Sunday, November 1, 2015

Memo from Apollyon

If you are not familiar with the name Apollyon, don't worry, I've been around a long time, so you will run into me sooner or later. This brief memo is simply to give credit to some hard-working composers that just don't receive enough praise.

Classical composers have had a tough time in recent times so I think they need some support and encouragement. There was a bit of unpleasantness about a hundred years ago and full credit should go to those who sensed it coming and gave it some flavor and style. I'm thinking, of course, of figures like Gustav Mahler who in his very grand symphonies and tragic song cycles like Kindertotenlieder, written in 1901 and 1904, prefigured the deaths of so very many children in such a dramatic way. Good job, Gustav! Of course, Act One of the great tragedy began ten years later and, from my point of view, it went very well. Mahler wasn't the only one to "set the stage" as it were. Arnold Schoenberg had a part to play as well. Not only did he contribute to the stage-setting with such magnificent monstrosities as Gurre-Lieder, premiered most appropriately in February, 1913, but he also, over the next few decades, worked out a method for other composers to incorporate the most delicate harmonic torture into their music through the "method of composing with twelve tones which are related only with one another".

Composers have helped me out in different ways, of course, some very directly, as the two I just mentioned, but others in more subtle ways. Well, The Rite of Spring is not very subtle, I admit, and it was another excellent bit of scene preparation as it also premiered in 1913 and added just the right touch of barbarism to the atmosphere. Rather appropriate, don't you think? But after the first Act of the Downfall of Europe, which played in wide release between 1914 and 1918, composers like Stravinsky took a more subtle turn. After trench warfare, there certainly was no need for more overt barbarism, no indeed! It was time for a more refined draining away of the precious fluids of civilization. To that end neo-classicism was invented. This odd, but useful, style took superficially charming gestures from past music and made them, with the addition of awkward rhythms and the occasional clashing note, into clumsy caricatures of the originals. The flesh, or some of it, was there, but the spirit was gone missing. Pulcinella is the finest example, but there are many less expert ones.

This premiered in 1920. As always Stravinsky showed up at just the right time.

A couple of decades later came Act Two, and this one had even a larger cast and played world-wide. It was so successful that composers, a bit stumped at first, took a few years to come up with the logical strategy: utter nihilism! Again, good work, fellows! The process of draining every drop of civilizational energy and spirit out of the culture was exemplified most strongly in the work of three excellent fellows in the 1950s. Pierre Boulez:

Karlheinz Stockhausen:

And, the most charming and genial of the three, John Cage, whose 4'33 is the perfect representation of nihilism:

All this is familiar ground, of course. So let me offer a bit of praise to some more recent fellows who have been making an excellent contribution to the whole project. Some have claimed that music needed to return to a more spiritual plane and, as long as that doesn't lead to anything, I am all in favor of it. Art works that draw on the quietism and stasis of Eastern religions are just the thing for this purpose, so I delight in all the various forms of trance music that have come down the pipeline. John Luther Adams has done some nice ones:

And for the same thing but with more of a be-bop sensibility, you can't beat Philip Glass:

Really, we live in resplendent times with so much good music celebrating the end times of Western civilization--and doing so with such style! I am gratified.

I would only start to worry if some folks started making music that had genuine vitality, clear direction and effervescent grace. You know, like they used to way back when:

But is that something I have to worry about very seriously? Hardly!

UPDATE: Thanks to werewife, I corrected a spelling mistake.


A.C. Douglas said...

Charmingly spot-on if flirtingly snarky (nothing the least wrong with that last).

Nice piece.


Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks! I was just saying to a friend that today I wrote the weirdest post ever and I hope people would get it. So thanks again!

werewife said...

Two dissents:
1. It's spelled "Apollyon." You're welcome.
2. The Minimalists / trance composers don't really deserve to be lumped in with the likes of nihilists like Stockhausen. Steve Reich's late-70s material works for me, particularly "Tehillim," but then again I know nothing of musicology, being one of those ordinary types who just likes things to sound nice. Would love to know what you make of the monstrously hyped John Adams' c@ck-teasing (the most apropos description I can think of), nihilistic operas...

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, you are quite right. How did I do that?

I welcome dissents, of course, especially from new readers. Welcome werewife! No, I certainly don't want to lump Steve Reich in, which is why I chose Philip Glass instead. Steve Reich is no nihilist! There is a trance element, but much more is going on. I'm a big Steve Reich fan.

I have weighed in, just a bit, on John Adams and his operas. I think if you type "John Adams" in the search box on the right, they should all come up.