Friday, January 27, 2012

Ligeti: Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes

I see on Alex Ross' blog that Ligeti's piece for 100 metronomes is about to be performed in New York. This piece dates from 1962 and therefore predates the similar work by Steve Reich titled Pendulum Music. Wikipedia has articles on both pieces here and here. In both cases the idea is to start a physical process that generates sound and to wait for the process to complete. In the piece by Ligeti the process is to wind up 100 of the old-fashioned metronomes, set them to different tempi and let them go simultaneously. At first there is a collision of many different ticks, but as they run down, slowly, we end up listening to just one metronome which finally stops. In the Steve Reich piece, several microphones are suspended above speakers pointing up and the levels are set so that there will be feedback when the microphone is just above the speaker. Then the microphones are set swinging. The piece ends when they have all stopped swinging and there is a continuous feedback. Here is the Ligeti piece:

And here is the one by Steve Reich:

Depending on the microphones, the speakers, the microphone chords and the amplifier, you can get different results:

Ligeti composed his piece as a criticism of trends in contemporary music. He said:
What bothers me nowadays are above all ideologies (all ideologies, in that they are stubborn and intolerant towards others), and Poème Symphonique is directed above all against them.
Steve Reich's piece, however, was an experiment in rhythm and, along with a couple of pieces using tape loops, led him to some new rhythmic possibilities. Both pieces are, I would suggest, neither interesting aesthetically, nor any sort of human expression in music. Well, that was the point, of course! It is somewhat ridiculous to find oneself in the audience watching a performance of this sort. It is equally ridiculous, I suggest, to sit in the audience listening to a piece of electronic music. Why is this? I think it is because a musical performance requires one or more human beings expressing something to other human beings. In other words, despite the bad press artistic intention has garnered in recent decades, it is in fact necessary to art that human beings intend to express something to other human beings. You might reply, that in the two pieces discussed above, the composer definitely had intentions. Well, ok, but they were not really expressive intentions, were they? In other words, while these might be justifiably considered experiments, they do not seem to have what I would term aesthetic content. Neither does Cage's 4'33 which I talk about here. Neither do any of Cage's pieces where the notes were chosen with chance procedures. The common element in all these pieces is the removal of any possibility of human aesthetic expression.

I think this was a phase that was mercifully brief. What surprises me is that people keep scheduling 'performances' of this stuff. Like some jokes, they are amusing once, but not for a second time. Ironically, since these pieces are emphatically not about expressing something aesthetic, what they really do is express an ideology. I say "ironically" because of Ligeti's comment. They all want to 'free' music from the human element. If you don't want to hear human expression in sound, you can go down to the freeway and listen to traffic sounds, or listen to the wind in the trees, or the surf crashing on a beach. One electronic piece I have heard was called Hurricanes and that was what it sounded like. Ok, but IT'S NOT INTERESTING!! Sorry to shout, but without intentional human expression, art has no more significance than a sunset. So what was the significance of this phase? Was it a sort of throat-clearing as a preface to post-modernism? There are some clues in this interesting essay on the phenomenon of post-modernism. After tracing the history of post-modernism and discussing some exemplary works the author points out that the strength of post-modernism was to remove the idea of a central narrative with accompanying aesthetic values. Edward Docx describes what happened next:
because postmodernism attacks everything, a mood of confusion and uncertainty began to grow and flourish until, in recent years, it became ubiquitous. A lack of confidence in the tenets, skills and aesthetics of literature permeated the culture and few felt secure or able or skilled enough or politically permitted to distinguish or recognise the schlock from the not. And so, sure enough, in the absence of any aesthetic criteria, it became more and more useful to assess the value of works according to the profits they yielded. Capital, as has been said many times before, accommodates all needs. So, paradoxically, we arrive at a moment where literature itself has become threatened, first by the artistic credo of postmodernism (the death of the author) and second by the unintended result of that credo, the hegemony of the marketplace. What then becomes sought and desired are fictions that resonate with the widest possible public: that is, with as many discourses as possible. This public can then give or withhold approval measured in sales.
In other words, increasingly, artistic success has become about nothing except money; and, increasingly, artists have come to judge their own success that way, too. This is the reason today that we feel the genre writer’s cry “I sold millions” so powerfully, even though in truth it can say little about the art form other than “it sold millions.” Changing disciplines, if we take this commoditisation of art to its natural limit, we arrive at Damien Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull, For the Love of God (2007). Commoditisation has here become the only point. The work, such as it is, centres on its cost and value and comprises also (I would say mainly) the media storm surrounding it: the rumours that it was bought for £50m, or that Hirst himself bought it, or that he offset his tax bill by claiming diamonds as tax deductible artistic materials, or that he didn’t buy it at all, or that nobody has bought it… And so postmodernly on. The paradox being this: that by removing all criteria, we are left with nothing but the market. The opposite of what postmodernism originally intended.
The author concludes by seeing a new phase beginning in which authentic aesthetic values are returning. Well, yes, that's my impression as well. No-one writes pieces for 100 metronomes any more. If there was a point to it, there is no longer. As the author indicates, "Gradually we hear more and more affirmation for those who can render expertly, the sculptor who can sculpt, the ceramist, the jeweller, even the novelist who can actually write." And, presumably, the composer who can actually compose music. For actual instruments. Played by actual performers. Requiring training and skill. And human expression...

UPDATE: Something I should have brought out is how seriously we are meant to take these pieces. I think the Ligeti is obviously a satire: Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes? Really? The title itself is a satire and the image of an audience sitting in a hall listening to 100 metronomes run down is itself hilarious. The piece by Steve Reich is simply an experiment--he doesn't seem to have a sense of humor. John Cage however, does. I suspect that most of his music is actually meant to be funny, 4'33 not least of all. I can just see Cage sitting in his apartment wondering to himself, just how much absurdness can I get away with? A piece for 18 radios tuned in and out randomly? A piece for water sounds including a duck call? How about a piece that is just silence!!! Heh. Never forget to entertain the possibility that the composer is just out to make fun of us.


Nathan Shirley said...

And the joke is still on us (Cage's joke that is). Just look at that amazing pipe organ in Germany, damned to play a few notes every few years for the next, what? 300 years? The day the performance is ended prematurely will be a minor victory for art. When I was a kid I thought guys like Cage and Ives were pretty funny.

Bryan Townsend said...

You're lucky, you came along when the grip of modernism and post-modernism was starting to loosen. I was an undergraduate during some of the most ideological years of the Avant-Garde Era, so the stuff I wrote then and for a while after was what you would expect. It was only five or six years ago that I really decided to repudiate modernism in music.

You might find these posts interesting:

Nathan Shirley said...

From everything I've heard and read, I'm sure you are right that things are improving. But even still, the academic world of music composition is a complete mess. SOME now realize they went astray, but now they have no idea how to pick up the pieces, and they're reaching for their music theory books for answers (not a case of artists teaching their apprentices).

I was lucky enough to study under a very intuitive composer privately in my teens, a student of Khachaturian. Meanwhile in high school I spent several years searching for just one living composer who I might study with. I found a few professors whose music I didn't hate, but I didn't like ANY. I went to 3 different schools and dropped out in disgust. Leaving the academic composition world was the best decision I've made. The days of the old St Petersburg Conservatory are gone, at least for composers. But perhaps it's for the best. Is it really healthy for poets, painters and composers to spend so much time quantifying the creative arts?

Bryan Townsend said...

It sounds like you were lucky! Good, intuitive composers are rather thin on the ground these days. Golijov studied with George Crumb, who, even though he was part of the progressive avant-garde, always seemed to have some real creative 'juice' in his music. Peter Maxwell Davies was another like that.

Where I went to school, at McGill in Montreal, during my undergraduate years everyone seemed to be trying to sound like Boulez--and I don't mean the students, I mean the teachers!

In the category of "picking up the pieces" that is what I have been trying to do for the last several years. I started with a large set of songs in which I let the text show me the musical direction. Now I am working on a second suite for solo guitar and every movement is a new challenge! In one way, this is an exciting time: look at all the wonderful things we can discover (and re-discover)!

I'm not sure I know what you mean by "quantifying the creative arts"?

Here is another post that might interest you:

Nathan Shirley said...

"quantifying the creative arts"?

Well, I'm one of those artists who believes the academic world is best left to scientists/historians and the like.

And when I say 'creative arts' I am referring to writers (of fiction), composers, and visual artists (painters, sculptors, film makers, etc). Not as much to performing artists- actors, dancers, musicians.

Creative artists should generally follow their instincts first, and intellect second. That's not to say they don't need to understand form, harmony, theory, etc (all very crucial to be sure). But in the academic world of today, intellect/analysis is the main priority, creativity is hardly even necessary, indeed in most cases it is NOT necessary.

I'm not saying it can't be a healthy environment to learn a creative art, just that today it hardly ever is. The best model might be that which many of the classical artists did (writers and composers included). Young artists sought out established masters who they admired, and they apprenticed with them. This isn't completely unlike grad school today, but today everything is watered down and padded with learning to be a scholar first. Creativity is an afterthought, if anything.

Now some might actually thrive in this environment, but they would be the minority.

Sorry to have gotten into all of this. As you can probably tell I'm still a bit jaded from my college days!

Bryan Townsend said...

I think I was quite lucky in my university days: McGill is a pretty dynamic school and they were very supporting of pretty well everything I did. But I was not in composition. I did compose, though. One piece, for two guitars and harpsichord, was actually the first example of 'process music' for guitar. One professor said it was "compositionally thin". You bet! Compared to Boulez!