- Beatrice Warde
Archive for April, 2006
Vulgar ostentation is twice as easy as discipline. When you realize that ugly typography never effaces itself, you will be able to capture beauty as the wise men capture happiness by aiming at something else.
And I thought the junk mail I was getting for Ann Merriman was weird.
Thanks, everyone, for the comments on the list below. Even the grouchy responses are appropriate.
When I first brought this up last year, it was in reply to Russian composer Alexander Radvilovich’s question of what the most influential pieces have been since 1970. I told him that there were so many strands in new music over the last 35 years it would be impossible to make a coherent list.
Then I tried an experiment: I asked S21 readers what they thought the most influential pieces were. I tossed out a half dozen suggestions, and the responses poured in, resulting in the monumental list as it now stands. When I first posted it, I noted the fact that it ended up being something other than was intended – you can read my comments about influence in the original list here.
Clearly, we did not end up with an objective list of most influential works. However, we do have a list of pieces from the past 35 years that have all had profound impacts on somebody other than the composers. The size and variety of the list makes quite a statement about the diversity of our languages and the sheer number of ways to touch an audience, for those who question the communicative powers of new music.
And yet, as long as the list is, anyone at all familiar with new music could easily add a few equally deserving titles.
So, if we wanted a Most Influential list, we might start by hacking this one down to size. What if we decided to include only the works we all agreed were most influential? I suspect we would soon whittle the list down to zero. And that’s the answer, in effect, that I gave Radvilovich. Which is certainly no more coherent than this list.
But the subjective world I live in makes me want to keep adding pieces. I’d rather delete the title “most influential” and call the list something else, something like “music that mattered, 1970-2005.” As such, it would serve as a resource for the curious, the uninitiated, and even the well-informed – I find it hard to believe that anyone has heard everything here.
So, Ian, Evan, Tom, Glenn, Jacob, David, Anthony – if there is a next edition of this list, you will find your suggested amendments included. And Adam: check with Rodney Lister – I think he was the one who nominated Babbitt’s Triad.
It’s been a year since I posted the list of most influential compositions (as nominated by Sequenza21 readers) since 1970. Over the course of several weeks last spring, what started as a simple top-ten list ended up topping 150 pieces. I learned a lot in the process, which is always welcome.
Now that a year has gone by, I’m posting the list again, because it’s worth another look. The original list has made some inroads into the music world consciousness, beyond the net. Our resident musicologist, Michael Dodds, has even incorporated it into the Contemporary Styles class he is teaching this term.
Drip by drip, the word seeps out.
I’d be curious to know if anyone has any new works to add. I find that even one year has added a lot to what I think of the pieces listed.
George Crumb: Ancient Voices of Children (1970)
Philip Glass: Satyagraha (1980)
Gyorgi Ligeti: Violin Concerto (1990)
Kaija Saariaho: L’amour de loin (2000)
Next week we have our fifth annual Twenty-first Century Residency. Last year I reported on the mini-residency of the Da Capo Chamber Players. This year we have composer Augusta Read Thomas paying a visit. I will be conducting two of her works on Tuesday night: Passion Prayers, a concertino for cello and chamber ensemble, and The Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour. The latter piece was premiered last April by Alarm Will Sound; we are giving the second performance.
The Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour is a fascinating piece, as idiosyncratic as its title would lead one to believe. A mezzo-soprano and a countertenor team up to sing the eponymous poem by Wallace Stevens. Meanwhile, one of the percussionists is asked to intone a second Stevens verse, “The Poem That Took The Place Of A Mountain,” imitating the poet’s vocal rhythms and mannerisms (which may be sampled here). Throughout the piece the 14 instrumentalists play, sing and chant fragments of the text. Thomas designed the music specifically for the AWS ensemble, taking the musicians’ vocal ranges and other talents into account. We are adapting some elements to our own strengths – hopefully she will approve of our results. This is my favorite of the composer’s works, although I haven’t yet “heard” it – there is no recording, and our rehearsals are still in the formative stage. The intertwining of the two poems, both paeans to the power of the imagination, has a haunting, almost Medieval resonance.
Passion Prayers is the more technically challenging of the two pieces. My conducting chops are taxed to the max in the speedy middle section: eighth = 276, with meter changes that defy any attempt to group into memorizable patterns. But the musicians are excellent – even if I screw up, they will be right on.
Both pieces exhibit the composer’s trademark sensitivities. The music is luxurious, luminous, ecstatic — and truly gorgeous.
I’m also conducting Luciano Berio’s O King and Sebastian Currier’s Broken Consort. I chose the Berio piece because it seems to be a seminal work in the kind of heterophonic writing Augusta excels in. We are doing the original version for five instruments and voice that Berio later adapted for his celebrated Sinfonia. Composed in 1968 in memory of Martin Luther King, the piece breaks King’s name down into separate phonemes that gradually link with one another, until the soprano finally sings “O Martin Luther King” in the last measures. The music alternates between jarring, violent explosions – like gunshots — and a delicate, colorful web of barely audible sound.
Never fails to break my heart.
Broken Consort functions as a massive prelude on this concert: scored for two guitars, flute, oboe, violin and cello, the whole piece centers around a measured tremolo on E. Mechanical figures gradually build up to a lengthy, chaotic eruption. At the conclusion, a plaintive melody arises and dies away into a transcendent shimmer. The piece was written for the Cygnus ensemble, one of the founding members of which, Jacqui Carrasco, lives here in town – the two of us are trying to find time to arrange a play date for our babies these days.
The concert will also include Martin Bresnick’s Tent of Miracles for baritone saxophone and prerecorded baritone saxophones, played by our faculty saxist, Taimur Sullivan, a member of the Prism Quartet.
Stay tuned – I’ll try to give a recap when it’s over.
We had String Theory guru Brian Greene here last week. He met with our composers to explore strategies for breakthrough creative thinking. Each of the students gave an account of a cognitive leap in composition. Some reported better production under stressful conditions, others preferred to establish a very relaxed atmosphere. The common denominator was the ability to see past the details and find the larger patterns.
He also spent a little time giving (necessarily) superficial explanations of string theory, and how it differs and overlaps with chaos theory and fractal theory. He has a wonderful knack for grounding erudite topics in terms anyone can grasp. I know I came away with a clearer understanding of how these concepts relate (and don’t relate) to one another.
I hadn’t realized that Greene’s father was a composer (in addition to being a high school dropout and a vaudeville performer). Greene fils had a number of insights to share, although he was careful not to push the connections between composition and creativity in physics too much. He made it clear that he tended to prefer ideas that gave new perspectives to old notions. “Anyone can do something novel,” he said, “can you do something novel within strict limitations?”
Unfortunately, I had to slip out after the first hour to attend to other business. I understand that a politely contentious discussion ensued about the nature of existence. “It would be nice to believe in an afterlife and a soul,” Greene stated in his typically forthright manner, “but they don’t exist.”
Conventional wisdom prizes naturalness over artificiality. In music, for example, we praise the naturalness of culturally indigenous work, and decry the artificiality of a composer using a foreign musical language.
But I wonder if we use these terms too freely.
Artificial means “made by humans.” So in what sense is anything we do not artificial?
Or, to look at it another way, the whole nature-artifice dichotomy is based on a creationist point of view, the belief that human beings were made differently and for different reasons from other species. This perspective doesn’t ring true to me. I see humans as one of thousands, perhaps millions of species in the universe, each one uniquely adapted to survival in its environment.
In other words, human beings, in all their waywardness and complexity, are a product of nature.
So – in what sense is anything we do not natural?
I got a lesson in the importance of good English diction on a return flight from Palo Duro Canyon this week: as the flight attendant was going through the usual preflight announcements, she said, “In the event of an emergency, the cabin will be eliminated.”
Illuminated, please, illuminated!