No one could possibly have foreseen […] that the Octet was destined to influence composers all over the world in bringing the latent objectivity of modern music to full consciousness by frankly adopting the ideals, forms, and textures of the preromantic era.   — Aaron Copland, about Stravinsky (1941)

As RT points out, nothing is truly innocent of history, least of all instances of artistic revival masquerading as the real thing, “on its own terms.” This critique was at the core of his indictment of the “authentic” performance practice movement, and it makes an appearance in his discussion of neoclassicism as well: Stravinsky’s 18th century affectations tell us much more about the 1920s than the 18th century.

The “Pathos is Banned” chapter resonates uncannily with a similar conundrum we face in the world of popular music today, though with some pronounced differences. This position was quite recently summed up by music critic Simon Reynolds in a piece from this Sunday’s NYT, “The Songs of Now Sound a Lot Like Then.” Reynolds examines the “atemporality” that marks much of the pop music from the last decade, claiming that – short of auto-tune – we don’t really have any distinct, identifiable sounds or genres that define our era, nothing “that screams, ‘It’s 2011!'” Cataloging the various styles that helped to date and define the pop cultures of decades past, he goes on to write: “The fading of newness and nowness from pop music is mystifying.” Here are a couple of his examples of throwbackism in today’s pop, from Cee-Lo Green and Adele:

The prefix “neo-,” like the neoclassicism of yesteryear, has become synonymous with atavism, and there are no shortages of “neos” in today’s pop. I don’t buy Reynolds’s argument that there is literally nothing differentiating this music from its earlier models, but it’s hard to contest that “pop eats itself” in 2011 is less about synthesis, for many, than it is about crafting historically “authentic” replicas of music from the 60s through the 90s, down to the superannuated technologies used in its production. On this point, “atemporality” in pop differs considerably from Stravinsky in the 20s. Indeed, as RT makes clear, there is nothing authentically “classical” about Stravinsky’s neoclassical music: his harmonic palette, counterpoint, and voice leading would have been impossible in the time of Mozart. For Stravinsky to adopt an “atemporal” stance a la Cee-Lo Green, he would have just written a Mozart symphony. No, neoclassicism gestures toward the past while remaining uncompromisingly modern, in the sense that it is clearly a product of its post-Great War European moment.

Today’s “fading of newness” emerges from a very different set of cultural and historical circumstances, but it’s just as much a marker of our present moment as the Octet was of 1923. Perhaps what “screams 2011” is indeed its atemporality and fragmentation. (This gets into some postmodern territory, of course: how can we forget Frederic Jameson’s prognostication that “we seem increasingly incapable of fashioning representations of our own current experience.”) And just as it’s not entirely mysterious why Stravinsky made his move when he did (as this chapter virtuosically demonstrates), today’s throwbackism is, despite Reynolds’s head-scratching, entirely explicable from a variety of perspectives, many of which Reynolds goes on to list.

Is today’s pop music atavism indeed as “mystifying” as it might at first seem?


Béla Bartók is not just known as a composer, of course. He also plays a prominent role in the history of ethnomusicology.

In fitting with the transitional tendencies of the 1900-1920 period, a moment that served as a hinge between Romantic aesthetics and the “real” twentieth century, Bartók was not given entirely to exoticized representations of folk music – a Romantic compositional trait – but neither was he a fully-formed ethnomusicologist in the modern sense of the term. (Indeed, the field as we know it today did not exist then.) While concerned with documenting the oral traditions of his native lands, he was also interested in hunting for material that could then be synthesized into new music. Bartók’s is a very new sort of relationship with folk sources, in fact, one that attempts to both capture a foreign music in all of its raw “authenticity” (including some of the earliest real field recordings we have – see picture below), but also to put it to good use in the creation of a national, not to mention personal, style. In this way, Bartók could be simultaneously rooted in native folk history while also being uncompromisingly “modern” (in the broader, cosmopolitan sense of the term).

This approach was amazingly prescient. By synthesizing the literate Western tradition with the music of variously-defined others, composers could walk a middle path in an increasingly binarized field of musical production, a field that became even more split with the meteoric rise of popular music. Neither fully academically modernistic, nor “authentically” folksy or popular, this stylistic path is betwixt and between. Indeed, there is a bit of Bartók in Gershwin’s operatic evocations of 1920s Charleston; Messiaen’s ornithological fieldwork (really a form of zoomusicology); Takemitsu’s dabblings with shakuhachi and biwa; Lou Harrison’s “American gamelan”; Reich’s visits to Ghana; Bolcom’s poly-stylistic mashes; and Golijov’s klezmer and Afro-Cuban influenced pieces, among countless examples. Indeed, Bartók seems to have inaugurated the era of the composer-ethnomusicologist.



Emancipation of the (Rhythmic) Dissonance

RT’s juicy analyses of works from Schoenberg’s earliest period of “emancipated dissonance” are focused and compelling in their own right, but best of all – as Mark mentioned in a recent point – they challenge a certain oversimplified historiographical narrative that most of us, at one point or another, were inculcated with, namely that Schoenberg represents a clean and historically (or should I say “historicistically”) necessary break with tonality. Schoenberg’s music is “difficult to understand,” but not because his syntax is from Mars; rather, it’s the same thing we’ve been dealing with for a while now (motivic saturation) only pushed into overdrive. Because RT doesn’t concern himself with proving Schoenberg’s place as the tradition-destroyer (rather the contrary), we are left to focus on other often neglected elements of Schoenberg’s music, such as the fact that functional equality between the notes represented for the composer a musical portrayal of an explicitly spiritual notion of Oneness.

How does one really assess the perceived “difficulty” of Schoenberg’s music? Most writers – RT among them – focus on the way the composer manipulated pitch. This is understandable considering the notoriously meticulous and mathematical processes Schoenberg developed to structure pitch relationships. However, it seems that there are other factors that play just as prominent a role in the general perception of him as a “difficult” composer, factors that aren’t frequently mentioned in discussions of this “atonal” music. I’m thinking particularly of Schoenberg’s rhythmic sensibilities.

At least to my ears, it doesn’t take long for dissonance to establish a new norm while listening to the pieces RT analyzes here. At a certain point, abstruse harmonic configurations and jagged motifs lose their bite, especially when the texture is homogeneously “atonal” (indeed, in these contexts a major chord can sound as piercing, strident, and unexpected as a train whistle in the dead of night). However, it’s much harder for me ever to become acclimated to his rhythmic language. Take the opening to the Five Pieces (p. 343): the rhythms skitter across the sonic field in a herky-jerky spasm, and the whole movement is filled with starts and stops, non-intuitive accent patterns, rhythmic stabs, tempo shifts, etc. Whenever I listen to this set (and the early piano pieces RT analyzes), it’s the rhythms that I find most arresting, strange, and “difficult.”

Leonard Meyer talked about one of the major challenges in the reception of avant-garde music being a general lack of “motor empathy” in listeners. If we can’t feel the temporal ordering of the music, if rhythm fails to corral our motor energies and implant in us an understandable and physically identifiable model of movement, it’s hard to really empathize with it. Schoenberg aimed to dislocate and confound in the pieces analyzed here; indeed, it seems that he actively wanted to alienate, and rhythm worked toward this goal just as much as pitch.

But modernism is not synonymous with affronts to “motor empathy,” of course. Berg understood this well. So did Bartók, the next major non-second-Viennesese composer we meet in these pages. While getting into some gnarly harmonic territory in his music, rarely does the Hungarian venture into the sort of non-intuitive, jarring rhythmic world so typically of mature Schoenberg. Rhythm in Bartók can be very difficult, but it’s rarely “difficult.” This is one of the many factors that accounts for Bartók’s relative popularity in concert halls (I just saw Salonen conduct Bluebeard at Disney Hall a few months ago, in fact). His music is a lot easier to feel.

In fact, it’s even capable of being adapted for drum and bugle corps and performed at football stadiums:

(A Schoenberg field-show for drum corps is inconceivable, though I didn’t search YouTube for fear that I might actually find something.)

Maximalism and Transcendentalism

The question of how to slice and dice the history of western music into a narrative that is stylistically coherent, historiographically intelligible, aesthetically prepossessing, and ideologically “usable” is, of course, a perennial concern to those working in a discipline whose job it is (in part) to define such a narrative. As Mark just pointed out in his last point, the conventional wisdom regarding the flow of music history more often than not centers itself around the technical, particularly how technical means get more and more complex with time. This teleological strain of music historiography has dominated the field for most of its history (for more, see Allen’s singular Philosophy of Music History, particularly the section on “organicism” [in Must-Reads]), giving us the familiar “chunks” that all of us learn in undergraduate history sequences today (Middle Ages, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, etc.).

One of the things I’ve found most refreshing about Taruskin’s telling of music history so far is his willingness to confound the standard historical periodization, eschewing the purely chronological and the purely technical in favor of developing parallel, alternative narratives based on a range of considerations that fall outside of the details of the musical texts themselves, including philosophical preoccupations (aesthetics, philosophy of history), political ideologies (nationalism), economics (commodification of music), sociological aspects (sacralization of the arts, etc), and more. This is especially true of Volume IV, where the first half is devoted to developing two new categories of thinking about early twentieth century music that fall outside of the standard account: maximalism and transcendentalism. Since we were running out of steam a couple months ago and didn’t post nearly as much as I had hoped to on the likes of Stravinsky, Ives, Scriabin, and Messiaen, it’s worth taking a moment to return to these central organizing categories now.

Maximalism is an interesting and revealing interpretive window through which to view Mahler, Strauss, early Stravinsky (“aristocratic maximalism”) and the like, for it implies a certain liminal element, a striving for extremes of expression and the outer boundaries of the stylistic code. True, this category fits more comfortably within what we understand as “Romantic,” while at the same time portending its dissolution. Like mannerism, however, maximalism is liminal both in its propensity to embrace the extremes and also, in a more Turnerian sense, in its transitional function. Indeed, the ends of one style very easily blurs into the beginnings of another.

Transcendentalism likewise plays with a certain limit concept, namely the bounds of humans as spiritual beings. And just as maximalism deals with pushing against the thresholds of what the common practice musical code could bear, the transcendental musical mode rubs up against the limits of Being to suggest the supra-temporal, supra-corporeal, and supra-rational.

The wonderful thing about a felicitously chosen metaphor, a spot-on musical analysis, or any other successful descriptive strategy for talking about music is its ability to “kindle” new understandings (Lawrence Kramer’s word, not amazon’s). This is true for broad historiographical categories as well. Placing Strauss and Mahler into the same camp makes a lot of intuitive sense; it doesn’t really cut against expectations. But uniting composers as disparate as Scriabin, Ives, Schoenberg, and Messiaen under the “transcendental” label kindles a very new sort of understanding, at least for this reader. It is revealing that both Scriabin and Ives went to their graves with grandly transcendental projects unfinished; the vastness of their ambitions, it seems, was paralyzingly daunting even for these immense talents. In attempting to transcend this ultimate limit through musical sound (and failing), the late-Romantic conceit of Weltanschauungsmusik was punctured. Such a transcendental project was, in the end, circumscribed by its own set of limits, and the “modernism” that began in the 1920s was in some ways an attempt to reimpose, through technical strong-arming, the limits that were breached (or at least threatened) by the Thanatos of Romanticism. In Nietzschian terms, the Dionysian, limit-shattering impulse of maximalism and transcendentalism (itself a form of maximalism), by pointing out the impossibility of such a lofty project, led to an “Apollonian” embrace of limits.

(Messiaen is the great anomaly of this scheme, and perhaps of 20th century music as a whole. Rather than push through any limits of the code, he just invented a new one, doggedly following his own sweetly sublime musical path for some fifty years after Auschwitz made poetry impossible.)

In short, I find a lot to admire in the guiding categories of the first half of the volume. Did you find this organizational schema compelling, or better yet, did it kindle a new understanding that usefully augments what you know (or think you know) about early twentieth century music?

We’re Back

After a sleep-deprived academic quarter, Mark and I are skidding into the summer exhausted but pumped to be returning to the TC. It is now official: half of our writing team has a Ph.D.! (But don’t go expecting posts to be that much more trenchant and deep or anything.) Despite projections when we launched the blog, Mark has scaled the doctoral summit in advance of completing the Challenge. Congratulations, fellow traveler!

So, it’s back to business. Beginning this week, we’ll be returning to our original weekly posting schedule, and we’ll be continuing with Vol. IV p.300. We’re also going to be returning to the Must-Reads list for some much-needed updates; if you have any suggestions, be sure to let us know.

Thank you, readers, for your patience and understanding during our hiatus. It’s good to be back.

Let the Challenge commence!

The Ten Greatest Composers

NYT classical music critic Anthony Tommasini’s recent article and videos have been making the rounds the last couple weeks now, so I’ll keep the description brief: Mr. Tommasini, much to the delight (and ire) of music fans, has ventured to rank the top 10 greatest composers of all time. I was a bit shocked, and dare I say even a little offended, when I stumbled upon the list last month, but Tommasini is just as skeptical of his own project, going to great lengths to remind readers that this is merely an “intellectual exercise,” and not an attempt to establish any sort of absolute hierarchy. The response has been extraordinary (866 comments so far on the article alone).

There’s something so compelling about lists. Perhaps it appeals to our urge to categorize, rank, and compare, even if what we’re comparing is fundamentally uncomparable (how can one call the B Minor Mass “greater” than “The Rite of Spring,” for instance?). In this sense, making a list of the ten greatest is nothing more than a game, but as Tommasini points out, games are only fun when the participants take them seriously. After painful deliberation, evaluating versatility, technical command, reception, influence, and a range of other factors, here’s what he came up with:

(1) Bach (2) Beethoven (3) Mozart (4) Schubert (5) Debussy (6) Stravinsky (7) Brahms (8) Verdi (9) Wagner (10) Bartok

In the spirit of the game, I thought the TC could get in on the action and offer our own lists of the ten greatest. So, without further ado, I’ll get the ball rolling; please post your lists (or your criticisms of Tommasini’s project) to the comments. My top-10 is tilted more towards the “influence” part of the equation, and it’s absolutely killing me that I didn’t have room for Messiaen, Schubert, Bartok, Brahms, and Sibelius, but here goes (drumroll, please..):

(1) Beethoven (2) Bach (3) Wagner (4) Schoenberg (5) Mozart (6) Debussy (7) Stravinsky (8) Chopin (9) Cage (10) Monteverdi

Stravinsky and Heavy Metal

I played “Bleed” by Meshuggah to my dad, who’s a massive fan of Stravinsky, and he asked me “How can you possibly listen to such tripe?” This pissed me off, because I strongly believe that metal and classical are 2 very very very closely related genres. In fact, some classical is heavier than most metal. I wish he’d see the similarities.  — M, on Yahoo Answers forum

I stumbled upon this post in a forum and couldn’t help but smile. Discovering a masterpiece of early-century musical modernism through the Swedish extreme metal act Meshuggah might not be the most orthodox path to a lifelong interest in classical music, but this kid is in no way alone. As a matter of fact, a Sony Masterworks reissue of a mid- 70’s recording of the Rite with Pierre Boulez was, at the age of 14, my first “classical” music CD purchase. Why this piece? And why did I interrupt my steady diet of Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains in order to listen to this thin, bespectacled Russian? One word: Metallica.

In the mid-90s, Metallica began citing “The Rite of Spring” as one of their major influences in rock and guitar magazines. (Right alongside Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden.) After this surprising recommendation, record stores across the country started getting scraggly-haired kids inquiring about some dude named Stravinsky. I’m sure I’m not the only person who went to the CD racks hungry for the sounds of this proto-heavy metal wizard. And he even wrote music about a virgin sacrifice – how hardcore!

It may seem risible to compare Stravinsky to Slayer, but heavy metal music has a long and distinguished history of borrowing from classical music virtuosity. (Robert Walser’s book documents this in droves.) The extreme complexity of certain metal song structures, along with their emphasis on musicianship, rhythmic density, unusual modes (thrash and death metal love to dabble in Locrian and Phrygian), and sounding “primal” aren’t far off from this masterpiece of Franco-Russian fauvism. Just as Stravinsky “maximalized” his unique blend of modernist techniques in the Rite, metal is a rhythmic and timbral maximalization of standard rock signifiers: make it faster, more distorted, and louder than its rock predecessors, and you’ve got heavy metal.

But beyond the topical observations and the passing similarities of subject matter (ritual sacrifice seems to be a timeless theme), “M” from the Yahoo Answers boards might be on to something. Taruskin writes of the “Sacrificial Dance” movement of the Rite: “More than in any earlier number, the metric processes of the ‘Sacrificial Dance’ are ‘mosaic,’ concretized in specific, discrete, and (above all) minuscule musical ‘tesserae’… And he left the articulation of the irregularly spaced downbeats his sequences of tesserae elicited to the most elemental force of all – to volume alone, as expressed by the bass instruments and percussion, especially the timpani, which in this dance achieve the status of a terrifying, buffeting force of nature.” (IV, 184) 14-year old metalheads, here’s what Prof. Taruskin is talking about (complete with appropriately dark, trippy visuals):

This sort of mosaic rhythmic structure is common in extreme metal: take a “riff”; offset it by some unpredictable, odd breaks; mix up the time signature to throw the audience off your scent; bang some drums, make some unholy noise, and voila! In fact, that’s exactly what Meshuggah’s doing in “Bleed”: here’s a video of the band’s guitarists playing the opening riff and discussing how it works.

Great ear, M! Maybe you’ve got a future in musicology…

Debussy and Japan

Music is the silence between notes. — Claude Debussy

It could easily be a stanza from Basho (or at least a snippet from Cage’s zen-inspired lectures).

In La Mer, Debussy drew inspiration from the famous Edo-period woodblock print by Hokusai showing match-stick boats being tossed violently between monstrous waves. It’s a striking, kinetic, tumultuous image; it’s also highly naturalistic and, in a quintessentially Japanese way, defined as much by its negative space as by the turbulent action depicted. Debussy even went as far as to include a part of this image on the cover of the 1st edition of the score (below).

Debussy’s fascination with the East, particularly Japan and Indonesia, seems to be of a different sort than the exoticized thrill that surrounded much of the 19th century’s engagement with “the Orient.” Indeed, Debussy’s aesthetic orientation resonated deeply with the music and visual arts of Japan and, although to my knowledge the composer never attempted a style japon, his “glue-less” musical language bears striking similarities to the traditional Japanese arts.

Much of Debussy’s music eschews forward-thrusting, teleological development in favor of a static, sensual present. He courted stillness in a way that rubbed up against the maximalist tendencies of some of his (non-Gallic) contemporaries. In Japanese, this sensibility towards space is called ma (間), and can be seen everywhere from ukiyoe woodprints to garden design, flower arranging (ikebana) to shakuhachi music. It was a sensibility that Debussy shared.

In addition, the composer was exquisitely sensitive to tone color; a piece like La Mer employs a broad, subtle timbral palette that is, in many ways, much more spatial/environmental than structural. This too has an analog in Japanese music. The shakuhachi honkyoku tradition, for example, is carefully attuned to the aesthetics of “the single tone.” Rather than focusing on the relational “glue” binding phrases and sections within each honkyoku piece, players focus on sound itself as the most important single parameter of the music. This attitude is best summed up by the adage ichion joubutsu (一音成仏), “with one sound, one attains Buddha-consciousness.” In other words, the sound’s the thing, not the syntax. This idea probably would have resonated with Debussy, who once remarked that he loved development sections during symphony concerts because they gave him an opportunity to go out and enjoy a cigarette.

[To give you a sense of the timbral richness and variety of the shakuhachi, I’ll close with a video of one of my favorite honkyoku pieces, shika no tone (“The distant cry of deer”), performed by the masters Aoki Reibo and Yamaguchi Goro.]

Representations of “Nature” in Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony

[It’s been a while since we’ve posted a longer, essay-style piece so I thought I’d make another contribution to the genre to ring in the new year. Although Sibelius was folded into the last few pages of Vol. III, the first two decades of the 20th Century were his moment. I hope readers won’t mind this little backtrack.]

Sibelius’s music is all Nature.

– T. W. Adorno[1]

It is impossible to engage with the scholarly and critical literature on the music of Jean Sibelius without quickly running headlong into the idea of “Nature.” During the composer’s life (1865–1957) and all the way to the present, “Nature” has remained a pervasive category in the way people listen to and analyze his music, a fact based on a host of diverse and sometimes contradictory factors. Indeed, the terms “Nature” and “Natural” are often bandied about in Sibelius criticism and scholarship with such a degree of promiscuity as to render them facile and, in many contexts, meaningless, since nature in music is hardly a self-evident, stable category of phenomenological experience or theoretical analysis. For every writer, in other words, nature is something different. In his famously (and characteristically) dismissive remarks, Adorno employs “Nature” as simply a byword for the rustic simple-mindedness and Romantic naïveté he believed made the music of Sibelius so decidedly sub-par. For others, “Nature” refers to a form of musical iconicity of “nature-ness” and all that we associate with the concept (sublimity, profundity, fecundity, power, etc.). For others still, Sibelius is “natural” because he is an exotic cousin of the European family, an outsider from a peripheral, frigid nation that speaks a bizarre language. (Surely, someone who could rattle off a word like työllistymään is closer to nature than denizens of the modern, industrialized world.)

Continue reading “Representations of “Nature” in Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony”