January 7, 2018

Querying the dead

Listening to a Webern score without being able to read it must be rather like studying a great  architectural mastepiece without having access to a ground plan.  ...  The new [music], when it eschews any links with the past, can be absorbed only by those who are able to hear the music and read the score (the aural equivalent of the architect's blueprint).

Why should listening to a piece of art music be like studying a piece of architecture (or anything else)? Why shouldn’t it be instead like taking a tour of a palace (castle, cathedral)? 
     Does one have to study the shooting script and the production designer’s storyboard in order to “absorb” a film of Eisenstein, Godard, or Tarkovsky?  Or read the source code of computer programs used to produce some of the art works at MOMA in order to “absorb” such works?  

What exactly does the ability to read a score amount to? 
     When in 1854 the conductor Hans von Bülow sent Richard Wagner some scores to review, Wagner responded with a letter in which he admitted his borderline incompetence (if not impotence) as a score reader:
     ...[H]ow am I to get any clear idea of these [scores]? You know how abominably I play the piano, and that I cannot master anything by that means unless I can get a clear conception [of the music] beforehand.  What I get from a simple reading [of the score] is not enough ... to arrive at an idea of a composition.[2]
     Did Wagner have the ability to read a score? 
     If not, then should we say that Wagner – one of the most revolutionary composers in history, the man whose harmonic innovations dominated compositional thinking for half a century – was unable to “absorb” challenging new music?
     And if Wagner did have this ability, why make such a big deal of it if this ability amounts to so little?  Wouldn’t making it a necessary condition for absorbing new music be as vacuous as making the ability to move one’s fingers a necessary condition for playing the Hammerklavier Sonata?

What else must be added to the ability to read scores to make the entire package sufficient for “absorbing” challenging new music? 
     What exactly was missing in the ‘skills-and-abilities package’ of Hector Berlioz – the composer of revolutionary gargantuan orchestral works, one of the most important conductors of the century, and certainly a competent score reader – that made him unable to comprehend the Prelude to Wagner's Tristan and Isolde?:
     I have read and re-read this strange page; I have listened to it with the most profound attention and a healthy desire to discover its sense; ... I must confess that I have yet to discover the least idea of what the author wishes to do![3]
     Why was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony “incomprehensible” to the superb violinist and an important conductor-composer Louis Spohr?[4] 
    Why was the virtuoso pianist and respected composer Ignaz Moscheles unable to make sense Chopin’s harmonic innovations, which he described as “inartistic” and “inconceivable”?[5] 
     Why was Bruno Walter, an excellent pianist and one of the past century’s great conductors, unable to understand atonal and serial compositions and went as far as to deny that these compositions constitute music?[6]
     If there is nothing that all and only score readers who “absorb” challenging new music have in common, then why bother stating necessary conditions (like score reading) for what depends on some kind of mysterious ‘neuro-cognitive luck’?  Why couldn’t a functionally illiterate music lover be neuro-cognitively lucky to “absorb” challenging new music without reading scores?  (After all, when luck is involved, pretty much anything is possible so long as one gets lucky enough.)

What does it mean to describe a score as “the aural equivalent of the architect’s blueprint”? 
     Should reading a score produce in the mind’s ear an aural image of what the composition would sound like if heard in actual performance? 
     How would this work for all those professional musicians who lack absolute pitch?  (The list of such ‘neurological defectives’ reportedly includes Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Furtwangler, and Bernstein.[7]) 
     If the music one hears in the mind’s ear  is in a wrong key (or is based on a transposed tone row), doesn’t it make the score at best the equivalent of a copy of the architect’s blueprint in which all dimensions have been changed by a constant factor?    
     Wouldn’t such ‘transposed mental hearing’ already seriously falsify a good deal of contemporary music in which the aesthetic emphasis is on timbre, color, and texture rather than on pitch and rhythm?  (In such cases, a transposed mental image may be ‘interval isomorphic’ to the original work, but will distort its aesthetic significance as much as a reproduction of a painting in which all colors have been shifted along the color spectrum.)[8]
     And just how much aural imagery should be expected from reading the scores of complex modernist orchestral works written after 1945?  Wouldn’t even professionals with absolute pitch and good score reading skills have their aural imagination defeated by the staggering complexity of simultaneous combinations and cross-movements of multitudes of pitches, timbres, textures, rhythms, and dynamic gradations?  This was Elliott Carter's experience as a member of the jury at the 1963 festival of the International Society of Contemporary Music (all jury members were professional composers).  Faced with the score of Penderecki's Threnody, Carter tell us, "almost none of us could have imagined how [this work] would sound from the score alone."[9]  And the Penderecki piece is not even as complex as some other modernist works from the same period (e.g., those of Carter or Ferneyhough).

If a score is “the equivalent of the architect’s blueprint” (never mind the “aural” qualification), shouldn’t score reading yield a clear understanding of the work’s “ground plan”?  (If that weren’t the case with architectural blueprints, nothing would ever get built.)
     How would that be possible with compositions which have no “ground plan” at all, i.e., compositions in which the values of musical parameters are based on arbitrary choices (e.g., Cage’s Music of Changes and Atlas Elclipticalis, Stockhausen’s Gruppen) or on mathematical models of stochastic (random) processes (e.g., Xenakis’ Pithoprakta)? 
    As for non-aleatoric music, how is it that score-reading professionals can find a new work attractive enough to perform it (or repeadly listen to it) without knowing its “ground plan”? 
     It took the pianist Charles Rosen – who was one of the soloists in the premiere performance of Carter’s Double Concerto – a long time before he "began to realize slowly and painfully" (how slowly, Rosen wrote, he was ashamed to admit) that the rhythmic organization of that composition’s coda employs a long-range polyrithm rather than the familiar cross-rhythms.[10] 
     It took the violinist Rudolf Kolisch even longer to identify (around 1932, and not completely) the tone row in Schoenberg's Third String Quartet, the work Kolisch premiered in 1927 as the leader of the Kolisch Quartet.[11] 
     The tone row of Boulez' Le Marteau sans Maitre - one of the canonical works of of post-war serialism - remained unknown for more than twenty years after the work's premiere.[12] 
     And it took at least twenty years for Elliott Carter - who himself had produced some of the most complex musical works ever written - to recognize significant rhythmic regularities in the music of Varese, the music he had known since his early youth.[13]
     So, if professionals can perform (or listen to) a work for years without knowing its ground plan, why should non-professional music lovers be advised (let alone required) to have this kind of knowledge as a prerequisite for rewarding encounters with new music?
     Why not instead accept Webern’s advice that "knowledge of  serial operations is not required for full appreciation of [twelve-tone] music"?[14]  Or embrace the moral of Charles Rosen’s reflection on his experience as a performer of Webern’s music:
     I have played [Webern’s Variations for Piano] for years never knowing exactly what the tone row was that determines the succession of pitches until I read [its analysis], and I can't say that I am now in a better position to play, or to listen to, the work.[15]

                                                                    *    *    *  
But enough querying the dead.  It is time to let Leinsdorf go back to conducting his period-instrument orchestra of angels and wrap things up with a couple of concluding remarks.

A few rhetorical questions mixed with chronologically scattered historical examples may not amount to much in a way of empirical evidence, but what little evidence they do offer makes me believe that, when it comes to encounters with challenging new music, score-reading professionals have no dramatic advantage over non-professional (including functionally illiterate) music lovers who bring to the concert hall an open mind and substantial familiarity with stylistically diverse music, including music of recent vintage.  For both groups the best experience is likely to be close to what the great Italian composer Luigi Dallapiccola described in his diary after attending the world premiere of Webern's Concerto Op.24 (at the time Dallapiccola was in his fourth year as professor at the Florence Conservatory):
     ... I have not managed to form an exact idea of the piece; but that it creates a world of its own seems to me unquestionable. ... Though I did not understand the work well, it seemed to me to have an aesthetic and stylistic unity on which one could not wish to improve.[16]
     That Dallapiccola's initial impressions of the Webern piece – "a world of its own", "an aesthetic and stylistic unity" – were vague and very general is not in the least surprising.  New music which radically re-thinks (or departs from) familiar styles and idioms may or may not have deep artistic significance, but if it does, it cannot reveal the full scope of this significance quickly and easily, for that would only prove the work's artistic shallowness.  What it can do is offer the listener glimpses of something interesting (intriguing, alluring, enticing) to make him want to listen to it again. And listening to the work again (and again) not only will allow some of the work's constituent sound events to convey their previously unnoticed aesthetic or emotional significance, but also will help (those who are interested) to grasp the musical meaning of the work's various formal properties encoded in the score.  To use the example of Elliott Carter once more, what made Carter's much delayed discovery of rhythmic regularities in the works of Varese possible, he tells us, was that over the years he had "listened to [these] works in excellent live performances."[17]

It is also worth noting that professionals may invest time and effort in studying the score of a difficult new work for reasons which have nothing to do with the work's artistic merit.  They may be under contractual or ethical obligations as performers, editors, referees, or teachers.  They may be motivated by collegial relations with the composer.  They may be prodded by professional jealousy or driven by insecurity because they see the composer as a competitor or as a threat.  Or they may want to keep a busy professional life because they consider it an important component of their self-identity and psychological well-being.
      Since none of this applies to non-professional music lovers like myself, it would be simply irrational for me to invest time and effort in studying a difficult score (if I could) without having a good reason to think that the music notated in the score is worth the investment.  And the only good reason for me to think so would be if I heard a performance (or recording) of the work and found it interesting enough to want to learn more about its formal (structural, organizational) properties.  Which is why Leinsdorf's musings strike me not only as delusional fantasies of a curmudgeonly musical snob, but also as a manifestation of score fetish at its most perverse:  In order for me to have a good reason to study a score, I must first study that very score!

Finally, none of what I have said was meant to suggest that studying scores contributes nothing to the pleasures of being a music lover.  Those who study scores outside professional obligations obviously find the activity intellectually stimulating and/or aesthetically rewarding.  I have no doubt that this makes for a richer musical life. 
     I do think, however, that the rewards of studying scores, especially post-tonal modernist scores, are separate from the rewards of listening to the music notated in those scores.  If one cannot hear (for lack of absolute pitch) a piece of music as being in the key of F# minor (the way one hears a voice on the phone as Mother's voice), looking up the key signature in the score will not make the Siciliano in Mozart's A major piano concerto sound more poignant.  And if one cannot hear that at a certain point the orchestra begins the retrograde version of some earlier stated material (the way one can hear the retrograde of a simple triad as being just that), learning from the score that this is what happens may be intellectually satisfying, but I doubt it will make the music of Berg's operas (where such palindromic constructions are common) sound more heart-rending.
     Which is to say that one need not deny the importance of tone rows and modulations to the submediant to maintain that music is no more about those things than wine is about organic chemistry and soil management.


1.  Leinsdorf, E., On Music, Amadeus Press, 1997, pp.133-134.  
2.  Schonberg, H.C., The Great Conductors, Simon and Schuster, 1967, p.128.
3.  Holoman, D.K., Berlioz, Harvard U. Press 1989, pp.543-544
4.  Spohr, L., Louis Spohr's Autobiography, London, 1865.
5.  Kroll, M., Ignaz Moscheles and the Changing World of Musical Europe, Boydell & Brewer, 2014, p.83. 
6.  Ryding, E. and R. Pechefsky, Bruno Walter: A World Elsewhere, U. of California Press, 2008, p.244. 
7.  Crutchfield, W., “There may be more to music than meets a typical ear”, New York Times, 23 December 1990.
8.  Perhaps this is just one of those seemingly meaningful but in reality hopelessly imbecilic analogies (which Leinsdorf most likely lifted from Harold Schonberg’s book The Great Conductors).  Equivalence is a symmetrical relation (holds in both directions), but I doubt anyone would think it meaningful to describe an architectural blueprint as “the visual equivalent of the composer’s score.”  If anything, an architectural blueprint should be described as “the aural equivalent of a musical score” since, for experienced builders, reading a blueprint may well produce in the mind’s ear an aural image of a  ‘symphony’ played by hammers, drills, saws, forklifts, and bulldozers.  And who’s to say that this aural image (or a recording made at a construction site) is less musical than, say, the works of the Italian futurist composer Luigi Russolo?
9.  Carter, E., Collected Essays and Lectures 1937-1995, U. of Rochester Press, p.41
10.  Rosen, C., "The Performance of Contemporary Music: Carter's Double Concerto", Critical Entertainment, Harvard U. Press, pp.288-293. 
11Arnold Schoenberg Letters, U. of California Press, 1987, p.164
12.  Koblyakov, L. 1977. "P. Boulez Le Marteau sans maître: Analysis of Pitch Structure". Zeitschrift für Musiktheorie 8, no.1, 1977, pp.24-39.
13.  Carter, E., Collected Essays and Lectures 1937-1995, U. of Rochester Press, p.147 fn. 
14.  Stadlen, P., "Serialism reconsidered", The Score 16, 1956.
15.  Rosen, C., Freedom and the Arts, Harvard U. Press, 2012, p.231.
16.  Dallapiccola, L., "Meeting with Anton Webern (Pages from a Diary), entry of 5 September 1935, Prague", Tempo No.99, 1972. 
     Of course professionals who 'get' difficult new works usually get them faster than non-professional music lovers, if only because the professional’s accumulated knowledge along with listening and analytic skills honed by years of professional-level training and practice will almost certainly accelerate the process of familiarization.  But there is nothing interesting about this kind of advantage because it applies to professionals in every field, from theoretical physics and molecular genetics to automotive repair and residential plumbing.
17.  Carter, E., Collected Essays and Lectures 1937-1995, U. of Rochester Press, p.147 (fn), italics added. 

December 21, 2017

It was a mad, mad, mad world....

Madness, for the Romantic artist ... promised not only different insights but also a different logic.

Writing about Robert Schumann, Charles Rosen tells us that

Schumann was haunted from the age of seventeen by the fear of going mad.  Only at the end of his short life were these fears realized.  In 1854 ... Schumann voluntarily incarcerated himself in an insane asylum.*

Rosen's chronology is correct with respect to Schumann the man, but not Schumann the composer.  The latter should have committed himself to an asylum a couple of years earlier when he displayed undeniable symptoms of musical lunacy by composing piano accompaniment to Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin BWV 1001- 1006.  Had Schumann produced this composition a few decades later, it could have been considered a musical counterpart of Eugene Bataille's  La Joconde fumant le pipe or Marcel Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q. in the visual arts, making Schumann (rather than Eric Satie) the father of musical dadaism.  But composed in the middle of the nineteenth century, this work of Schumann has always struck me as by far the most shocking (and, because it was Schumann, the saddest) case of madness from the Romantic period in the history of music.

Or so I thought until a few days ago when, to my great surprise, I came across a case of nineteenth century musical madness arguably more pathological than Schumann's.

November 29, 2017

A friend of a friend 4

Penderecki's most impressive score, To the Victims of Hiroshima: Threnody, for fifty-two strings, calls for a host of new methods of playing these instruments ... [and] ... the extremely violent, almost "anti-artistic" expression of the music justifies the means.
ELLIOTT CARTER, writing in 1963 about new music in Europe, Collected Essays and Lectures 1937-1995, U. of Rochester Press, p.36.

I must have heard at least a dozen concert recordings of Penderecki's Threnody (1960), and all but one presented this piece as a shrill Modernist tantrum of a young musical dissident behind the Iron Curtain.  Heard in such performances, the music amounts to little more than an echo of Xenakis' Metastaseis (1954), making it easy to think that its continuing survival on the fringes of the orchestral repertoire is due solely to its contrived anti-American title.
    Which is what I used to think before I discovered how poignant, even sensuous this music can sound when its avant-garde stylistic devices (swooping glissandi, tone clusters, behind the bridge bowing, etc.) are treated as background technical means to emotionally significant musical ends.  I owe this discovery to the performance of Threnody by the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien under the impressively versatile Cornelius Meister, recorded in concert on 3 November 2016.

October 26, 2017

A friend of a friend III

With music, we must learn what to listen for—or, indeed, what not to listen for. After a 1964 concert in Berlin of Xenakis’s music in the 1950s, the great Nadia Boulanger ... said to the composer in her usual forthright, no-nonsense manner: “Xenakis, you don’t know how to develop your themes!” “What themes?” he replied reasonably.
CHARLES ROSEN, Freedom and the Arts, Harvard U. Press, p.237

I wonder if Nadia Boulanger's remark was simply a joke which somehow went over Charles Rosen's head.  Surely by 1964 Boulanger must have been familiar with the decades-old music of composers who "did not know how to develop their themes", e.g., Schoenberg's Erwartung (1909) or Varèse's works from the 1920s (Ameriques, Arcana, Ionisation).  Or perhaps she was too shocked by what she heard and blurted out the first thing that popped into her head (thematic development may have been a subject of criticism she frequently directed at her many composition students).  Either possibility sounds more plausible to me than Rosen's (admittedly funny) portrayal of Boulanger as a musical dimwit.

Be that as it may, Xenakis' music may have been pretty shocking back then, but I doubt  it has much of a shock value today.  Not after half a century of exposure to Xenakis-influenced sonorities in concert halls (e.g., the fake-titled, frequently performed Penderecki's Threnody) and movie theaters (THX's audio trademark Deep Note).  Yet if the shock of Xenakis' music has worn off, its ability to thrill remains undiminished, at least when heard in the ambience of a concert hall rather than on poisonously equalized and (as a rule) poorly edited studio recordings.

But why take my word for it when you can decide for yourself with these live recordings of Metastaseis (1954), Syrmos (1959), Aroura (1971), and Voile (1995).  The first recording was made at a 2009 concert given by ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien under Bertrand de Billy, while the remaining three were recorded at a 2011 concert given by Amsterdan Sinfonietta under Johannes Kalitzky.

September 10, 2017

Bye-bye, the baby in the bathwater

[The music is] bizarre ... melodically as well as harmonically, and avoids natural flow ...  [Vocal writing] is overladen with surfeit of harmonies ... and tricky intervals which are often very hard for singers to remember and intone. 

For ... melody we have searched in vain; nor have we even found any varieties of form, indicating an original fancy at work...  All seems worn and hackneyed and unmeaning.  ... if effect there be, it must be monotonous, and bizarre.

There is a vast deal of ugly music ... that offends the ear and rasps the nerves like fiddlestrings played on by a coarse file.

[The singers] all carry on in indistinguishable, angular swoops and shrieks. 
[The opera] boasts ... avoidance  - as if on principle - of any hint of beauty, expressive content or sensual delight...  [T]there is something singularly horrifying about this new score... It's a dehumanizing brand of art ... and to see it applied to the warm-blooded genre of opera is enough to chill the bones.
Reading the above excerpts from reviews of contemporary operas, you may feel sorry for the audiences traumatized by sadistic composers.  You may also feel grateful to the critics whose unflinching reviews must have prevented many music lovers from becoming additional victims of these musical counterparts of Marquis de Sade.  And why wouldn't you feel this way, if the composer in these reviews is made to look like the defendant in a criminal trial charged with multiple counts of fraud, vandalism, and intentional infliction of pain and suffering?  (The defendant used false promises of an enjoyable experience to swindle hundreds of people.  He lured these people into a large building where he held them captive for hours while subjecting them to various forms of psychological and physical torture.)

But then suppose you learn that the first excerpt comes from a 1793 review of the then present state of opera and refers specifically to the operas of Mozart; the second comes from a 1844 article on the operas of Verdi; the third comes from a 1907 review of the American premiere of Strauss' Salome; and only the fourth and last excerpt comes from a review of an opera (Elliott Carter's What Next?) which is contemporary for both the critic and yourself.  Would you still feel sorry for the audiences? Grateful to the critics?
     Or would you instead begin to wonder if there is any line of work where incompetence and arrogance are encouraged and rewarded as much as they are in music criticism?

September 2, 2017

A friend of a friend II

... for me a Webern bagatelle is much more subversive and politically significant than all those requiems, cantatas and oratorios dedicated to the Holocaust, to 9/11 or to oppression in the Third World using depressive clusters, aggressive noises, threatening percussion orgies and sad nostalgic quotations.
"Sound Structures, Transformations, and Broken Magic: An Interview with Helmut Lachenmann", Contemporary Music: Theoretical and Philosophical Perspectives, Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2010, p.341.

Back in 2011 I already voiced my contempt for mediocre composers who desperately try to mask the stale musical odor of their compositions with nauseatingly 'topical' titles, dedications, and program notes.  Little man that I am, I was certainly gratified to discover a similar attitude expressed by a composer whose music I greatly admire.

Not that I think it makes much sense to attribute, as Lachenmann does, "political significance" to (non-vocal) art music, if only because the relations between art music and politics have nothing to do with intrinsically musical values.  After all, in Nazi Germany the radical, cerebral Webern had the same 'political significance' as the jazzy Krenek, the derivative Shostakovich, and the bourgeois Mendelssohn, while in Stalin's USSR the 'political significance' of Webern's music was no different from that of Rachmaninov's sappy traditionalism and Stravinsky's acidic modernism (all were banned).  And in today's America all art music has the same 'political significance' - which is to say none whatsoever - since neither the government nor the people give a fuck about about it (except for a relatively very small number of 'faggots', 'weirdos' and 'eggheads' like myself).