Although the situation of music at the end of World War II was undeniably chaotic, there were important if superficial reasons for optimism. The days in which public musical life had been curtailed or even halted by bombing and bombardment were safely past. Music, with other kinds of culture, seemed to belong to the new world of peaceful construction. In undamaged and prosperous America the influx of refugee musicians, composers and performers alike, had changed the domestic musical scene, and a parallel strengthening of audiences by the cultivated émigré public was providing both aesthetic approval of and material support for concert activity. And in Europe, a whole new generation of artists, denied access to the world stage for almost a decade by the dislocations of war, was ready to come forward. Perhaps most important, a new electronic technology, based upon the German-invented magnetic tape recorder and (after 1948) the American-developed long-playing phonograph record, were available to provide the possibility of a hitherto unimagined diffusion of the great works of music.
It might have been supposed that all these phenomena, which were to prove so beneficial to the performance of existing music, would benefit new creation as well. For while musical composition had indeed shown marked signs of autumnal decline in the interwar period, it could hardly be denied that some important works had been written in the 1920’s and 1930’s, and had been widely accepted as such by a cultivated audience.
Of the most important composers who made their mark in the preceding two decades, only Alban Berg was dead at the end of the war (Béla Bartók was to die shortly thereafter). Even the 19th-century survivor Richard Strauss, still alive at the age of eighty-one, was in 1945 in the middle of writing some of his most beautiful and affecting music. The two most widely respected modern masters. Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky, were musically active; Schoenberg would continue composing until his death in 1951, and Stravinsky, his conversion to twelve-tone writing several years in the future, was still involved in the neoclassicism which was to culminate in his opera, The Rake’s Progress (1951).
Among those newer figures whose downplaying of modernity was compensated for by greater public acceptance, Prokofiev and Shostakovich were as prolific as ever, and only their difficult political situation in the Soviet Union seemed to stand in the way of the highest achievements. In England and France, the erstwhile enfants terribles, William Walton and Darius Milhaud (the latter an alternate-year resident in the United States), continued to write, and the very American Aaron Copland was consolidating and extending his reputation as our most considerable musical figure.
It is possible in retrospect to see that all this activity in composition, though hardly as central to the wider culture as the works of earlier composers had been, belonged to the mainstream, a kind of writing traditional in both aesthetic and technique. One can even see this kind of middle-of-the-road art as a loyal product of bourgeois society—nowhere more so, paradoxically, than in revolutionary Russia where Stalin and Zhdanov were trying to resuscitate the corpse of Victorian aesthetics. But whatever the social system in which these moderate composers worked, and whatever their past innovations, by 1945 they seemed neither to be breaking new ground in the character of their music nor to be disturbing their essentially accommodating relation to the audience and to society.
This mainstream activity, in the work of such newly important figures as Benjamin Britten in England and William Schuman and Leonard Bernstein in America, was to continue, and remains until the present day a possible choice for contemporary composition. But the survival of a past way of writing into the present does not alter the fact that for at least the last thirty-five years the word “new” in composition has had two uses. Its ordinary use has been simply to convey that a work has just been written; its more important use has been to convey the ideological message that the work in question possesses qualities of style which place it in the avant-garde, a movement revolutionary in purpose, historically unparalleled in technique, critical in reference to the past, and audacious in regard to the present.
The history of this advanced music since World War II is the story of the development, at first separate but later merged, of two conceptions—freedom and order. The freedom sought was the possibility for composers (and later performers) to use any resource they might find attractive at any point, from the writing of the music to its reception by the listener. The order sought involved the subjection of the musical material by the composer to the most rigorous and conscious intellectual control in the writing, and to similarly conscious physical control in performance; this control was to be based both upon the generation of the composition from musical elements as carefully delimited as possible and upon the exclusion from their treatment of structural accident or sentimentality.
The roots of both these ultimately metaphysical goals lay, as might be expected, in developments going back to the earlier years of our century. To a significant extent, both of these goals were exemplified in the life and music of the most significant composer of the past century, Arnold Schoenberg. From his beginnings as a lush hyper-romanticist extending the swollen forms of Wagner, Strauss, and Mahler, he had exhausted the possibilities of complexity and sheer size alike; after the First Quartet (1905), he ventured increasingly into expressionism, into the uninhibited depiction of previously repressed emotions through musical means of hitherto unimagined dissonance and seeming formlessness. Though in fact ingeniously constructed, this music—best known in Pierrot Lunaire (1912)—was written in a style significantly called “free atonality,” and struck listeners as madness and anarchy let loose on the world.
But this kind of writing did not satisfy Schoenberg’s restless craving for order. So in 1921 was born his great theoretical contribution to music—“the method of composition with twelve tones related only to each other.” In this innocent-sounding phrase was contained both the destruction of tonality—the euphonious world of chords and keys which underlies what we hear as “classical” music—and a new system rigorous enough to attract and satisfy the most scholastically inclined of modern composers.
Given Schoenberg’s propensity toward theory and discipline, it was ironic (though perhaps fitting in the light of his basic unruliness) that his most consequential pupil during his years of American exile should have been the composer, writer, and sometime mycologist, John Cage. Under Cage’s benign exterior lies a streak of aesthetic nihilism which has influenced not only the kind of music today’s up-to-date composers write, but also our very idea of what it means to be an avant-garde composer.
Indeed, in the words of Schoenberg himself, Cage was perhaps not a composer at all but rather “an inventor of genius.” Following upon his early interest in percussion music, in 1938 he invented the prepared piano, which, by the insertion of metal, wood, and rubber objects between the piano strings, produces exotic pitched and unpitched sounds different for each note so treated. His search for new sounds led him further along the lines explored by Edgar Varèse and by Cage’s own teacher, Henry Co-well, the inventor of the tone cluster, in which the keys of the piano were smacked by palm, fist, arm, or—so that even more notes might be sounded at once—a board. Whereas Schoenberg had aimed at—and in the eyes of his supporters succeeded in—the emancipation of dissonance from the tyranny of what was accepted as consonance, Cage now, as early as 1937, sought the liberation of acoustical phenomena themselves from what he regarded as “so-called musical sounds.”
For Cage the future of music lay with the vast body of sounds which had in the past been called noise. As musical instruments seemed at the time incurably specialized for the production of musical sounds—notes and harmonies—Cage early worked with electrical sound sources, writing in 1939 Imaginary Landscape No. 1 for two variable-speed phonograph turntables playing frequency recordings, along with muted piano and cymbal. Twelve years later he had advanced to Imaginary Landscape No. 4, for twelve radios, twenty-four players, and conductor. The really revolutionary aspect of this work is demonstrated by the fact that its initial failure in performance—by the time Cage’s piece was gotten to on the evening’s program, too few radio stations were left on the air to provide the necessary sound material—hardly bothered the composer and confirmed for him (as failure in revolution always does for its supporters) the conceptual superiority of the enterprise.
As can be seen from his use of radios to provide material, Cage had become interested in the possibility of freeing composers from the necessity to choose and write down each individual note on the basis of its relation to the preceding notes. Thus, in the same year as his piece for radios, he composed Music of Changes, a work for piano solo in which the notes to be played by the pianist were determined in their pitches, loudness, duration, tempos, and sequences by consultation, through the mediation of coin tosses, with the Chinese oracle book, I Ching.
One year later, in 1952, Cage achieved the ultimate chance composition, and perhaps not quite by accident thus reached a level of public notoriety granted to few artistic creators in our time. Deciding that the noises which inevitably surround us are at least as interesting as anything a composer might write, he conceived the notorious 4′33″, a work in three movements of pure silence for any combination of instruments whatever, with only exact durations and absence of sound specified. This was not music but pure theater, as the “performance” by pianist David Tudor proved; Tudor simply sat at the piano, closing its fall board (the lid which covers the keys) at the beginning of each of the work’s movements in accordance with the composer’s directions in the otherwise empty score.
At about the same time, Cage became further involved in electronic music, composing Williams Mix for eight-track tape. By 1958, he had married tape music to chance in Fontana Mix, described as “(a) a score for the production of one or more tape track (s) or for any number of instruments, or (b) pre-recorded tape material to be performed in any way.” Chance techniques were applied to purely instrumental pieces as well; in Variations I (1958), for “player(s) on any kind and number of instruments,” the performer (s) is (are) required to choose notes and rhythms with regard only to charts containing schematic notation and written instructions. The later Variations V has no musical score at all; in its place the performer is given a general description of past performances, among them one (according to an article on Cage by his follower, Christian Wolff) containing “dance by Merce Cunningham, film material by Stan Vanderbeek, special electronic equipment including electric eyes so that the movements of the dance would trigger sound sequences, television material by Nam June Paik, and lighting and scenery by Robert Rauschenberg.”
In the meantime, avant-garde music in Europe had started out after 1945 by choosing a compositional aesthetic based upon the other side of Schoenberg, his concern with order. Only in the very first years after the war was the influence of Schoenberg, through the teaching of his pupil, René Leibowitz, anything like directly felt. Soon Schoenberg was being decisively overshadowed—as was his most distinguished disciple, Alban Berg—by the music and even more the example of Anton Webern, also Schoenberg’s pupil, and, with Berg and Schoenberg, a member of the Viennese atonal trinity. Webern’s small body of mature work consisted of short, sparse-sounding pieces of the most complex and ingenious organization; his later works were carefully written according to Schoenberg’s method of twelve-tone organization.
But whereas both Schoenberg and Berg had composed works of essentially romantic sensibility, direct in their open emotionality and unabashed self-indulgence, Webern constantly pared down his rhetoric, eschewing massive combinations of instruments in favor of individual, fragmented melodic lines. Webern’s few notes, written in a style utilizing pre-classical contrapuntal devices, seemed a world small, perfect, and totally controlled. Webern thus became a heaven-sent model for the widely felt musical reaction against both classicism and romanticism. And not only was Webern validated as a hero for the new generation by the neglect he and his music had suffered; as if to set an eternal seal on his martyrdom, he had been killed in 1945—but after the war was over—by an American soldier for violating a curfew (of whose existence Webern was unaware) in the Austrian village where he lived.
These general considerations of Webern as an example of the artistic predicament aside, what seemed so useful to young European composers about his work was what they saw as his attempt to build his compositions out of a very few “pre-formed” elements, so that the entire composition seemed the inevitable outcome inherent in its constituents. In Webern these constituents were largely melodic, and thus based on pitch; but they also included color, dynamics, and rhythms. Now composers attempted to treat all the parameters of music—among them pitch, duration, amplitude, timbre, and articulation—as Schoenberg had required pitch alone be treated. Thus, in a quasi-mathematical way each element of music could be assembled into its own series, with each unduplicated pitch, duration, etc. assigned a numerical value based upon the order in which it was first stated; the series and its parts could be inverted, retrograded, and transposed according to a predetermined scheme which governed to as great an extent as possible what occurred and where such occurrences took place.
The first attempt (though only analogically serial) at such pre-formation was made in 1949 by the French composer, Olivier Messiaen, in his étude, Mode de valeurs et d’intensités. Messiaen was vastly more influenced musically by his French Catholic religiosity and fondness for bird song than by any aesthetic sympathy for Schoenberg and Webern, and so he did not follow up his first experiment. In any case, the influence of the experiment hardly stemmed from its artistic achievement. Rather, it was the fate of this short work to be noticed by the two seminal minds of the post-World War II avant-garde, Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen. In their separate ways—Boulez savagely polemical and passionately intellectual and Stockhausen inclined toward technological innovation and personal mysticism—these two men personified the early search for total determinism in music.
The rationality with which they worked now seems both artificial and terrifying. For example, Boulez’s most totally pre-formed composition, Structures I (1951-52)—based on the pitch order of Messiaen’s 1949 Mode de valeurs—was written following the preparation of matrix tables consisting of the numerical values of the original series of notes, its retrogade and their inversions, and their transpositions. These tables were then used to determine all note durations, dynamics, and modes of attack, as well as to determine the order in which the note series themselves were used.
Though Boulez was to be influential—among many other reasons—precisely for his achievement of total control, he himself soon abandoned the rigorous application of his own former principles. Stockhausen, by contrast, remained for many years (perhaps because he was not interested, as Boulez deeply was, in the performance of the music of others) committed to the role of the composer as dictator over both his compositions and the musicians who play them. More seduced by the possibilities of magnetic tape than Boulez ever was, Stockhausen saw in tape a medium which offered total control to the composer. For on tape, though working with it in these early years was inefficient and horribly time-consuming, pitch could be controlled both by the signal the tape was electronically fed and by the speed at which the tape was run by the playback heads; rhythm and duration were matters not only of tape speed but even more conveniently of tape length, to be determined by measurement with a ruler; timbre was a matter both of signal generators and frequency filtering; and dynamics were simply determined by settings of the gain controls. In fact, the composer could now be the performer, and once his tape was made, it contained its own permanent and unvarying realization.
It is difficult to avoid the impression that what animated Stockhausen and his followers—whether they worked with tape alone or, as Stockhausen often did, with conventional instruments used in such a way as to resemble electronic sources—was the desire to create a new-sounding music from scratch. Stockhausen put it well in the first issue of Die Reihe, a periodical devoted to the new music which appeared from 1955 to 1962:
A sound which results from a certain mode of structure has therefore no relevance outside the particular composition for which it has been intended. For this the same “prepared” element, the same sound, or the same “object” can never be utilized in different compositions, and all sounds which have been created according to the structural pattern of one composition are destroyed when the composition is completed.
Not only does this apply to the individual work of one composer; the destruction of which Stockhausen wrote could be applied in a wider sense to musical memory itself and the block it always presents to the acceptance of anything new. This position has been brilliantly and sympathetically put in a recent history of avant-garde music by the English composer and writer, Reginald Smith Brindle:
In the postwar years, one of the most difficult obstacles to our “beginning again” was our own musical memories. Our minds normally create only out of what memory suggests. Thinking subjectively, we tend to reassemble familiar musical patterns. To avoid this needs deliberately objective reasoning and the use of thought processes into which memory cannot obtrude. This was precisely the main reason for the flourishing of integral serialism. It was, in theory at least, a system of composition which obliged composers to think objectively and eliminate memory, so that the musical heritage of the past was blotted out and a completely new music created.
It needed little imagination to predict the reaction of the musical public to the demand that it participate in the destruction of musical memory. But even within the avant-garde movement itself, this fantasy of total control, no matter how logically impeccable and physically satisfying, could hardly last. Upon composers it laid the obligation to be thinkers rather than instinctive musicians; from performers (when they were allowed into the picture at all) it demanded absolutely faithful execution of the minutely detailed notation of the extreme complexities required by serialization. And upon even the most favorably disposed listeners it placed the burden of hearing and discriminating among sound events whose very complexity and differentiation made them seem both opaque and isolated.
For all of Stockhausen’s commitment to intellectual control, he too realized the nature of this cul-de-sac, and by the mid-1950’s he was looking for a way to bring back some important role for variation and imagination in composition and performance alike. It was clear that this way out could not involve a return to the past. How impossible such a return was perceived to be is clear from a 1957 comment of Herbert Eimert, co-editor, with Stockhausen, of Die Reihe:
There is little to choose between “advanced” expressionist music and the stagnant bourgeois reaction to it; today, either music exists as it is in the vanguard, or it does not exist at all. This is not a “totalitarian” alternative; it is the simple truth.
But while it was thus neither possible nor desirable to give up the characteristic sound of atonality as perceived by the listener, it was possible to substitute the new indeterminacy associated with John Cage for the total rigor of the disciples of Webern. In 1956, Stockhausen had already developed, in Klavierstück XI, the idea of mobile form. Here the performer is allowed to choose the order, determined by wherever his eye has happened to light in the music, in which any of the work’s 19 sections are played; when one of these sections is met with for the third time, the performance is over. More than order is left to the discretion of the performer: he is directed to begin the “first” section at a tempo, loudness, and attack of his own choice; at the end of this section, he is given performance instructions applying equally to whichever section he chooses to continue with.
Though Stockhausen’s use of chance as described above was hardly epochal, the effect of chance in the extreme form adopted by Cage in the 1950’s, and soon to be picked up in Europe, was to complete the process begun earlier in 4′33″ of transforming music into a form of theater. This kind of theater was, of course, far removed from the traditional performance of either the classics or the ordinary, new well-made play. The theater in which composers were now involved was much closer, in its emphasis on improvisation, to the idea of action painting as a process stemming from the painter’s unconscious and performed by the body upon the canvas. Indeed, an attractive model for music was the “happening,” first performed at Black Mountain College in 1952 by a Cage-organized group which included Charles Olsen, M.C. Richards, David Tudor, Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, and Cage himself.
Stockhausen actually wrote a kind of happening, described by himself as “musical theater.” Originate (1961) consists of a hodgepodge of elements, among them people doing what they usually do in real life: two musicians play Kontakte, an earlier score by Stockhausen; actors act; a technician makes recordings; a street singer sings street songs; and a newsvendor comes in to sell papers. Even in works of Stockhausen where the performers’ actions do not seem in context quite so bizarre, the element of theater still came to occupy an important place. Musik für ein Haus (1968), for instance, a collective composition by members of his composition class at the Darmstadt Vacation Courses for New Music, was conceived to be performed by instrumentalists assigned to each of fifteen composers in
a cluster of rooms of various sizes on two floors connected and acoustically isolated by a network of passages. Each listener comes and goes in his own time and is able to change his listening perspective within the House at will.
What the instrumentalists play is picked up by microphones in each room and relayed at varying amplification over loudspeakers. Each of the four rooms is linked by a loudspeaker with the three others. The players not only react to one another, but also to the music emanating from the other room. In a fifth room (“Klangbox”) may be heard a continuous relay of the music from all four rooms over four separate speakers.
It is precisely this profusion of visual and theatrical elements which makes any evaluation of avant-garde music as music so difficult. And yet since these pieces go under the name of music, they clearly require evaluation in musical terms. So it is fortunate that this period was comprehensively documented on records. Some of the most characteristic works of the late 1950’s and the culminating decade of the 1960’s have been preserved by Deutsche Grammophon on a series of discs issued between 1968 and 1970. Consisting of eighteen individual records released in three groups of six each, the series was simply called the Avant-Garde.1
The history of these records turned out to be a short one. Though the critic of the English record magazine, Gramophone, referred to the release of the last group of six as an “annual event, something a reviewer can look forward to as winter closes in on him,” no further records were to follow in the series, and those already issued were soon being discontinued and (at least in the United States) remaindered. By 1978 no trace of any of them remained in the American Schwann LP Catalog, and only two were still listed in Bielefelder, its German equivalent.
Handsomely produced, with each jacket, save one bearing (in different colors) an attractive cover in the style of the American color-field painter Kenneth Noland, the records are centered around the music of Stockhausen; to him are devoted three complete discs and a part of another. Hardly less space—two complete discs and parts of two others—is given to the Argentine Mauricio Kagel. Single records are allocated to the German Bernd Alois Zimmermann and the French Luc Ferrari, while the Hungarian György Ligeti receives parts of three records. The rest of the series contains smaller selections from the music of twenty-two other composers (among them John Cage), and one group performing-improvisations.
The series begins almost apologetically with conventionally modern-sounding music for the most bourgeois of combinations, the string quartet made up of two violins, viola, and cello. The longest of the three pieces on this disc is the String Quartet (1964) by Witold Lutoslawski, a Pole best known for his showy two-piano work, Variations on a Theme of Paganini (1941). His inclusion in the series is explained by the fact that most of the Quartet is written as completely independent parts, “each player [performing] his part as though he were alone.” The second composition on the disc is the String Quartet (1960) of another Pole, Krzysztof Penderecki, whose most popular work has been Threnody (1956), dedicated “to the victims of Hiroshima.” Though his quartet begins with a jumble of harsh sounds (obtained by treating the instruments as if they were percussion devices), nothing in the piece, except perhaps for the composer’s intentions in writing it, justifies the jacket’s comment that its significance lies in features “whose insistent irreconcilability crystallizes the composer’s resistance . . . to forces dominating culture.” Nor does the final piece on this record, the Japanese Toshiro Mayuzumi’s Prelude for String Quartet (1964), bear up well under the jacket’s Hegelian analysis of its structure and methods; what seems attractive about this piece is, rather, its obvious orientalisms and quiet effects of instrumental color.
Whereas the first record seems historically tentative, the second plunges directly into the vortex of the avant-garde. Here are two of Stockhausen’s most influential and talked-about works, Gruppen (1955-57) for three orchestras, and Carré (1958-59) for four orchestras and four choruses. Both works are examples of Stockhausen’s “spatial music.” Gruppen is meant to be performed, for instance, with the three orchestras separately stationed on three sides of the hall, conducted by three conductors. This division of forces makes possible the simultaneous performance of several different tempos, a feat enormously difficult with one orchestra playing under one conductor on one stage.
While the explicitly notated and involved serialism of Gruppen must, in the words of a commentator, have required “fanaticism to write out,” the composition of Carré was assisted by Cornelius Cardew, Stockhausen’s then disciple. Cardew, though he attempted to follow the composer’s general instructions, seems to have had no real idea of what he was to write; the doubt, in the words of still another commentator, was “all to the good in preventing creative conflicts.” Whatever the value of Stockhausen’s novel methods of working, listening to this music can only for most musicians produce amazement that sounds of such seeming shapelessness could have been conceived and performed, and, even more, compel respect for the personal will which could see such a project through.
The next record features the organ playing of the German Gerd Zacher, performing compositions by Kagel, Ligeti, and the Chilean Juan Allende-Blin. Kagel’s Phantasie (1967) can be seen, from one standpoint, as the continuation of a historical crime upon the organ. By combining, as he does here, electronic techniques with the characteristic organ sound, Kagel is following in the footsteps of Laurens Hammond, who introduced the electric organ bearing his name in the 1930’s. Kagel’s bright idea here was to mix composed music played on the organ with recordings of the environmental noises of the organist’s daily life. The sounds on these tapes—some of them made by the organist, some by Kagel—include the flushing of a toilet; the train carrying the organist to work; excerpts from wedding, christening, and burial services; and so on. And the notes actually written by Kagel do their part by sounding like electronically produced material. The other pieces on this record seem less like sound effects, and perhaps for that very reason appear less advanced. Allende-Blin’s Sonorités (1962) is a collection of mainly static throbbings, and sounds like an improvisation calculated to show off the timbres of the organ. Even more static for the most part are the Ligeti works, Volumina (1961) and Etude #1 (1967). The first manages at the end to get away from the tendency of so many avant-garde works to sound canned, but the second seems mainly distinguished for being performed with a vacuum cleaner instead of the normal organ blower in order to produce a pale and weak sound.
The fourth record consists of unaccompanied choral music, and begins, in contrast to some later works in this series, by using the voice in a fairly traditional manner. The Englishman David Bedford’s Two Poems (1966), written to words by Kenneth Patchen, are pleasant, even if some of the work’s pleasantness stems from its brevity rather than its incorporation of “sections in which the singers are instructed to fill a fixed space of time with a certain number of notes, ad libitum.” Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna (1966) is slow beyond belief, and the Swede Arne Mellnäs’s Succsim (1964)—the title is a combination of “succession” and “simultaneously”—uses no words; instead one hears sung vowels, whispers, hisses, and whistles. The Czech Marek Kopolent’s Matka (c. 1967) seems more communicative than most of the pieces on these records; for the composer’s pains, the work has been called by a distinguished English critic “disguised bubble-gum music, simple and unprovocative.”
The next record contains music for the trombone as played by the well-known virtuoso, Vinko Globokar, one of whose own pieces is included here. This disc is significant for the example it provides of an important trend in avant-garde music—the use of instruments in non-traditional ways involving hitting or rubbing them in order to produce sounds, and in the case of winds and brass, singing, humming, and speaking into them at the same time as tones are being blown. For all the skill involved in the production of sound by such means, the total effect resembles nothing so much as a tuneless one-man band. Globokar’s Discours II (1967-68) for five trombones has all its parts performed on this recording by the composer alone, through the superimposition of five separately recorded tracks; this is a demonstration of the assignment frequently given to avant-garde performers to play with their recorded selves. The Italian Luciano Berio’s Sequenza V (1966) has somewhat more energy, and even a certain crude humor, but still only seems to show just how ugly-sounding an instrument the trombone can be. Stockhausen’s Solo (1966) presents a tape commentary on the trombonist’s earlier performance simultaneously with that performance, and finally the Argentine Carlos Osuna’s Consequenza Op. 17 (1966) has as its goal the writing of music of such difficulty that the player is finally forced to give up out of exhaustion.
On the sixth record, the last of the first group, Kagel begins with a viable theatrical idea. Match (1964) for three players is written for one cellist scraping on the left, another on the right, and a percussionist who goes from side to side acting as an umpire. This sonic volleyball contest has obvious possibilities for stereophonic recording, and indeed is acoustically effective when reproduced on good equipment. But as music it is utter thinness. Lacking even theatrical effect is Kagel’s long work on the other side of the record. Music for Renaissance Instruments (1965-66) is played on, among many other instruments, krumhorns, recorders, bombards, curtals, theorbos, and violas da gamba. The music provides a prime example of how neoclassical music sounds when deprived of quotations from the classics.
The second group of records begins with improvisations by the Italian Gruppa Nuova Consonanza done in 1969. Given the penchant for thinking in extremes so popular in the late 1950’s and the 1960’s, it was only natural for the retreat from compositorial control to spur the practice of improvisation in performance. And consistent with the political ideology of the late 1960’s, the record jacket states that the group aimed at “a collective achievement” in which “the figure hitherto known as the composer is completely robbed of the myth which has surrounded him.” But more is lost in this combination of conventionally instrumented and totally electronic works than the amour propre of the composer; the fashionable eclecticism of this group’s procedures, drawn from jazz and Indian influence as well as chance music, sounds like an unmitigated mess, at once fragmented and boring.
The second record in this group, while perhaps ideologically regressive, sounds more interesting. Zimmermann’s Présence (1961) is a piano trio—played, that is, by a piano, a violin, and a cello. Intercommunicazione (1967) employs a piano-cello duo. The instruments are used fairly normally, and the piano parts, which sometimes sound like the pieces of Messiaen based on bird song, provide a refreshing texture. But here again, as in so much of this music, discontinuity remains a problem, one which all Zimmermann’s quotations from Strauss, Debussy, Prokofiev, and even Stockhausen (!) do little to ameliorate.
The third record in this group returns again to the very center of the avant-garde. The first side contains a long effort by John Cage, as confused in its title and indeterminate in its writing as it seems anarchic in sound. The flavor of the piece, title and instrumentation alike, is best conveyed by the notes accompanying the record:
John Cage: Atlas Eclipticalis (1961-62) for 1-98 orchestral players (86 possible parts) and Winter Music (1957) for 1-20 pianists may be performed simultaneously, like so many of Cage’s works.
All or some of the instruments can be fitted with contact microphones whose outputs can be controlled by a special interpreter, the “assistant to the conductor,” according to the graphic notation of Cage’s Cartridge Music (1960), by means of adjustable electronic amplifiers.
Atlas Eclipticalis is the use of maps of stellar constellations as if the star markings were notes printed on music. Winter Music is made up of twenty pages performed in this version by groups of five pianists playing four pages simultaneously; the musical notation is ambiguous, and what is notated is unplayable.
As music this makes no impression at all. But as a sonic environment it conjures up a world without plan, purpose, meaning, or value. The sounds suggest a Rorschach test devised and administered by a Dada psychologist; its meaning is in the eye (ear) of the beholder (listener), and its wit can only be fully appreciated by those who are hostile to the idea of organized social life. All this might well make Cage content, for his “music” is a joke as seriously intended as it must be mockingly hostile. And the butt of the joke is that audience which in the bourgeois past has taken music seriously.
The reverse side of this record presents a vocal and instrumental piece by the German Dieter Schnebel called Glossolalie (1959-60, version 1961). Once again, any description other than that on the record jacket could only seem unfair. According to the jacket, the title is the
“definition of music for speakers and instrumentalists” on 26 unbound pages: a simple material definition of remarkable elasticity. Any composition conforming to this would be a version of the work, and everybody has the right to produce one. The recording on this disc is of Schnebel’s own compositional realization. . . .
Just how a nonexistent composition can have a version is a conundrum perhaps never to be solved by traditionalists. In any case, for such traditionalists the piece, with its quasi-nonsense text spoken and sung in hysterical voices, sounds like the ravings of madmen, just as did the speaking in tongues so popular among the religiously inclined young at the end of the last decade. The jacket comments that the “incomparable significance” of this work “is in the fact that composers setting themselves the task which is necessary today to politicizing music can learn from this work’s technique the elementary manipulations of this absolutely new métier.” If this be so, it is clear that underneath whatever politics such art espouses lies the cult of insanity.
The same subverted ground is covered in the next record, which contains choral pieces by Kagel and, again, Schnebel. Kagel’s Hallelujah (1967) for sixteen unaccompanied solo voices is meant to be “understood as a masterpiece of rabbinical expounding”; but Hallelujah as a song of praise “is in view of the state of the world today an expression of utter scorn.” While Hallelujah perhaps contains more real music than is usual with Kagel and the rest, this content can only seem an inadequate reward for the philosophical barbarism a listener must endure at the same time. Schnebel’s Für Stimmen (1956-58, 1964-68), carrying similar ideological baggage, is a collection of the fashionable whimpers, groans, and sobs which make up so much of avant-garde vocal writing.
The next disc is devoted entirely to tape music. The German Gottfried Michael König’s Terminus II (1966-67) derives all of its sounds from one original electronic noise, the Urklang; the sounds succeed each other in the composition in the order in which they were originally produced, or backward. Though the piece often has a rhythmic beat, it remains lifeless. Konig’s Funktion Grün (1967) sounds like a stormy night broadcast over short-wave radio with, it is true, some Oriental noises toward the end. The Hungarian Zoltan Pongrácz’s Phonothese (1965-66) sounds more refined, but also contains bird beeps, growls of thunder, siren glissandos, and wind murmurs. Finally, the German Rainer Riehn’s Chants de Maldoror (1965-66, revised 1968-69) is a thin collage, unrelated to Lautréamont’s poem, which scatters many long silences among its usual fragments of storms and radio interference.
The last record of the second group is again devoted to Stockhausen. His Telemusik (1966) was composed in Tokyo on a six-channel tape recorder in the studios of Japan Radio; its realization on this disc is a two-channel reduction, as are the recorded versions of the other Stockhausen multi-track works in this series. In Telemusik the composer writes that he wanted to compose “not ‘my’ music, but a music of the whole world, of all countries and all races.” Toward this end, he included music from Japan, Bali, the Sahara, Hungary, the Amazon, China, Vietnam (“what a wonderful people!”), and “who knows where else.” This material is transformed, with the addition of studio-produced material, by electronic manipulation. The result seems varied and perhaps less dependent on tape music’s usual reliance on weather effects and the sounds of nature, but again in this case the work’s relative brevity is a considerable virtue. Mixtur (1964), based upon orchestral sounds as modified by electronic signal generators, is sufficiently imaginative and polished to be judged by aesthetic criteria; what is missing here, as in Telemusik, is the possibility of gaining from listening any warm musical satisfaction.
The third, and last, group of the Avant-Garde series begins with a long piece by Kagel, Der Schall—“The Sound” (1968). It is scored for such instruments as foghorn, spaghetti tube with trumpet mouthpiece, plastic tubing, garden hose, rubber bands, telephone, nose-flute, and a few conventional winds as well. The result is 37 minutes of mildly interesting drones and rattles, with some very peculiar gasping sounds adding a sinister touch. Because Kagel is here raising basic questions as to “proper” composition and performance, one can readily forgive the absence of the wit which has marked the use of such “instruments” by Hoffnung and Schickele. Unfortunately, Kagel’s questions are not raised to be answered, but rather themselves constitute the answers—answers as unproductive as they are unacceptable.
The second record in this last group presents the American Earle Brown’s String Quartet (1965), in which the players follow a prescribed series of events, whose details are determined by the performers’ choices. The piece is only 11 minutes long, and makes a wispy, tenuous impression. Here as in the other pieces on this disc—Ligeti’s Quartet No. 2 (1967-68) in five mostly delicate movements, and the Quartet No. 3 (1960-61) of the German Wolf Rosenberg—the reliance upon conventional instruments, even if they are not always conventionally used, is itself welcome. Immediately following is a record containing another of Stock-hausen’s better-known and important works, Stimmung (1968). The title is a word with many many meanings in German, among them “tuning,” “voicing,” and “mood.” The work’s six unaccompanied singers sing one chord—a dominant seventh on B-flat—for 73 minutes, in ways calculated to stress certain overtones as directed by the composer. In a combination of the efficient new and the comfortable old, the singers are assisted in finding the exactly correct pitches by softly sounding electronic reminders on tape, but as they sing they sit cross-legged in a circle around a low light, much like a campfire. In addition to the vowel sounds, one hears lines of amorous poetry written by Stockhausen, and the repetition of “magic names” of gods and goddesses from many religions, as well as erotic terms. The repetitive, droning effect creates an atmosphere of contemplation, self-absorption, and even passivity; the music serves as background for that ideal trip which seemed in the late 1960’s paradise itself.
The next record conceives paradise in rather different terms. The Italian Luc Ferrari’s Presque Rien No. 1 (1970) is a taped sonic environment describing daybreak at the beach. Sounds of birds, dogs, and faintly lapping waters, and muted, indistinct voices can be heard; through the magic of stereophony the “composer” presents a truck driving off from the right speaker to somewhere past the left speaker. It all resembles a soundtrack for a Jacques Tati film. And yet this vaguely nostalgic boredom is more satisfactory than what has gone before on these records, for it makes no pretense to being music. Unfortunately, that pretense makes its return on the other side of this record, which is devoted to Ferrari’s Société II (1967), subtitled “and if the piano were a female body.” Here the tedium is occasionally relieved by the interpolation of real music, including welcome snatches of Liszt’s famous Liebestraum.
The fifth record of this last group begins with the American Lukas Foss’s Paradigm (1968). This combination of notation, improvisation, and chance is divided into “Session—Reading—Recital—Lecture,” and is performed with “notes to play and words to speak, whisper, or shout” by a sextet including percussion, electric guitar, violin, clarinet, cello, and tape recorder with other electronics. The result combines loud frenetic passages marked by a heavy, jazz-like beat with quiet, almost inaudible withdrawals. The composition as a whole is sometimes entertaining but mostly dull. Not even this much can be said for the works of another American: Lejaren Hiller’s Algorithms I (Version I and Version IV—both 1968). These collections of beeps, buzzes, and bangs were composed by means of programs fed into computers and transcribed, on their reemergence, into notation to be played by conventional instruments assisted by the ubiquitous tape recorder. However this music was assembled, it lacks all vitality, and remains heavy, turgid, and meaningless. Filling out this ail-American record is Elliott Schwartz’s Signals (1968), a duet with shouts for trombone and double-bass. Here the only achievement might be the provision of suitable background music for Hobbes’s pessimistic view of the life of man.
The final record begins with still another piece of electronic music bearing a pretentious title, Cybernetics III (1969), by the German Roland Kayn. Here the acoustical material is fashioned entirely out of vocal material subjected to almost complete transformation. The result, as is typical of so much tape music, is the replication of the sound of weather, jet planes, and water running down the drain. The series as a whole ends with the Italian Luigi Nono’s Contrappunto dialettico alla mente—“Dialectical Counterpoint for the Mind” (1968). Nono has made no secret of his Communist sympathies, and this work has an explicit political program based upon such crimes as the murder of Malcolm X and imperial aggression in Vietnam. To dramatize the presentation of his concerns, the composer uses electronically transformed voices along with material produced by square and triangular wave oscillators. Though the piece does have a vague tonality, as a whole it resembles old-fashioned radio drama sound effects, this time yoked to agit-prop purposes. Perhaps the significance of Nono’s compositions—this work as well as his other similar political efforts—is the realization of just how much the effectiveness of program music depends on the appeal of the program.
The Deutsche Grammophon Avant-Garde series has passed into history, and it is hardly too much to say that the entire musical movement which it documented is in the process of suffering a similar fate. Audiences the world over continue their chestnut-worshipping ways, closely followed by their leaders, the best performers. The dream of the avant-garde that it might entice a complete generation of alienated and affluent youth to tune in the new has proved chimerical, as has the idea that music can be revolution by another name. And although related music—sometimes called by new names and often written by new figures—continues to be produced, the intellectual excitement seems gone, and the classical avant-gardists themselves appear dispirited and disunited. Their own corrosive dissatisfaction with what they have done in the past generation is convincingly demonstrated by their restless search—always so marked in the cases of Cage and Stockhausen—for ever newer, ever more outré ways to reach any kind of audience at all.
What went wrong to dash the high hopes of so many young, bright, and talented minds? Why has so much effort left so little of permanent value in its wake? One cannot but be aware of the danger of making sweeping judgments on the basis of even as generous a sample as that contained on these eighteen records. Of course, hundreds and hundreds of composers wrote advanced music in the postwar period without having their works represented on the Deutsche Grammophon series. And as has already been mentioned, mainstream music—a category probably wide enough to include someone as involved in the past with the avant-garde as Pierre Boulez—continues to be written and performed and even to some extent appreciated. But the Deutsche Grammophon series nevertheless does cover the main postwar modernist trends of control, chance, improvisation, theater music, and non-music; it is, furthermore, fairly eclectic in its choice of composers and brilliantly recorded.
The most striking evidence these records provide is, it seems to me, the failure of electronic means of musical composition and performance. After 1945—and for Cage even earlier—it seemed as if electricity was an Aladdin’s Lamp, capable of providing composers with total control over the production of music and its realization. But in place of this grandiose dream of unimaginable power eternally wielded, the reality of electricity’s coldness and lifelessness, and the horrid invariability of sounds fossilized on tape became clear—at least to all those not professionally involved. Not only did the tape composer’s ability to make any sound he might desire—so convenient with the new keyboard synthesizers—prove destructive of the hierarchy of sounds which had previously divided music from noise; performers now found that easy amplification of their efforts, divorced from physical labor, devalued performance. So electronic music has become a vehicle for Walter Carlos’s gutting of the classics, for rock bands and movie soundtracks, for sonic environments, TV commercials, and white noise to sleep by.
No more successful has been the attempt to force normal instruments beyond their conventional use. Though the range of possible sounds has in general been greatly increased, the new techniques on wind and string instruments have mostly proved either hard to hear or no more than mere eccentricities. Furthermore, the use of the inside of the piano as a playing field—so attractive to children and to people who don’t play the piano conventionally very well—has produced effects of limited variability, weak audibility (unless amplified), and musical sterility. And the whole panoply of performance techniques based upon aggression—hitting and banging instruments under the guise of using them as percussion—reflects only the widespread dissatisfaction and anger with traditional music among the avant-garde.
It is significant that there has been some attempt made to conceal the extent to which this movement has been a real, albeit failed, revolution. Like most revolutions—especially those in trouble—this one has increasingly looked for roots in the past, finding forebears in Bach and Mozart, Liszt and Wagner, Debussy and Bartók. And the revolution’s fellow-travelers, consistent with their nature, manage to approve the most shocking provocations on the grounds of the necessity of the new, while always being quick to defend the provocateurs’ backsliding on grounds of their reconciliation with tradition. And, as has so often happened with revolutions in the past, the results of the avant-garde movement turned out to be the opposite of what had been intended. The desire for logical organization of musical material turned into a total serialism which left no room for creative contingency. The desire for freedom from serialism produced random sounds; the writing of continuously varied notes produced monotony. The return to some sort of recognizable harmonic structure produced the boredom of Stimmung’s one chord. New musical sounds turned out to be noise. Freedom from the vagaries of performers produced improvisation, in which nothing remained except performance. And most unhappily, the reaction against the extra-musical associations of romantic program music left composition almost wholly dependent upon conceptual schemes and written explanations.
Something of the extent of the avant-garde’s failure can be seen from a sad and ironic little record, now also out of print, containing Mauricio Kagel’s contribution to the Beethoven bicentennial celebration of 1970.2 Though Kagel seems to have felt that the best tribute would be not to play this music at all, he nonetheless had the idea of making an avant-garde collage from passages in some of Beethoven’s most beautiful and familiar pieces. Treating Beethoven’s music as he might treat his own, he subjects the passages on this record to every structural indignity, combining them, mixing them, and tearing them almost apart. Yet these samples of Beethoven, momentarily intact in melody, rhythm, and harmony, continue to resonate, casting their spell across the centuries. Kagel has thus taught us, regardless of his own ambivalence, something about the nature of musical immortality. No friend of new music can be happy with the implications of such a lesson.
1 DG 137 001/012, 2543 001/006.
2 Ludwig van. DG 2530 014.