1974 Electronic Music Revisited

I had the occasion to be “friended” on facebook by the prominent composer and musical thinker Benjamin Boretz.  Eager to re-acquaint myself with Dr. Boretz’s music, I took a look on youtube and unearthed this forgotten CRI gem from 1974.  The liner notes to this album can be found here.

I love listening to dated, antiquated electronic music.

I especially love listening to vinyl transcriptions, and hearing it the way we heard it in 1974, with the occasional aural detritus coming from the scratches.

There is a certain tension in the fight to realize musicality within severe limitations that does not exist in today’s electronic music where practically any imaginable sonic vista can be realized.

By way of allegory: I once took a class on transcriptions when I was a grad student at USC, and we studied transcriptions of the Bach solo cello suites for guitar.  To a person we all agreed that these transcriptions fell flat.  Why?  Because there was no challenge in realizing the triple-stops and quadruple stops.  We realized that in the original version, the struggle is an an inherent part of the aesthetic of the work.

And so it is with electronic music of a certain era.  The struggle to take what a composer friend of mine once pejoratively described as “Martian farts” and make meaningful musical gestures is very much an aspect of this corpus of work that I find incredibly compelling.

The album opens, oddly enough, though, with a piece by Charles Dodge that involves no electronics whatsoever.  Yet, the piece, Folia, readies us for the aesthetic values to follow: a particular emphasis on texture, dynamics, spatial considerations, registral extremes, durational contrasts, and a general reserve and poise, bordering on austerity.  Dodge’s Folia very well could be a reverse-engineered realization of one of his electronic works for this era orchestrated for traditional acoustic instruments.  Clearly Dodge’s musical thinking by 1974 had been indelibly informed by the electronic idiom even when no electronic instruments were actually present.

Extensions for Trumpet and Tape exploits Ronald Anderson’s mellow stylings amiably.  The pitch-content is adventurous, freely post-tonal and lyrical to a fault.  According to the liner notes, equal divisions of the octave are explored, and intervals promoting such divisions (seconds, thirds and tritones) are given particular emphasis.  The sound-world achieved has an almost film noir quality to it: the trope of the street-corner jazz trumpeter blowing away through the night is not out of place here, with the electronics supplying the nocturnal ambiance.

Buelent Arel’s Mimiana II: Frieze is certainly a product of its time, down to the series-name-Roman-numeral-colon-subtitle form of its title.  The pitch content is perhaps the most pitch-definite of the three electronic works on the album, and a certain tension between overall post-tonal pitch organization and localized tonal centers is both aurally evident and, per the liner notes, completely intentional.  The piece is actually a dance score, and its deft use of reverb, space and emphasis on sharp textural contrasts certainly make the premise of human bodies in motion conceivable.

When Boretz’s Group Variations arrives on the scene, what is striking is how different the personality of the music is from the piece that preceded it, even though there is always some risk of a certain amount of superficial sameness in the parlance of sonic Martian flatulence.  Group Variations bookends the album as a sort of contrapositive to Dodge’s Folia, as Group Variations really did begin its life as an acoustic piece for chamber orchestra, which was then realized for synthesizer.  What one exchanges are the timbral possibilities of the orchestra for the pitch-and-rhythm exactitudes of the computer realization.  Before MIDI realizations, computer versions of pieces were, at one point I suppose, actually worth listening to.

To help us out a little, Boretz writes:

For those whose auditory way into Group Variations might be improved by some extra-intuitive assistance, the following leads are offered: first, no matter what the prospect of computer-electronic performance tends to prepare you for, listen to Group Variations as a polyphonic ensemble music, whose sonic surfaces are the fused images of networks of musical qualities, the sounds of such qualities rather than ‘sounds’ in some isolated, exotic, sense.  A pervasive shaping focus for these images, amounting to a conceit of the piece, is that every sizable passage of Group Variations— including the ‘passage’ consisting of the whole piece— begins as if suddenly tuning into the middle of something, and ends as if suddenly tuning out of something new that had just previously begun.  And, as each image is registered in the form of a phrase— or tune-stretch, give particualr notice to what it subsequently becomes, as it merges, as a component part, into a still larger, single, complex image.

Here another conceit of Group Variations, the musical resonance of an idea of complex congruence, may emerge: images of progressively larger time dimensions always fuse, in increasingly elaborate senses, into the same quality-network shape, so that wholes constantly retrieve and reincarnate the shapes of their component parts, and you are subsequently themselves so retrieved and reincarnated.  If, for a start, you listened to the image-chunks consisting first of the first four-attack stretch, then, of the first two such stretches, then, of the first two distinct stretch-type passages, and so on, you might get the feel of the process by which each trajectory ‘arrives’ at the same ‘place’ relative to its predecessors.  Moreoever, it you happened to identify the two stretch-types mentioned as complementary landscapes, the first conspicuously including places where several sounds attack together, and the second, places where single sounds attack several times in succession, many of the characteristics of the passage that ensue may come into sharper focus.

Those interested in further guidance toward the specific depths of these particular surfaces (to paraphrase a phrase of Jim Randall’s) are referred to the final chapter of ‘Meta-Variations,’ and the score.

Now, this sounds as “extra-intuitive” as all hell, but what it does speak to is that once upon a time, composers actually stood for more than their own press kits and were unafraid to reveal the complexities with which their compositional processes grappled.  Perhaps I’m grumpy, but I got a little tired during my own compositional tuition of being told by composers over a certain age how lucky I was to have been spared all that— all those complexities and struggles and grapplings that they had to go through because of the tyranny of serialism, or atonality, or experimentalism, or whatever it was— now that the concert music establishment and major commissioning bodies won’t have any of it.  I get tired of it because I would have very much liked to have been a part of it.  Why, as the Poni Tails once famously lamented, was I born too late?

Boretz’s piece is very forward-thinking, too: not because it uses electronic sounds; alas, these particular (to me charming) sonic vistas are clearly museum pieces.  But when he talks about networks, and networks of networks, he’s predicting Klumpenhouwer networks fifteen years ahead of schedule.  When he talks about large-scale architectonics and time-stretching, it almost sounds as though he’s hinting at concepts of post-tonal prolongation thirteen years before Joe Straus (wrongly, in my view) banned the investigation of the concept for good and all.

I asked Boretz a question that I now would like to rephrase.  I asked him in facebook chat whatever happened to the composer-music-theorist hyphenates?  He quickly disavowed being labeled a “music theorist,” and so I would like rephrase the question.  What ever happened to composer/musical thinkers?  One prominent composer recently told me proudly that he no longer reads journals; he just writes music now.  Underpinning this comment is the tacit message that real composers write music and do nothing else; if you do anything else besides compose then you’re a dilettante.  A corollary to this attitude is the famous teaching in academia is a necessary evil as a way to subsidize my composing and if I could possibly compose without teaching then I would never teach posture.

Of course, the internet reveals no shortage of composer/musical thinkers.  I mean, where are the ones having big careers?  The ones supported by the concert music establishment and major commissioning bodies?  The ones that have something to say other than “I just go to my happy spiritual place, commune with Ravel and Mahler, and then my music just gushes out, and isn’t it wonderful that we can do that now unlike the awful 1960s and 1970s?”  Where are the heirs apparent to Babbitt and Boretz that are commanding the concert music stage and continuing to challenge the minds of audiences?

I suppose we’re here, on the internet, ghettoized in black-box theaters, and doing wacky things like experimental Skype pieces where everyone in the orchestra is in their living rooms across thirty different countries— and that’s okay, I guess.  Again, by way of allegory: in 1995 I asked my father-in-law, an avid encyclopedic baseball fan, if he thought baseball would survive the strike.  (Bear in mind at the time the viability of baseball as a professional sport was by no means clear.)  He responded, of course baseball would survive.  There would always be people who love the game, people to play it and people to watch it.  Whether or not it remained economically viable as a huge commercial enterprise— that’s a different question.

And so it is with the composer/musical thinker.  There will always be composer/thinkers.  Whether they occupy the limelight or are sidelined in online ghettos is an entirely different question.

But there are upsides to the online ghettoization of composer/thinkers, and one of them is that there is no mediation between a concert music giving organization and my desire to hear antiquated electronic music circa 1974.  I don’t have to ask Meet-the-Composer-May-I to get what I really want.  Traditional media forms are becoming increasingly irrelevant in the arena of current events; why should we expect anything different in our little corner of the intellectual marketplace?  There are reasons to be deeply skeptical of rose-colored “internet will save us all” glasses.  But that said, there are also reasons for optimism too.  We live in a world where a resolutely post-tonal piece might reasonably expect to get 3000 hits on youtube, if “marketed” well, and that’s about 2950 more people than could be reasonably expected to hear it in a traditional brick-and-mortar concert hall.  One of these days someone might even figure out a way to make a buck or two off of all this enterprising new proliferation of challenging concert music (though, given the abject failure of genuinely popular music to do this, I would not become too optimistic).

Finally, I invite contemplation of this passage from the liner notes of the Dodge/Arel/Boretz album:

This recording of Folia was made possible by grants from the Martha Baird Rockefeller Fund for Music, Inc., the Fromm Music Foundation, the Contemporary Music Society, and Joseph Machlis.  The recordings of Extensions, Mirriana II and Group Variations were made possible by grants from the American Composers Alliance.

Back before Reagan, we didn’t believe everything had to be beholden to the marketplace.  This album was generously supported by grants and probably sold 200 copies.  Today’s libertarian ethos toward the arts maintains that art that cannot pay its own way in the free marketplace should not exist at all.  That’s the downside to our Wild West current state of affairs.

So I come away from this album with one enduring thought.  In the words of Adams and Strouse’s anthemic theme song to the venerated sitcom All in the Family:

Boy, those were the days.

-Robert Gross