Music Monday: Rzewski: The People United Will Never Be Defeated!

Zingers aside, tho, it’s hard not to get the sense from looking at Rzewski’s list of works that he has longstanding left-wing and anti-statist views. In addition to The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, for example, he has also written pieces about the 1971 Attica prison uprisings and a version of the Antigone story that emphasizes the title character’s role as a principled resister of an unjust government. So even if he’s deliberately fuzzy about them in interviews, I suspect that there are genuine leftist views lurking there in the background. Born in 1938 in Westfield, MA, Rzewski was not wanting for a traditional education. He attended Phillips Academy followed by Harvard and Princeton, where he studied with Roger Sessions, Milton Babbitt, and other modernist luminaries on their respective faculties. In 1960, he went to Italy to study with Luigi Dallapiccola and also to further his career as a contemporary pianist (he’s been playing since he was five years old, and has worked to a place of ferocious, if controversial ability (he sometimes improvises cadenzas in the middle of Beethoven piano sonatas, which some people are . . . less than excited about.).). While there, he was one of the co-founders of Musica Elettronica Viva, one of the first groups to experiment with live improvisation using electronic instruments, a group that is still active today, some fifty years later.

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Music Monday: Schoenberg: Wind Quintet

SERIALISM. The very name has come to stand for a musical bugaboo. Treated interchangeably with "dodecaphony" or the "twelve-tone technique", serialism refers to a style of twentieth-century composition that is notoriously standoffish and difficult to get into. The starting point for the style goes something like this: Tonality — the system of harmonic organization in most Western music from the 1600s on* — by emphasizing one note over and above all of the others. One way to get away from tonality, then, is to prevent any one note from being super emphasized by coming up with a system to make sure that all twelve notes are played roughly the same number of times. The key mechanism to this is the "twelve-tone row", a specific ordering of all twelve pitches in the Western musical system that can be transposed, flipped upside down, and played backwards in any combination. This results in music that lacks a tonal center, music that does not operate along the same tropes of tension and release, expectation and fulfillment as other Western music; it is obeying a different set of rules.

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Some Thoughts on the Absence of Mahler

I'm not sure I would have noticed if the lawyer hadn't been Schoenberg's grandson.

The Woman in Gold tells the story of Maria Altmann's fight to regain ownership of Gustav Klimt's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, an iconic painting that the Nazis stole from her family's home in Vienna on the eve of World War II. Her legal representative in this affair was E Randol "Randy" Schoenberg, the grandson of the (in)famous composer Arnold. Thruout the film, numerous people, on learning his heritage, make a comment about Arnold Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique and how difficult and yet rewarding it can be to listen to. And this turned out to be a bit of a problem.

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Music Monday: Walker: Lilacs

When John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln in April of 1865, the United States (or at least the northern faction of it) was thrown into a period of profound national mourning. One result of this outpouring of grief was Walt Whitman's "O Captain, My Captain", but the poet also wrote a much longer pastoral elegy, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd", a free-form poem that draws its imagery from drooping stars and keening birds. More than a century later, this poem would become the basis for George Walker's Lilacs, the first piece by a black composer to win the Pulitzer Prize.

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Earnest Absurdity

The stage is lit with eerie blue and purple light. The music is tense and skittish. A crowd of French aristocrats looks on as two ghostly figures — the ghosts of Louis XVI and Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, to be precise — draw swords in a fit of sexual jealousy. After considerable back and forth, the King gains the upper hand and plunges his sword into the body of Beaumarchais. There is a moment of stunned silence as the onlookers crane to see whether he's going to make it. And then, quite abruptly, Beaumarchais straightens up, pulls the sword out, and giddily proclaims "We're all dead!", whereupon the entire company break out in eerie, cackling laughter and begin stabbing each other with playful abandon. So it goes in Ghosts of Versailles, John Corigliano and William Hoffman's "grand opera buffa" which had its West-coast première last Saturday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles.

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Edax Omnium

I don't know what to do with everything I find in my job as an archivist. A few days ago, working thru a large pile of miscellaneous parts from the Tony Martin collection, I found a little strip of paper, not even a quarter of a full page, just enough for a single line of music. On it, someone had written — hastily, in blue ink — two measures of notes. Not even distinctive measures, just a simple cadential formulation, one that could fit comfortably with pretty much any piece in that key. Short of using handwriting analysis to track down the original copyist (assuming they're still alive and remember this one, completely unremarkable copying job), there is quite literally no way to figure out which arrangement this fragment originally went with.

Realistically, this is probably not an important piece of paper to hold onto. It strains credulity to claim that anyone will ever need the notes written on it, that literally any future task would be rendered impossible by its absence. I'm the only person who's laid eyes on it since it was tossed into that box however many years ago, and given the state of everything around it, I doubt the previous filer kept a careful record of everything there. If it weren't for this post, there would be no record of its existence; it would quite literally be impossible for anyone else to know that anything had disappeared if I threw it away.

But I didn't. I filed it, put it in with the other orphaned parts (most actual parts, full pages with titles and instrument indications, but a few that were fragmentary and unidentifiable), and made a little note in the database that the second Tony Martin road case has a stash of miscellaneous parts that don't correspond to any of the arrangements we have on record.

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Music Monday: Bonds: Songs

Before diving into the music for today's post, I want to draw attention to a quote by the poet whose texts are set in it. When faced with the question of why black authors were less prolific than their white counterparts, Langston Hughes pointed out [Google Book, p 528] that, due to racism, black authors were not afforded the same lucrative opportunities to write for mass media as white authors, and thus "[are] not in touch with the peripheral sources of literary income that enable others more fortunate to take a year off and write". He was talking specifically about writers of words, but the same considerations apply to writers of music as well. Conductors and performers have never made commissioning decisions based solely on musical quality (if that can even be determined objectively); they've always tried to work with people they like. Given the entrenchment of structural racism in our society and the oblivious self-positioning of concert music as the music of the cultural élite, it is wholly unsurprising that African-American concert composers would find many fewer opportunities to ply their craft, and that the works they produced for what opportunities they did get would languish in relative obscurity.

(Obviously, things were somewhat better financially in the world of Jazz, a rich and vibrant genre created and shaped at every turn by African-American musicians. White mainstream culture's treatment of Jazz was (and frequently still is) baldly racist, and many white composers are guilty of pilfering from it in highly questionable ways, but at least black musicians could have successful careers in it. My focus on concert composers for African-American History month is emphatically not meant to claim that concert music is in any way superior to or more legitimate than Jazz — these posts are not trying to replace the old canon with a new, equally exclusive one — I am merely focussing on the genres of music I know best. While my knowledge of concert music is far from complete, I know enough about Jazz only to be aware of the vast, yawning chasms of my ignorance.)

Now for the music! Margaret Allison Bonds was born in Chicago in 1913, and she spent the first two decades of her life there. Her mother was a practiced musician and gave Bonds her earliest training on piano, an instrument that Bonds continued playing thruout her life. While studying music at Northwestern University, she became, at the age of twenty, the first African-American soloist to play with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and had earned her Master's in Music by the age of 21. She continued her studies at Juilliard, but returned to Chicago to open her own music school (where she taught, among others, a young Ned Rorem), and was also active as a performer, composer, and impresario. In 1968, she moved out to Los Angeles, where she lived until her death in 1972.

Dark, brooding chords introduce her setting of "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" from 1942, a setting of the poem by Langston Hughes. (Bonds had a long and enduring friendship with Hughes, and they collaborated on several projects including a cantata and at least one musical.) As with the opening words, these chords return at various points to anchor the song, sometimes in the original, but sometimes transformed from melancholy to grandeur and even joy. The music slips easily, almost dreamily, between styles, but never loses its powerful cohesion. (According to Wikipedia, Bonds submitted this piece as part of an application to study with the great French teacher Nadia Boulanger, but when Boulanger saw the song, she declared that Bonds needed no further lessons and declined to teach her. Listening, it's not hard to hear why, even if the story is apocryphal.)

Several years later, Bonds set three more poems by Hughes, resulting in the "Three Dream Portraits" (published 1953), a cycle that shows up in pretty much every biographical sketch of the composer that I've found. The first is "Minstrel Man", set to a rolling accompaniment that seems to hover right on the cusp between comfort and tragedy — fittingly, for a text that has to do with missing a black man's deep suffering because of his (forcedly) happy surface. The mood lifts in the "Dream Variations", with a whirling, expansive fantasy land that blossoms almost to the point of ecstasy before catching on a moment of poignancy and ending on a reserved note. It's back down to earth for the concluding "I too Sing America", which is at turns  sarcastic, falsely cheerful, and boldly swaggering. The swagger wears off by the end, however, and the cycle draws to a close in a somewhat gloomy mood despite the assurances of the text. Looking at the subsequent and continuing history of racism in this country, it seems a sadly prescient choice.

Music Monday: Corigliano: Symphony No. 1

Come back when your screams aren't so raw around the edges. Edward Rothstein didn't actually write those words in his New York Times review of the New York première of John Corigliano's first symphony (written in 1988 in response to the AIDS crisis), but it's a sentiment that seems to be lurking everywhere beneath the surface. He opines that the piece "is extraordinarily aggressive: to show anger and pain, it shouts and screams and harangues in triple-forte range. These outbursts seem almost tantrums, they are so raw and musically unmotivated.". Later, he calls such gestures "vulgar"; he compares them unfavorably with other "musically sophisticated works" and complains that they "[rely] upon prepackaged emotional baggage" and fail to "enlarge the listener's perceptions". Could you mourn your dead in a way that's a bit more tasteful?

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