Notes from the underground

If there’s one word that has been overused in describing the art of this century, it’s probably “modern.” Everything is modern, in fact, not just art — we are examples of “modern man,” we live in the “modern era,” our lives are filled with “modern appliances,” and this is a “modern column.” Those terms are all well and good (maybe not the last), but what is “modern art,” anyway? Some people use the term to describe an era. For many people, it could just as well be a synonym for “bad” or “totally unintelligible.”

Throughout the history of Western music, every great composer has written music which is somehow distinct to him or her. The greatest pieces not only have much to say, but say it in a way that had never before been heard. The “modern” aesthetic attempts to achieve this with every work, and so I think of “modernism” as an aesthetic goal. In order for a modern work to be successful, it not only must say something, but it must be something new and must be said in a new way.

One could argue that all good music does this, and for the most part, I would agree. But those composers who are generally considered to be modernists seem to have a degree of self-awareness beyond that of other composers. To be modern is to put the means on an equal position of importance relative to the ends. Schoenberg is an excellent example of this idea; he went so far as to develop the twelve-tone system, saying that it would “ensure the supremacy of German music for the next hundred years.” For the modernist, finding a new language will lead to the creation of great music, whereas for everyone else, the creation of great music may necessitate the creation of a new language for expressive means.

Although the above paragraph may be confusing, the bottom line is the quality of the music. With all that in mind, I present you with a CD entitled “Wien Modern,” referring to a festival which took place a decade ago in Vienna. All of the pieces on this disc (CD W63 6) could be considered “modern,” and you’ll probably agree if you listen to them. We’ve encountered pieces like these before, notably with Elliott Carter and, to a lesser degree, Witold Lutoslawski. They require a different sort of listening than with “normal” music, blurring the line between sound and music.

The first piece on the disc, Wolfgang Rihm’s “Depart” for mixed chorus, a speaking chorus and 22 players, is a fantastic example of this blurring of the sound/music distinction. The “speaking chorus” here uses speech as music, asking the listener to disregard the distinction between the two. However, the speech is not convincingly speech-like, despite the fairly natural inflections. You would never hear a large group of people “speaking” with the exact same speech patterns and tone inflections in the way that this choir does. Nevertheless, this is a very powerful work. Rihm uses many orchestral effects that give his work such a modern (though I hesitate to use the word!) feel. He also has a great sense of drama.

The second and third works are by Gyorgy Ligeti, one of the great composers of this century. It is entirely possible that you have heard his music before and not been aware of it—I kidnapped a random sampling of Williams students last month and played them his music, then brainwashed them. But seriously, he wrote music for 2001: A Space Odyssey and, along with Penderecki, The Shining (though the most memorable music in the film was actually provided by Bartok).

The two works of his on this CD are very similar in concept. If you read this column regularly, you will recall my use of the terms “color” and “texture.” Ligeti’s first piece here, “Atmospheres,” is a study in those two concepts. There are no melodies in this work; rather, the entire piece consists of waves of sound moving throughout the orchestra. Even if you don’t read music, a look at the score will tell you all you need to know — it looks like large blocks of notes placed at various points around the page. The effect is tremendous, and would be much more so if it were heard live. Ligeti breaks the string sections up into individual instruments, so every violin, viola, cello, and bass plays a different part. Often, they play in gigantic “tone clusters,” large groups of notes right next to each other. Traditional chords are no more present than are traditional melodies, and Ligeti’s end product is very evocative.

Ligeti’s other work on the disc, “Lontano,” works in very much the same way as “Atmospheres,” but there is less motion in tone clusters and more on an individual basis. This is a very beautiful work, full of unusual sounds and beautiful colors, all moving in and out of each other. It is hard to describe the difference between the two, but I would say that “Lontano” is more emotionally charged and more effective.

A short work by Luigi Nono, “Liebeslied” for mixed chorus and instruments, feels somewhat incidental to the disc. It is a decent work, but it is more traditional sounding (though still modern) and shorter than anything else. Nevertheless, it is a very beautiful piece of music. His choral writing is wonderful, and the strange group of instruments lends an exotic color.

The final composer represented is Pierre Boulez, perhaps the king of modernism. He wrote a small number of works, all of which are extremely dissonant and complex, but these pieces, “Notations I-IV,” are a delight. He wrote them early in his career, and so they are exciting and exuberant, but he orchestrated them later with an amazing sense of color. I generally dislike Boulez’s music, and I was wonderfully surprised by the success of the “Notations.” I don’t remember any themes or forms from any of them, but I recall the amazing sounds he evokes from the massive orchestra (111 players!). Lose yourself in this sound-world and you will appreciate Boulez’s genius.