from this article entitled Loving, Hating Carter, Boulez
I couldn’t end our first real series on modern (more modern than the Second Viennese School) music without kind of addressing this. It was an article I came across a while back when I was looking up… something… I think it was probably my initial curiosity toward Elliott Carter as another modern American composer (another as in, aside from Babbitt, among others).
First, I love how he describes individual works from Ives and Stravinsky as “incomprehensible but fascinating.” That is, at least for me, how it often begins. He continues to hit the nail on the head: “and I kept listening over and over and over until I totally fell in love.” I get that. I’m with you, Mr. Gann. But I also agree with something more critical.
The realization of “not giving a damn” about a piece is one I can relate to as well, and they’re far more ‘accepted’ or ‘mainstream’ pieces than Gann’s. In recent having-discussed history, Chopin’s second piano concerto and Bruckner’s first symphony (at least) come to mind, as well as Arensky’s piano concerto. No matter how familiar I get with the Bruckner, for example, it does nothing for me.
Gann describes the feeling of anticipation of every nuance and little quirky feature of the Ives sonata, and I get that, with different pieces, to the point that only that one recording with those exact nuances will do; familiarity breeds familiarity. However, at what point does familiarity not even cut it? Or at what point is it not even really feasible? As Gann says, “the vast majority of the pitch complexes just never imprinted themselves on my memory.”
It’s nice to hear a professional’s impression of some of this (in)famously difficult and/or modern music as being unmemorable or even ‘bad,’ although Gann perhaps doesn’t use that exact word. There’s criticism toward Carter for making literal (concrete? strategic?) musical choices that don’t really pan out once they leave the paper. I say this being almost entirely unfamiliar with Carter’s works, having only listened in passing to a few of his quartets, and remembered not a single note.
To take it a step further, he discusses Boulez, and this is where I feel the real meat of the article is, at least for me, and at least for this blog, following some very modern quartets. But first, let’s review.
Dutilleux’s quartet is not a serialist work; it is more impressionist than anything.
Babbitt’s works are totally serialist, being a more full-bodied extension of what Schoenberg did.
His fourth quartet is written with a tone row of the twelve pitch classes in different contrapuntal ways.
And all of these works have been very enjoyable to get to know, for me, and hopefully for you. I hope at least something of what I’ve shared about them makes them more transparent, more intelligible, more comprehensible.
I feel more focused on Boulez’s works in this article because I’m fascinated with the serial ideas in Babbitt’s work and Boulez is another of the earliest composers to work with that system. However, to an almost frustrating degree, Boulez’s works I find to be entirely unintelligible and almost unenjoyable. Gann describes Pli Selon Pli as “a lovely atmospheric piece with a highly original rhythmic sense and sensuous textures,” similar to others’ sentiments about this piece, but to be honest, I don’t get it.
I said before about Babbitt’s work that the theory (or science) doesn’t get in the way of the music (or art). That’s what fascinates me. They are one and the same.
But the point is also made in the article about a piece like Le Marteau that if it was transposed all willy-nilly and performed with the (wrong) wrong notes, he wouldn’t notice. Dutilleux’s impressionist concept toyed with ideas of memory, and it’s pieces like Boulez’s long, complicated works that make me wonder… how good are we (listeners, perhaps not performers) at being able to process and recall this kind of music? What reference points are there for memory? Are people with perfect pitch more likely (or susceptible) to appreciating or enjoying it?
How many listens does it take to get to the center of a Boulez piece?
highly of Babbitt’s works, he wrote this:
I say this as less than an amateur when it comes to this ‘new music,’ but my sentiments toward a lot of this are quite similar to that of one cooking show judge‘s (who’s fantastic restaurant I have been to) opinion of useless or inedible or needless garnishes: if they’re not meant to be eaten, leave them off.
To repeat, simplicity is not the only, or even primary, key to memorability. A subtle sense of harmony and voice-leading, even in an atonal context, is very important, and not many 12-tone composers managed that; the Italians, Dallapiccola, Maderna, and Nono, were superb in that regard, and underrated.
… read the rest here.
See you in a few a