June 30, 2005

Feldman and Cassavetes

When drawing comparisons to other media, Morton Feldman's music often shows up next to the plays of Samuel Beckett. Not only do their minimal landscapes resonate with each other, but Feldman was quick to compare their work, even citing the ease with which the two got along. However, for the purpose of investigating his musical innovations, it would make sense to compare his achievements with the films of John Cassavetes (this link is maintained by Ray Carney, who does for independent film what Kyle Gann does for Downtown music).

Cassavetes's movies are marked by inarticulate characters, long takes, and rough technique. Feldman's music reveals its maker in at least one way, its myopic interest in each sound. Its striking sensuality often wins fans, even if they admittedly can't make any sense of the music. The visceral rawness of Cassavetes's work usually isn't as endearing.

Audiences often find a “rambling” quality in their work. Cassavetes let scenes run as long as he felt necessary. The suicide scene in A Woman Under the Influence is unrelenting. Similarly, Piano and String Quartet plays on each fragment for calmly extended periods. The proportions of both works are nothing like a Hollywood drama or a Classical sonata. Cassavetes's insistence on honest emotions led him to eschew simplified narratives. Feldman similarly refused to “push the sounds around.” These unusual aesthetics obscure the presence of form, but they don't deny it. Though detractors may insist their work is formless, both derive forms from the characteristics of their content.

Opening Night, at its surface, is the story of a new play moving from New Haven to its Broadway premiere. The production faces problems as its lead must reconcile her own problems with aging with those of her character. Tracing this idea more closely, one finds women's reactions to getting older to be central to the film. Viewed through this lens, just about every scene provides a different perspective on this issue. No age group is left unexamined, from the 18-year-old fan who gets killed to the 65-year-old playwright. While the film's pacing has a certain “lumpiness” that can turn off a lot of viewers, its attention to this central problem is basically unwavering.

Palais de Mari focuses on spare pitches, slowly drawn out of the instrument. The near-constant pedal draws attention to their decay, making the sounds feel both frozen in time and slipping away from it (an elegant depiction of the palace ruins of the title). In m. 18, an unusually large spacing interrupts the initial sense of stasis. The search for a balance between the initial stasis and this startling gesture creates a tension which lasts until the very end of the piece. Later fragments are heard in terms of how they relate to this problem, not in harmonic terms, but sonic ones: density, duration, and decay.

Palais de Mari, m14-21

Jonathan Kramer, in The Time of Music, characterizes Feldman's music as extremely “vertical.” That is, his music is one long moment divorced from our usual perception of time. However, his dramas of sonorities reach somewhere between “moment form” and “vertical time.” The sections of similar sonorities in Feldman's late music beg to heard as unadulterated pieces of beauty (vertically), but the way they're joined together is not without causation. He wants his audiences to take away a keener appreciation of sound, but not through a Cagean all-inclusiveness. Instead, listeners should sharpen their ears to the ways that one sound connects to another.

Cassavetes approached emotion in a similar way. His unconventionally long scenes have a child-like fascination with the interplay of emotions. They refuse to measure time into neat parcels, instead letting everything take as long as it needs to. This intense focus at times negates the existence of all other moments (just as Feldman's sounds want to be “left alone”). Here too, the individual pieces are intriguing in their own way, but the greater experience comes from tying them all together.

Form, in the work of Feldman and Cassavetes, evolves out of the individual qualities of their materials. How one perceives them as emotions, or as sounds, takes precedence over higher-level divisions (character arcs and harmonic progressions). This “phenomenological form” can usually be spotted by a series of irregularly-sized episodes, linked through a single organizing principle. This form is highly elastic, always letting proportions be defined by the demands of the content. Though the priorities of these artists differ from most of their contemporaries, close examination reveals a highly rigorous technique. Though their work is often labeled as “amateurish,” it is only because Feldman and Cassavetes have the utmost sensitivity for the materials of their craft.

June 21, 2005

Rzewski at NEC

This week, the New England Conservatory is running a summer institute in contemporary piano music. Frederic Rzewski has come to coach students in playing his music; in return, several nights are being devoted to concerts of his music. Monday night featured his most famous contribution to the repertoire, The People United Will Never Be Defeated, along with a few other pieces that demonstrated the breadth of his output.

The one thread that tied the pieces together for me was their awareness of the performer. This music didn't push the players away in order to reach its ecstatic peaks. Rather, it dramatized their very presence. Having only heard Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues on recording, I only knew what it sounded like. The half-comical sight of watching Jung Hee Shin pounding away with her forearms provided bizarre counterpoint to the clangorous sound mass she conjured up.

The fragmentary design of The Road (part one was on the program) made it seem ill-suited for the concert hall. It would be interesting to hear it played by a friend in his home, letting him jump between sections and insert comments as he pleased. One of the sections featured the pianist rattling around on the piano with its lid shut. Some of John Mark Harris's gestures suggested a sped-up caricature of a piano virtuoso. If this moment was Rzewski's creation, it suggests an interesting sense of humor about the virtuoso pianist-composer tradition he falls into.

Whangdoodles was a partially improvised piece for piano, violin and hammered dulcimer (doubling on vibraphone). The piece consists of 108 segments that are freely coordinated between players. Every ten seconds or so they line up, but it is otherwise indeterminate. The instrumentation and concept would make it an interesting companion piece to Feldman's Why Patterns?

According to the notes, the piece is meant to express “the idea of an open, planetary approach to relationships of conflict: allowing real life to determine the course of action, rather than trying to force life into pre-conceived models.” In order to fully enjoy it, one must not search for a strongly-cast narrative (“pre-conceived models”), but instead be content with the sounds themselves. Listening in this mode, the happenstance moments when a clear beauty emerges are heard as simple gifts, not moments which one is otherwise deprived of. The idea of selfless listening (and ultimately acting) feels like well-trodden territory now, but the folk materials (Yiddish and Appalachian songs) which frame it provide a novel angle.

Stephen Drury presented The People United at the end of the night. His performance (from memory) was marked by a steady confidence, never distracted by the piece's kaleidoscope of styles. Despite his demeanor, he seemed to take a difference presence on stage along with each of the styles. The variations cast in a grand Romantic vein placed him on a grand stage, while those with echoes of minimalism brought a surprising intimacy to Jordan Hall.

The most striking moments occurred at the piece's moments of repose, when the virtuosity subsided into quiet, spare chords. While the rarity of these moments gave them a special poignancy, the high whistling accompanying them reminded one that even in musical moments which push towards transcendence, the audience cannot get there without the performer's efforts.

June 16, 2005

Pop Harmony vs. Classical Harmony

Harmony in popular music is often looked at by classical connoisseurs like a simple country cousin. Occasionally it surprises with a bit of deftness, but generally it is seen as a watered-down version of common-practice tonality. These two songs at first glance seem to be coming from rather different places:

Robert Schumann - Im wunderschönen Monat Mai

Joni Mitchell = River

Their conceptions, though, are quite similar. Both texts clash inner anxieties with the exuberance and celebration of a new season. The tension between these two emotional territories is paralleled with a tension between major and minor modes. Where they diverge in this scheme reveals fundamental differences between the harmonic languages of the classical art song and the modern popular song.

Schumann moves from f# minor to A major with great elegance. Because the modulation doesn't alter the key signature, the transitions aren't noticed until a cadence point is reached. After the four bar introduction implies a resolution to f# minor, the next bar brings in the singer and a swift modulation to A major. The harmonic rhythm is fast throughout, with no harmony sustaining for more than a single measure.

“River,” in comparison, feels a little clunky. Rather than modulate between relative keys, it presents the two harmonies side by side. The harmonic rhythm here is significantly longer. The first half of each verse is harmonized with a C major chord that lasts for about ten seconds. It only takes a few seconds to sing the first line of “Im wundersch√∂nen Monat Mai.”

This protracted duration gives a different kind of meaning to each harmony. Since they're given time to breathe, they're able to establish a more significant presence in musical space. They feel less subservient to a larger harmonic scheme and more like contemplative objects worthy of individual appreciation. The effect is not altogether different from a piece like Music for 18 Musicians. The drawing out of a short progression over time allows the listener to “inhabit” each harmony for a while.

The relationship between singer and accompaniment is very different in these songs. The vocal line in “River” floats on top of the accompaniment. The ideal of the art song is to entangle the two, giving them similar structural and expressive importance. Much of the expression in “River” comes from Mitchell's singing. The accompaniment in the Schumann does almost as much to shape the vocal line as the singer does. The brief harmonies color individual words, while Mitchell's harmonies color vast spaces.

This key difference evolved out of another major distinction between “art music” and popular music. While one is composer-oriented, the other is driven by performers. Though it's common for performers of popular music to play someone else's songs, they usually learn them from another's performance. Since the score is the primary document for classical music, the notes must speak for themselves more. Joni Mitchell can use simple backing for expressive vocals because her performance is the final product. Robert Schumann, tied to a less forgiving tradition, couldn't take such chances.

The resulting styles use the same triadic tonality, though in slightly different ways. Longer pop harmonies dramatize change, even as slight as I moving to vi. Classical harmony is about the ultimate destination (the similarities here between popular songs and minimalism/other “ergodic” music are striking to say the least). These two “dialects” should not be belittled either way with generalizations and value judgements, but recognized as equally valid means for tackling the same problems.