Saturday, July 30, 2011

The One-Minute Test

Way back when I was an undergraduate student I used to go to the listening library when I had a spare hour, collect a stack of LPs (I said it was way back when) and give them a listen. I would put on a disc and, if it didn't grab me in the first minute, I would go on to the next. I know this is the musical equivalent of speed-dating, but I figure if a composer doesn't do something in the first minute that is beautiful, interesting, charming or in some way capture your interest, well... This is how I discovered Steve Reich. I had a bunch of contemporary music discs including Stockhausen, Ligeti, Nono and after a few of those very complex compositions I put on Drumming by Steve Reich. It begins with an unadorned single drumbeat. Wow. Sometimes simplicity is utterly radical. I ended up listening to a whole side. Let's try this experiment with some stuff randomly chosen from YouTube. Since the last few posts have featured pop music, I'll stick to classical. Let's start with the 20th century. I'll use the list of composers from this Wikipedia article.

Here's a sonatina for clarinet and piano by Malcom Arnold:

There's nothing wrong with that, it's boisterous and, uh, boisterous. By the one-minute mark we are just about to hear the second theme, it sounds like. It didn't really make me want to hear more, though.

Part of the introduction to Tintagel by Arnold Bax:

I listened to the whole excerpt. It sounds a bit like Sibelius and water, but that's ok. The melody, when it finally arrived, was a bit of an anticlimax--folky and sentimental.

Harrison Birtwistle, Movement for String Quartet

Nervous, fragmentary and annoying. Barely made it to one minute. Reminds me of not-very-good Bartok.

Let's jump to an American: Lou Harrison, String Trio:

It's not bad, but I did stop at the one-minute mark. This is the kind of meandering atonality that I have heard plenty of and don't need any more of. Reminds me of uninspired Alban Berg.

Carl Ruggles: Sun-Treader

I used to have this recording. No, I didn't listen past the one-minute mark. Why does so much 20th century orchestral music sound like the soundtrack to a horror film? Was it because the 20th century was so horrific? This was written in 1931, so there was certainly a lot to be horrified about. But I'm just not going to enjoy listening to the rest...

Elie Siegmeister: Three Studies for Piano

This is not bad. It doesn't try to bully the listener. But after a minute, I was getting the sense that there was quite a lot of jazz influence and I didn't get the sense that we were going anywhere, so...

Włodzimierz Kotoński - Antyfony 1989 (for tape)

I was glad to see this was for tape. Some of it sounds like choir, which would be cruel. No, not interested. I have sat through "performances" of electronic music played through high-quality sound systems in concert halls and I am aggressively uninterested!

Galina Ustvolskaya - Symphony No. 3

I had hopes for this one because she was a student of Shostakovich. It is probably going somewhere, but the unrelenting dissonance makes it a road I don't think I want to travel.

After all that, let's hear something by her teacher:

Why is it that most composers seem incapable of a) simplicity and b) beauty? I first heard this trio many years ago in a summer chamber music festival in Vancouver. I think it was the first piece by Shostakovich that I heard in concert. I was riveted from the first note. And still am. How does he do that?

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