Listening to Elliott Carter

May 10, 2009

Wilfrid Mellers’s Music in a New Found Land (1964) describes Carter’s music as a synthesis of Ivesian spiritual and chaotic polymorphic flux with Copeland’s more precise crystalline forms. Mellers admires this heroic synthesis but notes that pieces such as the 1st Quartet (1951) require equally heroic attempts by the listener and that by the time of Carter’s Double Concerto the listener is no longer provided with any human element with which to relate as the processes that Carter sets in motion become more and more machine like.

Little did Mellers anticipate that Carter would be writing music for another 45 years after his book was published!

Although Carter’s musical processes present a complexity that would challenge anyone’s musical conceptual abilities, I find this music mirrors the physical-spiritual make up of a human being. One need only explore the processes of our own bodies to realize that extreme difficulty and complexity is in no way antithetical to human nature. Carter’s music helps us to unfold the workings of our nature to bring these difficult processes into our consciousness.

Mellers points out that Carter concentrates on the smallest units of the melodic line at the expense of any even flow of a background meter.  The time signature relates and knits together the individual voices but the voices generally remain independent of each other by possessing their own basic rhythmic units. In jazz, for example, Charlie Parker’s melodic lines, no matter how rhythmically complex, relate to a discernible background beat.

I believe an even background flow of any kind orients the listener in the aural landscape. Without such a flow, the listener must actively find orientation by an act of will and experience divergent and contradictory rhythms simultaneously.

Although  intense listening to any music effects a change of consciousness in the listener , Carter’s music demands a particular change where pure musical receptivity supported by the  security of the even flow of blood circulation is replaced by the most intense pure thinking where the thought itself is the source of life and can exist in a disembodied state. The listener must identify with multiple, evolving, pure wordless thoughts that are self sustaining in a pure void independent of the rhythms of physical life.

This pure thinking is not an abstract analysis based on preconceived concepts which the listener learns and then brings to the piece, but rather the listener must separate their sense of self from their thoughts so that thoughts are perceived as something emanating from outside the listener’s consciousness. Carter’s music then appears on the distant horizon of consciousness as a force of the same substance as our objectified thoughts. It subtlety merges with our thought creating a new thought content.  Our watchful self-consciousness, now emptied of normal intellectual content, becomes aware of these thoughts and experiences a feeling of awe.

Mellers states that Carter’s music is all growth and change without literal repetition; however he imposed order on the chaos in various ways. Despite the extreme independence of the voices where each instrument has its own melodic and rhythmic personality, the Ivesian chaos is tempered by a lyrical evolution (as evidenced by Quartet #1) where the following devices create recognizable form:

  1. The independent voices began to hear and to react to each other.
  2. The voices share the same rhythms  at climatic points.
  3. The lost background beat suddenly reappears in the bass creating a beat to which the other voices refer.
  4. The independent voices may suddenly work together to create a “monophony“. One large melodic idea is composed of snippets that exist in all the voices. Each line has many rests and there’s little overlapping of voices. The listener pieces the snippets together to form one large melody that encompasses the range of all the voices.

Mellers points out that Carter wants the music to sound improvised but doesn’t leave the improvisation in the hands of the players because it is the composer’s responsibility. Also Carter distrusts “systems” and won’t allow his music to be ordered by a preordained serialism. The music should grow organically from the basic material.

The difficulty in listening to this music arises from the concepts that we use to comprehend music we already know. I think that we must clear from our minds former musical experience and attempt to hear the music on the most basic conceptual level-the level of pure sound experience. When the mind is open to the sounds without the interference of thoughts that occur during the perception of familiar music, then a space is opened up for the new conceptual content to meet the basic percepts of these sounds.

A new world begins to appear. What initially was chaos is revealed as the source of our feelings and thoughts.

Combining the music with images may also help to clear a new conceptual space, but not because the images “illustrate” the music. The images take over the conceptual process so the old concepts connect to the visual perception. As our attention is taken up by images, the sounds can come in without preconceived notion and gain familiarity:


Ligeti and The Creative Word

April 28, 2009

The music of György Sándor Ligeti sometimes echoes the force of the primeval, formative “word” referred to by many myths and religions. When he abandons earthly rhythms and periodic prosaic melody and concentrates on combining long held tones in clusters, then we perceive how tones  interact and combine to form complex patterns which not only mirror physical creation but work into the psychic content of the listener to rearrange the substance of thoughts and feeling into new forms and higher concepts.

This video links these primeval sounds to microcosmic and macrocosmic creation. The music is Ligeti’s Double Concerto for Flute, Oboe, and Orchestra:

The primal ability of sound to fashion form is beautifully illustrated in Hans Jenny’s Cymatics videos:

Mendelssohn’s Impression of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique

September 2, 2007

In 1831, in a letter to his mother, Mendelssohn gave his impressions of Berlioz’s famous symphony. After summing up the explanatory notes written by the composer, Mendelssohn went on to give an unfavorable review of the work:

“How utterly loathsome this is to me, I don’t have to tell you. To see one’s most cherished ideas debased and expressed in perverted caricatures would enrage anyone. And yet this is only the program. The execution is still more miserable: nowhere a spark, no warmth, utter foolishness, contrived passion represented through every possible exaggerated orchestral means: four tympani, two pianos for four hands, which are supposed to imitate bells, two harps, many big drums, violins divided into eight parts, two parts for the double basses which play solo passages, and all these means (to which I would not object if they were being properly employed) used to express nothing but indifferent drivel, mere grunting, shouting, screaming back and forth.” (from Sam Morgenstern’s anthology “Composers on Music”. Pantheon Books.1956pp141-142.)

Perhaps Mendelssohn would have been a little more positive if he heard this symphony conducted by Pinchas Steinberg:

Here’s the last movement with bells, tubas, dies irae, great bassoon playing, and of course strings played with the wooden part of the bow- col legno. Question to musicologists: What composer before Berlioz used col legno? Was it an effect from opera? Is this the first piece using that effect?

Schoenberg’s Moses and Aron and “Regietheater”

August 13, 2007

John Gibbons in Holde Kunst refers to an excellent article by Heather MacDonald which criticizes the current European practice of updating operatic stagings with material not traditionally associated with the particular opera in question. This updating tends to substitute the director’s individual social and political preferences for the vision of the composer and librettist.

I am more open to this kind of meddling than some of the more conservative commentary I’ve read if the stage direction does not directly contradict the spirit or the plot of the opera and the characters retain their personalities and motivations as communicated by the libretto and score. The “Abduction from the Seraglio” as described by MacDonald seems to violate these principles because the gratuitous sex and violence contradicts the character of Bassa Selim, contradicts the comic tone of the opera, and directly contradicts the words of one of Konstanze’s arias. I find this impermissible because the stage action obliterates the actual drama of the opera.

Similarly the new Meistersinger violates this rule- Hans Sachs evolving into Hitler contradicts Wagner’s characterization. The director may have a particular point of view about this opera in relation to European history, but that point of view has nothing to do with the actual opera. This type of staging is a new creation by the director that uses a famous opera as an element of the creation, but it is not a presentation of the actual opera.

The modern versions of Don Giovanni that portray the Don’s licentiousness in graphic visuals are examples of acceptable new staging , although perhaps repugnant to particular individuals. If the Don is shown masturbating while listening to an aria, that portrayal may be sensationalism but it does not contradict the character of the Don and hence doesn’t detract from the drama. Societal “good taste” should not limit a director. Only the dramatic parameters set forth by the opera itself should bind the director.

Here is the beginning of Schoenberg’s Moses and Aron from a 2006 Vienna Opera production. Sorry there’s no subtitles but the extraordinary music doesn’t need them. I don’t have the libretto in hand but I think this is supposed to be Moses talking to God through the burning bush:

This is why “regietheater” is a difficult issue-these images seem to contradict the text but without knowing the text or language the music seems the perfect compliment to images of refugees in the context of the holocaust. Of course there may be parallels between Exodus and the holocaust, but the overriding guide is the intention of Schoenberg who wrote both music and libretto.

This article by David Pountney advocates a production theory of Moses and Aron that suggests that the director must alter the opera to suit modern taste because Moses is a religious fundamentalist and since both Moslem and Christian fundamentalists are a threat to European culture the director must stage this opera in order to portray Moses in a bad light and portray the people who orgy around the golden calf in a good light, etc. In other words the stage direction should be a form of censorship or tendentious editing to protect the public from Schoenberg’s atavistic monotheistic advocacy of the oppressor Moses. The author states:

“When all is said and done, despite its rank as a great work of art, however, the opera Moses and Aron presents a false political and ideological antithesis in the modern context. The alternative to dogmatic, monotheistic belief is not anarchy and perversion. The fact is, neither of the two poles is commensurate with European culture. This rests first and foremost on freedom: freedom of thought, speech and belief, which demands a constant and delicate balance between authority and anarchy. This freedom was once most certainly worth fighting for, and it is most definitely also worth continuing to protect with eternal and unswerving vigilance in the future. “

My point is that even if this is true, it has nothing to do with the opera-I want to see the opera as Schoenberg intended and I don’t need a director using his craft to censor the drama as opposed to presenting the drama as the composer intended.

Here’s more of Moses and Aron on youtube, a modern version of the golden calf which embodies all the issues discussed:

Arnold Schoenberg and Mozart

August 3, 2007

The difficulty in relating Schoenberg and Sibelius is small in comparison with the interesting task of finding the roots of Schoenberg in the music of Mozart. Luckily, The Arnold Schoenberg Center has a film that attempts to do just that:

Much of this is based on Schoenberg’s own words. The video states that Schoenberg was most influenced by Mozart in his quartet writing. Also Schoenberg’s decision to compose without an instrument was inspired by Mozart’s same ability.

The video shows Schoenberg’s draft of his 4th String Quartet. Apparently he would write a “tonal guide” at the top of the score. This guide was a linear sequence of notes, perhaps an elaborated row, which would determine the four parts of the quartet. The video uses a piano to demonstrate the linear guide and then plays parts of the quartet to show what Schoenberg derived from this linear guide.

Without an instrument, the question arises whether Schoenberg heard this music in his head or whether he was composing totally by satisfying the abstract principles of his technique? Was his ear ever his guide? Sometimes music that seems perfect on paper and utterly logical turns out not satisfy the ear. Perhaps Schoenberg thought that his ear would bypass the intellectual dictates of his technique. The ear can be prejudiced. It may have a more favorable opinion of music that reminds us of something that we previously heard.

This may be why the listener has to work hard to find the conceptual apparatus to comprehend this music. With “emancipation of dissonance” all moments of the piece register at extreme intensity. All is climax in a way. Its interesting how Schoenberg tries to impose dramatic forms back upon this extreme intensity by working with the symphonic sonata forms of Mozart. He seemed to be fascinated with false recapitulations, but how can one impose a form which was derived from tonality, derived from tonal material, upon material that is atonal? Shouldn’t the atonal material generate its own forms?

I believe most would agree that Schoenberg met his own 2 criteria for composition:

  1. A sense of balance
  2. A belief in the logic of his composition.

Also, I think the influence of sonata and Mozart makes this piece of Schoenberg much more comprehensible and potentially popular than the Fantasy Opus 47 (discussed below).

Alison Hagley: My Favorite Susanna

August 1, 2007

Although the Marriage of Figaro premiered on May 1, 1786 with Nancy Storace as Susanna, Mozart and da Ponte obviously had Alison Hagley in mind for the role of Susanna. Here you can see her roll out from under the Countess’s bed to her sing her breathless duet with Cherubino “Aprite, presto, aprite” in a 1996 performance from Glyndebourne:

I also enjoyed her performance with John Eliot Gardiner conducting on a 1993 DVD with Bryn Terfel and Rodney Gilfry.

Hagley is not well represented on the web, but someone is developing a fan site here.

Hagley also appeared as Melisande in Debussy’s Pelleas and Melisande which is also on DVD.

Sibelius’s Fifth: Romantic musical language condensed into new forms

July 29, 2007

Here is a fine performance of the finale of Sibelius’s 5th. Esa-Pekka Salomen conducts the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra:

Interesting how in this performance a large painting is unveiled (Turner?) at the point where the calm background theme that begins in the horns reaches a climax at around 2:10.

Also interesting is how the beginning of this movement is reminiscent of certain contrapuntal sequences in the Prelude to Die Meistersinger-a whirlwind of strings that fades to reveal a “nostalgic”, calm theme on horns. This horn theme doesn’t function as a contrasting second subject as in the Classical and Romantic symphonies. It is more like discovering the source of the entire symphony or at least the basis for what the strings were doing at the start.

I believe that Sibelius used the most expressive elements of his favorite Romantic Composers to create new forms that reflected the soul of a human being in the midst of the impending European doom. Like Schoenberg, Sibelius’s music is a logical development from Romanticism which involved taking the most extreme expressive “cells” of Romanticism and fusing these extremes into new concentrated forms. What was once a climax of a musical phrase or section in the older works, is now a building block or basic unit in the 20th century and leads to more extreme climatic cells.

Unlike the later works of Schoenberg, Sibelius was able to achieve this concentration of forces without abandoning tonality; however, Sibelius’s tonality serves to make his cells more immediately recognizable to the ear. His break-through, characteristic tonality doesn’t serve to create linear dramatic forms like the almost rhetorical argument ofBeethoven, rather Sibelius “traditional” harmony serves to link his evolving cells together in a way that is more audible than Schoenberg’s tone-row which is very difficult to follow. 12 tone music both reduces the “expressive cell” to its smallest size (one note or one chord) and isolates that cell so it’s existence has no relation to any other sound in the sound space except by the ghostly, shadowy “row” which is extremely difficult to perceive.

So Sibelius gains comprehensibility but still allows the listener the small luxury of using intellect based on musical memory to understand his works while Schoenberg removes all the helpful remnants of the past and leaves the listener totally self reliant in the present. So Schoenberg is the composer of interior, existensial darkness while Sibelius technique could look outward and see the world’s darkness. In Tapiola, the dark, cancerous Schoenbergian self is reflected into nature. Tapiola proves that Sibelius’s music can explore the absolute extremes of 20th century angst. The miracle is that this music achieves a higher level of self knowledge and may be the basis for human regeneration as the ego begins to recognize that its perceptions and conceptions of nature are actually part of nature itself. It is this uniting of the self with nature that contains the seeds of true planetary healing. Tapiola heralds a new way of human thinking that incorporates and transcends the dessicated rationalism of abstract science.

Thanks to “Counter Critic” for the heads-up on a long article on Sibelius by Alex Ross published in the New Yorker.

Gould, Menuhin, and Schoenberg

July 24, 2007

Here is a great 2 part youtube video.

The second part is a performance of Schoenberg’s Fantasie Op.47 :

Part one features a great discussion between Glen Gould and Yehudi Menuhin about Schoenberg’s Fantasie Op.47 for violin and piano. Gould speaks about Schoenberg’s love of instruments and tone color, but Menuhin points out that although timbre and special violin techniques are important for this piece. the actual sequence of notes is mostly determined by Schoenberg’s reliance on a twelve tone row and not on the way the notes “fall” on the violin. Menuhin describes the violin writing as “curiously clumsy”.

They point out that Schoenberg wrote the violin melody first and the piano interpolations were added later.

They discuss the importance of silences in the piece. Menuhin points out that 12 tone music has a certain monotony due to the lack of clear harmonic language. The contrasts created by dissonance and resolution and movement between tonalities are missing from this linear, percussive music so Schoenberg must use silences, extreme range in the melody, and extreme dynamic contrast as a way of creating contrasting parts of a whole and as a way for the listener to be oriented in the piece. This is the gist of Menuhin’s argument, althought I’m putting some words in his mouth.

Gould flat out asks Menuhin why he doesn’t like Schoenberg and Menuhin doesn’t contradict that fact but replies that he is comfortable playing the piece because of Gould’s expertise.

Menuhin states his major objection to Schoenberg: the music is all gesture without content-as if watching a Shakespeare play without any meaningful language but with a sequence of movements and gestures that would be normally associated with the content, actually inseparably fused with the drama, but these gestures are severed and nothing is left of the language but meaningless syllables. Menuhin sees Schoenberg’s music as an artistic “cleanser”, its only purpose is to rid the field of Wagnerian excess and provide a clean slate for the music of the future.

But Gould senses something real in this music, something of the Old Testament Father God which inhabited the being of Schoenberg.

(My opinion)-Perhaps this music does work better as accompaniment to drama- where the drama can replace the old harmonic language as a means to carry the listener through a succession of sound events. Without a text, the listener must bring a completion and a form to this music through her/his own inner conceptions. In its very austerity, this music serves to awaken new capabilities if we strive to bring new thinking and listening to the experience and not rely on all of the experience of music that we have had in the past.

Here’s the discussion:

I find this piece and performance utterly fantastic. The key to listening is to follow the melody-there is a coherent thought in the melody. I believe the difficulty of this piece arises from its content not its incomprehensibility-the piece verges on the unbearable because it is a freaking nightmare, not because it cannot be understood. It explores the most frightening aspects of human existence.

Anton Bruckner’s Locus Iste-follow the score on youtube

July 10, 2007

In contrast to his long and difficult symphonies in their many versions, Bruckner wrote very accessible choral music. This locus iste is simple and profound. The score reveals the beautiful voice leading. The simplest touches are magical like the places where only the basses sing on the first beat.

The harmony is masterful-the first phrase in c major but immediately moving to the dominant and then beautiful sequences initiated by the rising bass on “inaestimabile sacramentum”. The harmony on these words is quiet but mysterious-the G moves to Gmin-D9-A-C-Bmag-Emin. Then the last phraseirreprehensibilis est” B-Gmin-A-Fmin-G–back to  C  for a quiet  ending.   This is a great example of how a great master can  utilize basic triads to create the perfect blending  of words  and  pacing.

Opus Posthumous: Schubert, Brendel, and Barcarolle

June 12, 2007

The slow movement of Schubert’s B flat Piano Sonata is not listed by Wikipedia as an example of a famous barcarolle but remains probably not only the most profound piece in that style but one of the most visionary pieces of music ever conceived: