21 January 2009

A Good Day for Classical Music

Yesterday was the inauguration. It was also, I think, a good day for classical music for myself and the country. We spent most of the day in front of ABC and CSPAN watching the festivities, enjoying Charlie Gibson’s enthusiasm and the uncommented upon ceremonies. I was particularly impressed by Obama’s choice to have a small musical interlude before the actual swearing in – not only because I did the same thing at my wedding last year, but because I think it put the oath taking in a special light. The performance was elegant – Perlman’s tone was exquisite and Ma’s cheeriness infectious. The pianist, Gabriella Montero wore fingerless gloves and the McGill, the clarinet player had a velvet tone.

Now to the music. It was written by John Williams and was a small set of variations on the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts,” made more famous by its use in Copland’s Appalachian Spring and no doubt used here to convey a sort of Americana reverence. The variations were simple, after an introduction – moody and serious – it continued in the manner of a modernized version of a Mozart variation, more and more notes in the same amount of time. The music was cheery and upbeat, a good advertisement for classical music – the were a few angular moments but all in al a pretty good revamp of Copland. Let’s hope that Obama continues the trend toward support of the arts – and not just John Williams.

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12 January 2009

Analyze This

About a year or so ago I was contacted by a German scholar about writing an article for a festschrift about the music of John Luther Adams. Since that point, the scholar has put together an impressive list of contributors for a book that, from what I imagine, could easily find a publisher. After shopping it around a bit, Bernd came to the conclusion that we needed the actual article’s rather than the proposals if we were to find a publisher. The deadline approaches and I’ve been sitting down recently to try to put together my contribution.

My initial thought for an article stemmed from thoughts I developed in writing an article on for Lou Harrison, and I would basically provide a primer for listening to, experiencing or composing JLA’s music. Basicaly, if you wanted to write a piece like JLA what would you do. This I think would be a very useful contribution to the book as there is no other real overview for the music. In terms of specific pieces, essentially I’d be looking at the colorfield pieces like Dark Wind or Red Arc /Blue Veil.

My next thought was to try and put the understanding of the music in the context of the Aeolian Harp which I think is the proper metaphor for Adams’ music. I did some research on how Aeolian tones work (the work of Lord Rayleigh is particularly interesting in this regard) and thinking of that in the context of what I know about constructing JLA’s work – ultimately, I think the Aeolian harp metaphor is useful but really only applies fully to the pieces with auras: Mathematics, Veils and Vespers and the like – mainly because of the extreme high partials of these pieces.

Next thought was to understand the work in relation to the actual mechanics of creating a sound. I recall from a class I had with Robert Cogan a long time ago that bit from the Abime des Oiseaux movement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, and how when you listen to the long pitches held you actually begin to hear the higher and higher partials of the piece. I thought that this was aparticularly apt metaphor for the construction of Adams’ music which often begins with a wash and then adds quicker and quicker moving layers over that wash. Through the brilliant sound analysis program created by my friend Michael Klingbeil: SPEAR, I was able to encode and analyze that very sonority from Messiaen and saw that in fact as the sound increased in volume so did the higher partials of the fundamental enter in the picture.

So my next step was to look at a colorfield piece: I chose my old standby The Light That Fills the World and try to determine whether this enhancement of partials was matched by the actual mechanics of the music rather than in the abstract. I thought to borrow from Lewin’s analysis of Carter’s String Quartet in GITT, particularly his method of dealing with tempo relations by translating them into harmonic relations to sort of create an “harmonic” language of tempo. Once I translated out the tempo relationships I could build a large-scale harmonic understanding of tempo over the course of the work. My initial work suggests that I’ll find a structure similar to the pitch saturation in the tempo saturation – mainly that the same tempo relations are always in play.

I spent this morning mapping out the tempi of the various layers in the individual sections (I’m halfway finished) and from there translating those tempi into pitches. The real pitches given by the tempi are subsonic (recall Cowell’s idea that considering the fact that pitch is a function of frequency, tempo is related to pitch) so I’m simply mapping them onto a standard acoustical formation.

I’m further borrowing from Lewin in treating the timepoint and duration of events as an ordered pair: thus (29, 24/5) means that at beat 29, a pitch enters for a duration of 24/5 beats. I’m using the quarter note as normative, although Adams sets tempo at half=60.

For this to be important to the narrative of the piece I’ll need to demonstrate that pitch is unimportant – simply a coloring on the tempo map. I think this won’t be too hard to determine. Through this transformational approach we’ll determine that the piece is a realization (through tempo and gamut) of an abstract progression in essence creating an abstract generative model for a JLA piece that could be combined with the other techniques to generate a piece. From this model one could map out more and more complex progressions and from there translate them back into sound through a gamut.

As I write this, I think perhaps that this may not be what is needed for the book, probably the book will need a simple overview article instead as this could be too specific and complicated.

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03 January 2009

Some more Schoenberg

Back at the blogging after nearly a month away. A Happy New Year to all.

Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte, op. 41 (1942) (voice, 2 violins, viola, violoncello, piano)
This work for reciter with piano qunitet seems to get a bad rap, primarily from those who see it as a tonal work where Schoenberg turned his back on his creation and returned to a more popular style. The Ode is a powerful work, uncompromising and adamant. Bristling moments abound - its striking opening - staccato chords in the piano with martial and regal rhythms in the strings creating an Ivesian bustle. Throughout Schoenebrg tailors his musical images to the text and sometimes is even funny - like the exagerated portamentos that accompany the talk of "Austria." This piece seems to be something timeless like the Byron poem it sets which looks at Napoleon fallen and desolate with little pity. Rich and engrossing.

Concerto, op. 42 (1942) (piano, orchestra)
Like the violin concerto, my memory of the piano concerto is of a work I found quite difficult to listen to, a work that was stodgy, full of those repeated rhythms and unpleasant. I recall feeling that it never got off its feet. That was ten years ago maybe, listening to it today, I hear it as a prototype of a number of angular pieces that I find attractive - I hear its repeated rhtyhms but just as often I'm surprised by a sudden shift of material, a new turn of phrase, a new rhythmic figure or a delightful object that appears and doesn't return, at least not in the same guise - like that lovely moment of high quartal-ish trills at 325 or the striking cadenza at 287 or the col legno battuto in the basses toward the end. This is chamber music with a lot of vibrato and massed sounds. But it has a romantic striving to it - it seems to be fighting against the walls. Harmonically it is twelve-tone but with a tonal core. Listening to it you can really hear how Schoenberg is using the twelve-tone language to justify the things he was writing about in the Harmonielehre here it is internalized - harmonies can go anywhere - and they need to be tamed. A bold, visionary work.

Theme and variations, op. 43a (1943) (band)
This, another example of Schoenberg having a go at neoclassicism, is a deep text. There are abundant cross references throughout its twelve-minutes that one could spend a good deal of time teasing out, but would it be worth it for the few minutes of genius? The theme itself is unmemorable, an oddly harmonized - though oddly only in the sense of the norm: Schoenberg is following the precepts he lays out in the Harmonielehre - melody that undergoes a number of transformations, a waltz, a fughetta, for instance, before apotheozing in the end into a broad expansive restatement, but still the melody is unmemorable. You see Schoenberg trying to get his point across, there is a new expression marking, joining the haupt and nebbenstimme, this is an arrow pointing forward at the beginning of a phrase and an arrow pointing backward at the end, to bring out the phrases in the dense polyphony of Variation V. Variation 5, like Variation 1 is quite nice. In Variation 1 the harmonic structure of the original is buried under triplet mud obscuring its contours. Otherwise an odd curiosity. Originally commissioned by the president of G. Schirmer, Carl Engel. According to Schoenberg: "It is the kind of piece one writes in order to enjoy one's own virtuosity."

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