Thursday, May 1, 2008

John Oswald - Plunderphonics

Entry 1

From the first note of John Oswald's Plunderphonics 69/96, I knew this music could speak to me. It begins with the one of the most recognizable chords in all of popular music—the final E major triad of the Beatles' “A Day In the Life.” Using a MIDI keyboard, Oswald transposes, stacks, and distorts this iconic moment of rock history and transform it into a new work of art. This is the fundamental statement of Plunderphonics.

John Oswald began his “plunderphonics” experiments in the late 1960s. By this time electronic music had been around for almost twenty years, and composers got sounds from two sources: simple synthesized sounds and sounds the composer recorded themselves. Oswald found a new source of material, though—his own record collection. He began taking the copyrighted recordings of other artists, cutting it into small pieces, and reordering or otherwise transforming these sounds. This form of cutting (or “chopping”) other's music into fragments became known as sampling. Years later, this technique would form the basis of hip-hop music, but Oswald's music has more in common with Karlheinz Stockhausen and Milton Babbitt than Run DMC and Snoop Dogg. The recordings on the two-disc collection include most of his plunderphonic works produced between 1969 and 1996.

Oswald's blatant disregard for copyright laws eventually got him into trouble. In an attempt to avoid prosecution, he never sold any of this music. It was always given away or passed from friend to friend through copies. Nonetheless, he was threatened with legal action from Michael Jackson after his 1989 Plunderphonics album (not to be confused with the larger Plunderphonics 69/96 set that I listened to) was released. As a result, Oswald destroyed all the copies he had of the album. This music brings up some difficult questions about the protection of intellectual property, but that is beyond the scope of this journal. The genius of this music speaks for itself.

The samples used on these CDs come from a diverse collection of sources, from The Beatles to Dolly Parton to an Evangelist preacher to Count Basie to Igor Stravinsky to Claude Debussy. Despite this material being used illegally, Oswald makes no attempt to hide its source. In fact, he draws on the listeners' knowledge of the source material to set up expectations and create surprises. While listening to the CDs I found that my level enjoyment of each track (there are sixty-two in all) depended heavily upon my knowledge of the original work. Tracks that utilized music I was already familiar with were usually much more enjoyable than those taken from music I had not heard. There is great deal of humor in this music. Oswald often sets up an exception for where the music normally goes but then thwarts that expectation by going in a sudden new direction. Thankfully, I am familiar with a great deal of musical styles and genres, both popular and relatively obscure.

The track “O'Hell” shows Oswald the listener's prior knowledge of the material to keep interest. This track samples thirteen different songs by The Doors. There is no layering of sounds, Oswald just juxtaposes short clips straight from the band's original recordings. At times, he jumps between samples from several different songs in less than a second, creating a confusing swirl. The pulse remains fairly constant, but the frequent jumps make the beat jump in a jarring motion. I have heard all of those songs in their entirety hundreds of times. At other times, he cleverly switches the order of samples from the same song to create surprising new lines, like when he uses words from the song “Hello, I Love You” to create the new line “You love me.” Because I have heard all of the songs in their entirety hundreds of times, I am often anticipating what will happen next and being surprised when he switches to a different sample that I am also familiar with, and the cycle of anticipation and surprise starts over again.
Another piece in which Oswald plays with the listener's expectations is “Pocket.” This track uses samples from a Count Basie big band recording. Basie was known for his swinging blues numbers that built slowly by adding instrumental layers over a number of choruses. The Plunderphonics recording maintains Basie's sly swinging style but constantly keeps the listener guessing as to what will happen next. Like in “O'Hell,” it surprises us with quick jump cuts from one beat to the next, but at other times gives the impression of a broken record—sticking on and looping a short melodic fragment in almost minimalistic fashion. As the fragment repeats over and over, one wonders when it will end and what could possibly follow when it does. Basie's blues charts are iconic, but Oswald has broken the work down in wonderfully chaotic, yet coherent ways. By using real samples, he kept the coolness and swing of the original, but broke it free of regular four bar phrases and twelve bar choruses.

Not all of Plunderphonics' samples come from popular genres. Many of the tracks feature samples from classical recordings. On the track “Z24,” Oswald uses the famous segment of Richard Strauss' epic Also Sprach Zarathustra. This piece has been recorded by hundreds of orchestras, and here he takes a large number of them and plays them simultaneously without adjusting the pitch or tempo. This effect is almost unnoticeable at first, but it becomes strikingly obvious when the timpani enter. The slight differences in the timpanists' tempi and rhythms create a cacophonous cloud of drums. As the second phrase starts, the different tempi cause a type of stretching effect as the next line begins while the previous chords hang over ominously. Once again, Oswald takes a piece of music already known and loved by millions of people and recontextualizes it. He does not alter the original piece, but by layering numerous orchestras he allows the listener to hear the piece in a slightly different way. Normally, I find it hard to separate the sounds of this piece from the visual images of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, but when I listen to the Plunderphonics version, I am forced to think about large groups of human beings in tuxedos.

It is not easy to say if these works deserve to be a part of the Classical Canon, and this, in fact, brings up more questions. Until the twentieth century music had to be played by an individual, but recording technology has allowed for a piece to be heard that could not possibly be performed by humans with acoustic instruments. All of the works in the Canon were excepted to be performed by an orchestra or chamber group, so how do electronic works, like these Plunderphonics works fit into this set? Is it based on how often they are programmed on new music concerts? On record sales? Due to the trickiness of copyright law, these measures are inapplicable to Plunderphonics. Does this music really fit in the Canon anyway? The abstract, thought-provoking, and sometimes random-sounding ways in which sounds are arranged share a lot with electronic music and the field of avant-garde experimentalism. And many of the works, like “Z24” are sampled from popular classical pieces, but tracks based on rock and pop recordings, like “O'Hell,” would probably not appeal to listeners not already accustomed to the originals because they would not feel the sense of anticipation and surprise. 

Perhaps Plunderphonics should be viewed as popular music. History has shown that the idea of sampling has not caught at all in the classical world, but has created a whole new genre in the form of hip-hop. (Is John Oswald the father of rap?) His idea of cutting two songs together into one had a direct offspring in the 1990s in the form of the internet driven genre of the “mash-up.” In my opinion, the works on Plunderphonics 69/96 fit better into an Avant-garde or Popular Music Canon, than the traditional Classical Canon. Still, I would label this music as “essential listening” for any lover music in all its diverse forms.

Alvin Lucier - I Am Sitting in A Room

Entry 2

The second piece I listened to was Alvin Lucier's I Am Sitting In A Room. This piece is very unique in its way of combining elements electronic music, avant-garde experimentalism, and minimalism. The source material consists of four sentences of text spoken and recorded by the composer. This paragraph is then replayed into the room and re-recorded. This new recording is replayed and re-recorded, and this cycle continues for forty-five minutes. As the recording is replayed into the same room, certain resonant frequencies in the room are reinforced, and with each successive playing, the voice becomes more and more distorted, and masked by these frequencies. Less than twenty minutes into the piece, Lucier's voice is unrecognizable, replaced by a pulsating wave of static frequencies. These pulses smooth out as the piece progresses, and a constant drone begins to emerge and grow stronger. The piece ends when all that is left is a steady constant drone. We are now hearing the sound of the room itself vibrating.

The idea of recording live sounds to hear again was almost unheard of to people in the late 1800s, in the twentieth century, Sound recording technology developed at a rapid pace. By 1970, when this piece was composed, recorded sound was a part of everyday life. Composers like Pierre Schaefer and Karlheinz Stockhausen had been creating music from recorded sounds since the 1940s, and the rock'n'roll musicians like the Beatles and Brian Wilson had opened new doors for studio production in the mid-60s. Lucier used this new medium to create a definitive version of his piece that people could hear without having to go to a concert hall. Technologically, the piece is not very cutting edge or adventurous; the sounds are not processed through any kind of modulation or filtering. All of the changes in the sound occurs through natural reinforcement of resonant frequencies. Compared to John Oswald's Plunderphonics, this world is strikingly simple.

This simplicity shows how Lucier might have been influenced by the emerging trend of minimalism in America. This movement was started by a group of composers in Downtown New York City that included Philip Glass, Terry Riley, and Steve Reich. Their music was drastically different from the prevailing trends in classical music prior the late 60s. Their aesthetic featured a great deal of repetition, long stretches of static harmony, slow development often driven by a mathematical process, and a steady, often driving pulse. The influence of this style can be seen clearly in I Am Sitting In A Room. It features massive repetition, drones, and process driven development, but it does not have the constant, regular rhythm. The effect of this irregular stasis created a sense of being in a hypnotic daze in me. This trance-like state is often found in the music of Eastern Asia, but it was something totally revolutionary in Western Art music. Therefore, this music must be listened to in a different way than traditional classical music. In this way, minimalism literally turned classical music on its ear.

Unlike Plunderphonics, I Am Sitting In A Room can be performed live with just one performer and a recording/playback device. The piece would sound quite different in a different performance space, as every room has a different set of resonant frequencies. The difference can be enhanced even further because Lucier says that any text may be use for the piece. Differences in the size and shape of the room would cause if to develop at a different rate with different frequencies emerging and sustaining. A different text would create its own unique rhythmic pulse and set of overtones. This type of indeterminacy shows a clear link between Lucier and iconoclastic composer John Cage. Performing this work can be an interesting experiment, but is it worth the amount of time that must dedicated to such a project?

This work is experimental in its truest form. The composer has set up a set of parameters that are adhered to inflexibly. He may have an idea of what will happen, but he has no direct control over the final sonic output of his system. This type of work takes a great deal of commitment on the composer because must give up his creative control once the process has begun. This is radically different outlook from composers of previous generations, who were traditionally very protective of the sounds they create, and it shows the immense influence of Cage. This type of music also takes a great deal of commitment on the part of the listener. Listening to this piece, I was so tempted to fast forward to the end to hear the final result. Forty-five minutes is a very long time to listen to slowly emerging drones. This ultra-slow development is common characteristic of minimalism, but I personally find the aesthetic boring. I do not think I ever need to listen to this piece again. Like any good experiment, I learned something about nature and sound transformation, but thanks to Lucier's experimentation, I know longer need to do it myself. I feel like I could have gotten just as much information from a condensed seven minute version of the piece. I am more interested in the final product of the sound than the form of the process, but minimalists would disagree with my viewpoint.

This piece exposes the listener to an amazing scientific wonder of our natural world, but repeated listening does not reveal any new knowledge. The educational value of this piece can be retained almost immediately. Because of this lack of repeatability, the piece does not belong in the Classical Canon. It is interesting, serious, and worthwhile work of art, but it is not a pinnacle of the compositional craft.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Marion Bauer

Entry 2

Though not well known today, in the 1920s Marion Bauer was part of a small but growing community of female composers in America. Most notably, she was the first American student of the great pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. Bauer, in turn, taught Ruth Crawford. She was also friends with Amy Beach and Miriam Gideon. Her career included jobs that would not have been attained by women in previous generations. She was a prominent author, writing numerous articles in Musical Quarterly and Musical Leader. She was also a well-respected educator, holding a position as a music professor at NYU for twenty-five years from 1926 to 1951. She was also on the executive board of several composer's societies like the Society for Publications of American Music and the American Composer's Alliance. Unlike previous women composers to gain fame, though, Bauer was not widely known as a performer, but she certainly kept a busy schedule as a teacher, author, executive and lecturer. Despite this, she still found time to write some wonderful music.

The selections of her work that I listened to for this entry are the American Youth Concerto, op. 36 and the Symphonic Suite for Strings, op. 33. Though Bauer was a proponent of twentieth century music (even composing a few twelve tone works), these two pieces clearly illustrate her close ties to tradition. Both are written in a basically tonal style, though the harmonies are advanced and chromatic. Both are also in three movement Classical forms. Yet her music does not sound old, her style is imbued with modern techniques in orchestration, harmony, instrumentation, melody, and especially the use of folk and popular style.

The American Youth Concerto is unique in several regards. It was written in 1943 for the High School of Music and Art in New York City. Despite being written for younger musicians, Bauer did not write a simple piece—my high school never performed a piece as complex as this. Upon first listening one may wonder what instrument is the soloist in this concerto. The first movement clearly features the piano in the soloist role, including a cadenza. But the cadenza is exceptionally melodic and not virtuosic. It acts more as a solo recapitulation than a spot for the soloist to show off. The second movement, though, shows off the beauty of Bauer's orchestrations. Winds and strings carry the bulk of the melody in lush, full orchestrations. The pianist adds frequent comments on and embellishments to the orchestral textures, but the part does not have the featured soloist quality of a Classical or Romantic concerto.

The last movement is the most American sounding of the three. It is a melting pot of dance style accompaniments. In the opening, the piano and orchestra trade lightly swinging ragtime-like phrases, but this is soon interrupted by a jazzy saxophone soloist that finds the orchestra playing an accompaniment figure reminiscent of a Jewish bulgar—a nod to both Bauer's Jewish heritage and the folk dance that was popular at the time. The use of the saxophone is a very unique feature of this work. Even today, this instrument is rarely used in the context of an orchestra, but here it is treated as an equal with the piano. Soon after this first saxophone feature, the instrument reappears with an even longer solo, this time accompanied only by the piano. This duet evokes the spirit of jazz that was in the air in New York in the 1930s and 40s. The saxophone player bends and smears pitches while playing a melody evocative of a Negro spiritual. This melody is then fleshed out in a dramatic chorale-type orchestration, utilizing all of the sections of the orchestra to bring out the emotional quality of the tune. This ABA movement is then rounded out by a recapitulation of the opening ragtime feel. Overall, it is a varied and emotional trip through the cultural stew of America, and specifically New York, in the beginning of the twentieth century.

The other piece that I listened to was the Symphonic Suite for Strings, op. 33. This work does not have the variety of sound and texture that the Concerto has. One reason for this rests in the instrumentation. The string orchestra is blessed with one of the most homogeneous sounds of any ensemble, due to the fact that all of the instruments are made of the same materials and have similar proportions. Orchestrationally, though, this means that the ensemble cannot produce as large a range of instrumental timbres that a full orchestra could. This puts much more importance on the melody, harmony, and rhythm of the work to provide interest. This work falls short in these aspects, though.

The piece shows the influence of older forms on Bauer's composing. Dance suites had been around since the Baroque era. Her suite is in three movements: Prelude: Andante, Interlude: Commodo, and Finale-Fugue: Allegro ma non troppo. In a break with tradition, though, none of these titles suggest a specific dance. Even though these types of concert suites were never intended to actually accompany dance, composers usually took some type of dance as a jumping off point for each movement. Bauer does not use these affectations and gives the pieces only generic names. The first two movements are tonal and homophonic. These movements are filled with a sense of melancholy and feature modern sounding melodies and harmonies, but the lack of sonic variety in the string orchestra becomes tiresome. The third movement most strongly ties Bauer to the past. It is in the form of a fugue and shows that she was intimately familiar with the music of J.S. Bach. The four-voice fugue maintains all of Bach contrapuntal ideas and textures, but adds a great deal of chromaticism to the harmonic language. Once again, though, the work is limited by a lack of color.

This work does not deserve to be added to the Classical Canon. It is a well put together piece of music and it could certainly appeal to a great deal of listeners, but it is not essential listening. Repeated listening to the work does not reveal extra depth or subtlety in the work. It is just like many other work in the genre.

American Youth Concerto, on the other hand, definitely deserves to be added to the standard repertoire for young groups. Few works written for this type of ensemble are worth real musical value. My experience with high school music has shown a great deal of dullness and repetitiveness. This work is varied and interesting—showcasing a wide variety of musical styles, colors, and textures. It would be a worthwhile experience for a group of talented young musicians to perform this work.

Mexican Composers

Entry 1

For this journal I listened to a collection of music by Mexican composers. All of these pieces were written between 1932 and 1950, yet they cover a wide range of styles and genres. The works range from transcriptions of Baroque and Classical pieces to modernist atonal works. They can be humorous and playful at times and wistfully sentimental at others. Some of the works feature Mexican folksongs, while others sound positively European. This recording portrays a wide and diverse musical scene in Mexico around the turn of the century. I had no idea that the Mexican music scene was so diverse and vibrant in the early twentieth century.

European classical music in the early twentieth century can be defined by a wave of nationalism. Composers from the various countries tried to create a style that drew upon the traditions, personalities, and melodies of their homelands. Across the ocean, Mexican composers were following this trend. Perhaps they were merely jumping on the bandwagon of nationalism because Europe had always been the center of musical development, but I believe there is a deeper explanation for this trend. The Mexican Revolution which lasted from 1910 to around 1920 had just recently freed Spain from the longtime rule of dictator Porfirio Diaz. Perhaps their new found social freedom inspired their nationalism much in the way that the creation of new European countries inspired its composers. The different artists presented here each tackled this nationalistic task with a different technique.

Like Bartók and some other European composers, Mexican composer Blas Galindo Dimas sought to incorporate native folk music into his works. Dimas' Sones de Mariachi from 1940, is a tribute to the Mexican mariachi band. The work is written for full orchestra, but the trumpets, clarinets, violins, and percussion—which often make up the core of a small mariachi group—are prominently featured. The work is light hearted, using traditional melodies and dance rhythms. It is in ABA form, with quick and happy A sections and a sentimental and lyrical B section. Harmonically, this piece is not very adventurous, staying decidedly tonal throughout. Dimas' use of the orchestral palette is wonderful, though. He takes the basic textures of a small mariachi group and expands them to encompass a whole orchestra. The dance-able rhythms and joyous rhythm make this a rousing listening experience. 

Rodolfo Halffter shows evidence of the influence Stravinsky had over Mexican (and most other) composers of the time. Halffter draws mostly on the master's later “neo-classical” style. He has two works presented on this CD. The first is three Classical harpsichord sonatas by Antonio Soler that Halffter arranged for full orchestra. The orchestrations are not particularly compelling, but show that he was highly aware of older musical styles and wished to share them with the people of his time. The second work is Obertura Festiva, op. 21, written in 1952. Despite being described as “neo-classical” this piece has numerous thoroughly modern features. His harmonic language is highly chromatic, yet never atonal, and his rapid shifts in orchestration show, yet again, the influence of Stravinsky. Often, he deals with juxtaposing blocks of sound, but, unlike Stravinsky, the melodic line will continue. It threads a path through the rapid textural and timbral changes. In these examples, Halffter shows how he wanted to combine the traditions of the past with new musical devices.

On this less modern side of the musical spectrum, Manuel Ponce's Estrallita shows the influence of European art and parlor songs. The piece was originally a song with piano accompaniment, but the version on the CD is an instrumental arrangement for string orchestra. It is a very simple tune, but with a distinctly Mexican flair. It has short phrases with many repeated notes that create a lively, almost frivolous character. The accompaniment style and are harmonization, though, are purely Romantic. This string version delivers the melody in a highly syrupy, sentimental way. This tune was very popular in its day and was probably distributed mostly by sheet music sales.

The star of this CD is undoubtedly Silvestre Revueltas. He was the only composer on this disc that I had heard of before, though only in passing, and I had never heard his music. The set includes three of his works: Janitizio (1933), Ocho por Radio (1933), and Sensemayá (1938). The last of these is Revueltas' most widely known piece. The piece is often compared to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, and with good reason. Firstly, the pieces share similar programmatic stories. Sensemayá is based off of a poem describing the ritual killing of a snake—similar to Stravinsky tale of a young virgin's death. Primitive rhythms, haunting timbres, violent brass, dissonant voicings, and block-style changes are elements that both composers utilize in their pieces. Nonetheless, Sensemayá would probably not be confused for a Stravinsky work. Revueltas may have used some of Stravinsky's ideas, but he put his own nationalistic stamp on it. The main difference in Revueltas' style is his use of melody. While he does not quote folk tunes directly, the piece has a melodic line with a few large leaps and many repeated notes that is uncannily Mexican. Elements of Stravinsky technique of juxtaposing blocks of sound can be heard frequently in this piece, but the infectious melody always pervades despite radical style changes in the accompaniment. This technique can be heard often in Janitizio and Ocho por Radio, as well. Sometimes he juxtaposes musical blocks that share no instruments, but the melodic line will continue uninterrupted in a new voice. This gives the piece a unity and flow that Stravinsky did not strive for. The technique makes the piece more accessible because it is easier to follow.

Overall, Revueltas works are more predictable than Stravinsky's, especially in the rhythms, which tend to be more repetitive. His works show a light-hearted nature that seems to be a hallmark of the Mexican nationalist style.

Mexico certainly had a wide variety of music happening between 1930 and 1952, but there is little revolutionary. The works continue the nationalist trends of incorporating folk melodies and rhythms into the music, but the orchestrations, harmonies and forms are all drawing on the pioneering works of others. The one exception to this is Revueltas. His music, while drawing heavily on Stravinsky, shows more of a digestion of his break-throughs more than direct copying. It has a sense of daring and individuality that makes it compelling even today. Sensemayá is already a well-known piece played by many orchestras and it certainly deserves to be a part of the Canon. The other works on the disc, while charming and a worthwhile listen, are not essential to the understanding of Western music.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Margarete Danzi, Fanny Mendelssohn and Luise Adolphole le Beau

Entry 2

For my second entry this unit, I listened to a CD of music for violin and piano by female German composers from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. The composers ranged from the well-known Fanny Mandelssohn to the lesser known Margarete Danzi and Luise Adolphole le Beau. At the time that these works were composed, women were not seen as capable of being serious composers. The women were composing solely for their own enjoyment and not trying to push music's boundaries as were many of their male contemporaries may have been. None of these women were well-known for their composing during their life.

Margarete Danzi was deeply involved in the music scene of eighteenth century Germany. Her father was a singer and theater manager and was, for a brief time, a student Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's father, Leopold. Later she married composer/musician Franz Danzi. During her life she was better known for her work as an opera soprano, though she also enjoyed composing.

The work presented on the disc was her Sonata for violin and piano. It is in a standard ternary form, with the movements marked Allegro, Andante, and Allegretto, respectively. The opening Allegro is in sonata form with no noticeable deviation from standard practice. The chord changes are effective, but not particularly inventive. This movement does have two noteworthy moments of interest. One of the themes from the exposition makes use of groups of ascending grace notes. This effect reminds me of the technique used by many jazz and blues musicians today of sliding into a note. Also, trying to fit all those extra notes in between the main notes creates some off-kilter rhythms that add the excitement of the piece. Later in the piece, just before the recapitulation, there is a melody in the violin that sounds like a direct quotation from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's "Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen" aria from The Magic Flute. Whether this was intentional on the composer's part, I cannot say, but it was certainly a fun moment for me as a listener.

The second and third movements of the piece follow in predictable fashion. The Andante (which is taken at a slightly faster than expected tempo by the performers on the recording) is in ABA form and features a singing melody in the A section and some peculiar harmonies in the B sections. The third movement is characterized by a continual switching of roles between the two instruments. At times the violin will play a melody over an accompanimental piano part and then suddenly switch to playing double-stops in an off-beat accompaniment pattern while the right hand of the piano takes over the melodic function. Such equality between parts was common in the Classical period and is especially prevalent throughout this work.

While well put together and an over-all pleasant work, the sonata lacks the melodic inventiveness and varying accompaniment that can characterizes much of Mozart's work—who Danzi is clearly writing in the shadow of.

Chronologically, the next piece on the CD was an Adagio for violin and piano by Fanny Mendelssohn, the best known of the three women presented. This is due mostly to that fact that she was the sister of the prodigious Felix Mendelssohn—she gave only one known public performance and most of her works have still not been published. Perhaps surprisingly, I did not find this work as enjoyable as either of the other women's works. Unlike her backwards-looking brother, though, Fanny's work is in a style more contemporary of the time period. It is obvious that Fanny was well acquainted with the Romantic style of the time. To describe this work as sentimental would be an under-statement. From the opening piano notes there is an overwhelming sense that the composer is trying to portray a sense of longing or perhaps nostalgia. Either way, the sentiments seem forced and insincere.

Mendelssohn uses one dramatic device more than any other during this piece. This device is the chromatic scale, which pervades the piano accompaniment. Most obviously are the twin moments in which the pianist's right hand plays slow up, down, and back up the scale for three full octaves, while the violin plays a wistful line above. Though certainly dramatic, this gesture feels contrived and meaningless. The short work is made to feel long due to its repetitive nature. As the piece nears its conclusion, Mendelssohn breaks the chromatic scale into shorter bits that recur incessantly until the piece finally comes to a close. In music, perhaps a famous name can be as useful as talent in becoming well-known.

The last piece was by Luise Adolphe le Beau, one-time pupil of another famous female composer, Clara Wieck Schumann. Her Sonata for violin and piano, op. 10, like the Mendelssohn work, is dripping with sentimentality. In its standard fast-slow-fast ternary form, the second movement is by far the sappiest. It is marked Andante cantabile, which is a perfect description of the soaring, emotional melody that dominates the movement. Dramatic dynamic shifts and gentle rhythm rubato make this work characteristic of its time period. Unlike, Mendelssohn, though, this work seems inexplicably more sincere in its emotional nature. She does not rely on stock musical motives (like the chromatic scale), instead the lines have a natural, solemn grace. Nonetheless, the piece lacks any distinguishing features that might make it appealing to repeated listenings.

These ladies, though obviously talented, were not given a lot of respect during their lives, nor were they given the kind of opportunities to grow and thrive afforded to their male counterparts. Therefore, their works tend to be shallow, repetitive, and not unique among the huge amount of music produced in that period. Nonetheless, these women undoubtedly paved the way the many successful female composers in the 20th and 21st centuries. Many of these women were also teachers who taught their craft and enthusiasm for music to the younger generation. With all these factors in mind it is tricky to decide whether or not these works deserve to be a part of the classical Canon.

In a way these women are pioneers—doing work not often performed by their gender—but musically this description does not really work. A musical pioneer must do things that were unheard of by previous generation. They must question the conventions and re-evaluate the status quo. These mavericks change the musical landscape and shape future music to come. The work of maverick composers have a timeless quality and deserve to be performed on a continual basis. For that reason, the works of the women should not be included in the Canon. While their lives should not be forgotten, their music should be viewed in a historical context only.

Coleridge-Taylor - The Song of Hiawatha Overture & others

Entry 1

Perhaps because of its geography, England's musical style throughout history has been distinctly different than the majority of music coming from the European mainland. This island's music has been more pastoral, humorous and light-hearted than the music of Germany, Italy or France. This description does not apply to the music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. His music sounds more passionate and alive than any of his contemporaries from England, from Gustav Holst to Ralph Vaughn-Williams.

I listened to a CD of several orchestral works by this black English composer. The first piece on the recording is from his The Song of Hiawatha, op. 30, a cantata that Coleridge-Taylor composed gradually from 1898 to 1900. The bulk of the piece consists of three songs, but I listened only to the instrumental overture.

The piece is a large ABA structure, where the B section is a development of motives from the primary theme. This form is one of the most often used structures throughout music, but Coleridge-Taylor keeps it interesting by making the other musical aspects exciting and fresh. The overture is stunningly brilliant with dazzling flowing melodies, lush chords, dramatic orchestrations and loud volumes.

The piece begins serenely with harp arpeggios and sustained chords, as a four-note motif is passed around between strings and winds. This motif develops into a placid melody that appears to fade away until the timpani and horns introduce a gentle rhythmic pulse that brings in the first glorious statement of the melody, which is then passed through various instruments in the orchestra, often accompanied by a new counter-melody in another instrument. The main melody is simple and folk-like, and it glides along on a lilting 6/8 rhythm. In fact, this melody is derived from the spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen.” The melody is mostly pentatonic, giving it a familiar quality that makes it almost immediately memorable. He was introduced to this spiritual melody by Frederick Loudin's Jubilee Singers who where touring Europe at the time. The use of this melody shows an attempt by the English composer to connect with his African heritage and the newly freed slaves from America.

In the development section, Coleridge-Taylor does not let the melody's simple nature trap him. He instead develops small fragments of the melody mostly through modulation and changes in orchestration. The beginning of the development section actually seems to go in reverse. The early part of the development section features a more abstracted version of the theme than the later part of the section, where an exact statement of the opening melodic fragment passes around the group while modulating upwards. This motion prepares the audience for the recapitulation to come, and further preparation is given when the distinctive horn and timpani rhythm from earlier give a clear marker of the triumphant return to the main theme.

The use of the pentatonic melody gives this work an accessible quality. This scale is used in many types of folk music. It is interesting to see the influence of African American music on this English composer. Coleridge-Taylor was composing less than fifty years after the American Civil War and must have felt a kinship with the enslaved Africans that were now free.

Besides a catchy melody, two other important factors come into play to make this a compelling work. The first is Coleridge-Taylor's use of rhythm. For instance, the introduction to the piece is clearly in 4/4 time, but when the horns and timpani signal the main theme, they propel the work into a gliding waltz with a 6/8 feel. By establishing the 4/4 time first, he creates a sense of syncopation when the triple meter begins by shifting the strong beats to an unexpected place. Though the rest of the piece stays in triple feel, it maintains a great deal of rhythmic interest through use of syncopation and unusually accents. The piece has overwhelmingly dance-like qualities that come from a strong rhythmic drive. This seems to be a characteristic of much of Coleridge-Taylor's music. Most of the other pieces on this CD are in some way related to dance—three works bear the label suite and another is a set of “characteristic waltzes.” One of the most notable of these in terms of rhythm is the second movement of Petite Suite de Concert, op. 77. It is called “Demande et Response” and, in addition to a lovely melody, it includes some wonderful syncopations. Specifically, there is a short section in which there seem to be three distinct rhythmic pulses occurring simultaneously: a main melody in the violins and flute, an off-kilter pizzicato accompaniment figure in the lower strings, and off-beats from the horns. The effect is a jarring one that feels jerky and disconcerting. It was a moment that piqued my ears immediately and begged for a re-listen, despite the fact that the moment lasts less than twenty seconds in a five-and-a-half minute piece.

The last important feature of this Coleridge-Taylor work is his lush chord voicings and brilliant orchestration, as seen in the piece's introduction. The listener is immediately transported to a unique world with sweeping harp arpeggios and sustained woodwind chords. Melodic fragments in the violins, oboes, and horns seem to float effortlessly above this. The introduction of the timpani brings on ominous thoughts, as does the militaristic rhythm that follows, but those anxieties are quickly quelled when the singing main melody enters. The repetitive nature of this short theme is thwarted by his striking orchestration—simply stating the next period in a different instrument (but always the perfect instrument to create appropriate contrast and blend). Throughout the work, his chords are thick and warm, and the frequent textural shifts kept me listening intently for the whole eleven minutes of the piece.

The Song of Hiawatha is considered Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's masterwork, yet few people know the name of this composer. Two of his white classmates at the Royal Conservatory of Music, Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughn-Williams, are very well-known. In my opinion, though, the work of these men does nearly match Coleridge-Taylor for his emotional depth. All three of these composers exploited folk melodies of different sorts and were able to orchestrate in colorful ways, but Coleridge-Taylor is the only one that speaks to me on an emotional level. His music, though occasionally light in texture, is never light-hearted. His music is full of passion and emotion. For this reason, I do believe that his music deserves a place in the Canon. In addition, I believe that the Canon deserves a more diverse representation of humanity. Coleridge-Taylor was one of the first significant composers of color and his contribution should not be over-shadowed.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Dittersdorf - Sinfonias 1-3 "on Ovid's Metamorpheses"

Entry 2

The second work that I listened to was by a composer I had never heard of, Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf. The pieces were the first three sinfonias out of a collection of six subtitled “on Ovid's Metamorpheses.” This book was a collection of myths, and each sinfonia appears to relate to a specific story. This recording was released by Naxos Records and features the Failoni Orchestra of Budapest under the direction of Hanspeter Gmur.

In terms of form, these works, like the Mozart, are not groundbreaking. All feature four movements, ending with a minuet and a lively finale. The second two begin in the standard way with an allegro (though not necessarily in sonata form) first movement followed by a slow second. The first sinfonia contains these same elements but reverses their order. It seems that Dittersdorf was influenced by Hadyn due both to the form of the works and the abundance of surprising occurrences.

These works really impressed me with their variety and contrast. I had never heard Classical era music with this sort of drama, variety, tension and excitement. Dittersdorf's music is dramatic in its emotional shifts, sometimes going from lively, excited and major to quiet, contemplative and minor almost instantaneously.

The first sinfonia starts with a stately and placid Larghetto before going to the Allegro e vivace second movement. I expected this movement to be in sonata form, but it is in fact in rondo form. These two movements are not particularly innovative, but they do show that this is not just cookie-cutter symphony; Dittersdorf obviously put a great deal of thought and work into this piece.

The slow movements in the second and third sinfonias are of particular note because of the grace and beauty they contain. These two pieces are also notable for the fact that they each feature a solo instrument with orchestral accompaniment for the movement's entirety. A person listening to the second movement of the second sinfonia might wonder if they are in fact listening to a bassoon concerto (or a flute concerto in the third work).

Surprises are to be found everywhere in these works. Sinfonia no. 1's final movement features contrasting sections that change from frantic and loud to calm and peaceful without any sort of cue. The second sinfonia begins with a slow crescendo that grabbed my attention. Once the crescendo reaches its loudest point, Dittersdorf immediately drops the volume, but increases the tempo! This is quite an unexpected turn of events. Later in the movement, a fairly peaceful melody is viscously interrupted by loud tremolo chords from the strings, but this scary moment passes quickly to make way for another tranquil melody that will inevitably grow to an exciting level. This is a diverse movement that clearly illustrates Dittersdorf's ability to stun and dazzle the audience with dramatic on-a-dime shifts of style.

Another remarkable moment occurs in the last movement of the second sinfonia. Normally, one would expect a lively, spirited ending, but Dittersdorf is too clever for that. This movement seems almost out place because the tempo is fairly reserved and in a minor key, but it is actually the most musically compelling. It is full of drama and tension, big swells in dynamics keep the listener off-kilter, and the lovely melodies fill the listener with unavoidable melancholy. My favorite part of this movement occurs about halfway through. The strings play dramatic chords in tremolo for two measuress, but then suddenly drop in volume and begin play an off-beat accompaniment figure for to measures that to my twentieth century ears, can only describe as “jazzy.” For the two measures of the off-beats, the winds play a dramatic chordal swell. The strings then re-interject the tremolo chords, and this trading section begins again for several more repetitions.

Not all of the music is so novel, though. The first movement of the third sinfonia features a dance-like melody that is neither particularly surprising or interesting. This movement feels rather dry. The movement that follows, though, brings back Dittersdorf's inventiveness. The movement sounds as though it could have been lifted from a flute concerto because it features a solo flute playing the melody for the entirety of the movement. What makes this movement interesting to me is its stratification. The flute melody is long and sustained, with many whole notes, but the string accompaniment parts include long sections with sixth note scalar runs. In some ways it feels as though there are two tempos occurring simultaneously (this is by no means Nancarrow or Cowell, though). The following minuet movement, though, leaves something to be desired.

In fact, the third movement seems to be a weakness for Dittersdorf. None of the minuets from these sinfonias are compelling. Unlike Mozarts' lively scherzos, these triple-meter movements evoke a stately and gentle dance. None have very memorable melodies, nor do they contain unique harmonies. This may be one indication of why Dittersdorf is not well-known today. Though he was certainly talented and creative, he was perhaps not the most complete composer in terms of his ability to write in any style. Drama seems to be his forte, not dance music.

The final piece on the CD (the fourth movement of the third sinfonia) is a great note to end on (so to speak). It is diverse in its musical language. The short movement starts cheerfully with rising chords accentuated by a slow crescendo. The tension continues to build as Dittersdorf adds big low-to-high rips in the horns, and then later as he continues the rising but adds striking dissonances. The short movement continues to build, but suddenly at the two minute mark, Dittersdorf drops the dynamic drastically and replaces the joyfully melody with a sustained tone from the horn. The last thirty seconds of the movement are in complete contrast to what came before. The piece ends soft and melancholy—a surprise for the Classical era to say the least.

Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf is not a well-known composer today. This is a shame because these piece make it obvious that he was a talented and inventive composer. Though he worked in the contemporary style of the time, he did so with a great deal of creativity. Nonetheless, I do not think that any of these works are by any means “required listening.” Hadyn and Mozart were equally interesting and, for whatever reasons, history has chosen them as the masters of their time. Dittersdorf's music deserves to be heard and preserved on occasion, but to put it in the standard repertoire of regularly performed music would be unnecessary. As noted earlier, these works are not amazing in all respects. His dance movements are boring and none of his melodies have the soaring, singing quality of Mozart's lyrical lines. Over saturating the Canon with the works of long dead musicians who would not be able enjoy their success would be unfair to the many great new composers whose music is already being under-heard and under-played. With recordings now available, this music will survive as an obscure curiosity that will reward dedicated musicians who are willing to dig past the surface of the standard musical repertoire.

Listening to this music definitely made me think about the music of the classical era in a slightly different way. Often times, music listeners of today are lead to believe that Hadyn and Mozart stood uncontested as the great composers of their times, and that all others were simply imitating them. It is easy to forget that the eighteenth century was one of the richest musical periods ever, and that the level of talent was deep and far-reaching. Dittersdorf was one of probably hundreds or thousands of talent active composers from the period.

For me the most interesting and useful aspect of this music are the works' endings. The second and third sinfonias both end quietly. I have been led believe that Classical era audiences expected a rousing, happy conclusion to the music so that they could clap loudly, shout and holler, but Dittersdorf does not give this to them. I can imagine a performance of the third sinfonia at the time in which the music comes to a conclusion and the audience remains completely silent, too caught up their own melancholy thoughts to cheer. I love those moments at concerts, and Dittersdorf must have as well.