Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Second Zag: The New Consonance

Richard Taruskin, in a lengthy article that I can't seem to find at the moment, refers to the history of music over the last hundred years as "two zigs and two zags". This is actually rather a clever way of illustrating a very complex century in a simple way. The "zigs" are times when composers launch themselves boldly into the future, entirely oblivious to their audiences. Some novel technical devices are discovered, and even the occasional masterpiece, but there are also some excesses. Therefore each "zig" is followed by a "zag" in which excesses are reined in and composers tend to consolidate. While each zig looks to an imagined future, each zag references an (imagined) past.

I'm sure you are dying for some examples about now! The first zig was from around 1900 up until the First World War and the two composers who were foremost in it were Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky. The representative works are Erwartung by Schoenberg, a dramatic monologue:

And The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky:

After World War I, there was the urge to recoil from all futuristic excess and rehumanize art after the inhumanity of war. Stravinsky in particular changed his style completely and became a "neoclassicist" writing music that was imbued with the sounds of archaic styles. The first piece in this new style was Pulcinella based on Baroque themes, premiered in 1920:

Schoenberg's response was rather different. He consolidated by coming up with a new way to systematize composition using the 12 chromatic tones in a specific order. This also ensured that tonality would be eliminated. What audiences and critics reacted to was the level of dissonance that ensued, but Taruskin points out that one of the first things that Schoenberg did was use his new system to write little gavottes and gigues! In other words, this was another kind of neoclassicism. Here is his Suite for Piano, op. 25 composed 1921 to 1923:

The first zag lasted through the 40s, but after the Second World War a new zig began with a new generation of composers that included Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage to name just the most prominent. All these composers shared the futuristic urge and thought of music in terms of experimental research. Again, the audience reception of this music was of no importance. What was, was technological expertise and mastery and the elimination of the personal expression of the composer. Boulez did it through intricate compositional strategies including serializing other parameters of sound besides pitch, such as rhythm and articulation. Stockhausen invented a number of complex ways of composing and with "moment form" gave up the need for a directional structure. Cage went even further and used chance procedures to eliminate any compositional plan and, in one famous instance, even notes themselves. Here are examples by each composer. First, Boulez, Structures for two pianos:

Next Momente by Stockhausen:

Finally the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra by John Cage:

This zig was in its turn followed by another zag, starting in the late 1960s and becoming very important since the 1970s. The precursor of this new era was a piece by Terry Riley called In C which was, very simply, a collection of melodic fragments in the key of C. Here is a performance:

This again is a repudiation of the previous zig. Instead of fragmented complex rhythms it has a simple and continuing pulse and instead of complex dissonances it has consonances. Two composers in particular took these two simple ideas and turned them into a new phase of music history. Philip Glass began with simple repetitive melodies and arpeggios. Here is Music with Changing Parts from 1970:

Steve Reich had a different approach, but the two basic features of recurring pulse and consonance were the same. Here is Six Pianos from 1973:

Both composers have traveled a considerable distance from these beginnings. Philip Glass is now writing symphonies and concertos that, while they continue his repetitive arpeggios, develop them more than before. Steve Reich has gone on to create masterpieces such as his piece Different Trains that manages to simultaneously be a personal memoire and a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust--and to do so in a completely non-melodramatic way. Here is a performance of Different Trains:

Though still over a continuous pulse and still consonant, there are rich layers of expression and meaning.

So that is a brief history of the last hundred years in music--classical music at least! Popular music has an entirely different history.

Both zigs were futuristic, utopian, experimental and ignored audiences. Both zags were concerned with audience response and turned away from the extremes of the zigs. The first zag referred directly to music of the past but the second made more of a new beginning, scrubbing down music to its essence and then rebuilding. The classical music world is still somewhat divided over this second zag. Even though its leading composers have won considerable popularity with audiences and are even influential on pop musicians, the more ossified institutions of classical music still do not, after forty years, regard them as quite respectable. Part of the reason might be that the musicians of the previous zig still wield considerable power in these institutions and regard the so-called "minimalism" with genuine horror and distain. Time is not on their side, however.

Let's end with one more piece by Steve Reich, the piece that really launched his popularity and influenced so many other musicians. This is Music for 18 Musicians, composed between 1974 and 1976 and released on record in 1978:

UPDATE: After thinking about it a bit, I decided to change part of the title of this post from "The New Tonality" to "The New Consonance" because that is closer to reality.


Rickard Dahl said...

It's an interesting analogy. When it comes to minimalism I only like some of it. Music for 18 Musicians or Different Trains by Steve Reich are great pieces I think. I think Philip Glass has been composing better music more recently (given his move towards more classical-styled music I suppose). I've listened to all of his concertos to the extent possible (i.e. what is available on Youtube). My favorites are the Concerto for two Timpanists, the Concerto for Saxophone Quartet and the Harpsichord Concerto. I also think that soundtrack music (mainly film music and video game music) can also be seen as part of the new consonance, for the most part, maybe a new old consonance given that it has a bit of more of the old common practice style. There's ofc music written nowadays that falls in between the latest zig and the latest zag. It could be described as a revival of the early modernist style or simply building upon it rather than breaking it. A good example of this is Kalevi Aho but probably also Esa-Pekka Salonen, maybe also Einojuhani Rautavaara (the Finns despite being a small population keep producing this sort of great talents).

Bryan Townsend said...

Sure, minimalism, perhaps better named "the new consonance", is like any other style or genre of music: there are better and worse pieces. But the fact that there are some undeniable masterpieces in the style speaks well for it, I think. Ruatavaara has kept a certain consistency even as he has moved from earlier to later styles. But this could partly be because he revised a lot of his earlier music decades later.