Monday, October 24, 2011

“New Music Week”

This week has turned out to be “New Music Week” for me as a performer, as I will be playing three radically different works that have been composed in the past year. Perhaps some insight on the future of classical music can be gained by looking at these three compositions together.

This Sunday, I performed in a concert featuring two new chamber music pieces by John Weinland. Weinland studied composition and organ at Yale, but ended up pursuing a career in the petroleum industry while composing on the side. Now in retirement, he has focused more fully on his music and arranged for this premiere of two pieces. Short Concert, for string quintet, and Continuous Music for string trio are both made up entirely of glissandi. “Continuous Music” is intended to reflect Weinland’s interest in John Cage, by featuring extended rests as part of the musical texture. Short Concert, which I performed in, is more contrapuntal in nature, as thematic sets of glissandi are played in inversion, rhythmic augmentation, and retrograde. Interestingly, none of the other performers in the group, established professionals from Boston’s North Shore, had any experience playing “modernist” music.

Toward the middle of this week, I will begin rehearsing Highway 12, a string quartet by current Longy student Kaley Eaton. As the title might suggest, Highway 12 reflects Eaton’s background in blues guitar. The violinist is instructed to play “as an old-time fiddler,” while much of the cello part consists of strummed pizzicato “as a guitar.” Though of course I have not yet heard the piece, from the score it looks like it is not strictly a tonal work, but that it includes references to triadic harmony.

Friday, as I am sure others from our class are aware, is the Longy Conservatory Orchestra’s October concert, which will include the second performance of John Williams’s Concerto for Oboe. A side note about this title: this is the only piece I have mentioned so far that uses a traditional genre-defining title. There is something about using the word “concerto” that suggests that this is not merely a piece of music, but an oeuvre. This is not to say, that the other pieces are less intellectual, but just that they are less self-consciously tied to older genres and the sense of the masterwork. Regardless of the title, then, how does Williams’s piece sound? As seems to be typical of Williams’ concert works, the music is much harder to pin down tonally than his film scores. In the outer two movements, triads are omnipresent, but are constantly undoing themselves functionally as they leap from one key center to another. The second movement is tinged with both medieval and classical Chinese sounds, featuring slow-moving open fifth sonorities, as well as a cello solo that sounds like it could have easily been performed on the erhu.

For the most part, I have focused on the stylistic differences of these pieces. However, they are bound together by at least two important principles. The first and most straightforward similarity is that they all stay well within a tradition that values the authority of the compositional text. Hewitt discusses the problems with this tradition, as well as with the attempts to counter it through improvisation, in Chapter 5, “Text, Bodies, Machines.” Eaton’s work is particularly interesting in this respect. Like Berio, Eaton “invokes those old collective idioms that once made us move to music,” that is, using folk and popular idioms (Hewitt 2003: 143) (Of course, Eaton’s blues references are not really so old. For that matter, neither are Berio’s references: ethnomusicologists would remind Hewitt that folk performances are still modern and not trapped in some traditional past. We did not “once move to music.” We still do move). The problem is that the improvisatory freedom of this music is really an illusion, carefully written into the music by the composer (Hewitt 2003: 143).

The other similarity is that all three pieces seem to be distinctively (even consciously) “American” in their style. This is, of course, much more subjective, and usually such nationalistic thoughts about music would make me cringe. However, each piece seems to conjure up images of different parts of American culture. Eaton’s piece naturally projects an “American” vision, because it draws on American blues and folk idioms (just as Dvorak did with both Czech and American music, for example). Williams tends to conjure up images of “America” simply because of his own notoriety as a film composer. Since Williams’s compositional style is so familiar as an evocation of Hollywood, it seems to seep through even in his concert pieces, whether he intends it or not. Even the erhu-like solo in the Concerto for Oboe does not evoke Chinese classical music so much as Yo-Yo Ma’s performance on the soundtrack for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (which is, after all, an American take on Hong Kong action movies). Even Weinland’s work is American in his interest in John Cage, who epitomized American individualism in composition while Weinland was completing his studies. In a more trivial way, Weinland’s biography is reminiscent of Charles Ives, usually recognized as the first American modernist.


Nate Karahalis said...

Fascinating thoughts Simon. I wonder if some of these seemingly exotic elements in Mr. Williams score reflect the music of the indigenous tribal American music. Often times that music is overlooked in the study of music history. Because it is so seldom emphasized in classical study, it sounds very exotic when compared to Western European music. I'm not an authority on Native American music but it does make me wonder.

Simon said...

I'm not aware of any Native American influences, but this is, of course, entirely possible. The pentatonic scale has been a bit of an exotic catch-all scale in classical music, representing at different times Chinese, Native American, and African American traditions. It could even be several traditions at once: the slow movement of the Dvorak "New World" Symphony is inspired by Longfellow's "Song of Hiawatha," but the melody sounds so much like a spiritual to that it was later turned into "Going Home".

If you are interested in new classical music influenced by Native American music, Curt Cacioppo is someone to look into.