Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Neo-Romantic Minority Report - Hanson's 6th

Middle America has given us two great musical Hansons. We're still waiting for a symphony to come from the Oklahoma-born Hanson clan who left us MMMBop. That means Wahoo Nebraska's own Howard Hanson (1896-1981) gets the spotlight to himself today. Hanson was a major figure in the institutional history of American music, a member of the generation that included Copland, Sessions, and Wally Piston. His 40 year (!) tenure as director of the Eastman School of Music and his co-founding/presidency of the National Association of Schools of Music testify to his reputation for life-long advocacy for composers, conductors, and performers. He's not called the "Dean of American Music" for nothing.

If I were asked to sum up the idea of Neo-Romanticism in music for someone, I'd probably hand them a recording of Hanson's symphonies (perhaps this one) and then something rather different from roughly the same time (perhaps this one!). The allegiance to tonality, the eschewing of bizarre or overtly novel orchestral effects, the generally harmonious and positive outlook on humanity -- it's all there! Reactionary is an ugly word, but it does capture the conscious rebellion Hanson undertook against the serial/neo-classical establishment in his own music (not in his teaching, however). His most famous work, the Second Symphony "Romantic" was written, he attests, as "a genuine expression of romanticism and a protest against the growing Schoenbergianism of the time -- the cold music -- and I wanted to write something that was warm and young, vigorous and youthful."1

Hanson was a conservative, no doubt, politically as well as musically. That's basically a death knell for one's hopes of entering the ~Classical Canon~. Well, our blog's motto is to hell with the canon! So let's take a nice, unabashed neo-Romantic bubble bath.

Actually, the member of Hanson's cycle of seven symphonies I've chosen to discuss is not his most sentimental, consonant, or accessible. In fact, the Symphony No. 6 (1967) contains passages that commentators point out as being uncharacteristically dissonant or "demonic." I believe this may be the best manifestation of a certain tension I've always felt about Hanson the composer and Hanson the thinker. For this peddler of symphonic romanticism that would make Rachmaninoff blush was also an indisputable pioneer in the realm of advanced music theory for atonal music! More than a decade before Allen Forte's The Structure of Atonal Music, Hanson published his Harmonic Materials of Modern Music, a textbook that lays out a system for describing (and exercises for composing with) any combination of chromatic pitches. His system is idiosyncratic but thorough, introducing many of the concepts that were supposedly "big finds" in Fortean set-theory. On a couple of occasions, I've noted severe condescension towards Hanson's system from music theorists who deride it for not being as "systematic" or versed in mathematical set theory as Forte's. I think this is outrageously unfair towards Hanson (who was, after-all, neither career mathematician or music theorist) and his innovative theory.

Hanson's basic idea is to represent the interval content of a group of pitches by listing off the occurrences of (inversionally equivalent) intervals within it. For example, the succession of C to G to A has one perfect fifth/fourth (C-G), one minor third (A-C), and one major second (G-A). Hanson labels this group pns (no, not that). Descriptions for bigger groups can get a lot more complicated (the major scale, for example, is an inelegant p6m3n44s5d2t...), but the basic idea of capturing interval distribution is the same, and is a huge conceptual step towards modern atonal music theory.

But he didn't write atonal music.

At all.

Can this weird facility with atonal pitch sets be reconciled with his consistently conservative harmonic idiom? I think it is in the Sixth Symphony. Hanson attested that the work was based entirely on the opening idea, the pitches C-G-A (pns strikes back).2 This is not a particularly dissonant idea, but it can be manipulated in a number of ways similar to what atonal composers were doing mid-century. For example, one can invert (or, "involute" as Hanson would say) it, preserving the intervals in mirror image form. C-G-A, flipped around C, becomes C-F-Eb. Still pns, still pretty tonal sounding.

That flip is the very first thing to happen in the symphony. Winds in octaves state C-G-A-F-Eb, and the phrase is completed by a timpani+tuba strike on C. A little conversation subsequently grows out of the motif, and this sort of tentative dialog within orchestral choirs is typical of the whole first movement.

Hanson alternates between slow/emotional and fast/demonic moods from movement to movement. Though C-G-A does not literally appear at every point, pns or some slight variation or derivation of it ostensibly does, resulting in an breathtakingly tight, integrated work. Case in point the second "Allegro scherzando" movement -- two snares introduce a driving triplet rhythm that persists to the end. Winds enter, stating C-G-A-Eb-F (pns x2!) in a case of motivic shrinkage, soon to be incorporated into a playful, slightly malevolent scherzo.

A totally different mood is created in the third movement. Here the composer lets a lush adagio develop out of that little interval configuration. Vintage Hanson neo-romanticism, but with a formalist twist!

I was introduced to the sixth movement finale prior to my exposure to the whole symphony -- it's the first track on this -pretty awesome- CD. This is rollicking chase-scene music3, barreling down a track laid by a rotated, transposed pns (C-Eb-Bb) ostinato. Near its conclusion, you can hear a slightly more lyrical idea played by the brass (an octave leap from Bb followed by a stepwise descent) -- this is the last, cumulative appearance of a secondary theme that makes its first appearance towards the end of the second movement. Unrelated to pns (I think it'd be called p1mnsd2), it's something of the symphony's defiant minority opinion. Yet pns is ultimately in charge here, and the whole work concludes on a blast of the initial C-G-A-F-Eb-C. Heck, here's the whole Earquakin' movement.

I think the symphony should serve as a reminder that sophistication of composition or theory does not need to equal "difficult" or "abstract" music. If this work is successful, it is because Hanson is able to translate a tiny mote of musical data into a succession of vividly different symphonic moods. Their brevity insures that the Sixth Symphony is never heard to be heavy, tasting more like a well thought out menu of little dishes that together make for a satisfying meal.
Frank Lehman

1. Quoted in Liner notes to Delos Box Set of Hanson Symphonies, DE 3150 1990.
2. In his book Howard Hanson in Theory and Practice (Praeger, 2004), Allen Laurence Cohen analyzes Hanson's music according to the composer's own theoretical ideas.
There is a lengthy discussion of the 6th Symphony within for the curious.
3. Compare the movement's beginning to this chase scene at 5:50. Also, sort of, this. Hanson's effect on certain film composers is considerable.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Odds & Ends

A few small updates before our next Unsung Symphonies spotlighted work.

*In the short time we've been up, we've apparently inspired another music blog! Check out Jake's smooth atonal sound blog over at Wordpress. His first entry is The Dead Symphony, or, the Orchestral Tribute to the Grateful Dead. He takes Matt's post on Lee Johnson's work as a jumping off point for some probing insights into the issues facing a composer/arranger who wishes to capture the spirit of non-classical music in an orchestral, through-composed medium. He's also got an enthusiastic entry up on Kaija Saariaho, a must-read for anyone interested in the possibilities of orchestral color and form in the 21st century. Saariaho, as far as I'm aware, hasn't tackled the genre of the symphony (yet) -- our blog's definite loss! But until she does, we still have plenty of great, unjustly obscure Finnish symphony composers other than Sibelius to introduce here. We look forward to seeing where Jake, our comrade-in-Lebowski-references, takes his blog, so swing by smooth atonal sound today!

*Head on over to Classical Music Library, whose biweekly free recording is an unsung symphony for sure, Sir Hubert Parry's Third Symphony in C! A vigorous, enjoyable work, with a surprisingly haunting slow movement. Give it a listen and see if you think it is deserving of the moniker "English Symphony."

*So you wanna be Beethoven? Interested in writing the Great 21st Century Symphony? Wikihow, that indispensable web resource for completely non-authoritative advice on everything from the life-changing to the unimaginably banal, has just what you need: How to write a symphony! But, heed the wiki authors' warning: "Writing music can be very time consuming. It can often be very frustrating as well." We offer a warning as well -- if you're truly in the process of composing a symphony, you'll probably find the above internet advice about as useful as this.

*Stay tuned for a new entry this week from Frank on Howard Hanson's Sixth!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Bagpipes Gone Wild? - Malipiero's 11th

My students are wading their way through Monteverdi’s Orfeo over the next few weeks. So I thought I’d look at some music by the 20th-century composer who helped make Monteverdi famous today: Gian Francesco Malipiero. This Italian modernist finished his last symphony, the very short Symphony No. 11, “Delle Cornamuse,” when he was 87, in 1969 (and as John C. G. Waterhouse pointed out in the liner notes to the recording by Antonio de Almeida and the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, it's actually his 17th, since Malipiero didn’t number all his symphonies). If you’re counting (unlike Malipiero), that’s 41 years ago, four years before Malipiero died (1973), 66 years after his edition of Orfeo appeared (1923), and 362 years after the premiere of Orfeo in Mantua (1607).

Why did I just throw a bunch of random-looking numbers at you, one after the other? Well, it’s to show you one way of hearing a Malipiero symphony, though perhaps not the most helpful way. Malipiero reportedly said (and here I’m quoting Waterhouse’s article in Grove Music Online) that “the Italian symphony [not Mendelssohn's] is a free kind of poem in several parts which follow one another capriciously, obeying only those mysterious laws that instinct recognizes.” For Malipiero, is that proclamation of randomness an artistic manifesto or a thin cover-up? If it’s a real statement of creative intention, then as listeners, we don’t need to go far beyond Waterhouse’s own seemingly apt observation (from the liner notes) that the 11th symphony is a “game of contrasted timbres and textures.” Waterhouse also made note of the way three instruments meant to evoke the sounds of bagpipes (or cornamuse) — bassoon, English horn, and oboe — have a “capricious interaction with other, sometimes unusually-chosen timbres (e.g. that of the celesta).”

If we accept Malipiero’s near brush-off of the “Italian symphony” (or are we actually dealing with a Scottish symphony?) as not really a "symphony" at all, we might end up agreeing with Waterhouse’s comments (in Grove) on Malipiero’s symphonies in general — works Waterhouse considered almost “anti-symphonic” with their “unpredictable incidents and juxtapositions.” But what if there’s something deeply ordered about Malipiero’s symphonies that even the composer doesn’t want us to discover (or that he didn’t know about)?

The symphony begins with a build-up of the “bagpipe” sonority. First we hear some noodling in the bassoon, which is then joined by an English horn and an oboe. Strings and a french horn rudely interrupt, but the bagpipers return for a good stretch up through the first minute:

I guess this sounds like a bagpipe, but to me, these instruments produce a sound that resembles birdsong, with their shifty rhythms and the disjunct melodies that just barely lack tonal focus. But these so-called bagpiping moments do serve as a kind of timbral ritornello1 throughout the symphony, and the second movement begins and closes with extended bagpiping sessions that frame mysterious, ethereal passages like this one (add some cowbell and it sounds like Mahler’s 6th):

In the third, scherzo-like movement, we have to wait — perhaps significantly — a full minute before hearing the bagpipers, which are called in by the xylophone and celesta — and here, the bagpipers never quite assert themselves, as they are overshadowed by celesta and flute and quickly fade into the strings. Toward the end of the movement, our trio returns, but the strings win out:

By the fourth movement, it seems the bagpipers have disappeared completely — the french horn begins what could be heard as a (triumphant?) ascending motive that the piano and strings mimic:

But with under a minute to go, the french horn signals the resurgence of the bagpipers. The weight lent by the french horn suggests the bagpipers are a more serious bunch than we may have thought:

What strikes me most about that passage is just how lazy the bagpipers’ noodling seems to be compared to the determined ascent of the other instruments. But perhaps this laziness is deceptive. At the end of the symphony, the bagpipers seem to get the last laugh. The last melodic turn they offer is a reduced preview of the wild ascent that follows it, suggesting that the final orchestral rush may be heard as an extension of the apparently innocent bagpiping:

So in Malipiero’s 11th, we could hear the bagpipe entries as randomly chosen for maximum surface effect — a “game,” as Waterhouse called it. Or we could hear them as carefully-constructed pillars in a dramatic, symphonic whole — setting the scene in the first movement, prominent but slowly receding in the second, almost in the background in the third, and reemerging at the close of the work. Whatever we choose, one thing is for sure — Malipiero lived for a really, really long time.
— Matthew Mugmon

1. Waterhouse’s labeling of the bagpipers as a “concertante group” gave me this idea.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Vincentiana - Three and a Half Van Gogh Symphonies

Today, three (and a half) symphonies for the price of one. One from Finn, Einojuhani Rautavaara, another from an American, Gloria Coates, and a half from Henri Dutilleux, a Frenchman. On the face of it, these are some pretty strange bedfellows (all they seem to share at first is being fairly prominent living composers), so the fact that each has a symphonic work inspired by the art and life of Vincent Van Gogh is probably coincidental. But a happy coincidence for Unsung Symphonies, since we can see how composers of very different temperaments engage similar(ish) subject matter.

One technique that Rautavaara and Coates (not so much Dutilleux) frequently use is the blurring of a clear melody with lots of surface dissonance, setting it against other layers of unrelated, constantly fluctuating material. The results can vary from a quiet shimmer that leaves the underlying melody undisturbed to a tune whose outline is nearly erased by a dense haze of other activity. Boundaries blurred, shapes distorted, surfaces and backgrounds always squirming -- we could just as well be talking about Van Gogh's painting technique as modern musical procedures here.

Rautavaara's Sixth Symphony: "Vincentiana" (1992) draws a considerable amount of its material from the composer's opera Vincent (1990), a heavily symbolic, non-linear collage of the life and mind of Van Gogh with libretto penned (like all of Rautavaara's 8 operas) by the composer. The symphony is divided into the traditional four movements (like all of Rautavaara's 8 symphonies, save the strange Fifth), each one with a subtitle alluding to an image or idea from the opera. This is the only of his symphonies to feature electronics, which are most prominent at the edges of movements, the orchestra typically filling up the space in between. Meandering quasi-tonal rhapsodies (that as a Rautavaara listener, you either come to love or hate) are freely mixed with passages of extreme atonal/12-tone violence throughout the work, though some of those rows also contribute to the consonant triadic material as well, a Rautavaarian trick.

Among the highlights of the symphony is the combination of synthesizers and orchestral effects that kick off the work's first movement "Starry Night," a delirious waltz that seems to detonate towards the end of the third movement "Saint-Rémy" (Van Gogh's late life sanitarium), and exultant finale for the last movement "Apotheosis." The second movement, "The Crows," features a haunted refrain, ostensibly drawn from the opera's second act, where Van Gogh, in the company of Gauguin and his brother Theo, experiences a vision of fields "heaving, breaking in waves...writhing like big animals in their death-throes." Squint your ears for the almost inaudible string-section fuzz that blows over the slow chordal theme.

This slight blur becomes an impenetrable smear with the tail end of the Sanitarium waltz, which buckles, then gives way to a blast of electronics and wind-mouthpieces, transmuting some nagging chorus of physicians and art critics into a murder of displeased corvids.

Things do come together in the final "Apotheosis," which stems from music written for Vincent's final, triumphal/suicidal paean to light: "The day of the sun! And he who dies today shall never disappear, but will join those who once had the courage to go on and live!" Even here, Rautavaara's characteristically dense orchestration creates a blurry sort of sensory overload.

Even more prolific a living symphonist than Rautavaara is Gloria Coates, an American ex-pat composer living in Germany who has 15 symphonies under her belt. Prior to her Seventh, they had non-symphonic titles, and were only dubbed "symphony no. x" substantially after the fact; eventually, Coates seems to have overcome her own discomfort with attaching what she calls such "a little name" to her earlier orchestral essays. Coates' style is intense and difficult, highly dissonant and devoid of much anything that could be called ingratiating. But her music is also clear and tightly balanced. A hallmark is the highly expressive, almost compulsive use of glissandi in all corners of her works.

Her 9th Symphony, "The Quinces Quandary" (1992-93) is a sonic expansion of a work for chamber orchestra from the same year, "Homage to Van Gogh." Both are inspired by Van Gogh's late painting "The Quinces," created in the last year of his life. As far as I can tell the two pieces are the same but for thinner orchestration in the former, although the CPO Recording of the work, which is clearly for huge orchestra, labels the track "Homage." Nevertheless, I present this clip, which conveys a representative sample of this imposing 23 minute work - one of the huge waves of glissandi - with the assumption that it is the symphony we're hearing (it sure sounds like a massive orchestra).

Coates' glissandi are apt metaphors for Van Gogh's late style. Her unending stream of sliding notes, restless and defiant of the boundaries of discrete pitch (and those of discrete event as well) are quite intentional musical analogues of the pulsating, unstable motion that undermines any "still life" in "The Quinces." The piece's continuous form is hard to pin down; this owes partly to Coates choice to eschew a prefabricated musical container, using the visual experience of gradually exploring the painting, allowing one's eye to train from one corner of the frame to the other, to guide her own pen.

Like Rautavaara's Vincentiana, the Quinces does manage to fasten onto something something comparatively solid and "thematic" at its conclusion, a stony dirge of brass chords (by far the most tonal thing heard yet) jutting against the ever-present glissandi.

The "Quandary" in the title alludes to something deeper, and more troubling, than a simple visual puzzle raised by the painting. While it was possible to take aesthetic-mystical flight in Rautavaara's Sixth, Coates' The Quinces Quandary allows no escape from the gloomy isolation of Van Gogh's world. If these are musically-represented decorative fruits, they are the most despondent fruits to ever grace a kitchen table. Take that oranges and pears!

Staring at the painting, Coates claims "I felt something of his own fears and disappointments...and the quinces were beginning to move, one was already falling."1 The psychological aspect of Van Gogh's inner world Coates draws, orchestrally, from his "Quinces" is of withdrawal, despair, entrapment -- shades of the painter's mental illness, in other words. Her style is not a sunny one, and this is a work of frightening darkness. In her words, "If you only give the lighter side of yourself, that's not a symphony..." 2

One last Van Gogh work. Although not a symphony in name, and not really even a symphony-in-all-but-name, I'd be remiss if I left out Dutilleux's Timbres, Espace, Mouvement (1978), whose subtitle "Starry Night" betrays inspiration again from that most famous of Van Gogh's paintings. Timbres, like most of Dutilleux's small output, is music honed to an almost ridiculous polish, with every pitch, every orchestral pairing bearing the imprint of a calculating perfectionist. You really can't go wrong with Dutilleux and this piece is a little marvel.

***Update 10/18/2010***

After printing this, I discovered yet another Van Gogh inspired symphony, the 6th Symphony of Russian composer Alla Pavlova. Highly accessible, and perhaps a little trite, Pavlova's 6th exists in a kind of halfway point between lyrical neo-Romantic chromaticism and repetitive minimalist figurations. Much of Pavlova's sixth symphony seems geared towards an ever spinning cycle of dark, twisting modulations based on unusual triad relationships. Her orchestration is clear (featuring some viscous solo violin writing) but somewhat unvaried -- certainly, she resists the temptation to make experimental *timbre* the key in representing Van Gogh musically.

-Frank Lehman
1. Quoted in CPO Liner Notes
2. Quoted from "A Symphonist Stakes Her Claim," Interview and Feature with Gloria Coates by Kyle Gann, New York Times Apr 25/1999.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Symphonies from the Closet: Lee Johnson's Ode to the Grateful Dead

As Sting kicks off the European leg of his Symphonicities tour, it’s the right time to look back on some recent examples of rock turned into Western art music.

Composers and arrangers working with rock songs have two choices: either fearlessly turn those songs, with unbridled enthusiasm1, into something that takes maximum advantage of the possibilities of the new ensemble, or play it safe and make the new ensemble sound as much as possible like a rock band. This is my main problem with what I’ve seen of Symphonicities on Youtube. Of course, I love it because it’s Sting. But for the most part, it’s some Sting songs with orchestral filler.2 I don’t need to pay $500 to see Sting and a symphony orchestra do Sting’s music when I can just pay $500 to see Sting and his band do practically the same thing.3

Here’s another example: compare two string quartet pieces based on songs by the perpetually-relevant band Radiohead, both recorded by the Vitamin Quartet. In their 2009 version of the most recent Radiohead album, In Rainbows, the Vitamins add their fair share of outside percussion. And who can blame them — the opening of “15 Step” is tough to recreate on four string instruments. But on “Idioteque” from their Enigmatic — The String Quartet Tribute To Radiohead, the quartet dispensed entirely with Radiohead’s intense percussive underpinning.4 I lean toward their "Idioteque" cover — after all, if I’m buying a string quartet album, it should essentially be a string quartet album. Right?

But not all bands are equal, and what makes the music of the Grateful Dead easier to classicalize than either Sting (aside from Sting’s humongous ego) or Radiohead (aside from the fact that they already seem to be in the classical canon) is the flexible nature of the Dead’s songs as texts. You probably wouldn’t bother turning a single Dead album into a “string quartet tribute” because those songs exist less in fixed album form than in thousands of bootleg tapes and millions of faded memories. The best classical version of the Dead, perhaps, is something that approaches the feel of a live Dead show.

In his Symphony No. 6 (“Dead Symphony”) (2007), Lee Johnson seems to have succeeded in creating just that. This symphony does have 12 movements (let’s call them “tracks” like the Deadheads do, and as they appear on the version recorded by the Russian National Orchestra), not unlike a rock album. And you’d be forgiven for thinking of it more as a concept album for orchestra — perhaps the “Orchestra Tribute to the Grateful Dead” — than as a symphony (not that we’re challenging the composer’s label). But the Dead Symphony works precisely because Johnson doesn’t care about reproducing the sound world of the Grateful Dead.

A “Dead Overture” and the “Dead Finale” bookend orchestral re-imaginings of 10 Dead songs, and it’s these opening and closing pillars that make the Dead Symphony cohere. The overture is no Broadway introduction — it (along with the Finale) is made up of riffs on “Finiculi, Finicula,” a nod to Dead fans who know that the band used to play around with this song in their shows. By starting this way, Johnson accomplishes two things. First, he gives a knowing nod to the Deadheads, assuring them that this might be like a live Dead show, no matter how refined and polished some of it might sound.5 And second, he orders the Symphony-heads to relax and enjoy the orchestral version of a live Dead show, no matter how friendly and poppy some of it might sound.

As for the songs (or “movements,” or “tracks”) themselves, Johnson gives each its own flare, and he doesn’t seem bound by any preconceived ideas about the moods of songs. Instead, he lets these songs develop into their own statements, revealing new connections along the way. The all-string 8th movement, “If I Had the World to Give,” for instance, reminded me more of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” than the Dead original:

Throughout this symphony, the ponderous, unnervingly solemn movements far outweigh the light ones, which surprised me for a reworking of such a zany, whimsical band’s material. A sense of foreboding underlines even the most seemingly quirky moments, like in this example from the end of movement 9, “Stella Blue."

On the other hand, movement 6, “Sugar Magnolia,” is a playful piece just for winds, and a nice mid-symphony break from all the heaviness. As one of the perkier Dead songs incorporated into the symphony, this treatment seems to make sense. Now, that could have worked just as well with the 10th movement, “Bird Song” — but there, Johnson instead highlights uncommon sounds, including a muted trumpet, to create something of a jam for orchestra. "Bird Song" is the movement that most closely approaches what I think the Dead would have sounded like if they'd been handed a bunch of orchestral instruments:

Otherwise, I’ll leave it to the Deadheads to comment on track sequencing and all the hidden references I definitely missed.

One final thought: could Johnson have gone further? For one of these rock-turned-classical albums to work, it probably does need to be divided, like the Dead Symphony, into several songs/movements, with one song highlighted per movement. Violating the integrity of the “track,” no matter how flexible it is, would probably alienate the fans of the group who would buy that album and expect to hear their songs in full (I am surprised, though, that in this symphony, some of the movements don’t fade into each other, like Dead songs often did during live concerts). Personally, I’d like the next rock-inspired symphony to explode the traditional pop-album structure. That’s why, while you’re listening to the Dead Symphony, I’ll be working on my own four-movement Symphony No. 1 — Sting vs. Radiohead: Celebrity Deathmatch.
— Matthew Mugmon

1. Caution: this could lead to Billy Mumphrey's downfall.
2. This review in Variety sums up the issue well.
3. But I would gladly do either anyway.
4. In the version on their Kid A tribute, the Vitamin Quartet used strings to create an impression of those drums, but they didn't go as far as they later would on "15 steps."
5. A post I saw on the Dead’s official Web site points up the Deadheads’ fanatical hunger for live renditions of their favorite music. After the announcement of the world premiere, with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, in 2008, one fan asked if taping was allowed — a tradition at Dead shows, but certainly not at the Meyerhoff.