Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Most Audacious Composition of the 20th Century

The title of this post is itself a most audacious claim, is it not? After all, if there is one thing true about 20th century composition it is that it consists of wave after wave of composers and performers trying to outdo one another for sheer audacity. The reason for this lies in the ideology behind the notion of modernism and the avant-garde. Art must be progressive, that is to say, each new composition must be truly new in some significant way and that has usually been interpreted as new in technique. This approach really began with the New German School of Liszt and Wagner in the mid-19th century, but it steadily accelerated in the 20th century and fewer and fewer composers were able to resist it. Perhaps the last hold-out in Western Europe was Jean Sibelius and he found his ability to compose slipping away by the mid-1920s after which he wrote no more large-scale works. One of the most important figures in the progressivism of 20th century compositional technique was Arnold Schoenberg who arrived at his final method of composition with twelve tones--serialism--by 1923. I would speculate that the fact that this coincides with Sibelius ceasing to compose might not be entirely a coincidence!

Historian Richard Taruskin captures some important aspects of modernism in music by referring to it as "maximalism". More and more, once the traditional structures were broken down and cast aside, the one sure path to the future for most composers was greater and greater and greater complexity. I'm not talking so much about length or the sheer size of the orchestra, both those were well under way in the 19th century with the operas of Wagner and symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler. No, the complexity extended to the saturation of harmonic space with acceptable harmonies containing not just three or four notes, but seven or even ten! The degree of dissonance was constantly being increased. When Schoenberg finally came upon a way of setting aside the entire concept of consonance, new ways of structuring music had to be found. Again, it was always in the direction of greater and greater complexity and ways were found to structure tone rows, those building blocks of twelve-tone music, that involved complex kinds of symmetry. New and complex vocabulary was also invented so that we can talk about mysterious things like "hexachordal combinatoriality" and be talking about a piece of music, not mathematics!

These trends just went on and on to ever higher and higher levels of complexity. That wasn't the only thing that was happening, there was also the greater inclusion of new kinds of sounds, more percussion instruments and the use of new performing techniques. But the basic trend was always toward greater complexity. You start to see the problem, I think? Just as if you throw all the colors on the canvas and mix them together, you always end up with greyish-brown, if you constantly have a high level of dissonance combined with great rhythmic complexity, all orchestral music starts to sound a bit the same. Then what do you do? People like Karlheinz Stockhausen just kept adding more: by the late 1950s and early 60s he was writing enormously complex and dissonant music for three and four separate orchestras.

Ok, that's the back story. Now I will tell you how I ran across what I think is the most audacious piece of the 20th century. As an undergraduate at McGill in the mid-70s I would sometimes go to the listening library during a free period and just try and listen to some new stuff. I would wander randomly down the shelves and grab a few discs that looked like they might be interesting. Usually they would be pieces of newer music because that was a special interest of mine at the time. I don't recall much of what I would listen to, but this would be pretty typical:

  • Ligeti
  • Boulez
  • Stockhausen
  • Nancarrow
As I only had forty minutes or so, I would often just put on the beginning and if something didn't grab me pretty quickly, I would move on to the next disc. Let's recreate the experience. First some Ligeti, Continuum for harpsichord:

Not a well-known piece, but one I was listening to at the time. Next is an excerpt from Le Marteau sans Maitre by Pierre Boulez:

Here is Gruppen for three orchestras and three conductors by Stockhausen:

Notice that the complexity level is very high for all these pieces--and if you study the scores, you will just see more complexity! But this complexity was not just restricted to big orchestral music, as we saw with the harpsichord piece. One composer managed to find a way to create music for piano that was simply too complex to be performed and he did it by directly cutting piano rolls. Here is a piece by Conlon Nancarrow:

So imagine me in the library, listening to some or part of various pieces and then, I put this on, Drumming by Steve Reich:

In a context where EVERYTHING is designed for a great degree of complexity, this is simply astonishing. I was bracing myself for -- what? And then this, a single beat on a drum? Honestly, I nearly fell off my chair. You see, doing just what everyone else is doing, but just a little more, or doing it in a different medium is just not all that audacious, now is it? But if everyone else is writing fiendishly difficult music using hexachordal combinatoriality and you go out there and hit a little drum with a little stick, well, that's audacious! I'm sorry I can't put up the version I was listening to, on Deutsche Grammophon, but it is not on YouTube. Another audacious thing is that the whole piece is one hour and twenty-four minutes long, divided in four parts. The first part is nothing but those little drums and the development of one simple rhythm. Then he does it all over again with marimbas, then with xylophones and then puts them all together. Simple. And, to my mind, absolutely devastating to the musical aesthetic that says that the only road forward is to keep adding layers of complexity.

There are rare times in music history when all should be swept aside and composers need to return to the absolute fundamental basis of music. That was what Steve Reich was doing in 1970 when he wrote this piece, the most audacious composition of the 20th century.


cloudpine said...

Fantastic Bryan, just wonderful! I don't know where you fit all your wisdom!

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks so much cloudpine! And welcome to the Music Salon. If I do have a bit of wisdom, I think it mostly comes from forty-six years of being a practical musician.

Nathan Shirley said...

"if you throw all the colors on the canvas and mix them together, you always end up with greyish-brown"

Very well said.

I'm not sure I would give Reich quite as much credit however. To me minimalism was simply a reaction. ANY reaction would have been better. From time to time some of the minimalists stumbled upon a gem, but for the most part they still suffer from the exact same problem as the majority of composers of the time... they are afraid to put aesthetics 1st, in its rightful place. They are too concerned with their self image, the need to stand out. This is what fashion is all about, not art.

Most people might say minimalism tends to all sound the same too.

Bryan Townsend said...

Nathan, thanks so much for pushing back on my claims. I think the context in which I first heard Drumming contributed a lot to the impact it made on me, which I was trying to get across in the post. I was and still am impressed at the courage it must have taken to take such a radical step. And to bring off an hour and a half composition with such restricted means.

But I fully take your point about minimalism. I'm afraid nearly all 20th century composition falls prey to some extent to the 'fashion' model. I ran across this analysis of 20th century modernism in a large history of art by Paul Johnson in which he cites Picasso as being a good example of a 'fashion' modernist.

But that being said, I tend to regard Steve Reich as being in a different class than the other minimalists such as Phil Glass. I think that Reich tries to come to grips with some fundamental musical principles. Just how significant he is, only time will tell.

What do you think of his string quartet Different Trains?

Nathan Shirley said...

Yes I think Picasso and Reich share at least a few things in common.

Every now and then I hear a piece by Reich that really catches my attention, some very nice stuff from time to time. Overall though, he and Glass are about the same to me (glass has a good harmonic progression from time to time).

I hate to say it, but I find Different Trains not only pretentious, but downright obnoxious. Maybe as someone who grew up hearing 'sampled' music regularly (industrial music and all), I heard Different Trains in a different light?

Julius Eastman is probably my favorite of the minimalists. He didn't write much as far as I know, but what he did write is certainly on the better end of the minimalist spectrum. Really I'm just not especially crazy about that genre, a bit like trance music.

The best minimalist piece ever??

Bryan Townsend said...

I think my favorite Reich is Eight Lines/Octet and the Music for 18 Instruments. I think I know what you mean about Different Trains, though I find it aesthetically interesting.

I will look into Julius Eastman and the clip you sent!

Nathan Shirley said...

Yes those are certainly two of his better works I've heard. I slightly prefer his Triple Quartet, if only because it's one of his darker pieces.

Still it all has this 'soundscape' quality, perhaps better suited to the background of a movie or video game than to the concert hall. That's not really to put it down though, and only my personal opinion of course.

Augustine said...

This might just be a reflection of my growing up in Ghana, where I heard excellent drumming on an almost-daily basis, but I don't understand the hype about the Reich piece.

Bryan Townsend said...

Ghana is certainly the place to hear great drumming. In fact, Steve Reich went there to study with a master-drummer. I'm sure mine is a minority opinion, but I think that Drumming is fascinating for what it refused to do: no more dissonance and no more hidden complexity. Just audible processes. At the time, this was a very radical step.