Month: July 2008

Magna Carter (3): The stuff that dreams are made of

But probably the music had more to do with it, and
The way music passes, emblematic
Of life and how you cannot isolate a note of it
And say it is good or bad.

—John Ashbery, “Syringa”

Monday’s concerts for this year’s all-Elliott-Carter all-the-time Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood began with the absence of James Levine, still recuperating from kidney surgery; stepping in to play Matribute, a short piece Levine commissioned from Carter in 2007 as a birthday gift for Levine’s mother, pianist Ursula Oppens took a moment to send best wishes to Levine and remind the audience of the circumstances of the piece’s birth. Beginning with a void seems like the sort of philosophical game Carter would appreciate and appropriate; but Matribute itself was a sort of two-part invention with occasional chordal privileges, the individual voices—one fast, one slow—not imitating each other, but rather at key points dovetailing into a single flourish. The piece is characteristic of Carter’s solo piano writing over the past decade or so, concentrating on brief evocative miniatures rather than major statements. (Although given the man’s pace of output, that generalization may be obsolete by the time you finish this sentence.)

It was an elegant though somewhat incongruous prelude to the day’s music, which elsewhere often evinced a grittier cast. The whole of the 5:00 concert was given over to the piano. Charles Rosen performed Carter’s 1946 Piano Sonata, in which the open-prairie perfect-interval sound of contemporary American modernism is, in many ways, both romanticized and reimagined through an urban prism. Ravel and Ives are common reference points for the Sonata, but Franz Liszt might make a viable claim, right down to the second-movement fugue that echoes the B minor Sonata—nevertheless, the intricacy of the writing is a vehicle for bringing the piano into the present, not modernism overlaid with old-school virtuosity, but modernism through virtuosity: you can hear how Carter’s scurrying density grows out of his style of counterpoint, rather than just being an added textural element. The combination of lush texture and chromatic rigor produces a tough Romanticism reminiscent of film noir. Rosen’s wasn’t always the most note-perfect performance, but who cares? He’s earned that slack. His phrasing and tone was exactly right, redolent with streetwise grandeur.

Oppens followed with 1980’s Night Fantasies, in an amazing, blazing display of keyboard prowess—and both music and subject matter would echo through much of the subsequent evening. I once saw a television program where Harold “Doc” Edgerton, the high-speed photography pioneer, did a neat trick with an open faucet and a strobe light: he pointed the strobe at the stream of water, and when he turned it on, the stream seemed to “freeze” into its consituent individual droplets. Adjusting the rate of the strobe, the droplets could be made to appear to descend or ascend at varying rates. That’s kind of like what Night Fantasies does: the torrent of notes may suddenly turn into a passage of oracular chords, or sparse gestures, but you never escape the sense that the flow of the music is still hurtling forward.

The recognition of pianistic flow as just individual notes is one of the keys to Carter’s piano writing. So much Classical and Romantic piano music requires the complicit illusion that the immediately-decaying piano tone isn’t decaying at all, that the sounds are actually connected via a viable legato. As listeners, we’re conditioned to suspend our disbelief in that regard; Carter will have none of it. His piano notes explicitly decay; if he wants to sustain a phrase or gesture, he’ll fill it in with more notes, more attacks. It’s a matter of principle: you don’t write for what you wish the piano could do, you write for what the piano actually does.

That kind of sonic realism carried over into the 8:00 program, which was evenly divided between vocal and instrumental chamber works. The Triple Duo, from 1983, seems to refashion the battlefields of Carter’s 1960s music (the Double Concerto, or, especially, the Piano Concerto) into a more ritualized, civilized-veneer game. Throughout the opening, the instruments offer variations on a gesture, a flourish that ends with an accented jab—the effect is like fencers jockeying for position. The play of allegiances and conflict is just that: play, a civilized, rule-based simulacrum of combat. Eventually, though, the piano is lobbing low-cluster grenades, the motives become wide-ranging jousts, the jabs are less tentative. The return of the initial rhetoric is a bit more sardonically wise about the stakes involved in even the most formalized contests. Stefan Asbury conducted a performance that emphasized the allusive seriousness in a piece that could be played for sparkling humor; what humor there was in this reading was subtle and dark.

Penthode, which closed the concert, is a different kind of dark, a dim, old-varnish landscape. Composed in 1985 “for five groups of four instruments”—a rationally-organized league—it seems to regard the sudden, nocturnal danger of Night Fantasies from a more objective distance. The low components of each group (bassoon, bass/contrabass clarinet, tuba, double bass, trombone) are almost always present; the ombrous colors and more diffuse orchestration reduce extremes of exuberance or violence. Even the most loud and active sections have that mid- and low-range foundation, giving the complex surface a grounded feeling: the piece is at home in the shadows. Asbury conducted again, keeping a cool edge amidst the velvety timbres.

Apart from the brief Matribute, the only recent music on the day’s concerts was Tempo e Tempi, written in 1999. It’s a pocket cantata about time itself, but time of day figures in many of the Italian poems—Montale, Quasimodo, Ungaretti—that Carter sets. Night creates its own time, its own flow of time—”time to which my pulse beats as I would, ” as Ungaretti puts it in the final song, “Segreto del poeta.” “In me the evening is falling,” Quasimodo writes in “Òboe sommerso”; the days become “maceria,” which could mean both rubble and a wall built from it, the abrading limits of diurnal structure. The four instruments—violin, cello, oboe, and clarinet—are more reserved than one might expect from the intersection of Carter and his favorite subject matter, but, like a laconic detective, the music gives the impression of knowing more than it lets on, the understated flipside to the free-flowing confessional of Night Fantasies. Three of the songs reduce the accompaniment to a single instrument (oboe, clarinet, and cello in turn); within the context, the silence of the others is equally eloquent. Lucy Shelton was the soprano, singing with a text-driven timbral variety that ran the gamut from whispered Sprechstimme to soaring verismo; Christoph Altstaedt conducted. That final song ends at dawn, with the word luce—Carter underlines it with a straight-up, deep-voiced major triad. Is it hopeful? Falsely hopeful? Ironic? It’s whatever you want it to be.

On the other hand, even being itself is not the anchor we would like it to be, which is one of the factors behind Syringa, composed in 1978 (a 70th birthday piece from Carter). Syringa might be the most conceptually dense thing Carter has ever written, which is saying something; it’s a fiendishly difficult piece to get a handle on, but then again, it’s a piece specifically about the impossibility of really getting a handle on anything. It conjures the Orpheus legend from myriad oblique angles—the long, elusive Ashbery poem the mezzo-soprano sings (Kristen Hoff, showing a clear-stream tone and superb diction) gives snapshots of the story while questioning both its very essence and whether living on in legend is really living at all. “Of course Eurydice vanished into the shade,” he writes, “She would have even if he hadn’t turned around.” By the end, the English text is even questioning its own existence: “And no matter how all this disappeared,/Or got where it was going, it is no longer/Material for a poem.”

Over or beneath or alongside Ashbery’s text—in keeping with the theme, it’s never really clear which—a bass-baritone (Evan Hughes, richly stentorian) complicates things further with commentary from ancient Greek sources, sung in ancient Greek, or at least what we think ancient Greek sounded like. “There can be nothing unexpected, nothing impossible,” he proclaims, but the piece demonstrates that, far from a concrete rationality, it’s that there is nothing that can be fully and completely described in any fashion.

The ensemble has noticeable lacunae—alto flute but no flute, trombone but no trumpet. A guitar provides stop-and-go bardic accompaniment to the baritone, but elsewhere seems detached from the rest of the group. The counterpoint and textures never crystallize; the piece is a fugue in the literal sense, constantly fleeing. The vocal lines, by contrast, are natural and clear, mostly syllabic for the English, judiciously expressive, but that only heightens the textual slipperiness, the contradictions and false starts. The piece expresses the impossibility of fully nailing down any aspect of experience—and it’s a piece fully aware of its own inclusion in that category. The largest musical climaxes, in fact, come not where the singers seem to be closing in on their goal of understanding, but where they break off the effort. Asbury again conducted, keeping each layer alive, avoiding the temptation to simplify the perception of the score with excessive highlighting.

If Carter’s piano writing is concerned with how the piano actually sounds instead of how we might like to believe it sounds, Syringa generalizes that theory of perceptual relativity: what we might like to believe about anything is just an approximation of varying honesty. Syringa is out to make philosophical trouble: it takes our habit of attempting to make sense of the world and continually, provocatively frustrates it. Most of Carter’s music is more “accessible” than it’s casually given credit for, but Syringa is, without a doubt, a hard case. To enjoy it, you have to be the sort of person that enjoys the experience of profound conceptual uncertainty, who likes having their reason tested. I must have that kind of personality, because I do enjoy Syringa. To quote an old private eye: I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble.

More reports from the festival:

1: Punctuality
2: Genealogy
4: Identity politics
5: Role modeling
6: This Is Your Life
7: Either/Or
8: You’ve got a head start

Magna Carter (2): Genealogy

Sunday night’s concert for the Festival of Contemporary Music brought the Tanglewood Music Center orchestra to the Ozawa Hall stage for the first of three concerts surveying Elliott Carter’s symphonic works. Carter has always had an unusual relationship with orchestras, I think, because he considers music-making to be an activity of assorted individuals more than that of a monolithic ensemble. For much of his career, orchestral works were few and far between; the recent upturn in his orchestral output has been on the foundation of a series of concerti, two of which occupied the first half of this program.

The first, 2003’s Dialogues for piano and orchestra, was actually the most traditionally concerto-like, in large part because the ensemble’s main gesture of longer, sustained chords corresponds, deliberately or not, to a classically accompanimental pattern. The solo part was taken by Nicolas Hodges, who premiered the piece; the contrast with Charles Rosen’s morning performance in the Double Concerto was fascinating, as both pieces share a similar approach to the keyboard. Hodges was supremely virtuosic, dispatching thorny hedges of passagework, but playing with more of a “new-music” tone—bright, sharp, clear, lightly pedaled—than Rosen’s more lush approach. Hodges’ color gives the illusion of more objectivity, perhaps, which may be why it was easier to hear distant ancestral echoes of earlier pianistic styles in Carter’s writing: a bit of Ives’ “Concord” Sonata here (particularly the “Emerson” and “Hawthorne” movements), a hint of Copland’s Piano Variations there. Dialogues was commissioned by the BBC, a reflection of the European esteem towards Carter that sometimes results in him being characterized as a more “European” composer, but the piece rings with a profoundly reinvented essence of post-Romantic Americana. Conductor Erik Nielsen led a reading marked by a real assurance of instrumental balance, always so key in successful Carter performance.

I heard BSO clarinetist Thomas Martin play Carter’s 1997 Clarinet Concerto at Tanglewood in 1998, and enjoyed it, but hearing him play it again a decade later, I was struck by how much more balletic the piece sounded. Carter’s instrumental writing so consistently pushes the technical envelope that sometimes it can be a while before the music settles into the player’s fingers, and you can hear how idiomatic it really is; in this case, Martin’s playing of the concerto showed ample opportunity for the kind of dancing lilt that’s so often associated with the instrument. Nielsen again conducted a vibrant reading that made me think this might be an ideal piece for a Carter newbie: there’s enough of the “old” Carter to maintain a textural connection with the vaunted complexity of earlier works, but the clear delineation of the near-classical six-section structure, both aurally and visually (the soloist moves to a different stage position with each new section) makes it easy to hear what Carter is up to. In addition, the two slow sections contain some of Carter’s most quietly gorgeous music, especially the fourth section, in which another distant echo of Carter’s early Americana manner gradually shifts into more still and haunting territory. (Storms had been rolling in throughout the first half, and during Martin’s peregrinations, lightning began to flash through the windows behind the stage, in appropriately Carterial punctuation.)

After intermission came one of the festival’s two world premieres, Sound Fields for string orchestra. And this one caught everybody off-guard. It’s a short piece, 4-5 minutes (conductor Stefan Asbury and the orchestra performed it twice), in an unvarying slow tempo, composed of a series of sustained, soft, overlapping chords derived from a single top-to-bottom collection, each part playing their own individual note throughout; Carter only deploys the full chord once, about two-thirds of the way through, to ravishing effect, before closing with a pair of intervals that form a near-tonal cadence. The only precursor in Carter’s output would be the klangfarbenmelodie movement in the Eight Etudes for woodwind quintet, but even that doesn’t come close to the atmospheric effect of Sound Fields. It’s in fact uncannily like—to name two composers I never thought I’d use as reference points in a Carter discussion—Morton Feldman or late John Cage, although hearing the piece twice made you realize how much the piece still unfolds in a Carter-like way, albeit in uncharacteristically slow motion.

Asbury then led a spot-on reading of the evening’s “classic” work, the 1955 Variations for Orchestra. With the full string complement remaining on stage, this was certainly the most grand rendition of the Variations I’d ever heard, and also one of the most effortlessly accomplished. Even within the vocabulary of standard mid-century American modernism, Carter’s favorite themes come to the fore—the rhythmic manipulations in the number of measures instead of the number of subdivisions, the instrumental layers by groups rather than individuals. But the interrupted-melody rhetoric that distinguishes the recent solo concerti is already there, as is the big-then-unexpectedly-intimate ending. The group’s sentitivity to shading and phrase made the famed continuous-acceleration variation not just an ingenious technical achievement, but a quantum paradox, inexorably moving away at increasing speed while simultaneously arriving at a state of expectant repose.

More reports from the festival:

1: Punctuality
3: The stuff that dreams are made of
4: Identity politics
5: Role modeling
6: This Is Your Life
7: Either/Or
8: You’ve got a head start

Magna Carter (1): Punctuality

Tanglewood came up with one of its typical mornings for Elliott Carter on Sunday, opening the 2008 Festival of Contemporary Music in a humid, brightly diffused haze. Carter himself opted for brightness, an orange shirt to go with the suspenders that seem to have become as much of a sartorial trademark as Steve Reich’s omnipresent baseball cap.

This year’s festival is, of course, an all-Carter affair, but it’s startling to realize, given the guest of honor’s approaching centennnial, how much the festival is not a conventional retrospective—of the week’s 50-odd pieces, no less than 21 have been composed since 2000. That’s an impressive output for a composer of any age, let alone one about to hit three digits. I will remind everyone that Carter was alive at the time of the monkey-gland fad; maybe he knows something we don’t.

The first piece was one of those recent efforts, the 2003 fanfare Call, in a bright titular wake-up by horn player Michael Winter and trumpeters Brynn Rector and Christopher Coletti. It was a reminder right off the bat of Carter’s ability to turn typically “Carteresque” gestures to varied ends with context and orchestration; here the familiar trope of busy trills, fluttertonguing, and staccato mutterings coalescing into homophonic chords was like a sudden collective memory, a centripetal conversation that comes around to a shared anecdote.

Conductor Leo McFall led a performance of the Asko Concerto (2000) marked by beautifully saturated color. It’s one of a handful of recent Carter works that take the form of mini-orchestra concerti, tutti perorations alternating with often unlikely duos, trios, etc. The instrumental combinations are particularly arresting in this piece: clarinet and double bass harmonics with marimba/harp/piano sparks, cello with bass clarinet, trombone, and pizzicato strings, &c. The performance showed the expressive possibilities that have opened up for Carter’s music as the steady advance of technical proficiency has caught up with his vocabulary: that cello solo, for example (played by Marie-Michel Beauparlant), came off as positively Brahmsian. The piece also showed, in a particularly clear way, the complex relationship between rhythm and pulse and meter in Carter’s music. There was much of his penchant for fast music in slow tempi and slow music in fast tempi, but the fairly constant underlying pulse, even when it was more visible than heard, gave a sense of how much more than just a means of coordination meter is for Carter; it’s the tie that binds, the underlying connection between the instrumental individuals, linking them in common cause no matter how fractious the argument.

Luimen, from 1997, intriguingly combines harp, vibraphone, guitar, mandolin with trumpet and trombone. It’s music of continuous rustling—even the long notes the brass lays down like a foundation are overlaid with buzzing, plucking activity. Christoph Altstaedt conducted; among the players, harpist Megan Levin stood out, making the most of extroverted writing that belies the instrument’s stereotype. The ending is another Carter trademark: a furious climax (in this case, a loud, vibrant trill) seems to bring the music to a close, only to give way to a brief coda of sparse, whispered interjections. Carter adopts a similar pattern often enough that it seems almost like a statement of democratic faith, that the loudest voice doesn’t always, and shouldn’t always, get the last word.

Réflexions (2004), given its American premiere, is another ensemble concerto like Asko, but in this one (an 80th birthday present for Pierre Boulez), Carter gives free rein to his humorous side, and the result is a full-blown Tex Avery cartoon, from the contrabass clarinet solo at the outset, to the hectoring brass, to the stealthy winds, to the kitchen-sink percussion (the piece begins and ends with the bracing rattle of stones—pierre in French, get it?). Carter adjusts the timing of his characteristic brief interjected gestures so that they become comic asides; his standard scorrevole whirls through the ensemble like a chase; even the slow passages are shot through with the anticipation of the next chaotic tumble. Conductor Ryan Wigglesworth kept the proceedings appropriately brash.

Most of the festival programs close with a “classic” Carter work, and this first concert closed with a doozy, 1961’s Double Concerto for piano and harpsichord, each attended by its own ensemble. Oliver Knussen conducted Ursula Oppens at the harpsichord and Charles Rosen, who premiered the piece, at the piano; the performance was technically superb, but also warmer and more expressively confident that the (admittedly few) other renditions I’ve ever heard. Rosen, in particular, has an extraordinarily deep expressive connection to the fiendish piano part, and played with a lovely, limpid touch that brought out the impressionistic aspects of the music, the play of register and voicing. One fun thing I only noticed now is how the harpsichord’s winds (trumpet, trombone, flute) are more “ancient” than the piano’s, which include clarinet and French horn—as if Carter is setting up a contest between eras as much as timbres.

One of the interesting things the program revealed was Carter’s evolving approach to musical punctuation. Punctuation is important in Carter’s music, setting up another layer of marked-off time, somewhere between the the prevailing discourse and the underlying meter—both the Asko Concerto and Réflexions primarily use sharp, staccato chords as punctuation, in orchestrations and voicings that cover wide ranges, but the Double Concerto and even Luimen are more likely to punctuate with overlapped gestures or motives, similar in intent but blurring the temporal edge. The works of the 60s, 70s, and 80s would set up multiple layers of time like orreries, each pace in its own orbital flux, but Carter’s more recent increased textural transparency includes that echo of the steadily ticking second violin of the Second Quartet, but slyly transformed: the milestones may seem regular and objective, but in reality are as subjective a contribution to the discussion as any other feature. Even living by the clock is a matter of flux and folly.

More reports from the festival:

2: Genealogy
3: The stuff that dreams are made of
4: Identity politics
5: Role modeling
6: This Is Your Life
7: Either/Or
8: You’ve got a head start

Brighten the corner where you are

Soho the Dog is embarking on its annual summer hiatus—posts will be spotty at best for the next couple weeks. Try to keep the drama to a minimum while we’re gone, OK? Upon our return, we’ll have interviews, dispatches from exotic locales, and a new quiz.

In the meantime, since part of that hiatus will consist of consultations with Wilson, our Midwest Critic-at-Large, here’s a bit of Chicago history, by one of the all-time great human beings, Jane Addams. Hull House, the first settlement house in America, was founded by Addams and Ellen Gates Starr in 1889, offering education and social assistance to the largely-immigrant working classes of Chicago’s West Side. Part of that education included a music school; in her memoir Twenty Years at Hull-House, Addams offered this report:

From the beginning we had classes in music, and the Hull-House Music School, which is housed in quarters of its own in our quieter court, was opened in 1893. The school is designed to give a thorough musical instruction to a limited number of children. From the first lessons they are taught to compose and to reduce to order the musical suggestions which may come to them, and in this wise the school has sometimes been able to recover the songs of the immigrants through their children. Some of these folk songs have never been committed to paper, but have survived through the centuries because of a touch of undying poetry which the world has always cherished; as in the song of a Russian who is digging a post hole and finds his task dull and difficult until he strikes a stratum of red sand, which in addition to making digging easy, reminds him of the red hair of his sweetheart, and all goes merrily as the song lifts into a joyous melody. I recall again the almost hilarious enjoyment of the adult audience to whom it was sung by the children who had revived it, as well as the more sober appreciation of the hymns taken from the lips of the cantor, whose father before him had officiated in the synagogue.

Some of the pupils in the music school have developed during the years into trained musicians and are supporting themselves in their chosen profession. On the other hand, we constantly see the most promising musical ability extinguished when the young people enter industries which so sap their vitality that they cannot carry on serious study in the scanty hours outside of factory work…. [A] young man whose music-loving family gave him every possible opportunity, and who produced some charming and even joyous songs during the long struggle with tuberculosis which preceded his death, had made a brave beginning, not only as a teacher of music but as a composer. In the little service held at Hull-House in his memory, when the children sang his composition, “How Sweet is the Shepherd’s Sweet Lot,” it was hard to realize that such an interpretive pastoral could have been produced by one whose childhood had been passed in a crowded city quarter.

Even that bitter experience did not prepare us for the sorrowful year when six promising pupils out of a class of fifteen, developed tuberculosis. It required but little penetration to see that during the eight years the class of fifteen school children had come together to the music school, they had approximately an even chance, but as soon as they reached the legal working age only a scanty moiety of those who became self-supporting could endure the strain of long hours and bad air. Thus the average human youth, “With all the sweetness of the common dawn,” is flung into the vortex of industrial life wherein the everyday tragedy escapes us save when one of them becomes conspicuously unfortunate. Twice in one year we were compelled

“To find the inheritance of this poor child
His little kingdom of a forced grave.”

It has been pointed out many times that Art lives by devouring her own offspring and the world has come to justify even that sacrifice, but we are unfortified and unsolaced when we see the children of Art devoured, not by her, but by the uncouth stranger, Modern Industry, who, needlessly ruthless and brutal to her own children, is quickly fatal to the offspring of the gentler mother. And so schools in art for those who go to work at the age when more fortunate young people are still sheltered and educated, constantly epitomize one of the haunting problems of life; why do we permit the waste of this most precious human faculty, this consummate possession of civilization? When we fail to provide the vessel in which it may be treasured, it runs out upon the ground and is irretrievably lost.


From the Mahler-Werfel papers at the University of Pennsylvania: (L to R) Alma Mahler, Don Ameche, Franz Werfel, “unknown man,” and Claudette Colbert, ca. 1943. The “unknown man” looks an awful lot like famous director and communist-hater Sam Wood, which means this was likely taken on the set of the movie Guest Wife. Alma probably got a kick out of that. (Thanks to reader Ben Weiss for the tip. Bonus: Nazi officials cross-dressing with Anna Mahler!)

In other news:

James Levine will miss the rest of the Tanglewood season—including the Carterpalooza—to have a kidney removed.

More get-well cards: Dame Joan Sutherland is recovering in a Swiss hospital after breaking both her legs in a fall.

More opera: that La Scala version of An Inconvenient Truth is set to be directed by none other than William Friedkin.

More critics? The Guardian is sponsoring a Young Critics’ Competition. The question is: who would you really like to see lie about their age and enter?

Proof through the night

Now, I did drink a lot of champagne last night. My lovely wife and I watched The Philadelphia Story, which is a film that lends itself well to excessive consumption of champagne, if only in imitation of the characters. And when we turned off the movie, we flipped over to coverage of Boston’s Independence Day fireworks display. But like I said, I was full of champagne. So I just wanted to make sure: did the canned musical accompaniment to the fireworks really segue from the usual unmitigated country-pop crap to a somewhat clumsy edit of Pavarotti singing “Nessun dorma,” and then to the finale of Mahler 1? And then before the Mahler had died away, Craig Ferguson was making a bathroom joke? Did that really happen? Because that would be kind of weird.

Mahler for the Fourth. Weird.

Categorical denials

Biological taxonomists (yet another career I occasionally cast a wistful eye at) spend their lives trying to draw a bright line between analogy and homology. An analogous variation is one the evolves independently among unrelated species—the example every biology book I have on hand uses is the appearance of wings on birds, bats, and bees, three unrelated species. On the other hand, the fact that Critic-at-Large Moe and I both have two nostrils of sufficient structural similarity points to our common Mammalian ancestor: a homologous variation.

Analogy vs. homology is how biologists draw family trees. Determine that a feature is homologous, and you can pin that species to a branch pretty surely. If it’s an analogous variation, or if you can’t tell which it is, it’s a wild card, basically. If you don’t distinguish between the two, you can come up with some pretty crazy biology pretty quickly—elephants related to goldfish because they both have two eyes, for instance. But if you think about it, when it comes to music, we tend to assume that all variations are homologous.

In part, that’s because it’s a safe bet—homologous variations fairly outnumber analogous variations in the comparatively finite world of music. But even when variations do arise independently—Schoenberg and Rufer both hitting on dodecaphony, for example—we attribute it to something “in the air,” that it was historically time for such a development. It’s hard to disprove that sort of analysis. Sometimes it really is just a case of a common evolutionary goal. But I think that there are also developments that blur the analogy/homology line; I also think there are composers who turn that blur to their advantage.

One of the more interesting musical evolutions is that of ragtime. Classic rag form is rather odd and open-ended:

Key: I V
Theme: A A B B A C C D D

It’s somewhere between the daisy-chain form of a generic Strauss waltz and the refrain-driven form of other 19th-century dances. But where most of those dances would round off the form, bringing back the initial theme and key at the end (like, say, the “Una Schottische”), classic ragtime lops of the refrain at the end, leaving you hanging both tonally and thematically.

You might think that the form evolved that way because the sequence of themes evolved into a cumulative enough progression that the return of the refrain became superfluous. But actually, it was the formal variation that came first. Scott Joplin’s early rags try out all kinds of possibilities, but never fully round the form. “Original Rags” (1899) starts and ends in G major, but arranges its themes A-B-C-A-D-E. “Maple Leaf Rag” (1899) uses the classic A-B-A-C-D form, but puts the final D in the original key, A-flat major. But both display the more interesting feature: the penultimate theme is more brilliant and “final” than the final theme (Joplin even marks the D theme of “Original Rags” double-forte and “Brilliant”). Compare the last two themes of “Maple Leaf Rag”:

The C theme stays high and fully voiced; the D theme descends to the middle of the keyboard and, in the right hand, almost completely avoids octave doubling. That’s a fairly consistent pattern in Joplin’s early output.

But between 1907 and 1909, Joplin writes a whole series of rags—”Gladiolus Rag,” “Pine Apple Rag,” “Fig Leaf Rag,” “Wall Street Rag,” &c.—where he makes the open-ended form a virtue. The D theme of “Gladiolus Rag” is typical:

The final theme now uses the fullest voicing, the widest range, the strongest and most repetitive syncopation, and the most adventurous harmony (both “Gladiolus” and “Pine Apple,” for example, feature prominent shifts to the flatted submediant in their final themes).

Our natural instinct is to analyze that as a homologous variation—Joplin must have got it from somewhere, perhaps the cavatina-cabaletta sequence of Italian opera, or perhaps Rossini overtures, or perhaps similarly obsessive passages in Chopin or Schumann. But the fact that he doesn’t arrive at this stylistic point until he’s been tinkering with the form for a decade or so implies, at least to me, that it was a reaction to the limitations of previously-evolved rag form, not an inspiration from outside—an analogous variation, in other words, not a homologous one. And remember that we’re also hearing the shift in light of ragtime’s transformation into jazz, where such final-theme characteristics do become homologous; the climactic, riff-driven shout choruses of both stride and pre-bop big-band swing can trace their lineage directly to Joplin’s triumphant D themes. (Interestingly, Joplin seemed to abandon classic rag form once he mastered it—the last two rags published in his lifetime, “Scott Joplin’s New Rag” and “Magnetic Rag,” are fully-rounded thematically and tonally.)

One of the reasons Joplin’s rags are considered such paragons of the style is because such analogous features sound homologous—the illusion of idiomatic and organic inevitability within the form is so strong. You could populate an interesting subcategory of composers with a particular flair for that kind of sleight-of-hand. But even within that category there would be variants. Francis Poulenc, for instance, conjures by mixing an analogous vocabulary with a homologous rhetoric. Robert Schumann almost does the exact opposite.

Schumann’s op. 39 Liederkreis, on poems by Eichendorff, seems at times to be a cycle-within-a-cycle, some of the songs commenting on or echoing other songs. The first shift in the cycle comes at the third song, “Waldgespräch”; the first two songs have set place and mood, but all of a sudden, the singer is telling a fairy tale about the witch Loreley, luring a traveler to her castle. The melody ends with a cadential figure, sol-do-mi-re-do:

The key relationships in “Waldgespräch” recall those in the first song in the cycle; likewise, the key relationships in the fourth song, “Die Stille,” recall those of the second. “Die Stille” end with the same cadential figure as “Waldgespräch”:

The eighth and ninth songs in the cycle are another reminiscent pair, with harmonic and motivic connections to the sixth and seventh songs, respectively. (In addition, there’s a strong literary echo of the seventh song, “Auf einer Burg,” in the eighth, “In der Fremde.”) “In der Fremde” brings the cadential figure back:

The ninth song, “Wehmuth” (which brings us back to the E-major tonality of “Waldgespräch”) ends with a variant of it:

It might seem like a stretch to say that Schumann intends to link these four songs (possibly along with another, “Mondnacht,” which ends somewhat similarly) merely through this stock cadential figure. But here’s the thing: that figure turns up nowhere else in Schumann’s song output. This is one of the keys to Schumann’s ability to deploy the analogous as homologous: his unifying motives are often so, well, obvious that you barely notice them. And yet here, they signal the boundaries of a sophisticated, experimental embedded narrative in the style of Schumann’s literary hero Jean-Paul Richter. (Which would explain the inverted character of the cadence in the ninth song, the singer emerging blinking from fantasy into reality.) The vocabulary is homologous, but it’s treated in a highly analogous way.

Given the often-indistinguishable visceral audience reactions to both extreme serialism and extreme minimalism, I think you might be able to make a case that the big shift in mid-20th-century experimental music was not so much a matter of vocabulary, but that composers no longer felt the need to try and massage the analogy/homology divide. Take for instance, the difference between Philip Glass and John Adams: where Adams, with his hints towards jazz and Impressionism, is deliberately asserting a taxonomic relationship with various established genres, Glass’s music, especially outside of a dramatic context, usually seems more concerned with internal proportion than external lineage. Features that resemble other musics are presented as analogous developments from within the technique. Music in Twelve Parts is a particularly fine example of this: the work’s ontology recapitulates a highly personal interpretation of tonal phylogeny.

Music, like other creative endeavors, is different from biology in that decisions regarding analogy and homology can come from both without and within, as if organisms had as much say in the classification of a variation as taxonomists did. The tree of music seems to expand and contract in cycles—at the moment, new music seems focused on homology, leaves at the edges rather than whole new branches. But if history is any indication, that will change at some point—the most vital evolutionary trees, after all, are the least orderly ones.

Misery Harp

A little housecleaning: sometimes when a piece of music seems to be tending in a vaguely pop direction I’ll mock up a demo in GarageBand. That’s the story with this ditty, which has been sitting on the hard drive for a couple of years now. It was originally one of a projected cycle of songs, but I realized this week that I had absolutely no recollection of what the rest of the songs were even going to be about. So now it’s just an unusually well-groomed orphan.

“Timber” (MP3, 3.7 Mb)

Three things I remember liking about this song:

  1. The crazy bass line under the chorus.
  2. The quote at the end.
  3. The fact that, if you put enough audio compression on high Beach-Boys-style falsetto, it sounds like the Chipmunks.

Yes, that is me singing. Sorry.