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The People United: Variation III December 1, 2009

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The People United: Variation III.  Thanksgiving Break.

It all begins here: PTU Theme


The People United: Variation II October 20, 2009

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The People United Will Never Be Defeated: Variation 2. Notes next week.

It all begins here: The People United: Theme

The People United: Variation I October 1, 2009

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The People United Will Never Be Defeated: Variation 1.

“Please do not unplug the humidifier…” That’s more or less what the white square on the piano reads. I’m pretty sure I left my music at home, because judging from the tucked shirt, I must have been teaching that day.

Continued from The People United: Theme

So, how do you start a variation cycle about the desire for socialist revolution? “Weaving, delicate but firm,” reads the instructions to the performer. That explains the incessant and caressing crossing of the hands. The theme is still discernible, but it has been atomized so that certain notes appear to jump up or down an orbital; we never hear more than one note at a time (monophony). And yet, despite the sparsity of this movement, the music bounces across all seven registers of the keyboard in under a minute flat.

Variation I (0:06)

Variation I (0:06)

Notes, though, aren’t the only thing that can be woven, and as the composer demonstrates, you can also “braid” different patterns of articulation, i.e. the way one attacks the notes. Four kinds of attack are featured here: legato (smooth), staccato (detached), tenuto (sustained), and accento (accented). Neither species of articulation, of course, is unusual by itself, but together, they conspire to turn this otherwise simple movement into a hand-eye coordination nightmare; the unpredictable accents certainly preserve something of the defiant attitude of the theme.

It’s quite possible that Rzewsky had Webern in mind here, since the latter also wrote a set of piano variations that tends towards the same kind of atomization. Yet in Webern’s variations, the movements come together through serial operations and though the residual echoes of strange and naked intervals. The interest of this variation, however, lies in the means rather than the effects. Pixellating the theme to its barest outlines, this variation uses that economy to dramatize the material extremes of the instrument.

Go to The People United: Variation II

The People United: The Pied Pianist September 25, 2009

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Pianos don’t travel well. That’s why we have Mason and Hamlin, but no Pied Pianist. But with Web 2.0, anyone can now be a digital troubadour. Of course, we take our act to the web for different reasons. Some want fame, exposure, a record contract. Others are just looking for a sympathetic niche or coterie audience out there. In my case, I simply miss that feeling of accomplishment after connecting with a work of music so well you can perform it in concert. After sweating in practice, nothing compares to that high I used to experience, when I could run the course from start to finish in competition or in the company of friends and family.

Which brings me to the starting line of Frederick Rzewski’s pianistic marathon, a piece I’ll probably never finish, yet one whose technical demands will keep me occupied, and whose symbolic dimension, I think, will keep me keeping at it. The People United Will Never Be Defeated: 36 Variations on a Chilean Song has a title that makes it impossible to separate aesthetics and politics. The source on which the variations are based is the protest anthem, ¡El Pueblo Jamas Sera Jamas Vencido! by Sergio Ortega and Quilapayun, and through supplementary quotations of other popular political songs, The People throws its support to socialist movements past and present. The outlines of this cultural struggle emerge in the score through playing directions such as “with determination,” “recklessly,” “in a militant manner,” “optimistically.” At certain points, the pianist is called upon to whistle in reflection and in a moment recalling John Cage’s 4’11”, slam the piano lid shut. Yet if this work were intended as propaganda, why make the message so complex?

If there’s any musical work as encyclopedic in style as Ulysses is in literature, this is it. The occasion informing this piece is the coming together of conservatory-trained and folk musicians under the Unidad Popular coalition in the Chilean nation during the seventies just before Pinochet came to power. In tribute to this cultural moment, Rzewski aims at a synthesis of diverse musical practices both “popular” and “avant-garde.”

Admittedly, the classical tradition predominates here. Critics have compared the work to the Goldberg Variations on the basis that the final movement reprises the original theme (even though the same could be said of Beethoven’s Op. 109), and several variations (No. 3, for example) are indeed canonic in form. The architectonic structure to which every movement is subordinated also bears the strong impress of composers like Webern, Boulez, and Stockhausen. The thirty-six variations break down into six major cycles, each with six stages: “1) simple events; 2) rhythms; 3) melodies; 4) counterpoints; 5) harmonies…” The sixth stage of each cycle recapitulates material from the previous five, so that each of the variations in the sixth cycle reprises its five corresponding sister variations.

Yet strong currents of popular musics keep the variations from spiraling out of the orbit of the intelligible. The rhythmic writing lends the variations a catchiness that is absent in the music of Rzewski’s fellow experimentalists. Several of the variations recall the phase music of Terry Riley and Steve Reich; others, early rock; others, still, reflect Rzewsky’s experience as a jazz improviser and the osmosis of Latin American folk music into New York. Only by some strange feat of alchemy are all of these elements successfully negotiated within the texture of the whole.

From start to finish, The People United takes about hour to perform, but a single-sitting performance is not at all my goal. No, I’ll leave that to the Ursula Oppens’ and Frederick Rzewski’s and the Stephen Drury’s of the piano world. I’m content right now to work piecemeal from one variation to the next, even if it takes me several years, posting a renditions and reflections and swapping them for improved versions at each leg of my musical odyssey in which I wear the closest thing I have to particolored shirts (my teaching attire) and see how many different pianos I can get my hands on.

Despite their technical demands, the variations are short, so that unlike with a piece with infrequent divisions, I can feel l am making progress. In the future, I suppose it would be possible to string together a number of such recording sessions to produce a complete, however imperfect, set. So with determination, I give you Rzewski’s theme (“With determination”).

Go to The People United: Variation I

The People United: Theme September 14, 2009

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The theme to Frederick Rzewski’s stirring set of piano variations. Liner notes next week.

Go to The People United: Variation I.

Clement Greenberg at 100: Part 2 March 20, 2009

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I tried writing a short sequel to the previous post on Greenberg, but it metastasized beyond bloggable size. I really should be saving my thoughts on Greenberg for the dissertation and for the presentation I’m supposed to give in two weeks. But while I’m on the topic of Greenberg’s war against interdisciplinarity, it’s worth pointing out that as much as Greenberg hardlined for purity in the arts, he could not fully exorcise his own criticism of the evils he found in rival critics like Rosenberg, O’Hara, and Hess. He was, however, more circumspect.

On Clyfford Still, in “‘American-Type’ Painting” (1955):


Clyfford Still, 1957-D

Still is the first really Whitmanesque kind of painting we have had, not only because it makes large, loose gestures, or because it breaks the hold of value contrast as Whitman’s verse line broke the equally traditional hold of meter; but just as much because, as Whitman’s poetry assimilated, with varying success, large quantities of stale journalistic and oratorical prose, so Still’s painting is infused with that stale, prosaic kind of painting to which Barnett Newman has given the name of “buckeye.”

The fact that “meter” and “value contrast” are governing rules which the avant-garde in poetry and painting, respectively, shattered hardly justifies an analogy between Whitman’s poetry and Still’s painting.

Greenberg appealed to “experts” when he wished to give his interarts analogies scientific weight. In “The Crisis of the Easel Picture” (1948), Greenberg cites the approval of two musicologists for his usage of “polyphony” to characterize how “a number of surprisingly different tendencies in modern art”—”expressionism, cubism, and Klee, as well as…late impressionism”—converge towards radical “uniformity” in the canvases of contemporary painters like Jean Dubufett, Mark Tobey, and Jackson Pollock. Instead of the division between foreground and background, the canvas gets parceled out into increasingly equivalent yet independent spaces. This trend towards a “polyphonic” aesthetic marks for Greenberg “not an eccentric phenomenon” but “an important new phase in the history of painting”:

Pablo Picasso, Guitar Player (1910)

Pablo Picasso, Guitar Player (1910)

Pauk Klee, Ancient Sound (1925)

Pauk Klee, Ancient Sound (1925)

The new polyphonic kind of painting that I refer to uses less explicit oppositions, and it is more nearly anticipated by Picasso’s and Braque’s analytical cubism and by Klee than by Mondrian himself….

To characterize what I mean I have advisedly borrowed the term “polyphonic,” from Messrs. Kurt List and René Leibowitz. For the resemblance in aesthetic method between this new category of easel painting and Schönberg’s principle of composition is striking…Mondrian’s term “equivalent” is important here. Just as Schönberg makes every element, every voice and note in the composition of equal importance—different but equivalent—so these painters render every element, every part of the canvas equivalent; and they likewise weave the work of art into a tight mesh whose principle of formal unity is contained and recapitulated in each thread, so that we find the essence of the whole work in every one of its parts. (See Finnegans Wake and Gertrude Stein for the parallel to this in literature.) But these painters go even beyond Schönberg by making their variations upon equivalence so subtle that at first glance we might see in their pictures, not equivalences, but an hallucinated uniformity.

Uniformity–the notion is antiaesthetic. And yet the pictures of many of the painters named above get away with this uniformity, however meaningless or repellent the uninitiated may find it. This very uniformity, this dissolution of the picture into sheer texture, sheer sensation, into the accumulation of similar units of sensation, seems to answer something deep-seated in contemporary sensibility. It corresponds perhaps to the feeling that all hierarchical distinctions have been exhausted, that no area or order of experience is either intrinsically or relatively superior to any other.

Greenberg was clearly unfamiliar with Harry Partch and the microtonalists, who chopped the octave into even further divisions—”variations upon equivalence”—than the semitone. Why it matters that these painters go even beyond Schönberg is beyond me. The reason he allies serialism with Abstract Expressionism is to raise the purist pedigree of the latter, but Greenberg is hardly qualified to speak seriously at any length about music  (Adorno, on the other hand…).

Schönbergs principle of composition (the row matrix)

Schönberg's principle of composition (the serial row matrix)

There is nonetheless some discursive truth behind the analogy between serialism and the paintings of Klee, Mondrian, and the analytical Cubists. The composer Anton Webern, for example, justified Schoenberg’s “principle of composition” in the following terms: “an ash-tray, seen from all sides, is always the same, and yet different. Just so, a [musical] idea should be presented in the most multifarious way possible.” And just as Greenberg sees abstract painting converging towards “variations on equivalence,” Webern saw serialism doing away with the absolutism of the tonic by granting “equal rights” to each of the twelve semitones of the octave (DO-di-RE-ri-MIFA-fi-SOL-si-LA-li-TI). That meant getting rid of the arbitrary rule that music was supposed to have a key or “DO,” an origin around which a piece of music revolves.

Where I disagree with Greenberg are the political conclusions he draws from the formal premises. The passage gently unveils Greenberg’s sympathies with the Marxism of Leon Trotsky. For the same reasons that Trotsky praised Mayakovsky, Greenberg would praise the Abstract Expressionists in his belief that these vanguard artists would be the agents of the Revolution. The enthymeme on which that argument is based, however, presupposes that radical art which does away with “hierarchical distinctions” corresponds with radical politics, a thesis debunked by the counterexamples of Ezra Pound and F.T. Marinetti. One should always remember that radical is always relative: One generation’s radical is another generation’s reactionary.

“For Pound, Cocteau & Picasso” (1959)

so you sit
robes and all
you old ones
and having broken
every rule
they ever made
you now

ain’t you the cool ones.

– Diane Di Prima

Read CG at 100: Part 3.