Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Good, The Bad, and the Dodecaphonic

Last Week, At a concert, our local orchestra decided to play Beethoven's 9th symphony.

However, this was an outdoor concert and it was quite hot, the players were working up quite a sweat, until some fans were brought in.

Unfortunately, the wind from these ventilators was causing the sheet music to blow all over the place, so they had to tie them down to the music stands.

The din from the fans was so bad that the bassists decided it didn't matter if they downed a few drinks and got royally drunk.

Two of the bassists got so drunk that they passed out.

One of the violinists, in disgust, decided to go home but he slipped and fell.

It was the bottom of the 9th, the bassists were loaded, the score was tied with two men out, and the fans were roaring wild when one of the players slid home.

"Every great inspiration is but an experiment"
(Charles Ives)

If the Impressionists poked holes in the fabric of tonality (see previous post) then the Serialists stabbed it with Bowie knives. Welcome to the 20th Century!

Meet Charles Ives, (October 20, 1874 – May 19, 1954), American composer, co-founder of the successful insurance firm Ives & Myrick, and an enigma to ponder. He was arguably the first true "20th century" composer. Fellow composer Arnold Schoenberg was not normally given to praising his contemporaries but said "There is a great Man living in this country – a composer. He has solved the problem of how to preserve one's self and to learn. He responds to negligence by contempt. He is not forced to accept praise or blame. His name is Ives."

Charles Ives's "Unanswered Question" of 1906 was the first piece of the 20th Century using spatial separation as a major element of the composition. He specified three groups of instruments to be placed around the concert hall. A solo trumpet, keeps asking the eternal question from center stage; increasingly irate and jabbering winds respond from the back of the hall; and the third, a soothing background of soft strings located back-stage represent the constant harmony of the universe.

This piece influenced many maverick composers, especially 90 year-old Henry Brant, who has composed over 100 spatial works and won the Pulitzer prize in 2002 for "Ice Field" based on this concept.

Duly consider this: Jan Swafford, American composer and author who teaches composition, theory, and musicology at the Boston Conservatory has asserted that "at heart, Ives is a religious composer". I can agree with him in a sense. But the Ives religion does not exist in any conventional sense, there is a vague spiritual consciousness perhaps. I believe he was mostly inspired by the transcendental writings of Emerson and Thoreau. He even built his own version of Thoreau's shelter in Walden Woods from which he could compose away from civilization.

Charles Ives built this composer's "shanty"
on top of Pine Mountain in Ridgefield, Connecticut in 1903.
Was he inspired to conceive his "Universe" Symphony
as he gazed over the distant ridges under stars?

Outside of early works like "The Celestial Country,” Ives' compositions raise far more questions than they answer. There is no unified rational view of the world in the music of Ives. His compositions are not easily grasped. Rather than simplifying our experience, Ives’ music portrays the world as fragmentary, disjointed, and ultimately incomplete. To view the musical world of Charles Ives, neither the telescope nor the microscope is helpful, but a kaleidoscope would serve one well. His music reveals an underlying complexity in a reality that is chaotic and
disconnected. We typically ignore this dissonant reality by sticking to the well-worn paths, whether they are well-worn musical conventions or well-worn ways of thinking. Like the disembodied voice in the film "Field of Dreams", Ives challenges us to "Go the distance".

I know what your thinking, dear reader. "Well Benjamin, one does not have to be an astute learned student of musicology to understand Ives’ music represents a fragmentary and chaotic reality. That's basically modernism in a nutshell." And you are right. However allow me to elaborate further. Unlike modernists who reflect but lament the breakdown of sense and order, Ives relishes every drop of chaos; he does the high dive right into the primordial pool and does a few laps. Then he emerges jubilantly and asks only for a towel. Think of “The Fourth of July.” Think of “Putnam’s Camp.”

Ives in 1945 He even looks like a man who revels in chaos!

I was mistaken, you don't need a kaleidescope to view this world, this world is a kaleidoscope! Ives’s music acknowledges that our perceptions of the universe--and the realities that we construct from those perceptions--are in a constant state of transformation. From Ives’ point of view, creating a work of art and presenting it as complete is disingenuous. Ives spent most of his life attending mainstream Christian churches yet his music is never dogmatic or orthodox.
Nor is it tidy.

"The fabric of existence weaves itself whole. You cannot set art off in a corner and hope for it to have vitality, reality, and substance. There can be nothing exclusive about substantial art. It comes directly out of the heart of the experience of life and thinking about life and living life"
(Charles Ives, A Life With Music)

"My music is not really modern, just badly played."
Arnold Schoenberg

The historic encounter around 1911 between the composer Arnold Schoenberg and the painter Wassily Kandinsky occurred when the first wild revolts against traditional art, Dadaism and Futurism, had just manifested themselves. Without actually being a part of these movements, both Schoenberg and Kandinsky had already concluded that the material and the compositional methods they relied on in the past were exhausted and did not satisfy the development of their artistic ideas. Both artists had already submitted their modes of production to a critical analysis which resulted in Schoenberg's Theory of Harmony and Kandinsky's Concerning the Spiritual in Art, both published in 1911. They had already been putting their self-criticism into practice for some time. In Schoenberg's case this led to breaking with tonality; Kandinsky effected the transition to abstract painting.

The Red Look

Did Kandinsky influence the painting of Schoenberg?

After World War I Austrian born Arnold Schoenberg worked at evolving a means of order which would clarify and simplify his musical textures. This resulted in his "method of composition with twelve tones". In this system all twelve pitches of the octave are regarded as equal, and no one note or tonality is given the emphasis it occupied in classical harmony. He regarded it as the equivalent in music of Albert Einstein's discoveries in Physics. Schoenberg announced his theory with wry and ironic wit saying “I have made a discovery which will ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years."

In the following years he produced a series of instrumental and orchestral works showing how his method could produce new music which did not copy the past. His crowning achievement was to be an opera - "Moses und Aron", of which he wrote over two-thirds but was unable to complete, perhaps for psychological reasons. Most music scholars agree that although it is unfinished, it is his finest work.
The opera represents a response in dramatic form to the growing anti-Jewish movements in the German-speaking world after 1848 and a deeply personal expression of his own "Jewish identity" crisis. This crisis began with a personal encounter with anti-Semitic agitation at Mattsee during the summer of 1921, when he was forced to leave the resort because he was a Jew, although he actually had converted to Protestantism in 1898. It was a traumatic experience to which Schoenberg would often refer. "I have at last learned the lesson that has been forced upon me this year, and I shall never forget it. It is that I am not a German, not a European, indeed perhaps scarcely even a human being (at least, the Europeans prefer the worst of their race to me), but that I am a Jew." Schoenberg’s music theory teacher, Gustav Mahler also tried to deflect the growing bigotry by converting to Catholicism, some years earlier. He said "I am thrice homeless: as a Bohemian among Austrians, as an Austrian among the Germans, and as a Jew throughout the entire world. I am an intruder everywhere, welcome nowhere.”

The Mattsee experience changed the course of Schoenberg's life and musical creativity. It led him to proclaim in Moses und Aron his strict monotheistic creed; and finally, upon his official return to Judaism in 1933, to embark for more than a decade on a relentless mission to save European Jews from the Nazis. The idea of the opera is the story of the Biblical Exodus set in modern times. It is both a political and personal statement. Ironically, the music ends at the point where Moses cries out his frustration at being unable to express himself. Some suggest that by this time Schoenberg had come to see himself as a kind of prophet as well.

Though remarkably he himself had little formal instruction in music, teaching was a major activity throughout his life. Among his many students the most noted were Alban Berg and Anton von Webern. He taught at the Prussian Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin from 1925 to 1933, when he fled the Nazis, emigrated to the United States, and taught for a year at the Malkin Conservatory, Boston. He then went to Hollywood and was professor of music at the Univ. of Southern California (1935–36) and the Univ. of California at Los Angeles (1936–44).

Schönbergs music had polarized responses to it: his followers and students saw him as one of the most important figures in music, while many critics hated his work, on the whole.

The deteriorating relation between contemporary composers and the public led him to found the Society for Private Musical Performances in Vienna in 1918. His aim was grandiose but not egocentric; he sought to provide a forum in which modern musical compositions could be carefully prepared and rehearsed, and properly performed under conditions protected from the dictates of fashion and pressures of commerce. From its inception through 1921, when it ended because of economic reasons, the Society presented 353 performances to paid members, sometimes at the rate of one per week, and during the first year and a half, Schoenberg did not allow any of his own works to be performed . Instead, audiences at the Society's concerts heard difficult contemporary compositions by Skryabin, Debussy, Mahler, Webern, Berg, Reger, and other leading figures of early 20th-century music. Vienna saw the birth of serialism, psychoanalysis, and modern art all at once.

Schoenberg was a triskadekaphobe. He omitted an 'A' in Aaron's name so as to avoid having 13 letters in the title. We are fortunate the traditional division of the octave had twelve, not 13 tones or perhaps Schoenberg would not have graced us with this amazing music. Perhaps instead writing the theme for "Happy Birthday". Perhaps ironically he left the planet on Friday, July 13 in his 76th year, 7 +6= 13.

It is worth noting that Schoenberg was not the only composer (or even the first) to experiment with the systematic use of all twelve tones. Both the Russian composer Nikolai Roslavets and Schoenberg's fellow Austrian Josef Matthias Hauer developed their own twelve-tone systems quite independently at around the same time as Schoenberg, and Charles Ives experimented with twelve-tone techniques substantially earlier However, Schoenberg's system was by far the most influential.

For a great listening and interactive experience (Best with headphones and high speed internet, dial up would be tough) check out The Unmixed Question. You can do your own spatial mix of Charles Ives "The Unanswered Question" With the San Francisco Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas conducting.
The piece was created using binaural 3D positioning software to move the musical parts around in an imaginary hall. Just to add a little chaos, we have added some incidental Ives music you can blend in; a practice he often did, in the Symphony #4 for instance with clashing bands and choruses.

Wait for the music to load and press the Start icon. Clicking "Location" will send the part to another placement in the space once the previous part is finished playing. You can also control the relative volumes of each part or fade them out all together.

This is a big file. It takes a while to load.

Patience pays off. Don't be in a hurry for the sound to change right after the buttons are touched. Just keep your ears open and the changes will follow.

There are 16 parts of all different lengths (four parts possible at once.) Because they are different lengths the phrases will never line up the same way twice. This makes for a slowly evolving piece without an end.

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