Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Contemporary Music in Evolution

THAT WAS THE TITLE of a series of radio programs prepared by Gunther Schuller back in the 1950's; I used to listen to it every week on KPFA — it was virtually my only exposure to any coherent view of the fascinating panorama of concert music that opened out after Brahms.

Schuller simply presented the major pieces as they'd been composed, year by year, in sequential order, using what recordings he could then find (and he was amazingly resourceful!), and talking, as I recall, very little about them. It was enough to hear each score in the context of its contemporaries. The rich awareness of this music of its antecedents and its context; the logic of continuity that survived even the temporary dislocations of reaction and "revolution"!

For Schuller was concerned to point out the evolution, not revolution, described by this brave repertory, stretching from Schoenberg's Second Quartet, as I recall, up to John Cage's String Quartet in Four Parts. What a fine string of monuments, living monuments, to the musical and intellectual activity of these composers; what a testament to the optimism and enterprise of their work!

I thought of this last night at a concert by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, where we heard a performance of Steven Mackey's Indigenous Instruments, a piece he wrote in 1989 (neary twenty years ago!) for the SFCMP, and which bowled me over then, and did again last night. Mackey wrote for the "Pierrot ensemble": flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano, the instruments Schoenberg accompanies his Sprechstimme with in Pierrot Lunaire (1912).

Pierrot was a revelation, not a revolution, though it broke a number of social rules in its day, and resulted in considerable changes of attitude among the composers who listened to it closely (Ravel and Stravinsky among them). Indigenous Instruments is another, perhaps almost as startling, though it has its own sources in world-music explorations by such other composers as Kevin Volans and Peter Sculthorpe, whose music I know only from pieces recorded by the Kronos Quartet.

The Pierrot ensemble is in some ways the string quartet of the (late) twentieth century, but already Mackey was intent on nudging it into new territory, de-tuning the winds, extending the techniques of the strings. The intent, I think, and certainly the effect, to me at least, was of rediscovering the uses to which these instruments can be put: as if they'd been dropped into a society until then never aware of them, and had been picked up by gifted but "untaught" musicians who immediately set about exploring their potential.

This is by its nature anti-conservatory. I refer to the music-school, but "conservatory" has its bigger implication.

I listen to Indigenous Instruments with fresh ears and an open mind each time it comes along, which is infrequent, though I do have a recording around here somewhere. It puts me in the mood I associate with being somewhere where intelligent, interesting people speak an unknown language, freeing that part of the mind which conventionally is required to "understand."

I wondered, last night, if Mackey knew the music of Niccolò Castiglioni, whose Tropi (1959) for Pierrot ensemble with added percussion fascinated me when I first heard it, at about the time of its composition. I wondered, briefly, if the radio were playing this chattering treble-clef piece at the correct speed, and I've heard it more than once taken down an octave and doubled in length: but one day I found the score, and that's right, nothing in it below middle C. (Here's the score: bought on Ground-hog's day 1963, while JFK was in the White House, for $3 new! Those were the days.)

I'm sure Mackey knows Castiglioni; certainly the indigenes who play the sounds in his mind know him. That's one of the things that Evolution revealed by Schuller, among others, reveals in turn to us: all these sounds, imaginings, and revelations are known in some mysterious way to one another.

To compose, as Stockhausen said, is to make the world one.

* * *

There were other things on the program, notably Morton Feldman's 1981 Bass Clarinet and Percussion, but I'll think about them more before reporting.


rchrd said...

Interesting thing about the Schuller programs ... I listened to them also, in New York City on WBAI ... was this idea that music, and indeed culture, evolves one piece of music, one art work at a time. And this seems to be true even if the composers haven't necessarily heard or been directly influenced by the work that immediately preceded them. There are secondary and tertiary effects, as in human evolution, that hold.

This idea of evolution was something I took very seriously and still apply. That's why (I think) it is important when looking back at the development of a style or attitude to look around at what else was going on at the time the composer was working - politics, poetry, psychology, even technology.

The SFCMP concert last night was an exceptionally good one. All the pieces had something to recommend. The Feldman was played exquisitely and the big piece of the evening, Liderman's Furthermore... reminded me so much of Milhaud's pan-American chamber pieces. I loved it. (Which only magnifies the tragedy surrounding it.)

Charles Shere said...

"There are secondary and tertiary effects, as in human evolution, that hold. / This idea of evolution was something I took very seriously and still apply."

Yes, that's what I meant: the pieces themselves contribute to, and then draw from, a continuing accumulation. This is of course a special sense of the word "evolution," but one which restores to that word its root sense which doesn't include anything at all of betterment or improvement or gradual drawing-near-to-perfection, which is what "evolution" seems to have come to mean.

Feldman, yes; Liderman... I'll get around to them later on...