Sunday, March 27, 2011

Atonal Accessibility? - Perle's Sinfonietta II

Although we've dealt with very few hardcore atonal works here at Unsung Symphonies so far, there does exist a (somewhat sporadic) thread of symphony writing among composers of a...less-than-tonal persuasion. The founding trinity of mainstream atonality, Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, all composed multi-movement orchestral works -- some symphs in all but name (Berg's 3 Orchestral Pieces), others in barely anything other than name (Webern's Symphony Op. 21). I venture that their ambivalence towards the genre stems from conflicting urges for 1) non-repetition and the abandonment of set forms and 2) a certain penchant for familiar containers with a lot of cultural cachet to ground their experimental impulses.

One composer who felt this atonal ambivalence with special acuteness was the American George Perle (1915-2009). Enraptured with the wide open possibilities of Viennese atonality from an early age, Perle nevertheless felt Schoenberg left behind an unfinished project. Perle believed that Schoenberg's 12-Tone Method (also known as serialism) was a partial and unsatisfactory way for dealing with these new resources. As prominent a music theorist as he was a composer, Perle set out to discover a more musical basis for picking this note over that. In a series of influential books and articles, he ended up formulating what he called "Twelve Tone Tonality," a system that allowed for many of the gestures of traditional music -- cadences, "mode" and "keys", and most importantly a real sense of directed chord progression -- without any of the trappings of tonal pitch selection or syntax.[1] Perle wrote the majority of his own music according to this system. But rather than existing simply to validate his music theoretically, Perle's special brand of "Tonality" was deeply committed to accessibility.

Someone suspicious of atonality and its reputation of ugliness and difficulty would do well to give Perle's Sinfonietta II a listen. He composed this in the fall of 1990 during his three year tenure as the San Francisco Symphony's composer-in-residence. It was performed in February of the next year under the baton of Herbert Blomstedt. Newspaper reviews were quite lavish with their praise, and especially quick to emphasize how enjoyable, or in the words of Sacramento Bee reviewer William Glackin, how "happy" a work it was.[2] The San Francisco Examiner called the Sinfonietta "disarmingly communicative" (expecting something else?), while the San Jose Mercury News basically dubbed Perle the spiritual successor of France's "Les Six": "Nothing is trite; nothing is a rerun; nothing panders to popular taste."

Like the duration (a fleeting 16 minutes), the orchestra of Perle's Sinfonietta II is quite small, save for the percussion section, which keeps its four performers busy with thirteen colorful instruments in strategic reserve. The outer movements, labelled Scherzo I and Scherzo II, are siblings in terms of structure and ethos, both playful romps with a clear ABA form. Orchestration is usually tidy and open, the opposite of Berg and Schoenberg's dense-thicket approach, closer in spirit to Webern's crystal lattices. But that's basically where the Webern similarities end, because Perle projects a sense of fun and extroversion completely alien to that more rarefied style. Melodies and motifs crop up repeatedly, meaning that Perle keeps the listener from worrying about where they are in the piece. The attention span of these ideas is quite short, leading to a manic, scurrying quality that persists throughout -- at several times, especially in the second Scherzo, there is a strong suggestion of cartoon music!

The first Scherzo sets off with a handful of tricks: first a climb up an arpeggiated diminished seventh (I mean, err, presentation of the interval-3 cycle mode-1...), then a harmonized flute phrase, a pair of cello interrogations followed by more arpeggios, and a set of strident but not-too-dissonant string chords:

The harmonic materials, the play of rhythms, and the quickly alternating orchestral colors are characteristic of the whole movement. The B-section "trio" introduces a nervous triplet pattern for strings, over which the flute and piccolo rush in a panic, soothed and egged on at intervals by vibraphone and brass whole-tone arpeggios.

To me, the second Scherzo is the funnier of the two. There is right off the bat a strong contrast between annoyed insistence (the strings' upward bounding, dissonant theme) and mellow sheepishness (the wind and pizzicato answers). After each urgent string statement, a corresponding gesture of deflation seems to follow. Particularly striking are the unvarnished clarinet major thirds and the short passages of honest-to-goodness jazz scoring for brass and percussion -- what better way to puncture an insecure atonal phrase's sense of angsty importance?!:

I have no doubt this work's pitch design is rigorously organized, but the impression is the exact opposite of what you'd expect coming from a theorist of 12-tone quasi-mathematical structure: this is academic atonality, thoroughly defanged.

The heart of this short work is the second movement, "Chorales and Diversions." Hearing it on Pandora (on mNørgård channel, no less) first made me interested in Perle's Sinfonietta, and it is the movement I find myself returning to the most. A rondo in form, the movement sandwiches some eerie passages of rather Bergian sound between statements of a lyrical chorale melody, given almost exclusively to a solo bucket-muted bass trombone. The theme respires in and out like a Bach chorale glimpsed in the dusk, and is harmonized homophonically with some truly lush lower string writing. Here is the entire first section of this nocturnal movement:

George Perle may be the only composer of resolutely "atonal" music for whom I've noticed the label "conservative" repeatedly applied. Sometimes this is in reference to his choice of musical forms. But elsewhere it seems "conservative" is the only word we have for composers who attempt to eschew abstraction for its own sake, and instead choose to ground their music in a consistent and accessible system like traditional tonality. Ultimately, it's as unsatisfyingly simplistic a label as would be "progressive." Better to take Perle at his own word:

"There's this mystique that there's an elite of specialists for whom contemporary music is written. I don't write up or down to anyone. I'm just doing what composers have always done. Some people have written about me as though I were a composer of inaccessible music. But my experience has been that people who listen to my music are amazed by how accessible they find it." [3]

--Frank Lehman
1: The foundations of Perle's theory are two interlocking organizational parameters. The first is the inversional array, which relates notes of the chromatic scale to stable pitch axes (often about a tritone) - this hinge is his equivalent to "key." The second is the interval cycle, which selects a number of pitches based on some symmetrical partition of the scale, such as minor thirds or major seconds - this furnishes the sense of "mode." Both are prominent aspects of the styles of not just Berg and co., but of Bartok, Debussy, and even composers further back into the 19th Century. In compositional practice (and Perle's analyses) the interactions of these two factors can become exceedingly complex, but the important point is that they help produce points of reference and stability that keep the listener from ever becoming too lost.
2: Reviews excerpted at (not surprising that they are so positive!)
3: Quoted in For the Love of Music: Invitations to Listening (Steinberg and Rothe, 147)

Monday, March 7, 2011

The next Eroica? Tan Dun's Internet Symphony No. 1

For the last 180 years, it's been tough for symphony composers to get out from under Beethoven's shadow. We've dealt with lots of symphonies on this blog that seem to go beyond anything Beethoven could have ever even dreamed of doing. (If you don't believe it, check them out on the right.)

Rather than express fearful anxiety about Beethoven's domination of the symphony as a genre, the Chinese-born composer Tan Dun did something remarkable: he took Beethoven to task. In Dun's Internet Symphony No. 1: Eroica (2008), Beethoven is — so the composer claimed — not an overwhelming presence to be feared or matched, but rather, a "mentor" to be loved. (Thanks, by the way, to the folks at Amusicology for the tip to investigate this symphony.) But I don't buy the "mentor" line.

Before I continue, I should say that it's difficult — and maybe misguided — to discuss this composition without doing so in terms of its history as a Google/YouTube commission. But I'm going to do it anyway, because learning to appreciate it as a work of art that could one day stand somewhat apart from its gimmicky genesis is the only way it will possibly outlast Google or YouTube as anything more than an oddity. You can read elsewhere about how this piece came about and how its real was apparently on YouTube (a delightfully awkward video made up of auditions, some of which probably shouldn't be there). Here, we're going to ignore some of the contexts and look instead at how the piece is put together.

The symphony's roughly four-minute length is itself a nod to new technology, since four minutes is about as long as most people are willing to commit to any particular YouTube clip in the first place (unless it's an episode of Charlie Sheen's Korner). In this way, the new Eroica really is a digital symphony, best consumed on a laptop or an iPad in between brushing your teeth and taking out your contacts.

Just as Beethoven's symphonies have so often been read as battles and struggles, one way to understand Dun's Eroica is as a battle with Beethoven, a struggle to move the symphony, as a genre, once and for all past the big symphonikahuna and into the digital age. Dun combines elements of Beethoven's music (including literal quotations, as we'll see) with such un-Beethovenian innovations as car parts for percussion.

(Note: I suggest opening this clip in another tab and following along with the timestamps here.) The mysterious opening (2:38) screams struggle. Sudden crashes create a sense that we might be in for a long journey from darkness to light, Beethoven style.

But the sudden appearance of a majestic brass chorale-like theme (3:14) is a smack in the face of Beethovenian organicism and order. At first, it doesn't seem to make any sense. You have to earn climaxes like these, and they usually show up at the end; they don't just pop up out of nowhere less than a minute into a symphony. Perhaps Dun is telling us that in a post-Beethoven, YouTube world of digital shorts, you don't have to earn these climaxes at all. The tune itself is nice, but the harp doubling the brass is a little awkward.

After hearing the theme again in the cellos, and finished by the horns, we encounter what I'll call the "Beethoven section" (4:23). Here, an intense galloping rhythm, played by the whole orchestra, envelops some of the same sounds from the startling introduction, along with some new ones. We soon learn why we're in triple meter, because at 4:51, we hear the waltzy opening theme of the Eroica (soon violently interrupted by the "new" sounds). Perhaps this is the final degradation of Beethoven's symphony before the YouTube age begins.

At 5:54, we suddenly get the original march-like chorale-like tune but with the less dignified galloping melody weighing it down somewhat. The almost corny cymbal crashes (6:07 and 6:13) seem to tell us that Beethoven and his original Eroica have been defeated by this whirlwind version of the symphony's most memorable theme. The world has left the original Eroica behind.

But the noisy coda (6:55) lasts just a little longer than you'd expect, and its refusal to end is delightfully surprising, and probably the best moment in the whole work. Notice the relentless, continual cadencing, almost as if Dun is hammering away at the nails on Beethoven's coffin. Beethoven's Eroica has already been defeated, but Dun and the YouTube Orchestra are just making sure.

Despite its unevenness, I really enjoyed Dun's first Internet Symphony, especially its cinematic effects and the contrast between big, brassy sounds and interesting percussive hubbub. And maybe the piece is a crucial step in the evolution of the symphony. Now that the oppressive weight of Beethoven is off our shoulders in the world of the digital symphony, it's time for someone to write Internet Symphony No. 2: Charlie Sheen vs. Mark Zuckerberg.
— Matthew Mugmon

Friday, March 4, 2011

Tcherepnin Station: Symphony No. 1 in E

In 1927, the Russian-born Alexander Tcherepnin (son of the composer Nikolai) joined an elite group of musical minds — including such greats as Richard Wagner, Giacomo Meyerbeer, Igor Stravinsky, and Guns and Roses: his music caused a riot.

If you've heard of Tcherepnin, it's likely through his piano works, which every kid loves to play — including this kid. Long ago, I remember performing that Op. 5 No. 1 bagatelle, reveling in the dissonance and thinking I was a rebellious teen for choosing Tcherepnin over Beethoven. (Sadly, playing Tcherepnin probably was my most rebellious act. And I probably had to do Beethoven that year, anyway.)

But it was Tcherepnin's Symphony No. 1 in E that made his listeners antsy. In Paris, on October 29, 1927, the percussion-only second movement was apparently too much for the audience.1 Tcherepnin would go on to write three more symphonies, but he must have needed a break after his first one — the Second was composed in 1945 and was first heard in 1951, in Chicago. As far as I know, the Chicago audience remained calm throughout that concert.

Although I didn't scream and yell when I first heard Tcherepnin's First the other day, I'll admit that the composer's concept of "Interpoint" threw me off a little (he capitalized it, but from now on, I won't). It's a kind of interaction between voices or lines that calls attention to the spaces between the notes, rather than the way notes sound at the same time. Breaks in one instrument's lines are highlighted because another voice actively fills in those breaks. Sometimes, this creates a pointillistic effect that breaks down our sense of each line as continuous. Here's an extended intrapuntal section among strings and various winds from the first movement:

This episode, which leads to movement's climax, can be heard as the logical extension of something else Tcherepnin does in the symphony — the trading of motifs from instrument to instrument that Tcherepnin sets up early in the first movement. Here, the voices seem more coordinated and thus less "intrapuntal," but interpoint is just one step away:

What has been pointed to as perhaps a more classic kind of interpoint, and less pointillistic than the example in the first movement, comes in the third movement, which is built on three duets. The first, here, is for horn and trumpet. (If you're into Medieval music and you hear something that sounds like hocketing, you're on the right track — they've been described as related.)

The next intrapuntal duet is for clarinet and timpani:

The third (and most haunting) is for violin and double bass.

At the end of the movement, these intrapuntal duets are themselves blended. (For a detailed discussion of how this all works in this excerpt, see Nicolas Slonimsky's "Alexander Tcherepnin Septuagenarian," in Tempo 87 (Winter 1968-9) 20-1.) I'm willing to buy that there is some order here, but on just a few listens, three combined intrapuntal duets sound a little out-of-control to me. Judge for yourself:

It apparently wasn't the interpoint, but the percussion-only second movement that made its first audience uncomfortable. It has been described as a recomposition of the first movement without pitches, a "skilful, purely rhythmic version of the themes from the first movement."2 Since he kept it very short, at under three minutes, Tcherepnin might have known an all-percussion movement was a risky move. Today, this sounds pretty tame, and I couldn't help but think the movement could have been longer. Here's a clip:

Interpoint is a good starting place, but there's much else to discover — melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically — in this rich work. (Including in the fourth movement, which I found the most satisfying.) But we'll let Tcherepnin himself send us off for more listens. Looking back on this symphony in 1964, Tcherepnin clearly thought it was something special. He considered it well ahead of its time and pointed to "serial thematic construction," "medieval Polyphonic artifices," the "bird-calls used as motifs" and a "desire to get away from conventional pitch": "All of this happened before the birth of dodecaphonic music, before Messiaen's looking to bird-calls for thematic materials, before the esoteric use of rhythmic patterns by many a Western composer, and long before the liberation of music from conventional pitch that became dear to post-Second World War composers."3 What do you Tcherepnin-aficionados think?
— Matthew Mugmon

1. From the liner notes by Julius Wender, of the Tcherepnin symphonies and conertos recording by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra with Lan Shui and Noriko Ogawa, p. 9. Also see Enrique Alberto Arias, "The Symphonies of Alexander Tcherepnin," in Tempo 158 (Sept. 1986) 23-31.
2. Ibid.
3. "Alexander Tcherepnin: A Short Autobiography," Tempo 130 (Spring 1979) 16.