Response to notes from the underground

Since Judd chose to review a piece upon my suggestion, I thought I would provide a context for the review by revealing why I suggested Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony to Judd in the first place. I actually suggested that he review the work because I know Judd does not think of himself as a tonally-oriented listener: When listening to the Fourth Symphony myself, I was struck by how much the work relied on other musical devices besides tonality as a means to organize the musical material. I was interested to see how a non-tonal listener like Judd would react to it.

My plan did not backfire, since I wasn’t expecting him to like it. In fact, he sort of fell into a trap, because I figured he’d hate it, which gives me an opportunity to write a few words on why I like it so much. (All in good fun, Judd.) When I first heard the first movement of the symphony, it made an immediate impact on me on a very visceral level. The music to me was primordial.

Rather than boring me, the sparse texture captured my attention: I was drawn to the mournful solo cello and the menacing, wobbling basses underneath, because I could listen closely to the dissonances between the two instruments and to the juxtaposition of their very different timbres (what they physically sound like). The cello’s melody was simple yet strikingly beautiful, and what was so extraordinary about it was how it evolved so naturally into a different melody, while still maintaining an incredible amount of tension as other orchestral forces joined the texture to form a tremendously powerful, large-scale crescendo.

Rather than ranting on, let me step back and remark that I’m only talking about the first two minutes of the first movement! And not once did I mention tonality. In fact, I was using words like dissonance, timbre, and texture: all non-tonal techniques that composers, especially 20th-century ones, are fond of using. How could this music possibly be compared to a red square on a blank canvas?

Response by Dan Perttu ’01