anecdotes, essays and asides on the relationship of musical structure and performance milieu
by Michael J. Schumacher, November 1997
Thomas Edison had very particular musical tastes, and he insisted that his record company reflect them. He loved opera and classical music, he hated jazz. His record company was a failure, whereas RCA Victor, his competition, was a big success. RCA Victor signed many jazz performers.
Even if Edison did prefer classical music, couldn't he hear that it just didn't work confined to the low fidelity world of early phonographs? It probably sounded curious, but unacceptable, to the more or less sophisticated listener whom Edison hoped might buy it. Jazz, on the other hand, worked perfectly well in the new medium- the low fidelity didn't undermine its essence, rhythm and words, and the audience might not have cared anyway.
Contrast that with the radio (which Edison thought a fad), and the success of the symphony orchestra through this medium (every major radio station had its own orchestra for a time and in Europe, they still do). The fidelity was good, and the nature of radio, a one-shot performance, set up the idea of preparing mentally and physically for the upcoming show. Think of the family sitting attentively around their set, waiting anxiously for the broadcast to begin, almost like the anticipation felt at the concert hall. Now think of the most common use of recorded music in those early years, the jukebox, playing noisily but essentially in the background, an accompaniment to the social activities underway, such as dancing and flirting.
Of course, entertainment in and of itself is a fine thing, but it's necessary to understand what it entails, or doesn't entail, from the creative standpoint. If I want to compose music that requires study and concentration from the listener, and then expect to have it successfully performed in a context where everything else is telling the listener: 'relax, enjoy yourself', I'm kidding myself.
Beethoven makes the understanding of this idea elusive. Doesn't his music require study and concentration? The answer is no, and yes. The vast majority of his music is straightforward and requires no special mental exertion to enjoy, at least superficially. The study and concentration are extras, and make the experience of his music that much more intense. But on one level, most of his music was composed with a concert hall audience very much in mind, the music's structure proves this. The symphonies, for example, are full of declamatory phrases, big climaxes and tone painting. The late chamber music (including the piano sonatas) is less suited for the concert hall, it's best performed in smaller rooms. (frankly, all chamber music sounds ridiculous in a big hall.)
One effect of moving a kind of music from its original setting to the concert stage is that the music ceases to develop. It's as if it were put in formaldehyde. This is true of the various 'ethnic musics' that tour the stages of the world. We love to hear them, but we mustn't fool ourselves that we're experiencing anything like the real thing. Without the context, we can't understand the meaning. And removed from its context the music must fundamentally alter its structure in some way, becoming, for example, shorter, or less improvisatory, or simpler. It becomes more demonstrative, explanatory rather than personal, and full of feeling. Performers never reach a heightened state where unpredictable things happen. And though this situation is more obvious when it comes to non-classical music played in a concert hall, essentially the same thing has occurred to classical music itself in its own backyard, so to speak.
When I go to Carnegie Hall, I want to hear Bruckner. I need a big, dramatic piece that will carry me along for an hour or so. It seems so right in that context; I've just eaten a nice dinner, I'm surrounded by nicely dressed people; everything is so weighty and significant, why shouldn't the music be as well? Yes, there are contemporary pieces that want to be weighty and significant, but they usually end up sounding hysterical. I'd take Copland's Third though. Or Messian's Turangalilla.
The business of entertainment is to re-create experience.
Was it an accident that the first theaters opened just as the motif became the dominant structural device in music? Composers obviously saw the potential in this new kind of venue, a chance to be free of those insufferable aristocrats who would beat them (!) when dissatisfied. But what was it the new audiences wanted to hear? It was opera, musical drama. So composers expanded this idea of musical drama to music without text, and discovered that the motif was the way to create a musical 'character' that would develop through the course of the work.
Schenker, in 'Harmony', described how the musical motif functions as a character in a theatrical drama. He claimed that the fundamental purpose of cyclical form, by which he meant sonata form, was 'to represent the destiny, the real personal fate, of a motif or of several motives simultaneously'. Music in the 18th and 19th centuries appropriated as its performance milieu the theatrical setting that had traditionally served the drama, at the same time appropriating the forms apropos to the theatre and presenting the new public with characters and plots and the familiar emotional strains of tragedy and comedy. Tonality provided the structural framework because it enabled music to express conflict and resolution in unambiguous terms. The motif, by defining a specific gesture, gave each piece an individual character and the specific material for development.
The concert hall has this one overriding attribute: that it is infinitely malleable. This is also a vestige of theatre: the stage set. But this malleability is skin deep.
Many many kinds of music have been performed in the concert hall. This is proof that it is an adaptable environment. Or is it? What changes, the hall or the music?
When a dance band plays Carnegie Hall, does Carnegie Hall change into Roseland? Only if they take out the seats and people dance. But then it's not a concert hall anymore. If people sit down and listen, only one thing can happen. The band, deprived of the energy of the dancers, will need to find interest in the music itself, and will transform the dance tunes into concert music. Can you imagine Duke Ellington's orchestra jamming into the wee hours for an audience sitting in chairs?
There's a famous letter written in 1917 by Busoni to his wife in which he complains bitterly about a recording session. He laments 'not letting go for fear of inaccuracies and being conscious the whole time that every note was going to be there for eternity; how can there be any question of inspiration, freedom, swing, or poetry?' Right there in a nutshell one has a vision of what performance practice must have been (in its highest manifestation) in the nineteenth century. How spontaneous and exhilarating it must have been!
By the 1930's, Anton Webern had begun to sense that the concert tradition had lost its relevance vis-ā-vis the new music. He, and later Boulez, felt this as an aesthetic crisis, and therefore rejected aesthetic assumptions of any kind in their art. This rejection affirmed that they felt no fundamental connection to the artistic milieu within which they worked. An alternative to the concert tradition had not yet emerged, but it was clear that the tradition as it existed supported only those forms that had previously defined it and been defined by it, forms based on the development of characteristic motives, unfolding within a tonal context.
An aesthetic sensibility, though it defies exact definition, is unmistakable, faith-like, and sets its own limits on possible (artistic) behaviour. Having no choice, Webern rejected the prevailing aesthetic, adopting a rationalistic, scientific approach to the problems of musical structure. In hindsight, we can acknowledge his role as the articulator of a new aesthetic.
Recently I came across an article that described a string quartet by Elliot Carter as a theatrical drama in which each instrument represented a 'character' whose personality developed as the piece proceeded.
The failure of the new music of the first 60 years of this century can be traced directly to its performing milieu. It could never work within the context of the concert hall. Actually its failure is only that, that it never became part of the repertoire of the concert environment. But look at the contexts in which it succeeds: in the classroom, on recordings, on paper and at the music festival. Of particular interest are the last two.
Modern music from Schönberg to Boulez is the height of visual music, surpassing even medieval music with all its complex canons and numerology. Serial music rewards score study; its clarity, purpose, and integrity, in short, its beauty, become apparent through careful consideration of the text. Its truths are re-experienced through listening, preferably in an environment free of the distractions typical of the concert milieu.
The music festival is an interesting development and seems to indicate composers' dissatisfaction with the typical concert environment. By announcing beforehand that the upcoming concerts will be about something very specific, the festival prepares the listener. First of all, it's DILETTANTES: KEEP OUT. The festival goer doesn't open a mint during the performance, he doesn't cough. He's there to listen, not to socialize (theoretically). Europe has mastered the art of the big music festival, particularly Germany, perhaps because of its Darmstadt experience. The impresarios print expensive colour catalogues crammed with articles about the composers and performers, sometimes in several languages. Composers are often present, so there's that feeling of being there, where it's all happening. It's clear that a lot of money has been spent, even on rehearsals.
Cage said: listen. At the time listening was new to music, which before had involved moving. We heard music, but it was not the hearing that mattered, it was how the music moved us. Things have now changed again, so that now music moves us but it is a different kind of 'movement' that characterizes the new aesthetic: stillness. Stillness allows the listener to really listen.
In his musical collages, Cage discovered the musical equivalent of the word (according to Mallarmé), the symbol that would evoke its own history of meanings and associations apart from the specific 'poetical' context in which it was placed. Contrast this with the motif!
All the best innovations in new music over the last 50 years have occurred outside the milieu of the concert hall. Serialism, indeterminacy, minimalism, free improvisation and noise were developed and thrived in some kind of alternative performance space. So why this striving for the concert hall? Is it the money? The legitimacy?
Wasn't Cage's success in the mid-'50s (that is to say his notoriety) achieved because his work was an invasion of the concert hall, a full-scale assault, both musically and, more significantly, theatrically, on music's temple of greatness and good taste? The Europeans (Boulez and Stockhausen) would never have dared a similar attack. They couldn't and still take themselves seriously. Such a gesture on their part would have had to have been absurd, surreal, Dada. Cage took himself very seriously. No one laughed because they were too busy listening to all those coughs. Or walking out.
A friend has lived in the central highlands of Papua New Guinea, where he studied the music of the Wopkaiman tribe. On his videotapes the Wopkaiman sing with their heads tilted, bobbing up and down as if listening to something. My friend explained that normally they sing with drums, but refused to play the drums for the camera. Also, it turns out, the songs they sing on video are extremely abbreviated versions of the real things, which would in practice accompany some other activity, such as work or dance. In the case of a ritual dance the singing lasts through the night, 12 hours or more.
There is no better example of a composer with an intuitive grasp of the relationship between milieu and musical form than La Monte Young. From the Theatre of Eternal Music, through the various incarnations of the Dream House, to the Well-Tuned Piano, Young, with the collaboration of Marian Zazeela (who creates sculptures that reflect coloured light), has created not just pieces of music, but the contexts in which to experience them fully. The two creations are so interwoven that the music suffers when their relationship is not maintained. Therefore, in the music's dissemination, every effort must be made to maintain the correct environment, for this is part of the work. This includes establishing the idea of Time as an overarching dimension extending beyond the boundaries of the individual manifestation of the work. Palpable in one's apperception of the work is the feeling that the work's preparation consumed long periods of time, that the listener must devote long hours to the work's apprehension. To abstract the musical portion of the work, presenting say, 'The Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer from the Four Dreams of China' as an isolated event in the surrounding flux of concert events typical of contemporary life, is to do it an injustice. The central point of the work, the idea of Eternal Time, must never be compromised, so that the isolated instance of the Eternal Sound, i.e., a particular concert, is made a tangible part of this larger, all-encompassing, concept.
What about the new music? It will not survive intact in the concert hall, in fact, it already hasn't!
It's not a question of establishing a 'new music ghetto,' as Boulez feared. But if the audience remains small, so be it.
Technology will certainly continue to suggest new answers. But fundamentally, the issue is economic. As long as individual composers have the resources to realize their individual visions of music's relationship to a public (no matter the size), alternatives to concert music will continue to emerge, in one form or another, successful or not.
Our historical perspective, our texts, our recordings, make us overly conscious of our potential for historical significance. It is just as Busoni felt it.
To continue to create in this kind of environment is a radical endeavour. It's easy to comment on the world around us, the various texts that constantly shift meaning relative to us, after all, there's so much to comment on! But to seek a solution to the basic, everlasting aesthetic and emotional questions within this contemporary context, that is hard. I believe it has never been as difficult, and as questionable, an undertaking.
Michael Joseph Schumacher was born on May 30, 1961 in Washington, DC. He has studied piano and taught himself the guitar, forming a number of improvising bands while in high school. He also played in the early music group and sung in the chorus. He has composed from the age of 7 and began receiving lessons at 15 years from Stanley Applebaum, who studied with Stefan Wolpe, in NYC. In college he devoted himself to composition, studying with Bernhard Heiden (who studied with Paul Hindemith) and John Eaton at Indiana University, where he won the composition prize in 1982, and with Vincent Persichetti at Juilliard where he earned the Doctorate degree in 1988. He has studied piano with Seymour Bernstein in NYC and John Ogdon at Indiana University. He has also studied with La Monte Young.
He has composed over 60 works for all manner of instruments and voice. Since 1988 he has worked primarily with electronic media, specializing in computer generated sound environments, utilizing up to 14 speakers, which evolve continuously for prolonged time periods; techniques for random and process oriented compositional structures; extended instrumental techniques (including prepared electric guitar); etc. His works have been performed in the United States, Europe and Asia. In 1996 he founded Studio Five Beekman (pictured at the beginning and end of this article by Ursula Scherrer), a multi-media art gallery which has presented installations by David First, Tom Hamilton, Ben Manley, Maria Blondeel, Steve Roden, Lee Ranaldo, Stephen Tunney, Phill Niblock, David Behrman and others.
published in Perfect Sound Forever