Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Facing the shark

Just got off the phone with an old friend, also a composer, still in California. In one of those off-moments when old friends lose their manners, we started to play a game of When-Did-Famous-Composer-X-Jump-The-Shark? After having agreed upon Die Feen and Kontakte, better sense and a measure of good will took hold of both of us, and we set aside the game, agreeing that good composers never really jump the shark. All composers are uneven, but each has the potential to escape from the mouth of Leviathan and follow disaster with something new, wonderful, and deep.

After Guillaume Tell, Rossini feared the coming shark and retired to the kitchen (where he composed the brioche, beef, fois gras, and truffel in madeira sauce masterpiece known as Tournedos Rossini), managing a come-back with a series of "sins of old age", ranging from the Petite messe solemnelle to some delightful and strange piano pieces, thus escaping the shark altogether and having in sum, a long, well-fed, and happy life. It's possible that Cage, with some disastrous experiences with performances of the Song Books and the orchestral version of Cheap Imitation saw the shark coming, and radically rethought his practices, in particular his responsibilties towards performers. I believe that this rethinking played itself out most consequently in the late "number" pieces, in which establishing the balance between clarity of instructions and challenge to individual musical sensibilities became the center of his work. Satie, Richard Strauss, Schoenberg, Stravinsky: all had remarkable late works that cannot be separated from the personal and musical crises that accompanied them: Socrate, Four Last Songs, the String Trio, the Requiem Canticles. And more recently the Ninth Symphony of Malcolm Arnold, in its way a most experimental (!) piece of music, has echoed this pattern of crisis and resolution- (or even redemption) -through-composition.

So, let us remain optimistic: perhaps Stockhausen's new 24-part Klang will prove the shark to have been a temporary, if long-overstayed, visitor to Köthen. The pieces so far of Klang suggest that Stockhausen has returned to the economy and sharpness that marked his strongest works -- IMO the early piano pieces, the electronic studies, Zeitmaße, and Kontra-Punkte -- while also returning to a spiritual impulse similar to that which marked Gesang der Junglinge, i.e. less Urantia Book, more Veni creator spiritus. Optimistic, always!

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Die Feen? That's really cruel.

Anonymous said...

Einstein on the Beach

PWS said...

I know many who say Hindemith "jumped the shark" after he changed his radically modern idiom into the neo-Bachian modal fourths abounding utility music thing. I for one love both eras of Hindemith.

A lot of people also criticize Ravel's final works but again-I love them (the Piano Concertos, 'Don Quioxte').

My choice for the moment would be Steve Reich. Other than "Cello Counterpoint", there haven't been many pieces in recent years (following "The Cave", which is a huge bore) that have even come close to masterpieces like "Music For 18 Musicians" or even "Different Trains". But who knows...

Daniel Wolf said...

PWS --

I'll take both Hindemiths, but the older Hindemith did take to revising works of the earlier Hindemith, and those revisions were unnecessary.

Ken said...

But Stockhausen doesn't live in Kothen -- that was Bach. Stockhausen lives in Kurten (near Cologne).

Daniel Wolf said...

Thanks, Ken, it is actually Kürten, which should tell you something about how well my English version of ViaVoice handles my idiosyncratic German (I don't see so well these days so am dependent upon some technological assistance -- but still no substitute for better editing).