Composition Preview: ‘La ſelle d’ærain’ premieres Feb. 13

In my last post I described a large-scale project of which, at the time, I had completed only a few fragments. As I hinted in the last post, I anticipate this that this project will take several years to complete. Lately I have been working on another long-term project: a setting of five Nostradamus quatrains, of which two will be premiered on February 13 as part of the Oak Bay New Music Festival.

When I was 15, I found the ominously-titled Final Prophecies of Nostradamus in a used bookstore called The Flaming Novel. The shop, located in a strip mall parking lot in Apache Junction, Arizona, lived up to its name by falling victim to a fire sometime later.  The book features the text of Nostradamus’ Prophéties (originally published 1555-66), comprised of 941 quatrains organized in ten Centuries, mostly in Middle French. It features uninspired translations and misguided interpretations by Erika Cheetham. Cheetham did write a fairly interesting introduction however, and I learned that Nostradmaus was born Michel de Nostradame to a Jewish family in Provence. Regardless of their reputation as prophecies, most of the quatrains also are of dubious value as poetry; many are lists of 16th century states, cities and towns (e.g. VIII.LII et al). That being said, there are a handful of quatrains that struck me as beautiful when I first read them, especially quatrain VIII.XCVI (the text from this 1566 edition rather than from Cheetham’s book):

VIII.XCVI: La ſynagogue ſterile

La ſynagogue ſterile ſans nul fruit,
Sera receuë entre les infideles,
De Babylon la fille du porſuit,
Miſere & triſte luy trenchera les aiſles.

The sterile synagogue without any fruit
Will be received by the infidels,
The daughter of the persecuted one of Babylon,
Miserable and sad they will clip her wings.

The explicitly Jewish content of the poem and its powerful imagery convinced me to attempt a setting, which I began in late 2006.  The piece began as an attempt to reconcile the traditions of Klezmer and serialism, each of which I was beginning to discover at the time.  I came up with the following piano dyads, which use all twelve notes of the chromatic scale, and derived two tone rows from them:


I ended up setting only the first line of the poem before abandoning it in 2007. The first line of the original version for voice and piano uses a mixture of Klezmer modality and serialism, including this representative passage:


Untilthe end of 2007, I continued setting fragments of several other quatrains, but never completed any of them.

The next step in the development of this project took place in fall 2012 when, as part of Ron Kuivila’s composition seminar at Wesleyan University, we were assigned to write for an ad hoc ensemble of Connecticut musicians: namely voice, tuba, percussion, harp, accordion, viola and double bass. This highly unorthodox instrumentation, particularly the tuba, accordion and bass, reminded me of a Klezmer band, so I decided to complete my earlier setting of La ſynagogue ſterile for the ensemble. In order to emphasize the Jewish content of the work, I decided to intersperse a doina between the lines of the quatrain. The doina stems from sketches I wrote for solo tuba in 2010-11, which I called Der Levoner Doina (The Lunar Doina). I completed this version of La ſynagogue ſterile in November 2012 and it was subsquently performed and recorded at Wesleyan:

I decided to revisit my Nostradamus project recently, because I felt as though La ſynagogue ſterile was not  substantial enough a piece in its 2012 incarnation, and its unusual instrumentation meant that it might not be performed again in the foreseeable future. When the opportunity arose to write a piece for a chamber ensemble of voice, flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano for the 2016 Oak Bay New Music Festival, I jumped at the chance to adapt La ſynagogue ſterile for the new instrumentation, and also to expand the work to include two additional movements. I had come up with the title La ſelle d’ærain (The Brass Saddle/Tripod) when working on the 2012 version. The title comes from quatrain I.I, in which Nostradamus explains his method of divination. The tripod refers to the three quatrains I had decided to set, namely I.XVII (Par quarente ans l’Iris) and I.XXI (Profonde argille blanche), as well as VII.XCVI, which I  had already set.

By last November, I had decided to add movements for voice and piano framing the central three ensemble pieces: quatrains V.XCVI (La roſe) and II.XIII (Le verbe) as incipit and ‘excipit’, respectively (the latter term for some reason seems only to have existed in French literary analysis otherwise). I completed La roſe on Christmas Eve, and the final version of La ſynagogue ſterile exactly a month later, and these two movements will be joined by an instrumental interlude for the performance on February 13.


Mallarmé, Mourning and Microtones

After a series of posts about an often difficult past, I thought it would be a welcome change of pace to write about something I’m working on currently. This post is a preview for what is effectively my professional debut as a composer in a non-self-directed or workshop format: Friday Oct. 16, the inimitable Mark McGregor will perform a new piece of mine for flute and electronics at Open Space.


For the past several months I have been formulating a large-scale project based on Stéphane Mallarmé’s Pour un tombeau d’Anatole. After the death of his son Anatole at the age of eight in 1879, Mallarmé attempted to write a memorial poem, but he was unable to finish it and left behind 202 page-long fragments. These were eventually published posthumously in 1961, and are starkly modern in their fragmentary form. Pour un tombeau d’Anatole was translated into English by Paul Auster (whose translation I am not especially fond of) and then by Patrick McGuinness. There also exists an incomplete and fascinatingly non-literal translation by William Marsh.

As can be seen from the last link, the fragments are formatted in a very idiosyncratic way, reminiscent of Mallarmé’s later and more well-known poems such as Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard. However, it is unclear if the work would have stayed in its more unusual format if it had actually been completed, or if its formatting was simply a sign of its provisional nature. There are also a plethora of strange annotative punctuations in the original text, ranging from several styles of brackets to horizontal lines of various lengths to floating numerals, both Arabic and Roman. They seem to strive to fill in the gaps where Mallarmé’s words failed him. The combination of the work’s extreme emotional content and its open-ended layout made it irresistible to work with.

I knew that a setting of the entire text of Pour un tombeau d’Anatole would be far too long, but nonetheless I wanted to set a substantial part of it. This would still demand a very long duration, most likely an hour or more, so I decided to make it a poly-work in the style of Richard Barrett’s Opening of the Mouth (first movement) or Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf’s Hommage à György Kurtág (a solo piccolo fragment),where a large-scale work is actually made up of several smaller pieces for some subset of the instrumentation that may be performed separately. So far the work is in its infancy, but I already have two segments completed: a draft of a setting of the first fragment, en triste existence, for solo soprano and small chorus (which was read at the SALT Festival this July by the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart) and a piece for flute and electronics, «la double à remplir…», which takes its (incorrectly gendered1) title from fragment 9, which will be premiered this Friday by Mark McGregor.

I decided that, following the text, the theme of the whole work will be an exploration of aspects of mourning from music of various traditions, including the ‘lament bass’, dirges, drones, crying, etc. In keeping with this sense of mourning, the pitch content of the work is derived from the undertone series on a high C. For at least the first section of the work, I decided to use an octave-inverted alteration of the series, which is spaced somewhat like the harmonic series. Using only quarter tones and arrows to indicate approximate twelfth-tone inflections, the modified series is as follows:

Mallarme series 1

«La double à remplir…» for flute and electronics is in the form of a doina. Originally a Romanian shepherd’s lament, the doina entered the klezmer repertoire around the turn of the 20th century (a classic example). Doinas typically consist of a highly ornamented solo melodic line that is accompanied by droning chords that modulate over the course of the piece.  In «la double à remplir…», the flute is accompanied by sine tones that play a series of major seventh chords, derived from the constructed series discussed above, that gradually deviate more and more from equal temperament:

La double a remplir chord progression

Chords connected with a bracket alternate freely, since they are roughly equivalent in distance from equal temperament. Over top of this, the flute plays the freely virtuosic trills, arpeggios and scalar patterns of doina repertoire, but microtonally detuned.

I look forward to the first public performance of a project that will be central to my practice for at least the next few years.


1. This mistake is in Mallarmé’s original.

Friedman on Dialectics, Part 2: Difficulties

This is the second in an ongoing series of posts reflecting on some formative aspects of both myself and my music. Part 1 examined my intellectual development, while this post deals with the effects of the experience of my mother’s death from the same period and my subsequent emergence as both a person and as a composer. I meant to finish this within a few days of the first part, but it has proven quite difficult to write. Part 3 will address more recent changes in my music and ideas.

Here, then, lies the difference: modern aesthetics is an aesthetic of the sublime, though a nostalgic one. It allows the unpresentable to be put forward only as the missing contents; but the form, because of its recognizable consistency, continues to offer to the reader or viewer matter of solace and pleasure. Yet these sentiments do not constitute the real sublime sentiment, which is an intrinsic combination of pleasure and pain: the pleasure that reason should exceed all presentation, the pain that imagination or sensibility should not be equal to the concept.

Jean-François Lyotard, “Answering the Question: What Is Postmodernism?″ translated by Régis Durand in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984, p. 81.

This past winter marked the tenth anniversary of my mother’s death. This is not something I have discussed very much with anyone, and will come as a surprise to most people that know me. Why am I sharing this is in so public a forum? First of all, it has become increasingly obvious to me that I have not come to terms with her death, and I feel as though talking about it (or at least related moments from that time in my life) might help. Secondarily, in light of the previous point, I think that opening up here will give those who know me (and read this blog) some important perspective on how these events have affected who I am and what I do.

My mother, Dorothy Christine Cole, was first diagnosed with leukemia in 2002, when I was 12 years old. After several months of chemotherapy, she successfully went into remission and would remain healthy for more than 2 years. In late October 2004 she fell ill and tests showed that her cancer had returned. She was quickly taken to Vancouver General Hospital, where she spent the next two months before it became clear that the chemotherapy would not prove effective a second time. I was only able to see her a couple times in the hospital before my family ended up spending Christmas in Vancouver to be with her. In early January 2005 she was taken by air ambulance back to Kamloops where she stayed at first the Royal Inland Hospital and then the Kamloops Hospice, before she passed away on January 16.

However, this post is not explicitly about her death—this is not the place for that, and I may not be ready to fully confront it. It is about the circumstances surrounding it and the music that came out of that period, which I believe I am ready to address at this point. I will begin by examining in detail the clarinet sonata I wrote during this time and then trying to make sense of what I was going through before and while composing it.

It was about a month after my mother’s death that I started my first foray into serious composing. I had composed a few things before this point, the most substantial of which was a pseudo-classical piano sonata in D minor, but sometime in the fall of 2004 I started writing a clarinet sonata based on a transitional section  of Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1. I started work on it in earnest in February 2005 and spent nearly the entire year completing it. What resulted is Sonata Flebile, which is a 35-minute piece for clarinet and piano.  It draws thematically from Liszt, both Piano Concerto No. 1 and Nuages gris, but it is also inspired by a lot of other music I was listening to at the time: late-period Liszt, Beethoven, Mahler, Chopin, Brahms, etc.  You can view the score and play back a horrible MIDI realization here (if you have the Scorch plugin), but I recommend listening instead to the final Chaconne, which is probably the only salvageable part, here played by Liam Hockley and Kevin Thomson:

Looking back at this piece, the most striking aspect for me is its structure, which is partially based on Liszt’s Sonata in B minor, but is considerably more elaborate. It is nominally a distended sonata form, but can be broken down as follows:

  • Fantasia (subtitled contradictory, juxtaposed circumstances) which forms a free introduction to
  • Theme and variations (self-reflection, contemplation of the innumerable facets), which is also the core of the sonata form:
    • Exposition: Theme and Variations 1-3
    • Development: Variations 4-10 of which
      • Variations 4-6 are free development and
      • Variations 7-10 are a double fugue, which is also in sonata form:
        • Exposition: Variations 7 & 8 (each is a full fugue exposition of one of the two themes)
        • Development: Variation 9
        • Recapitulation and Coda: Variation 10 (both themes return simultaneously)
    • Retransition and Recapitulation: Variations 11-14
  • Ciaccona (understanding: finality, loss) as a coda to the work, itself a ground with 7 variations and coda.

At this point, I am quite sure that the structure of the piece was in some way therapeutic. In order to avoid the emotions I was experiencing, I drew on my intellectual experience with math and created something which emphasized structural rigour, while still comfortingly familiar in its musical foundations. A connection to the common-practice tradition via classical forms of sonata-allegro and variation, but combined in a particularly potent nested structure, proved extremely intoxicating to my desire for things to make sense.

Another striking element of the piece, for me, is the subtitles of the sections. The contradictory, juxtaposed circumstances were clearly the raw emotions I felt at the time of its composition—grief, but also intense adolescent infatuation, which was first manifesting in me at around the same time. The subtitles form a sort of idealized process of grieving, where I imagined that self-reflection, contemplation of the innumerable facets would eventually be followed by understanding: finality, loss and some sort of closure.

However, as those who have gone through the grieving process know, things are not so simple. Most of what transpired those few months is a blur. I can remember only a handful of fleeting images: short, disconnected conversations, seeing the Vancouver Opera do Madama Butterfly after a hospital visit, finding The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich on a shelf at the house where we were staying and reading its roughly 1200 pages in less than three days. Numbness alternated with an intense sensation of poetry and meaningfulness. It is difficult to chart one’s progress in an idealized process when continuity does not seem to exist at all. The dissonance between the idealism of the piece’s construction and the way I actually felt at the time illustrates its fundamental problems.

Not long after I finished writing it, I began to realize that Sonata Flebile had many major flaws. I was not capable of really handling the grandiosity of the piece’s structure at the time, which I came to realize was itself not really appropriate for the biographical nature of the piece’s inspiration anyhow. On top of that, it is really unnecessarily difficult—neither the pianist nor the clarinettist gets much of a break for the entire 35-minute duration and the piano part has too many simultaneous voices most of the time. None of those things were enough to make me regret writing the piece, but the realization that its construction was diametrically opposed with my actual experience of mourning effectively killed any interest I had in it. This realization had set in fairly strongly by the time that I first performed a portion of the piece in the spring of 2007. It is only after many years of reflection that I have realized its value as an artifact of a particular time in my life, one that I can examine when I am incapable of examining my experience of that time.

Click to enlarge.

Some passagework.

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From the double fugue.

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Fugue ‘development’.

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Ornamented recapitulation of the theme.

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End of recapitulation/variations.

I still consider myself to have learned how to compose by writing Sonata Flebile, and not just in the mechanical sense; from it, I also somewhat paradoxically learned how not to compose. Not only did my realization about the philosophy of the piece’s structure effectively banish it from my mind, it also radically altered my notion of what composition is. This realization can be seen as the effective end of both naked formalism and any 19th-century influence in my compositions. I started writing some serial pieces not long afterwards, but they always had some sort of subversion of their system. Though there is some nascent polystylism in Sonata Flebile, I started to explore it more in earnest afterwards, but that will be for another post.

Returning to the work’s subtitles, I have come to realize that the most important thing I learned from the whole process has formed the foundation of my philosophical perspective ever since: life is actually made up of continuous contradictory, juxtaposed circumstances, and no amount of self-reflection can resolve them. This post may sound somewhat cold and analytical to some, but that is an ongoing related issue of mine. The emotional and the intellectual have been conflated for me since this time in my life in nearly every way: I have intellectualized my emotional life, seeking to make sense of it (such as in this post), but also have found great joy and sorrow in often esoteric and abstruse music and writing. This may have been detrimental to my personal life, but, as Schoenberg wrote, what is music but a union of “heart and brain?”


Friedman on Dialectics, Part 1: Of Formalist Denial

This is the first in what I hope is a series of fairly serious and personal posts I will write in the coming days, which will also address several issues that arose in my MA thesis, which I completed last spring. Part 1 deals with the intellectual background of a formative period of my life, roughly 2003-2008. Part 2 will deal with emotional and musical aspects of the same period.

 My music sometimes seems mysterious. Part of the mystery comes from the fact that I wait, receptively, then I welcome, I accept … Listen, there are two kinds of people: the type that is only interested in what they understand, and the type that wants at all costs the hermetic mystery, enigmas. The first gets bored when they don’t understand, the second is bored when they do understand. Me, I accept poetry, the inexplicable. Things are born in the waiting.

Morton Feldman, interviewed by Martine Cadieu in “Morton Feldman – Waiting, May 1971” in Morton Feldman Says: Selected Interviews and Lectures 1964-1987. Edited by Chris Villars. London: Hyphen Press, 2006, p. 40.

In grade 12, my school counsellor asked me why, when I was definitely going to be doing a degree in music, was I also studying calculus, chemistry and physics.  At some point a few years earlier, I had come across the 17th century polymath Athanasius Kircher’s exhortation that “there is nothing more beautiful than to know all” (where this quote came from I have no memory). This may have been possible at the time he was writing, but is clearly not now, something I obviously knew intuitively but did not really believe until after I started university. For my entire childhood and adolescence I intentionally read books that were far too difficult, culminating in Roger Penrose’s The Road to Reality, an attempt to explain the physical properties of the universe in 1100 pages. I vaguely remember understanding about the first 200, which deal with the math required to understand the rest of the book; I read the next 900 in a daze, trying to at least absorb the terminology. My reading was not limited to science: I also read books at random from my family’s shelves. My family owned somewhere in the area of 2000-3000 books at this point, skewing heavily towards CanLit and literary theory, thanks to my father. I read experimental novels like Death Kit by Susan Sontag and the highly obscure the telephone pole by Russell Marois (which I know I finished on Oct. 28, 2003 and Jan. 18, 2004, respectively, thanks to a Microsoft Access database [!] I kept of my reading at the time).

The book that most affected me during this period, however, was Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter. I read GEB in the fall of 2004, which was otherwise a very difficult part of my life (something I will address in my next post). In both his preface to the 20th anniversary edition of the book and in his later book I Am a Strange Loop, Hofstadter essentially complains that no one understood the underlying message of GEB, which is an examination of self-reference and its ramifications on the possibility of artificial intelligence. GEB very easily comes off as seeming to be about fanciful connections between its various subjects: not only the titular figures, but also Zen Buddhism, microbiology, computer science and the like. Its highly novel structure helps this misinterpretation: it alternates fairly normal chapters with dialogues between the characters Achilles and the Tortoise (drawn from a dialogue by Lewis Carroll [pdf], who himself got them from one of Zeno‘s paradoxical thought experiments) which are in the form of contrapuntal pieces by J. S. Bach. I do not pretend to have fully understood GEB, but I definitely gathered quite a bit from it, particularly the enormous paradoxes that loom under the surface of logic and therefore underpin nearly every aspect of thought. It’s possible that I took almost the exact opposite message from the average reader of GEB, namely that, while everything is connected, it is connected in such a way that nothing makes sense.

The most important paradox discussed in GEB is Kurt Gödel‘s so-called incompleteness theorem (of which there are actually two). I will attempt a simple explanation of it, which is probably ultimately fallacious, but will give the reader an idea of what it entails. A formal system is a logical construct where one can use certain axioms (statements which are assumed to be true beforehand) and rules (which transform axioms and other statements which are derived from axioms). Gödel leans heavily on the notion of compactness, which can be used to prove that, in a particular formal system, provability by the system is logically equivalent to truth. A compact formal system can have the property of completeness, whereby it can prove every true statement, as well as the property of consistency, whereby no false statement can be proven. Let us examine a statement in a formal system that can be translated as something like “this statement cannot be proven,” which is clearly a paradox: if it is true, then we have no way of proving it, so the formal system is incomplete (since we have found an unprovable truth); if it is false, then it can be proved, so the formal system is inconsistent (since we have found a provable falsehood). The result is that any system must be either incomplete or inconsistent, and that any attempt for a system to describe itself either fails because of incompleteness or yields dangerous results because of inconsistency. In the first case it means that in order to describe a system completely, we must create a meta-system, which must be described via a meta-meta-system, and so on. These statements hold true for even relatively simple systems, like those describing arithmetic. Interpretation of these theorems in other fields is often overblown (much like quantum physics), but it does essentially destroy the positivist perspective of Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica, which sought to derive all of mathematics from logic.

GEB was my first exposure to dialectical thinking, or at least unresolved dualities: Hofstadter dwells on several of them, particularly holism vs. reductionism. He attempts to resolve them via the Zen notion of mu, which “unasks” the question or at least points out its absurdity. In some questions the answer is both of “both and neither” of the choices, but also neither of those, and so on. The infinite regress of dialectics seemed to be isomorphic to the infinite meta-levels required to completely describe any formal system given Gödel’s incompleteness, while contradictory bare dualities seemed to map onto inconsistency. These notions led me to actively engage with the fundamental dichotomies I encountered in every subject I studied after this point, particularly in my undergraduate philosophy electives. But, in a sense, it was too late for my earlier interests: I believed that any formalist notion of truth was bound to end in an infinite tree of undecidability or a flat-out contradiction. I still tried to take a second major in math during my first year, but found the time demands of a music degree precluded much external commitment, and I realized it was basically impossible, at least at UVic, after two semesters. I was still helping some of my friends in sciences with their homework in second semester classes I would never take when I realized that I had to radically rein in my ambitions, however I did continue to take electives in philosophical logic until my fourth year, which were some of the most creatively stimulating classes I have taken, even if no longer directly relevant to my work.

What does all of this have to do with music? Though I am now unquestionably primarily a composer, I still have serious parallel interests in philosophy, math, science and literature, and these concepts provide some vital underpinning to the way I think about music. My interests have always straddled the art/science divide and I believe that I chose to pursue an academic career in music because, in my opinion, it is located at the nexus of the arts and sciences, and can be produced and interpreted using a plethora of different fields and techniques. Being a composer is my way of intellectually having my cake and eating it too. My next post will address the joint emotional aspects to the intellectual issues raised here, as well as their impact on the music I wrote until fairly recently.

[Review] Claude Vivier: A Composer’s Life by Bob Gilmore

I once again find myself in Victoria for the foreseeable future. As a way to ensure that I continue writing regularly while I’m between degrees, I have decided to start a series where I write about books (mostly on music) that I feel are worth sharing. There will be three rough categories:

  1. New books, which I will write informal reviews of (hopefully prior to being able to have a formal review published somewhere)
  2. Classics which I feel could use some further explanation or encouragement for potential readers (e.g.  Formalized Music)
  3. Obscure books which I feel more people should know about (e.g. The Modern Composer and His World which I mentioned some time ago)

Obviously there will be some overlap in the latter two categories depending on one’s perspective. However, this first article is very clearly in the first one.

UPDATE: This review has been published in the November 2015 edition of Musiktexte in a German translation by Monika Lichtenfeld as “Mythen und Widersprüche. Bob Gilmores Claude-Vivier-Biographie”.

Bob Gilmore
Claude Vivier: A Composer’s Life
Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2014
295pp. $34.95

In Claude Vivier’s brief life (1948-1983) he composed a substantial output of varied and compelling pieces for both vocal and instrumental forces, and his final works from Lonely Child for soprano and orchestra (1980) until his death constitute one of the strongest series of pieces written by a single composer in such a short time-span. His work is marked by a strong emphasis on the unknown in a very general sense: he fixates on such aspects as distant locales (including imaginary ones), death and love. A large portion of his output is vocal, much of which sets passages in a language or languages of his own creation, and much of it has strong autobiographical resonances. Born to “unknown parents” (an oft-repeated phrase found in almost all descriptions of his life) in Montreal and killed in Paris at the age of 35, his life’s details often threaten to overwhelm both appraisal of his music and his place in the Canadian musical pantheon.

Gilmore’s somewhat workmanlike biography attempts to cut through the various layers of mythology surrounding Vivier. Through a great many primary sources and reams of interviews with Vivier’s family, friends and colleagues (including a huge number of prominent musicians in Canada and Europe), Gilmore sketches out what can be definitively known about Vivier’s life. His work on these sections includes large extracts from sources and sometimes prosaic summaries. These can be quite effective: through them Gilmore manages to effectively unmask Vivier’s mythological status as a “great composer-traveler” in connection with Asia. Contrary to what some believe, Vivier did not spend years travelling through Asia (a myth repeated by his Wikipedia article), but only a total of five months in 1976-77, of which three were spent in Bali and the remainder in Japan, Thailand, Iran and Egypt. Even the much-vaunted Asian influence on his music is in fact mostly restricted to its instrumentation and his vague impressions of the places he visited. Pulau Dewata for open instrumentation (1977) is a perfect example of a piece that was supposedly inspired by Gamelan but actually bears very little resemblance to its inspiration. Other passages of the book prove more problematic but also more intriguing. Gilmore admits that writing a biography of someone who hailed from the era of the telephone proved to be quite difficult since the contents of most of Vivier’s interactions were ephemeral and the memory of those who knew him fallible. In order to fill these gaps, Gilmore relies on anecdotes by Vivier’s friends, which are usually vague but often quite entertaining, as well as speculation, which is usually well-justified. Speculation on some of these matters can be seen as appropriate, in fact, since Vivier himself cultivated many personal mythologies which complicate attempts to narrate his life. Vivier often imagined his birth parents to be Eastern European (or even Jewish), something that proved very influential on his autobiographical pieces, furthering his fixation on loneliness and personal mythology.

Finally, other aspects of Vivier’s life defy definitive interpretation or any sort of clear speculation, and the contradictions and myths must be presented as-is. For instance, his sexuality was somewhat complex: it is well-known that he was gay, but Gilmore brings up the oft-forgotten fact that Vivier engaged in at least sexual relationships with women throughout his entire life. When Vivier’s friend Rober Racine brought up the possibility of writing a book on Vivier, his would-be subject told him “You have to say I love women!” (p. 187). And of course his death is particularly divisive: a myth has arisen that he was stabbed in the Paris subway, but this is in fact an event from the story of his final work (Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele for voices and ensemble); in reality he was killed in his apartment by a lover, though contemporary sources and the recollection of his friends do not always agree on whether he was stabbed or strangled or both. At least one source claims that his death was in fact an erotic accident and not murder (though this is not given much credence by Gilmore). Gilmore also raises doubt as to whether Vivier’s last composition was unfinished at the time of his death (as most sources state): “it is hard to imagine what could have come after the chilling ending.” (p. 279) The most controversial of Gilmore’s assertions is that Vivier’s lifelong preoccupation with mortality and his fascination with eroticized violence in his later years did not ultimately lead to his death. The fact that Vivier was stabbed with a pair of scissors and robbed by an opportunistic man posing as a one night stand only weeks before his death led may of his friends to the conclusion that he must have been seeking out the kind of dangerous situation that ultimately killed him. Gilmore writes that these trends are counterbalanced by Vivier’s equally strong fixation on love and redemption, which should preclude suicide, though he ultimately states that this is merely his opinion and the decision ultimately rests with the reader.

Gilmore makes it quite clear that this book is both a biography and a companion to Vivier’s compositions. He provides concise and effective analyses of many of Vivier’s works, presented in such a way as to be relatively understandable to the layperson. He clearly explains such aspects as the influence of Stockhausen’s works from the 1960s and early 70s (such as Mantra) on many of Vivier’s pieces from the 1970s, especially Learning for four violins and percussion and Siddhartha for orchestra (both 1976), which are constructed from long melodies, and the nascent Spectralist movement’s influence on his late works, particularly in his use of ring modulation in Lonely Child. The one area where any analysis fails is in the text of many of Vivier’s vocal works: though some of it can be written off as mere exoticism (the quasi-Asiatic text in Bouchara for soprano and ensemble), much of Vivier’s use of invented language is still nearly impenetrable despite Gilmore’s elucidations. The opera Kopernikus, Vivier’s largest-scale completed work, in which the historical Copernicus plays only a small part among a cast of various historical and fictional characters (including Mozart, with the lead character being Agni, the Hindu god of fire), proves to be so idiosyncratic as to be almost entirely inscrutable. Gilmore does an admirable job connecting it to such precursors as the works of Lewis Carroll and The Magic Flute, but ultimately its intended meaning may be unknowable to any but Vivier.

Given these analytical gaps and the non-specialist level of the analyses of Vivier’s works, there is still plenty of work to be done in order to understand Vivier’s oeuvre. That being said, it is hard to imagine an English-language biography that could be more definitive than Gilmore’s book. In tandem with Vivier’s collected writings, which are published in the journal Circuit (and will hopefully be translated into English at some point), it makes a fine starting point for the student of Vivier’s life and work, which had seen a paucity of English-language scholarly attention until now.

Postscript to Rzewski

Many years ago, I met a very young pianist, Frederik [sic] Rzewski, and he said with the peace of mind available, he said, “You know that canon for two pianos?” Canon, me, my canon? Oh yes, that free-durational piece. It was a canon, I suppose. To tell you the truth, if I’d thought it was a canon, it would have caused me to commit suicide.

Morton Feldman, “Darmstadt-Lecture” from Essays

Rzewski: Radical Conservative?

A few weeks ago, Frederic Rzewski wrote a comment (posted by pianist Eliane Lust) on the New Yorker article “The Fat Lady Is still Singing: Why Classical Music Isn’t Really Dead.”  I’ve taken the liberty of copying the text here:

“Why is there no similar discussion of painting, literature, cinema?  Painting really is dying, while literature and cinema are thriving. Music is somewhere in between.  The level of creativity has clearly gone down in the last 50 years, while the level of performance has gone up (especially in the case of the piano, btw).  At the same time composers who know nothing about counterpoint are becoming popstars.  There is a problem, but nobody really understands it very well.  It’s complex, it has causes, like the monopolization of the music industrty [sic], but to talk about it in terms of life or death is meaningless.

Shostakovich was probably the last great classical composer.  Stockhausen was good, but not as good as Richard Strauss.  There have been some very good composers since WW2, like Kurtag and Elliott Carter, but none of them has captured the imagination of a broad public.  What has captured this imagination (and the industrially-created market for “classical contemporary”) are people like Steve Reich, who, although very skillful at what he does, can in no way be compared (as a composer in the traditional sense) with someone like Carter.  The art of composition is in trouble.  At the same time the many groups who are playing this music are playing better than ever.  It’s not easy to understand, and merits serious discussion, not this rhetorical blahblah from superficial journalists who are rushing to the attack on or defense of one élite or another (institutional or industrial).

What is needed are composers who can really speak to the masses, and at the same time have something to say (as neither the minimalists nor the academics do not)y, who can lead the way in revivifying the art.  Shostakovich knew this very well, and succeeded.  Copland and Britten tried, but they just weren’t that good. Probably the most important American composers in this respect were Gershwin and Ellington, but they are excluded from the classical pantheon.

But probably the most important thing that could be done would be to bring back things like local community concerts, like the ones my mother used to take me to in the 40’s. at our high school auditorium in Westfield, Mass.  That’s how I became a musician.” FR 1/30/14

I agree with his ultimate message that composition needs more exposure in order to thrive, particularly through amateur and community means, but he makes a number of uncomfortable implications in some of his points. I am not in a position to defend painting, but from my perspective, the situation with composition is much more nuanced than what he posits. I do not particularly want to add to the vast quantities of ink (mostly digital) spilled on the topic of whether or not classical music is dying; I merely want to address some of the philosophical and compositional issues he raises, namely the supposed decline in creativity of classical music over the past fifty years and his implicit aesthetic criteria for what makes a composer ‘great’.

The first problematic assertion Rzewski makes is that the level of creativity in music has gone down in the past fifty years. Classical composition in the last fifty years has seen an extraordinary explosion of creativity in all styles, in every region where it is active. To provide a comprehensive list of the accomplishments of that time period would not only be impossible, but also futile, since Rzewski has clearly already made up his mind on the matter. It is literally impossible that he is not familiar with the music of the period, since he has not only been composing the vast bulk of his output during this time, but he has also, in his role as a consummate pianist, been performing and recording the works of such composers as Henri Pousseur. I believe that his opinion must be coloured by certain factors that mask the true situation of composition today: the decline and replacement of classical music in the public consciousness, the growth of aesthetic individualism over collectivism, and the continued polarization of musicologists and critics. These are the factors that have clouded the public’s view of composers at work, and are nearly the only reasons why any open-minded person could believe what Rzewski claims.

The notion of classical music’s fall from the public consciousness is indispensable to this conversation, not only because it inspired Rzewski’s comment (and all of the articles that constitute the discourse into which his comment falls), but also because it explains a core circularity in his argument. If it was his intent to claim that the decline in creativity is what caused classical music’s withdrawal from the public eye, I would argue that not only is that assertion untrue, but in fact it has been the decline in stature of the art form that has made it more difficult to learn about and assess the work of recent composers, giving rise to his notion of a supposed decline in creativity. The notion that classical music should be relevant at all to the public at large is fairly new. For the first thousand or so years of its existence it was entirely sponsored by the powers that be for the elite, first the church and then the aristocracy. It was only in the late 18th century that public concerts and subscription series of instrumental music first came into being. Notable early examples include the concerts featuring Haydn’s symphonies organized by Salomon in London. The rise of the virtuoso with Paganini and Liszt created the solo recital and performer-as-celebrity, which cemented classical music’s place as a popular art form. By the early 20th century, developments in classical music such the premieres of the Rite of Spring and Berg’s Altenberg Lieder had the power to shock the public at large because they were representatives (albeit extreme ones) of the dominant form of music in the Western world. Whatever the reasons cited by all the articles that have cropped up as late, the causes of classical music’s decline from favour were the advent of recording, which allowed people to constantly revisit the same works over and over, removing a great deal of financial incentive for new pieces, and the advent of popular music, which replaced classical music in most of its functional and commercial uses. In the United States, classical music managed to retain its cachet for a few decades by an appeal to the “refined” tastes of its listeners (see this wonderful image from a 1949 issue of Life) and from an increase in funding in the form of Cold War rivalry with the USSR.  This cachet was mostly gone by the end of the 1960s however, and new developments since then have not been widely publicized, though anyone truly familiar with them would assert that this period has been just as creative as any from the previous 150 years.

My second contention is that the fragmentation of the compositional landscape over the past fifty years has further reduced the stature of the creative endeavours of composers working today. In the early and mid 20th century, compositional movements such as neoclassicism and serialism, though they were largely developed by individuals, attracted many adherents. Even if an individual composer or work escaped the public notice, often many of their ideas were taken up by others to the extent that one could generalize schools of thought in the public discourse. This tribalism was ultimate damaging, as I will discuss below, but the controversies it generated were enough to at least bring the existence of various groups of modern composers into the public eye. There certainly have also been relatively prominent compositional movements in the past fifty years, beginning with Minimalism in the late 1960s, through Spectralism in the late 1970s, but their effect has been much smaller (except, in Minimalism’s case, commercially), and they are often limited geographically and institutionally. The postmodern notion of an end to Grand Narratives (in a Lyotardian sense) was readily embraced by composers (even many who don’t write in a so-called postmodern idiom) and the compositional field today is extremely wide and fecund, but the composers writing outside the large movements are often overlooked by both the press and the academy.

Wide-scale academic and critical discourse on music, however, has been largely unaffected by these notions. In “New Music and the Modernist Legacy,” Björn Heile writes: “Indeed, it is hard to dispel the suspicion that for many musicologists the attraction of postmodernism lay primarily in its seeming to offer an intellectual cover for anti-modernist sentiment: all of a sudden the familiar, basically conservative, resentment against modernism sounded fashionable, up to date and even ideologically progressive.” (The Modernist Legacy: Essays on New Music, Björn Heile (ed.), p. 1) This has been particularly the case with Richard Taruskin, whose History of Western Music is plagued with issues that have been addressed at considerable length by cellist, composer and scholar Franklin Cox here and here. In brief, Taruskin uses the postmodern notion of an ‘end to Grand Narratives and the teleological notion of history’ to attempt to show an inevitable return to tonality (a teleologically-bent Grand Narrative if ever there was one). On the other side of things, Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf’s essays in his series New Music and Aesthetics in the 21st Century are marked not only by inordinately dense language, but also by his own brand of dogma:

Counter-polyphonic stances—whether conceived as aleatory, “tachistic” (Cage), as a negational combination of consciously irreconcilable elements founded on “polystylistic semantics” (Bernd Alois Zimmermann), as a statistical-stochastic leveling-out of dissociations to produce mass phenomena without internal functional relationships (Xenakis)—lead to the consciously random co-existence of materials, precisely because they neutralize all differences and shift the focus of the listening experience from the directness of the diagonal level to the “bird’s eye view” of the exterior, be it “harmonically” framed or simply uncrafted.

Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, “Theory of Polyphony” (trans. Wieland Hoban) in Polyphony and Complexity (New Music and Aesthetics in the 21st Century Vol. 1), Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, Frank Cox and Wolfram Schurig (eds.), pp. 45-6

To my surprise, those of my friends that have met him say that Mahnkopf is actually a very reasonable man in person, and is only so polemical in text because the ‘other side’ is equally so, and has the added advantage of accessibility. This sense of opposition, though not widely accepted by many composers, has been used constantly by conservative forces in the media and the academy, especially citing the perennial myth of serialism as an all-powerful force in mid-century American music, which was thoroughly debunked in a 1999 article by Joseph Straus. The continued usage of this trope serves to prolong the dominance of the narrow aesthetic position that supposedly rose in spite of serial oppression, while repressing the work of more radical composers.

“Shostakovich was probably the last great classical composer.” This reminds me of a passage that makes Rzewski’s statements look positively tame by comparison:

Music oscillates continually between the emotion created by its own technique (as by an acrobat at the circus or by the art of a dancer) and the emotion produced by its phrases, its rhythms, motives, colours. The art of music is a “closed” art, that is, one closely bound to its language. Also “closed” is the art of stained glass which, after flourishing in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, fell into decadence in the sixteenth. Similarly “closed” is the art of lace-work, reaching its summit in the eighteenth century, and the art of tapestry, of which the summit is probably the famous story of the unicorn at the Cluny Museum in Paris. This art, seduced by the new multitude of colours, tried, by imitating paintings, to become what it was not, and fell into a decadence which contemporary artists are trying to arrest. Other arts that have shared the same fate are those of the potteries of Limoges and the mosaics of Florence and Palermo.

Of course, Western music with its ten centuries of development is much more universal an art than stained glass or pottery. Our music moved from the monody of plain chant through organum and renaissance polyphony to a high point attained by Frescobaldi, Bach, Vivaldi and Handel. These composers employed consummately and with great liberty a complete polyphony, a wide choice and variety of means, and an even-tempered twelve-note scale which made unlimited modulation possible and revealed the full resources of the orchestra. …

In stating that this “closed” art of seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was based on the “absurd” tempered scale, I am also saying that it contained within itself the germ of its own decay. The masters who enlarged this system of harmony and rhythm searched for purely idiomatic techniques of the voice, violin, or piano, and developed the nineteenth-century orchestra. In reality they were not not employing musical means but rather acoustic effects. Beethoven was the first to seek these effects of silence, percussion, interruptions, unnatural dispositions of the chord, unnatural rhythms. (Maybe it was because he was deaf, but in any case he did it.)

The road has been open since Beethoven for the effects of Liszt and Wagner, where even such great masters are guided not only by what they know how to do but also, as a sort of escape route, by what they are unable to do. When, in a mazurka, Chopin writes two or three bars of counterpoint, he always finds a most ingenious way of getting out of it. Why? Because he was technically incapable of finishing it. Wagner uses harmonic richness to make up for his lack of melodic invention. Wagner used enharmonic notes and modulations as a sort of escape route, and Debussy likewise. Stravinsky rediscovered the ostinato, which has been so abused since, and the jump of a third in the bass, also as an escape route for what he could not do differently. All the innovations since Beethoven have been escapes for the incompetence of the innovators.

The last great composer to avoid this search for musical extremes was Mozart, who had such a complete craft that he could do anything he wanted without feeling deficient. The high point in expressive means obviously was towards the end of the eighteenth century. This noble art descends with the advent of effects which are abused with all the resources of the symphonic orchestra. Therefore, the decadence does not start with the harmonic explorations of Wagner, Strauss, and Scriabin, but rather at the height of music’s glory. Because this art had reached its height a decadence was inevitable—as with any art that is bound closely to its technique.

Zygmunt Mycielski, “Some Other Paths” in The Modern Composer and His World, John Beckwith and Udo Kasemets (eds.), pp. 86-8

There are so many problems with this extended statement that it almost doesn’t need rebuttal, and since Zygmunt Mycielski seems to have been consigned to the ‘dustbin of history’ in that I have never encountered any aspect of his work other than this particular talk which he gave at the International Conference of Composers, 1960, in Stratford, Ontario, so I will pass over it for now. (The entire book is fantastic, and deserves a full review, which I hope to write soon now that the wellspring of my writing has opened in preparation for my thesis.) That being said, this argument has essentially the same structure as the one implied by Rzewski several times in his comment, namely that he selects one or two comparatively minor but ill-defined standards (in Mycielski, counterpoint and the avoidance of “acoustic effects”; in Rzewski “speaking to the masses” and “having something to say”) as marking the pinnacle of music, while any developments after that point mark the inexorable decline of the art form. While Mycielski’s argument is obviously more ridiculous, and Rzewski’s is more forgivable, being merely an offhand statement in a comment on a news article (even if his standards are even more poorly defined), the similarity remains. There is another hint of implication in Rzewski’s statement that “composers who know nothing about counterpoint are becoming popstars.” I assume he is talking about the minimalists, and do not necessarily like much of their music either, but it raises a larger question about how to judge musical worth at all, which he does not bring up at all in his comment (despite making many judgments). If music is allowed to evolve and develop new paradigms, or if one sees these developments as a new art form altogether, it cannot be judged exclusively on standards from an earlier era either way. Rzewski’s alternative is that it should stay frozen in time, adhering to idealized standards of his own choosing.

The final issue raised in this comment is partially mentioned by Mycielski when he states that music “contained within itself the germ of its own decay.” While Mycielski attributes that fact to the rise of well-tempered tuning,  Christopher Butterfield attributes it to the very origins of notation. Whatever the cause, the consensus is clear that the very art of music is constantly in flux. Rzewski, however, both brings this notion into question and contradicts himself when he first compares Richard Strauss and Stockhausen (using the completely unexamined notion of “good”) and then claims that Elliott Carter cannot be compared with Steve Reich. He seems to be confused as to whether classical music is an evolving tradition or if there has been some irreparable rift in its fabric. Can one compare composers across huge historical, ideological and conceptual divides? Rzewski says yes in regards to Strauss and Stockhausen. Can one compare composers who were working in the same country for nearly 50 years but who had different structural roles in the commercial aspect of music? No, in regards to Carter and Reich.  This seems to show that Rzewski’s critique is mostly economic, and, to be fair, the structural issues facing classical music that he is supposedly addressing in his comment are mostly economic in nature.  Why then does he spend so much time attempting and failing to address unrelated artistic and creative issues?

Rzewski states that the structural issues facing classical music “merit serious discussion,” which they certainly do. Why then does end up resorting to the same “rhetorical blahblah” that he attacks?  Why was Shostakovich so “good” and why were Copland and Britten “bad?” I like a great deal of his music and agree with him in principle on the fundamental issues he brings up as to classical music’s place in the public consciousness, but the unjustified creative comments he makes are ultimately damaging to the cause (which was the entire purpose of the New Yorker article in the first place!). Has Rzewski really come so far from his days as a radical provocateur in the 1960s and 70s as to be just another curmudgeon decrying ‘music these days’? I hope not.