Thursday, November 10, 2011

JACK, Part 3: Well, Hello, Iannis...

(The JACK Quartet performs Saturday at 8pm at Temple Ohev Sholom in uptown Harrisburg on Front Street below Seneca Street. I'll be giving a pre-concert talk at 7:15. I've posted about the other pieces on the program here.)

You know those stories that begin something like “it was a dark and stormy night”? You usually know what to expect at least in a general if not in a specific sense: anticipation and dread, mostly.

For some, the idea you’re about to hear something “challenging” sets up mental roadblocks to enjoyment. Today, we have a fairly lame attitude to “enjoyment,” though, which implies the music we listen to (the TV we watch, the art we look at) must “entertain” us (cue the dancing girls, now).

Many listeners have lost sight of other emotional responses we might have in reacting to music, transferring the bottom line of the arts experience to “I liked it. I didn’t like it.”

For some people, listening has become a passive skill: it's on in the background while you focus on something else. But even in Brahms and Beethoven, if you listen “actively,” you’ll get more out of it rather than just letting it wash over you. That’s easy to do with something you’re familiar with. (“Active listening” is also something that will help you enjoy your marriage a little more, too.)

But with something unfamiliar and initially “off-putting,” letting it wash over you can start to feel like you’re drowning.

Take this statement, a contemporary comment but I’ll leave the composers’ names blank for the moment:

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“[COMPOSER #1’s] works do not in general please quite so much as [COMPOSER #2’s] – they confirm he has a decided leaning toward the difficult and the unusual.”
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This was published in London at the end of the 18th Century when Mozart’s “Haydn” Quartets were still new enough to be “New Music.” Which one of these composers do you think is going to be Mozart?

Not to pick on London critics, but here’s one from 1900 and the Dawn of 20th Century Music: which composer (and piece) do you think he’s describing?

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"The [Piece by This Composer] is a work built upon dry as dust elements. It is one of those odd compositions which at times slipped from the pen of _____, apparently in order to prove how excellent a mathematician he might have become, but how prosaic, how hopeless, how unfeeling, how unemotional, how arid a musician he really was. You feel an undercurrent of… quadratic equations, of hyperbolic curves, of the dynamics of a particle. But, it must not be forgotten that music is not only a science; it is also an art. The [Piece] was played with precision, and that is the only way in which you can work out a problem in musical trigonometry."
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In the first quote, Composer #1 is Mozart. Composer #2, the one who proves more pleasing to the critic (if not the audience he’s writing for) is Leopold Kozeluch. (You may need to look him up: check here.)

In the second quote, the mathematically minded composer is Johannes Brahms and the example of musical trigonometry is his Sextet in B-flat, written in 1860, forty years before that review was written.

As a famously "difficult" composer himself, Roger Sessions once said "Every composer whose music seems difficult to grasp is, as long as the difficulty persists, suspected or accused of composing with his brain rather than his heart - as if the one could function without the other."

So, considering the music of Xenakis is often labeled, for better or for worse, with mathematical attributes – regardless of whether it was conceived mathematically or not – I thought those two quotes might give a listener in 2011 something to think about.

And perhaps no better introduction to the impact his music can have on a listener would come from someone who did not at first like it. 

Kevin McFarland, the “K” in JACK, wrote this for their concert’s program notes:

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I first encountered Xenakis' music rummaging through my teacher's CD collection. The liner notes described his works using words such as “mathematical,” “calculus,” and “scientific,” which I found a bit off- putting. At the time, I had inherited my teacher's skepticism of the application of math to composition, even though I enjoyed math (especially calculus) often to the chagrin of my peers. The sounds I heard couldn't have been more contrary to my expectations. I would have described them as being brutal, primitive, and alien. I didn't quite know how to process what I was hearing at the time; I didn't know whether I liked it, hated it, or what.

I rediscovered Xenakis in college when reading Formalized Music, his treatise on composition. The book completely changed my approach to writing music. Influenced by the ancient Greeks, he believed that music should be treated as a science as well as an art. For example, he demonstrated the application of stochastic processes (previously used to model chaotic systems such as the behavior of gas molecules) to “clouds” of string pizzicati or the density of woodwind attacks. These techniques were very exciting to me as a composer; there existed an entire world of potential mathematical processes that seemed much more interesting than, say, twelve-tone rows.

However, at the same time, I was listening to many recordings of Xenakis' music, and the paradox of process versus aesthetic became apparent again. This was not heady-sounding music at all, but rather visceral, primal, corporeal. The process of composition was not obvious on the surface of the music. Instead, one might imagine the wailings of a mourning woman, the thunder of a summer storm, or even sexual or religious ecstasy.
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Earlier this year, when the St. Lawrence Quartet performed the quartet John Adams had written for them, I was intrigued to read that Adams himself had difficulties when he first heard Béla Bartók’s 1st String Quartet which you’d think, compared to the dramatic 3rd, the structurally involved 4th and 5th, and the enigmatic 6th Quartets, would be a walk in the park. But for him, it involved a good deal of “active listening” to make sense of the piece – in the sense another composer makes “sense” of something, perhaps. He said it took several hearings to “get” it.

What does “get” it mean? To each of us, probably something different: a composer wants to understand how a piece is put together, what the composer he’s listening to did to make this piece work; a performer probably listens more to how the players are making sense out of it, handling technical aspects or projecting the structure of the piece into something audible and compelling; a listener will probably be happy enough with “enjoying” it, finding some satisfying emotional response.

Even as someone who composes music, I cringe reading composers’ program notes about “How I Wrote This Piece” using technical jargon that perhaps they expect will snow the audience into submission. That’s fine but I can drive a car without needing to understand the physics of the combustion engine.

So, rather than thinking about quadratic equations and slope formulas and other aspects of trigonometry turned into music, just listen to how it works.

Listen for the visceral, dramatic response to what the composer has created from his architectural plan just as you would look at his building and not be conscious of… whatever architectural terminology one architect would use to impress the pants off his colleagues.

To the untrained listener – the Xenakis Virgin – it may sound like they’re making this up, up there, aren’t they?

But it’s not improvised, it’s not “aleatoric” (left to chance).

Instead of the kinds of phrases and cadences and melodic shapes you’re used to from Bach through Brahms – or for that matter even Schoenberg – Xenakis is finding other ways to express the same underlying concepts.

In a way, it’s like taking a plan for a church – you have the basic idea of what a church is supposed to be, but does it look like the gothic Notre Dame in Paris, the Renaissance cathedral in Florence, the modern Sagrada Familia in Barcelona or this unidentified modern church (the joy of surfing...)? They're all churches but they each look different: different times, different places but same purpose.

You can listen for Xenakis’ musical gestures (rather than thinking of them as melodies, they’re more like shapes and cells that expand to create longer musical ideas) and hear how they contrast (just as Beethoven’s often cellular ideas grow and contrast), played first in this register or instrument, then in another, or how they sound similar here and there, giving the overall soundscape some sense of unity.

Or you can sit there, annoyed, and think of a few choice gestures of your own.

But I think, if you open your mind to the point you’re not focused on negative brain-waves at this point, you’ll walk away with a more positive (or less negative) impression.

Back in the ‘80s, the Harrisburg Symphony played a piece that is often described as “The Great American Symphony” though it’s never played that often – William Schuman’s 3rd. It is not a difficult work – compared to much music written in the 1940s – but it is not an easy work on first hearing.

Two people in front of me were applauding vociferously. I thought they “got” it but then I heard one say to the other, “I really didn’t like it, but they did a marvelous job trying to convince me.”

Live performances have a much better chance to “convince” you than listening to a recording. And a committed performance from players who are convinced what they’re doing is vital will be more likely to convince you than other performers who may only be going through the motions (though technically proficient) because they feel “hearing contemporary music is good for you” (like green beans and broccoli, not likely to be on top of the “what’s for dinner” list).

In a sense, I’m reluctant to post a video of “Tetras” for fear someone will just click on it and, after 10 seconds, exit the page and go listen to this bit of trigonometric music. But hopefully, if you’ve read this far, you’ll give it a chance.

To return to Kevin McFarland’s program note about Xenakis’ music:

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Perhaps no composition better embodies this contradiction than Tetras. Written relatively late in his career, Tetras is a work of starkly contrasting textures. The piece opens with a virtuosic glissando violin solo followed by the viola in double stops and then the whole quartet in quiet echo of the solos. From there the piece moves through a handful of sections, often with little or no transition in between. The feeling I get from this work is that Xenakis had already liberated string sounds from traditional roles and was then completely free to create in the wake of this revolution. It is a work of uncompromising vision, savage brutality, and startling beauty.
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Here’s the JACK Quartet recording “Tetras” by Iannis Xenakis:

If you’re not one of those immediately taken in by the whole new sound-world this may open to you and you’re thinking instead, “How do I listen to this stuff?”, listen to it again and follow these points:

Long opening violin solo (single notes, sliding up and down through different registers of the violin which may sound a bit like someone talking.

At 0:32, the answering solo in the viola (two notes at a time, still sliding, but responding, making it a conversation).

At 1:02, other instruments enter with brief swirls of colors and different textures, as if commenting on the conversation between the violin and the viola ("discuss amongst yourselves"). 

At 1:15 accents contrasting with quiet flurries and sudden “rude noises” like sharp chords.

At 1:48, the tension’s been increasing to a point where – suddenly – the energy is released, and this excerpt ends with sounds (you might call them ‘noises’) that punctuate the texture like an unexpectedly loud chord in Beethoven puts a period on a musical paragraph.

(By the way, you’ll notice, looking over Chris’ shoulder, the music he’s playing from is completely (and complexly) notated, not left to improvisation.)

Instead of something that might be the logical equivalent of a still-life painting with fruit and a bowl, or somebody's barn in winter, you're looking at a colorful kaleidoscope of images, or fragments of images - or the shadows of fragments of images...

If this is your first time hearing any of Xenakis’ music, I envy you the excitement of discovery but also understand how you might feel lost. Think John Adams and Bartok’s 1st – or Kevin McFarland’s first encounters with it (and here he is, playing it for you, now).

Keep in mind, it took a while for Columbus to figure out where his explorations “got” him, too.

So if you decide you don’t like Xenakis’ music, that’s fine, if you’ve made an honest attempt at listening to it. (I remember, after making a face the first time I ate an olive, my mom said “You have to eat seven olives before you’ll like them.”)

And if you decide you never want to hear Xenakis again – which is your perfect right as an individual – you can always go home and listen to your Kozeluch CDs.

- Dick Strawser

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