Notes from the underground

As avid readers may have noticed, I tend to like the pieces I review. Maybe this is because I only pick pieces that are supposed to be great, or because I’m not critical enough or because I’m being paid off by all of the crappy composers. But for whatever reason, you haven’t had much of a chance to see what happens when I want to just lay into a really bad work of art.

Well, here’s your chance. Stephanie Frank ’01 asked what I thought was the best symphony written in the second half of the 20th Century. I answered her (can you guess what I said? A shiny nickel to the first person who tells me…), and asked what her choice would be. She replied that the Walter Piston Second Symphony would be her choice. So I decided to review that work this week. But I’m not tearing into Piston – my review of that will come later.

Also on the CD I chose to review (CD R872 1) is a work by the American composer Carl Ruggles entitled “Sun-Treader.” And this, my friends, is simply one of the worst pieces I’ve ever heard for the symphony orchestra.

Its structure seems to be a series of ten to twenty short sections that feel nearly identical in mood and form – this is a major flaw. An avid listener becomes bored hearing the same musical shapes time and time again; this is usually true in pop music, where the same chords and melodies are played ad nauseum, but it is even worse here in the Ruggles work because the shapes are larger and so the work goes on for sixteen minutes.

The opening of the Ruggles is huge, ominous and extremely interesting. But as the piece goes on, its failure to develop kills any sense of musical interest that we might have had. It’s as if someone tells you a story where the main character has just been named king of the universe – and then proceeds to keep emphasizing that he’s king of the universe. That’s right, king of the universe. Do you understand? King of the frickin’ universe, right here! The end. That’s Ruggles’ “Sun-Treader.”

While we’re discussing bad pieces of music, I have to at least mention the following. If any readers were at the Berkshire Symphony concert this past weekend, they would have heard a truly terrible work by David Lisner titled “Dances in the Madhouse.” It suffered from a lack of character, melodic interest and sophistication. Hearing music like that gives me confidence as a composer, since I believe that I can (and have) written more interesting works, but it also disturbs me.

There needs to be a rationale for programming a piece of new music on a concert with classical masterpieces such as Bach and Mendelssohn. One such rationale would be to present a truly great work that stands with the older masterpieces. Another would be to present the audience with an unfamiliar sound. Yet another could be to present the work of an up-and-coming composer who has something to say.

But none of these were achieved with the Lisner work. I know that Ronald Feldman is a sophisticated musician and I do not understand how he could conclude that bad faux-tango music and the like could provide sustainable musical interest. My only conclusion is that someone thought that this would be an “audience-friendly” work because of its comfortable, tonal nature and amusing title. The message that is sent by performing works of this quality along with classical masterpieces is the great works will always be the great works, but we have to play some new music – so here’s something you might not hate. This attitude upsets me greatly, but what can you do?

The next work on the Ruggles album is William Schuman’s Violin Concerto. Schuman was a very important figure in the American music scene, as composer, teacher and administrator. His music is inconsistent, and much of the time the inconsistencies persist within individual pieces. In this case, the Violin Concerto, he writes some amazing passages in the context of a very strange work. When this piece is in a fast section, it carries you along very effectively, to the point of being breathtaking at times.

Schuman has a great rhythmic sensibility, but his slow sections lack a certain something. I don’t know what it is, exactly. They seem like they should be very effective, but they just aren’t really so. Also, his sense of large-scale form is questionable – the cadenza comes way too soon in the piece and fails to feel dramatic, and the various sections seem arbitrarily placed in the larger context of the concerto. It’s a fine work, though, and Schuman fortunately had the sense to give it a great ending, one of those “breathtaking” moments.

Finally, we come to Stephanie’s favorite Symphony of the Cold War era and beyond, Piston’s Second. I can’t say that I’m as big a fan of this work as she is, but it is certainly a decent piece. Piston was a fairly conservative composer, but he was a very good craftsman and a great orchestrater – his book on the subject was the standard for many years and is still in use today. The first movement is caught somewhere between powerful and hokey, as it has broad, sweeping gestures intermingled with some quite hokey Americana. There’s nothing too creative in this movement, but it has some nice material and is satisfying structurally.

The second movement seems to be the big selling point for this piece – it’s a long, beautiful movement where Piston pours his heart out. It’s a very touching episode, but I don’t know that I’m entirely won over. There seems to be a certain lack of character here; after he’s poured his heart out, I wonder, “is that all?” That sounds crueler than I mean it, but keep in mind that I’m comparing this work to all the other symphonies of the past fifty years.

The last movement retains the march-like bombast of the first movement, also focusing on the open fourth and fifth intervals favored by American composers of this period. After listening to this all, I’m struck by how much better Samuel Barber’s music is, especially considering the similar periods of writing and the similar musical climate in which they worked. Barber leaves me wanting more; Piston leaves me mostly satisfied. You figure out which of the two is one of my favorite composers, and which I’ll leave to Stephanie.