Sunday, September 13, 2015

Retro Record Review # 6: Masterworks of the 20th Century

This collection was just released this year, but I am going to call this a retro record review because the music was largely composed between the 1940s and the 1970s and the recordings date from the 1960s and 1970s. This is a cross-section of avant-garde music as it was when I was an undergraduate. The ideology is high modernism as you will see. Here is the front cover:

And back, so you can see the contents:

You can't quite see it, but in the purple section at the bottom it says that this is distributed by "Sony Music Entertainment" which makes me think of this:

Well, no, I don't think you will be greatly entertained by these discs. Some few perhaps. Like those old shows from the 60s that were trying to imagine what the future would look like in 50 to 100 years, most of the music on these discs is attempting to envision the future of music. Now, forty-some years later, how did they do?

The Charles Ives disc of the Piano Sonata No. 2, the "Concord" Sonata, which was composed between 1911 and 1915, lies outside of the time period of the rest. It is holding up pretty well. The justification for its inclusion here is probably that the discovery of Ives' music was happening around this time: the 60s and 70s. There are some "classics" of modernism here, like Boulez' "Le Marteau sans maître" and Stravinsky's Agon, but most of the collection tends to show rather clearly the wayward looniness that was common in those years. I am thinking here particularly of the pieces by George Crumb that sound very dated indeed. Thank god the penchant for masked performers has died out! Here is a performance of "Voice of the Whale":

Another composer that is not wearing well, surprisingly, is Toru Takemitsu, who also has a whole disc to himself. I had the vague recollection of his music having a certain Asian exoticism (which his guitar music seems to), but these orchestral pieces sound pretty much like standard avant-garde noodling. Harry Partch is like nothing else, of course, but what sounded in the 70s rather charming and exotic, now just sounds tedious. And listening to him describe his instruments is particularly annoying as he always sounds like he is arguing for the death penalty for ordinary musical instruments. "The LIVES of ordinary MUSICAL instruments must be SACRIFICED to leave room for MY instruments with their JUST intonation!!"

The most annoying discs begin with the one titled "Extended Voices". I have learned to dread the word "extended" when applied to instrumental technique because it always seems to involve doing something really nasty to your instrument with predictable results: nasty sounds. Here is the first piece on the disc, Sound Patterns by Pauline Oliveros:

No, it doesn't get much better from there, but the Morton Feldman pieces are restful, at least:

The disc devoted to some of the most challenging composers of this period, people like Xenakis, Stockhausen and Cage, is not an easy listen, though Akrata by Xenakis is probably the most charming:

The prize for most unlistenable goes to Fontana Mix -- Feed, by John Cage:

After that I just stumbled away, muttering to myself "I am NOT a modernist, I am NOT a modernist, I am NOT a modernist..." Next is a whole disc of the Unlistenable which contains various examples of experimental electronic music. Little did these folks know at the time that the apotheosis of what they were starting would be Electronic Dance Music. Here is "Ensembles for Synthesizer":

The final disc is mostly devoted to avant-garde virtuoso flute music played by one of the virtuosos of the time, Severino Gazzelloni. And oh how they loved their "Flatterzunge" (flutter-tongue) which seems to be featured in every piece. This is Interpolation by Roman Haubenstock-Ramati:

So, were you entertained?


Anonymous said...

So, were you entertained?

Short Answer: No

The passage of time certainly gives a perspective of QUALITY in music & elsewhere.


Bryan Townsend said...


and welcome to the Music Salon, John.

Marc Puckett said...

Ha. No. (Well, yes, actually, because I started as many of them the YT videos as I could and had them all going at once.)

Haven't listened to Xenakis or Partch but probably will at some point because they seem to be chief exemplars of 'wayward looniness'.

But the poor Milton Babbitts and Haubenstock-Ramatis and Oliveroses... I wonder if at the end of their careers they looked back with any regrets.

A work I do like is Michael Gordon's Decasia. Discovered just now that his music is considered to be 'post-minimalist' and 'totalist'. Hmm-- Decasia is very minimalist in the sense that there's an awful lot of repetition but there are topographical variations, inclines, and a summit or two.

And that he is one of the Bang on a Can people. "Among Bang on a Can's early events were performances by John Cage, premieres of Glenn Branca’s epic symphonies for massed electric guitars, and fully staged operas by Harry Partch, featuring the composer's original instruments." Ha, ha. Massed electric guitars, epic! And here I suspected you were exaggerating Harry Partch's nonsense....

Bryan Townsend said...

Exaggerate? Moi?

Ken Fasano said...

It has often been pointed out that for all the works a generation creates, only a few will be considered classics 50 years later. However, it is unfortunate for my father's generation of composers that his generation (he was a cop, not a composer, so he's off the hook) composed the least number of classics of any age since the mid 18th century.

As for extended technique, is that what a composer does when (s)he runs out of ideas? Was it Bartalozzi who wrote that book on extended flute technique with all the chord charts that the flutists I knew could never actually play? I've never heard a Bach chorale played on a solo flute (not sure I want to!).

Annea Lockwood - now there's a fun one. Burning pianos, buried pianos, and Annea in a studio plugged into a Moog synthesizer having an orgasm (really - it's on the web, I can find it for anyone who's interested) - perhaps that's a Moogasm?

Marc Puckett said...

What a collection of curiosities! and some of them musical.

Bryan Townsend said...

I suppose that someone at Sony just thought, oh well, we have this stack of recordings from forty years ago, why not release them and make a buck? But they may not have realized what a revealing time capsule it was going to be.

Ken, you are so right! It is simply astonishing how few masterpieces are in this collection of "masterpieces". These were a significant cross-section of the big names at the time. What important composers are missing? Messiaen, certainly. But who else? Stravinsky was certainly a master, but I don't think Agon is a masterpiece. Even though I am not a big Ives fan, I suppose that the Concord Sonata is a masterpiece. What else? Zyklus, perhaps? Maayyybbeee Le marteau sans maître, though not in my book. The rest? NOT!

What this collection demonstrates is the poverty of high modernism.