Sunday, July 14, 2013

Music is the art of the prophets and the gift of God.

(Rauschenberg Retroactivo l, 1964

I was thrilled to listen to Sony’s recent release of five CDs, called as a group, Prophets of the New. I found myself weeping hearing these, many of them never available on CD. Oh, by the way, I’m letting my twin, Albert, write this week. As a widder, I know the sorrow of loss. But he knows it better.

Prophets of the New may not be the most crystal clear title for this release. This is music that was new from the nineteen fifties to the seventies, by composers who were then in their primes. It’s sad to think that gifted creators such as Luciano Berio (1925-2003) are forgotten, that Elliot Carter became something of a joke among the ignorant, He died in 2012 at the age of 103. Between the ages of 90 and 100 he composed forty works (!!!) But the CD devoted to him is from the height of his creative energy and contains two of his greatest works, two of the greatest works in “serious” music. Morton Feldman (1926 –1987), eccentric and a proud New Yorker of a very specific sort, has only recently become a subject of great interest. He was an American original; his music has a profound beauty that no description can convey. One CD, alas too short, is conducted by Bruno Maderna, one of the great musicians to emerge after World War Two and a tremendous composer. Here he presides over some of the central pieces of this era, including Krzystof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, Karlheinz Srockhausen’s Kontra-Punkte, its piano solo played by another remarkable American composer-performer, Frederic Rzewski. Also there is an outstanding piece by the forgotten but important Earle Brown (1926-2002), one of the inventors of “Downtown”, and a piece by another immensely influential creator in the field of electronic music (musique concrete), Henri Pousseur. Finally, there is one of the great Columbia records (as it would have been known in the old days), superbly transferred, The Rite of Spring conducted by yet another great composer/performer, Pierre Boulez, with the Cleveland orchestra, and his stunning account of Jeux by Claude Debussy with the New York Philharmonic.

I guess I am old now. I owned all these records. Then, some were released by RCA, and I wore them out. I bought the Berio and Carter three times on vinyl. They were released in the mid and late sixties when I, a fool, thought I might be able to live somehow in music, making music. For some of that time I was at The California Institute of the Arts where I studied with the formidable Schoenberg pupils, Leonard Stein and Dika Newlin, more doctrinaire than the Master himself, and frightening.

But in memory, I adore them, and Dika was an incredible person, an amazing woman, a genius, who like too many of us (including we who are less gifted) lived too long and died struggling to keep that spirit, that energy, which gets buried under the detritus of having to live among the pigs, vital, ageless, alive. Before then I had studied in Philadelphia and even, in 1965, met the amazing Stockhausen, when he was in residence at the University of Pennsylvania (where I don’t think he was much liked). I listened to him lecture and shook his hand, a fat boy still, with no evident promise but I felt – dimly – the electricity. Of course in that Philadelphia orbit were three composers that I know were great, largely forgotten now. One is George Crumb still alive and living around the corner from me. He’s 83. There was the complex and influential George Rochberg (1918-2005) and the profoundly kind Vincent Persichetti, 1915-1987 (sadly, none included in this package but copyright probably creates problems for republishing their music on sound documents, and who would buy it?) It’s rather brave of Sony to release these CDs. I don’t know if they will sell, but anyone who doesn’t listen to them is the poorer for it.

(Jackson Pollock, The Flame)

Unfortunately, Art in America first of all, had become a minority preoccupation by the time most of this music was written. “New Music” was a phrase that for those modest numbers hugging their Dvorak LPs, kissing their Haydn busts, automatically condemned what these men were doing. They were among the first generation in the history of art to be blamed for their genius, shrugged off, often without even a listen. Those who had certainly had to listen to the Tchaikovsky Sixth Symphony quite a few times before “getting it” and feeling comfortable with it, hated that Carter or Feldman or Berio required – and rewarded – the same kind of concentration. Though there were Newspapers still and people actually read them, and all had arts pages, sadly, then as now in the few starving survivors, mostly manned by fools, their only hope was to become trendy, which didn’t always last. Opera lovers, notoriously the most unmusical and certifiably philistine group (“All I want to know is did she sing and hold that unwritten E flat.”) had no interest at all.

American concert audiences, probably the most conservative in the world, would talk through newer music or walk out on it. It was at a New York Philharmonic concert that Morton Feldman met John Cage. They were both so disturbed at the audible hatred of a Webern piece the orchestra had dared play, they had walked out and encountered one another, both upset, in the lobby. As happened in that vanished, magical New York, Cage took Feldman into his circle of friends, all artists, and helped Feldman move more easily on the path he was exploring already. Cage did Feldman that greatest service one New Yorker can do another; he found him an affordable apartment (next door to Cage, in fact). But he also articulated what Feldman was feeling. One of Cage’s dicta was "getting rid of the glue so that the sounds would be themselves”.

It’s the sort of thing that happened in New York into the early 1980’s. Not impossibly expensive to live in and so full of gifted people one was apt to trip over them and start a conversation. For someone who aspired to be an artist it was the most stimulating, the craziest, the most intense laboratory in the world. I had that experience myself when I moved there, dead broke, after graduate school at Yale, in 1974. Within months it seemed I had met everybody. Some people I already knew, but I literally collided with Wystan Auden in the street on East Fourth, I met Leonard Bernstein in an elevator. I bumped into Alan Ginsberg at an airless, seedy party in the West Village, given by a crazy neighbor of mine on Waverly and Bank Street who he only knew vaguely and when it seemed all was lost, rather than make excuses and flee (as some had already done) he started to “jam” his poetry, an incredible experience.

I was hefty and clumsy and ethnic looking as Feldman was, gay, as he was not, my close acquaintanceships and friendships led not to bed (though for the beauties of both sexes and all proclivities that did indeed happen) but to other meetings and other friends, endless conversations, five a.m. cups of coffee and a run to one’s makeshift job (I was a messenger for a time!!!!), quiet visits to crazy galleries where one could study the work, groups congregating at Village spaces where strange music in sort of but not quite a pop style  (my era was the height of “Downtown”) was played and one always got to know the artists. I met Patty Smith and her insane but remarkable circle at a gathering of that kind. Her intimate, Robert Mapplethorpe lived across from me when I moved to Chelsea, then rather a dangerous neighborhood.

(Morton Feldman and John Cage)

Perhaps I find Feldman so hypnotic because while he transcended all of this to create mysterious works that were instantly unforgettable. I also think I understand the clash between a strong ethnicity, inescapable for him (his parents were Russian Jewish immigrants, my father’s family were Southern Italian immigrants and we both grew up in almost entirely ethnic communities).

The Sony CD has three works, two of his greatest shorter pieces (he went on to become notorious for the length of his later compositions). At Cal Arts he was put down. Like most of these composers he rejected serialism and “undue” intellection. "The point is to erase in one's memory what happened before,” He said often. (Later, the theorists at Cal Arts developed a respect for him). He went on an interior journey to search out the sounds somehow ricocheting through his brain, through his being. That meant rejecting or trying to, most that was standard practice. "I don't know what a composer is," he once said. "I never knew as a young man, I don't know now and I'm gonna be fifty next month." 

His lectures (I went to some in New York) were very eccentric affairs and sometimes, I think, he was teasing an earnest audience that wanted “meaning” or safety. Art, he knew, isn’t about safety, it’s about danger. It’s not about knowing in advance but discovering during and perhaps understanding later. And music is the most powerful and dangerous of the arts. “I'm not creating music,” he said in a lecture, “it's already there, and I have this conversation with my material, you see” The music used in Rothko Chapel, which is the first piece on the CD devoted to him, is "already there”. He felt a kinship with Mark Rothko, both from Eastern European Jewish stock, both, though especially Rothko, concerned about what exactly art tells us, how we perceive it, whether meaning can ever be pinned down.

(Rothko, Underground fantasy (subway)

(Rothko Chapel)

Feldman “eases” into Rothko Chapel, meditating for ten measures. The five note chord in measure 11, played by the viola, celesta and vibraphone, is repeated eight times in various contexts in the course of the piece. That gives the ear a frame of reference, a map of sorts. Many of these composers repeat a great deal, changing sonority or the configurations of the chords. Feldman’s reiterations don’t seem to be building, there is no pressure, but with the inevitability of an object not at first perceived but always there and suddenly understood, in measure 314 a “quasi Hebraic melody” is sung by the small chorus. It is simple, beautiful and seems “new”, but it is actually very similar to the chords played throughout the piece. Feldman creates a small miracle of a work in which there is a quality of freedom from time in the chords that are repeated, and a piece that ends with a “line” that has a set shape. It’s astounding and moving at first hearing and more remarkable in repetition. 

(Frank O'Hara at MOMA looking at the camera with Sol Lewitt and Jeff Koons)

For Frank O’Hara, is a piece of very quiet meditation, repetition and silence; it’s as though Feldman were summoning an evanescent presence. “I prefer to think of my work as between categories,” Feldman said. “Between time and space. Between painting and music. Between the music’s construction and its surface.”  O’Hara wrote that he tried to keep "lies and evasions" out of his poetry. Feldman remarked on O’Hara’s "all-pervasive presence that seems to grow larger and larger as he moves away in time". O’Hara died at forty. Walking on the beach at Fire Island, he was hit by a dune buggy.  

After these pieces that haunt the memory, which are very moving, there is a wonderful study in sonority, rhythm, repetition and variation for percussion called, ironically, The King of Denmark. The playing of Max Neuhaus is stunning.  

Luckily, I heard Elliot Carter’s Variations for orchestra (1956) and Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano with two chamber orchestras (1961) live, fairly often. The first time I heard the Variations for orchestra I was stunned and overwhelmed; every time thereafter the thrill was renewed. This is an incredible eruption of musical energy, phenomenally organized and controlled, but not to the point that its wild fires are doused. It’s not a typical theme and variations piece but rather an explosion of creative energy that after study one realizes is carefully organized. There is indeed a theme, though it doesn’t appear at first, and there are two contained musical gestures that Carter called ritornelli. They reappear, varied, but give the work a shape and certainty, while the theme when it is finally stated in full is changed in a dazzling variety of ways. Depending on how one “sets” one’s brain one can hear this work as a coruscating display of harmonic and instrumental variety, from chords that haunt the memory for days to instrumental combinations that are sheer magic. Or one can experience a gorgeous outpouring of tunes, parts of tunes, melodies that expand and contract, making it seem one of the most beautiful works for full orchestra ever written. It is all that and more, and is stunning as performed and recorded here by the New York Philharmonic under Frederik Prausnitz.

The Double Concerto seems to have begun in Carter’s mind as a serious work but in his notes he quotes the great satirist, Alexander Pope, as an actual inspiration. Musically, it is an amazing achievement, antic, odd, haunting, edgy and very beautiful indeed. Carter’s balancing of the two solo instruments and his handling of the orchestras is astounding, and live, the range of color, the wit, the emotion is overwhelming. This is also a great recording. Paul Jacobs, harpsichord, was the keyboardist of the New York Philharmonic. He was both a great musician and a great player. He would be an AIDS death; his many recordings, most on the Nonesuch label when it was run by Theresa Stern, are phenomenal but most have vanished. The pianist is the phenomenon, Charles Rosen, a wonderful player, but the greatest American music critic ever to have existed (he died in 2012 at 85). Ironically, his roommate at Princeton was another great music critic, Michael Steinberg! Neither saw precisely the lives they would have at that time.

The third work here, The Piano Concerto (1964-65) is somewhat thornier, yet those opening chords always thrill me, and the way thematic material develops through this virtuoso piece (spectacularly played by Jacob Lateiner, who commissioned it, with the Boston Symphony conducted by Erich Leisndorf) is finally thrilling – and moving -- as the piano, solo, simply fades away.

Carter was kissed by the muse: Charles Ives encouraged the boy to be a composer (Ives sold insurance to Carter’s family!). He studied with the great and ignored American symphonist Walter Piston at Harvard (as did that third important music critic, Peter G. Davis, still writing brilliantly, and for a long time the only knowledgeable voice at the New York Times, then, increasingly, the only knowledgeable voice about music in New York, magazine and city), then, of course, like so many Americans, with Nadia Boulanger in Paris (searchers after little known but very beautiful music should seek out the small body of work left by her sister, Lily, who died young). Aaron Copland was a passionate admirer of Carter’s and Igor Stravinsky thought he was the great American composer of his generation (The Piano Concerto is dedicated to Stravinsky on his 85th birthday). 

Just a few words about the Berio CD. Of course, it contains the four movement Sinfonia with the Swingle Singers and the New York Philharmonic under the composer. This is a work very much of its time but it’s also irresistible. The singers mostly speak both carefully chosen and randomly heard lines accompanied ingeniously by the orchestra. It’s most famous movement is the third, where the accompaniment is Berio’s version of the Third Movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony, where with sudden side slips, quotes from other composers leap out, the most instantly recognizable is a bit of Ochs’ waltz from Der Rosenkavalier, but Bach and Debussy and Schoenberg, Stockhausen, Posseur and Berio himself put in appearances as well. Berio was close friends with Umberto Eco (author, among much else, of The Name of the Rose) and read Joyce (quoted in the third movement, along with Samuel Beckett and Frank O’Hara, along with sentences and catch phrases from the Harvard students Berio spied on). Berio describes the whole work as a river in his notes. It’s an early postmodern collage of music, verbal images and odd displacements that deliberately overloads the senses, and like any substance that does that, it’s delectable. Also on this CD is the marvelous Allelujah ll – best heard live because five instrumental groups are distributed around the hall. But the CD is wonderfully recorded and Berio’s co-conductor is Pierre Boulez.

Allelujah ll has a lot in common with Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gruppen but it is a sweeter work of great charm. Berio and Stockhausen also had a influence on various rockers in common. One of Berio’s students was Phil Lesh, the Gateful Dead's famous bass player, who almost followed Berio to study further in Europe but accidentally met somebody named Jerry Garcia. But Stockhausen triumphed in this regard: Frank Zappa praises him in his liner notes for Freak Out! His debut with the Mothers of Invention in 1966. Pete Townshend of The Who remarked on an interest Stockhausen, and Rick Wright and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd followed his lead. LSD was no detriment in appreciating the slightly mad German, Jefferson Airplane admired him. And greatest accolade of all, his face appears on the cover of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band! However, Stravinsky, after a brief period of being influenced by Stockhausen (as he was influenced by nearly everybody over close to a century), put Stockhausen down as a bore. It didn’t matter to Karlheinz who famously said:I was educated at Sirius and want to return to there, although I am still living in Kürten near Cologne.” On hearing this, the great conductor, Michael Gielen snarled: "When he said he knew what was happening at Sirius, I turned away from him in horror. I haven't listened to a note since", he accused the composer of "hubris" and "nonsense", though Gielen (a Moon Child) himself believed in astrology!

Sony has released two other CDs that are must haves for we insane collectors. One is Leonard Bernstein’s famous account of The Rite of Spring (in its original 1913 form) from 1958. This was a Bernstein specialty, as a young man he even prepared a score for his mentor Serge Koussevitsky of the Boston Symphony so the latter, baffled by the constant changes in meter could manage to lead it. Bernstein himself needed no such thing. His complete immersion in the piece not only yields a very accurate account but an orgiastic, mad ceremony of dementia, which puts a tremendous strain on orchestra and on recording team, luckily all are equal to it. Stravinsky said he loved what Bernstein did and maybe he meant it. Bernstein rides two horses in triumph: the modern aspects of the work’s harmonies and rhythms and its debt to high romanticism in sheer crazy abandon. In a sense, he catches and highlights Stravinsky’s debt to all those wild late romantics who could hardly contain their emotions, their madness, but at the same time exercises a razor sharp control. The wildness of this performance, its risk taking, its exaltation, its noise, its sudden sweetness and insinuation, these together are not to be encountered elsewhere. Sony has created an engaging package..

The other wonderful CD called Journeys is the Emerson String Quartet (assisted wonderfully by Paul Neubauer and Colin Carr) playing two sextets. One journey is outwards, Tchaikovsky’s popular Souvenir de Florence, (1890) played with rich tone and virtuosity, a sense of humor and the unabashed singing sense the second movement demands. The other journey is inward, Schoenberg’s gorgeous Verklärte Nacht – Transfigured Night from 1899, long before he had become the monster many still regard him as being (without knowing any of his music). This is the first time the quartet has played this piece.

Actually both works have something in common: they are about sex. Italy was where hordes of gay men from repressive countries went in search of young men and boys who were always accommodating and often on sale. There is an underlying seriousness in the work, also sweetness and longing. As it happens it is in D minor and that was Schoenberg’s favorite key. It is the key that opens Transfigured Night, which by the end of the work, where the problems of a passionate sexual relationship between a man and a woman are resolved has become D major. It is based on a poem by Richard Dehmel printed in the score (and in the Sony booklet).  Dehmel was the poet of the Strauss’ lied, Befreit. He was also tried for obscenity! Well, after all, the poem ends with the man placing his arms around the woman’s hips and…!

(by Frank O'Hara; there is a reference to Beethoven's Quartet no. 15, where the composer writes "muss es sein?" Then later insists, "muss es sein!" Frank isn't so sure it "must be so.")

I am stuck in
traffic in a taxicab
which is typical
and not just of modern life
mud clambers up the trellis of my nerves
must lovers of Eros end up with Venus
muss es sein? es muss nicht sein, I tell you
how I hate disease, it's like worrying
that comes true
and it simply must not be able to happen
in a world where you are possible
my love
nothing can go wrong for us, tell me

(Frank O'Hara)


  1. Thanks so much for this insightful piece.

    I'm a little disturbed to see that this period of high-Modernism is (finally) subject to its own nostalgia, which I never imagined would happen. But if it makes the work better known, should I complain?

  2. Yes, the world sped up faster than anyone expected at the time. I don't think "music of high intellect" or Serialism is defunct, but they have been overtaken for the few people who care by neo-romanticism, Minimalism, of course, and various works that combine different kinds of music, including jazz, pop, as well as some of the older forms. Certainly the art scene in New York City is dying if not dead. Patti Smith said as much when she suggested young talent skip New York and find someplace cheap -- as New York City had been in her time (and mine).

  3. Even though I don't care for Berio,Carter, etc. it is writing such as yours that makes me want to give them "a second chance", or perhaps I should say give myself "a second chance". I believe that one of the functions of good criticism is to coax a reader to reexamine works of art that once may have been dismissed. Thank you for doing this. I really enjoy your writing.

  4. Thank you very much. It's true that some of this music is hard to grasp at a first or even second hearing. But I don't believe that makes it impossible to grasp or enjoy forever. For example, I think the Carter Variations, on a visceral level, makes a tremendous first impression and it stands up (as much "difficult" music does) to repeated listening over time very well. The more one hears it, the more one hears the many types of gorgeousness and joy in the score from the breath taking orchestral sonorities, to the thrilling chords and the ways they change, to the tunes -- and yes, they're there. I was serious in mentioning Tchaikovsky's Sixth, which at first hearing seems a lot less tuneful than the Fourth and Fifth symphonys or the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture, but as one listens to it more often, it becomes very beautiful and very moving and one may even becomes impatient with the two earlier symphonies.The tendency for orchestras to play a small part of the rep over and over and over (and in the old days for radio to do the same) makes "difficult" music much easier to relax into (Beethoven's symphonies were thought tuneless and thorny well into the 19th century, his biggest "hit" in his lifetime was "Wellington's Victory". It's only with the rise of regular symphony seasons in many place, probably after 1870 that conductors began to program his serious works over and over, orchestras got more comfortable playing them and listeners began to find them very rewarding.) One might also point out that Puccini's La Boheme was considered a "tuneless sewer!" (the critical consensus in New York) and Melba sang the Mad Scene from Lucia afterwards to get people to stay! Now, if anything, the opera is done too much, even though it is wonderful, for its freshness to stay intact. This isn't to say that there isn't music or literature (ever try Finnegan's Wake?) or visual art that is hard to "get inside" and maybe seems too daunting to try more than once. Also intellectual trends can breed "insider" art aimed proudly at a few who get the message; that often doesn't retain its trendiness and vanishes. But I'd say the Carter and Feldman scores are too wonderful not to extend patience to, as many did to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring or for that matter West Side Story (!!!!) the early reviews of which were hostile to its lack of tunes (!!!) and audiences were restive during performances. Of course if it's not for you, it's not for you and there are "popular" works that I don't much care for. But thanks for reading, and if you get the time, give one or two of these pieces a chance!!!!

    1. Your remarks resonated in a funny way. I've hear "The Rite of Spring" many times, mostly in dance performances, but also in concert. A number of years ago James Levine conducted the BSO in a concert that included "The Rite of Spring" and he and the orchestra caught fire in a way I've never experienced in a concert hall before (50+) years. I left Symphony Hall almost shaking in terror. So, even with "better known" works there is always the chance of being "shaken up". I've just gotten my hands on some Carter CD's and look forward to giving them my attention ( easier now that the heatwave has ended.
      Thanks again for your reviews.