A Night at the Orchestra with Hegel and Mickey Mouse

Mickey Mouse

As I took my customary seat in the local symphony hall at my customary time of 7:58pm Friday evening, I noticed something seemed a bit different about the audience this time: It was younger. And I don’t just mean the 20- and 30-somethings such as myself whom the orchestra was trying so hard to attract with student discounts and themed after-parties, although two such people were sitting directly behind me and two more directly in front of me. But the first two audience members to my right were middle-school kids, and to the left were a woman and her son, who looked to be just seven or eight years old.

Glancing at the program, I realized why parents might have picked this night to bring their children to the symphony. The concert opener was Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, famous as a segment from the classic Disney movie Fantasia starring Mickey Mouse as the title character who conjures a magic broom to mop the floor for him. I remembered this piece mostly as the subject of a bizarrely pedantic dispute between two scholars I had to read in a music theory seminar over whether the presence—or lack thereof—of a complete tonic chord at the end of the piece implied an authorial voice narrating the action of the story.

But not surprisingly, it seemed that the concertgoers around me had very different associations with it. As soon as the first downbeat unleashed the ethereal chords representing the magic spell, the young boy to the left began talking excitedly to his mother, although thankfully softly enough to only be audible during the quiet moments in the music. At one point, I think I heard him squeal, “Is this the part where they fight?” (I’ve only watched the Fantasia short once—because of that same class—but I don’t remember any fighting in it…)

But it wasn’t just the kids who were enjoying Mickey’s music. The young woman in front of me seemed to be squirming with delight as she rocked back and forth in time with the magic broom’s comically grotesque melody. Perhaps she had grown up watching the cartoon too. I began to wonder whether Walt Disney had really succeeded in his attempt at bringing classical music into popular culture while actually making money in the process. The remaining pieces on the program—Chausson’s Poéme, Ravel’s Tzigane, and Stravinsky’s Petrushka—were all based on dramatic or narrative subtexts too and kept the audience well engaged, if not enthralled (although the young boy seemed to max out his attention span after about 15 minutes of Stravinsky). But, I wondered, how many of these people would have bought tickets to the symphony had The Sorcerer’s Apprentice not opened the program?

For a seminar I’m taking in aesthetics, I recently read an essay by the Enlightenment philosopher G. W. F. Hegel bearing the ungainly title “The Oldest System-Program of German Idealism.”[1] Hegel laments the difficulty of closing the gap between “enlightened” thinkers and the “unenlightened” masses. This gap, he says, manifests itself in religion (as reason versus faith), in art (as what we call the highbrow-versus-lowbrow divide), and in philosophy (as the difference between what Hegel sees as authentic philosophy and popular “mythology”). He then proposes

an idea which, as far as I know, has not occurred to anyone—we need a new mythology. However, this mythology must be at the service of the ideas; it must become a mythology of reason. Until we render the ideas aesthetic, that is, mythological, they will not be of any interest to the populace. … Mythology must become philosophical in order to make the people reasonable, and philosophy must turn mythological in order to make the philosophers sensuous. Then there prevails eternal unity among us![2]

Thus, Hegel wants to enlist the arts as a medium for his “program” of unifying humanity under enlightened ideas. He envisions them as not only a sort of marketing ploy to interest ordinary people in philosophy, but also a way of drawing the philosophers down from their rarefied abstract contemplations into the “sensuous” world inhabited by ordinary people. Out of the great cultural triad of art, religion, and philosophy, Hegel is obviously most concerned with advocating for the latter. But many artists of a religious persuasion would express a similar sentiment: art can not only be a means of embodying spiritual truths in a way that is relatable to embodied humans, but also of ensuring that spiritual people continue to enjoy the physical creation rather than all becoming ascetic hermits.

What Fantasia seems to have done, then, is to complete the triad, using art-as-mythology to further the cause of art-as-philosophy. It could be considered an attempt to convey supposedly higher-level values in simple, vivid images understandable to ordinary people, which Hegel calls “mythology,” although we might also speak of popular science, pop spirituality, or pop psychology alongside folktale and myth. But Disney has literally imported “mythological” characters in cartoon form into works of classical music, in hopes of achieving a rapprochement between, perhaps even a synthesis of, the two. Since the split of classical and popular music culture a century or so ago, numerous music organizations have attempted similar projects, with mixed results (as my local symphony can attest).

But ultimately, the goal is not merely tricking listeners into discovering art music with the promise of familiar movie themes. It’s equally about reminding jaded graduate students that good music can be enjoyed on a simple level too, just like a silly cartoon—without worrying about such minutiae as whether there’s a C in the last chord.

For the record, though, there isn’t.

[1] The essay is technically anonymous, and some scholars believe it to be the work of one of Hegel’s colleagues, such as the poet Friedrich Hölderlin, or a collaboration between Hegel, Hölderlin, and F. W. J. Schelling.

[2] Thomas Pfau, trans., Friedrich Hölderlin: Essays and letters on theory (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988), 155-156.

Improvisation in Stockhausen’s Solo

Years ago I wrote a paper on a piece by Stockhausen called Solo. The paper itself was long and boring, so I’ll spare you a reproduction of it here. I recently suffered through a rereading of it and discovered that there are some interesting thoughts in it about improvisation which I do find worthwhile to explore a bit. One of the most interesting things about Solo is the methodology of improvisation that it asks the player to use, which I believe is a very rare kind of improvisation.

It’s a bit difficult to describe Solo briefly since it is such a complex work. Solo is an electroacoustic work for a single player and feedback delay. The delay times are much longer than those that we usually associate with delay as an effect, which tend to have delay times in milliseconds. Rather, the delay in Solo uses times in multiple seconds, so whole or multiple phrases could be repeated by the delay after the performer has played them.

Solo1

The notation consists of six form schemes and six pages of notated music. An example of a page of notation is shown above, and a form scheme is shown below. The player is instructed to letter the pages of notation A-F and place them in order. Since the lettering is left up to the player, the order of the pages ends up being more or less arbitrary. Stockhausen then refers the player to different divisions of the material on each page. Specifically, pages, systems, parts, and elements. Pages and systems have the same definitions that they would in other notated music. Stockhausen defines a “part” as any group of notes contained within a pair of bar lines. This is not called a “bar” or a “measure” simply because the printed music contains both proportional and mensural notation. An “element” is any single normally printed note, any grace note by itself, any group of grace notes, or any single grace note and its associated normally printed note.

Formscheme2

The form schemes represent the way in which the player will interpret the notated music. For a performance, only one form scheme is selected to be played. Each of the form schemes are broken into smaller sections made up of cycles and periods. A cycle is the group of periods between two letters as determined in the form scheme. Each form scheme has six cycles which are lettered to correspond generally to the similarly lettered page of notation. So, cycle A is the first cycle of periods on all of the form schemes and generally will contain material from page A of the notation. Periods are smaller groupings within cycles which have time values in seconds assigned to them based on the delay time of the electronics for the corresponding cycle. So, as we can see in the image taken from form scheme II below, in cycle A, there are nine periods of twelve seconds each. Within cycle B there are seven periods of twenty-four seconds each, and so on.

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A performance of Solo is never a “start at measure one and play to the end” kind of endeavor. Rather, the player is at liberty to select portions of each page to play in a given cycle. Below each cycle there is a group of symbols that tells the player relatively loosely how they should perform the music for that cycle. Stockhausen calls these “what,” “where,” and “how” symbols. A “what” symbol tells a player what size of gesture they should select (systems, parts or elements); a “where” symbol tells a player from where they should select these gestures (from the current page, the current and the following page, the current and the previous page, or all three); a “how” symbol tells the player how the gestures they select should relate to each other (different, the same, or opposite). The criteria for the how gesture is up to the player. So, the player might decide that the how symbol relates to pitch. In this case, the “same” symbol would indicate that the gestures within a cycle should all have more or less the same pitch range.
Two additional symbols indicate the length of time a player may pause between periods, and how the player should attempt to relate to the electronics part within a cycle.

The image below is from cycle B of form scheme V. These particular symbols indicate that, within this cycle, the player must draw musical material made up of parts, from pages A, B, and C, which are either the same or different, with medium pauses following each part, and entrances staggered so as to create a polyphonic texture with the electronics.

Polyphon

So, in actual performance, the player might play this part from page B 1, then this one from page C 2, this from A 3, this from B 4,and so on until they had played a 45 second period from the cycle. Then the player can take a medium pause before they continue the same process again, trying to create a polyphonic texture as the electronics play back what they played from the previous period.

Whew! Remember when I said it was difficult to describe this piece simply? There’s actually quite a bit more to the performance of the piece (for example, we haven’t really discussed the electronics at all!), but I think that’s all you’ll need to know for now.

Solo represents an excellent example of what I would call “composed improvisation.” The term itself seems like an oxymoron, but the concept is actually much more common than one might think. For example, virtually all ‘traditional’ jazz is composed improvisation. Jazz players are generally given, or have learned, some kind of chart or lead sheet which contains the chord changes and melody of a piece, and then improvise based on that information.

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In fact, it’s fairly common for this same kind of controlled improvisation based on notation to occur in contemporary classical music as well. What I have seen most commonly, and have used the most in my own music, is a section wherein only pitches are notated and everything else is left to the player to decide. An example from my music is shown below. Note that the given pitches can be used in any order, in any octave, with any rhythm, dynamic, articulation and so on.

Naut

These are by no means the only ways that notated improvisation can occur. There are probably as many different ways to utilize these kinds of ideas as there are composers using them. But Solo is actually an example of something very rare in the world of composed improvisation. To work out what that is, we have to take a quick step back.

Music is fundamentally organized into a series of impulses. A note begins on an impulse. That note can be combined with other notes into a larger phrase, which has its own larger impulse. That phrase is then grouped with other phrases to form a section, which has its own, still larger impulse. Sections can be grouped into a large form which we might call a movement, or a complete work, each of which also has its own much larger impulse. Sometimes people refer to this concept of grouping things into larger and larger impulses as “the big beats” of music. I’m deliberately avoiding the word “beat” here because it can be misleading.

This concept is actually alluded to in a Ted talk by Benjamin Zander, which you can watch below, and is more scientifically stated by Stockhausen himself in an essay which appears in Perspectives on Contemporary Music Theory edited by Benjamin Boretz and Edward T. Cone.

Composed improvisation can generally be organized into three levels based on with what level of impulses the player is being allowed to improvise and what levels of impulse have been predetermined. In the first level, the form and the phrases are both predetermined, but the specific notes which are played are up to the performer. In the second level, the form and the specific notes are determined, but the phrases which are constructed out of those notes are up to the performer. In the final level, specific notes and phrases are determined, but the form of the piece is left to the performer.

So, the two forms of composed improvisation that we have discussed thus far are both level-one improvisation. Consider jazz improvisation: the form of the piece and the phrase structure are already given based on the notation within the chart, but exactly which notes are played when is up to the player to decide. Specific notes are undetermined, but the larger impulses are predetermined.

An example of third-level improvisation would be the “open form” music found in some of the works of Pierre Boulez is an example of this as are numerous works by Stockhusen (Zyklus, and Licht, for example). In this kind of improvisation, while entire sections of notes and phrases are specifically notated, the order in which those sections occur is determined by the performers.

Solo is a rare example of level-two improvisation in which specific notes and gestures are determined, as is the overarching form, but the way those notes and gestures organize to make phrases is left to the player. I have not yet encountered another piece of composed improvised music that contains large-scale, level-two improvisation, even among Stockhousen’s works. What’s more, the understanding by the performer that this work functions as level-two improvisation is absolutely imperative to a particular performance faithfully representing Stockhausen’s intentions for Solo.

For those interested in hearing Solohere is a recording of me and horn player Briay Condit playing this piece.

The fact that this work is, as far as I am aware, unique in the world of improvised music makes it more meaningful to the cannon, and likely explains why the work is so notationally involved and difficult for performers to meaningfully understand. And, frankly, this only begins to deal with the things about this work that are fascinating and misunderstood, which probably explains why my previous paper was so long and boring… perhaps more on this another day.

For more from Stephen Bailey, you can visit his website here.

The Gift of Immediacy: A Meditation on Being Late for a Concert

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Andrew Wyeth – The Carry

Me senté
en un claro del tiempo.
era un remanso
de silencio,
de un blanco silencio…
I sat down
In a space of time
It was a backwater
of silence,
of white silence…

 
Claro de reloj (Pause of the clock), Federico García Lorca, trans. Stanley Read

Actually, I stood up – at the back of the King Center concert hall with two of my friends, because we had arrived late. As the Lorca lyrics of Morton Lauridsen’s Cuatro Canciones wafted to us in a shimmer of vaguely Messiaen-ish harmonies and Crumb-ish timbre-textures, it was a backwater of crystalline sound – an unexpected music. The usual ritual of sitting down, clapping, and program reading foregone, we had walked in at the start of the Playground Ensemble’s October 26th, 2015 performance of this movement as though it had always been happening in that space. We had entered with no idea of who we were hearing, or of what; immediately, our empty hands had been filled with the molten, colored jewels that adorned that white silence.

One of the gifts of lateness and of not having sufficient time for anything (once you let go of the stress and the self-condemnation, that is) is immediacy. Immediacy is the elusive treasure of the 21st century, arriving secretly and remaining for a time veiled and useless to the possessor behind daily layers of panic and dissatisfaction. If those layers are peeled away, immediacy is revealed as the resolve to jump in and do what can be done now without fear; to let go of unhelpful expectations and worries that get in the way of now; to listen to intuition, allowing an experience or an atmosphere to have free reign in your consciousness without your own interference; to capture the absolute essence of something without trying, painting a truth in the broadest possible strokes; to engage in listening and conversation without the background noise of ego and preconceived notions. Immediacy is the sensory experience of a child – all eyes and ears and uninhibited fingers that reach without hesitation for the crayon.

Actually, come to think of it, we did sit down – once the Lauridsen piece was over and the stage was being reset. But for me, at least, the immediate hearing remained – that coming in out of the cold and dark to meet unknown sounds without context or expectation. I looked with only half an eye at my program, not wishing to spoil the feeling, and I half-learned that Louis Andriessen’s Workers Union was for “any group of loud-sounding instruments.” From the stage, one of the performers explained that Andriessen’s notation only specified rhythm and contour – not exact pitch. Then the framework that is Workers Union began to unfold, and I recognized again the gift of immediacy, remembering a quote by Andrew Wyeth: “That’s why I like fencing so much…it’s very much like painting. It’s that decisive, sharp, quick stroke that captures the essence of a subject.” I could hear how Andriessen captured the essential vision in the broadest strokes, and how the performers seized it, bringing their communication, their letting go, and their commitment to the immediate interpretation of those strokes.

When Workers Union came to an end, a conspicuously immediate conductor (viz., clothed in a tattered ball cap, unsuitable pants, sweatshirt, and well-worn shoes) took the stage and began to direct the Playground’s closing soundpainting. I’ve heard many soundpaintings before, but none as fresh, as energized, or as seemingly-composed-yet-also-seemingly-improvised as this one. A construction of sound emerged with flawless logic but the unmistakable torn edges of the immediate vision. I heard sounds I wanted to hang onto and dwell with for a while, letting the immediate experience continue on without me…But still immediacy held me in its grip, embodied in the hyper-alert musicians and their conductor. Together, with effortlessness and razor focus, they animated the living, growing organism of structured sound.

Actually – now that I think of it – we were neither sitting down nor standing up when the first movement of the Lauridsen began. We were hovering in the foyer, our own backwater of silence, because Claro de reloj was already underway, and the ushers were softly preparing to open the doors for us between movements. “When you go in, try to grab a seat at the back, or just stand until the piece is over,” they said, and handed us our programs. They might as easily have said, here, you lucky latecomers; take a double portion of the gift others left behind –

anillo formidable
donde los luceros
chocaban con los doce flotantes
numeros negros.
a formidable ring
wherein the stars
collided with the twelve floating
black numerals.

 
Yes, you missed the first piece; you are tired, you are late, you are burned out, and you have no good ideas left.

But your inheritance is immediacy.

The Power of Recurrence: Further Thoughts on Form

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I recently had the pleasure of seeing a live performance of Mario Davidovsky’s Synchronisms No. 10 for guitar and tape. Davidovsky is an Argentine-born composer who has spent most of his career in the US, especially at Columbia and Harvard universities. As with much American music from the more “academic” strain (Davidovsky’s biggest mentor was Milton Babbitt), Synchronisms No. 10 does not follow any traditional form. Instead, the piece appears to be through-composed, with a number of distinct sections following organically upon each other, creating an interesting and colorful variety of sound worlds. Somewhat surprisingly, the piece begins with several minutes of solo guitar before the electronic part enters. However, near the end of the piece, the guitar’s opening gestures recur exactly as at the beginning, but with an electronic accompaniment this time. As I listened to the performance, the obvious recurrence of this passage gave the whole a much more defined shape in my mind, causing me to smile and nod in approval almost involuntarily. Suddenly, it seemed as if I liked the piece a whole lot more, even though it had done nothing new.

Even though Davidovsky studiously avoided using any classical forms, I realized that this recurrence of the opening material was actually functioning in a way analogous to a recapitulation in traditional form, even apart from the return to a home tonality which is traditionally associated with it. This suggested to me that perhaps the main purpose of traditional musical forms such as sonata and rondo is not to provide a tonal structure, but simply a framework for recurrence. In a piece of any substantial length, some element of recurrence is necessary to create a satisfying listening experience, whether the language is tonal or atonal. In fact, I would argue that the longer a piece is, the more essential repetition or recurrence is to maintaining a coherent construction of form.

Similarly, in the visual arts, the larger a work’s physical dimensions, the more important its form or composition is. The painter, potter, sculptor, or architect constructs these forms out of elements dealing with the distribution of materials across space, such as shape, color, balance, and proportion. However, while a work of visual art can be grasped instantaneously, in a single glance, a work of music must be experienced through time. Therefore, its structure must be articulated through elements dealing with the disposition of materials across time, such as repetition, variation, recurrence, expansion, or contrast.

Because of this principle, I would argue that truly through-composed music (that is, forms relying exclusively on variation or contrast instead of repetition or recurrence) can only work on small scales. One significant exception to this might be so-called process music, in which certain musical parameters follow a clearly-defined trajectory over the course of the piece, so that the character of the music is constantly in flux and thus never literally repeating. These large-scale trajectories provide a way for the listener to conceptualize the entire piece in a single glance, so to speak, without needing to recognize material they heard earlier. Even so, most examples of process pieces use either repetition or recurrence as well to help construct the form. Composers may even construct processes that undo or spiral back upon themselves, so that the end of the piece is the same as the beginning—a sort of terminal recurrence that signals the piece’s completion. (For a brilliant example of process music, see Thomas Adès’ In Seven Days.)

In an earlier post, I reflected on how minimalist art showed me that the ideal balance between repetition and variation in a work often tilts much more towards repetition than I think. After my experience listening to the Davidovsky, I now wonder if this principle applies to all musical styles, not just minimalism. For example, one of the most stimulating experiences I’ve had as a composer was taking a seminar in Schenkerian analysis, a music theory paradigm which attempts to show that tonal music uses the same basic patterns at all levels of its structure, from phrases to sections to entire pieces. As a theorist, I don’t necessarily buy all the assertions of Schenkerian philosophy, but as a composer, it opened my eyes to the potential to expand any musical idea without adding any new material, by simply replicating the pattern of the whole in each of the parts, much like a fractal.

To take a completely opposite example, serial music also relies heavily on repetitions of a basic tone row, albeit transformed through processes such as retrograde and inversion (not to mention extreme contrasts in rhythm, timbre, or texture). While serial music is notoriously difficult for listeners to comprehend, I wonder if this is not due to its lack of tonality but rather to the fact that the repetition and recurrence in its structure are not apparent to listeners, having been buried by the radical variation of other musical parameters. The same sort of structure is still there, but it fails to create a sense of cohesion for listeners if they are unable to perceive it.

In my opinion, the difficulty for composers in writing long pieces is not in coming up with enough ideas to fill the piece, but in stretching out a single idea to fill the appropriate amount of time, like blowing up a balloon or throwing a pot on the wheel. Much as novice potters tend to leave the walls of their pots too thick because they don’t realize how far they can stretch the clay to enclose a larger volume, aspiring composers tend to leave their musical materials underdeveloped, moving on from an idea before it has grown to its full potential.

So the next time I’m stuck searching for inspiration in a piece, I intend to check what I’ve already written and consider if it might just be time for some repetition, or at least a little more stretching of an idea. After all, if you never pop a balloon, you’re not blowing them up big enough, right?

Claude Vivier, Lonely Child

by Nathan Cornelius

The history of Western music has largely been defined by methods of combining contrasting voices, with distinct rhythms and melodies, into a harmonious whole. From medieval motets to Renaissance counterpoint to Baroque fugue, all the way up to 20th-century “micropolyphony,” composers have developed intricate systems of composition and notation to regulate this complex relationship of parts. However, Canadian composer Claude Vivier negates the central thrust of this 800-year tradition in his masterpiece Lonely Child for soprano and orchestra.

Lonely Child was commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1980. Vivier never heard the piece performed live, as he moved to France the following year and, tragically, was murdered in Paris in 1983. The text by Vivier himself, alternating between French and an imaginary nonsense language, is a lullaby comforting a sad child with fantastic visions of fairies, magicians, and stars. Vivier grew up in an orphanage and never knew his biological parents, and the text is often considered a depiction of his own childhood.

After an introduction featuring a sparse string melody interrupted by strokes on the bass drum and rin (a Japanese percussion instrument vaguely resembling a gong), the soprano enters with the text, accompanied by sustained notes from the full orchestra, moving in exact rhythmic unison with the voice. However, the texture continues to be sparse, as nearly all the instruments are concentrated on either the soprano note or one other lower part (which takes the place, if not the function, of a bass line). The lone exception is the first violins, who softly play hazy clusters in a very high register, appearing like a glassy sheen on the soprano’s vocal timbre.

In fact, these violin notes, as Bob Gilmore has shown, bear a precise mathematical relationship to the two principal voices.[1] Vivier generates them by repeatedly adding the frequency of the “bass” note to that of the soprano, as if they originated from electronic interference between the two notes. For example, the soprano’s first note is A440 (the A above middle C, having a frequency of 440 Hz), while the lower voice plays the G just over an octave lower (196 Hz). The violin notes above this approximately frequencies of 636, 832, 1028, 1224, and 1420 Hz (440 + 196 + 196 +196 +196 +196), forming a dense stack of notes. Played by itself, this cluster would sound noticeably out-of-tune, but in this context it blends seamlessly into the two lower notes. Vivier creates similar harmonies above each pair of soprano and bass notes for the entire melody, as it gradually ascends higher and higher.

With this innovative and boldly simple structure, Vivier has done away with the traditional musical elements of harmony and texture and absorbed them into a single element: timbre. (Timbre is often referred to in layman’s terms as “tone color,” and Vivier himself called these chords les couleurs.) The texture is such an extreme of homophony that it ceases to be noticeable as a texture at all. Meanwhile, the piece does not have harmony in the traditional sense, since there are only two main notes sounding at a time, but each simultaneity has a unique overlay of violin notes that impart to it a distinctive color. As a result, the dominant perceptual element of the piece is a series of shifting timbres generated by the relationship between the melody and its supporting voice.

Although Vivier is mentioned far less than his friends Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail as an influence on the “spectralist” movement in 20th-century music, works like Lonely Child come as close as any to fulfilling the ideals of the movement. The spectralist composers conceived of music along a set of continua, such as pitch to rhythm, or harmony to timbre, and sought to show how these apparently distinct musical elements were actually two forms of the same entity, in a sort of musical theory of relativity. Vivier’s Lonely Child is a nobly elegant embodiment of that idea, but more than that, a deeply poignant and sensuously beautiful work of art.

[1] Bob Gilmore, “On Claude Vivier’s Lonely Child,” Tempo 61 (239), 2-17.

A Moment of Silent Noise

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by Nathan Cornelius

I love listening to the music of Gustav Mahler for his colorful use of the orchestra and skillful use of counterpoint. At any given moment, there are usually more things going on than I can pay attention to at once, yet everything seems to cohere into a grand and monumental sound object. This was certainly the case at a recent performance of Mahler’s 9th Symphony I attended. Indeed, spending an hour-and-a-half five rows back from a hundred-piece orchestra can be an overwhelming sensory experience. So it was strange that the most profound moment I experienced listening to the piece came when hardly anything was happening.

Unlike most symphonies, Mahler’s 9th ends not with a grand finale but with a lyrical, passionate, and expansive slow movement. (This movement is famously known as Mahler’s farewell to life, since the 9th was the last work he completed, but that’s another story…) Sentimental epithets aside, the music does carry a certain sense of unfulfilled longing, and each time it builds to a climax, it abruptly drops away to a single note just at the moment one would expect it to resolve. These “anticlimactic” notes are played softly, sustained by one of the strings, in contrast to the lush orchestration Mahler uses elsewhere in the piece. At the last major climax, about two-thirds of the way through the movement, the texture once again thins to a single note, but this time it is a high C-flat, played fortissimo by all of the violins, and held for more than two measures.

To play a note so loud and long, the violins must use the whole length of the bow several times, as Mahler indicates in the score. They generally also try to stagger their changes of bow direction to keep the note from sounding like several short notes in a row. Furthermore, with this much pressure on the bow, the  bow change creates a brief crunching, scuffing noise as the hairs grind against the string. This, of course, happens anytime a violinist plays loudly, but we are normally not consciously aware of it, simply perceiving it as a component of “the sound of a violin playing loudly.”

As the intense C-flat stretched on and on, I became increasingly aware of this chorus of bow noises as one violinist after another reversed direction. Surprisingly, the note itself seemed to recede from my perception as I concentrated more and more on the noises. Instead of the note being foreground and the noise being background, the sound flipped inside-out so that the noise was foreground and the note background. By the end, I could almost imagine myself surrounded by a deep silence, broken only by the chorus of little scuffs, even though I knew I was in fact listening to twenty-odd violinists sawing away at full blast. The only other listening experience I’ve had anything like it is listening to the combination tones that arise from an intense sound of rapidly oscillating pitch in a resonant hall, such as a soprano singing a high note, a clarinet playing a rapid tremolo, or (most remarkably) a marimba sustaining closely spaced chords.

This curious experience suggested to me several principles about musical listening. First, music conveys information to us by the very act of changing or evolving over time. If a sound were completely static, we would cease to notice it after a while. Our consciousness quickly gravitates toward any new stimulus and thus away from an ongoing, unchanging stimulus. When we listen to a new piece, everything seems unfamiliar and thus clamors for our concentration. If the piece contains too much musical information, the effect can be overwhelming on the listener. However, once we become used to the sounds we are hearing, we begin to notice more subtle variations or changes within them and soon forget how bold and brash they seemed before. Thus, I was only able to pay attention to the bow changes when the note C-flat had sounded for so long that it ceased to register as a new stimulus to my hearing.

Second, careful listening makes you aware of components of the sound you don’t normally notice, and careful composers can help listeners become aware of components of the sound they don’t normally notice. This can be as radical as, in my case, listening to the production noise while ignoring the subsequent note, executing a sort of figure-ground reversal, but it can be much more subtle as well. In keeping with the previous principle, composers must also be careful not to include so many musical events in their work that listeners are never able to attend to all the incoming stimuli being thrown at them and thus never attain this level of hearing. Sometimes a long note—or a long silence—can work wonders to help the ear process what it has just heard and focus its concentration on what comes next.

Finally, it takes a long time to reach this state of awareness. With the vast array of stimuli around us, it is hard to devote our attention solely to what we’re experiencing in the present moment. Even when we do listen, it is usually not at this intimate level of detail, and it’s not possible to simply flip a switch and instantly become attuned to the nuances of a sound. Instead, we have to gradually soak deeper into the sound and let our inner ears open wider, like a fern unfurling its fronds. Indeed, I spent much of the first movement of the Mahler distracted by something that had happened on the way to the concert.  I don’t think it’s any coincidence that this magical moment struck me only after more than an hour of concentrating on the music. I think this is also why, when the final strains of music faded away and the audience waited for an incredibly drawn-out half-minute before anyone dared applaud, the silence seemed the sweetest sound I’d heard all day.

Sylvano Bussotti, Fragmentations for harpist

Recording: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SwQ0DAE4Uo8

Fragmentations 7-9

by Nathan Cornelius

On the surface, Sylvano Bussotti’s Fragmentations for harpist seems to be a sort of Rube Goldberg machine of modern music, a perversely complex contraption weaving a thick mesh of notes and strings. Bussotti applies a frightening amount of ink to the page, writing dense textures on non-aligning staves of various sizes, saturated with expressive markings. Even the margins are occupied with constructivist doodles in multicolored ink, which turn out to be miniature graphic scores whose shapes provide a jumping-off point for improvisatory sections. Bussotti eschews the conventional-sounding title Fragmentations for harp because, in fact, there are two harps played by one harpist. Moreover, the second instrument is tuned to incorporate quarter-tones, prepared with elastic woven through the strings, and supplied with at least four different kinds of percussive implements.

Fragmentations 4-2bOnce the shock of the initial encounter with the music dissipates, however, Fragmentations raises some fascinating issues for musicians to consider. First, Bussotti’s graphic score notation engages the performer’s creativity in an intuitive way, rather than a merely deductive one. Rather than simply giving the performer the information necessary to execute the piece and expecting him or her to follow it, Bussotti’s graphic score invites collaboration and vision as the performer seeks to realize the character of the notation in a compelling manner.

Second, this unconventional notation allows Bussotti to notate unusual harp timbres in a surprisingly precise and specific way. He uses different colors for different registers of the instrument to guide not only the contour of pitched gestures but also the quality of unpitched sounds through their placement on the body of the harp. By combining this with an inventive array of symbols, Bussotti subverts the privileging of pitch over timbre in traditional notation, notating both in equal detail.

Third, in keeping with Bussotti’s concern for the physical, corporeal side of music, he affirms the score as a physical object, not just a symbolic stand-in for sound. The score consists of a “cutaway” of fragmentary staves arrayed across three large sheets of paper. Bussotti specifies that these can be read left to right as three separate sheets, left to right across all three sheets as a unit, or in still another order indicated by numbers on each fragment. Furthermore, the ordering of the graphic interpolations within the piece, while generally tracing the path of the numbered staves across the page, is left to the performer’s discretion. Thus, the score gains some of its meaning from its physical dimensions and layout, becoming more than a mere medium to transmit information.

Finally, Fragmentations truly is a piece for a harpist, and a heroic harpist at that. Aside from the headache of deciphering the notation, the harpist has to figure out how to manage two full-size instruments at once (Bussotti does not specify exactly how this works, but recommends using a “revolving stool”). The piece has a certain theatrical quality to it, full of dramatic musical and physical gestures, with the harpist calculating moves like an artist composing a drawing. In effect, Bussotti’s genius is to make a piece of music be more than a noumenal entity existing in a realm of ideals. Not only the composer, but also the performer, the instrument, and even the score itself, participate in the creation of the work through the physicality of their gestures.

Sofia Gubaidulina, Repentance

by Nathan Cornelius

Born in 1931, Sofia Gubaidulina is one of the leading Russian composers of the late 20th century. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, where she had spent most of her career, she moved to Germany, and her music became increasingly known in the West. Her music synthesizes Eastern and Western traditions and often has mystical or religious connotations, as in this piece, Repentance for cello, three guitars, and double bass.

Repentance struck me with its simplicity of materials above all else. Gubaidulina eschews sophisticated structures requiring deep analysis in favor of distinct, transparent musical objects which speak directly to listeners. Most of the melodies in the piece are simply chromatic scales or elaborations of them, with a strong ascending or descending trajectory. The only prominent harmonies which appear are major and minor triads, along with the quartal chord formed by the open strings of the guitar and the bass. The effect is like that of a drawing made up solely of points and lines, without subtlety and artifice of shading. Perhaps this music’s intentional simplicity symbolizes the spirit of humility and contrition necessary for repentance in Christian theology.

The piece begins with a prolonged and increasingly intense high B in all five instruments, ornamented with its neighbor notes A# and C, creating a strong sense of a pitch center. At 2:30, the cello causes the pitch center to shift to a low C, but its nervous, almost obsessive music is strikingly interrupted by a gentle, slowly sinking series of major chords played pizzicato by the guitars and the bass. This alternation between agitated, ascending chromatic lines and calm, descending major chords continues throughout the piece, with the chromatic music becoming more and more dissonant and chaotic. At 16:05, Gubaidulina creates a spectacularly jarring effect with all three guitars playing indeterminate chords with glass slides. In the end, the cello’s wildly soaring line glissandos down to come to rest with the low pizzicato object in the guitars and bass.

George Crumb, Quest

by Nathan Cornelius

As both a composer and a performer, I’ve had the privilege of experiencing all sides of the process of creating a musical work. When I write music, I often quote the music of composers I admire—sometimes almost against my will! While I’m not sure exactly what draws me to borrow from other composers, I suspect that the example of their artistry inspires me to be more creative and more intentional as I work on my music, even if my music doesn’t sound anything like theirs. Thus, it is no surprise that many of my favorite pieces I’ve performed also pay homage to earlier music, whether in overt or subtle ways. In particular, this is true of one of my favorite chamber pieces which I finally had the opportunity to play this fall: George Crumb’s hauntingly beautiful Quest for guitar, soprano saxophone, harp,  double bass, and percussion.

Crumb was one of the leading American composers of the 20th century, known for his unusual combinations of instruments, intricately designed scores, and mystical subject matter. Quest, written in 1994 for guitarist David Starobin, uses a diverse array of instruments, including Appalachian hammered dulcimer, African talking drum, and Japanese temple bells, to create an astonishing web of sound, with the guitar as the protagonist.  For Crumb, the music expresses “the concept of a ‘quest’ as a long and tortuous journey towards an ecstatic and transfigured feeling of ‘arrival.’”

The quotation from the American hymn tune “Amazing Grace,” with its line “I once was lost, but now am found,” contributes to the imagery of a search for peace amid darkness and trouble. In the final movement, “Nocturnal,” the hymn tune, played freely by the saxophone, alternates with a more rhythmic idea in the guitar and harp with a curiously similar ascending contour and pentatonic harmony. In fact, the more I played this piece, the more faint echoes of “Amazing Grace” I heard, as the hymn tune and Crumb’s music seemed to melt into each other. The ascending perfect fourth that begins each line of the hymn multiplies into a cascade of fourths on the harp in “Dark Paths,” a saxophone melody shortly thereafter, and a gesture in harmonics on the guitar at the beginning of “Nocturnal.” This forced me to ask myself: what compels me to search for “Amazing Grace” throughout the piece, even beyond the places where it is explicitly quoted? Does the very existence of a quotation give the piece deeper (albeit extra-musical) meaning?

György Ligeti, Lux Aeterna

by Nathan Cornelius

At first, this piece presents an opaque surface to the listener’s ear, “like a dense, impenetrable cobweb,”[1] to use the composer’s own words. It is almost impossible to tell when the first two voices are joined by a third, then a fourth, until eventually eight independent parts are all singing the same note. Gradually, one by one, the voices diverge to different notes, creating clusters that are sometimes chromatic (as at 0:30) and sometimes diatonic (as at 0:45). Ligeti instructs each voice to sneak in imperceptibly, with the result that the listener does not perceive the discrete entries and exits of the voices, but only clusters gradually building up and then dissolving again.

This method of constructing the texture fulfills one of Ligeti’s main compositional goals. Ligeti was critical of the hyper-serial music of composers such as Boulez, where the exact timing, volume, and articulation of each individual note carry great significance. Instead, Ligeti sought to create music based on larger processes which were directly audible to the listener, and Lux aeterna is clearly music built of textures, not notes. Nevertheless, the score is very precisely notated, full of quintuplets and sextuplets. In each section of the piece, the different voices follow a strict canon, singing the same pitches in the same order with different rhythms.   It turns out that Ligeti follows a complex set of rules specifically designed to give the piece a smooth texture, neither experiencing any sudden change in the density of attacks nor making the timing of any individual attack predictable.[2]

Thanks to these rules, Ligeti’s complex polyphonic writing produces an effect that is anything but polyphonic.  Ligeti explains, “The polyphonic structure does not actually come through, you cannot hear it; it remains hidden in a microscopic, under-water world, to us inaudible… All in all, you cannot hear my music as it appears on paper. Of course, while actually composing each piece I worked on what we hear, as we hear it.”[3] A serial composer such as Boulez might construct a complex set of “rules” or a matrix, like a carefully engineered machine, and then simply let it run and generate the piece as it willed. In contrast, Ligeti was constantly tinkering with his machine, tweaking the rules until they produced results that perfectly matched his conception of what the piece should sound like. The strict canons and evenly distributed attacks were for him merely a means to an end, a carefully designed process for creating the elusive textures and floating rhythms that for him symbolized the timelessness of eternal light.

[1] György Ligeti, Ligeti in Conversation, trans. Gabor J. Schabert, et al. (London: Ernst Eulenburg, Ltd., 1983), 14.

[2] For a lucid analysis of this, see Benjamin R. Levy, “‘Rules as Strict as Palestrina’s’: The Regulation of Pitch and Rhythm in Ligeti’s Requiem and Lux aeterna,” Twentieth-Century Music 10, no. 2 (2013), 203-230.

[3] Ligeti, Ligeti in Conversation, 14-15.