MSC 1003 - Music in Civilization

MT: Tuesdays 11:10 - 2:05 in Room 6-170
UR: Thursdays 6:05 - 9:00 in Room 6-170

Avant-Garde Classical Music
In class we'll talk about some fairly "mainstream" Modern composers, people who invented new things but did it in a way that still seems related to what came before. In this online unit we'll look at musicians who made a more radical break with the past. Such music is often referred to as being avant-garde, a French military metaphor that means that it is "ahead of its time."

Sometimes music and art that is avant-garde in its day will eventually become accepted as normal - this was the case with the music of Beethoven, for example, or Bebop. Other radical figures may always be viewed as difficult, provocative, or eccentric.

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)

The book also discusses Schoenberg on pp. 343-348 in the seventh edition and pp. 362-368 in the eighth.

Schoenberg was an Austrian composer, based in Vienna. He single-handedly invented the concept of atonal music, which intentionally avoids many of the elements that are present in most other music. He avoids scales, using all 12 chromatic tones with equal weight, and he avoids any sense of a stable, referential tonic or home note. He also works hard to avoid the familiar chords that make up most compositions, experimenting with more unusual and dissonant combinations of notes.

This is music that seems to "float" in space, exploring interesting sounds and textures.

So, in a sense, Schoenberg is trying to completely avoid anything that has been done in the past - he wants to do the opposite. To some people this seems like a dumb or superficial idea, made up by someone who was perhaps trying too hard to be original.

However, I would argue that Schoenberg arrived at this decision in a fairly organic way. In his early years he wrote music in the Late Romantic German style, similar to Wagner, and he was pretty good at it. You may remember that I said that Wagner's Prelude to Tristan and Isolde was a masterpiece of chromatic writing, focusing relentlessly of the sense of wandering or "flux."

Wagner's Prelude to Tristan is indeed full of flux, but there are places where we pause and "touch down" on a moment of stability. (In this video we reach one of those points at 1:37, for example.)

In 1908 Schoenberg was writing his Second String Quartet. He had decided that he was going to use a singer in one of the movements, and that she would sing a symbolist poem by Stefan George that speaks of "feeling the air of other planets." Schoenberg decided that this movement would be 100% flux, with absolutely no moments of stability. Thus, the first atonal music was created.

One might argue that this actually makes Schoenberg the very first Modern composer, since he made this bold step a few years before Stravinsky would compose his Rite of Spring.

On our quiz we are going to study the first movement of Pierrot lunaire [1912]. This is Schoenberg's best-known piece, a 40-minute work for soprano and small orchestra. The text is surrealist poetry in which the character of Pierrot (who we met in the previous unit) seems to be having a sort of existential crisis.

One more vocab concept that goes with this piece has to do with the manner of singing. This is another Schoenberg invention, called Sprechstimme (or "speech-song.") The notation for Sprechstimme puts little slashes through each note, which indicates that these pitches are more of a "target" or "suggestion." You are supposed to scoop up and down in a series of gestures that move through these notes rather than sticking to them faithfully.

Notation for the opening phrase of Pierrot lunaire

This is what it sounds like if we play it "clean" on the piano

...and here is how Christine Schäfer sings it.

The "speech-song" concept implies that this is supposed to be like talking, and I guess it is, sometimes. The real result is usually pretty strange, however - in class I usually joke around and say that it sounds "spooooky, like a ghoooost!"

Schoenberg's 12-Tone Method (aka "Serial" Music)

Schoenberg actually invented two influential new methods of composing – the other is what is frequently called “twelve-tone music.” (This is somewhat misleading, since atonal music also uses all twelve possible tones, but this is the label that stuck. Academics also like to call this "serial" music.)

Basically, Schoenberg’s pure atonal period was intense but also pretty brief. He was mostly writing pieces like Pierrot lunaire, with a singer and a text. That was helpful because the text provided a framework for the piece that would help him figure out what to write.

Without that framework, however, Schoenberg felt somewhat frustrated. The lack of any underlying rules to what he was doing meant that he had difficulty creating works of real length and complexity.

Schoenberg made up a new kind of musical technique that would create some structure and depth for his atonal universe. He began his compositions by putting all twelve notes in a specific order. This would be like his scale for the piece – as the work proceeds the notes would have to flow out strictly in that order. This is called the 12-tone row.

As our example we are going to look at a piece by Schoenberg's pupil, Anton Webern (1883-1945). The row for his Piano Variations looks like this:

Now, despite this rule there is actually still a lot of freedom here for the composer. For example, he or she can make the notes higher or lower in different octaves. Here are the first four notes with the E-F-C#-Eb all close together:

Here they are more spread out in different octaves:

Also, the rhythm is not specified at all, and the composer can decide whether the notes will clump together in chords or flow out like a melody. Here is the row with many of the notes grouped together into 2-note chords.

The composer is also allowed to manipulate the row in various ways and to combine various transformations of the row simultaneously. One possibility is to turn the row upside down, like so:

One puts this all into motion and the result might be something like this:

The presence of this “rule” gives the composer something new to think about that can inspire larger-scale planning.

It would probably surprise you to know how influential this technique was. From the 1950s through the 70s the most prestigious composers in the world tended to be working with extensions of these 12-tone techniques. Even Stravinsky and Aaron Copland tried it! Composers liked it because it felt "rigorous" or "scientific" - the American composer Milton Babbitt somewhat famously argued that his work was a form of research and that he didn't expect the general public to understand or like it.

The generation that followed Webern produced 12-tone works that are incredibly complex. For an example let's look at Pierre Boulez's Sur Incises, composed in 1998.

I actually think that Sur Incises is a fairly pleasant and pretty piece, but it is just so packed with information that it seems like it would be impossible to ever really absorb.

John Cage (1912-1993) and Randomness

Cage is an American composer who had a very conceptual or even philosophical approach to music. One aspect he was particularly interested in was chance or randomness.

The book briefly discusses Cage on pp. 388-390 in the eighth edition and 374-5 in the seventh edition.

Cage started out as a Schoenberg-like composer, but he eventually became frustrated with choosing the sounds that would be in his compositions - he felt that he was limited by his own habits or personality. Around 1950 he discovered the I Ching, a Chinese text from the Zhou Dynasty that offers a method for answering questions through the generation of random numbers, and this opened a world that he would explore for the rest of his career.

Cage's first experiment with randomness was to derive musical chords and rhythms from a series of coin tosses. To Cage, these chords sounded fresh, new, and free from the polluting influence of human psychology.

Each piece of Cage's has a different method of making random choices, and people often seem to find the discussion of the concept behind the piece to be as interesting as the act of listening to it.

Let's look at a few Cage pieces that generate sound in random ways. Atlas Eclipticalis is based on an astronomy book that Cage found in the library at Wesleyan university. He took the diagrams of stars and mapped them onto musical notation, like so:

A page from the Atlas Eclipticalis

page from the Atlas Eclipticalis

Stars copied onto musical staves

Cage Atlas Eclipticalis Cello Part

The numbers represent a time (in number of seconds) that the musician should play the notes. You'll notice that in the video the conductor is acting like a giant clock, so that the musicians know when to play. The result is a vaguely pleasant smattering of sound.

In Radio Music the entire piece is just a set of instructions for turning radios on and off and twisting the dials. Whatever comes out of the radios becomes part of the piece!

The most famous piece of Cage's is called 4'33" (or "Four Minutes and Thirty Three Seconds.") In its original version, a pianist came out on stage, sat down at the piano, and did this:

Now, one of the popular interpretations of this piece is that everything happening in the environment becomes part of it - the shifting and coughing of the audience, the traffic noises coming in from outside, and so on.

I think the piece makes more sense as a sort of parody of the concert format, of this ritual we do where we sit and stare at some person who is supposed to do something. Also, I think Cage really did want to capture the experience of silence, of sitting there doing nothing. He put shorter lengths of nothingness in some of his other pieces as well.

What Cage is saying when he does something like this is that "anything can be music." The fact that he is presenting it to you magically transforms it from a random event and makes it music!

This idea actually started in the art world with the work of Marcel Duchamp. He started to question the very nature of art by taking already-made objects and putting them into art galleries. In 1913 he combined a bicycle part with a stool for his sculpture "Bicycle Wheel."

and a few years later he made his most provocative gesture by taking a urinal from a bathroom, painting a fake signature on it, and calling it "Fountain."

Just as the work of Cage would later suggest that "anything can be music," Duchamp here was arguing that "anything can be art."

György Ligeti and Noise

As the century continued some composers start working with carefully constructed masses of pure noise, big blocks of sound in which you often cannot hear individual musical notes.

Hungarian composer György Ligeti was one of the most well-known practitioners of this sort of thing. His Atmospheres [1961] takes a whole orchestra and gives each musician careful instructions on what sounds to make. The many different sound sources merge together into a giant and overpowering mass of noise that nevertheless seems to be very carefully controlled and sculpted.

This youtube video uses some cool diagrams and graphs to analyze the properties of the piece.

Here's another YouTube video which shows how this sound is actually being made by human beings.

Philip Glass and Minimalism

The book discusses Minimalism on pp. 390-392 in the eighth edition and pp. 376-378 in the seventh.

In a way Minimalism is a reaction to all of this complexity and chaos, choosing to explore extreme simplicity and repetition instead.

As an example, let's look at Music in Similar Motion [1973]

This style emerged in the 60s and 70s. It has a counterpart in the art world, as artists started making sculptures, drawings and paintings that were as simple as possible. For instance, here is Untitled [1990] by Donald Judd.

Philip Glass was part of a truly "alternative" music scene that flourished in downtown New York City. This documentary clip from Philip Glass: A Portrait in 12 Parts shows what these events were like:

Einstein on the Beach [1976]

Minimalism had its big breakthrough in 1976 with an opera called Einstein on the Beach. This was a collaboration between Philip Glass and a theater director named Robert Wilson.

In Robert Wilson's world, everything is very carefully designed to look cool, and people move and act as if in a dream. Wilson compiled a text from several different sources, including an autistic 16-year-old boy named Christopher Knowles. Knowles wrote repetitive, chopped-up poetry that made some pop-culture references, like so:

If you see any of those baggy pants it was huge
Mr Bojangles
If you see any of those baggy pants it was huge chuck the hills
If you know it was a violin to be answer the telephone and if
any one asks you please it was trees it it it is like that
Mr Bojangles, Mr Bojangles, I reach you
So this is about the things on the table so this one could be counting up.
The scarf of where in Black and White
Mr Bojangles If you see any of those baggy pants chuck the hills
It was huge If you know it was a violin to be answer the telephone and if anyone asks you please it was trees it it it is like that.

Actors in Einstein speak these lines and do various dance and mime-like motions. A group of singers, on the other hand, are only allowed to sing numbers and the solfège syllables (like do re mi etc.) The entire event is about four hours long!

Let me embed a video that shows a few highlights from Einstein. We'll see the opening, the train scene, the court scene, a bit where a violinist dressed up as Einstein plays furious scalar figures, and the final spaceship scene. Remember that, by the time you get to the spaceship, this has been going on for four hours - you are pretty exhausted and the music and lights are just getting louder and brighter. It's a somewhat cult-like experience.

Einstein on the Beach was commissioned by a big arts festival in Europe, and after its premier Wilson and Glass somehow managed to raise enough money to rent the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City and present it here. It was a major event - all of the artsy types in the city went to see it, and the initial reaction was pretty severely split between enthusiasts and haters. Some people thought it was amazing, and others thought it was the stupidest thing they had ever seen.

But, after Einstein Glass rapidly became the most famous living composer in the U.S., and he remains one of the most prolific and successful today.


There are, of course, many different trends right now in the contemporary classical music scene. Some people (like Ashley Fure) are still following Ligeti's path and working with abstract blocks of sound. Some (like James Dillon) are still making works of thorny complexity.

Perhaps the most common style in the United States takes the language of the minimalists and just puts a little more information back into the music, to make it a little less severely minimal. We call this Post-Minimalism.

My last example in this unit will be from the hip young post-minimalist Missy Mazzoli (born 1980). This is Still Life With Avalanche [2008].

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