[This piece is an expanded set of program notes for the April 28, 2017 joint concert of the DePaul Concert Orchestra and Ensemble 20+]
Jean-Féry Rebel (1666-1747): “Le Cahos” from Les Elemens (1737) (DePaul Concert Orchestra)
John Cage (1912-1992): Atlas Eclipticalis (1964) (Ensemble 20+)
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809): Introduction ("The Representation of Chaos") to The Creation (1798) (DPCO)
Peter Ablinger (b. 1959): Three Minutes for Orchestra (2003) (DPCO)
* Intermission *
Peter Ablinger (b. 1959): Three Minutes for Orchestra (2003) (DPCO) (repeat performance)
Charles Ives (1874-1954): Scherzo: Over The Pavements (1906/1913) (Ensemble 20+)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Symphony No. 3, Eroica (1806) (DPCO)
I. Allegro con brio
Among the oldest aesthetic and theoretical concerns in the field of music is the attempt to create a clear sense of just what is music and just what it is not—where noise starts and where it ends. Given that this has persisted, explicitly or implicitly, for centuries, our current project is not to attempt yet another insufficient and unsatisfying answer; rather, it is to examine how this question has ramified in music of the distant and recent past, and how we hear answers to those questions today. And it is far from an empty theoretical exercise. We can experience, in each work presented on this program, composers experimenting with the limits of the musical vocabulary of their culture, pushing or breaking or ignoring boundaries, and generally struggling with material they exert only varying levels of control over.
Jean-Féry Rebel was hardly a revolutionary firebrand. His was a successful career as, among other things, a violinist and the court composer to Louis XIV; he was 71 years old in 1737 when he wrote his ballet Les Elemens, which, in spite of his background as a force of establishment and tradition, contains some of the most untamed music of the 18th century. Wrote Rebel:
The introduction to this work is Chaos itself; that confusion which reigned among the Elements before the moment when, subject to immutable laws, they assumed their prescribed places within the natural order. This initial idea led me somewhat further. I have dared to link the idea of the confusion of the Elements with that of confusion in Harmony. I have risked opening with all the notes sounding together, or rather, all the notes in an octave played as a single sound. To designate, in this confusion, each particular element, I have availed myself of some widely accepted conventions. The bass expresses Earth by tied notes which are played jerkily. The flutes, with their rising and falling line, imitate the flow and murmur of Water. Air is depicted by pauses followed by cadenzas on the small flutes, and finally the violins, with their liveliness and brilliance represent the activity of Fire. These characteristics may be recognized, separate or intermingled, in whole or in part, in the diverse reprises that I have called Chaos, and which mark the efforts of the Elements to get free of each other.
John Cage, two centuries later, had rather different ideas about chaos, though perhaps it behooves us to use his terms, “chance” and “indeterminacy”, and to take his various statements on these subjects at face value:
My intention is to let things be themselves.[...]
[Indeterminacy is] the ability of a piece to be performed in substantially different ways[....]
[Music is] an affirmation of life—not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we're living.
Atlas Eclipticalis, an indeterminate work, was composed by Cage using the “Atlas Eclipticalis 1950.0” (a 1958 atlas of the stars made by Czech astronomer Antonín Becvár). Cage took the star charts and superimposed over them musical staves to generate notation; thus he completely removes any of his own taste or volition from the compositional process. A complex of permissive and sometimes not-completely-clear instructions govern its execution, thus making it both indeterminate in its composition and its performance. It may be played in whole or in part by any number of players, up to a full orchestra. It may be played simultaneously with Winter Music, for one to 20 pianists (which it is tonight), or with Song Books. Most provocatively, Cage writes that “a performance may be at any point between minimum activity (silence) and maximum activity (what’s written).”
Cage wrote, in his essay Music as Process: II. Indeterminacy, the following:
One evening Morton Feldman said that when he composed he was dead; this recalls to me the statement of my father, an inventor, who says he does his best work when he is sound asleep. The two suggest the "deep sleep" of Indian mental practice. The ego no longer blocks action. A fluency obtains which is characteristic of nature. The seasons make the round of spring, summer, fall, and winter, interpreted in Indian thought as creation, preservation, destruction, and quiescence. Deep sleep is comparable to quiescence. Each spring brings no matter what eventuality. The performer then will act in any way. Whether he does so in an organized way or in any one of the not consciously organized ways cannot be answered until his action is a reality.
This is severely disciplined music that demands from its composer, performers, and listeners complete awareness, total attention to the sound around them, and careful removal of all sorts of agency that interferes with those things. As it turns out "let[ting] things be themselves" is not easy for humans, whose basic modus operandi is to attempt to exert change, in some manner, on the world in which they live.
The introduction (“The Representation of Chaos”) to Joseph Haydn’s Creation (which, though written in 1797-8, became one of the greatest hits of the early 19th century), may seem similar to Jean-Féry Rebel’s work: both are intentionally transgressive of various rules of their respective discourses, and the compositional performance is intended ultimately to reinforce the prevailing social ideologies (as represented in the guise of conventions of tonality, form, and instrumentation). Haydn’s vision, though, is both more raw and more tame at the same time. Its slow and formless meandering, its incorrect execution of common practice harmonic progressions, its stunningly prescient and coloristic orchestration, all paint a sophisticated picture of chaos; its rather ordinary deployment of key areas—based on the the limitations and normal use of the available instruments—show us that the frame of this picture is distinctly that of the late-18th century bourgeoisie.
Austrian composer Peter Ablinger writes [Author’s note: all quotations slightly edited from composer’s website]:
Once—I believe it was 1986, high summer—I came on something remarkable while on a walk through the fields aast of Vienna near the Hungarian border and close to the birthplace of Haydn. The corn stood high and it was just before harvest. The hot summer east wind swept through the fields and suddenly I heard das Rauschen [noise/the sound]. Although it was often explained to me, I can still never say how wheat and rye are different. But I heard the difference. I believe it was the first time I really heard outside an aesthetic circumstance (say, a concert). Something had happened. Before and after were categorically separated, had nothing more to do with each other. At least it appeared to me then that way. In hindsight I recognize/remember other comparable experiences that had to do with a jerking open of perception, but the walk through the corn fields was perhaps the most momentous.
His Drei Minuten für Orchester (Three Minutes for Orchestra) is part of a larger work, Altar, about which the composer writes:
is one piece in three different situations.
The first situation involves so-called "listening columns" in public space where one could take headphones and listen to what (right now) can be heard in the actual situation. The second situation [entitled “Complementary Study”] is an 18 minute long, quite hermetic, noise block including an almost inaudible live cello. The third part is "Three Minutes for Orchestra". It consists of 3 layers: first, ambient street sounds recorded at the exact places where the listening columns were located, secondly, the orchestra part with its parallel analysis of the frequencies of these street sounds, and an additional piano part which is just an ascending scale.
All 3 pieces are presenting the same 3 situations in different medias. Therefore the piece is also about different possibilities of (artistic) representation.
The "Three Minutes for Orchestra" also uses sound that was previously recorded on the the “listening columns” in the city center. The piece is divided into three parts, each of which is symmetrically arranged around the 40-second playback of a "listening column" recording: the piano begins, the orchestra begins, the sound recording plays, end of the orchestra part, end of the piano part.[...] The orchestra plays an acoustic analysis of the recorded sound landscape at a resolution of 2.5 seconds (which corresponds to a sampling rate of 0.4 Hz). The piano moves slowly in every part, similar to the cello in the "Complementary Study" of Altar, through its frequency range. The orchestra, like the piano, uses only the seven notes: C, D, E quarter-tone flat, F, G, A quarter-tone flat, B-flat. The orchestra "accompanies" the city sounds of the CD, not vice versa.
Charles Ives, professional insurance salesman and amateur composer, lived in a basement apartment (“poverty flat” as Ives and his roommate called it) in Central Park West in the opening years of the 20th century, while working for Mutual Insurance Company in New York City. From the window he observed people going by “in all different steps” about which he said, “I was struck with how many different and changing kinds of beats, times, rhythms, etc., went on together—but quite naturally.” His Scherzo: Over the Pavements is the result of these listening experiences; a “kind of take-off of street dancing,” it is initially straightforward but develops into a chaotic series of independent streams and styles, all woven together into one work. A ragtime section bookends a fiendish piano cadenza (on the one hand, “As Fast As Possible” but, apologetically, “to play or not to play”) as well as a concatenation of a brass march and a woodwind dance.
Finally, Beethoven’s Eroica symphony, noise on a grand scale, and writ on a multiple levels. Try as we might, it would be simply impossible for an audience of 2017 to recover the feeling of upheaval caused by the political, social, and intellectual revolutions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. One can study the history of, and thought behind, the art and politics of the time. But fundamentally, we are unable to experience the extent to which the sweeping away of the ancien regime in France changed people’s perception of life itself, and the medium via which it is lived, time. As musicologist Reinhold Brinkmann has written: “The most overwhelming effect the Revolution had on its contemporaries was indeed an entirely new mode of experiencing time.” This experience was based on the recognition that far-reaching and profound social changes were taking place, changes as extraordinary in speed as they were unforeseen. Contemporaries noted the tempo of change, the acceleration in the passage of time itself, and “contemporaneity of the non-contemporary” the latter a result of differing levels of acceleration in disparate fields. The Eroica symphony is time-capsule of this feeling, a representation of literal and historical and psychological noise.
The work opens with two bracing, aggressive chords, in media res interruptions of whatever is happening previously. (These chords have been so much the obsession of culture and the collective unconscious that there exists a youtube video of nothing but a series of chronologically progressive recordings of these two chords). They are followed immediately by what can only generously be called a "theme" in the cellos whose stable E-flat major triad is immediately belied by a harmonically ambiguous C-sharp. The subsequent music is a breathless hodge-podge, a frantic exposition of thematic fragments, sudden dynamic changes, shifts of the perceived meter, strange accents, and eventually, a sort of orchestral record-skipping—getting stuck on a single chord that, while recalling the opening, defies other aspects of the musical logic of Beethoven’s culture. The key of B-flat major is eventually achieved, but the exposition is repeated with a jarring move back to E-flat.
The long development section goes further. Sforzandos, unlocalizable disruptions of consciousness, ring out unpredictably. There is a short fugato. Strife returns, intensified. Diminished chords create harmonic uncertainty. Hemiolas create a the tension between the triple meter printed and a clearly audible duple. The tension becomes unbearable on a chord that is aggressively confrontational in its dissonance, and the music collapses onto the heavy strings. A mournful theme emerges in the oboes—the first real melody of the movement, and, though motivically related to the opening, new. In a truly unusual formal move, it lends all the more emotional weight to the moment, and serves as a sort of "N.B." that tells us what we already knew: this is not a normal, well-behaved sonata form. The music dwindles to near inactivity. The second horn stumbles in obliviously to catalyze a change. (Famously, even Beethoven's student Ferdinand Ries thought it was a mistake during the first rehearsal-performance; the none-too-pleased composer struck him on the ear—a curious sort of noise, indeed. But let us notice that it perfectly captures, in a single gesture, Beethoven’s entire project, and the aim of this concert: to hit the sense of hearing, to wake it up, to make it reconsider what it previously understood to be wrong.) While the long recapitulation basically follows the exposition’s patterns, it ends without having achieved a definitive, unambiguous version of the opening theme. The post-formal coda finally offers a provisional completion—heroically in the first horn, then in the first violins accompanied by a horn chorale in canon, and eventually triumphant with trumpets. But the more we hear it, the more cyclical and sing-songy it seems. The completion is an illusion. Make no mistake: the ever-changing nature of this music reveals it to be a fragment of revolution—theme as enigma, sonata form as agent of change, music as noise, symphony as Hegelian “becoming” rather than Aristotelian “being.” Maintaining appearances, though, the opening two chords, now rounded out with a third—heroic, enlightened, positivistic—return to end the movement.
But that’s not where the symphony ends; and even though the concert is over, its work is no less incomplete. Let us close with a passage from an interview with composer, improvisor, computer musician, scholar George Lewis, quoted in in Aaron Cassidy and Aaron Einbond’s Noise In And As Music:
[I]n his 1999 book Culture on the Margins, historian Jon Cruz points out, the trickster function of noise as “sound out of order. It evades, eludes, spills out of, or flows over, the preferred channels—out of place, resistant to capture.” In that sense, the pretense to control becomes exposed as quixotic; noise and noises routinely overflow the banks of propriety, resisting and unleashing. People hear the sound and say, “no one told me it could be like that; I wonder what else they haven’t told me.” Or they say, “wow, that music is really different”; once they start down that road, thoughts inevitably turn to what else might need to be different.
So when we want change, in the memorable phrase of the rap group Public Enemy, we “bring the noise”—in Egypt, Tunisia, Montreal, or elsewhere. The improvised, spontaneous, seemingly leaderless nature of these and other protests reminds us of the primary remit of new music and new noises: to declare that change is possible.