Monday, 21 March 2011

The Rest is noise – Alex Ross 2007

A book about 20th century art/classical music from a very American perspective – which is slightly odd, since most of this music is very European and non-commerical at heart. “Copland (…) once pointed out, that the job of being an American artis often consists simply in making art possible – which is to say, visible. Every generation has to do the work all over again. Composers perennially lack state support; they lack a broad audience; they lack centuries old tradition.” (Ross, 2007, p.123).

Nevertheless a very good read about the different strands of music and a very good simple introduction to beginners like me about rather complex topics like twelve-tone music.
Most interesting is the story of how more and more rules of classical music have been abandoned in order to set composers free – just to leave them struggling and moving back into very strict formats, where they almost disappear behind the music developing mechanisms (mostly serialism, but also chance music).

As usual, the most intesting quotes below:
“Musicians and listeners had long agreed that certain intervals, or pairs of notes were “clear”, and that others were “unclear”. (…) The clearest intervals were the octave, the fifth, the fourth, and the major third. (…)”. (Ross, 2007, p.42).

Why is atonality until today not accepted – in contrast to modern paintings? “But the Kandinsky is a different experience for the uninitiated. If at first you have trouble understanding it, you can walk on and return later, or step back to give it another glance, or lean in for a close look (is that a piano in the foreground?). At a performance, listenersexperience a new work collectively, at the same rate and approximately from the same distance. (…) They are a crod, and crowds tend to align themselves as one mind” (Ross, 2007, p.56).

Schoenberg: “”I strive for: complete liberation from all forms, from all symbols of cohesion and of logic.” (Ross, 2007, p.57).

“Instead of separating himself from the titans of the past, Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven he presented himself as their heir” (Ross, 2007, p.57). “The argument made a certain amount of sense. Levels of dissonance in music had been steadily risen since the last years of the nineteenth century” (Ross, 2007, p.57).

More composers used atonality at the same time as Schoenberg: Wagner, Strauss and Mahler: “Out of all of them, only Schoenberg really adopted atonality. What set him apart was tht he not only introduced new chords but eliminated, for the time being, the old ones.” (Ross, 2007, p.58).

Webern: “By clearing away all expressionistic clutter, Webern actually succeeded in making his teacher’s language easier to assimilate. He distributed his material in clear linear patterns, rather than piling it up in vertical masses. The listener can absorb each unusual sonority before the next arrives.” (Ross, 2007, p.63).

Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring: “Having assembled his folk melodies, Stravinsky proceeded to pulverize them into motivic bits, pile them up in layers, and reassemblethem in cubistic collages and montages” (Ross, 2007, p.90).“If other composers went further in revolutionizing harmony, none rivalled Stravinskly in the realm of rhythm. (…) In “The Augurs of Spring” there is no way to predict where the accents will land next” (Ross, 2007, p.91).

“I (Varese) became a sor of diabolic Parsifal, searching not only for the holy grail, but the bomb that would make the musical world explode and thereby let in all sounds, sounds which up to now – and even today – have been called noises” (Ross, 2007, p.136).

Twelve tone music
Schoenberg: “The “extreme emotionality” of atonal composition, in his own words, had exhausted him, and he needed a less fraught, more orderly way of working” (Ross, 2007, p.194).

“A particular arrangement of (any) twelve notes is called a series or row. The idea is not to consider the row a theme in itself but to employ it as a kind of fund of notes, or more precisely, of relationships among notes, or intervals. Schoenberg added someconcepts from the old art of counterpoint to maximize the possibilities of thematic play. The composer can run the row in retrograde (go backward from the last note). Or he canuse an inversion (turn it upside down). (…) The retrograde inversion goes back to front and upside down. The composer can alsotranspose the row by moving it up or down the scale. All told the chromatic scale contains a huge number of permutations – to be exact, 479,001,600, the factorial of 12.” (Ross, 2007, p.195).

“Nearly all Schoenberg’s early twelve-tone works are couched in established froms, usually from the Baroque and Classical periods. Formal rules are observed, dance rhythms replicated, ideas clearly spelled out and rigorously developed” (Ross, 2007, p.196).

“the twelve tone idea never forbids the use of tonal materials; in fact, one must manipulate the system to avoid producing them” (Ross, 2007, p.196).

After Schoenberg:
Boulez: “”The Schoenberg ‘case’ is irritating,” he wrote. The old man had revolutionized the art of harmony while leaving rhythm, structure, and form untouched.” (Ross, 2007, p.363).

“In the interest of cultivating rhythmic variety, Messiaen decided that the length of notes – sixteenth, eighth, quarter, and so forth – should be arranged n a scale parallel to the scale of the pitches. He also made rows of dynamic levels (ppp, fff, pp, ff, and so on) and of attacks (accented, staccato, legato and so on).A particular note is always assigned the same values. Thus, the high E-flat is always thirty-second note, is always played ppp, and is (almost) always slurred” (Ross, 2007, p.363).

“But Boulez went furthest, organizing Messiaen’s parameters – pitch, duration, volume, and attack – into sets of twelve, along the lines of twelve tone writing. Pitches fo not repeat until all twelve have sounded. Durations do not repeat until all twelve have been used. Dynamics and attacks vary from section to section. The result is music in a constant flux.” (Ross, 2007, p.364).

“The serialist principle, with its surfeit of everchanging musical data, has the effect of erasing at any given moment whatever impressions the listener may have formed about previous passages of the piece. The present moment is all there is” (Ross, 2007, p.364).

“The irony of the broken Cage-Boulez friendship was that certain if Cage’s chance pieces ended up sounding oddly similar to Boulez’s total-serialist pieces. (…) Boulez and other serialist composers were not fully responsible for the outcome of their works. Their method obeyed a “compulsion neurosis” that effectively randomized their musical material.” (Ross, 2007, p.371).

Stravinsky: Agon, Requiem Canticles: “This last great Stravinsky ballet, for twelve dancers, in twelve sections, mixes sounds and styles from several centuries of musical history as well as from several decades of the composer’s career.” (Ross, 2007, p.389).

Return of sensuality:
“By the earlysixties, the fascination with behind-the-scenes-process- whether twelve tones or chance produced – had given way to a new appreciations of surfaces.” (Ross, 2007, p.458).

Xenakis: ““The listener must be gripped,” he once said, “and - whether he likes it or not – drawn into the flight path of the sounds, without a special training being necessary. The sensual shock must be just as forceful as when one hears a clap of thunder or looks into a bottomless abyss” (Ross, 2007, p.397).

“since any resonating tone consists of a certain number if vibrations per second, the ratios among the notes in any given chord could be used to dictate the rhythms in any give bar. For example, a chord of G,C, and E would translate into simultaneous pulses of three against four against five (Ross, 2007, p.479).

“For him (Schoenberg), the ultimate sin was to repeat an idea unnecessarily (…), whereas the California composers were discovering the joys of insistent repetition and gradual change.” (Ross, 2007, p.482).

Feldman’s later music: “Events move so slowly that you can no longer detect the twelve-tone motion of the piece, or even the identities of the tones themselves.” (Ross, 2007, p.493).

“Terry Riley’s contribution was to add the sweet sound of triads to the long-tone process. This move completed the minimalist metamorphosis.” (Ross, 2007, p.495).

“”Repetition is a form of change,” Brian Eno once said, summing up the minimalist ethos. Repetition is inherent in the science of sound: tones move through space in periodic waves.” (Ross, 2007, p.511).

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