Thursday, July 13, 2017

20th Century / Czech Composers / Musique concrète / Pierre Henry

Greetings for 2017! What? The year's more than halfway over you say? Indeed it is. Wherefore has the author been? Doing my best to duck the muck, dear readers. If you don't know what I'm talking about good for you! I won't bother trying to explain if someone doesn't know what I'm talking about. Life. That's what. Full of questions, questions, questions. And answers! Everybody's got answers - especially for questions that you'd think we'd have the answers to already, but no. You know what I mean. How can I put this in musical terms? Willhelm Furtwangler and Tuli Kupferberg. Those two have been arguing back and forth in my head for a few years at least. If you don't recognize those names, that's okay - we have google now. It's more about what those two represent. The ideas about the function of art and music. One will say - music is the force that can transform and beautify the world. This is not a new idea, certainly. The other will say - music is the force for change. Art for art's sake / art for good's sake. What is art? What is good? Oh, questions, questions. Didn't the Greeks psych this out a long time ago? Somewhere along the path of my extended liberal arts education the John Keats poem "Ode On A Grecian Urn" passed along my consciousness and lodged itself in the grey matter between my ears as a red flag of relevance, hence its inclusion here:

The best part is the punchline couplet at the end. Truth. Beauty. Yeah, yeah. 1819, right? Only a few years before Beethoven's 9th was composed and performed for the first time. "Ode to Joy" and all that. Furtwangler, etc......Long before 1848 and Marx. Or Shostakovich and 1917. And its now a long time after all that. Does anybody even speak of post-war anything anymore? We must be post-post-war now at least. Post Cold War. Still, the function of art continues to be called on the carpet. It all depends on where you are, as usual.

Where I happen to be is actually close enough to a number of different quality orchestras, yet it's been a long time since I went to see that Varese show at Lincoln Center conducted by Alan Gilbert. How out of the loop have I been? I didn't even know about Gilbert's leaving the NY Philharmonic until a few weeks ago. I enjoyed the performance I heard though some were claiming his career never quite took off in New York as had been anticipated. This kind of critique reminds me of baseball players. Are conductors supposed to hit "home runs" too? What could that mean? So there you have it - what do I know? No accounting for taste at this blog.............speaking of which...........

Lately I've found myself returning to more 20th century music. I think this is partly due to a general desire to launch myself from the planet Earth as quickly as possible. If only transcendentally. Anything modern is fair game. Varese, of course. Elliott Carter like this:
 Some fun electronic music:
  And this diabolical thing I keep returning to:
And I already have a pantload MORE of this kind of abrasive wallop that I haven't even gotten to yet.

Yet for some reason when I'm down at Princeton Record Exchange (only seems about twice a year now) I find myself buying a lot of modern Czech music albums. I've found myself enjoying composers from that region for quite some time (Bartok, etc...) though there's been a curious pattern whenever I'm trolling for albums. My brain does something like this:
"Hmmm......import pressing.......Vaclav Somethingoranother with lots of punctuation thingies... 1970-what? Okay......Supraphon... $1.99? SOLD!"
Here are a few examples from recent purchases. 

I don't know what it is about where I shop or what it says about the music - it's ubiquity, cheapness, whatever......but I really get the impression that old 20th century Czechoslovakia (and the neighboring countries) put modern music production in the upper priority bin of the national agenda! To imagine this being a matter of POLICY is not out of the question. Yet, for me it is more of a question at the moment. No matter, really. There's a lot of great music to be found from this era / region that I'm still plonking through. The variety of sounds and commitment to unique music provides an enjoyable contrast to the other strains of music from the time period - the 12 tone German school, the American electronic school, etc.......

And before we leave the Germans's a recent Stockhausen acquisition:
 Now, I'm somewhat aware of the fact that this is one of the more ubiquitous slices of Stockhausen to be found. Not surprisingly since it was put out on Chrysalis Records in 1975. Right alongside of Jethro Tull and Robin Trower! I have also gleaned enough info about Stockhausen to know these pieces are only two parts of a larger series of works that would take several albums to fill up the whole cycle of. In fact, I have long ago made peace with the idea that - no matter how brilliant and fascinating his work may be, I am NOT going to attempt to digest the whole Stockhausen kaboodle because.......I'll never live that long! All of this rationale (isn't it fun how my mind works??) leads to the more sane conclusion to sample some pieces as time allows. Vinyl would be the preferred way to do this, yet a lot of Stockhausen vinyl is scarce and expensive. Not the above LP, however!

Ah, but what's the music like? Now I realize what I'm about to describe here makes me sound way more intuitive than I actually am, so just to qualify for a second - when I get ideas like this I put it down to "random luck". Contemplating the pretty enormous output of Stockhausen I couldn't help wondering "Did this guy really write everything out in notation? Or even SOME kind of notated organization?" Well, the answer for the Ceylon / Bird of Passage album is apparently "no"! The musicians here were given a loose set of instructions based on some philosophical ideas. Then the "score" calls for improvisation. Now, of course this saves the composer a lot of time, though I will still err on the side of Stockhausen's desire to innovate rather than shirk tedious composer duties of notation. So, what the music sounds like is improvised group interaction.

This of course is innovative in the 20th century mold of modern music. Yet, the sticking point for not a few listeners is the lack of repeated ideas or linearly constructed ideas such as melodies. One could certainly pick out melodic moments amidst the proceedings. Perhaps music like this calls for a different way to listen. I found myself appreciating textures most of all here. The combinations of instruments were unusual enough to capture my attention and especially how they were used. Can semi-improvised collective musical interaction be considered "composed"? Why not? If Stockhausen was the catalyst for the project - he is still the "sound organizer". Isn't that what a composer ultimately is? Speaking of which...........

The recent passage of Pierre Henry caught my attention since his name was somewhat familiar, yet I couldn't place it. Aha! Yes - I'd picked up an album he was involved with awhile ago - and perhaps this was his most well-known collaboration. Unfortunately for his collaborators, the LP did more damage to their career than good, alas...........
 Most rock fans know this as Spooky Tooth's 3rd LP release - CEREMONY. The collaboration was not intended to represent the band's "direction" - especially as it happened right after their successful 2nd LP "Spooky Two". Rock fans know and love "Spooky Two" well. It shows the group at its peak with great songs and production by the talented Jimmy Miller (Traffic, Rolling Stones - classic rock LPs were produced by this guy). This was NOT the case with CEREMONY. The collaboration was more like Spooky Tooth recorded at a live show - a bit in the distance - with Pierre Henry's electronic sounds up to the fore. And the "songs" were based on the Christian Liturgy (perhaps a somewhat popular theme of the time, but not really commercially viable to a rock band's career). This was not a commercial Jimmy Miller production and, as correctly surmised by singer Gary Wright, the decisison of the record company to release it as a Spooky Tooth record killed the band's career / momentum . There could be a whole series of lessons to be learned from this fateful story. However, it is a bit sad that Pierre Henry winds up in an indefensible position. He did not seek a career in rock music. The collaboration is interesting and totally in line with the aesthetic of his art - musique concrète. To save time, I will refer the reader to this article for a fine explanation of this genre:

And to give Pierre Henry a bit more of a fair shake, here is a fascinating glimpse into his life and work:

What I got most out of watching this film was the idea of how to adjust to listening in new ways. Rock fans had certain expectations from Spooky Tooth's music. They were not prepared to have to adjust their listening to be able to appreciate the collaboration between the rock band they loved and this relatively unknown composer, brilliant as he was. Using this famous pop music debacle as a litmus test of sorts - consider that CEREMONY was released in 1969. The 20th century only had another 30 years left to go and yet the experimental nature of the music was perhaps too much for even the average rock fan to take in. It was bad for business, certainly. Was it bad art? What was the point behind it? That, dear listeners, is what is left for future generations to decide. Until next time - hopefully not too long - happy listening!

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