunny Calms;
When all the golden Hours are on the Wing,
Attending thy Retreat, and round thy Wain,
Slow-rolling, onward to the Southern Sky.

BEHOLD! the well-pois’d Hornet, hovering, hangs,
With quivering Pinions, in the genial Blaze;
Flys off, in airy Circles: then returns,
And hums, and dances to the beating Ray.

. . . (read more, if you can bear it.)

With respect to the painting of the same cultural moment, Greenberg passes a similarly harsh verdict: “The worst manifestations of literary and sentimental painting had already begun to appear in the painting of the late 18th century – especially in England, where a revival which produced some of the best English painting was equally efficacious in speeding up the process of degeneration.” To whom or what could Greenberg be referring here? I will wager that by ‘the best English painting’ he was referring to this (click the image).



William Hogarth
(1697 – 1764)
The Marriage Contract,
from the “Marriage a la Mode” series (1745)
Tate Gallery, London

To what abysses of vulgarity did Greenberg believe such painting inevitably lead? How about the Pre-Raphaelites? What you see below is, at least as far as Greenberg is concerned, just about as wretched as art can possibly get.



Holman Hunt
“The Hireling Shepherd” (1852)
Oil on canvas – 30″ x 48″
Manchester City Art Galleries

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The indoor photos were taken at the grand piano, and in the library, where Sibelius often listened to broadcasts and recordings of his works in the evenings.

Sibelius1

Ingram Marshall
“Sibelius in His Radio Corner” (1974-1980)

Sibelius in His Radio Corner was inspired by a photograph of the Finnish composer during his “forty years of silence,” sitting in an armchair and listening to his own work being performed on the radio. “In his old age Sibelius enjoyed pulling in distant broadcasts of his music off the short-wave. I imagined that with all the static and signal drift, some of these listening experiences might have been proleptically like a modern-day electronically processed kurzwellen piece.” New Albion Records


S: I have to ask is it right to judge a previous century against the more recent in regards to technologies available? It’s like getting critical of cavemen for not using Adobe Photoshop CS5 to do a painting. But yes, I can tell a difference between Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev. So really, I guess I am asking if Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev had the same assets or resources and tools to draw from to create music? Or is this angle of analysis even relevant?

T: For what it’s worth, it’s the very fact that you’re able to ‘relate’ to his music which would prompt Eliot to say Tchaikovsky’s music is not especially great. As for the technologies available to Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, I would imagine they were working with relatively similar material resources at their disposal. The symphonic instruments we recognize today were developed in the 19th century.

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What differs is the way the two composers chose to deploy those resources. Whereas Prokofiev’s music has the lightness and energy of modern transit and cinema, Tchaikovsky’s music still feels absurdly ponderous, bloated with sentimental, narcissistic and wretched 19th-century emotionalism.

With regard to the technologies of different eras, it’s crucial to recognize that Eliot considers prehistoric cave painting — such as had been discovered recently in Lascaux and Altamira — to be supremely powerful, as good as any art created in the subsequent 36,000 years. It does not matter what technology – whether a straw, a paint brush, a photographic camera, or a radio is used to create art – what matters is that the artist use it cannily to produce art which is appreciated for its abstract qualities as opposed to its personal appeal.

This is why Bram Stoker’s Dracula, though a fascinating reflection on modern recording technologies, would, for Eliot, still be a failure as art. It describes the latest and most unsettling technologies, but it does so from the outside and through the familiar techniques of 19th-century realism and the epistolary novel. (Odd though it might sound, I would argue Stoker’s novel, unlike most others, would actually gain something by being transferred to CD and heard on an iPod.)

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In strict contrast to this, Eliot’s poem, “The Waste Land,” should, according to his own professed terms, be considered great art, because it doesn’t speak merely about the latest technologies but rather it attempts to speak from within and through the latest technologies. Eliot, it should be observed, deliberately adopts forms of speech of the sort generated by the latest audio technologies. The effect of disembodied voices (on the phonograph or radio) is uniquely modern, yet it can’t fail to recall, uncannily, an archaic ritual of summoning the dead. Consequently, Eliot’s art functions as a modern recapitulation of primitive necromancy, and displays some of the same power as that produced by artists in prehistoric times.

5b

The Waste Land

I. THE BURIAL OF THE DEAD

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the archduke’s,
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust. . . .

ouija-board-and-pointer

Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel.
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying ‘Stetson!
‘You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
‘That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
‘Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
‘Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
‘Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!

‘You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,—mon frère!’

Gavin Bryars
“The Sinking of The Titanic” (1969)

First performance: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 1972

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 Amazon.com, 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?

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”




byrd

William Byrd
(1543 – 1623)

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




gibbons

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”