Cognitive Constraints?

In the waning years of the Cold War, academic modernism began suffering from a gap in credibility, leading many (including defectors) to question its relevance. (In Susan McClary’s words, it was a victim of “terminal prestige.”) Objections to the handsomely brutal aesthetic of “Ph.D. music” were legion, but one of the most devastating blows came from composer Fred Lerdahl and linguist Ray Jackendoff. Drawing explicitly on Chomskyan linguistics and cognitivist paradigms of the “mind machine,” the authors of A Generative Theory of Tonal Music (1983) postulated that there exist universal laws of listening, cognitive constraints that dictate how we make sense of our experience of musical sound. According to Lerdahl and Jackendoff’s research, listeners  intuitively comprehend structures of hierarchy when listening to tonal music, and it is precisely this perceived hierarchy that makes music intelligible. After laying out the theory, the authors go on to argue the inevitable point: some music follows the universal “listening grammar” to a letter; other music does not. Rather than an aesthetic, political, philosophical, or social rejection of the style, the authors play the “nature” card—academic modernism is “cognitive noise” because of the innate structure of human cognition, a biological and psychophysical fact over which we have little control. In this influential move, the authors establish their critique on the ultimate authority of nature (i.e., “Ph.D. music” is, in a sense, “unnatural”).

RT does a judicious job ferreting out the various complexities of this position. Most humanists today bristle at the very notion of “universality,” and with good reason, looking back on the barbarous last century of violence in the name of universalizing truths. Further, arguments of musical universals cut against ideals of human freedom, exposing us to the vulnerability of our own limitations. They also disturb the hard-won claim that music is an entirely culturally contingent social practice.

But can we discount this position so easily? As Leonard Meyer put it: “It is a mistake—albeit a common one—to conceptualize the problem as a search for ‘musical’ universals. There are none. There are only the acoustical universals of the physical world and the bio-psychological universals of the human world” (V, 450). This is a frustrating and misleading claim: the acoustical and bio-psychological factors Meyer dismisses are precisely the constitutive ingredients of all musical expression—after all, what else is there besides the “physical world” (sound) and the “human world” (perception)? (Perhaps he has in mind a purely intellectual, disembodied, transcendent realm of pure Kantian reflection? Or perhaps he’s reifying “Culture” as something that exists outside of material reality?) If there are universals here, as Meyer concedes, it’s hard to imagine how there couldn’t also be universals in the realm of music. Octave equivalency, for example, appears to be a musical universal governed by a fairly simple (since the Greeks first recognized it) psychoacoustic fact (1:2). Granted, cultural context takes over quickly to shape our experience and understanding of such universals, but to not hear a quality of fundamental sameness in C4 and C5 would be to deny many millennia of shared, evolutionary perceptual and cognitive development as humans. Is it not also possible that we are evolutionarily programmed to hear hierarchy in musical sound?

Lerdahl and Jackendoff’s thesis has proven highly influential, and (at least according to my own grad school experience) the early controversy has dropped off in favor of general, if qualified, acceptance. It seems that on this point, at least, “universal” has ceased to be a dirty word, reflecting skepticism with the notion of “progress” and unlimited freedom underlying the ideology of academic modernism. I’ll close with RT: “Behind cultural universals, if they are truly universal, must necessarily stand biological limitations that are transhistorical (‘timeless’) as well as ubiquitous, and that must ultimately come into conflict with faith in unlimited or unlimitable progress” (V, 450).

Turning Back the Clock

Using an innocent language innocently—using tonality “in one’s own way”—is no longer even an option. The choice is bleak: either renounce expression altogether or borrow a voice.  — V, 435

The tumultuous late 20th century presented composers with a number of perhaps irreconcilable aesthetic challenges. Modernists like Carter and Babbitt pressed on with the historicist mission of musical progress, even though they had to rely on the largesse of universities and institutions to pay their bills. Minimalists opted out of the complexity arms race by radically scaling back their musical means, often under the influence of Eastern spirituality and popular music. But what about turning back the clock entirely to write music, unironically, in the “innocent” idioms of classical music’s hallowed past?

This is what George Rochberg attempted to accomplish in his string quartets no. 3-6. A university-trained modernist, Rochberg began turning his back on “progress” in the 1970s by adopting a purely tonal, Romantic idiom. His 3rd quartet, for example, is pointy and modernistic in all save the central Adagio movement, which jarringly pushes the listener into the Delorean and sets the gauge for 1820. This is music that Beethoven never got around to writing. But as RT (not to mention the composer) makes clear, there is no irony behind this gesture, no dark, sly, distancing maneuver a la Stravinsky’s neoclassicism (which never, of course, sounded remotely “classical”). Rather, what we have is a composer reclaiming a lost past of expressive possibility, and showing in the process that the very notion of stylistic obsolescence is bunk. Why not write a Beethovenian string quartet in 1972? Rochberg writes: “… I am turning away from what I consider the cultural pathology of my own time toward what can only be called a possibility: that music can be renewed by regaining contact with the tradition and means of the past, to re-emerge as a spiritual force with reactivated powers…” (V, 433).

There’s a lot of “re-” happening here. All this brings to mind Borges’s short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” wherein a 20th century Frenchman decides that instead of translating Cervantes’s work, he needed to completely immerse himself in Cervantes’s world in order to recreate the book, word by word. To write Don Quixote, in other words, one had to become Cervantes, to hit reset and do it over again. There is something deeply charming about Rochberg’s expressive sincerity and lack of aesthetic “distancing” typically associated with postmodernism. But there is also something deeply sad and more than a little utopian. His embrace of the musical successes of the past, indeed, is all-too-uncomfortable evidence of today’s failures.

(I can’t find a clip of this Adagio on YouTube, but here’s something from the 6th quartet. Here, he takes perhaps the most canonical [and, by many modernists, despised, though don’t tell the bride] piece of music and sets it to a very pretty set of variations. Not entirely historically accurate, perhaps, but definitely not a ironic poke either.)

Historicism in Rock

In the midst of the cultural turmoil of the sixties, popular musicians began drawing on the prestige (and dysfunctions) of the classical world. Thus in the middle of the decade we get some of the first rock albums that can be heard and respected as “art,” exemplified in Ch.7 (predictably) by Sgt. Pepper, an album filled with enough riddles, eclectic variety, and avant-garde dabblings to keep even a musicology grad student intellectually satiated. Stockhausen shows up on the cover, and to top it off, a few years later The Fab Four (or really, Lennon and his Fluxus-connected wife) were making their own Darmstadt-style tape pieces (“Revolution 9”). It’s a moment of giddy cross-fertilization, a rare episode in 20th-century music history when the masses willingly expose themselves to difficult “art” (or at least suffer through it to get to “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”).

RT does his vast book a great service by showing how 60s popular music wrested cultural authority from the classical world, paradoxically by adopting art music techniques, ambitions, and pretensions. (Some critics argue he could have devoted more space to this vital issue.) I find it fascinating as well that rock criticism, which similarly experienced a boom in the 60s, likewise adopted a “classical” approach to its topic. Just as The Beatles borrowed tape techniques from the European avant-garde, writers and critics borrowed historicism from European (specifically, German) musical thought. The same criteria for historical value that was applied to music since the time of New German School—innovation, experimentation, and complexity—could now be applied wholesale to rock. Even though the sound and culture of rock often diverged significantly from art music, it could be aesthetically judged along the same lines as its classical forebears. Thus The Beatles trump The Beach Boys (at least until Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson’s bid for history).

This mode of historicist rock criticism is alive and well. To kick off the new year, Jon Caramanica of the NYT recently published a rant declaring 2011 “the most numbing year for mainstream rock music in history.” Why? Among other reasons, because rock is becoming “a graveyard of aesthetic innovation and creativity”… “hiding out in a few comfortable modes” instead of playing the risky game of progress. He damns modern bands for “walking blindly in the footprints laid out years, even decades, earlier.”

Caramanica might benefit from reading RT’s history. Indeed, all of this could have been written by Brendel in the middle of the 19th century; it is virulently historicist in orientation, linking value with progressive tendencies. (This sort of perspective is why, according to Elijah Wald, pop music writers tend to elevate artists that weren’t very popular.) It’s a fun little irony that rock criticism, a genre born of the counter-cultural, defiant tendencies of the sixties, would come to reimpose the same aesthetic hierarchies of its stodgy older brother.

To close, I leave you with a tune by the band Sublime With Rome, a group singled out for vituperative dismissal in Caramanica’s piece. As epigones of the 90s band Sublime, they stand accused of the cardinal crime of derivativeness.

Electronic Irony (I)

… the truly revolutionary aspect of electronic music was the new relationship it made possible between composers and works. The composer of an electronic composition can produce a “score” exactly the way a painter produces a picture or a sculptor produces a statue: what is produced is a unique original “art object” rather than a set of directions for performance. And therefore, obviously, “score” is the wrong word for it, since a score is something written, and electronic music can dispense with writing. It created the possibility of a postliterate musical culture. It spelled, potentially, the beginning of the end of the culture of which this book is a history.  — Vol. V, 210

Electronic musical media freed the composer from the pen-and-paper paradigm dominant in Western music (at least in its more socially elite forms) for hundreds of years. In so doing, it undermined the very rationale of musical literacy, and — as RT makes clear and any GarageBand-using kid can attest — we are still living in the rubble. Making music, to many in the electronic age (and even more in the digital age), begins with samples, oscillators, wave forms, band-pass filters, envelopes and a variety of other means, not with score paper. And ironically, it was Babbitt, our paragon of hyper-literate “Ph.D. music” that helped to usher in this profound shift. RT goes on: “The means that Babbitt chose for protecting his purely literate domain from social mediation — namely, the electronic elimination of the performing ‘middle man’ — was precisely the means through which the need for literacy might be transcended” (210).

In hindsight, it is hard to deny the “revolutionary” aspect of electronic music, especially when we factor in popular music (after all, sampled hip-hop beats are really just new wine in the old musique concréte bottle, and before that, the electric guitar demonstrated to the world how expressively potent a manipulated electrical signal can be in the hands of a skilled musician). But while I acknowledge the paradigm-shifting importance of electronic media for the music world at large, I’m struggling to understand how truly revolutionary electronic media were for guys like Babbitt. Yes, it gave him complete dictatorial control over sound (a Cageian nightmare) and it cut out the “middle men” of actual human bodies, but electronics to Babbitt really just represented an intensification of the old notational paradigm, perhaps even its ne plus ultra. Wasn’t electronic music, in many ways, actually the pure embodiment of the Werktreue concept, a “musical object” that exists entirely as sound without the vexing inconvenience of other people and their interpretive whims? Both the score and the tape are, after all, objects. The fixity of a recording can be just as stable and permanent as the fixity of notes on a page. Wouldn’t Brahms have preferred this level of purity to the primitive technology of the score?

RT is right in pointing out the revolutionary potential of electronic music, but this interpretation was certainly not a given when these technologies were introduced. Electronic music had to leave the laboratory for its real revolutionary powers to be unleashed; it had to be embraced by those outside of the academy, heard on the radio, tinkered with in garages, danced to. The biggest irony of electronic music is not that it overturned the reign of literacy; it’s that a fundamentally asocial form would go on to influence virtually every aspect of global popular music, the most “social” of musical practices. Babbitt was attracted to electronics’ solitude and disembodied purity, but the rest of us have fallen in love with its unique abilities to bring people together.

(More on this in another post.)

Science Envy

Babbitt sought liberation … from the potential tyranny of taste when he tried … to make truth rather than beauty the criterion of artistic as well as scientific achievement. The measure of good music, like good science, would not be the pleasure that it gave, or the political tendency that it served, but rather the truth that is contained—objective, scientifically verifiable truth… (Vol. V, 156)

If one were to pinpoint the single theme that most dominates the first 200 pages of Volume 5, it would have to be the contentious issue of artistic freedom in the liberating but terrifying age of science. The act of music-making in the aftermath of WWII was indeed laden with heavy questions: What does it mean to be a composer in an era of imminent annihilation, when personal expression (not to mention existence) was just as ephemeral as the cherry blossoms over Nagasaki? And what use does beauty serve in such a world anyway?

Science had won the war, and many composers—reflecting the general cultural attitudes of the post-war period—were struck with an acute case of science envy. As RT’s passage above makes clear, beauty was a difficult objective for many to pursue in the zero-hour, not least because (as Adorno says) writing poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric. The empirical truths expressed through the musical vocabulary of total serialism (Boulez, Babbitt, et al.), a system of non pareil objective rigor, aimed to transcend the merely human, to strike at a more stable, lasting, and durable reality than fleeting beauty could afford.

Paradoxes abound. In some ways, total serialists espoused a rejection of the Self, that stable, subjective (and immanently vulnerable) wellspring of Romantic creativity. Boulez and Babbitt enacted self-loss through mathematics and rationality; rather than an arbitrary, personal mode of expression, one rooted in the biases of taste, they strove for purity and truth through the perceived universalism of numbers. However, as RT rightly points out, “Ph.D. music” in other ways represents the apex of authorial power and control in the Western musical tradition: rather than holding the self under erasure, it affirms the total freedom of the composer/music-scientist, freedom to create irrespective of whether listeners will like it or performers will play it.

This notion of freedom is a “political tendency” just like any other. Ironically, the science envy of post-war music—and the ideology of “purity” and “truth” it embraced—ended up being put to the service of Cold War politics.

(In closing, here are two of Babbitt’s greatest hits, the early Composition for Four Instruments (1948) and the pioneering electronic work, Ensembles for Synthesizer (1964).)


Discussion Thread #2: Adorno and Ortega y Gasset

RT pulls no punches when it comes to the work of T.W. Adorno. Indeed, he makes his opinion clear in the introduction that the Frankfurter is “preposterously overrated.” With his strong views in mind, the lead-up to the 20th century these last three volumes has been filled with taut anticipation. How is Prof. Taruskin going to grapple with the ideas and the legacy of Adorno, this paragon of “new musicology”?

Gingerly, it turns out. If you’re expecting a devastating repudiation, you might be disappointed. RT outlines some of Adorno’s big ideas and major works with a dispassionate approach that belies the stormy rhetoric of “preposterously overratedness.” (For example, see p.189, where he speaks of how “the influential German social philosopher” “felt” about Stravinsky.) It seems that his approach here is to not overtly take a side, giving Adorno his due insofar as his ideas have proved influential, but largely withholding judgment otherwise. His view of Adorno is perhaps most patent, in fact, in what is not said in the text. Frankfurt theory plays a puny role in the volume. By the numbers (according to the index), Adorno comes up on a mere 11 pages (out of 796). By contrast, José Ortega y Gasset, who tends to be relatively neglected in most musicological literature, appears on 27.

This omission is, in itself, significant. Just as Kant and Burke are the accepted aesthetic authorities for 18th century music, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche for 19th, Adorno has become, over the last 30 or so years, the poster-child philosopher for understanding 20th century music, particularly its social significance and political economy. During this time, “new musicology” has painstakingly deconstructed the canon, but in doing so, has appeared to canonize this fascinating, prickly, frustrating, and endlessly complex thinker. It’s an odd paradox: those Adornian ideas that have had the most currency in the discipline – namely his thoughts on the sociological agency of music, on aesthetics and musical meaning in the age of the “Culture Industry,” on the historical “truth” of music as social critique – are precisely where Adorno can be the most regressive, ethnocentric, and just plain snobby. There seems to be a lot of cherry-picking going on in Adorno reception: people accept the liberal political and cultural arguments that come from his work while ignoring his more ignoble claims (his thoughts on jazz are particularly egregious in this regard). Like a well-loved elderly relative who occasionally lets a bigoted comment slip (“oh, grandpa!”), we seem to be able to hold this cognitive dissonance together, admiring his many good qualities while gently admonishing his faults. It is peculiar, though, that the same scholarly movement (if you can call “new musicology” that) that has strove to bring respect and academic currency to the study of popular music also has the tendency to lionize a man who so infamously denigrated popular culture. Indeed, contradictions abound in Adorno’s place in musicology.

By privileging Ortega y Gasset, RT does a few things. Most pragmatically, he stays clear of the hornet’s nest of these contradictions, a debate in which he has, in other venues, vigorously taken part. More significantly, though, he subtly shifts the balance of power in 20th century historiography away from Germany. By signalling the 1920s as an aesthetic turning point (and the beginning of the “real” 20th century), he tilts our attention away from the problematics of Viennese atonality and nods instead to the hyper-rationalism of Stravinsky. Highlighting Ortega (a Spaniard) and neoclassicism (associated with Franco-Russian impulses) over the early-century composers, techniques, and thinkers that usually play the leading role in 20th century histories (read: Schoenberg, atonality/12-tone, and Adorno), RT makes a bold counterclaim to the “germanoromantocentric” biases that inform much of the conventional wisdom regarding this important period.

I think it’s a courageous and elucidating approach, but I anticipate many OHWM readers will feel otherwise. Adorno remains a delicate and invidious matter, in part because his writings are so dense and – let’s face it – often so totally inscrutable that it can be easy to think you know him, only to embrace and promulgate a misreading of his ideas. (I have been guilty of this in the past, alas; I’m a lot more skeptical of Adorno now, though my opinion of him is a lot better than RT’s.) I certainly wouldn’t want to instigate a screaming match here, but I’m curious: what role does Adorno play in your thinking, research, and teaching? How about Ortega y Gasset? And how do you think RT handled the ideas and influence of these two major thinkers?

Discussion Thread #1: Irony

The thread of irony that snakes its way through the volume strikes me as hugely significant and generally under-discussed in most histories of modern music. RT’s century, which begins in the twenties, is marked by this unstable relationship to the Romantic “Truth,” not by specific musical techniques per se. By placing aesthetic distance and cool irony as the true marker of the modernist mentality, RT susses out some of the major questions of music in the last century: what is music’s place in history, what is its relationship to truth, and what role does it play in society? These questions came under radical scrutiny in the twenties.

As a teacher, the issue of irony seems to come up often in discussions with students. Perhaps this is because, for many, irony is essentially the only musical mode they’ve been exposed to in the popular music of their lifetime. (Or at least sincerity that can easily come off as ironic, like Kurt Cobain.) In any case, students are excited to learn that this expressive mode has a history prior to the Sex Pistols. Neoclassicism also helps contextualize the tricky notion that aping the past in the present is more a reflection of today than it is of that imagined, usable past. (This topic links up to contemporary pop all too well.)

To generalize hugely, it seems to me that major epistemological shifts like this count more in the narrative of music history than progressive steps on the teleological scale of technical development. If tonality (and its disillusion) is the primary bellwether for music historiography, who’s to keep us from beginning the “20th century” with Liszt in the mid-19th century, or Wagner, or Mussorgsky? Schoenberg’s early atonal works or Debussy’s non-functional harmonies seem just as arbitrary a demarcation line for musical “modernism.” In fact, tonality is a highly unstable and short-lived value system to begin with; it seems that just as it comes to maturity, composers begin picking at its seams. What RT points out in the “Pathos is Banned” chapter, however, is a wholesale rethinking of what music can and should do (musical ends), not just an examination of structural/technical poiesis (musical means). (I imagine that Cage and the 1950s will be framed as similarly decisive as a point of historical rupture.) This shift, as Mark trenchantly observed, is still active today.

Listening to Webern

12-tone music (and atonality more generally) has a reception problem. On the one hand, the mathematical rigor of the compositional process (poiesis) lends it the elite prestige that all things “scientific” garner in the modern world. RT identifies this extreme focus on musical ends rather than means – high academic modernism’s “cult of difficulty” – as a “deliberate strategy… keeping the hostile crowd at bay” (IV, 738). Listeners may not like the music, but, understanding that its composition is akin to research in particle physics – in other words, recognizing that it’s way over their heads anyway – listeners can accept its “necessity.” One takes it at a concert much like one takes a dose of cod liver oil.

It’s fascinating to me how, out of all the “high modernist” art forms, atonality (especially 12-tone music) has been perhaps the most stubborn to absorption into the cultural bloodstream, at least in the concert-going world (movies are another question). Corporations display Kandinskys in their lobbies, yet Webern continues to arouse ire among subscribers in many an American concert hall. A hundred years later and it’s still controversial with audiences. Preoccupied with its “difficulty,” it’s easy for listeners to feel stupid and alienated; after all, it shouldn’t take a Ph.D. to listen to music.

This is deeply unfortunate. There is more to the Second Viennese School than pure poiesis, despite the fact that, as RT laments, “… the ‘esthetic’ aspect – the relationship between the music and its audience, or the impact the composer seeks to make on a hearer – is rarely addressed” (ibid). I recall my first concert experience with Webern (Oliver Knussen with the New World Symphony playing 5 Pieces, Op.10). Never mind its “difficulty,” this music was a sensual epiphany. Knussen lovingly and delicately presented us with five wildly, extravagantly flavored tiny morsels of sound, like rich and unusual chocolates in a box. Each bite was a universe of sonic sensations. After finishing, he turned to the audience and, with the playful naughtiness of a young boy sneaking a cookie, asked if we minded that he played the whole piece once again. We were all intoxicated with Webern.

In my company that evening was a friend who was, to say the least, highly skeptical going into the concert. A rock fan with little or no experience in classical music, she was mystified and fearful of the legendarily “difficult” reputation of the music. (In fact, she even had an excuse to bow out during intermission if her ears were intolerably assailed.) How did she take this performance of Webern? Let’s just say there’s now a CD or two between Tom Waits and Wilco in her music collection. Motivic unity be damned, she was mesmerized by the sheer, luxuriant sonic surface of it.

RT points out that, despite its reputation for onerousness, Webern’s music “lays everything bare.” Eschewing structural analysis for a moment, I’d like to look at one brief moment to illustrate the drastic immediacy of this music, an immediacy that, I think, is heightened by the extreme subtlety of his use of timbre. Tone rows and recurring motives are relatively easy to identify – the act of esthesis, when this is all you’re focusing on, is equivalent to investigating the music’s poiesis. But Webern, like his teacher, was a genius of timbral contrast and control. Since this element of musical sound is much harder to quantify than pitch relationships, it often goes unremarked. In the Five Pieces for Chamber Orchestra, Op.10, however, timbre appears as the primary expressive ingredient. (N.B.: Op.10 is a “free atonal,” not a 12-tone piece. This is a bad recording, but I cant’ find anything better on YouTube):

The whole thing is an intimate landscape of whirling, dynamic, kaleidoscopic sound, but turn to Mvt. 3 (beginning at 1:16) for my favorite example. The PPP opening, which combines mandolin and guitar tremolo with harp, celesta, and a deep, randomly-articulated bell, evokes something teeming, liquescent, and dimly crepuscular. A rumble of the bass drum at 1:36 (though faint in this recording) adds a viscous and chilling sheen to the unfolding sound-world. A muted horn, distant and haunting, rings out bell-like at 1:43. From here it’s all twittering and hushed movement, closing with the rustling wind of a snare drum roll (2:32). Robert Erickson memorably describes this movement as “flickering, hazy insect music.” (Sound Structure in Music, 166)

Actually listening to Webern is a very different experience than either reading about Webern or analyzing Webern’s scores. And it is here that Second Viennese atonality has a PR problem: its intense logic and formal complexity begs it to be read as a gnomic text, yet the way it sounds at its best moments – captivating, evocative, surprising, and chaotic – can be grasped without the aid of the score. All music is about sound, of course, but by fixating on structure and technique (poiesis) – its “difficulty” – at the expense of its sensual sonic surface, a strategy that RT is guilty of, even though he recognizes the bias, it’s easy to forget what a singularly bewitching sound world we’re dealing with. Close the score and listen to Webern – you might be surprised.

The Jesting Dodecaphonist

The persistent contrast between Schoenberg’s heavy content and its feather-light containers was perhaps the most vivid example of postwar irony to be found in all of modernist music. It gave his early twelve-tone music a crooked side that is not only useless to deny, but makes the music all the more genuinely a reflection of its time, all the more genuinely interesting, therefore, as a historical document, and all the more esthetically pleasing.   (Vol. IV, 692)

Stravinsky and Schoenberg represented two wildly divergent paths forward after the war. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t think highly of each others’ music, and the rancor over whose definition of “modernism” was the most true to history occasionally turned to outright mockery (Schoenberg referred to his competitor as “little Modernsky,” for example). Indeed, the cool and restrained neoclassicism championed by the Russian seemed miles apart from the red-hot, wild expressionism (or, to detractors, “romanticism”) of the Austrian. But in many ways the 12-tone technique was just as classicizing as Stravinsky’s neoclassicism, just as driven by the primacy of rationality over pathos, and just as fundamentally ironic in outlook.

Take the formal structures (“containers”) that characterize Schoenberg’s first full-scale 12-tone piece, Suite for Piano, Op.25. With a Präludium, Gavotte, Musette, Intermezzo, Menuett, and Gigue, we’re back in the territory of “Papa Bach’s” pedagogical keyboard works, a bizarre and incongruous fit for the extreme dissonance contained therein. (We’re also back to dance forms, which is another tasty irony considering the lack of motoric regularity in Schoenberg’s music.) As RT notes, these are patently (if not risibly) “feather-light” forms put to the service of one of the most extravagantly intellectualized compositional techniques ever devised. Why would Schoenberg, a la Stravinsky, turn back the clock to mine obsolete forms from the 18th century?

The movement titles in Op.25 are significant for a number of reasons. For one, they create a “classical” and “Apollonian” (read: rational and objective) contextual frame that assists the listener in fusing the poietic and esthetic dimensions of the music’s 12-tone underpinning. Since it’s difficult to “hear” the exacting order and mathematical elegance of a tone row, in other words, titles can belie the craggy and disruptive phenomenological surface, showing listeners that the apparent chaos is actually driven by a deep logic, the cold irrefutability of a mathematical proof. For example, imagine if “Musette” was titled, in the manner of pre-war Viennese fashion, “Manic Laugh Under a Blood Moon” – it would significantly alter how this creepy music is heard. “Musette” keeps it cool and dispassionate. (More on the poiesis/esthesis divide in another post.)

In addition – and this is a point about Schoenberg that doesn’t often seem to be discussed – the adoption of Baroque/Classical forms shows the composer poking gentle fun at his own 12-tone pretense. Take the “Menuett” movement, whose trio section unfolds in the form of a strict mirror canon. Contrapuntal exactitude is rendered absurd in an “emancipated dissonance” context, not that a listener would be able to tell anyway. This technique, which results in grotesquely jagged figuration, “shines such a garish spotlight on the contour inversion as to leave no doubt that the composer is in on the joke” (695). Or how about the “Musette” mentioned above, which references the traditional bucolic imagery of droning bagpipes with a recurring tritone (the tell-tale sign of an unreconstructed expressionist).

In on the joke, indeed.

Copland, Gershwin and Jazz

Some have complained that [Aaron Copland’s Piano Concerto] had no spiritual value, only animal excitement; but what else has jazz?  — Music critic (1927)

[George Gershwin is] the man who made an honest woman out of jazz. — Publicity statement (1930s)

Why did public and critical reception of the “jazzy” 1920s works of Aaron Copland and George Gershwin differ so profoundly, despite the seeming similarities between the two? Where Copland was excoriated for his appropriations of rhythmic syncopation and bluesy melodies, Gershwin was lionized for doing the same thing. What gives?

This teasing question in reception history provides the underlying structure to Ch.11. In this way – framing a perplexing question then parsing it out one historical argument and musical work at a time – RT writes this moment in American musical history almost in the form of a whodunit. This sort of structure generates its own telos: “sociostylistic” cues accumulate until the mystery busts open and the answer to our question is revealed…

Critics placed Copland and Gershwin on different points in the racially-tinged spectrum of high vs low art. Where Copland was seen to sully the good name of concert music by contaminating it with the lowly, “animalistic” sounds of jazz, Gershwin – in his elegant treatments of Tin Pan Alley forms that never strayed too far from their original – was perceived as the great redeemer of jazz by elevating it to the level of concert music. (A distinction also shared with Paul Whiteman, the bandleader who commissioned Rhapsody and Blue.) The messy “sociostylistic” problems of Jewish composers appropriating African-American forms for the consumption of predominantly WASP audiences was, indeed, a delicate dance that required extreme finesse to really “sell.” In this respect, Copland seemed to have had two left feet.