Monday, October 17, 2011

American Experimental Music

Alex Ross put up a post on a new recording of Charles Ives the other day. Hilary Hahn and Valentina Lisitsa have recorded four violin sonatas. I'm pretty fond of both artists as I posted here and here. But I'm of two minds about Charles Ives. Listen to the piece, the "In the Barn" movement from the Violin Sonata #2, excerpted by Alex Ross in the post.

Back in the late 60s and early 70s when I started listening to classical music, Charles Ives was one of the big recent discoveries and a number of recordings of his music were issued by major artists such as the recording of Three Places in New England with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the Boston Symphony in 1970. Now there are an enormous number of recordings and even entire festivals devoted to his music. He stands at the beginning of the American 'experimental' music movement that continued with Henry Cowell, Harry Partch, Conlon Nancarrow and John Cage. There is a lot to be said for this approach as it acknowledges no barriers or rules. Let's have a listen to music by each of those. First Henry Cowell:

A bit of Harry Partch:

This is from a 1968 documentary about Harry Partch. He wrote quite a bit about his theories of tuning and scales. That reference to a "true major third" at the end of the excerpt alludes to the fact that in modern equal-tempered tuning (developed in the 18th century) all intervals are actually slightly out of tune. Equal-tempered thirds, for example, are all slightly sharp. The reason the equal-tempered tuning was developed was that without it, modulation to remote keys like A flat is impossible. Partch developed a 43-tone octave to solve the problem. Actually, I think what that does is create even greater problems! I had the great good fortune a number of years ago to visit the collection of Partch's instruments that were stored at the time in White Plains, NY. I got to try out a couple of them and I can attest that the giant bass marimba is a truly amazing instrument.

Some Conlon Nancarrow:

If you ever want to make a pianist really uncomfortable, just play them some Nancarrow. In these studies for player piano he worked by incising the notes manually. A player piano works by reading a roll of heavy paper in which slots have been cut. Each slot produces a note. By using a special cutting mechanism, a performance could be 'recorded' on a roll and played back. Here is an early ragtime performance:

But what Nancarrow did was to create compositions by cutting the slots manually into the roll. This meant that he was not restricted in any way by the limitations of an actual performer. So what a pianist hears in Nancarrow are things that are simply impossible!

Now for some John Cage:

I suspect that the book on this tradition has yet to be written and a lot of the basic research probably hasn't even been done yet. But we can make a few observations. First of all, the idea was to throw away all the past traditions and discover entirely new ways of making music. This goal was certainly achieved! Charles Ives, at least in some of his music, took the tunes, chords and rhythms he heard all around, like the fiddle tunes in "In the Barn" and did a kind of 'mash-up' of them. Cowell, inspired by some mystical ideas, created some great atmospheric music by using the piano in entirely new ways. Harry Partch went back to some very ancient Greek ideas about tuning and combined it with a Bohemian sensibility. Have a listen to his piece called Barstow for an example. Nancarrow took a unique approach that prefigured and paralleled some of the work others were starting to do with tape and computer music. He eliminated the performer in the process. John Cage summarized all that had gone before and took things to their logical conclusion.

This is all fascinating, of course, but if you set out to experiment and break all the rules, most of the time what you end up with is harmonic incoherence, rhythmic chaos and melodic confusion and that is what we mostly hear. After all this experimentation has been done, someone has to come along and find out what new musical principles have been discovered and try to make music with them. What principles of structure and harmony do we find underlying the music of Charles Ives? Or Harry Partch? Or Conlon Nancarrow? In the case of John Cage, he purports to have made sure, by means of chance procedures, that there aren't any.

Well, that's too bad... I suspect that a lot of experimental music re-invents the wheel or wants to un-invent the wheel, or is just incoherent. But somewhere in there are some genuinely valuable new approaches.


Anonymous said...

The piano, of course, is the main culprit. Humans naturally sing in tune (experiments with barbershop quartets have established that beyond any doubt), but an accompanying piano will force singers to sing out of tune. It's actually quite noticeable. That's the most typical complaint you hear from a classical Indian musician: that Western music is out of tune (and of course it is).

Anonymous said...

To me the biggest disappointment about modern music is its failure to invent new instruments. I remember an outdoor concert at Stanford a few years back with cutting-edge modern sounds, using computer-generated layers of music playing out of 100s of speakers all around a large arena. I was extraordinarily disappointed. Black Eyed Peas produce more interesting new sounds.

I also dislike attempts to use old instruments to do new things. To shoehorn the demands of modern music into the narrow space of classical ensembles (be it a symphony orchestra or a chamber music quartet) does justice to neither. A violin is a gorgeous instrument. To hear it all electrified is a form of violation, like dressing up gorgeous dogs with silly clothes and losing the essence of what made the dog so beautiful in the first place.

Computing technology has failed to produce sounds that move me or strike me by their originality. I get infinitely more pleasure discovering new sounds from Chinese, Japanese, or Indonesian instruments (like this 2-string Chinese "guitar" I hear last January, which was fabulous).

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes. The fact that each fundamental contains the natural overtone series means that the natural thing to do is to sing in meantone temperament. But that doesn't mean that equal temperament was a bad idea.

Bryan Townsend said...

Harry Partch sure invented more than his fair share of new instruments! But the problem is their practicality, I think. Right now the only instruments suitable to play his music are still just the ones he built, I think.

I heard a wonderful baroque lute concert once by Jacob Lindberg. As an encore he played his arrangement of "Across the Universe". It was quite lovely. But this is the exception. I concur with your point. The best use of an instrument is the music intended for it and vice versa. Transcribing Beethoven is usually one of the worst ideas you can have.