Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Harry Partch's The Bewitched

This is the comic I thought of when first listening to Henry Partch’s The Bewitched.

I enjoy percussion music, but have never really be exposed to it, which is why I benefited from reading the insight Nick, as a percussionist, gave about the music. While I wouldn’t quite call serialism the “sliced bread” to Partch’s The Bewitched being “the best thing sense,” I would certainly say The Bewitched is the best thing since a lot of things in the twentieth-century.

I will admit, the first time I listened to the music, I didn’t get it. I thought it was fun, what with all the unusual percussion sounds and playful experimentation with various timbres and pitches. I let it sit for a while, until I decided to listen to it on my iPod while walking back from class through the Linda Hall Library parking lot. As I began listening, my eyes wandered more than usual. I noticed a beautiful tree with its boughs hanging, creating an umbrella-like sitting area. Straying from the usual path I take, I continued on and found a gorgeous flower garden that I had never noticed. To think that I had been attending this school for three years now, passed through this library parking lot countless times, and have never noticed! The sound swirled around me as I smelled the fresh flowers and felt the cool damp air on my skin. In that moment I remembered what Nick had said about the album:

“In the album notes Partch explains that we are all under some kind of spell. We are the products of our environments, cultural conditioning, and systematic brainwashing. While it may be impossible to completely untangle ourselves from such a bewitchment, pure experience and liberation can be found by breaking free into the moment.”

The concept of this freedom is heard in the solo part, the Witch herself, sung by a female vocalist. Her solos are flowing, with sudden dynamics and a pure tone, with occasional breaks to emphasize points. She is accompanied by the “Lost Musicians.” Partch’s inspiration for the sound of the instruments against the soloist is that they serve her as a Greek Chorus would; not only accompanying on instrument, but with sporadic body percussion as well.

The titles to the movements are wonderful, and give excellent imagery when linked with the music. My favorite is “Three Undergraduates Become Transfigured in a Hong Kong Music Hall,” not only for the song, but the title also. (Though my favorite title is hands-down “Visions Fill The Eyes Of A Defeated Basketball Team In The Shower Room .”) As one might guess, it is filled with Eastern inspirations, and on occasion include Eastern instruments. In this way, I would consider Partch Neo-Romantic in creating a specific scene and conveying it so precisely through the music.

The music to me now feels like the most natural music in the world. It is so free! The only place that mattered when I finally understood was in that moment, listening to that exact note and admiring that particular flower.
In many ways, I can understand why The Bewitched is not in the canon. I think that likely a large role in its small audience is because of the limitations on performing it. It’s nearly impossible to find venues to perform it properly, since so many of the instruments are inventions of Partch. Logistics aside, the concept of “living in the moment” is so incomprehensible to most listeners today. We, as a society, rarely take the time to, well, stop and “smell the roses”… sometimes literally!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw

A blast from the trumpets attacks my ears. It startles me. The sound of a snare drum rolling chills me. Woodwinds build up my tension, showing no sign of letting up. The strings saw out a repetitive sequence of notes, tightening the bind.

I’m frightened… and I’ve been playing the piece for weeks now.

Last year’s Schoenberg festival here at the University of Missouri-Kansas City had my ears ringing after every orchestra rehearsal. I hated it playing it. Most of his works made little sense to me during rehearsal, and I couldn’t practice it alone because it made absolutely no sense alone. The exception was playing A Survivor from Warsaw, for its narrative, even without a narrator, was clear and piercing.

With Schoenberg’s crusade for twelve-tone method arising in the majority of his work, not many pieces were received well by the general public. A Survivor from Warsaw, a cantata for orchestra, choir and narrative, is one of Schoenberg’s most well-known and widely accepted pieces. In his coupling of text with the twelve-tone music, its depth and power became better appreciated and understood than ever before. This is due in no small part to the piece’s chilling text that looks at the inside of the Nazi concentration camps during World War II.

Schoenberg was born to Jewish parents in 1874, setting the stage for what he was to compose later in life. Though he later converted to Protestantism (believed to be due to the anti-Semitism rising in Europe), he still sympathized for his people (Frisch, 1999). Yet, the inspiration of creating a work dedicated to the Jewish victims of Nazi Germany did not originate with him. It’s believed that the idea originally was suggested by dancer and choreographer, Corinne Chochem. Though she later abandoned the idea for reasons speculated but not established, Schoenberg continued to work on the piece (Strasser, 1995).

The piece premiered November 4, 1948 at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. It was performed by a community choir and orchestra of amateur musicians with great enthusiasm and dedication (some driving 120 miles to attend rehearsals). The audience of around sixteen hundred responded with equal fervor for the performance, applauding until the piece was played again (Strasser, 1995). Survivor continued to meet success in its performances time and time again, as its content was fresh in the minds of the post-war world.

Admittedly, I am still no fan of Schoenberg, but A Survivor from Warsaw is an exception to my usual aversion for his works. I believe this is in part because of the subject, just as it is believed to be a significant factor in its popularity with its original audience. I wondered if perhaps it was also because the piece had an underlying harmonic progression, difficult to discriminate with the naked ear. Alas, I only found literature identifying the notation to be created through his famous twelve-tone method (Bailey, 1998). However, A Survivor from Warsaw was composed during Schoenberg’s mature twelve-tone method era. The mature twelve-tone method, as opposed to its preceding era, was “relatively stable, involving the common use of a substantial number of procedures in a large number of compositions spanning a long stretch of his career” (Bailey, 1998). Schoenberg was still known for his fearlessness to experiment. But, during his mature twelve-tone era, Schoenberg’s works did not stray so far from tonality as did his previous works. This gave the piece much more fluidity, and making it not nearly so distracting for the listener. What catch my attention as the more experimental element of A Survivor from Warsaw are his rhythms. They resemble syncopations, but feel lopsided at times, especially when the text is describing walking or counting.

I am surprised that Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw is not already included in the canon. Schoenberg’s work in creating the twelve-tone method, while there is controversy in its value, is undoubtedly a vital milestone in the development of twentieth century music. Considering the virtuosity and popularity of A Survivor from Warsaw, I would claim it to be a respectable piece to add to the canon.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Kodály: Psalmus Hungaricus

(What I think of when I hear "Kodály".)

Alicyn’s statements of being “immediately enraptured” by Kodály’s Psalmus Hungaricus captured my attention in her journal entry. I have been compelled by many different pieces in 20th Century music, especially Stravinsky, but not yet “immediately enraptured”. As soon as I began listening to the Hungarian oratorio of Psalm 55, I shared her reaction.".

Kodály is known to have four characteristics in each piece, including Psalmus Hungaricus. These four points in his musical thinking are “vocalism and notably the principle of melody stemming from the word; taking folk music as a starting point; the historical connection with the past; and finally, adherence to the principle of the classical spirit. Just these four factors together illuminate the principle on which Kodály’s work as a composer, scholar and educator was based.” (Szabolsci, 1972) Let us discuss these four points in detail:

First, his use of melody to emphasize the text is reflected not only in the vocals, but the instrumental. The piece opens with a brass ensemble countered by strings, creating a sound both soothing and powerful. As Alicyn discussed, the opening preps the listener for the text. The brass ensemble announces the beginning of the piece with strong conviction, just as the psalmist will ask for punishment for the wicked. The strings quickly reply with a distinct single note with grace, then move into a swelling, sweet melody, praying for protection and redemption. The solo voice cries out as powerful as the brass and as sweetly as the strings, “Listen to my prayer, O God! Do not ignore my plea!” (Psalm 55:1, NIV) Kodály’s use of “klangfarbenmelodie”, as Alicyn mentioned, does become apparent, as he frequently has long and beautiful orchestral interludes. This seems strange for an oratorio for the orchestra to play such a prominent role, but the interpretation of mood in the text is so clear, the interludes do not seem strange at all.

Kodály’s attribute in basing his music from folk music, not surprisingly, is mostly in the uncovering of the folk music of Hungary, his homeland. Hungarian music holds origins in Eastern music as well as Western. The Eastern style emerges in the Hungarian folk music through their use of pentatonic and modal scales and distinct rhythmic patterns, all of which Kodály draws from in his music. This resurrection of Hungarian music is also seen in a more direct sense in the main subject of Psalmus Hungaricus. It is an original theme by Kodály, but has a recognizable inspiration of a historical Hungarian song by Sebestyén Tinódi, Summary of the History of Eger, from 1553. (Bonis, 1983)

But Kodály did not stop at included attributes of Hungarian music. Kodály made adopted music techniques forgotten by 20th Century audiences. A favorite of his was the style of the Gregorian chant, borrowing concepts from Palestrina, heard unmistakably in many of the a capella tuttis in Psalmus Hungaricus. (Szabolsci, 1972)
Finally, Kodály was revered as a Neoclassic composer. Saying he was Neoclassic is somewhat misleading, since he used not only styles from Renaissance as mentioned, but from Baroque and Romantic as well. (Bonis, 1983)

Again, I have met with a very collaborative composer of the 20th Century. Kodály, like Szymanowski, created works with a “Stone Soup” recipe. The interesting part for me is that it, unlike Szymanowski, Kodály is not so blatantly obvious about his hodgepodge of inspiration. While King Roger is no doubt still a great piece, it is not so fluid about its execution as Psalmus Hungaricus. Dare I say I would include Psalmus Hungaricus in the canon? Without going back on my saying before that the canon should be extremely selective, the Psalmus Hungaricus is a piece so well executed in being both collaborative in styles of the past and representing the 20th Century, I would include it.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Karol Szymanowski: King Roger

The name “Szymanowski” caught my attention, having written my previous Listen Journal on Maria Szymanowski, the “Polish Field” of the Romantic Era. Despite my finding that “no family relationship has been claimed between Maria Agata Szymanowski and the later Polish composer Karol Szymanowski” (Spiegl, 1997), I was curious to find out more about how Polish Nationalism was being seen in the 20th Century through Szymanowski's opera, King Roger. What I found in place of Polish Nationalism was quite a surprise.

King Roger is considered Szymanowski's greatest work, named after (and vaguely based on) King Roger II of Sicily. It is an opera in three acts that reflects the 20th Century exploration of the subconscious, as the opera tells the tale of King Roger's jealousy for a mysterious Shepherd. This journey into the psyche begins as early as King Roger's entrance. King Roger, his advisor, Edrisi, and Queen Roxana enter to the sounds of an adoring crowd, singing their praise to their King. The mood shifts as King Roger asks Edrisi for advice, unmasking his stately facade. The character of the King is contrasted with the mysterious and playful Shepherd. (Downes, 1995)

All of these elements are well reflected in the musical expression. Symanowski’s use of the orchestra to convey the mood and actions resembles Wagner's Leitmotivs. As mentioned, the journey into the psyche begins as early as King Roger's entrance. The three powers enter to the sounds of harmonic and melodic chant by the chorus. The music resembles that of church music from the medieval era in its simplicity and purity. The transfer from the chorus to King is drastic as King Roger opens with his solo. King Roger’s use chromaticism and semitones seems to slide in awkwardly as he seeks advice, especially after the chorus’s plainchant-like recognition. This unhinged chromaticism of the King contrasting with the Shepherd is reflected musically as well; The Shepherd’s parts are lighter and more melodic, giving him a more certain, playful sound. (Downes, 1995)

Szymanowski's piece is extremely collaborative in its Nationalities and styles to create King Roger. First off, the opera centers on a Sicilian King, who experiences a situation that parallels Euripides's The Bacchae. Szymanowski's interest in other civilizations comes into play when he adopts styles from Byzantine in the first act, India in the second act, and Greco-Rome in the third act. (Wightman, 1975) Szymanowski's use of Hellenic style in the third act is no accident, as this is the act in which the Shepherd transforms into Dionysus, the Greek god of wine.

Szymanowski's King Roger is a collaborative work of many different aspects of music, in ways that had not been so vastly discovered. The blending of the line from Romantic era and 20th Century music makes for a compelling and powerful opera, not to mention the numerous Nationalities brought together into one piece. Despite these many inspirations and concepts, it’s hard to find any firm indication of Polish Nationalism after all. Instead, Szymanowski created a “Stone Soup” of sound for his opera from surrounding inspiration. It is difficult to box it in because of this mixture of eras, styles, and Nationalities. While it is not what I consider something to include in the canon, it is nevertheless a magnificent piece that reflects well the emerging values of the 20th Century.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

John Field “Sonatas and Nocturnes”

Since I had begun research on Field and his Nocturnes already from researching Maria Szymanowska, and one of my fellow students had researched Field, it seemed appropriate to continue the investigation on, as Joshua Hey said Field was called, 'creator “of the style of pianism regarded as ‘Chopinesque’ (Langley, 2009).”' An excellent way to illustrate Field's style being called “Chopinesque” was a conversation that followed between two of the music library's librarians about John Field when I asked to check out the CD:

Librarian 1: Field sounds so much like Chopin...
Librarian 2: What? No! Chopin sounds like Field!
Librarian 1: Yeah, but no one knows who Field is.
Librarian 2: That still doesn't mean he didn't come before Chopin.
Librarian 1: Have you ever heard a non-musician talking about Field??

While then I was ready to ask Librarian 1, “Have you ever heard a non-musician talking about Chopin?”, the conversation did bring up an interesting point: why is it Field has been forgotten? Can there be a time and place that directly pinpoints Field being overshadowed by Chopin, were there multiple reasons for Chopin to receive credit for this style, or is it simply by chance? I sought to answer these questions.

Something to consider is that many of Field's publications in London were published anonymously (Temperley, 1975). While this is no basis for drawing any sort of conclusion, it does paint the character of Field as someone who is not interested in fame; or, least not through his compositional work. His main focus seemed revolved around working as a concert pianist. General difficulties with finding documentation of the Nocturne's early publication dates, locations, etc. could also tie into this (Temperley, 1974).

Another factor was the slow acceptance of the Nocturne, since the use of complicated bass rhythms was not yet seen by audiences. “A technical problem confronted composers of piano music at this time: how to combine an expressive melody in the treble with well-spaced harmonies maintained at a constant dynamic level, all under the hands of a single player, who could give a freely personal interpretation impossible in (say) a four-hand duet.” (Temperley, 1975) These new and complicated techniques used in the Nocturne might have been a factor in its slow early growth.

Regardless of the reason, Field's works are revolutionary, and do not seem well recognized for their fresh and wondrous new look at the potential of the piano. To you, Joshua Hey, I do not only “suppose” that we give Field thanks, but give it to him without restraint, and a warm hand shake along with it!

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Maria Szymanowska: Etudes and Nocturnes

Born in 1789, in Warsaw, Poland, Maria Szymanowska became an accomplished pianist in the early 19th century, starting with her 1810 debut. Within the year, she travelled to Paris where it is believed she performed privately in salons. Five years later, she began performing professionally, and in 1822 began touring. Szymanowska quickly became internationally acclaimed, admired by celebrities of the day such as Goethe and Rossini. She also found time to compose, writing over 100 pieces, almost all for piano.

First off, I was excited to see my choice was on vinyl at the library. I had not played a vinyl since high school, sitting for hours in my parent’s loft and listening to old Beatles and Elton John records that belonged to my mom. This "blast from the past" experience fit well with what Maria had in store for me. Her works described and discussed here show her brilliant style and love for the emerging techniques of her time, as well as her love with the traditions of the past. The best example of this is found in her Nocturne found on this album.

At first the Nocturne reminded me of the light, pleasant style of Mozart and other classical piano virtuosos, but that impression changed as it suddenly began moving faster and making a large crescendo, then sighing back, then modulating into a minor key. The interest and sound grew and ebbed throughout the work, giving almost a kaleidoscope view of the classical and romantic genres. When the album’s sleeve described her music as “transitional between the classical and romantic styles,” I did not realize it was going to happen so literally in one piece!

Szymanowska’s works are simply wonderful! They have a beautiful mix of Classical and Romantic styles in a pleasurable way. According to the record sleeve, Goethe agreed, as she had inspired some of his poems. Something, however, became unsettling to me as I read a review on her by Robert Schumann, also on the album’s sleeve:

We often heard this feminine Field, and to judge by these studies, not without reason… if we detect the vacillating woman in form and harmony, we also find the woman full of feeling, who has much more to say, if only she knew how.

Robert Schumann’s descriptions are blindingly clear that he dare not forget to mention Maria’s sex, first, in comparing her to Field in dubbing her the “feminine Field,” and then ending with a comment that sounds as if he wanted to say, “She’s pretty good… for a girl.” This I found to be insulting at first, but then decided to first put more research into what the statement could mean before drawing the conclusion that he was being blatantly sexist. I first listened to the John Field Sonatas suggested in the syllabus, and found the pieces to be quite beautiful as well, but comparatively dry in emotion and interest to the works of Szymanowska. This could be in part because of the performer’s interpretations, or because I was especially fond of Szymanowska’s style. I then found evidence that she was in fact a pupil of John Field, and was also dubbed the “Polish Field” for it. (Dawes, 1971) I was then able to excuse Schumann’s calling her the “feminine Field,” but to mention then twice more about her gender seems unnecessary. The only reason I could find for this was as discussed in class: the romantic views of women’s work being inferior to men’s.

Whether some of her works should be included in the canon is debatable. There is not doubt that I believe these works to be superb, but I believe that the canon should be a little more limited than it has been. After all, if we keep adding to it, then being named a canon is no longer outstanding.

But regardless, Maria Szymanowska deserves celebration.

Poke the Penguin!

Has nothing to do with Music History... maybe you should listen to Wagner while poking it or something.