Fall and All, Continued

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Outdoors, the technicolor display of autumn continues. Indoors, I’ve been having energetic discussions about Bach and Schoenberg with online classmates. I find myself worrying, of all things, about Schoenberg’s prominence in an online music survey curriculum and its effect. In particular, it’s my view that Schoenberg is absolutely the wrong composer through which to introduce listeners to 20th century music.

Jonathan Biss’s comments in his essay, Beethoven’s Shadow, are instructive:

Schoenberg spoke about his need to “emancipate” dissonance with the 12-tone system he built, and Beethoven’s music, in its daring, so destabilized the diatonic system that the road toward atonality was in a sense already paved by the time he wrote his last works. And of course, Schoenberg’s attempt to create an entirely new language, which he did with tremendous fanfare and, one can now say, six decades after his death, limited success, makes Beethoven’s late period seem more awe-inspiring than ever. For where Schoenberg’s serial works juxtapose passages of great nostalgic beauty with music that is both leaden and obviously “constructed,” Beethoven’s late style, while no less linguistically removed from all that came before it, is seamless enough to accommodate some of the most profound statements of western civilization. To play one of Schoenberg’s piano works directly before Beethoven’s Op. 109—as I’ve done on a number of occasions—is to make the rather astonishing discovery that the Beethoven is not only more satisfying, but more daring and modern than the Schoenberg. The latter’s music is often complex, but it is a complexity that one can work through; the mystery of Beethoven remains inexplicable.

Even more directly to the issue of Schoenberg’s place in music education, Kyle Gann, a professor at Bard College, wrote:

. . . given the sequence of the textbook, I have to start out with Schoenberg, and for me, to start with Schoenberg already puts everything on the wrong track. (If this offends you, read further at your own risk, because it’s only downhill from here.) The assumption of Schoenberg’s importance, given the continuing unpopularity of his music, is founded on the further assumption that what we’re teaching is the evolution of the musical language. In fact, the very title of our music history sequence, The Literature and Language of Music (“lit’n’lang” in departmental parlance, reminding me of “live ‘n’ learn”) presupposes that there is a language of music evolving through its canonical examples. If you want to trace a certain absolutist attitude toward atonality, and the development of the 12-tone row as a technical device, Schoenberg is of course essential to the sequence of events. But does his music, therefore, deserve pride of place in the literature?

I consider it the most important thing I can teach my students, assuming I ever succeed in getting it across, that a lot of music that seems nonsensical or off-putting at first is well worth putting the effort into assimilating. Nothing irks me more than the reflexive resistance they put up against music they don’t “like” on first listening. When I was their age, any piece I didn’t understand represented a challenge, a gauntlet thrown down to my musical intelligence. There was not going to be any piece I couldn’t fathom. (Many fine “conservative” pieces I could superficially comprehend, I now realize I dismissed rather too easily.) And yet, there is now tons and tons of difficult, complicated, obscure music, and after 45 years of deciphering it I am aware that not all of it eventually repays the effort. I was determined to master the intricacies of the Concord Sonata, Le Sacre du Printemps, Pli selon pli, Turangalila, Mantra, Philomel, and I love them all, I’m devoted to them, thrilled to introduce students to them. Other works that I committed many, many listening and analytical hours to – almost all of Schoenberg, everything by Berg except Wozzeck, all but a few pieces of Elliott Carter – simply bore me today. I know that Op. 31 Orchestra Variations and that damn “Es ist genug” violin concerto inside and out, but they strike me as awkward and pedantic. I listen to them with acute understanding of how they’re made, but never admiringly. A lot of that music I feel I was brainwashed into taking very seriously, and the effects of my youthful brainwashing are largely worn off.

Amen to that. Here is my plea, in return: O, Bard (College, that is), will you not, please, please, please enter into the online course fray?

In the meanwhile, there are the autumn leaves to consider, many glorious, sunny days, and great music to hear in live performance. This week, I go down to New York City to hear Lembit Beecher’s string quartet, These Memories May Be True, part of a concert of 20th and 21st century Estonian and Hungarian Music at Estonian House.  Next week, I’ll attend two London Symphony Orchestra concerts at Lincoln Center, Bernard Haitink conducting, each of which pairs a Mozart piano concerto (pianist Emanuel Ax) with a Shostakovich symphony (the Fourth and the Fifteenth).

A much happier prospect, this.  As John Ashbery wrote: “There is light in there and mystery and food.”

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Listening List

There is light in each of these contemporary works, and mystery and food.

On Spotify: Dylan Mattingly’s Lighthouse (performed by Contemporaneous), Mark-Anthony Turnage’s From the Wreckage, and John Adams’s Violin Concerto.

Contemporaneous has introduced me to many excellent artists and composers, including four who are featured here: Dylan Mattingly, Conor Brown, Lucy Dhegrae, and Ariadne Greif. In addition to fine performances, the ensemble has made consistently intelligent choices in their programming, steering thoughtfully between the Scylla and Charybdis of tame and strange.

Contemporaneous’s new season begins November 15, 2013, with performances at Bard and in New York City. The season’s opening program will include Albert Behar’s new work The Beauty in Breathing (commissioned by Contemporaneous), Samuel Carl Adams’s twenty-four strings, and Dylan Mattingly’s Atlas of Somewhere on the Way to Howland Island, about which I wrote here. More details on the concert may be found here.

Dylan Mattingly: The Bakkhai, Seventh Chorus, performed by Contemporaneous, David Bloom conducting, Lucy Dhegrae and Finnegan Shanahan on vocals.

From the program notes for the recorded preview of the piece presented earlier this year at Bard:

Recreating aspects of Euripides’ tragedy in this new work, Mattingly has based the rhythm of his Bakkhai on the complex patterns of long and short syllables that constitute the meter of Euripides’ choral odes. The piece, moreover, is written in “just intonation,” the method of tuning that would have been used in fifth century Athens. Unlike “equal temperament,” the dominant system of tuning in western music over the last few centuries, “just intonation” relies on the mathematics of the natural world to derive pitches from their organic relation to other pitches. For this piece, Mattingly has re-tuned a piano using just intonation and has specified that the other instruments be tuned to accord with the piano.

I heard the recorded preview at Bard and can’t wait to hear a live performance of this work.

Conor BrownScrolls, Fifth Movement, performance by Contemporaneous, David Bloom conducting, Lucy Dhegrae, Gabrielle Herbst, Charlotte Mundy, and Finnegan Shanahan on vocals.

For those of you in the vicinity of Albany, New York, on March 1 & 2, 2014, the Albany Symphony will perform the world premiere of a new work by Conor Brown. Further details may be found here.

Ariadne GreifGuillaume de Machaut – Douce Dame jolie – Ariadne Greif remix

Greif’s piece is not precisely a composition, but I was captivated by its cleverness and the agile-voiced beauty of her performance. Greif’s remix was part of the inaugural season of Lucy Dhegrae’s Resonant Bodies Festival. While it’s a stretch for me to get my ears around much of this music, I admire enormously the inspiration, talent, and persistent energy that went into putting on the Festival. It’s not too shabby, either, that the Festival received an enormously positive review in the New York Times.

Toby TwiningHee-Oo-Oom-Ha

I was first introduced to Toby Twining through his CD Eurydice, about which I wrote here. This piece is every bit as exuberant and delightfully off-kilter as Eurydice’s Yes! Yes! Yes! and may be found on C4 Collective’s Uncaged, v. 1 CD here.

Mark-Anthony Turnage: From the Wreckage

From the Wreckage is included on the CD with Turnage’s large orchestra work Speranza. Each quarter, I Care If You Listen puts out an invaluable mixtape of current composers’ works. The Fall 2013 Mixtape includes several interesting selections. The stand-out for me was Mark-Anthony Turnage‘s Hoffen, movement 2 from his large orchestral work, Speranzawhich I’ve pre-ordered here. You can hear Daniel Harding and Turnage talk about Speranza and hear some clips from the piece here.


Credits: The quotations are from the sources indicated in the post. The photographs are mine, taken at Buttercup Farm, Innisfree Garden, and the Cary Institute over several days in the first half of October.

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20 thoughts on “Fall and All, Continued

  1. Mark Kerstetter

    The Toby Twining piece is wonderful. I’m sorry I’m not qualified to weigh in on Beethoven vs Schoenberg. But I find Gann’s statement interesting. I whole-heartedly concur with that “most important thing” he has to teach, but I can’t quite relate to the pedagogical attitude that says, ‘if I don’t understand this piece of art (or like it) I’m going to study it (to death, if necessary) until one or the other happens. If you study a piece of art until you understand it, and still have no appreciation of it (it does not “repay the effort”), then what exactly is it that you understand? Do you really understand? Is the purpose of studying art to understand the art, to appreciate it, or to have your effort repaid somehow? Or is the study its own reward? Aren’t there wider sociological issues of value in studying art that are beside the issue of appreciation of the art object per se? This is related to the question of whether your appreciation of a piece of art is deepened by study or if the analytical matter is not a sidebar to appreciation. It seems to me that the study of art is always connected to what the researcher brings to the subject to be studied – brings of him or herself. Studying art is the study of self, and therefore it should always be rewarding. Also, I have trouble with phrases like, “evolution of the musical language.” I can’t tell from this excerpt if Gann supports it or not. It’s the word “evolution” with its suggestion of simple to complex that I question in terms of art history. I can reach into history during any period and find art as complex as anything contemporary or, conversely, reach out and grab at random work being done today that’s simple. I’ve said before I’m a terrible student, because all I do is question. Sometimes it seems to me that the further into analysis one gets the more one goes in circles. At some point one has to stop the questioning and take a stand: I like this, or, This is the art that I do.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: To my mind, the only good student is one who questions. What I appreciate so much about Gann’s article is that that’s what he’s doing: he is taking on and questioning music education “truisms,” including the centrality of Schoenberg to the curriculum. (I think it’s clear from the article, if not the excerpt, that he has problems with the concept of “the evolution of musical language.”) I’m not clear on the thrust of your questions about the objectives of studying art, though there, too, I’d point you back to the whole Gann article, not to mention the fascinating discussion that follows, as well as this: http://davidnice.blogspot.com/2013/05/the-rest-is-tonal.html. For myself, I would have to say that I prefer to study something that rewards the effort. Life is short, and there’s a lot to learn. In poetry, say, I’d rather spend my time with John Ashbery than KG. In music, just as one example, how lucky we are that Arvo Pärt abandoned academically de rigueur serialism to embark on composition of the music we associate with him today.

      I’ve spent quite a bit of time and energy writing about contemporary classical music with the precise desire of encouraging others to see what wonderful variety is there and to join me in listening. What prompted me to write this post is my fear that preserving the centrality of Schoenberg in the music curriculum I’m noting will result in a lot of people who are interested in classical music saying, if that’s “modern” music, I’m sticking with Beethoven. As I wrote above, “it’s my considered view that Schoenberg is absolutely the wrong composer through which to introduce listeners to 20th century music.”

      1. Mark Kerstetter

        Note to self: look for links before commenting. My favorite part of the article is the last line: “I know the last hundred years of music so well that I no longer know what the history of it is.” But that just gets me back to my second question. Doesn’t he have the power to deviate from the text – as he clearly would like to? It seems to me that if the Schoenberg story is wrong, and if it still holds sway, it is up to teachers who know better to challenge it.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          Mark: Well, it was a lot to take in. I loved that last line, too. On your question, I’m quite sure Gann will find a way (many ways) to convey in the classroom what he was ruminating about here. I suspect, as the course has been in session now a while, he already has!

        2. Susan Scheid Post author

          Mark, footnote to my last response, another, related thought. The way I read the article is that Gann has taken the starting point of the textbook as an occasion for a “teachable moment” about the music education issues he’s discussing in the article.

  2. Britta

    Dear Sue,
    I answered on Facebook – you make photographs like the first above that really touch my heart & aesthetic eye, thank you! When I don’t comment here that much, you’ll know it is mostly when music is concerned – I love to read your posts and learn a lot – but feel speechless (me!), not knowing words nor content – a feeling I don’t like very much. On the other hand I have so many other things to do, so I only enjoy (but always give your posts further to Son, who is really into music, and who tries to lure me too).

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Britta: For you, of the wonderful photographic eye, to write that is just lovely. As for “only enjoy,” I’d say that’s valuable all on its own. I am never able to “get around” as much as I’d like, but, as I wrote elsewhere, whenever I go to Innisfree and take photographs now, I think of you, as you’re the one who first prompted me to please write a post about the garden. BTW, there is a landscape curator there now, and she is beginning to put together some good, informative materials: http://www.innisfreegarden.org/more.html

  3. David N

    Oh, I am so annoyed that a whole screed I wrote earlier disappeared at the accidental press of a button. So here goes again, hopefully less preachy-wise.

    I reckon we agree that the turn Schoenberg & Co took may have been adopted in the Zeitgeist of the post-war world – destroy the old! – but that it emerged not as a development but as a branch from the root, one which quickly withered. The 80s put paid to it, didn’t they?

    I’d be far more interested to look at works of affirmative capability in the 20th century. Let’s pick one for each decade. I know already I bag Poulenc’s Gloria for the 1960s and Reich’s The Desert Music for the 1980s, if only because I heard it live the other evening for the first time since 1986 and was reminded what a masterpiece it is, which leaves me Adams for the 90s. Not that I think we should ignore the dark and oppressive. I don’t agree with the writer about all Berg bar Wozzeck – surely the Violin Concerto is hyper-expressive and Lulu has so much more to tell us?

    But, yes, back to nature and Innisfree. Much struck by the wisdoms in Richard Mabey’s little book Nature Cure, about how he followed a depression in which he couldn’t look at anything, least of all his beloved Chilterns, with a move to the Norfolk Fens which shaped his new view of man’s relationship to nature. It becomes so much more important to all of us as we grow older, doesn’t it?

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: I just want you to know, first off, that, once again, with a few deft, insightful strokes, you’ve made my day. (Of course, how I wish your screed hadn’t disappeared, because I’m sure I would have loved that, too.) We are in agreement about Schoenberg; he’s a fascinating character in musical history, as Schorske so eloquently discusses in his Fin-de-Siecle Vienna book. What’s distressing to brush up against, as I think I now have, is the continuing privileging of his work in (some) halls of academe. I thought we were past that, too. That’s why I’m so appreciative of Bard Prof Gann’s “wrong track” remark. I was surprised, too, that he didn’t include Lulu (the Berg Violin Concerto I don’t know, and I know that has to be corrected). I was actually introduced to Lulu through the Lulu Suite in Bard’s summer music program (Berg was the featured composer that year). It was fascinating: while I found the Suite a hard listen, I was also quite moved. It’s what led me to go to Wozzeck when it came to the Met the following year. Again, a hard listen for me, but worth it in every respect. Powerful and moving–the dark difficulty of the music utterly fit the opera.

      I love your concept of “affirmative capability” and your idea of “one per decade.” Yes to Adams, no question about it–the question only is which piece, which also would dictate the decade. Reich would definitely be on my list too. (I’d already noted your mention of The Desert Music, another piece I don’t yet know and want to.) Poulenc’s Gloria is a beauty, not to mention that his correspondence would enrich ANY music course, wouldn’t it? Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time is another that occurs to me, though there is so much in the ’40s (Prokofiev! Shostakovich!), what’s a person to do? Still, I want to put my mind to this and see what arises out of that. A fun exercise, I think, no matter what.

      On the subject of nature, I couldn’t agree more. This fall, we’ve made a particular point to sit out each evening we can and look at the changing colors on the hills and the deer coming through, listening to the insect humming and bird twittering chorus as we do. It is a pure pleasure. We also had a particularly beautiful holiday weekend (that peculiarly US Columbus Day celebration) this last weekend. All the photographs in this post come from our walks, and I love being able to share them here. What you write about the Mabey book, which I don’t know, is striking. I’m going to look up that book.

      1. David N

        Bobcats! And hummingbirds! I don’t often have the desire to move to the States, but I could live in the Hudson Valley. And Steinbeck’s road book Travels with Charley has turned me on to so much, not least the landscapes of Montana as he describes them…

          1. David N

            Well, I don’t think you or the Edu-mate would actually welcome me coming to LIVE with you, which is what I meant. Anyway there’s no prospect of being wrenched from London in the near future – a dog and a garden are our long-term wishes – but that’s a kind invitation. How I wish I could be there in NY for Die FrOSch.

      2. Dylan Mattingly

        Sue, definitely listen to the Berg violin concerto, I think you’ll like it! (I’ve been haunted by some of the more beautiful parts of the second movement since I first heard it live, when I was 13). That said, I’m pretty sure Kyle Gann doesn’t like it at all, which explains his comment above…

        And what a wonderful article, it’s always so exciting to get to read a new Sue Scheid blogpost!

        1. David N

          Dylan is right to urge you, Sue. Beats me how anyone could not be moved by the Berg Violin Concerto later stages. I always thought it was THE piece to introduce the average concertgoer (if there’s any such thing) to the elements of twelve-tone language that Berg engages in the work as part of a deeply expressive narrative. Tonality isn’t excluded here – and the Bach quotation plays such an important part.

        2. Susan Scheid Post author

          Dylan: Ah, a rare and wonderful honor to see you in these parts! I am SO looking forward to Contemporaneous’s inaugural concert, the first chance to hear a piece by Sam Adams, another chance (hooray!) to hear Atlas live, and of course the excitement of a world premiere. As for Berg, see the comment to David & you both below.

        3. Susan Scheid Post author

          Dylan and David: I hope you know that you two are among my very favorite “go to” people on music, so rest assured that the Berg Violin Concerto is already on my list. I do hope you are able to meet one day, I suspect you’d have a LOT to talk about, and I would love to listen in.

  4. angela

    What a brilliant dialogue going on in these here parts… I have nothing to contribute other than I was intrigued by all the commentary on Schoenberg (gasp, had never listened), so I am currently streaming a Youtube of String Q 1, op 7 and feel it a perfect companion to my frantic mind (just off of work tonight). Your depth continues to amaze and educate. The pictures are lovely, must say that their nature challenges the nature of this current music – not simpatico. ~

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      angela: To be intrigued is more than sufficient (as I am intrigued by knowing that you DID get to the Ashbery exhibit and can hardly wait to hear you report! Meanwhile, on the subject of Schoenberg, here is, to my mind, at least, an utterly beautiful piece by him composed in his early pre-12-tone days: http://youtu.be/I3x8siY2yKw. One can only wonder what the legacy of Schoenberg would have been had not WWI intervened.

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