Part of the Rest Is Noise Audio Guide
Note: The first page number is for the hardback edition, the second number is for the paperback.
Postwar avant-garde music may be said to have begun with Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, first heard in January 1941 at the German prisoner-of-war camp Stalag VIII A. I wrote more about the Quartet in a New Yorker article. The opening movement, "Liturgie du cristal," is notable for its free and irregular movement through time:
Live performance from the Banff Centre, May 24, 2007, with Geoff Nuttall, violin; David Krakauer, clarinet; Matt Haimovitz, cello; and Frederic Chiu, piano. By kind permission of the Banff Centre. Allowed under ASCAP license.
BOULEZ AND CAGE
Messiaen was immensely influential as a teacher, and one of his most notable students was Pierre Boulez, who made his name both with violently expressive scores and with violently opinionated polemics. Boulez's earliest extant works show powerfully the influence of Anton Webern, who, for many young composers of the postwar era, embodied a strict, pure style shorn of Romantic nostalgia and the detritus of a defunct tradition. Compare this passage from the beginning of Boulez's First Piano Sonata (see p. 362 / p. 393-94 of The Rest is Noise) —
— with Webern's Piano Variations:
Boulez moved on to the rigorously organized technique of total serialism, which organized various aspects of sound — pitch, duration, volume, and attack — into series of twelve, in line with the twelve-tone system. Messiaen had made steps toward such a system in his Mode de valeurs et d'intensités, or Scale of Durations and Dynamics (p. 363 / p. 395):
Peter Hill, piano; Regis 2056.
Here is the beginning of Boulez's total-serialist Structures 1a, for two pianos (p. 364 / p. 395-96):
Alfons and Aloys Kontarsky, pianos; Wergo 6011-2.
In 1949, Boulez befriended a young American composer named John Cage, who was visiting Paris to do research on the music of Erik Satie. John Cage had been pushing music in even more startling directions during the war years, writing for prepared piano, junkyard percussion, and electronic gadgetry. Go here for a good collection of Cage links; also worth consulting are James Pritchett's writings on Cage. Here is an excerpt from Cage's pioneering 1939 piece Imaginary Landscape No. 1, for variable-speed turntables, cymbal, and piano (p. 365 / p. 397):
With Cage, Xenia Cage, Doris Dennison, and Margaret Jansen; from the 25-Year Retrospective Concert of the Music of John Cage, Town Hall, New York, May 15, 1948; Wergo 286 247.
And this is from Sonata V, in Cage's cycle of Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano:
In Paris, Cage encountered the pioneering electronic composer Pierre Schaeffer, who, after the war, began assembling collages made up pre-recorded pieces of tape. The first of Schaeffer's Cinq Études de bruits, or Five Noise Etudes, consists of locomotive sounds that the composer recorded at a train station (p. 369 / pp. 401-2):
Back in New York, Cage constructed his own tape collage, Williams Mix, made up of some six hundred tape fragments arranged according to the demands of I Ching. You can listen to it at the German site Medien Art Netz, along with Imaginary Landscape No. 1 in its entirety.
Greatly impressed by Boulez's recent music, Cage moved toward a more fractured, abrasive style in 1950 and 1951. In the third movement of his Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra (pp. 366-67 / pp. 398-99), he uses the I Ching to decide which element from an array of sixty-four sounds should come next. Some of the sounds are, in fact, silences:
Stephen Drury, prepared piano, with the Callithumpian Consort of New England Conservatory; Mode 57.
Joining Cage in the experimental arena were Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, and Earle Brown. Feldman pioneered what came to be known as graphic notation — scores that presented new kinds of written instructions for the realization of music, often giving performers freedom of choice in the process (p. 368 / p. 400). At a Northwestern University site you can see examples of graphic scores. Here is a sample page of Brown's Available Forms I; the Brown site also offers an MP3 excerpt.
Cage's early radical phase reached its height in the summer of 1952, when he unveiled the first "happening," at Black Mountain College, and 4'33", the so-called "silent piece" (pp. 368-69 / p. 401). In many of his activities, he abdicated the traditional role of the composer — one who writes down music for others to perform — and instead assumed the role of what was later known as a "performance artist." In 1960, he showed up on the American TV show I've Got a Secret to perform his Water Walk, to the seeming delight of the studio audience:
COPLAND, STRAVINSKY, AND THE COLD WAR
A page from Aaron Copland's FBI file. Click to enlarge.
The Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States placed uncomfortable pressures on American composers who had been allied with international, Communist-leaning organizations in the 1930s. Aaron Copland was one of these. In the online archives of Life magazine you can see Copland (spelled "Copeland") appearing amid a gallery of "Dupes and Fellow Travelers." The complete transcript of Copland's 1953 appearance before Joe McCarthy's inquisatorial Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations can be downloaded at the Senate website (see vol. 2, p. 1267).
In the fifties and sixties, Copland drifted away from the populist style with which he had long been associated, investigating twelve-tone writing and unleashing potent dissonances. His orchestral piece Connotations reduced Jackie Kennedy into near-silence at its Lincoln Center premiere in 1962 (p. 381-82 / p. 415). Was Copland trying to shield himself from political harm? Some have suggested as much, although the strong resemblance between his postwar music and earlier scores such as the Piano Variations suggests that he was mainly following inner impulses. Compare the opening of Connotations —
with the opening of the Variations:
Stravinsky made his first move toward twelve-tone writing in his setting of "To-Morrow Shall Be My Dancing Day," from the Cantata of 1952 (p. 385 / p. 419). The theme, which seems to be in C major, is heard first in original form, then in retrograde, then in inversion, then in retrograde inversion:
In the fourth of several canons, with the main subject unfolding both in the original C and in two transpositions, the sense of tonality momentarily disappears. Disturbingly, the medieval text here takes on an anti-Semitic flavor:
Stravinsky conducting the Columbia Chamber Ensemble, with Alexander Young, tenor; Sony 46301.
In the ballet Agon (pp. 389-90 / pp. 423-24), Stravinsky uses a twelve-note series for the first time, but the rhythms and the timbres remain obviously Stravinskyan. This is from the Coda of the First Pas-de-Trois:
The Fanfare that recurs through the ballet keeps one foot firmly planted in C major:
Stravinsky conducting the Los Angeles Festival Symphony Orchestra, Sony 46292.
From the Lacrimosa of Requiem Canticles, Stravinsky's farewell (p. 390 / p. 424-25):
Oliver Knussen conducting the London Sinfonietta, with Susan Bickley, contralto; DG 477068.
A hunting castle outside the German city of Darmstadt became the unlikely headquarters of the musical avant-garde in Europe after the Second World War. The International Summer Courses for New Music, to give the full title of the Darmstadt gathering, are still going strong, as this website attests. Significant composers who assembled regularly at Darmstadt included Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono, György Ligeti, Bruno Maderna, and Luciano Berio; Iannis Xenakis did not come until later.
The official Stockhausen site contains more or less everything you need to know about the output of the leading postwar German avant-gardist. There are extensive sound samples from Stockhausen's works, including Klavierstück I, Zeitmasse, and Gruppen, for three orchestras (pp. 395-96 / pp. 430-31). In one remarkable passage of Gruppen, chords are passed from one group of brass players to another:
Shortly after comes an all-out pandemonium for the three orchestras together:
Stockhausen, Bruno Maderna, and Michael Gielen conducting the WDR Orchestra; Stockhausen Edition No. 5.
Compare the first example to a passage in the Scherzo of Mahler's Fifth Symphony, where the note F is passed around from one horn to another:
At Medien Art Netz you can hear Stockhausen's pioneering Etude I, the first sine-tone composition, and his Gesang der Jünglinge, probably the most formidable piece of the early electronic era (p. 395 / p. 430). These pages at the website of Columbia University's music department have much more about the genesis and structure of Stockhausen's electronic masterwork. UbuWeb has a rich trove of Stockhausen films; TRANS und so weiter, from 1974, shows him at the height of his messianic phase.
Luigi Nono combined serialist complexity with fervent left-wing messages (pp. 396-97 / pp. 431-32). In the "Demonstration" scene of Nono's music-theater piece Intolleranza 1960, the chorus shouts / sings the slogans of various political movements: "No pasaran!" (from the Spanish Civil War), "Morte al fascismo!" (from Communist partisans in Italy), "Nie wieder!" (from 1920s-era opposition to German rearmament), "Down with discrimination!" (from the American civil rights movement), and "La sale guerre!" (from protests against the French colonialism in Vietnam):
Bernhard Kontarsky conducting the chorus and orchestra of the Stuttgart Staatsoper; Teldec 4509-97302-2.
In Iannis Xenakis's gorgeously strange Metastasis, individual tones melt into fields of timbre (pp. 397-98 / pp. 432-33):
Hans Rosbaud conducting the Southwest Radio Symphony at the Donaueschingen Musiktage, Oct. 16, 1955 (world premiere); col legno AU-031800.
From the final movement of Boulez's Marteau sans maître (p. 398 / pp. 433-34):
Pierre Boulez conducting the Ensemble InterContemporain; DG 000404302.
Milton Babbitt, Peter Mauzey, Vladimir Ussachevsky in front of the RCA Mark II Synthesizer at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, now the Computer Music Center.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy wrote a letter to Musical America calling for a "New Frontier in the Arts." At the height of the Cold War, even the most advanced precincts of the music world benefited from the widespread belief that America could not afford to fall behind in any field of endeavor.
The most intellectually formidable American composer of the Cold War era was Milton Babbitt (pp. 401-4 / pp. 437-39), whose esoteric theoretical disquisitions conceal a musical sensibility of wit, charm, and lyric grace. The Three Compositions (1947-48) have a distinctly jazzy thrust:
Robert Taub, piano; Harmonia Mundi 905160.
NewMusicBox has many more samples of Babbitt's music, and also a wide-ranging interview with the ever-ebullient composer (Q: "Now, do you try to steer [students] toward twelve-tone music?" A: "God no! I mean who am I to send these people to their death?"). Babbitt passed away on Jan. 29, 2011.
Elliott Carter (pp. 404-5 / pp. 439-41), another giant of postwar American modernist music, celebrated his hundredth birthday in 2008 and, amazingly, is still composing at a vigorous pace. Boosey & Hawkes, his publisher, set up a special site to mark the centenary. Here is a passage from the Variations movement of Carter's String Quartet No. 1, in which each player seems to pursue an independent path through austere terrain:
One of Carter's signature effects is an all-out frenzy, perhaps comparable to the "action painting" of Jackson Pollock. This is from the Double Concerto for Harpsichord and Piano:
Paul Jacobs, harpsichord, Gilbert Kalish, piano, with Arthur Weisberg conducting Contemporary Chamber Ensemble; Nonesuch 79183.
Here is a dramatic passage from Carter's Piano Concerto, in which the solo piano, seemingly representing a battered individual in a chaotic, mechanized age, is reduced to playing a single note while the orchestra rages and seethes around it:
Bernstein and Copland, 1945. From the Leonard Bernstein Collection, Library of Congress.
Leonard Bernstein, during much of his lifetime the most famous classical musician in America, was something of a loner as a composer, resisting the widespread tendency toward atonal and twelve-tone writing. His work feeds voraciously on the great classical tradition from Mozart to Mahler, as well as on Stravinsky, Gershwin, and a host of other twentieth-century influences. Here are two examples of Bernstein's remarkable ability to transform a familiar tonal figure into a modern, American organism. First, his apparent redeployment (conscious or not) of the opening motive of Sibelius's Fifth Symphony in the song "New York, York," from On the Town (p. 407 / p. 443):
Osmo Vänskä conducting the Lahti Symphony, BIS 1286/88; 1961 recording of On the Town with Adolph Green et al, Columbia 60538.
And these samples show the derivation of "Somewhere," in West Side Story, from the second movement of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto (p. 408 / p. 443-44):
There is a website celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of West Side Story, which, despite its Broadway origins, has every right to be placed in the American opera canon next to Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.
For a deeper examination of Bernstein's political dealings — his FBI file and his adversarial relationship with the Nixon administration — see my online New Yorker feature, The Bernstein Files.