March 17, 2018
First Presbyterian / Santa Monica
Quatre études de rythme (1950) – Olivier Messiaen
Psappha (1975) – Iannis Xenakis
Piano Sonata (1952) – Jean Barraqué
Even today, there is something profoundly unnerving about the whiplash change that happened to music in 1950 — in the wake of the war, and after the atom bomb — like evolution suddenly lurching forward to force life into light-speed mutation. This mid-century turning point is stranger still since it would equally cleave the life — born 42 years earlier in 1908, dying 42 years later in 1992 — of a key catalyzing figure.
Olivier Messiaen was hardly the only mortar in the pestle that brought total serialism into existence, but he taught its leading devotees, who touched the creative lives of nearly everyone then grappling with Anton Webern’s distillation of Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system. Analytical purity in music seemed destined to emerge while the re-arranging whirlwind of war settled down, leaving in its wake the sentimentality, religion, certainty, and national identities associated with a shattered old world.
This man near the eye of the storm had already endured relentless criticism for his wide-ranging musical tastes, for his surreal hyper-romanticism, synesthesia, nature worship, and the sincere naiveté of his Catholic faith. He embraced Indian ragas, birdsong, Indonesian gamelan, Peruvian melodies, Wagnerian leitmotifs, Medieval chants and fragments of ancient Greek meters. Still, Messiaen would play a critical role in launching a level of pure abstraction and rigor previously unknown to music — as a creator teaching by example, and as a musical analyst par excellence. His bravest and most singular students were Germany’s Karlheinz Stockhausen and the Romanian-born Greek Iannis Xenakis. His passionate friend and most cosmopolitan water bearer was Pierre Boulez; his most faithful surrogate was the American Betsy Jolas, and his most enigmatic disciple was Jean Barraqué.
Darmstadt provided the key locus for this epochal shift — a strangely poetic fact given its two-faced history: first among German cities to forcibly shutter Jewish shops at the twilight of Nazis power, a source of 3,000 Jews deported to concentration camps, but also home to prominently doomed leaders of the German resistance movement. The city would pay dearly as the allies bombed three quarters of its buildings. The historic core provided a trial run for the British firestorm technique that later decimated Dres-den. Incendiary bombs circled the city before bull’s-eye blast bombs generated a caustic wind-powered fire that consumed everything within the perimeter. Upwards of 12,500 Darmstadt residents were incinerated, and some 70,000 were left homeless by war’s end in 1945.
Plain functional architecture was built over the ruins, often surrounding faithful replicas of historic structures representing the glory days of Jugendstil, Germany’s art nouveau. Home of the chemical giant Merck, which began as the Angel Pharmacy (Engel-Apotheke) in 1668, Darmstadt is now so identified with chemistry, pharmaceuticals, and the naming of newly-discovered elements that it has been branded the “City of Science.” However, like Lilies of the Valley that thrive in ashes protected there from cutworms, “purified” music emerged as an alternative identity. In 1946, the Darmstadt International New Music Summer School for contemporary classical music was founded with allied support from American Officers active in cultural exchanges and rebuilding initiatives. Darmstadt was in the American occupied zone where there were resources for music scholarships and the energy to find viable pianos. The New Music school proved uniquely attractive to a generation of well-educated and deeply curious pioneers. The Nazis had made musical innovation off limits for decades.
In addition to Messiaen, Boulez, and Stockhausen, the Darmstadt Summer program attracted such avant-garde composers as Luigi Nono (married to Nuria Schoenberg), John Cage, Elliott Carter, Bruno Maderna, Luciano Berio, Milton Babbitt, György Ligeti, Mauricio Kagel, and eventually Helmut Lachenmann. A 1954 lecture “American Experimental Music” by Wolfgang Rebner – a student of Paul Hindemith in Germany before leaving in 1939, who became a film composer/pianist in Hollywood and a regular performer at Peter Yates’s Evenings on the Roof – was likely the very first public assertion that an American tradition existed linking Charles Ives to Henry Cowell to Edgard Varese and to John Cage! It would take Yates another five years to take that ball and run with it.
In 1958, Nono coined the moniker “Darmstadt School” to embrace these prominent composers, as well as Earle Brown from the Merce Cunningham circle, Esa-Pekka Salonen’s teacher Franco Donatoni, the under-appreciated Belgian innovator Karel Goeyvaerts, and the electronic music pioneer Henri Pousseur. Barraqué and Xenakis were included in the Darmstadt School despite not hav-ing attended as students, as was Messiaen for his catalytic influence – regardless of a rapid retreat from serial-ism. Nono’s strong-willed nature and his controversial positions would effectively lead to the dissolution of the “Darmstadt School” by 1960.
During this ten-year period, Influential lectures were given about critical theory by Theodor W. Adorno, the controversial Marxist philosopher, sociologist, and composer. John Cage expounded upon chance operations; other cutting edge ideas were shared by the likes of Morton Feldman, Hans Werner Henze, Ernst Krenek, Rene Leibowitz, David Tudor, György Ligeti, Edgard Varèse, and Xenakis. Ground-breaking performers who championed avant-garde music, such as Messiaen student and future wife Yvonne Loriod, were also accorded prominence. Loriod, however, was primarily Messiaen’s muse, and her capacity to realize his idiosyncratic birdsong, synesthetic effects, and unique structural methodologies proved a potent source of inspiration.
In a 1948 Paris newspaper profile, gay author and journalist Robert de St Jean (partnered with the more famous American novelist Julien Green), described Messiaen as having the expected long hair of a professor of harmony, but unexpectedly, his facial expression, “remains very fresh and very open, with glimmers of childlike gaiety, sometimes, in his eyes.” Serge Koussevitzky’s commission of a huge ten-movement symphony for the Boston Symphony – a year away from completion – had elevated Messiaen to international celebrity. Leonard Bernstein would conduct the premiere at Symphony Hall.
When asked by St Jean which “masters do you recognize as having left their mark on your work,” he replied to the nonplussed interviewer “the birds.” Most masterful of all he said was “the blackbird, of course! It can improvise continuously eleven or twelve different verses, in which identical musical phrases return. What freedom of melodic invention, what an artist!” Messiaen went on to disparage Western ignorance of rhythm as centuries away from full mastery. So it shouldn’t have been surprising that his gigantic symphony with piano and ondes Martenot soloists would soon be succeeded in his focus by the only vehicle for such necessary experimentation, the solo piano.
During 1949, at the Darmstadt summer course, Messiaen sketched the middle movements of Four Rhythmic Etudes, a work that signaled, especially in its third movement “Mode of Durations and Intensities,” a significant new direction that would galvanize all who saw the score, heard or performed it. Every note would exist within a numerical organization of pitch, duration, dynamics, and attack. Instead of utilizing a 12-note series, with the formal generating contours of a melody, Messiaen used modal scales composed of 36 pitches, 24 durations, 12 attacks, and 7 dynamics.
Messiaen’s handling of duration, e.g. tempo, comes out of the three – high, middle, low – registers of the piano expressed in superimposed eight note, sixteenth note and 32nd note. Messiaen explains: "The durations, in-tensities and attacks operate on the same plane as the pitches; the combination of modes reveals colors of durations and intensity; each pitch of the same name has a different duration, attack and intensity for each register in which it appears; the influence of register upon the quantitative, phonetic, and dynamic soundscape, and the division into three temporal regions imbues the pas-sage with the spirit of the sounds that traverse them, creating the potential for new variations of colors."
“Neumes Rythmiques,” Messiaen’s first stab at so-called total serialism, draws from his fascination with medieval plainchant, and traces therein of ancient Greek poetic meters. A neume is described by Paul Griffiths, the great musicologist, librettist, and biographer of Barraqué, as a “sign representing a segment of melody. Such signs appeared in chant books in Western Europe in the 9th century and in the Byzantine Empire in the 10th century; there are also neumatic systems of similar age from Japan and Tibet.” A neume is literally and etymologically a breath. It is the precursor of the note before the five-line stave was invented to exert more control over pitches. Messiaen alternates longer strophes, roughly equivalent to stanzas, or opening statements in poetic odes, with shorter refrains, or choruses. Iambic rhythm establishes the first strophe, which is designated by the composer as neumes, with fixed resonances and intensities.
Messiaen explains further: "In an interplay of transposition, the neumatic symbol as an indication of a sinuous melodic entity is now applied to a rhythmic motive. Each rhythmic neume is assigned a fixed dynamic and resonances of shimmering colors, more or less bright or somber, always contrasting"
The rhythmic etudes open and close with impressions of volcanic Papua New Guinea, where tribal culture strongly inhabited a Pacific Rim landscape rich with particularly exotic birds and ritual dances around bursts of fire. The terse opening “Island of Fire” represents the summation of Messiaen’s pianistic models from Liszt, Debussy and Ravel, as well as characteristics of his massive keyboard works produced for Loriod in the decade just ended. The closing “Island of Fire” features pounding toccata-like rhythms ornamented with complex nature-evoking riffs that suddenly give way – twice – to a simple open-air passage of elegant birdsong as might have been written by Mozart or Chopin.
Iannis Xenakis was something of a refugee staring down last chances when he arrived in Paris In 1947. A death sentence for political terrorism was on his head; his face disfigured by shrapnel from a resistance-related skirmish in Greece. This scenario seems all the more unlikely when looking back to a childhood shaped by governesses, and music discovered on the radio. At ten, after his mother died, Xenakis attended an English style boarding school on an Aegean island, surrounded by temples and statues where his early interest in music led to piano studies and an affinity for science. Astronomy and archeology captured his imagination.
On the first day of Athens Polytechnic Institute’s school year in 1940, Mussolini’s troops invaded the Greek capital ending his 18-year-old dream of life in the ivory towers of mathematics and engineering. Xenakis’ politics became extreme overnight. He was repeatedly arrested and incarcerated while sporadically studying physics, music, archaeology and law alongside his focus on mathematics. Xenakis was at the front of any street demonstration, with the right-wingers at first, then with the communist National Popular Army becoming commander of the “Lord Byron Unit.” Later, after the Germans evacuated and the British established martial law in 1945, a shell fragment smashed his jaw and dislodged his left eye. Given up for dead, his father found the teenager in the rubble and was able to get him to an operating room.
After three months in a hospital, incredibly, Xenakis re-turned to study at the haphazardly functioning institute, while carrying on clandestine activism that provoked more jailings. Less than a year later he presented his thesis on “Reinforced Concrete,” only to be thrust into a camp for prisoners, escaping, and then hiding for six months in an Athens apartment.
His 1947 flight to Paris with false papers was a new beginning. Soon Europe’s most advanced architectural thinker Le Corbusier would offer him an engineering job. Xenakis worked closely with Le Corbusier for twelve years at the end of which mathematics, architecture and music actually merged with the landmark Philips commission for a pavilion celebrating electronics in a new age at the Brussels World Fair of 1958.
Despite a challenging relationship with Arthur Honegger, study with him at the École Normale was short-lived as the more methodical Darius Milhaud replaced the Swiss composer. Xenakis’ probing temperament didn’t sit well with Milhaud either. The young architect wanted harmony and counterpoint lessons with Nadia Boulanger, the famous teacher of so many Americans. But this unusually skilled and intuitive Greek was already 25 years old and still a musical beginner. Boulanger had no patience for that.
It was only after pushing open Messiaen’s door at the Paris Conservatory in the late afternoon of 1951 that Xenakis found a mentor who recognized the way in which he was advanced beyond his musical schooling. Years later Messiaen recalled, how this “bearer of a glorious scar, but radiant with an internal light…[and a] piercing gaze gave me to understand immediately that the man I was looking at was… not like the others. He told me he wanted to be a composer. When I found out that he was Greek, that he had studied mathematics and that he was working as an architect with Le Corbusier, I told him, ‘Keep going with all that…and out of it make music!”
Also in late 1951, Karlheinz Stockhausen began auditing Messiaen’s class at the urging of a young Belgian composition student Karel Goeyvaerts, who had also restlessly moved from Milhaud to Messiaen. The score to Messiaen’s “Modes Values and Intensities,” profoundly affected Stockhausen as it had affected Messiaen’s private student Pierre Boulez.
Xenakis married the French novelist and journalist Françoise Gargouïl in 1953. That year Le Corbusier hosted the International Congress of Modern Architecture in Marseilles for a rooftop event. Xenakis arranged a joint performance of the latest electronic music by Pierre Henry (another Messiaen student), a progressive jazz group, and alternating traditional musics from India and Japan ― each emanating from a different vantage point on the roof.
Soon the two architects collaborated on creating the famous modernist landmark monastery at La Tourette from 1953 to 1960. Meanwhile the composition of Metastasis, a nine-minute piece for orchestra and the first important work by Xenakis, responded to claims by electronic music composers of the inferiority and obsolescence of live performance. In 1955, sixty-one solo players, including a large mass of individual strings, premiered a graphically designed score made by using a ruled parabola. Xenakis endeavored to reconcile coexisting conceptions of time, Newton’s linear flow and Einstein’s recognition of matter and energy affecting time.
To propel forward motion, the score prescribed changes in the density of sound, its intensity and register.
This ultra precise parabolic design influenced Xenakis’ conception of the Philips Pavilion, “a free-form hollow structure” with 375 speakers imbedded in the undulating walls and the means to project lights and images for an audience of 500 at the 1958 Brussels World Fair. The Pavilion was referred to by Le Corbusier as Poème Electronique, the name that would be exclusively applied to the eight minutes of electronic music by Varese to be played by the building as a condition of Le Corbusier’s participation. A synchronized eight-minute montage of images filled every angle of the space.
This World Fair was the first such international gather-ing since WWII ended, adopting as its optimistic symbol a giant structure resembling the form of an atom. The pair of architects settled on a floor plan for the Pavilion resembling a stomach from which giant tilting tent poles and wires supporting pre-cast concrete panels created a dynamic exterior. Xenakis also composed a brief electronic piece based on the sound of burning charcoal for the entrance.
The building was a sensation. After a battle for credit, Xenakis shared the glory with Le Corbusier (who had little to do with it) and was made an international herald of the new. Xenakis then left architecture and completely embraced music for all its potential, once harnessed to advanced mathematic theory. Messiaen would describe the swarming string music of Xenakis, as it coexisted with the composer’s constant invention — such as the creation of the graphic computer interface — “not simply the ancillary side-effects of a thought; they are not radically new, but radically other.”
It is likely, however, the corpus of nine percussion works spanning two decades (1969-89), that may best encapsulate the mental energy of the “radically other,” an equipoise between total serialism and indeterminacy. Persephassa, a 30-minute percussion sextet led the way in 1969 – a rite of spring in honor of the goddess Persephone – with exhilarating cross rhythms, eddies, tremolos, tempestuous “clouds” of texture, the otherworldly whistling of simantras, and what percussion guru Steve Schick describes as “interlocking rhythms to create a unified rhythmic field.” Psappha, the next percussion work from 1975 distills – in half the duration – the drama of silence created by the sudden cessation of Persephassa’s forceful sextet. The silences of Psappha are more deliberate and intimate in the hands of a soloist, the air of the island landscape more present.
Sappho, the lyrical poet of Ancient Greece universally admired by composers, is the subject. Seemingly wayward drumbeats play among silent reveries before persistently accelerating toward a challenge often encountered by performers of Xenakis. What Messiaen called “the charm of impossibilities” is made very real when facing the demands of these scores. Schick describes the conundrum well, “the impossibilities are really there: they can be found at the end of Psappha with Xenakis’s indication that each of the many simultaneously sounding notes is to receive three strokes. The resulting music at its most dense would have a single percussionist playing as many as 25 strokes per second on a group of instruments dispersed widely in a space.”
Given the composer’s ancient/futuristic commitment to the human production of acoustic sound coexisting with a predisposition to science and computer technology, it is as though Xenakis throws down the gauntlet and demands that we evolve our capacity, what the paleontologist, geologist, philosopher, and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called super-hominization: “It is our duty as men and women to proceed as though the limits of our abilities do not exist.” At minimum the performer can diminish the space between the instruments, the rest is technique and appealing to a higher power.
How Jean Barraqué produced as his Opus 1 – a Piano Sonata of formidable length and nearly insurmountable technical demands is something of a mystery. Until completing the work in 1952 Barraqué’s production of scores could hardly sustain his interest long enough to finish them, such was the pace of his auto-didacticism. Unsurprisingly, the material was mostly derivative and uninspired despite an inner compulsion to make the grandest artistic gestures, an unmistakable feeling that he was destined to further a great tradition.
Almost no clues exist as to how this came about. Messiaen’s non-religious childhood was defined by the years of WWI spent in the idyllic safety of Grenoble with his mother, brother and grandparents steeped in the greatest opera scores. A natural pianist and entertainer, he sang and put on shows in the living room. He was privately enchanted by bible stories. His father, a translator of Shakespeare to French, was a soldier at the front. His mother Cecile Sauvage, the well-regarded “poet of motherhood,” anticipated his birth in an epic poem. Fourteen years Messiaen’s junior, Xenakis initially shared similarly idyllic circumstances, but soon faced the harshest imaginable realities. Barraqué was six years younger still. He was conceived on Easter 1927, his mother noted, as his parents were religious and she envisioned her only child’s future in the church. His father was a butcher in a suburb of Paris, where they soon moved to improve his business prospects in occupied France. His biographer Paul Griffiths (The Sea on Fire, University of Rochester Press, 2003) describes his up-bringing as “a wretched parody of family life.” Religious fervor was as real to the Notre Dame choirboy as was young Messiaen’s life-long faith. Until music wiped it out, utterly.
Recordings, first among them Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, then Beethoven and Bach obsessed the young Barraqué who populated his imagination with these great personages. Nothing else had much reality, certainly not school work. His life in the church may have led to study with the great blind organist/composer Jean Langlais in 1947. During that time Barraqué was suffering recurring bouts of mysterious nervous disorders now believed were related to his realization that he was homosexual.
The following year he became a non-enrolled student of Messiaen. Langlais may have made a recommendation based on the young man’s voracious curiosity. With an awareness of Messiaen’s classes, as Griffiths puts it, that “the past few years had been alive with revolutionary ideas about developing Arnold Schoenberg’s serial method of composition, reinvigorating rhythm, exploring new tone colors and leaning from the music of the world.” At the time fellow student Boulez was in an innovative heat of creative fire. Soon, unaccustomed to any higher education, Barraqué was thrust into Messiaen’s class in musical aesthetics and analysis at the Paris Conservatoire with three session per week each lasting four hours. That term Messiaen was focused on rhythm – Rite of Spring, ancient Indian ragas, Mozart, and plainsong. Barraqué’s writing at the time is nothing if not telling:
“For those who could use it, the time spent with Messiaen allowed that plunge…a great teacher conveys nothing: he’s there to disturb. What Messiaen will not do – and what some counted on him to do – is to set up a theoretical method of analysis. Only the works are there, magnificently radiant and devastating. Messiaen gave is his class the impress-sion of a master who knows how to listen and be silent. One has to pass through some heavy experiences in order to preserve that respectful humility towards works – works no longer fixed in a splendid, distant past but alive forever with their on energy of life and death.”
Another year would pass in admiration of Bartok while stepping in the direction of serialism. A catalyzing event was the 75th birthday of Schoenberg celebrated in Paris with an October 15, 1949 performance of the strictly serial, but deeply expressive Phantasy for violin and pianos, as well as the less strict and highly dramatic Ode to Napoleon for reciter and piano quintet, both recently composed. In the months before the concert he was immersed in earlier Schoenberg, and with fresh eyes for Debussy scores. Webern’s music had been recently published, was making the rounds, and proved hugely catalytic for the Messiaen circle. His influence is clear in Barraqué’s first serial work, tellingly title La porte ouverte (The Open Door), followed immediately by a solo violin sonata that also betrays the influence of Boulez, with whom he was intensely aware from a distance. Eventually they spent time together sharing scores.
Boulez remembers Barraqué at that time – with perhaps too much disapproval and hindsight from one who seem-ed to conceal his own sexuality – as a tense, overly complex alcoholic with bad work habits, one whose admiration of Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche was unhealthy, in that he modeled himself as a classically cursed artist. Nonetheless, the Second Sonata of Boulez galvanized Barraqué to complete his own contribution to the canon of piano sonatas, which when finally revealed two years in gestation betrayed a work ethic that staggers the imagination. Much has been written about this work, and little of it helps explain its fascination or promotes understanding. Even Barraqué’s radio interview from 1969 most have left his listeners perplexed. He tackles the core subject of freedom versus rigor:
“In the free style the greatest role is played effectively by the dynamics and by the sort of rhythmic élan that sets up very striking contrasts. On the other hand, the rigorous style is written in a very contrapuntal manner, where cells of the basic structure are developed according to a principle of variation I call ‘in closed-open circuit’, that is, with all the variations on the rhythmic schemes, which are sometimes superimposed in two, three, four – up to four and even five parts – and which, above all, require the integration of silence, which progressively impregnates the work, so to say, and finally removes from it its contrapuntal and structural content to give way to silences – what I call ‘avoid-ed’ music, silences that have an importance in the work.”
The handful of recordings began with Yvonne Loriod traipsing in and out of the studio to learn sections and perform them as her busy schedule allowed. It was fin-ally edited together with a running time of 52 minutes in 1957. Whether she would have adopted similar tempi in live performance cannot be known. Subsequent record-ed interpreters Roger Woodward and Herbert Henck have a consensus running time of 46-48 minutes. Considering the outright esoteric nature of this repertoire, CD buyer comments on Amazon are fulsome and extravagant. The adjective count may be off the charts, but the intelligence and thoroughness of these reviews is also absolutely stunning. The Loriod and Woodward recordings each have 2.5 million views among others on YouTube!
Eighteen years have passed since the Barraqué Piano Sonata was last performed in Los Angeles, yet the interest in this Mt. Everest of piano works seems undimmed. One can only hope that the rarity of live performances will diminish as the training and intelligence of pianists continues its magnificent trajectory, as access to recordings proliferates, and as the curiosity of performers and audiences demand the “charm of impossibilities.”
© PATRICK SCOTT 2018
February 24, 2018
First Presbyterian / Santa Monica
Chant de Linos (1944) – Andre Jolivet
Sonata for Two Violins (1999) – Eric Tanguy
Oiseaux Exotiques (1956) – Olivier Messiaen
La Mort du Nombre (1930) – Messiaen
Quatour III (1973) – Betsy Jolas
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (1894, arr. 1920) – Claude Debussy
The famous symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé struggled for eleven years to get his masterpiece published, all the while considering theatrical options and stage directions. He was cool to the idea upon first hearing about it; after all, many now considered Mallarmé’s the greatest poem of French literature. A piano reduction helped soften his resistance months in advance. Confidently, the 32-year old Claude Debussy insisted that the 52-year old poet attend the first orchestral performance of his Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. As it happened that very day, December 22, 1894, the precipitous judgment of treason landed in the Dreyfus Affair. The public, fanned by falsehoods in the press, was fixated on the trial with its trumped up charges and increasingly evident strains of anti-Semitism.
However, the cultural tastemakers were otherwise preoccupied with Mallarmé v. Debussy. Symbolism was an art movement that celebrated the dream state, transfiguration, sensuality, ambiguity, and the inner world of imagination. Debussy was drawn to the movement’s breakthrough poets and painters. Claude Monet had just purchased Giverny, the estate where his so-called impressionist paintings would change art history.
Harvey Lee Snyder, who has devoted an entire book to this work (Afternoon of a Faun: How Debussy Created a New Music for the Modern World, Amadeus Press 2015), captures the sense of ardent anticipation and doubt preceding the premiere, “…can any composer capture the mythic symbolism at the heart of the poem? Can music possibly simulate the opulent language, or evoke the languor, the torrid atmosphere of a sylvan afternoon, or portray the erotic ambitions of the faun.” Mallarmé would live only four more years.
The 20-something conductor was unknown; the hall was undistinguished. For Mallarmé, his verdict would come after an especially long and uneven concert – wayward Glazunov, vivacious Saint-Saens, pompous Franck, mixed with unremarkable songs and bonbons by lesser-known and now-forgotten French composers. Debussy’s Prelude arrived at the end of the evening as it does tonight. "I have just come out of the concert, deeply moved. The marvel! Your illustration of the Afternoon of a Faun, which presents a dissonance with my text only by going much further, really, into nostalgia and into light, with finesse, with sensuality, with richness. I press your hand admiringly, Debussy. Yours, Mallarmé."
The audience was equally thrilled and demanded an en-core with such insistence that the prohibition of encores was swept aside. The intoxicated orchestra was all too willing to comply. Unwittingly, they witnessed together the dawn of modern music. Finally, music had thrown off Germanic formalist restraints and moved past Richard Wagner’s grandiose and intransigent chromaticism to celebrate the sensual and ephemeral underpinned by structures far subtler and intrinsically more progressive than Western music had ventured before.
Meanwhile the Dreyfus Affair polarized French politics for twelve years of degradation and reversals with long-lasting implications. By 1912, Paris audiences had polarized – on the one hand more conservative and reactionary, and on the other more daring and insatiable. The press however, continued to exploit these polarities for profit. For its third season the sensational Ballet Russe offered the public Vaslav Nijinsky, its impresario Serge Diaghilev’s new young star dancer performing his own radical choreography for Debussy’s score. The translation of an esteemed poem to music held in high regard would be further changed. Léon Bakst overpoweringly lush scenery and inspired costumes heightened Nijinsky’s stage action and riveting personification of the Faun. The movement was not only unfamiliar, but also onanistic and overtly erotic. Acting as dramaturge, Jean Cocteau helped Nijinsky with his poor grasp of French to navigate the elusive poem. The Louvre’s collection of Greek vases provided ample inspiration and clear models for Nijinsky’s satyr/faun.
The audience was stunned. The sculptor August Rodin stood and cheered, others booed; many were enchant-ed by the sublime merger of music and mime. The painter Odion Redon, Mallarmé’s close friend, rhapsodized on what he imagined would be the late poet’s reception. Rodin observed about Nijinsky, “Form and meaning are indissolubly wedded in his body, which is totally expressive of the mind within...” However, the dominant news-paper Le Figaro’s editor Gaston Calmette substituted for his critic’s insightful and positive review a front-page opinion attacking the ballet by means of a classic sex panic:
“Anyone who mentions the words 'art' and 'imagination' in the same breath as this production must be laughing at us. This is neither a pretty pastoral nor a work of profound meaning. We are shown a lecherous faun, whose movements are filthy and bestial in their eroticism, and whose gestures are as crude as they are indecent. That is all. And the over explicit miming of this misshapen beast, loathsome when seen full on, but even more loathsome in profile, was greeted with the booing it deserved.”
A scandal ensued. Many more would follow in quick succession as the 20th century flexed its artistic muscles on the brink of a war’s gathering storm.
Before his famous interaction with Mallarmé, Debussy had begun work on his only opera, his magnum opus Pelléas et Mélisande based upon the 1892 play by the Belgian-born symbolist playwright, poet, and essayist Maurice Maeterlinck. The initial composition was completed in 1895. Orchestration began in 1898 once a production commitment was in place. Yet another four years would pass before rehearsals began. The score was in every way unprecedented, so much so that it would take an unheard of fifteen weeks of rehearsals. Sixty-nine of them were conducted with Debussy present. Yet this vast innovative canvas in five acts was quite well received. In little more than a decade Pelléas et Mélisande had surpassed 100 performances at the Opéra-Comique by the time World War I cast a devastating pall. An ardent nationalist, Debussy was devastated by the German triumphs. Just six months before the Armistice of November 11, 1918, Debussy succumbed to rectal cancer, dying younger even than Mallarmé.
Interest in Pelléas et Mélisande faded with the rise of post-war anti-sentimentality, the profane Dada movement, and France’s growing love affair with Jazz. Even so, Debussy’s opera was of paramount importance to Olivier Messiaen’s artistic development. For his eleventh birthday December 10, 1919, the boy received the complete score of Pelléas et Mélisande. All the men of his family had enlisted for military service so he spent the wartime years with his younger brother, mother, grandmother and profoundly blind grandfather in mountainous Grenoble.
To pass the time he made miniature stage sets and held colored cellophane to the light shining down on them from the window. He taught himself to play the piano from Gluck’s Orpheé. After a few months he found he could hear the score in his head. The family was entertained at night by his singing and playing the parts in operas by Mozart, Berlioz and Wagner. While in this ideal childhood retreat he taught himself to play Debussy’s Estampes (1903) and Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit (1908). A voracious appetite developed for Shakespeare, of which his father was an accomplished translator. Poetry was also on his radar, as his mother was Cecile Sauvage, the French “poet of motherhood.” She introduced Messiaen to Keats and Tennyson, whose medieval ballad The Lady of Shallot inspired the boy’s first composition.
Just weeks before Messiaen’s birthday, in Vienna, Arnold Schoenberg founded the Society for Private Musical Performances to present carefully prepared weekly concerts of “Mahler to the present” for serious music aficionados. Attendance at open rehearsals was encouraged. Complicated works with the most advanced language were repeated as many as six times to promote comprehension. Before the Society closed in 1921 due to Austrian hyperinflation reaching 14,250 percent, some 353 performances of 154 works in 117 concerts were produced.
The members-only organization barred critics and applause or booing of any sort. In Vienna during that time it was common for thrill seekers and provocateurs to disrupt performances of new music with whistles and catcalls. For the first two years Schoenberg excluded his own music to make way for his protégé’s Alban Berg and Anton Webern, as well as Stravinsky and Ravel, Busoni and Bartok, Ravel and Debussy, among many others.
Schoenberg established the model for a rotating Vortrags-meister (Performance Director). Among other prominent musicians Webern and Berg served in that role, as did his future brother in law violinist Rudolph Kolisch and founder of the Kolisch Quartet. Special arrangements for reduced forces of orchestral works were often made to keep the repertoire current and to foster analysis. One such Performance Director was Benno Sachs, about whom little is known except that he made tonight’s deliciously effective 1920 arrangement of Afternoon of the Faun, using the harmonium often favored by the society to help fill out the texture. Tonight we are using an exceptional pedaled harmonium owned by the composer Lou Harrison (1917-2003). Its earlier provenance has yet to be established.
Messiaen’s five-minute piano work The Lady of Shalott was posthumously published. A decade would pass be-fore he would feel confidant as a composer. From 1928-29 the best-known and most frequently performed piano works are the Preludes, owing much to Debussy’s model, but establishing a strong and recognizable voice. Two works for organ and an orchestral work would precede La Mort du nombre. The twenty-two year old Messiaen wrote the quasi-symbolist poetic text with its enigmatic title. La Mort du nombre represents a dialogue between two souls experiencing separation.
However melodramatic or unconvincing to our 21st century sensibilities the text may seem on the page, Messiaen imbues it with synesthetic intensity that implies an orchestra and looks forward to the great masterpiece Quartet for the End of Time. The tenor expresses suffering with apocalyptic images that betray the influence of Edgar Allen Poe – “Bells of horror! Horrible mixture! Wall that crushes me! The earth opens up, the stars fall, the world is swallowed up!” Nowhere is the influence of Pelléas et Mélisande more evident, or the distance shorter to Debussy’s unfinished opera Fall of the House of Usher.
The contrasting soprano music is of such sweetness and luminosity contemporary critics complained of the music lacking stylistic unity. At least one writer heard the violin music as not very far from Jules Massenet (perhaps the popular “Meditation” from the opera Thäis?), and the abundance of pearly arpeggios beholden to Fountains of the Villa d’Este by Franz Liszt. The beauty and sincerity of the dominant melody, however, cannot be denied, as cannot the clear foreshadowing of the sublime movements that usher in the final moments of the Quartet for the End of Time written a decade later in captivity.
Few have ventured to explain the meaning of the work’s title, which may explain the infrequency of performances. The great pedagogue Nadia Boulanger – whose massive influence upon composers of the early part of the 20th century was only eclipsed by Messiaen’s towering and unabating influence on music of the last seventy-five years – helped organize the first performance in 1931, despite her lack of conviction about the composer’s talent. Importantly, he struggled with many obstacles up to the very last minute to secure the high level of artistry that would become a hallmark of virtually all of his successive premieres across six decades to come.
Debussy’s Greco-Roman interests were shared by one of Messiaen’s close friends Andre Jolivet. “My art” the composer said, “is dedicated to restoring music’s original sense, as the magical and incantatory expression of the spirituality of human communities.” After an immersion in the music of Debussy and Ravel, the young Jolivet was galvanized when he heard a concert of Schoenberg. Soon he sought out the avant-garde American transplant Edgard Varèse, who accepted him as his only European student. The ancient instruments of flute and percussion would figure prominently throughput his varied compositional output. His Cérémonial for six percussion instruments gave homage to Varese.
In 1935, Jolivet and Messiaen founded the Spiral Concerts to give themselves performance opportunities. In short order Jean Yves Daniel-Lesur and Yves Baudrier joined them. A common set of musical values emerged. This quartet was opposed to the cynicism of Dada and the fashionable worldliness of Les Six. They were averse to neoclassical borrowings from the baroque, and dedicated to the primacy of melody, sincerity and humanism. “Young France” (Le Jeune France) was formed in 1936. However, as war approached and the four composers matured into their thirties, the group identity faded, while the friendships remained.
In 1944 Chant de Linos (The Song of Linus) began as a competition piece for flute and piano that helped launch the career of the great flutist Jean Pierre Rampal. Jolivet immediately expanded the virtuosic piano part for string trio and harp for premiere the following year by Rampal. Due to the intricate and riveting ensemble writing, and the showcase it provides the flutist, Chant de Linos would become Jolivet’s most popular work.
Linus (Linos in Greek) was the son of Apollo, god of music, poetry, art, medicine, sun, light and knowledge and son of Zeus, and Terpsichore, one of the nine muses and goddess of dance and choral performance. It was his duty to instruct Orpheus and Heracles in music. After chiding him for a series of errors, the hotheaded Heracles killed Linus with his own harp. Without the tragic ending, other mythological sources have as his mother Calliope the chief of the muses, and crediting Linus with the invention of melody and rhythm. She was revered for her ecstatic eloquence in reciting epic poetry. Jolivet’s score describes the work as a threnody, a funerary lamentation, an expression of grief interspersed with cries and dances. The quintet is extremely challenging due to the exposed unison writing that does not always lie idiomatically for the strings. This exciting journey features treacherous shifts, nearly impossible metronome markings, and an atmosphere that alternates lament with risk. For these reasons this highly effective quintet is infrequently programmed.
After Messiaen returned from a prisoner of war camp in Poland to a teaching position at the Paris Conservatory, where among his students was the incomparable pianist Yvonne Loriod, and the Second World War ended, four extravagant works were premiered in quick succession: Visions de l’Amen (1943) for two pianos; Three Little Liturgies of the Divine Presence (1944) for piano, ondes martenot, chorus of sopranos and medium orchestra; Vingt Regards sur l’enfant Jesus (1945), a 20-movement piano symphony; and the 10-movement Turangalîla Symphonie (1945) for piano, ondes martenot, percussion solos and very large orchestra. Each premiere featured Loriod. The extravagantly orchestrated melodies soaring in ecstasy, juxtaposed with a gnarly counterpoint of complex rhythms and ample dissonance was polarizing in the extreme. A new direction followed forthwith at the century’s midpoint with Quatre Etudes de Rhythm for piano.
Like Jolivet before him, Messiaen was asked in 1952 to compose a competition piece for flute and piano. Le Merle Noir (The Blackbird) represented his most accurate transcription of an actual birdsong to date. The piece pointed the way to Messiaen’s advent as a new kind of ornithologist, one who could hear the high-speed complexity of birdsong with it inhuman dynamic range and unique timbres, remember it, transcribe it to western notation and set it in its natural habitat, some substitute, or an imaginary landscape – as music.
Messiaen’s synesthesia has been reported only as color hearing, but as brain research advances, and as actual synaesthetes share their experiences using more scientific rigor, it seems apparent that Messiaen’s sensorium was more multifaceted and intrinsic to his creative personality than previously understood. More than just color hearing, his experience might also have associated smell with sound, taste with color, and any combination of senses with memory. And thus Messiaen was aided in integrating this uniquely personal ornithology within a seemingly boundless creative output. Such polysynesthesia might also provide ways to better understand his unique approach to Catholicism.
The following year, Messiaen tackled the first of his five “bird” concertos for piano and varying sized orchestras, the amply scored Rèveil des Oiseaux (Birds Awakening) represents an avian dawn chorus. Oiseaux Exotiques, its more modest successor, was quickly composed across the end of 1956 and early 1957. The work has attained classic status owing to its compactness, highly distinctive cadenzas and an unforgettable coda. It is more straight-forward to conduct that the other concertos, though no less daunting for the virtuoso soloist. The massive Catalog d’oiseaux, made up of 13-pieces in seven books for piano solo followed in 1958. With nary a trace of religion, the postwar Messiaen offered abstraction dis-guised as birdcalls. Across the entire decade, his chaste love affair with Yvonne Loriod was extramarital. Only until his institutionalized wife died in 1959, was Messiaen able to marry the pianist – secretly in Japan after a respectful three years with his former student and close friend Pierre Boulez as witness.
Despite some harsh criticism of the two bird concertos in the press, there were those who felt Messiaen had finally broken free of the perceived sentimentality of his wartime music. In a 1961 article for Le Figaro, Claude Rostand disparaged the “earlier swoonings…dubious melodies…excesses of sound, with flashy, overloaded effects,” and turned around to praise Oiseaux Exotiques as “infinitely more spare…more sober and has a livelier edge, more clarity of line.”
A throng of important students joined Loriod, Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Iannis Xenakis including the Paris-born American Betsy Jolas. During WWII her family returned to the U.S. where she schooled first at New York’s French Lycée, and then Bennington College. She was active also as a keyboard accompanist and singer with the progressive Dessoff Choirs in NYC. Like Messiaen, Jolas was blessed with highly cultured parents, how-ever her mother Maria McDonald was the translator, and her father Eugene Jolas was the poet. He founded the magazine transition in 1927 following his daughter’s birth. Until 1938, and the rumblings of war, transition featured the most exciting painters, composers and writers. Famously, he published in serial form the entire Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce as “work in progress.”
Jolas was a sympathetic student with extensive academic and performance experience of Medieval and Renaissance music, and an intense fascination for Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp. In 1946 the Jolas family returned to Paris, where she continued her education with Darius Milhaud and Messiaen. A bond of trust eventually developed with Messiaen that made her the natural choice to cover for him at the Paris Conservatoire in 1971, when his international touring became especially demanding. She succeeded Messiaen with a permanent appointment in 1978.
String Quartet III was composed in 1973 with the subtitle “Nine Etudes” as a nod to Debussy’s innovative piano Etudes. The individual studies range in length from less than a minute to several minute-long explorations of aleatoric structures reflecting her interest in the kind of improvisation embraced by Boulez after digesting John Cage’s radical chance operations. She describes herself as a “fellow-traveler” with Boulez, but one who always took the side of beauty. This refusal to fully embrace serialism and break with the past was considered by some “feminine.” Her identification with such composers as Josquin des Prez (c. 1450-55 – 1521) and Stravinsky and may also have delayed appreciation of her significance, despite many distinguished awards from the Koussevitzky Foundation, Berlin Prize, Prix de la Ville de Paris, American Academy of Arts, and French Legion of Honor in 2011, to name only a few.
About “Nine Etudes” Jolas wrote:
“After Quatuor I for strings (1958) and Quatuor II for coloratura and string trio (1964), here again is a true quartet for strings. I have attempted in this work to present a contemporary view of some characteristic elements of string technique in the form of nine etudes, each of which, following Debussy’s example, deals with one particular aspect of this technique: pizzicato, harmonics, aleatory (No. 7 is in memory of Purcell’s Fancy on one note), vibrato, etc. Several movements are played without pause. Commissioned by the Kindler Foundation, Quatuor III was completed in September 1973. The first performance was given at the Textile Museum in Washington, January 7, 1974, by the Concord Quartet, to whom the work is dedicated.”
Tonight we celebrate the 50th birthday (January 27) of Eric Tanguy with his Sonata for Two Violins from 1999. Tanguy began serious music study at a young age with the enigmatic spectralist composer Horatiu Radulescu. Jolas and fellow Messiaen student Gerard Grisey deepened his education at the Paris Conservatory, from which he graduated in 1991. A resident of the Académie de France in Rome (1993-1994), Tanguy was a guest of the Tanglewood Music Center (1995) on special invitation from Henri Dutilleux. A close friendship developed with the older composer until his death in 2013. Affettuoso, in Memoriam Henri Dutilleux for large orchestra was com-missioned by Orchestre de Paris and followed later in 2013. Esa-Pekka Salonen gave the U.S. premiere with the LA Phil in 2016.
His Nouvelle Etude was premiered by Jacaranda’s discovery Steven Vanhauwaert at Piano Spheres in 2015. To a standing ovation, the U.S. premiere of his Trio (2011) was given by Jacaranda with the Pantoum Trio, Tereza Stanislav, violin, Cécilia Tsan, cello, and Vanhauwaert. Tanguy has become one of the most widely performed and broadcast French composers today with over 100 works in nearly every genre published by Boosey & Hawkes/Salabert.
The 1999 Sonata for Two Violins is a marvel of assimilated influences across the waning 20th century. With superb and idiomatic craftsmanship (violin is his instrument), the 30-year old composer’s confidence is as striking as his music is accessible. The blistering speed of the outer movements contrasts the serenely French reverie within.
The composer writes:
"The Sonate pour deux violons by Eric Tanguy is also in three movements, each movement having his own specific harmonic characteristics. The first movement is based on the idea of interacting syncopations, crotchets and quavers. This composition technique aims at an expression of obsession, which is further increased by the mixture of lightning-fast cascades of triplets. The second movement develops from motifs and figurations between the two instruments, which flow into one another in a sensual way, balanced by two solo cadenzas. The third movement, particularly quick, develops the idea of escape, game of response, a kind of frenetic whirlwind."
The great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich commissioned Tanguy’s Second Cello concerto and gave its premiere in 2001. For several years afterward he toured the work extensively before his sudden decline from cancer and death shortly after his 80th birthday in 2007. Such a brilliant and peripatetic spotlight thrust Tanguy into the forefront of composers today, making evident a heritage that traces its roots through him to Jolas, to Messiaen and to the “father of modem music” Debussy – the creator of a “new music for the modern world.”
PATRICK SCOTT © 2018
January 20, 2018
First Presbyterian / Santa Monica
The People United Will Never be Defeated! (1975) – Frederic Rzewski (b. 1938)
Gay Guerilla (1979) – Julius Eastman (1940-90)
For two decades composer/journalist/author/professor Kyle Gann wrote music criticism for The Village Voice. He writes with considerable authority. Around the turn of the previous century Gann identified Ben Johnston’s one-movement String Quartet No. 4 “Amazing Grace,” composed in 1973, as one of the essential works of the 20th century. “Had Ben never written another work, the Fourth Quartet would have been a sufficient blueprint for how music could expand its resources magnificently in the 21st and 22nd centuries.”
Gann’s clear-eyed focus as a composer was on the work’s concentrated theme and variations structure, and how each variation simultaneously exploits sophisticated microtonal and rhythmic innovations with such dense abandon that the score amounts to a nearly inexhaustible source book. More obvious to the listener, however, is the quartet’s deep humanism and almost magical thrall of the anti-slavery song that provides the work’s theme – and a means for accepting with pleasure about twelve minutes of what is fairly avant-garde material. “Amazing Grace” is both popular and influential, even though it still poses daunting challenges for quartet players.
El Pueblo Unido
Of comparable success is Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never be Defeated! – 36 Variations on a Chilean Song “El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido!” by Sergio Ortega and Quilapayún, an activist folk group. Rzewski wrote the hour-long piano work two years after the violent military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet September 11, 1973 that cut short the term of Chile’s first democratically elected Socialist President Salvador Allende – the same year “Amazing Grace” was written. Ortega’s protest song, a prime example of the nueva canción Chilena, was made widely popular by the Chilean music group Inti-Illimani formed in 1967 by politically disenfranchised university students.
Rzewski attended a concert by Inti-Illimani in the Upper East Side’s Hunter College in 1974 with the pianist Ursula Oppens (b. 1944). Prodigiously talented with a formidable education, she had received numerous scholarships and awards including the 1969 gold medal of the Busoni International Piano competition, and had co-founded the new music series Speculum Musicae in 1971. A kindred spirit and accomplished composer/performer of new piano music, Rzewski had returned from Italy in 1971 after studying with Luigi Dallapiccola, and after founding the Rome-based collective Musica Elettronica Viva with Alvin Curran and Richard Teitelbaum in 1966. MEV experimented with primitive synthesizers and performed daring, often riot-producing improvisations. That fateful Hunter College concert occurred just weeks after the resignation of President Nixon, August 8, 1974. Like the rest of the audience, Rzewski and Oppens left the hall singing The People United, a resolute earworm that lasted for days.
Inti-Illimani and many similar groups fled Chile after Pinochet forced 5,000 civilians into a soccer stadium for questioning and torture. More than two-thirds were brutally executed, including the teacher, poet, theater director and famous singer of nueva canción Chilena Victor Jara, who was shot 44 times in the gut after his wrists were broken. His corpse was dumped into the street. But, instead of deterring dissent as was intended, a martyr was born for the now international cause. The hugely popular folk singer-activist Joan Baez immediately produced an album in tribute to Jara and his movement entitled No Nos Moveran (We Shall Not be Moved, 1974). The title track is a song of resilience and determination.
What was this all about?
Allende entered politics as an upper middle class physician with a liberal political outlook – following in his father’s footsteps. He publicly condemned Hitler after Kristallnacht in 1938, and worked for the victory of the Popular Front party becoming Minister of Health until 1941. In the decades that followed, he ran for the presidency three times. The wildly famous and twice exiled poet Pablo Neruda was nominated for the presidency in 1970, but threw his support to Allende, who finally won in a three-way run-off election.
The arts, culture and education flourished in Chile from 1970 to 1973. Progressive music festivals brought together classically trained musicians with folk artists, indigenous peoples and their instruments in genuine exchange. Record amounts of housing were built and thousands of scholarships offered; inflation dropped significantly and wages increased broadly after the establishment a minimum wage. Neruda received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971 despite misgivings about his politics. However, Allende’s wholesale nationalization of key industries and the re-establishment of ties to communist Cuba created enormous friction and political backlash. Following the military coup and its aftermath, Chile was dealt another blow.
Ariel Dorfman, the acclaimed playwright (Death and the Maiden), novelist (Darwin’s Ghost) and essayist (newly published Homeland Security Ate My Speech), recently looked back in a recent New York Times opinion piece: “I can still remember my shock and sorrow the day I heard that Pablo Neruda, Chile’s greatest poet and one of the towering figures of 20th-century literature, had died. It was Sept. 23, 1973.” The Pinochet dictatorship announced that his death was from prostate cancer.
“Even if there were reasons to doubt every syllable that emanated from the junta as they tortured and murdered, persecuted and exiled Allende’s followers,” Dorfman continued, “it did not occur to me that they could have been stupid enough to assassinate Neruda himself.” Neruda’s widow, perhaps out of fear or denial, adamantly supported the government’s stated cause of death. “Nevertheless, decades later,” writes Dorfman,
“denunciations from Neruda’s former driver, Manuel Araya, mentioning a lethal injection [in the stomach] administered to the poet hours before his death led a Chilean judge to exhume the author’s body and seek help from foreign forensic organizations to determine the true cause of death. And now 16 experts have announced that Neruda died of a bacterial infection rather than of cancer cachexia, as fraudulently stated on his death certificate. Although they offered no evidence of foul play, their research has caused a certain amount of speculation. Contrasting with the inevitable circumspection of the forensic professionals, many Chileans — pundits, politicians, intellectuals, joined by one of Neruda’s nephews — take it as a given that an execution took place.”
The message of Ortega’s “El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido!” strengthened as the days unfolded and the resolve of the Chilean people coalesced. That the nueva canción Chilena – soon transformed by Rzewski’s hands into what now must be considered high art – has generated renewed interest in 2017 – with proliferating performances – speaks to the mounting sense of resistance and universal longing for liberty. Dorfman continues:
“Whatever the truth about his death, its effect was stunning. Neruda’s funeral on Sept. 26, 1973, became the first act of public defiance against Chile’s new rulers. How could they fail to accompany on its final journey the body of the poet who had celebrated the human body in all its sensual desires and deepest despair?
That funeral was also a blueprint for how the resistance would eventually defeat Pinochet in the arduous years to come: by taking over every tiny and large space available, by pushing back the limits of what was permissible, by stating, in the face of bayonets and bullets, that silence would not prevail.”
A final report with further forensic analysis of the Neruda case is expected in 2018. We must be reminded that the truth can be found despite the worst possible odds, and arrogant destructive power does not have the last word, however long it takes to be quelled.
President Richard Nixon had been openly hostile to Allende after years of CIA propaganda against him and lavish financial support for his opponents. As Oppens and Rzewski walked into the autumnal breezes, perhaps the song they sang together resonated with the newly sworn president’s declaration just weeks before, “our long national nightmare is over.” For Chileans, however, Pinochet’s regime lasted until 1991. The courageous spirit of Chilean inclusiveness and diversity inspired Rzewski. The People United Will Never be Defeated! was dated September-October 1975 and dedicated to Oppens.
The Buffalo Generation
A remarkable new music scene developed in Buffalo at the State University of New York, which strived to be thought of as the ”Berkeley of the East.” Extensive vision planning helped to create a new social dynamic for music that would bring performers and composers closer together without the necessity of teaching duties. Financial support from the Rockefeller Foundation helped create a new paradigm for collaboration that opened in March 1964 – the Center of the Creative and Performing Arts. At the center of the center was the warm and charismatic personality of pianist/composer Lukas Foss (1922-2009), a naturalized Jewish-American born in Berlin. Under his leadership nothing quite like the scene in Buffalo existed elsewhere, before or since. Renee Levine Packer, who worked at the center as an administrator and authored the scene’s definitive chronicle This Life of Sounds: Evenings for New Music in Buffalo (Oxford University Press, 2010), understood the historical models and like-minded programs it generated:
“Although these groups were comparable to the Buffalo center for their dedication to fostering the composition and performance of contemporary music, each was different in practice. Most used professional freelancers from their communities or faculty members and ad hoc performers. None had an ensemble brought together to live in a community for the sole purpose of the study and performance of new music. None presented as broad a cross-section of repertory with allegiance to no one school of thought, and, indeed, none incorporated as broad a representation of international composers and performers.”
Foss initially recruited 18 of the most progressive and accomplished young artists to be fellows. Percussionist/composer John Bergamo, who would later become a leading figure at CalArts, fellow percussion innovator Jan Williams, who would remain in various capacities as composer, conductor and director until 1980, and avant-garde jazz bassist Buell Neidlinger signed up. The LA-born soprano Carol Plantamura who was active in Rome with MEV joined the collaboration, as did the non-English speaking Italian experimental composer Sylvano Bussotti.
Pianist Fred Myrow, who had strong links to rock music, would become a prolific film composer. The late violinist Paul Zukovsky, a child prodigy and competition winner would gain notoriety as Einstein in the Philip Glass opera Einstein on the Beach. The 35-year-old composer George Crumb would find his voice with the now classic anti-Vietnam classic Black Angels for amplified string quartet in 1970. This extraordinarily talented assemblage also included a flutist, clarinetist, and trumpeter/composer, another violinist, a violist, guitarist, and another soprano, as well as a baritone, and the conductor Richard Dufallo.
Already professors at the University of Buffalo when the center opened, the German-Argentine composer Mauricio Kagel, and the Belgian composer Henri Pousseur, who was closely associated with the Darmstadt school and electronic music, felt liberated by the arrival of so many fellow travelers. The had accepted positions with the understanding that sleepy Buffalo would became the most exciting American city for new music.
John Cage’s frequent collaborator the composer/pianist David Tudor followed in the second year along with trombonist/composer and extended technique pioneer Vinko Globokar. In that spring, Rzewski took a break from MEV and Rome for a semester to join the Buffalo scene. Cornelius Cardew, the notorious English experimentalist and assistant to Karlheinz Stockhausen followed in 1966-67. With rock star looks, the formidable but elfin pianist Yuji Takahashi stayed for two years.
After the center’s groundbreaking Columbia/CBS/Sony recording of Terry Riley’s In C, March 27-28, 1968 that overdubbed ten musicians including Jan Williams on marimbaphone, the San Francisco composer overlapped Takahashi’s stint in the spring of 1969. Julius Eastman became a Creative Artist the following fall. The university made him full faculty the following year, and with extensive performing responsibilities, including touring Europe, he stayed until 1975. David Del Tredici, who had already begun his Neo-Romantic devotion to Lewis Carroll’s book Alice in Wonderland, completed Vintage Alice during his 1972-73 stay – many years before he became an outspoken champion of gay identity.
Rzewski spent the spring semester of 1974 in Buffalo. His breakthrough work Coming Together (1972), was given the first of many shattering performances by East-
man as narrator, March 31, 1974, at Buffalo’s Albright Knox Gallery, and ten days later in Carnegie Hall. Eastman had already performed some five times as a pianist in Les Moutons de Panurge (1970), Rzewski’s ironic response to Riley’s minimalist landmark In C.
In Coming Together, however, Eastman’s uncanny stillness reading the letter of Sam Melville (born Samuel Joseph Grossman), convicted bomber, organizer, and inmate of Attica Prison, profoundly dwelled on how time is affected by place, and “a greater coming together.” The maximum-security prison was only 35 miles from Buffalo. The memory of what happened there would not soon be alleviated.
Stage actor Steven Ben Israel, who was a member of New York's Living Theatre in 1973, may have better matched the racial identity of this particular leader of this most notorious prison rebellion, however Eastman embodied the black empowerment that demanded humane conditions in a massive prison designed for a thousand fewer prisoners, 63% of which were black or Puerto Rican, than were actually housed in the brutal architecture. Eastman took possession of the audience’s collective imagination while Rzewski played a dizzying piano in an undetermined ensemble that numbered eight for this occasion. Eighteen months later The People United Will Never be Defeated score was given to Oppens.
Considering all that came before and all that went into the work, it seems supremely poetic, and with no small amount of irony, that she gave the world premiere in 1976 as part of the Bicentennial Piano Series at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC.
The epic hour-long protest classic is often compared to J.S. Bach’s Aria and 30 Goldberg Variations. The composer Christian Wolff (b. 1934) has written eloquently about this kaleidoscopic work, its sources and structure. On the former, Wolff observes, “It was about the time that Rzewski...began to associate himself with jazz musicians such as Anthony Braxton and Steve Lacy, and developed an interest in popular political music, including songs of the Italian left...the songs of Hanns Eisler and the new Latin American music form Cuba and Chile, the Puerto Rican folk music in New York and the songs of Mike Glick.”
After extolling the work’s resemblance to tonal Romantic piano music, its experimental harmony, and use of serial technique, as well as repeated notes and extravagant new sonorities, Wolff draws attention to, “the catching of harmonics after a chord attack, as well as the whistling by the pianist, crying out, slamming the piano lid, all techniques suggesting experimental music – and the free, informal kind of performing sometimes found in blues and jazz.”
Also, like the wondrously clear structure of Johnston’s “Amazing Grace,” despite its complexity, the prospect of following the extensive formal logic of The People United is not difficult. Again, Wolff explains:
"The opening song is set in thirty-six bars, which are followed by thirty-six variations and then an expanded repetition of the song setting. Throughout the variations there is a continuous cross-referencing of motifs, harmonic procedures, rhythms, and dynamic sequences. These in turn are contained within the organization of the variations. The variations are grouped in six sets of six. The sixth variation of a set, itself in six parts, consists of a summing up of the previous five variations of the set, with the final sixth part of new or transitional material. (It has been suggested that the first five variations of a set are the fingers of a hand, and the sixth unites them to make a fist.)”
Roots & Minimalism
The octet with voice Stay On It (1973) was Eastman’s first important work to survive as his clear entry to the history of so-called minimalism. That there was a black voice with a significant African-American perspective at this important turning point of Western music is a topic of considerable interest today – as Eastman is discovered and re-discovered more than twenty-five years since the tragic dismemberment of his body of work. At the end of his life, conditions of addiction, poverty, homelessness, flawed decision making, homophobia, and it must be said, the cruelty of institutional racism undermined the safekeeping of his oeuvre. What remains today is unpublished although in the safe keeping of his younger brother, former bassist with the Count Basie Orchestra Gerry Eastman, who manages distribution of manuscript copies. Eastman’s biographer Renee Levine Packer, the erstwhile administrator of the center and keen chronicler of its trajectory, observed the linkage of Eastman and Rzewski at this time when key works of Riley, Glass and Reich were gaining ground in the public sphere
“All in all, Eastman’s admiration for Rzewski’s work of this period makes considerable sense. If the modular structure of In C provided a manifest precedent for questions regarding notation and ensemble coordination, Rzewski, for whom minimalism was merely a means to an end, offered an appealingly messy approach to pulsation and repetition. In Rzewski’s hands, pulse-pattern minimalism was never rigidly non-referential. Unlike early Reich and Glass, the “outside world” of politics and the vernacular was readily embraced.”
After quoting a participant in many performances of Stay On It contrasting their common ground with Rzewski being “aggressive and hard-nosed” and Eastman as “malleable and sensual” she observed, “Eastman drew most of his musical conclusions by breathing the same air and feeling the same vibrations as his more commercially successful counterparts.”
That being said Eastman’s so-called “Nigger series” – Evil Nigger (1979), Crazy Nigger, and Gay Guerilla (both c. 1980) each for four pianos certainly demonstrates Eastman’s later and total integration of these two sides, so well contrasted in Stay On It. Evil Nigger has an energetic grandiosity that recalls Rachmaninov before its growing dissonance and structural reduction. The esprit de corps is heightened by the cuing calls at key moments of “1, 2, 3, 4!” that heightens audience involvement!
At 55-minutes, Crazy Nigger is more than double the length of its predecessor. Eastman’s “organic form” I in full display described by Kyle Gann in his trenchant program notes to the three-disc treasure trove of historic recordings. “Every phrase contains the information of the phrase before it,” he explains “with new material gradually added in and old material gradually removed: minimalism’s additive process expanded to the level of phrase structure.”
The form of Crazy Nigger is so elaborately drawn out that some extraordinary textures emerge slowly with rivulets of melody and an engulfing darkness of bass notes that require sixteen more hands belong to eight pianists in the audience in a coup de theatre! Luciano Chessa, in the anthology portion of Packer’s book edited by Mary Jane Leach considers Gay Guerrilla “Eastman’s most powerful tribute to the modern fight for gay rights and one of his most compositionally memorable – and moving – works...if all of Eastman’s music but this one were to disappear, Gay Guerrilla would still be enough to guarantee him a firm place in the history of twentieth-century music.”
Eastman’s father, Julius Sr. was named after Julius Caesar. He trained to be a civil engineer and got work managing water systems. His wife Frances was devoted to piano study. Their middle class life in Ithaca included a grand piano, but did not include religion. Eventually their eldest boy’s talent and autonomy gained expression singing for St. John’s Episcopal Church choir, where he was a paid boy soprano. He learned that his talent had worth. From an early age Julius was willful, obstinate and had an air about him that his father read as effeminate. Frances was protective and concerned only with the boy’s development claiming that before he was born she had a sense that he was special. At age ten he asked for a beginning piano book that seemed as easy to read on the piano as a textbook. His voice changed at age fourteen darkening into an extremely resonant bass baritone.
Renee Levine & Julius Eastman center with Morton Feldman and other Creative Associates at the Albright Knox Gallery. Suddenly this slight and spindly boy had an identity as a singer that could rivet an audience with a commandingly large voice. Racism was hardly evident in Ithaca, where the black population was small and educated. Julius participated in science club and his high intellect was accepted. As the boy matured, however, his options seemed to narrow in the eyes of his school counselor despite good grades and prizes for singing. Perhaps ironically and with a hint of sexual rebelliousness, Julius chose to sing Stormy Weather at his class graduation. Nevertheless his talent was being nurtured by observant others who had connections to Juilliard School and Curtis Institute of Music, where he enrolled in 1959 as one of two black male students and three Latinas among one hundred plus students.
Eastman lived at the YMCA, and his homosexuality was now apparent enough that friendships were limited. Weighing only 125 pounds, it must be considered that he suffered from malnutrition. He wore glasses. His shyness and technical sophistication as a pianist compared less well to the many Anglo students who entered with more privilege. So the young Cuban, Mexican and Brazilian women students became his close companions. Composition would soon supplant his interest in being a pianist and his grades improved markedly.
With a final recital in 1963 made up exclusively of his own compositions earned him a diploma from Curtis. Before entering the Buffalo Center, the intervening five years showed his enterprising nature and opportunities that his talent and mentors helped manifest. He was selected by the conductor Eugene Ormandy for a minor part in a production of Der Rosenkavalier and assigned a German coach with decided success. Of even greater impact was his casting as Tiresias in Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex with the Cornell Symphony Orchestra and the great Lili Chookasian as Jocasta. He was then asked to tour the U.S. and Europe as a member of the sensational Gregg Smith Singers in 1968. After a stint as a dance accompanist, he joined Foss’s many-splendored enterprise in 1969.
For the audience new to Eastman’s music the most distinguishing feature of Gay Guerrilla is his surprising interpolation of an unlikely but highly recognizable theme – the reformation’s battle hymn A Mighty Fortress is Our God (Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott) written in 1528 by none other than Martin Luther, the namesake of Dr. Martin Luther King. Of course J.S. Bach famously incorporated the hymn in a 1723 cantata of the same name featuring four soloists, chorus and chamber orchestra. Lukas Foss was a noted Bach conductor and may have employed Eastman as the bass soloist.
On this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation, the puzzle of this choice deepens as one considers the Protestant stance against Catholicism’s doctrine of earning grace, rather than it being an intrinsic spiritual state. Martin Luther’s pronounced anti-Semitism only muddies the waters. Kyle Gann opts for a perverse use of the quotation, “being quite subversively transformed, given the intention implied by Eastman’s title, as a gay manifesto.” In the context of such a manifesto coming ten years after the 1969 Stonewall Inn origin of gay liberation, another interpretation may be that by appropriating this famous music – especially after reading the four versus that Luther wrote to his own melody – Eastman triumphantly ennobles what had been long rejected as unspeakable.
PATRICK SCOTT © 2018
November 18, 2017
Noon to Midnight, Walt Disney Concert Hall
Fantasmagoriana (World Premiere, Co-Commission) – Mark Grey (b. 1967)
I. The Revenant
II. The Grey Chamber
III. The Fated Hour
Three Choruses from Bakkhai (2013) – Dylan Mattingly (b. 1991)
Chorus I, Chorus III, Chorus VII
Mount Tambora was the largest volcano to erupt since Vesuvius destroyed Pompeii in 79 AD. An ancient Roman painting survives depicting Bacchus framed by the dizzying pre-volcanic form of Mount Vesuvius, and giving us a sense today of what was lost in the heart of ancient Rome. Only two hundred years ago, however, the Indonesian island of Sumbawa – home to the Tambora stratovolcano – would model lasting climate consequences for the modern world now contemplating nuclear winter. With the greatest force yet recorded, Mount Tambora’s first eruption in April of 1815 propelled a stratospheric sulfate aerosol veil upward followed by ten billion tons of pulverized rocky material and ash. Three shafts of fire eventually merged into one column nearly 150,000 feet that dwarfed the 14,000-foot high mountain as it was reduced by a third – all the while gushing molten lava.
Year Without a Summer
Lesser eruptions followed building upon a much smaller but highly polluting 1814 volcanic eruption in the Philippines. Global temperatures dropped over one degree with a related death toll of 90,000. A massive epidemic of typhus was unleashed by the cold. Crops failed globally; monsoons magnified the flooding and torrential rains in Asia. In America, summer temperatures ranged within hours between 95 degrees to near freezing. A retired President Thomas Jefferson was nearly bankrupted by his crop failures. The worst famine of the 19th century brought about riots, burning and looting many European cities, as the coldest decade in recorded history prevailed. Eighteen hundred people froze to death. Many months after the eruption, the climate change effect was so pronounced that 1816 was dubbed the Year Without a Summer. The English Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner captured the vivid yellow sunrises and sunsets caused by Mount Tambora’s pollution in paintings such as The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire. The cataclysmic events also inspired him to imagine the eruption of Mount Vesuvius as a spectacular 1817 watercolor using scraped encaustic. While the eruption may have had a lasting effect on Turner’s unprecedented use of color, several writers responded to the prolonged gloom by giving birth to the Gothic Horror genre – and what is now being dubbed by movie studios: the dark universe.
The promiscuously bisexual Lord Byron was granted an acrimonious divorce in March of 1816 after little more than a year of marriage. Charges of incest with his half-sister, mounting debts, and nagging scandals that generated the epithet “mad, bad and dangerous to know” forced his exit from England in April. Byron’s epic narrative poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (two cantos in1812, and two more in 1818), which gave him overnight fame, inspired the symphonic poem Harold in Italy by Hector Berlioz. Like his disaffected hero, Byron wended his way through Belgium and Germany before settling at Lake Geneva from May to November.
Due to a congenitally deformed foot Byron traveled with his own personal physician, John William Polidori, a young specialist in sleepwalking who happened also to be a writer. The two strikingly handsome travelers met Percy Bysshe Shelley and his soon-to-be wife Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin in Geneva. She introduced herself as “Mrs. Shelley.” The young literary couple had been traveling with Claire Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister, a thwarted singer, actress and would-be writer, who had dallied that spring with Byron immediately after his divorce. The volatile Clairmont was instrumental in bringing the “Shelleys” together, and also had a hand in the travel plans that reunited her briefly with Byron. The following year she would give birth to his daughter Allegra; Percy and Mary would actually marry.
Polidori augmented this medical employment with a publisher’s fee to maintain a diary including celebrity gossip of which there proved to be a rich trove during June of the Year Without Summer. Byron and his doctor companion took up residence at the Villa Diodati, a mansion in the village of Cologny, while the “Shelleys” and Clairmont took the smaller lakeside Maison Chapuis.
Cold rain fell incessantly in Geneva that summer. Nearby, in western Switzerland a conical ice dam began to form at the tongue of a glacier. After two years of relentless growth and fitful human efforts opposing nature, the mass of ice would collapse in a catastrophic flood. Such an atmosphere of mounting dread and unremitting gloom left this house- bound quintet near a log-burning fire reading in French from Fantasmagoriana, a recently translated collection of German ghost stories. Byron proposed, in moment of restless invention after hours of talking, often past midnight – and drafts of laudanum – that they “each write a ghost story.”
Monsters Among Us
Mary was unable to conceive an idea for several days. Polidori was inspired by a fragment written by Byron that would become The Vampyre, the short story published in 1819, and the first tale of the undead re-animated by the harvesting of hot fresh blood. They discussed Galvanism, the recent discovery of animating a recently dead frog, for example, when its nerves were touched to an electric current. On June 16, several hours past midnight came to Mary the terrifying idea of harnessing natures power to revoke the finality of death:
“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”
What began first as a short story became a vastly influential novel published anonymously in 1818. Multiple editions sustained speculation about which of the Shelleys wrote what. The latest iteration of the story will be the opera Frankenstein by Mark Grey to premiere in Brussels at the newly renovated Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in 2018-19. Grey has already extracted a Frankenstein symphony that was premiered by the Atlanta Symphony In 2016 marking the anniversary.
The composer’s research into the anthology of German ghost stories gave inspiration to a three-movement chamber symphony Fantasmagoriana co-commissioned by Jacaranda and the LA Phil for the new music marathon Noon to Midnight. Scored for string quintet, wind, quintet, trombone and percussion, its three movements have suggestive titles: I. The Revenant; II. The Grey Chamber; and III. The Fated Hour.
Bakkhai is a revolutionary tragedy by the most remarkable of ancient Greek playwrights at the end of his life. The work was given a prize-winning posthumous premiere in 405BC. Euripides makes civilization’s first argument for the opposing natures of control (Pentheus) and freedom (Dionysos). As such, Euripides pits the rational and analytic against the instinctive, and sensual, yet the latter – aligned as it is to the animal world – gives potential access to the force of spirituality.
Nonetheless, interpretations of this complex story of the charismatic god Dionysos, conceived by Zeus with Semele, a human, disguised as a human to undermine the rule of Pentheus, and ultimately inspire his Bacchantes, a cult of women outsiders, to a killing frenzy in which they tear Pentheus limb from limb, have changed over the centuries as the nature of the conflict and the understanding of power gets reexamined.
Dylan Mattingly has set the entire text of the play in its original ancient Greek as a cantata with the more accurate transliteration of the tile Bakkhai. All of the play has been incorporated. The work was completed in 2013. All seven choruses were premiered in Brooklyn by Contemporaneous directed by David Bloom. The instrumentation is 3 sopranos, high baritone, 2 oboes, cello, bass, re-tuned piano, and 2 percussionists. Mattingly has done extensive scholarly work into microtonality, as well as ancient Greek music and drama.
The following are two excerpts from a lengthy essay:
“There are numerous barriers between us and an understanding of the choral poetry and music of Greek drama from the fifth century B.C. But perhaps the strongest limiting factor in our ability to recreate a sonic world from 2500 years ago is the dependence of our own concept of music up- on the irrepressible tropes and traditions of the modern world. We define music by the soundscape that surrounds us. For us to imagine a different music, we must unlearn some of our own experiential knowledge of what music is. Because of this critical problem, it is unsurprising that a good deal of the attempts to recreate the music of ancient Greek tragedy is based in anachronistic projection.
The modern Western predilection for the twelve equally spaced notes in each octave on the piano, known as equal temperament, hinders our vision of a tuning system based entirely by the natural mathematical relationships between the notes. Likewise, the dominance of steady time signatures in all types of current music impedes our ability to imagine a music with a fundamentally unsteady beat. Although it is a Sisyphean task to approach ancient music from a clean musical slate, I will do what I can to bring about an understanding of the music of the Bakkhai, in as much of the ecstatic glory that Euripides poured into it.
The following material is divided into four parts. The first is a background of ancient Greek music and the Bakkhai in particular, and an attempt to clarify the aspects of the art form that may have been obscured by a scholarship steeped in the language of Western classical music. The second part is a complete scansion of the meter of the choruses of the Bakkhai. Third, I have written a guide through my own music for these choruses, written not as an attempt to precisely recreate the sound of ancient Greek music, but rather to use a comprehension of Euripides’ words, rhythms, and notes to build something that presents an emotional conception of the Bakkhai but is in itself entirely new. The fourth part is the music itself.”
And, specific to the music at hand this evening:
“The first and most important thing to clarify is that this music is not a reconstruction. It is not an attempt to recreate the potential sound of the music from 404 B.C. when the play was premiered. Although it is impossible for us to know exactly what that music would have sounded like, I feel fairly certain that it did not sound like this.
The music that I have written is very much my own, inspired musically by my own life as well as my own experience of and interpretation of the choruses of the Bakkhai. That said, the music attempts to use the premises that have been discussed…in order to create something that is true to the emotional content of the Euripides tragedy. This music is not what Euripides’ own mu- sic would have sounded like, but perhaps it sheds some light upon what his music would have felt like…
The instruments and singers in the ensemble are required throughout the work to tune to the just-intoned piano [synthesizer], although because these instruments (and singers) can achieve a great variety of microtones, they are also able to explore just-intoned harmonic zones beyond that of the fixed piano tuning. The instrumentation serves to juxtapose the ecstatic high voices and reeds with a very bass heavy rhythm section consisting of the cello, bass, bass drums, and often the piano.
The chorus in the Bakkhai are importantly foreigners, a group of women who have “left the hills of Tmolus to adore Bromios,” the music must be universal in its penetrating allure, but simultaneously strange and alien—unlike anything heard before in Thebes. Often I attempt to evoke a sort of imaginary folk music, complete with its own roots in the combination of its imaginary religious and imaginary popular strands of music. There are various elements throughout the music that come from each of those zones, the most easily ascertainable one being tonality.”
Mattingly has a very original voice. Despite the strenuous demands of performing this music the integration of all seven choruses into the whole is an extravagant dream that should not be unrealized for much longer. Hopefully, both Grey’s opera Frankenstein and Mattingly’s music theater work Bakkhai will both soon be heard in their entirety all the better to hear and understand the legacy of John Adams their enthusiastic mentor.
© PATRICK SCOTT 2017
October 21, 2017
First Presbyterian / Santa Monica
Varied Quintet (1987) – Lou Harrison (1917-2003)
String Quartet No. 9 (1988) – Ben Johnston (b. 1926)
Jardin des Herbes (1989) – Karen Tanaka (b. 1961)
Two Holy Sonnets of John Donne (1982) – Steven Stucky (1949-2016)
Symphony No. 3 (1995) – Philip Glass (b. 1937)
The growing presence of exotic tunings in classical music helps, by contrast, to unconceal the power of equal temperament, its inherent limitations, and diminishing dominance. This transformation – however incremental, subtle and under-appreciated – is among many accelerating changes in global climate, human migration, power dynamics, gender identity, and data access altering worldviews today.
Among the planet’s sixty-three generally recognized scales and modes, equal temperament dominates with only five. While equal temperament was a consolidating force during the Age of Enlightenment, its global impact can be traced to a business concession made when the industrial revolution overtook the production of pianos from artisans in the 19th century. Just intonation, Its functional opposite, is based on the physics of sound occurring as an overtone series, be it a vibrating string, or a column of air – the human windpipe, or a flute, for example. The intervals between notes are naturally uneven and tuned by ear. With equal temperament, however, all twelve notes are multiples of the same basic interval. This simplified system is a schematic standard that allows for enormous complexity, due to the ease of shifting from scale to scale.
Volcanoes & Tigers
A twentieth century American movement to compose music using just intonation emerged in the northeast quarter of the Pacific Rim’s ring of volcanoes. Harry Partch and Lou Harrison, the movement’s west coast tigers, were harbingers of micro tonality. After a privileged childhood in multicultural Portland Oregon, study in Los Angeles with Arnold Schoenberg, and conducting the world premiere of Symphony No. 3 by Charles Ives at Carnegie Hall, Harrison adopted scales and tunings derived from various Asian musics, some rooted in ancient China, and indigenous music – such as the Indonesian gamelan in later years. Partch invented wholly reimagined instruments to expand just intonation and accommodate his original 43-tone scale. However, it is his invaluable supporting research that drives the growing impact of Partch’s conceptual work.
The older Partch was key to Harrison’s ultimate reject-ion of international modernism. The hobo scholar’s exhaustive Carnegie-supported research into the mathematic theories of sound from ancient Greece – attributed to Pythagoras, his school, and Ptolemy (AD 100-170) the Greco Roman scientist living in Alexandria, Egypt. Ptolemy’s persuasive book, Harmonics, the theory and mathematics of music, gave Partch a touch-stone for much further musical archeology in Britain. Even more consequentially, he discovered a reprint of the 1877 English translation of Sensations of Tone (1863), the first scientific study of sound and human perception. Its author, the pioneering German physician and physicist Hermann von Helmholtz invented a resonator to, among other things, chart sonic waveforms. Partch sought to reconcile ancient theories with what was considered modern science.
Genesis of a Music
Partch’s 1947 manifesto Genesis of a Music devotes three whole chapters to his theories of scales, tuning, just intonation and the mathematic principles necessary for building fantastical instruments to perform within a microtonal system. Genesis of a Music summarized over 200 years of Western music in a examination Alex Ross calls "the most startling forty-five-page history of music ever written".
The book totally expanded the consciousness of the twenty-three year-old Johnston when it was published in 1949. Years earlier In Macon, Georgia – at age twelve, accompanied by his grandmother – Johnston first learned about Helmholtz from a lecture on Debussy and acoustic theory. By August 1950 he and his new wife Betty Hill moved to coastal Gualala, California – due west of Sacramento in Redwood country. As an apprentice, Johnston mostly helped Partch build and tune his unique instruments, but it was not his calling. With Partch’s blessing, the following year Johnston began study of polytonality at Mills College in Oakland with Darius Milhaud, who was at his teaching peak. During that year he composed a setting of John Donne’s poem A Nocturnall Upon Saint Lucie’s Day for baritone and piano. Shortly before he graduated from Mills a teaching position with duties to play for dance classes opened up at the University of Illinois, Champagne Urbana. Johnston remained there for thirty years extending Partch’s theories to their ultimate fruition using traditional instruments. Given the adaptability of string players, its is not surprising the core manifestation of Johnston’s theoretical work was composed for the ensemble at the core of Western chamber music – his utterly distinctive set of ten string quartets.
Was it coincidence or destiny that Partch’s treatise was published in 1949, the year when serialism first emerged as the ultimate codification of the twelve-tone system. Father figure of the entire Germanic tradition culminating with Schoenberg’s protégé Anton Webern, J. S. Bach (1685-1750) was strongly blamed by Partch for his sanctioning embrace of equal temperament. However, as Bach scholarship has matured around his 250th birth-day, which fittingly coincided with the millennium, this idea has been thoroughly discredited. Recent scholarship reveals Bach’s frustration with the idea of even temperament. Partch seems to have conflated well tempered (The Well-Tempered Clavier) with equal tempered. The California maverick’s bias may have derived from Bach’s singular orientation to the keyboard. However, the so-called father of Western music actually advocated for a more flexible territory between just and even temperament.
Partch did pioneering work in ancient music, while musicology was just emerging as a serious discipline, so his need for a scapegoat can be forgiven. The free-thinking Partch railed against the intrinsic hegemony of “equal-tempered tuning, which meant that composers could not absorb the scales of other world traditions; and the urge to make music ever more instrumental and abstract." By contrast, as he put it, the traditional vocal declamation with string accompaniment of China, Greece, India, and the Arab world are corporeal – more about being physically (in the Walt Whitman sense) than doing, striving and arriving. He saw equal temperament as the mu-sic of colonization and subjugation. Not unlike the English language, equal temperament is quite viral.
Partch’s hitchhiking, sexually self-expressed distain for the constraints of capitalist conformity resonated with Harrison. The atom bomb changed the world utterly for him. Working for world peace required a transformational set of tools. Among them, just intonation has certainly more currency in the world than Esperanto, the synthetic language Harrison championed. His bicoastal visibility and close friendship with bicoastal John Cage, his sunny personality and a more favorable orientation to the musical mainstream than Partch, helped him gain early attention. Harrison’s sphere of influence eventually expanded with his emergence in the sixties as openly gay – and partnered for life with the instrument builder William Colvig.
Decades before Johnston arrived in Oakland to go to Mills College, Harrison had explored the rich Bay Area dance scene centered at the girl’s school as a dancer, musician and composer in his twenties. Lester Horton (1906-53), the most influential California choreographer to follow Ruth St. Denis in Los Angeles, was invited in 1938 to bring his dance company and teach during the Mills summer session giving Harrison many opportunities for self-expression. Many years later in 1980, Harrison was invited to return to Mills to inaugurate the newly created Darius Milhaud Chair in music composition for a fixed term. He taught “Intonation in World Music” aside the resident Kronos Quartet and shared music making with Terry Riley.
Varied Quintet vs the Varied Trio
The renowned percussionist Willie Winant helped Harrison establish the Mills College gamelan. In gratitude the composer wrote a quintet featuring percussion for Winant, with Harrison playing harp, violinist David Abel, Julie Steinberg on harpsichord, and Colvig playing a tubular bell he made to which the ensemble tuned in just intonation. Winant struck and caressed a vibraphone, tambourine, drums, bakers pans and a set of tuned porcelain bowls played with chopsticks from India known as a jaltarang.
UC Berkeley celebrated Harrison’s 70th birthday two months early with a concert including the Suite for Violin and Gamelan and the premiere of the Varied Quintet in 1987. Since the harpist and bell player were a busy and committed couple, and the cartage for the fragile harpsichord and bulky harp added hassle and expense, a version that the Abel-Steinberg-Winant Trio could tour be-came an obvious and immediate undertaking. To clinch its portability and popularity, the quintet was recast in equal temperament with the help of pianist Steinberg. Formed in 1984, the trio specializes in music of the Pacific Rim, North, Central and South America. Mills hosted the actual May 1987 birthday concert including premier-es of three extraordinary pieces: Varied Trio, Ariadne danced by Eva Soltes – who dedicated many years to the production of a brilliant full length bio-documentary on the composer – and the Concerto for Piano and Gamelan. The A-S-W Trio then went on to celebrate Harrison’s birthday in several cities.
The extraordinary popularity of the trio version with its distinctive scales makes a strong case for the trio version with equal temperament, but the subtle colors, textural delicacy, and bright bell in just intonation make the quintet cherishable, more so for the fourth movement’s far more idiomatic neo-baroque French rondeau – Harrison’s tribute to the lavish sensuality of the French painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard.
Quartet No. 9
During Harrison’s birthday year Johnston was finishing work on his Quartet No. 9 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina where he located after early retirement. The Palo Alto-based Stanford String Quartet premiered the work in 1988. Bob Gilmore, who edited Johnston’s collection of writings Maximum Clarity (2006, University of Illinois) writes in the book’s chronology that the ninth quartet “consciously evoke[s] earlier classical idioms as part of a new emphasis that becomes increasingly apparent in Johnston’s music of these years, and which he discusses in “Position Paper” published in Perspectives of New Music: that of exploring how European music might have developed had it been freed of the constraints of equal temperament. This form of musical revisionism, distinct in technique and intent from the neoclassicism of his earlier work.” This important book follows in the footsteps of Partch with four large chapters: On Music Theory; On Musical Aesthetics and Culture; Some Com-positions; and On Other Composers.
Gilmore observes in his notes to the 2006 Kepler Quartet New World Records CD, that this revisionism is:
“Especially clear in the third movement, a lyrical and fully Classical slow movement that invokes Haydn, but with melodic embellishments that are not possible in the language of the great Austrian Composer. The scherzo-like second movement perhaps suggests shades of Mendelsohn, but opens up his idiom to new harmonic adventures made possible by just intonation. The energetic finale…[is] classical in impulse (with perhaps a hint of a jazz walking bass). But the most extraordinary movement is surely the first, where Johnston achieves a real compositional tour de force in creating a six-minute movement, the pitch world of which remains entirely between middle C and the C an octave above and yet retains our interest throughout. Here the richness of just intonation with its luminous pure intervals and their microtonal variants, lets us hear as never before one of Western music’s most familiar clichés: the C major scale.”
Gilmore trusts that this Janus-like quartet will help listeners discover “new sounds and untried harmonies.” As writer, critic and composer Kyle Gann observed in 1995, String Quartet No. 9 uses intervals of the harmonic series as high as the 31st partial with “potentially hundreds of pitches per octave,” in a way that is "radical without being avant-garde," and not for making "as-yet-unheard dissonances," but to, "return...to a kind of musical beauty," that he feels has been eroded in Western music by equal temperament.
A Pervasive and Persistent Legacy
Several generations of composers now have moved beyond equal temperament in their embrace of noise via John Cage, electronic music, and the computer-assisted scientific analysis of sound underpinning the spectralist movement. So-called World Music has gained purchase in concert halls previously devoted only to Western music. The issue has become less contentious as is evident in Karen Tanaka’s Jardin des Herbes. The harpsichord with its origins in a world less defined by theoretical tuning is easily and often re-tuned for specific periods of music. The work succeeds in virtually any tuning, but thrives in the micro climate of just intonation. Her love of nature and concern for the environment has influenced many of her works, including Questions of Nature, Frozen Horizon, Water and Stone, Dreamscape, Ocean, Silent Ocean, Tales of Trees, Water Dance, Crystalline series, and Children of Light.
Tanaka was born in Tokyo, Japan where she began piano and composition lessons as a child. She moved to Paris in 1986 helped by a French Government Scholarship to study with Tristan Murail and to work at IRCAM as an intern. In 1987, she was awarded the Gaudeamus International Composers Award at the International Music Week in Amsterdam. She studied with Luciano Berio in Florence in 1990–91 supported by the Nadia Boulanger Foundation and a Japanese Government Scholarship. In 1996, she honored with a fellowship at Tanglewood. In 1998 she succeeded Toru Takemitsu as co-artistic director of the Yatsugatake Kogen Music Festival. In 2005 she was awarded the Bekku Prize.
After her 2012, selection as a Sundance Institute’s Com-posers Lab fellow for feature film, Tanaka served as an orchestrator for the BBC's TV series, Planet Earth II in 2016. Her works have been performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, LA Phil, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra, Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, NHK Symphony Orchestra in Tokyo, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Brodsky Quartet, and the BIT20 Ensemble. The prestigious Nederlands Dans Theater is among numerous dance companies that have featured her music.
Tanaka has received commissions from Radio France, the Canada Council for the Arts, the Arts Council of England, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Michael Vyner Trust for the NHK Symphony Orchestra conduct-ed by Esa-Pekka Salonen, for cellist Joan Jeanrenaud and the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kent Nagano, and the National Endowment for the Arts for the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. Chester Music, London, Schott Music, New York, and Editions Bim in Switzerland publish her music. Tanaka lives in Los Angeles and teaches composition at Cal Arts.
Poetics of Steven Stucky
Following the tragic loss of Steven Stucky in January of 2016, Jacaranda and pianist Gloria Cheng wanted to remember the composer in this fifteenth season. Cheng had performed his Album Leaves on the inaugural season in 2004. Together we wanted to remember an extraordinary composer and dear friend. Cheng will devote her next CD entirely to the music of Stucky, so it was decided that a public performance of these valedictory songs would give the artists a public hearing of a lesser known work prior to its world premiere recording.
John Donne (1572 -1631) wrote the lion’s share of his Holy Sonnets over two years 1609-11. The form of his sonnet is based on a Petrarchan model ending with a rhyming couplet. The first eight lines follow the normal ABBA ABBA rhyming pattern, but the remaining six lines rhyme with an atypical CDCE EE. The sonnets are com-posed in iambic pentameter – five groups of unstressed syllables followed by one that is stressed. He was the leading representative of the metaphysical poetic movement that reacted against the conventional surfaces of Elizabethan poetry, and has proven to be a favorite source over the centuries for composers attracted to the invention of his metaphors, sensuality, and vibrant language.
This pairing from Donne’s most famous sonnets was given this beautiful setting before a clear trajectory was evident that Stucky would contribute greatly to making Los Angeles the center of contemporary music it is today. His relationship with the LA Phil was the longest such association between an American orchestra and a composer. He was appointed Composer-in-Residence by André Previn in 1988, and was Consulting Composer for New Music working closely with then Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen to expand contemporary programming, award commissions, and develop educational programs. The latter included mentoring pre-college composers under the groundbreaking Composer Fellows Program. Stucky hosted talks in the Green Umbrella series most memorably with Marc-André Dalbavie and Leif Ove Andsnes. Notable LA world premieres included Stucky’s Symphony (2012) by the LA Phil, and Piano Sonata performed by Cheng in the Piano Spheres series at Zipper Hall.
As conductor, Stucky frequently led the LA Phil New Music Group. Soloist Michala Petri joined the group for the US premiere of his recorder concerto, Etudes (2002). He conducted world and regional premieres of his con-temporaries and mentors, such as Donald Crockett, Jacob Druckman, William Kraft, Witold Lutoslawski, Christopher Rouse, and Judith Weir.
While Two Holy Sonnets of John Donne is not about issues of tuning in particular, the work reveals a probing mind and a sophisticate ear that seem to transcend any perceived limitations of equal temperament
Undermining ET: Glass at 80
Arguably the most famous and financially successful composer on the planet, Philip Glass has indefatigably applied his pliant minimalism to every classical music form, repeatedly and with and such determined energy that his the art gallery beginnings seem like ancient history. Looking to the rigor of his relentless teacher Nadia Boulanger reveal more about how he developed the capacity to write an unending stream of operas, ten symphonies, and concertos for every imaginable soloist or group.
Conductor Dennis Russell Davies led the Violin Concerto No. 1 (1987) that was commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra for Paul Zukofsky and dedicated to the composer’s late father. Glass's remembered that "his favorite form was the violin concerto, and so I grew up listening to the Mendelssohn, the Paganini, the Brahms concertos. So when I decided to write a violin concerto, I wanted to write one that my father would have liked." The Concerto was so persuasively performed and recorded in 1992 by Gidon Kremer and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, that the die was cast for more orchestral concert music.
Davies told Glass at the time of his success: "I'm not going to let you…be one of those opera composers who never write a symphony". Glass promptly responded with two three-movement symphonies "Low" (1992), and Symphony No. 2 (1994). The first combined themes from tracks on the 1977 David Bowie/Brian Eno album Low, a crossover gambit perhaps. Moving more directly toward symphonic tradition, Symphony No. 2 is described as a study in polytonality making reference to the seemingly unlikely French tradition of Milhaud, the Swiss Arthur Honegger, and Brazil’s Heitor Villa-Lobos, who emerged with the help of Milhaud.
Davies commissioned Symphony No. 3 (1995), for his Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra using nineteen string players. Having perhaps worked through a return to his Boulanger past in Paris, the result was authentic, more transparently polished, and intimate. Finally Glass found a symphonic style upon which to generate seven more. The symphony’s third movement reuses the baroque chaconne as a formal stratagem and, as such, betokens the composer’s growing interest in Bach. The result is structurally taut and cohesive. Glass describes the shape and what gives the work its unity:
“The opening movement, a quiet, moderately paced piece, functions as prelude to movements two and three, which are the main body of the Symphony. The second movement mode of fast-moving compound meters explores the textures from unison to multiharmonic writing for the whole ensemble. It ends when it moves without transition to a new closing theme, mixing a melody and pizzicato writing. The third movement is in the form of a chaconne, a repeated harmony sequence. It begins with three celli and four violas, and with each repetition new voices are added until, in the final [variation], all 19 players have been woven into the music. The fourth movement, a short finale, returns to the closing theme of the second movement, which quickly re-integrates the compound meters from earlier in that movement. A new closing theme is introduced to bring the Symphony to its conclusion.
That being said, the overtones of nineteen solo strings can create a haze that is not helped by rooms with less than ideal acoustics. As the composers works have moved into the classical music arena like, perhaps, and invasive species, it was logical and welcome when Michael Riesman, Glass’s erstwhile music director arranged the work for string quartet plus viola and cello. This vastly successful reduction has been named String Sextet, however its origins should not be mistaken or disguised. Interestingly, the String Quartet No. 5 was written around the same time. It was eventually recognized as the finest work in the form by Glass. Hearing the two works side by side shows a fundamental kinship, so it was natural to have the Lyris Quartet, which made its Jacaranda debut playing the Glass fifth return to this sensibility for Jacaranda’s fifteenth season.
PATRICK SCOTT © 2017