Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Tom Service on Lutosławski

It's Tuesday, so it must be time to see what Tom Service has chosen for his weekly symphony guide. This series, introducing us to fifty symphonies over the course of a year, has proven to be an interesting, useful and perhaps serviceable guide to the symphony. I'm doing my own personal self-administered seminar on the symphony which consists in doing a bit of reading and a lot of listening. As I mentioned before, I have completed listening to all the symphonies of Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart (well, almost, I skipped a few really early ones), Schubert, Bruckner, Mahler, Sibelius, and Shostakovich. And, of course, I have listened to those very few by Stravinsky (Symphony in C, Symphony in Three Movements, Symphonies of Winds and Symphony of Psalms) and the odd single examples by Berlioz (Symphonie fantastique) and Debussy (La Mer). Not done, by any means, but I have heard quite a few symphonies!

But I always turn to Tom's weekly article with interest, because he comes up with examples that I tend to miss, like this week's discussion of Lutosławski's Symphony No. 3, written between 1973 and 1983. I have crossed paths witLutosławski a couple of times. When I was an undergraduate at McGill in the 1970s he gave a talk, much of which was on his ideas about aleatory technique. And later, in 1988, when I was also there, he was at Salzburg conducting the premiere of his violin concerto, but sadly, I missed that concert.

Tom concludes his article by saying that the Symphony No. 3 is the "most convincing of post-tonal symphonies." It sounds good, but like so much that Tom says, I am not quite sure what he is trying to say. Is it convincing because it is post-tonal? What does that mean? In any case, go and read the whole article, with its well-chosen clips. I'll wait.

Let's have a listen to the whole symphony. Here is the premiere recording with the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of the composer:

There are some interesting passages in Tom's discussion, such as this one, which lends support to my frequent attempts to detach the music from the composer's biography:
Lutosławski (who died in 1994) always resisted attempts to connect his life’s work with the circumstances of is creation, either in terms of his personal life or the broader context of the precipitous Polish politics through which he lived.
There are some inaccuracies in the essay, such as in this rather over-stuffed sentence:
Lutosławski’s unique musical grammar of sections of “ad libitum” or “controlled aleatoricism” (sections in which individual players are rhythmically un-coordinated, but in which the pitch field they have to play, and the character, and the overall affect of the music, are defined by the composer – in fact, there’s more “control” here than “chance”, but the idea of a musical individualism, of a multitude of separate voices as opposed to a mono-dimensional musical collectivism still stands), contrasting with “ad battuta” – conventionally defined, obey-the-conductor passages.
There is nothing "unique" by the mid-1970s about aleatory passages. John Cage had been doing things like this, but so had a host of others including Stockhausen and Xenakis. By 1978 even I had written a piece that was fundamentally aleatory. Have a look at the Wikipedia article for an overview.

Tom's piece is an excellent, enthusiastic introduction for the general reader, but don't rely on him for too much in the way of detail.

By the way, why is it that only the British press seems capable of doing a decent educational series on classical music? What with all the promoters like Greg Sandow suggesting this and that strategy (which usually boil down to presenting the music more like pop music) why isn't anyone in North America simply doing the obvious: running a series of articles that educate the public? Must be too elitist! But The Guardian is hardly an example of an elitist venue in the UK. Just another mystery, I guess.


Christopher Culver said...

I believe that Lutoslawski's aleatorism is fairly individual within the 1960s and 1970s modernist scene because he precisely notates all pitches, and these pitches are from carefully chosen 12-tone chords. While other composers used aleatoric writing to generate a new kind of form or unexpected harmonies, Lutoslawski was chiefly concerned with producing a certain kind of texture. The result is that in spite of the freedom one might expect ad libitum passages to provide, recordings of pieces from Lutoslawski's middle period do not noticeably differ from each other

Bryan Townsend said...

During the 1960s I was playing rock music, but during the 1970s I was both playing and composing (modernist) classical music. A whole host of composers were doing a variety of different things from the completely open improvisation on a concept of people like LaMont Young, to the notes selected by chance procedures of John Cage, to the somewhat different methods of Morton Feldman and Earle Brown. There was often a movement from more open, graphic scores, to more notated scores. I wrote a piece in 1978 that combined some graphic notations with other precisely written ones. There are a host of examples by people like Leo Brouwer. In fact, thinking back, just about every composer I knew during the 1970s was writing at least some music that was partly indeterminate or aleatoric! I remember when I attended Lutoslawski's talk in the latter 1970s thinking that the whole dispute over aleatoric music was rather passé already.

John Howley said...

I am very new to The Music Salon and am fascinated by the site. I am a painter and would like to add one thought regarding aleatoric or improvised elements in music/visual art. I believe that the use of impulse/s in writing music or painting or free poetry has to come from elements of chance and can not be altogether predetermined.

Bryan Townsend said...

Welcome to the Music Salon. I see you are from Down Under! That is an excellent point. John Cage, famous for his indeterminism, actually allowed his performers no freedom: the notes were sometimes chosen with chance procedures, but then were to be played as written. Other composers use graphic notation to leave the window open. In other cases, all the notes were chosen, but how they combined in performance was left open. This was my approach and that of quite a few other composers.

So, even during the wild and wooly 60s and 70s, there was a conflict between the composer's role and the performer's. Composers usually like to specify what happens as that is bound up with authority (the quality of being an author). On the other hand, the impulse to freedom, is one that some performers liked to exercise. In jazz the performers have prevailed, but in classical music, it has usually been the other way around.