Great Britten

Benjamin_Britten,_London_Records_1968_publicity_photo_for_WikipediaThe Benjamin Britten centenary year has ended, yet I feel I’ve only just begun. I know far too little of Britten’s work and hoped to use the opportunity to hear as much as possible live. I toyed with going to the Aldeburgh Festival, only to discover that an ostensible fox (Pierre Laurent-Aimard) had been let into the chicken coop. Aimard is a magnificent pianist and fiercely fine proponent of thorny modern works, but as Artistic Director of the Festival, what could it portend? In 2010, Alex Ross wrote of him:

. . . Aimard’s view of modernity suffers from myopia: Ligeti, Xenakis, Carter, Boulez, Kurtág, Birtwistle, and Lachenmann keep appearing. If we are to be limited to the modernist strain—at Aldeburgh, Aimard has yet to play a note of Benjamin Britten, who founded the festival—let’s at least hear more composers under the age of seventy. Aimard’s programs should be, in a word, more polyphonic.

In the event, attending the Festival in person proved a bridge too far. There was, of course, plenty on offer in New York City, notably at Trinity Church, all of which I missed. In an utter failure of good intentions, I made it to only one performance in New York City that featured a Britten work, the magnificent Sinfonia da Requiem. As small compensation, I rushed off to the Maverick Concert series in Woodstock for a concert of works for string quartet auspiciously entitled “Britten in Britain.”

The concert was memorable for all the wrong reasons. Only one of the four pieces on the program was Britten’s, String Quartet No. 3, tucked in just before intermission as if it were a risky premiere of a dubious new work. (The program began with Elgar and ended with that well-known Englishman Beethoven.) What I remember most, and not fondly, was the inclusion, after intermission, of a piece by Harrison Birtwistle, to which the performers seemed particularly drawn.

Neil Powell, in his biography, Benjamin Britten: A Life for Music, recounts the story of Britten’s reaction upon hearing Birtwistle’s opera, Punch and Judy. Britten “had supported Birtwistle’s successful application for a Harkness Fellowship at Princeton,” and wrote that he was “exceedingly interested to hear about your projected new opera.” [Powell 416] Actually hearing it was another matter. “[T]he opera illustrated a central aesthetic dilemma for Britten, who wanted to support new music but found much of the 1960s avant-garde unendurable.” [Powell 416]

Britten later said, in response to a question from an interviewer,

. . . that there should be new directions is obvious. Any new thought, in whatever language it’s couched, has got to have this new element. But I sometimes feel that seeking after a new language has become more important than saying what you mean.

Britten went on to allude to the Birtwistle opera, noting it was odd that the “young composer” (left unnamed) “didn’t want to go and see how Mozart solved his problems.” [Powell 416-17]

I am reminded by this passage of Shostakovich’s advice to Valentin Bertinsky, cellist of the Borodin Quartet. Bertinsky told Shostakovich of meeting the composer Luigi Nono, “who had promised to write us a quartet.”

On this occasion, Dmitri Dmitriyevich suddenly went glum. Then he said, “Tell me, have you played all the Haydn Quartets?”

“No, Dmitri Dmitriyevich, of course not.”

“Well, please play all the Haydn Quartets, then all the Mozart Quartets, then all of Schubert’s Quartets. Only then should you play Luigi Nono’s music.” [Wilson 282]

Shostakovich’s statement strikes me as a bit absolutist, but I take his point. Britten couches his concern more diplomatically, though it’s to the same effect. I can’t altogether share their views, but, when it comes to 20th and 21st century music, which is where I want to continue to concentrate my listening, these observations highlight my own conundrum: how should I spend my musical time in 2014? Hardest of all is 21st century music: what composers and ensembles should I follow, and what live performances should I try to attend?

For recorded music, I give myself a monthly budget for the purchase of CDs. I’ve determined, after costly mistakes, not to buy a CD unless I can preview the music—and not just iTunes snippets—to decide what to purchase. That, for me, most often means Spotify, which many composers justly dislike for the miniscule payments per play. I decry that, too, and hope the continuing outcry will result in a better system. Meanwhile, it’s what I’ve got, and I depend on it. For live music, the question is what ensembles, programmers, and composers to follow. With the outstanding exceptions I’ve noted on Prufrock’s, that has been a considerable challenge.

I don’t like to stay with what I know, so I seized on year-end lists for 2013 from respected reviewers who cover 20th and 21st century music in depth and located recommended works available on Spotify to discover suggestions I might pursue. After a dispiriting morning of listening to samples from the lists, I gave it up. Was this music I was listening to, or musical curiosities created by means of strange effects?

By my lights, Shostakovich and Britten had it more right than wrong. The way I’d put it is this: “making it new” shouldn’t be the goal, but rather “making it your own.” There is far too much music that overuses extended techniques, batteries of percussion, and electronics in an endless desire to produce novel effects. On the other hand, there is too much music that sounds like warmed-over minimalism or otherwise planes down any sharp edges in a doomed effort to entice the popular music audience to come aboard.

I don’t want music the goal of which is either to “make it strange” or “make it tame.” What I do want is music that communicates directly and authentically from the heart and soul and creative intelligence of its composer and performers. Composer David Lang once said:

The point of making music is to communicate something. It’s to say “I have something I want to tell you, and I’m going to build a doorway so you can get to it.” And sometimes it’s interesting to build a door that a million people can go through. And sometimes you go with a door that a hundred people can go through. But if you’re not going to build a door, there’s no point in doing it.

I know I’ll not always be able to get through the door, but I’ll be continuing, in the coming year, to seek out new music that at least offers me the chance.


Postscript: I want to thank everyone who joined in here and elsewhere to make this the rich and thought-provoking discussion it has become. It may be at some point I’ll try to collect my further thoughts and write another post—it’s just such a fraught venture! For now, here’s a postscript. On the subject of experimentation, springing from Mark Kerstetter’s astute and lively observations, I don’t find the problem in contemporary music is experimentation per se (and, in fact, the “tame,” as I’ve noted, is just as much an issue for me as “the strange”). But on the issue of “the strange,” I think Mark has expressed it well with this: “I don’t have much taste for artists who are in love with strangeness for its own sake” (and his caveat is well-taken, too).

That’s very much akin, I think, to the statement from Britten that resonated with me so much: “I sometimes feel that seeking after a new language has become more important than saying what you mean.” Even though Britten was speaking about music in his own time, and particularly, I believe, what might loosely be called academic high modernism, I think a version of the issue holds today. I suppose perhaps it always has, though the problem may be more acute now because there is such a surfeit of everything and so many ways to listen. It’s simply overwhelming without trustworthy guides. (David Nice has proved to be such a guide for me.)

For me, the quest this year, after too many dispiriting wrong turns, is to figure out what the most fertile fields are that I might explore—and I’ve got a long and growing list of those already. But this necessarily means, because time, and my patience, are not infinite, rejecting some avenues of pursuit almost entirely (with some leeway to keep the door open a crack to try again). In this, as always, my guideposts continue to be those I wrote about in the post “What Makes Music Great.” For each person, the answer to that is different, of course. What I love is to discover music that surprises and delights me, and music that, at its very best, I find transporting and profound.

Listening List

A wonderful site devoted to Britten’s music in honor of the centenary, which includes a compendium of excellent information on Britten’s musical works, may be found here.

For a playlist on Spotify, click here.

Benjamin Britten, String Quartet No. 3 (Mvmt 1, Mvmt 2Mvmt 3Mvmt 4,  Mvmt 5)

String Quartet No. 3 is the last major work Britten completed before he died. The fourth movement, which subtly uses extended techniques, pays homage to Shostakovich, who died in August of the year Britten completed the quartet. In the final movement’s recitative and passacaglia, Britten, with elegant economy, expresses everything that matters.

Jennifer Higdon, Violin Concerto

I was pleased to be alerted to this work by the Q2 Music 2013 countdown list.

Mary Kouyoumdjian, Dzov Yerku Kooynov [Sea of Two Colors]

Kouyoumdjian is a composer I became aware of only recently, through reading about the New Voices, New Music concert at Carnegie Hall. Matthew Mendez’s thoughtful review of her piece, This Should Feel Like Home, performed at the Carnegie Hall concert and conducted by the redoubtable David Bloom, may be found here, and a review of the entire Carnegie Hall concert may be found here. What I’ve heard of Kouyoumdjian’s work has piqued my interest, and I’ve added her to my “watch list” for 2014.

Maggi Hambling's Scallop, Aldeburgh, with the lines from Peter Grimes, "I hear those voices that will not be drowned."

Maggi Hambling’s Scallop, Aldeburgh, with the lines from Peter Grimes, “I hear those voices that will not be drowned.”

Credits: The photographs in the post may be found here. The quotations are from the links indicated in the text.

31 thoughts on “Great Britten

  1. T.

    What a great post as we usher in 2014. Making it new vs making it your own—something for me to reflect on. Somehow that resonates with me.

    Happy new year, Sue.


  2. David N

    Would you be surprised to learn that I cheered every line? You’re right about Shostakovich being a bit extreme if that remark to the Borodins were taken absolutely literally, but the gist is right. That’s why I started off last year trying to ‘do’ a Bach cantata every week. I failed, of course, but there’s still time to pick it up…

    Another fascinating line to pursue is how Britten and Shostakovich used twelve-tone music and note rows in their later works – explicitly to express bunged-upness and pain that needs to be resolved by some sort of tonality.

    Do credit the divine Maggi Hambling with the scallop – such interesting tales she has to tell about local resistance to it. She’s also out and proud but (less good) admires Thatcher and surrounds herself with Tories (not us, so it’s a long time since we were confronted at supper with such opposite views. J became very vehement and I went a bit quiet).

    I don’t know the Higdon Concerto but will listen. Happy Hudson NY to you both!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: First things first, as you may have seen, I immediately added the credit to Hambling, and thank you for noting it was missing. As for the rest, I do believe I could hear you cheering, and I’m exceedingly grateful not to be alone in having such thoughts. But better yet, you never fail to provide an interesting insight like this one: “Another fascinating line to pursue is how Britten and Shostakovich used twelve-tone music and note rows in their later works – explicitly to express bunged-upness and pain that needs to be resolved by some sort of tonality.” I love discovering aspects like that of how music is “made,” and treasure liner notes, program notes, and the like that indicate such things (I think immediately of Elizabeth Wilson’s comments on Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony, for one). And speaking of tone rows, I’m soon to get my chance to hear Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, performed by the Bard Conservatory of Music, in a double bill with the premiere of a new opera by Shawn Jaeger, Payne Hollow, link here: I’m really looking forward to that. And now a segway, like a skipping stone, to this thought: I’ve recently been listening to Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, and can’t help but think, in listening to the Orchestral Prelude, that it must have informed some of John Adams’s work. Something about the orchestral color and the motoring rhythms. Or perhaps I’m just losing my mind . . .

      And on the subject of the Schoenberg/Adams connection, how I loved your TAD review of the Aurora Orchestra’s “American Road Trip,” and particularly your description of the performance of the “ants-in-pants discombobulation of Adams’s Chamber Symphony.” For those who may not have seen the review, here’s a link:

      1. David N

        I can’t repeat too strongly how the give-and-take is what I treasure so much about our exchanges – believe me, I get so much from your way of honing to the truth of things. Or perhaps it’s just that we agree.

        You’re absolutely right about how minimalist the opening of Gurrelieder sounds (and you can’t get much more tonal than that, unless it be the very end of the piece). But I suppose that came by way of the Rheingold introduction, which in its hundred or so (I forget how many) bars of an unmodulating major key is surely the mother of all minimalist writing. If only Glass had learned how to evolve as imperceptibly fast…

        Turn of the Screw AND another opera – that’s a huge double bill. But probably no longer than a three-act work. Do hope it catches the atmosphere. I’ve been bowled over by the LSO Live recording of a performance I wasn’t able to attend: the tension mounts in all the right places and the instrumental playing, from the very first bars of piano, is out of this world. Hope your flesh creeps!

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          David: I remember you saying that about the Rheingold introduction–I loved the observation then, and love it now. I’m amused by “or perhaps we just agree.” I think we do share substantial common ground, though it’s not a “standing pat” sort of agreement. For one, there is so much music I don’t know to which you’ve introduced me. You continually point the way down avenues I haven’t explored, and I’ve come to know, over time, that the odds are extremely high that the exploration will be rich and fulfilling.

  3. Lowell Murphree

    Susan, thank you for this post. I’m musical enough to appreciate Britten and Shostakovich and thinly trace the line you draw. Even more than your opinions, your prose gives me a hopeful feeling by its clarity and conviction. My admiration. L.

  4. Susan Scheid Post author

    There has been an interesting exchange about this post that I wanted to include here for those who aren’t on Facebook, in the event anyone would like to share his or her thoughts:

    Rodney Punt: Novelty took over from real progress in serious music after WWII, which had caused a general rejection of the long line of tradition, particularly in Germany. The “novelistas” spent a lot of time and energy chasing effects and not enough achieving actual substance. They wanted the seal of progressive approval but few actually earned it.

    Susan Scheid: Well stated Rodney Punt. Of course the musical landscape is much more open now–and, for current music, particularly, “too tame” is as much an issue for me as “too strange.” I’ve been feeling torn for some time between wanting to be supportive while at the same time not being drawn to much of what I hear, so I wanted to take the opportunity of the New Year to try and express those concerns directly.

    Rodney Punt: Minimalism was a good tonic for serialism gone incomprehensible or strangeness-randomness gone unhinged. But like all movements back to safer ground, minimilism’s shelf life was short. ‘Einstein on the Beach’ was refreshingly novel AND retro, like our current rediscovery of the 1950’s in style and design genres. Once the “refreshing rediscovery” period wore off, however, minimalism (what you are calling “too tame” – good term) ran out of things to say and much of Glass’s later work ran out of anything new to say. John Adams escaped that because he moved to more complex statements, which his disciples are for the most part also doing. I find that too many of today’s composers strive for complexity for its own sake, hiding any new compulsion for expressiveness behind a wall of notes and pops. (Not saying John Adams is hiding but others less talented.)

    George Grella: Of course, all these statements are completely ignoring an extraordinarily broad and deep range of music made since WWII that completely demolishes these assertions …

    Lowell Murphree: Susan, I posted on Prufrock. Thank you for your thoughtful post.

    Susan Scheid: George Grella: I respect and value both yours and Rodney Punt’s opinions highly. I hope there can be room for discussion that takes into account a number of points of view. What I long for is a discussion that can generate light rather than heat, and can, speaking personally, guide my own way forward into exploring new music in 2014. My intention, in the underlying blog post, was to raise growing concerns I’ve had, not to draw a line in the sand. That’s not my style. I do think Rodney has done an excellent job of framing, in a few words, the historical perspective (including post WW2, particularly in the early post-war years), though I also agree with you, and noted here earlier in the exchange, that “the musical landscape is much more open now.” But I would have to say that I don’t think that “completely demolishes” the concerns I raise in the blog post, from which I quote here. Look, my depth and breadth of knowledge doesn’t come close to yours or Steve Smith’s or Alex Ross’s (that’s why you guys make the “big bucks,” right? just kidding, I hope you know!), which is why I pay attention to what each of you write and value it. And I know, too, that the ear expands over time. Two years ago, I couldn’t get my ears around Messiaen. Now, I can’t imagine life without his music. At the same time, I have come to recognize that there is music that is likely never to engage me. The poles of that, for me, are Philip Glass and Helmut Lachenmann (I share Rodney’s assessment of Glass and am glad to know there are others who have that concern). I love to explore new music: I’ve made many discoveries I cherish and hope to make many more, but I do have concerns about certain trends, which I’ve tried to name as best I can.

    George Grella: Rodney’s blanket statement has me wondering just how much of post- and pre-WWII music he has heard, because for every piece you could condemn as being solely sensation or effect, or solely complex, or solely extended technique, I guarantee I could name a post- and pre-WWII work about any or all those things that you would be chagrined to find is okay with you, or else a ‘classic’ that must also be condemned. An individual work and a composer’s body of work can only be taken on its own terms, anything else is just personal taste.

    Susan Scheid: George Grella: I agree that taste is a big factor here, certainly it is for me. My problem is more the “fire hose” thing Anne Midgette commented on, and how best to find my way toward music that that opens its door enough for me to get in (to use David Lang’s useful words). (On the issues of sensation/effect/complexity/extended technique, the key word for me is “overuse,” rather than “use.” On the “too tame” side, the issues are of course different–one example that comes to mind is Planetarium. It was wonderful to see BAM packed, but I’m not so sure many came for the music so much as for the spectacle, and I’m even less sure the music is strong enough to endure on its own.) I just finished reading your post “Looking Back,” by the way, with interest and appreciation. R. Andrew Lee was the person who opened the door to Duckworth to me. He’s a wonderful advocate for the music he loves. And of course I appreciated your perspective on Dvorak and am about to hunt down the string quartets. For all, here’s a link to George’s post: Thanks, George, and here’s to a great new year of music.

    Steve Smith: “I know, too, that the ear expands over time. Two years ago, I couldn’t get my ears around Messiaen. Now, I can’t imagine life without his music.”

    Yes. Exactly.

    George Grella: And that’s what I mean by taking a work on its own terms rather than dismissing movement or style or idea.

    1. Steve Schwartzman

      I’m glad to hear any promotion of Dvorak’s chamber music. In 2008 I had the pleasure of visiting the house in Spillville, Iowa, where Dvorak composed and played in a first performance of his “American” Quartet in the summer of 1893. After Dvorak returned to New York City and heard the work debuted before a real audience, he commented that he preferred the at-home performance in Spillville.

      1. Susan Scheid Post author

        Steve: And how many among us can say they’ve been to the very house in Spillville, Iowa? Perhaps shoreacres or angela? I’m chagrined to look up Spillville and realize, that, without knowing it at the time, I was likely very near to it in the years I traveled around Iowa. I spotted this article, about what looks to have been a wonderful celebration of the centenary of his stay there:

  5. Hilary

    Hi Susan .. a quick note to wish you a very happy New Year … and one day I shall get here and learn from your posts by listening to the music and reading your posts properly .. in the meantime – I stay in touch .. just …. the gales are blowing us somewhere else ..

    All the best for the coming year .. and lots of new music, poetry and literature to post about alerting us to new thoughts .. cheers Hilary

  6. Mark Kerstetter

    I haven’t heard a Britten piece I haven’t liked. I think he’s amazing.

    I think in general there’s always (that is, at any time in history) a huge degree in quality in the music being produced. The listener always has to find ways to wade through it. I haven’t noticed a problem with the idea of experimentation in music (if that’s what you mean), but you listen to a lot more new music than I do. Again, as a general point, I like that the 60’s brought a tremendous amount of experimentation in music. I think it was a very good thing; there’s no reason a lot of those experiments can’t be picked up on today as a spur to creativity. However, like you I don’t have much taste for artists who are in love with strangeness for its own sake – in the cases where it’s obvious, that is; other times the strangeness of the piece might say more about me as a listener. In the genre known as “free” music this is an issue. There’s no kind of bad music worse than bad free music (although bad Baroque music is just as bad).

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: On the subject of Britten, perhaps at some point you’ll say more of why. I’d love to have your insights, and I’m certainly enthralled with his work. He and Shostakovich have become 20th C touchstones for me in so many ways, and I’m only at the beginning, so it seems to me, of my explorations of each. The rest of what I wrote to you became so long that I’ve ended up adding a postscript to the post, also because it weaves in my thoughts, always in formation, enriched by what each person has written here and elsewhere.

      1. Mark Kerstetter

        I wonder if Britten was somewhat out of sync with his time, if his attitude toward the avant-garde in the 60’s made him seem conservative or old-guard. But then the integrity and quality of his music prevailing, recent decades have brought his star out and that light outshines the question of experimentation. There are times when finding a new language is of utmost importance and times when the search for novel forms is secondary. Experimentation was important in the 60’s, but I believe we are living in a time now when content, communication and clarity (even beauty) are far more important than formal novelty.

        These are general thoughts. I’ve just scratched the surface of Britten’s music, and have not studied him at all – nor would I write about him unless I did study, or at least until I’ve spent a lot more time listening.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          Mark: A propos to your comment, which I think is right on target, John Metcalf related this story of meeting Benjamin Britten “at his sixtieth birthday party, and he said to me, ‘oh, nobody ever plays my music.’ . . . At that time, Britten and Shostakovich were definitely considered to be old hat. And of course, it was completely wrong.”

          There was a period, it seemed, where one strand of music, which I’ve loosely called high modernism, seemed to have a stranglehold on conservatories, or at least some of them. Composer after composer not in sympathy with that strand of music, John Metcalf, Steve Reich, John Adams, and oh so many others, have related how difficult it was to develop their own voices, and how necessary it was to find a way to break free.

          Your observation that “there are times when finding a new language is of utmost importance and times when the search for novel forms is secondary” is telling–and certainly, minimalism stands as a moment when finding a new language was critical. Metcalf also made an observation, a propos to that point, which I continue to find particularly resonant: “There’s a confusion in music, to my way of thinking, that stylistic experimentation equals originality.” I think he’s right about that, which is not to say by any means that stylistic experimentation shouldn’t go on–it’s unquestionably a valuable means toward the end of creating great music.

  7. wanderer

    Off to a flying start Sue. Brilliant. That link to Britten 2013 is especially valuable. And all up, enough here for about twelve months I’d say.

    Happy New Year to all.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      wanderer: How nice to “see” you here, as always. Your comment on the Britten 2013 link is right on point. That’s the thing, isn’t it: “enough here for about twelve months” . . . or maybe twelve lifetimes. To a great year of music in 2014!

  8. Curt Barnes

    Enjoyed all your comments on Britten et al (as I knew I would). Would only add what my experience of my own art form has taught me: even when you extol communicative content over form, you may be limiting yourself. (“The point of making music is to communicate something.”) Sometimes the discovery of new forms precedes ways to make them work for comprehensible communication, but that doesn’t mean they should be discouraged or dismissed (or mocked). Also, and maybe more significantly, do your values include the extroverted approach to music that mainly presents you with new, marvelous sound combinations? That say in effect, “Listen to this incredible new combination of sounds!” a variation on “the world is a perceptual banquet if we listen with the ears of children” or some such. Such a presentation, in fact, does communicate something important, I would submit, and if that is included in Britten’s “communicating something,” I stand corrected. It goes without saying that any collection of “novel” sounds needs to be ordered, structured in some way to be taken in. But in short I think “look what I found” shouldn’t be discarded from the list of possible motivations from presenting new music, or art of any kind.
    Wonderful blog! and thanks again.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Curt: It’s wonderful to “see” you here. One of the best things to come out of the Repertoire class was to “meet” you, Brian, and the merry band of others who engaged in such vibrant conversations then and continue on today. I agree with your point, with regard to the creative process, that “Sometimes the discovery of new forms precedes ways to make them work for comprehensible communication, but that doesn’t mean they should be discouraged or dismissed (or mocked).” As I noted to Mark Kerstetter, I’d say any and all compositional means (well, short of bodily harm!) are—and should be—permissible. The questions I raise here are concerned with the ends—that is, the musical works offered for listening (and I recognize that, even as to that, the dividing line is not always clear). Most critically, for me right now, the issue is how to obtain a better balance of listening effort to listening reward, and I’ve tried to articulate some concerns I have that stand in the way of finding that balance. There’s no way to obtain a better balance without making choices of some kind. That doesn’t mean, however, choosing communicative content over form. I would say that, in any event, that’s impossible. To my mind, in music, as in poetry, form and content are inextricably intertwined.

      The “communication” quotation was from David Lang, by the way, and I read “communication” broadly. Britten’s phrase, to quote again, was “But I sometimes feel that seeking after a new language has become more important than saying what you mean.” The way I take both statements is, first, that music is a communicative art. (Not everyone agrees with that.) “Communication” and “meaning” in music, however, should not be understood in the way we think of those terms when describing communication and meaning in language. Music’s open-endedness and indeterminacy, even in explicitly programmatic music, are part of its splendor. But I do think that music, at its best, is a collaborative venture, and the composer, performers, and listeners are all part of the continuum.

      So, to your question, “Do your values include the extroverted approach to music that mainly presents you with new, marvelous sound combinations?” I don’t know what “extroverted” means in this context, and certainly I’m always open to “marvelous sound combinations,” whether or not they are new. But, focusing on “mainly,” though I don’t want to be too emphatic, I’m not so sure. The question puts in mind, as one example, John Cage. While his thinking about sound was revelatory (even though I often don’t agree with him—for example, I would rather listen to a Britten String Quartet than Sixth Avenue traffic), I don’t include him in the list of composers whose music I find of abiding interest. Your question, more indirectly, also puts in mind Ben Johnston’s comment (and I think his point may have related to Schoenberg’s 12-tone system): “what is mathematically intelligible is not necessarily musically intelligible”—which is not to say that serialism, to bring up again one of our favorite Repertoire topics (!), is not useful as a musical means. As David Nice earlier noted, “Another fascinating line to pursue is how Britten and Shostakovich used twelve-tone music and note rows in their later works – explicitly to express bunged-upness and pain that needs to be resolved by some sort of tonality.” And of course there is Berg . . .

      Provisional thoughts, all, needless to say.

  9. Curt Barnes

    Thanks for the response (and as usual I misremembered who said what and should have checked back). By “extroverted” I meant the composer who is out in the world, discovering new sound combinations, as against one whose emphasis is on expressing subjective emotional needs. (This is to caricature the differences for the sake of delineation) And it was maybe a mistake of mine not to include any examples. I wasn’t thinking of serialism at all. The music concrete and electronic movements at mid-century certainly added to the phenomena now considered within the purview of recognizable music, and early examples are more in the “look what I found” than “see what I feel” camp of music, I would submit. Yet to me those early pieces can communcate the magic that the composers originally found. I attempted to call this an emphasis on “form,” but agree that form can’t be singled out as a value in art.
    The first time i heard the process of what I think is called electroacoustic “looping” was at a performance at Juilliard. Pamela Z had composed a piece for cello that was fed into a tape as it was being played, then played back on a time delay, simultaneous with the live performance of the cello. The effect on me and a friend was total magic. Of course it was new to us, this technique familiar to most musicians, but the differences in timbre and sonority between live and recorded, the “echo” effect and complex interaction Pamela had contrived in contrast to the obvious simplicity of the process were quite winning. (I think in retrospect I had heard the same technique from Laurie Anderson, not that she was the originator, either, but somehow it was less magical from her) That was a case of the technique being most of the show, for us, and it was enough. Were we naive, or too easily impressed? Maybe. But it’s that aspect of music making which is passed off too easily, sometimes, as “novelty” or “weirdness” that I was trying to address. Maybe a long trip to make a simple point. Music as soul-to-soul communcation, yes, but also sometimes just as marvelous phenomena.
    (Verbal communication is so inadequate to communicate about music, isn’t it? But it’s fun to try, even though I inevitably caricature my own concepts in the process. Who said “writing about music is like dancing about architecture?” It’s a statement attributable to 11 different people, last time I looked)

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Curt: “Yet to me those early pieces can communicate the magic that the composers originally found.” Yes, I DO know what you mean by that, and your description of the experience of hearing Pamela Z’s performance is a perfect example (and wonderfully stated, too). You remind me by this how astonished and thrilled I was, even though this was old hat by then, to hear clarinetist Richard Stoltzman play New York Counterpoint “live,” which of course meant live against several taped parts. (Another discovery I particularly loved was that of Toby Twining’s microtonal music in Eurydice.)

      I’m struck, too, by your comment distinguishing your experience of hearing the same technique by Pamela Z from that by Laurie Anderson. What lands, what doesn’t? It’s so hard to know why, let alone to express it in words. I have found over time that I don’t warm to pieces that lean heavily on electronica, and, so far, the best I can say is that I prefer the sound of acoustic instruments. But I recognize the statement is reductive, and I can point to examples that bust my own “rule.” . . . which is why I love your statement that “verbal communication is so inadequate to communicate about music, isn’t it? But it’s fun to try, even though I inevitably caricature my own concepts in the process.”

      That’s a perfect description of how I feel every time I try to give words to what my experience of music is–but it’s fun, and helpful, too, particularly when a lively, respectful conversation results, as this one has been. Thank you so much for joining in.

  10. Curt Barnes

    P.S. I agree with you about the “6th Avenue traffic” comparison. But what would you say to someone who loves both Stockhausen’s “Gesang der Junglinge” and Britten’s 3rd string quartet, and can’t say which he loves more? The first I hear as “101 variations on a recorded voice, artfully but elusively structured” and would put more in the “look what I found” camp, and the second as coming from a long tradition of string quartet writing and in the “profound communication” camp. Again, grossly simplifying to make the point. Maybe Britten would have enjoyed the Stockhausen too, who knows.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Curt: I would say you’re a better man than I am, gunga din. I think, as a listener, I’m not the best candidate for the “look what I found” category–it’s where, in new music, at least, I’ve felt most often that I’m drowning in shallow water. If the “found” serves music that I find transporting, that’s another matter, entirely. But “found” alone is definitely a key place where my own effort/reward ratio has been entirely out of whack. This is a matter of predilection, to be sure, not judgment. Maybe we can meet over at Phaedra, which is reputed to be one of the few pieces of Britten’s Stockhausen admired. (A wonderful interview with Tony Palmer that includes this may be found here: I sort of doubt Britten would found Stockhausen’s work copacetic, but what do I know? But we can certainly meet at Schnittke! I’m eager to explore more of his work this year.

  11. shoreacres

    First – yes, indeed, we did have a conversation somewhere in the depths of your blog’s comment sections about Dvorak, Spillville, and the clock museum. I’ve been to the museum, but I was in grade school at the time and had no idea about Dvorak. Now that Steve’s enlightened us about that part of the building, it’s on the list, for I’ll surely travel to Iowa another time or two.

    Sometimes your posts are so rich I don’t quite know where to land, but this time I’ll highlight these words from David Lang.

    The point of making music is to communicate something. It’s to say “I have something I want to tell you, and I’m going to build a doorway so you can get to it.” And sometimes it’s interesting to build a door that a million people can go through. And sometimes you go with a door that a hundred people can go through. But if you’re not going to build a door, there’s no point in doing it.

    All that’s needed is to substitute “writing” for “making music”, and I’m right on board.

    Something else came to mind – a bit of Eliot which I’ve never had occasion to quote, but this snippet from Section V of “Burnt Norton” seems fitting.

    Words move, music moves
    Only in time; but that which is only living
    Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
    Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
    Can words or music reach
    The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
    Moves perpetually in its stillness.
    Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
    Not that only, but the co-existence,
    Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
    And the end and the beginning were always there
    Before the beginning and after the end.
    And all is always now.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: That’s such a beautiful quote from Burnt Norton. I was led to it sometime back when someone quoted “Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,/Not that only,” and I raced to find the reference. I am also glad my marbles didn’t altogether fail me in thinking we’d had a discussion somewhere about those Spillville clocks. I’d actually searched your blog a bit to see if I could find it there, but came up dry! Love your use of David Lang’s quotation, too.

      1. David N

        While I confess I was wandering in a maze through some of the further up, Shoreacres anchored me with a quotation I’ll never forget – David Lang’s. The big and smaller gateways make such a fine metaphor of what could be a wordy way of explaining.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          David: I was really delighted to stumble upon that quotation from David Lang, so elegantly stated, in so few words. I’m very glad you found your way out of the maze and landed back on it!

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