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Digesting Modern Music

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?

That’s essentially my question, but not with Boulez. As much as I revere and talk
highly of Babbitt’s works, he wrote this: 
We will eventually (frighteningly) get around to it, one of his later works, but Transfigured Notes is a piece with no repetition of themes, nine individual melodic lines (if they can be called that) working entirely independently of one another. At 26 minutes, I do wonder what one is supposed to glean from it aside from a large, sprawling mass of generally warm, lush string sounds. I’d spend the few hundred dollars and buy the score, but not even it would help much (for me) in identifying its details. So it gets me to wondering, then: what is the purpose of all of these sounds if the end result isn’t intelligible?
I think we can go back to two points, at least for me, and emphasize the merits of these pieces even if I don’t like them. 
Ask a Brucknerite to describe his symphonies, and the phrase “cathedral[s] of sound” will almost inevitably be uttered. It seems to mean that one should sit back and listen to the big picture, take it all in and let the music wash over your person without trying to pick it apart. Or that’s what I’m told. It still doesn’t do a ton for me. 
But Gann used the word “atmospheric” earlier, and perhaps, if that’s your thing, these pieces turn your crank. As incomprehensible as something like Scriabin’s eighth sonata or Schoenberg’s piano concerto seemed, I anticipate every nuance now, and I assume the overall atmosphere, if you don’t look too closely, could be appealing at first (or maybe tenth listen) for some of these more difficult ones. Is there something hidden inside these intractable works from people like Carter and Boulez? The answer, of course, is yes. Some people love them, and following that is another simple truth: not everyone will love everything. 
So asking a devoted performer/conductor/fan of Rituel or Pli Selon Pli what they see in the piece and having it conveyed to you in words may or may not help; it may at least be comforting to know that they (think they) see something in it. But there’s another question: can we fool ourselves, or be fooled?
I found it interesting in the same article that Gann describes having been so “brainwashed” by the score of Boulez’s second sonata, a piece I’ve listened to more than a few times, that he wept over its beauty. There’s an interesting psychological study to be done there, especially since he mentions he’d be hard pressed to identify it today. ‘Brainwash’ may in fact be the perfect word.
What I mean to say in all this is that… obviously, aside from the ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ thing, some stuff just doesn’t work like it does on paper. As a very small example, Carter’s indication that the four performers of his second string quartet should sit as far apart as possible is stage direction, a statement, not as much musical as it is simply a matter of presentation, one, I might add, that is entirely lost in a recording of the work, being the only way most people will ever experience the piece.
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. 
That tiny twimple of rough, crumply parsley on a plate, a flower carved out of some root vegetable, I find them kind of annoying. If they don’t enhance the eating of the thing, I don’t want it. It is true that one eats with one’s eyes first, but my eyes also tell me that I won’t be eating that parsley. 
How much of the musical theory behind a lot of these works, then, is irrelevant, not because so few understand it, but because so few can perceive it? Lots of people don’t understand the first thing about music, but they still appreciate lots of it. I feel like I’ve asked my questions, but not really made much of a point. I would like to finish by quoting the entire final paragraph of Gann’s article about memorability of music, but I’ve already referenced it way too much. It begins:

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


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