This past weekend, I happily attended the final two concerts of a chamber music series in Memphis. I’m not going to name or link to the series here, because my intention is not to be mean to anybody, but rather to just share some observations. My main reason for going was that they were playing the Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time on the evening concert, which is one of my favorite pieces and I’d never heard it live before, so there was no way I was missing the opportunity. There was also a concert that afternoon, so I decided that if I was making the trip, I might as well go to both.

Upon arriving to the first concert, I was happy to discover they were playing a lot of new pieces, 4 of the 5 pieces on the concert were written this year, mostly by students graduating from area colleges. It’s very rare that I get to hear new music live, so I was excited to hear some other people’s music for a change. That was until I actually heard the music though. I’ll deal with the music later, but there’s something very important we need to talk about first.

These program notes were dreadful. The first note featured the sentence, “Structurally, the piece flirts with Twelve-Tone but never gives in fully to Serial charm.” WHOA. There are like 15 different things about that sentence that don’t make sense! First of all, and most importantly, the twelve-tone system/serialism/whatever you want to call it has absolutely nothing to do with the structure of the piece. John Cage talks about this a lot in his book, Silence. He basically explains that when Schoenberg and all dem homegurls wiped out the system of tonality, they always wiped away those classical forms, and did not live us with a suitable replacement. Nothing about the twelve-tone system dictates what the structure of the piece should be, only the notes. I’m gonna talk more about this in another blog post about Cage though. Next, ‘Twelve-Tone’ is an adjective and doesn’t have a noun, and neither ‘Twelve-Tone’ nor ‘Serial’ should be capitalized. Also, the whole sentence just doesn’t make sense.

The next program note contains a story about how the piece was an attempt by the composer to “‘modernize’ [his] style (whatever that means) (sic),” but that by the end of the piece he realized that his style worked perfectly well, “hence the resolution to pure tonality just prior to the brief coda.” I can’t even bring myself to comment on that.

The next program note talks about how he stole the titles of the movements from a Lutoslawski piece. And talks a lot about how all these themes heard in the first 4 movements don’t recur again until the final movement, but guess which movement was still in progress and not on the program? You guessed it. The Final Movement. 4 for you, Glen Coco.

(The next piece on the program was Copland’s Twelve Songs of Emily Dickinson, and Aaron’s program note was perfectly fine.)

And oh boy the last program note. Here’s the money quote: “[The piece] was strongly influence by the music of Judd Greenstein and others who fall into the category of “Indy-classical”. (sic) As such, the tonal language is primarily triadic and the rhythmic language generally active but not complex.” INDY-CLASSICAL. OH MY GOSH. I couldn’t believe it when I read that sentence. I tweeted about it immediately. I would talk about why “indie-classical” is an awful term, but Nico Muhly already did it a lot better than me, so go read his blog about it. And I find the second sentence to be kind of offensive in its simplicity? Like, if you were going to categorize a group of composers including Judd, you could surely do a lot better than “they use triads and are kind of rhythmic but not Elliot Carter.”

The worst crime of all came when the pieces were actually played. And by that I mean that the pieces were boring. Well, 3.25 of them were. (The last piece managed to save itself.) That’s probably the worst thing you can be as a piece of music. As I tweeted yesterday, be anything but boring. Be dissonant, be loud, be soft, be for unaccompanied cactus, be 5 hours long, but for God’s sake, just don’t be boring. I was really considering leaving after the first two pieces, because it was like watching paint dry. Both of the first two pieces were both kind of typical new music, long, slow, soft, extended harmonic language, but not Berg. Which is not a bad thing, necessarily, I’ve certainly written music like that before, but they just didn’t do anything. (The truth is that I really only stayed so I could hear “The Chariot.” You know that time you wanted to do pandiatonicism? Copland already did it better than you in that song.)

The longer I thought about it, the more I realized I needed to define what made a piece Not Boring. My mind immediately sprang back to this Jeremy Denk article on NewMusicBox from a few years ago, where he explains why he doesn’t like new music. That article is one of my favorite things ever and perfectly explains what I didn’t like about the pieces on the concert.

I love his notion of “delight” as an indicator in music. This is something I 100% can get behind, and I have blogged about before. Give me a chord as awesome as that one in Salome, and then we’ll talk.

Moving on, Quartet for the End of Time was at least 10 zillion times more awesome than I could have imagined. There were a couple moments between the movements when the audience was rapturously still and silent. I haven’t had many concert experiences that transforming. There were a few accuracy issues on the rhythmic unison 6th movement, and sometimes a string harmonic would be out of tune, but the piece is really hard, so that can be forgiven. Also, it came upon me that even though it’s probably his most famous piece, and one of the most famous of the 20th century, it’s actually really tame for Messiaen, right? I mean, sure, tame Messiaen is still harder than like Copland or something, but it’s definitely not Turangalila or one of those pieces for piano and winds or the Vingt Regards. I really love how Messiaen creates these intensely spiritual worlds using unconventional harmonic and rhythmic languages. I talked to my concert companion about this, but I really do believe that Messiaen is one of the most unique compositional voices of all time. There’s nothing like him.

Some day, I’m going to actually write some music and then talk about it here, but until that day comes I have a lot of John Cage to read/research/practice for this event.

Until next time,


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