Category Archives: 20th- and 21st-century music

Peter Maxwell Davies and sonata form

Peter Maxwell Davies

Throughout much of his career, Peter Maxwell Davies  has had a preoccupation with sonata form. He has exploited the tension between this form and his other conflicting musical preoccupations, such as a penchant for continuous development and an abhorrence of exact repetition.

In his earlier works, Davies at times referred to the presence of a “ghost” of sonata form, whereas more recently he directly states that some of his pieces are in this form. Throughout its evolution the salient elements of sonata form have been contrast, conflict, and resolution, all three of which apply in an examination of Davies’s use of it.

In his second Taverner fantasia, the first movement appears on the surface to be in sonata form, but is actually driven by other principles such as recurring chordal material. The opening movement of the first symphony has the general outline of a sonata form without adhering to its contrasting thematic implications. The more recent third quartet combines the formal and harmonic implications of a pre-Beethovenian, essentially binary, sonata form, with a highly complex and idiosyncratic serial technique derived from magic squares.

This according to “The ghost in the machine: Sonata form in the music of Peter Maxwell Davies” by Rodney Lister, an essay included in Peter Maxwell Davies studies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009) pp. 106–28).

Today is Sir Peter’s 80th birthday! Below, Davies conducts the BBC Philharmonic in his first symphony.

BONUS: How to pronounce the composer’s last name.

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Milhaud and jazz

Milhaud Brubeck

In a 1922 interview in New York City, Darius Milhaud described how jazz had recently taken the French musical scene by storm, to the delight of young composers like himself.

“Jazz interests us tremendously. We are fascinated and intrigued by the jazz rhythms and are devoting serious study to it. There are new elements of clarity and rhythmic power that were a real shock to us when we heard jazz for the first time.”

“It was in 1919, immediately after the war, that the first jazz band was heard in Paris. To us it was a musical event of genuine import. Music had long been under the domination of the impressionist school. Poetry was the predominating element. Jazz came to us as a good shock—like a cold shower when you have been half asleep with ennui.”

This according to “Jazz, says Darius Milhaud, is the most significant thing in music today” (The musical observer XXIII [March 1923] p. 23; reprinted in Jazz in print 1856–1929: An anthology of selected early readings in jazz history [Hillsdale: Pendragon press, 2002] p. 235).

Today is Milhaud’s 120th birthday! Above, with Dave Brubeck at Mills College; below, La création du monde from 1923.

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The Arizona Center for Judaic Studies publication

The Jewish Experience in Classical Music

Cambridge Scholars launched the series The Arizona Center for Judaic Studies publication in 2014 with The Jewish experience in classical music: Shostakovich and Asia, edited by Alexander Tentser.

The book’s juxtaposition of two highly dissimilar composers allows an exploration of the breadth of influence of traditional Jewish culture on Western classical music in the 20th century and beyond. The first part focuses on the humane qualities of Dmitrij Šostakovič’s personality—his honesty and courage, which enabled him in difficult times to express Jewish torment and suffering under both the Soviet and Nazi regimes through his works; the second part is dedicated to the music of Daniel Asia and to his philosophical and religious identification with Judaism.

Below, Šostakovič and Nina Dorliak perform one of his settings of traditional Jewish songs, and Jonathan Shames performs Asia’s Why (?) Jacob.

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Basie’s unprecedented sound

Count Basie-Ethel Waters 1951

When the Count Basie Orchestra first achieved prominence in 1936 it was using a basic antiphonal style and repertoire borrowed from other performance groups.

In those days, the originality of Basie’s orchestra lay in its rhythm section and in the abilities of its several outstanding soloists. In effect, Basie brought a version of the Kansas City backroom jam session onto the bandstand.

When he re-formed his orchestra in 1950–51, after over a year of leading a sextet, Basie depended on mass effects, orchestral precision, adventurous voicings, and a new repertoire.

During this time he relied on the talents of composer-orchestrators Frank Foster, composer of Shiny stockings, Neal Hefti (Cute), Thad Jones (Speaking of sounds), and others. Basie’s new sound slightly echoed that of the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra of the 1930s, but was otherwise without precedent in jazz history.

This according to “Horses in midstream: Count Basie in the 1950s” by Martin T. Williams (Annual review of jazz studies II [1983] pp. 1–6).

Today is Basie’s 110th birthday! Above and below, the Count Basie Orchestra in 1951 (pictured above with Ethel Waters).

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Pat Metheny’s extended work

Metheny Way Up

In 2005 Pat Metheny was alarmed by shortening attention spans and bite-sized media blips.

“The new form now is ringtones!” he exclaimed in an interview. “It went from a symphony to an album, then to singles, then edit your single, then four-bar loops, and now it’s down to one or two seconds.

In response Metheny created The way up, a CD comprising a single work that lasts over an hour. The guitarist described it as “a protest in the purest sense of the word—it offers an alternative, not just a shrill polemic…[the album] “is a reaction to a world where things are getting shorter, dumber, less interesting, less detailed, more predictable.”

“If you look at the whole history of the group, we’ve been totally interested in expansion in terms of form… It seemed like now was the time to go all the way and attempt to use the CD itself as a platform.”

This according to “The advancing guitarist” by David L. Adler (JazzTimes XXXV/2 [March 2005] pp. 36–42).

Today is Metheny’s 60th birthday! Below, the group plays the full work live in April 2005.

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Music in media

twilight zone 2

Pendragon Press launched the series Music in media in 2013 with A dimension of sound: Music in “The twilight zone” by Reba Wissner.

Wissner explores the Twilight zone series and offers multiple readings of the ways in which it used music, offering an understanding of the ways in which music—both original and stock—can be used in an anthology television show.

The book focuses both on the ways in which newly composed scores and stock music were used in the series and on how the music enhances and interacts with what we see and hear onscreen.

Below, an abridged version of The invaders (1961), one of Rod Serling’s favorite episodes; no words are spoken until the final scene.

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Cage’s microtonal rāgas

cage ragas tabla notation

John Cage’s 18 microtonal rāgas are found in Solo for voice 58 from Song books (1970).

To perform them, the dhrupad and experimental music specialist Amelia Cuni decided to apply experimental procedures to dhrupad vocalism and to elaborate her Indian music background in a new music context. She also wanted to explore an influential contemporary composer’s take on rāgas and step back from her personal involvement with the tradition and observe it from another perspective.

In collaboration with the Berliner Festspiele and several other contemporary music venues, Cuni’s interpretation of Solo for voice 58 was premiered in Berlin in 2006 and has been performed since then at several European and U.S. festivals.

This according to Cuni’s “Chance generated ragas in Solo for voice 58: A dhrupad singer performs John Cage” (Journal of the Indian Musicological Society  XLI [2011–12] pp. 127–54).

Above, the tabla notation for the performance; below, a studio recording of Cuni’s realization. More about the work and Cuni’s version is here; a full live performance can be viewed here (the performance starts at 10:00).

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Koussevitsky and American composers

Koussevitsky 74th with Bernstein & Foss

Serge Koussevitsky was a tireless champion of contemporary American composers during his tenure at the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Once he had decided on the value of a new work he was determined to program it, regardless of whether it was long, abstruse, dissonant, difficult to perform, or difficult to comprehend. Often he arranged for the major portion of the week’s rehearsal time to be devoted to perfecting the orchestra’s interpretation of the new work.

This according to “Serge Koussevitzky and the American composer” by Aaron Copland (The musical quarterly XXX/3 [July 1944] pp. 255–269); an appendix lists 123 American works that he programmed during his first 20 years in Boston.

Today is Koussevitsky’s 140th birthday! Above, the maestro celebrates his 74th at Tanglewood with Leonard Bernstein and Lukas Foss; below, his recording of Copland’s Appalachian spring.

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FilmMusik

Ennio Morricone-FilmMusik

In 2014 Edition text + kritik launched the series FilmMusik with Ennio Morricone, a collection of essays edited by Guido Heldt, Tarek Krohn, Peter Moormann, and Willem Strank. Compiled in the year of Morricone’s 85th birthday, the book encompasses traditional readings of his music as well as new perspectives on it.

Morricone became famous in the 1960s as the composer of the music for Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. Their unconventional sound is, however, only one aspect of his multifaceted work, which—in addition to more than 500 film and television scores—also includes classical orchestral music, avant-garde jazz, electronic music, and borrowings from contemporary pop music styles. The book explores the full diversity of Morricone’s oeuvre and lets the maestro speak for himself in an exclusive interview.

Below, an excerpt from Giuseppe Tornatore’s Malèna (2000), one of five of Morricone’s Oscar-nominated film scores (he received an honorary Oscar in 2007).

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Sorabji’s marathon premiere

Sorabji 1933

Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji completed his Second Organ Symphony in 1932. Over 78 years later, on 6 June 2010, Kevin Bowyer premiered the work in a nine-hour marathon; the symphony is longer than Mahler’s first seven combined.

Bowyer performed from his own hand-written edition of the work’s 350+ page score. When he learned of the project, the composer asked a friend “Why is this young man going to such trouble?”

“Well”, the friend ventured, “had your manuscript been much clearer, he might not have had to.” Sorabji promptly retorted that if all his manuscripts had been written with such fastidious care he probably never would have gotten around to writing that symphony at all!

This according to “Sorabji’s second organ symphony played at last: Kevin Bowyer’s nine-hour marathon” by Alistair Hinton (The organ LXXXIX/353 [summer 2010] pp. 41–47).

Above, Sorabji in 1933, a year after completing the symphony; below, a much briefer example of his work.

Related article: Sorabji resource site

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