Monday, 23 May 2011

Words and Music

Advance copies of Bálint Varga’s Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers have just arrived, and what a remarkable publication it is. Birtwistle, Boulez, Cage, Carter, Henze, Kurtág, Ligeti, Nono, Reich, Tippett and Xenakis are just a few of the artists who agreed to discuss their music and their influences. In this post we extract a few choice morsels but urge you to seek out a copy in your favourite bookshop, as we are unable to reproduce the compelling flow of conversation and ideas within the confines of a blog post.

Gunther Schuller

To get back to Darmstadt: in the early fifties there came about an alliance between the German radio stations, composers, publishers, modern music journals, and festivals. Radios, as you know, are subsidized by the state and can broadcast new music without any great risk. A political/business linkup developed: a festival premiered a new work, it was recorded or taped by a radio station, and then the tape was broadcast throughout Europe. And everybody became richer and more famous. As a result of a terrific publicity machinery, everything was made to sound bigger and better than it really was. That is how lesser composers, like Pousseur or Kagel, became touted as “great” composers. We were told in Darmstadt that they and Boulez and Stockhausen were the masters of our time, and we should all compose like them.

There were three composers in Darmstadt in those early years who thought this was all pretty silly: Alexander Goehr, Harrison Birtwistle, and me. We were young and fairly cocky, and didn’t necessarily swallow Stockhausen’s line. I am proud of that. In the end—around 1957—I left Darmstadt, never to return.

Pierre Schaeffer

I am going to tell you why, at a particular moment in my life, I embarked on an adventure which I called concrete music.

I am not a composer. I have a degree in engineering but I have always regarded writing as my calling. As for my profession: I was one of the pioneers of broadcasting. I set up an experimental studio during the German occupation (today, they would call it an atelier) with the aim of developing the bases of radio art. Is it possible to create art devoid of the visual aspect? Is blind art viable?

Those were great years even though we had to work clandestinely during the occupation. We also participated in preparing the liberation of Paris. The first broadcasts went on the air a few days before the withdrawal of the Germans: it was rather a perilous undertaking.

It was after the war that the development of radio art really got under way. We wanted to find out all the possibilities inherent in this genre based only on text, background noise, and music—a genre that freed the imagination. Logically enough, I attempted on one occasion to create an experimental work in which I set out to explore at what point background sound, the condensing of noise turns into music. (In other words, musique concrete was the outcome of an accident, just as most other innovations. One stumbles on something one was not looking for.)

Toru Takemitsu

The pieces I wrote during the past several years have had a great deal to do with water. I love the sea. It has many faces. Numerous currents are whirling in it, each with a tempo, a color, and a temperature of its own. This phenomenon reminds me of the structure of music.

Twenty-five years ago when I started composing, I carried out concrete musical experiments with water. During a visit to France I was surprised to find that Pierre Schaeffer was working in the same direction. In my Water Music (1960) I use the sound of dripping water. I collected material from rivers, wells, and the sea and in the process of concentrating my attention on these sonorities, I grew fond of water.

Nature is important for my music in other ways as well. All four seasons are beautiful in Japan. I live on the shore of a lake and forty thousand cherry trees blossom in the neighborhood. Still, I prefer the autumn when trees, the grass—nature as a whole—change from day to day. One cannot catch the actual moment of change, only its result is tangible. It is a phenomenon that is of interest for me also as a composer.

Iannis Xenakis

Metastasis, that starting point of my life as a composer, was inspired not by music but rather by the impression gained during the Nazi occupation of Greece. The Germans tried to take Greek workers to the Third Reich — and we staged huge demonstrations against this and managed to prevent it. I listened to the sound of the masses marching toward the center of Athens, the shouting of slogans and then, when they came upon Nazi tanks, the intermittent shooting of the machine guns, the chaos. I shall never forget the transformation of the regular, rhythmic noise of a hundred thousand people into some fantastic disorder . . . I would never have thought that one day all that would surface again and become music: Metastasis.

I composed it in 1953–54 and called it a starting point because that was when I introduced into music the notion of mass . . . Almost everybody in the orchestra is a soloist, I used complete divisi in the strings which play large masses of pizzicati and glissandi. In other words, I do not use the term “mass” in a sociological sense.

Another experience of my youth dates from the time immediately preceding the war. I used to make outings to the countryside near Athens. I would take my bicycle, select a spot to erect my tent and listen to the sounds of nature. Crickets, for instance: their chirping was coming from every direction and was changing all the time. Those are also mass sounds, you see? But I also liked listening to the wind and the sea or the rain as it was lashing at the side of the tent.

Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers by Bálint András Varga is published by the University of Rochester Press and will be available soon from all good booksellers.

The image at the head of this post is taken from the book. The drawing, by Johannes Maria Staud, was made 'at the time of preparing the score of my opera Berenice in 2003/4.'

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Who was that masked man?

Unmasking Ravel is the intriguing title of a new collection of essays on the French master, edited by Peter Kaminsky. It joins an already impressive list of books on French music in the Eastman Studies in Music series published by the University of Rochester Press, including Stephen Zank’s acclaimed Irony and Sound. Here Professor Kaminsky describes his “Eureka!” moment with Ravel’s music and gives us some idea of what to expect from this new publication.

Ravel’s music has had an irresistible hold on me since my first encounter with it in Professor Joel Sheveloff’s music history class at Boston University. It was there that I heard the combination of hilarious story and impossibly clever music that is Ravel’s first opera The Spanish Hour (L’Heure espagnole); and the shimmering and utterly original dance “Forlane” from Le tombeau de Couperin. Cut to 15 years later as I began my professional career as music theorist: imagine my surprise when my colleagues sneered at the mere mention of Ravel’s name — too lightweight, too effete, too popular. (The ubiquity of Bolero did not help.) Needless to say, this situation presented precisely the thing that all writers need: A PROBLEM TO SOLVE. That is, how could I square my conviction that Ravel’s music was Hall of Fame material (I am a hardcore baseball fan), while all but a handful of scholars regarded him as strictly bush league*?

After writing a number of journal articles and book chapters, I finally had a breakthrough, a “Eureka!” moment. I understood that the metaphor that everybody writing about Ravel seemed to employ — MASKS — was in reality a bunch of tropes that, beginning with his earliest reviews onward, gradually hardened into the public and critical reception history of his music. These tropes include what I term “Ravel as classicist,” as “artisan,” as “artificial,” as deliberately attempting the impossible (the so-called “aesthetic of imposture” made famous by his student and first biographer Roland-Manuel), as “cold,” as “virtuoso,” and as “ornamentalist.” Three realizations followed: his music presents all of these facets at once; I decided to assemble and edit a Ravel book rather than write a monograph to better reveal the panoply of musical, aesthetic and historical contexts; and I found a title for the book that captured all this: Unmasking Ravel.

The book divides into three parts: Orientations and Influences; Analytical Case Studies; and Interdisciplinary Perspectives. In Part I, authors Steven Huebner, Barbara Kelly and Michael Puri—three of the most incisive current writers on Ravel’s music—engage aspects of cultural and literary history, biography, influence, reception, branding (in the modern advertising sense), memory, and interpretive strategies. Ravel provocatively stated that his most important composition teacher was the American author Edgar Allen Poe, especially the essay The Philosophy of Composition in which Poe describes the step-by-step creation of his poem “The Raven.” Huebner, equally provocatively, places this statement in the broader context of Ravel’s literary circle and unravels (pun intended) its crucial role in his aesthetics and concept of classicism (e.g., why Ravel loved Mozart and equivocated over Debussy). Kelly reveals how Ravel’s student and first biographer Roland-Manuel deliberately and continually manipulated the composer’s image in relation to ongoing music-critical currents to enhance his standing with audiences and critics alike, and how this effort subsequently shaped our current views on Ravel. Puri manages to interpret Adorno’s writings on Ravel with a positive spin by addressing the composer’s melancholic nostalgia in the context of the demise of the Western music tradition. (Do I hear La valse?)

The five chapters comprising Part II provide close analyses of compositions representing the chronological boundaries of Ravel’s mature work (from the 1899 Pavane pour une Infante défunte to the 1931 Piano Concerto in G Major). My essay provides an introduction to the other analyses by comparing formal process in three pairs of like works (including Aloysius Bertrand’s poem “Le Gibet” and Ravel’s musical setting as the middle movement of Gaspard de la Nuit). As theorist/pianist and concert pianist, respectively, co-authors Daphne Leong and David Korevaar address Ravel’s virtuosity in “Scarbo” from Gaspard and other works in terms of “mechanical motion” and “dance-like motion” (and their merging), showing how musical structure, physical gesture, and expressivity come together in ingenious ways. Sigrun Heinzelmann addresses Ravel’s approach to sonata form in the pre-War String Quartet and Piano Trio, further demonstrating Ravel’s axiomatic and classicist economy of means. Volker Helbing deconstructs the waltzes of Johann Strauss into their sub-atomic particles to show their culmination in the “spiral form” and self-destruction of Ravel’s La valse. Elliott Antoloketz, better known for his work on Bartók and Debussy, shows the relevance of Bartók’s polymodal chromaticism in modeling Ravel’s modernist post-War music, in particular the elusive Sonate pour violon et violoncelle.

In Part III, Interdisciplinary Studies, authors Lauri Suurpää, Gurminder Kaur Bhogal, and the present writer offer novel perspectives through the combination of philosophical, art-critical, or psychoanalytic theories with music analysis. Suurpää draws on semiotician A. J. Greimas and Schenkerian theory in dealing with text-music relations in songs from the cycle Histoires naturelles. Bhogal synthesizes aspects of the nineteenth-century Art Nouveau movement, pianistic pyrotechnics, current metrical theory, representation, and Ravel biography in her analysis of selected virtuosic piano works including “Ondine” from Gaspard. In the concluding chapter, I begin with psychoanalyst Melanie Klein’s well-known interpretation of Colette’s libretto, and go on to explore contrasting psychoanalytic theories (Freud’s and Piaget’s) of moral development in children as a backdrop for analyzing the 1925 opera L’Enfant et les sortilèges. Readers will discover what is meant by “his [the Child’s] chord is his sword.”

In conclusion, let us reconsider the notion of “Ravel as lightweight.” In a sense, the composer’s own irony and self-deprecation helps foster this impression. After all, any artist who heads a score with “the delicious and ever-novel pleasure of a useless occupation” (quoting de Régnier in Valses nobles et sentimentales) is not exactly asking to be taken seriously. But that is part of the seductive charm of Ravel’s irony. Indeed, Roland-Manuel cites Valses nobles as marking a seismic shift in his harmonic and compositional conception. (A glance at the voice leading of the opening two bars confirms this in spades.) Such a gap between the “face value” of a Ravel work and the depth of its technique, craft, and especially its expression manifests itself in virtually all of his major compositions. Perhaps more than any other factor, this argues for a re-examination of context, interpretation, perspective, style, and structure across his output. À mes lecteurs: amusez-vous!

Unmasking Ravel will be available soon. Why not order a copy from your local bookseller and help keep bookshops on the high street as well as in cyberspace?

* For those of us not steeped in the terminology of North American sports here is a definition of 'bush league'.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Talking to Morton Feldman (and 64 others)

Imagine being able to ask composers like John Cage, György Ligeti, Steve Reich or Karlheinz Stockhausen detailed questions about their influences and their methods of composition. This is exactly what Bálint András Varga did for his new book, Three Questions for Sixty Five Composers. Here, as a taster for this fascinating book, are excerpts from three of his conversations. First György Ligeti:

Noises do not influence me directly, but neither do I cut myself off from them altogether. The outside world makes an indirect impact. Music works with acoustic material, no doubt, but I do not think that the sounds of live or dead nature would influence me in a decisive manner. Various types of movement do. In my view, you see, music mirrors the processes of motion through sound. Machines play an important role… I have, after all, also written a piece for one hundred metronomes.

Although Atmosphères and Apparitions are not programmatic in character—I did not set out to render the sensation of flying in either piece—flying did have an indirect influence on their floating, on the continuous transformation of their musical patterns.

Without asking for my permission, Stanley Kubrick used extracts from Atmosphères, Lux aeterna, and the Requiem in the music of his science fiction film 2001. I was angry with him but I did like his work (apart from the mystical beginning and ending). While composing, I did not think of anything “cosmic” (Atmosphères is meant to convey “atmosphere” rather than “air”), but the film made me aware of the possibility of associating infinity with my music.

As far as Lux aeterna is concerned, the words only served as a chance for me to compose music which is in fact musica aeterna: as if it has been sounding from time immemorial and would be going on forever—we only hear a part of it. It emerges from nowhere, it is here and slowly disappears.

Interviewing Morton Feldman, Varga writes: I must plead guilty to having known precious little at the time about Feldman and his music. All I knew was that he was considered an important composer and that was enough for me to reach for my microphone. It will not be difficult to imagine my acute embarrassment in meeting this unique man face to face. I felt hopelessly European, hopelessly bourgeois, hopelessly underinformed. However, I made a brave effort to conceal my uneasiness and to conduct a conversation with Feldman as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

[On whether Robert Rauschenberg’s white pictures influenced John Cage]
What influenced John Cage in Rauschenberg was an answer to a philosophical question about life and art. Robert Rauschenberg is exactly my age. And brilliant. He said something that was very influential to a lot of young artists at that time. I think this is the influence of Rauschenberg, with his white paintings, to Cage. He said that he does not want either life or art. He wants something in between. A very influential statement: neither life nor art but something in between. And Cage would see this beautiful white thing in the shadows of the environment. He lived in a very beautiful apartment, Cage, and he saw where art and the outside environment could collage.

John Cage is only involved with music forms….That there is nothing there behind the material. So in that sense, John Cage is not a mystic.

Don’t you think that his music exudes an atmosphere and in doing so, it communicates something beyond the music, it communicates a way of thinking?
I think it asks a lot of questions. I think it’s the atmosphere of asking questions.

Whereas yours?

The atmosphere of answering them (laughs).

In that case, one must envy you: you seem to have the answers. Few people can claim that.

Only for my music. Only. You see, that’s another problem: I don’t feel that it’s a community. I could never listen to a piece of Boulez and get some insight from the piece. I could listen to a piece of Boulez and could say to him what I said once to Ligeti, who I like very much, we are very good friends, and I said to him: “György, you are too gifted to write European music”.

Sounds do not surround you.

There are sounds right now.

I don’t hear them.

You don’t hear them?


What sounds do you hear?

Nothing. I hear them but they are indigenous. In a place that builds modern buildings—do you hear the drilling that’s going on? It is absolutely like having a lion in a jungle. I mean it is indigenous to the landscape. It would be interesting if you would hear an Islamic chant. What’s happening here? OPEC, OPEC! (Vienna - where the interview took place - is the headquarters of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries). In other words: I hear it like everyone else but it is not a source of . . .

. . . inspiration.

It’s not a source of anything. Most of the time I think of it as pollution. Noise pollution.

How about the sounds of nature, such as the wind, birds, and so on?

I have no contact with them. They don’t interest me at all. I can live very well without them.

So in composing, the sounds always come from within.

Yes, only when I am composing. Otherwise, you are crazy. I don’t go around hearing sounds. Some people do! Stockhausen, I am sure, is one of them.

Let’s turn to Karlheinz Stockhausen for our final snippet. Here the Master describes what one might find in one of his best known pieces:

In Hymnen there appear national anthems, that is, completely banal material as well as numerous other situations (recordings made in a Chinese shop, at a student protest demonstration in Aachen, at a ship’s christening in Hamburg, at a soccer match with crowds of people shouting, the squawking of birds, and boys shouting in a school yard). Linked to the American national anthem, you hear odd short-wave sounds (Morse signals, whistling, shrill screeching), as if someone has turned on a radio station at night, with distorted broadcasts. In the context of the “International” the words of a croupier: “rien ne va plus Messieurs Dames,” “faites vos jeux Messieurs Dames,” etc., are heard. Out of the “Rouge” called by a croupier in a roulette hall emerges a four-part fugue in four different languages on the word rouge, with all the different variations of the color red as listed in the color catalogue of a London paint company.

Longer excerpts will follow over the coming weeks. Three Questions for Sixty Five Composers by Bálint András Varga will be published towards the end of this month by the University of Rochester Press.