Friday, April 30, 2010

John Zorn - Cat O' Nine Tails

In the years following World War II and to the present day, composers have been taking music in almost every direction imaginable. They build upon, expand, and even create new aspects of music and sound through instruments and technology. American avant-garde composers did not and do not hesitate to incorporate a wide array of different styles and genres, always searching for unique sounds to blend. John Zorn (b. 1953) has been doing exactly that, employing eclectic genres of music in his compositional style. Although he is best known for his avant-garde jazz music, he has dipped into classical, experimental, hardcore, punk, dub, ambient, and film music.

Zorn's 1988 string quartet Cat O' Nine Tails was his first attempt at composing in a classical style, though by no means does he stay within the genre. Elements of jazz, ambience, and even metal permeate the music. I find it difficult to describe the piece, because it is not held together by any melodic or musical material, but by subtle rhythmic motives and characterizations. Zorn characterizes animals (cats, dogs, and mice), creaking doors, and a theremin, using these sounds and emulations to attempt to weave a story of feline fiasco.

The piece as a whole alternates between passages of tonality and atonality, and each new section seems to have almost no relation to the one preceding it. There are sudden shifts of tonality, rhythm, dynamics, tempo, and register with no warning. These elements immediately reminded me of Godard's jump-cuts in À bout de souffle, and when I began researching the piece after my first initial listens, I learned that Zorn's composition was influenced by Godard's unusual film technique[1]. He calls this method of composing "file-card composition," which can be described as collective but guided improvisation. Zorn writes a description of the music he desires on a file card, and arranges them with specific musicians and their styles in mind. The cards do not call for transitions or segues, hence the distinctive "jump-cuts" between sections of the piece. It is almost as if, through this method, Zorn is inviting the listener to make his/her own coherence out of the piece strictly through his/her imagination and visualization. This idea reminds me of The Ornithological Combat of Kings, in which Heinrich attempts to create a story strictly through music, which ultimately proved to be unsuccessful. (Sadly, I do not think Zorn came any closer than Heinrich.)

Aside from comical and creepy characterizations of animals, I found the tonal passages of the piece to be the most interesting and telling of Zorn's diverse interests in music. He composes a jaunty, country-like theme, a habanera, some swanky jazz, a lilting waltz that conjures visions of Harry Lime[2], and a few passages that sound like homages to Bernard Herrmann. I liked these smaller sections so much that I wish there was more than just a few seconds of each of them. But the feature of the piece I thought was the most significant was the use of technology to enhance the recording. By playing with the channel output so specific sounds come from specific directions, Zorn is able to create an intense atmosphere that cannot easily be emulated on a stage. While Zorn did not create this technique, it has remained popular since its inception and is common use among even pop musicians.

I thought the piece was fascinating, curious, and disappointing. The sudden changes in the music piqued my interest at first, but as it lacked direction my intrigue waned. I would have liked to see some coherence or meaning between the tonal sections of the piece, but they moved by so quickly that it was difficult to discern them upon the first listen, and the effect proved to be more disconcerting than engaging.

Like the Heinrich piece, Zorn’s programmatic-without-a-program work finds me confused and disengaged from the piece, which contains elements of a story but no plot. It wasn’t so much that I disliked the piece – I actually liked the piece quite a bit – but I wanted it to have more direction, and when it never did I was disappointed. Perhaps if I had access to his file cards for the piece, I would have been more interested and drawn to the music.

Although undoubtedly different, I think Cat O’ Nine Tails lacks certain cohesion and finesse demanded of music in the Western canon. The ideas are there, but they are so scattered and disjointed that attempting to unscramble the pieces without a score or his file cards is almost futile. Ultimately, Zorn’s piece falls short of fully captivating and at times can even alienate the listener. Another feature of the piece that may be off-putting is that, because of the use of file cards and no solid score, each performance and recording of the piece is different, not to mention it would be nearly impossible to perform the piece without Zorn's file cards and personal involvement.

Zorn’s peculiar and at times bizarre style has garnered attention from many and he has won several awards, including the MacArthur Fellowship. No public figure escapes the scrutiny of the cold, hard media however, and here is this little gem I came across while researching Zorn, who took it all in good humor.

[1] This made me feel pretty smart and I excitedly told my roommate, who is also a fan of Godard and Zorn. This quickly inspired us to abandon our homework and watch À bout de souffle...again.

[2] I took this as a reference within a reference as many films of the French New Wave, including Godard and À bout de souffle, were heavily influenced by film noir.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Heitor Villa-Lobos: Bachianas Brasileiras No. 1 and No. 5

At the turn of the century, many composers were looking for fresh musical outlets, moving further still beyond post-Romanticism and searching for new means of expression. Some composers rendered Western tonality archaic and abandoned the idea entirely, some created their own tonalities, some dealt with this change humorously in their music, and other composers embodied national styles and sounds, seeking to expose regionally unique music to the world. The Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) fell within the tradition of the latter, creating a new distinctly Brazilian sound.

Like the ethnomusicology travels of Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály, Villa-Lobos traveled the remote landscapes of Brazil, collecting native Brazilian songs. These inspired him to abandon the idea of conventional music training and he instead became a self-taught composer. Many of Villa-Lobos's compositions are directly influenced by the music he heard in these areas, including the Bachianas Brasileiras. In addition to being regionally influenced, the Bachianas Brasileiras are also inspired by Bach and Baroque music (the title literally translates to "Brazilian Bach-pieces") in style and form. The Bachianas Brasileiras is a set of nine different suites, composed from 1930-1945. Each piece in the set has its own instrumentation, ranging from traditional (piano and cello, piano and orchestra) to unusual (eight cellos, cellos and soprano).

The first set of the
Bachianas Brasileiras is a suite for eight cellos (1932). Although it is not what we would consider a traditional Baroque suite, there are distinct hints of it in the music. There are three movements in the suite, the first being the Introduction, or Embolada. An embolada is a spar between two (or two groups of) singers (or voices in music) who basically insult each other through song back and forth until one pair is declared the winner. Villa-Lobos most likely picked up this style in northeast Brazil, where the embolada is very popular and famous for its gratuitous swearing. Disappointingly, there is no offensive language in the cello suite, but knowing the title it is easy to imagine groupings of the cellos fighting each other through hemiola, dissonance, sequence, counterpoint, and even contrasting bowing techniques. The A section begins intensely and features relentless rhythm. I felt a sense of jarring when the triplets entered against the syncopated sixteenth notes, and the hemiola rarely ceases. The B section is slower and has a more friendly feeling, like the two groups are pausing and exchanging pleasantries instead of insults. The B section is also more tonally centered, the hemiola less jarring, and the rhythm simpler. But the B section by nature in the embolada cannot last too long, and Villa-Lobos quickly moves back to the A section, restating the beginning of the piece louder and with more fervor. The restatement of A is short but welcome, and the allargando almost seems to declare the winner of the battle.

The second movement of the suite is a Prelude, or
Modinha, a sentimental love song which was popular in Brazilian salons. The Modinha is slow and thoughtful and a solo cello states the sorrowful (and almost sappy) melody while the other cellos provide a chordal accompaniment, a nod to Bach and the basso continuo of the Baroque. The melody can barely be called a melody, however, as it is just a step-wise sequence. The rhythm, tonality, and overall form of the Modinha is much more simple and even bland compared to the Embolada. Although beautiful and lyrical, I personally think the piece drags and would be lovelier and more appealing without some of the repeats.

The third movement of the suite is a Fugue (which Villa-Lobos also calls Conversa, or conversation), which is probably the most overt Baroque reference in the suite. The piece is, indeed, a four-voice fugue, containing almost every feature of a Baroque fugue: subject, answer, counter-subject, episode, and even a section of extreme stretto. The primary difference between a Bachian Baroque fugue and Villa-Lobos's fugue is tonality and rhythm. Villa-Lobos employs much syncopation which, combined with the use of the distinct Brazilian harmonies, breathes fresh air into the ostensibly uptight and rigid nature of the Baroque fugue.

I think Villa-Lobos's merging of Baroque and Brazilian music is successful in the first set of the Bachianas Brasileiras. Although it is clear that he is attempting to emulate some aspects of Baroque music, it is subtle and never overpowers the music itself. It shows Villa-Lobos's great skill and understanding of both styles of music, which is also apparent in No. 5.

The fifth set of the Bachianas Brasileiras is composed for a solo soprano and eight cellos (1938/1945). Like the first set, both movements contain clear Brazilian rhythmic and harmonic qualities. The first of the two movements is an Aria, or Cantilena. The aria is written in the style of a da capo aria, another clear attribute of the Baroque era. In the A sections of the aria, Villa-Lobos uses the voice as an instrument rather than a means of expressing text, a technique that is highly effective and reminiscent of folk music. The voice literally and musically soars above the cellos in a tragically gorgeous lyrical line. After a short interlude in which a solo cello takes over the melody, the B section is a huge contrast; it is more in the style of recitative than an aria, which is likely what Villa-Lobos intended. Another stark contrast to the A section is that the B section also has lyrics, which are sung in a quick and speech-like manner on repeated notes. The lyrics by Brazilian anthropologist and philosopher Ruth V. Corrêa are about how humans are captivated by the beauty and mystery of the moon. The piece slowly but seamlessly moves back into the A section, repeating the beginning but more softly and almost transcendentally - uniting the haunting vocal line of the A section and the lyrics of the B section.

The second movement is a Dansa, and as Villa-Lobos also titles it, Martelo. A martelo is a form of dance, and the word itself means "kick," or "hammer." This is not what I had expected martelo to mean, but it makes musical sense in the context of the piece. However, it has almost no relation to the lyrics by Brazilian poet Manuel Bandeira, which (I think) are about a lost lover. The sudden jabs of notes and persistent staccatos in the cello parts, fast sixteenth notes in the solo voice, and extreme chromaticism are consistent with the title, but the lyrics and more melodic lines do not fit at all, especially when Villa-Lobos uses text painting to highlight certain lyrics, such as using long notes in the high range to emphasize the phrase, "Sing and enchant me!" But in the contrasting B section (the Dansa is also in an ABA form), the tempo slows and all parts become more tonal and song-like, mimicking the text ("Sing, my lovely song-bird...sing of pain and sorrow, As the birds of morning wake Maria in the dawning. Sing with all your voices"). The B section is characteristically shorter, and soon the A section creeps back slowly and the opening text repeats with the same musical content.

Although the music in the fifth set is no doubt influenced by Bach and the Baroque era, I cannot help but notice glaring aspects of Romanticism in the Aria and Dansa. The lyrics primarily focus on the human perspective and awe of nature, a marked trait of the Romantic period, and Villa-Lobos even utilizes some Renaissance aspects of text painting with the lyrics. Also, the supporting role of the cellos as accompaniment is significantly greater than that of the Baroque period. Rather than any kind of basso continuo, the cellos frequently take part in the drama of the pieces, adding subtext (the martelo hammer/kick in the Dansa) or just an interesting and engaging accompaniment (particularly noticeable in the lyric-free sections of the aria).

These pieces, although originally written for cellos (and voice), beg to be orchestrated by guitar. The Brazilian flavor in the music almost demands it. So, like the music of Isaac Albéniz, most of these pieces have been arranged to include guitars. As much as I like the guitar arrangements, however, I find that I do prefer the cellos. The cello was Villa-Lobos's primary instrument and he composed very specifically for them, eliciting sounds and sonorities that are unique to the instrument and not well-emulated by guitars (most notably, sustained notes and the use of messa di voce). So, although the pieces translate well to guitar, they are truly the most effective with the original instrumentation.

I have to admit that I am surprised the pieces are not more popular especially considering the amount of different arrangements of the pieces and the present popularity of Villa-Lobos as a composer. However, I do understand why these pieces are not included in the Western canon. First of all, most pieces in the Western canon are not regionally specific pieces outside of Western European traditions (and even those usually realize some kind of international style), and these specifically highlight rural Brazilian folk music. Also, these two sets in particular have strange instrumentation which may hinder the desire and ability to perform them. But I think that the time and context in which they were composed as well as their insipid reception are the greatest baggage attached to
Bachianas Brasileiras. Villa-Lobos was considered a demagogue composer for the Brazilian government which not only prevented him from composing in the hip new European styles (expressionism, serialism) but also alienated him from composers who were following in those European footsteps. I personally think if his music was taken more seriously in its time period and not cast aside because it wasn't the current trend, Villa-Lobos might be a more immediately recognized composer.

I truly enjoyed listening to all of these pieces, and was amazed to find that one of my favorite solo female musicians has sung and recorded the aria from the fifth set. Although the piece is not at all what one would expect her to sing, she sounds quite lovely (although she could really use some work on that last note):

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Maria Szymanowska: Nocturne and Études

The Romantic period saw the rise of the composer/virtuoso performer, but there were so many that most inevitably fell into obscurity, including Maria Szymanowska (1789-1831), a Polish musician. Szymanowska traveled extensively across Europe and was highly praised for her stunning performances of her own compositions and of others. However, although she was a brilliant performer, her compositions did not stand the test of time. She primarily composed for piano and about 100 of her piano pieces remain today. In those works, her technical virtuosity is readily apparent.

Szymanowska's Études in F and C are intense technical studies for the right hand. The Étude in F focuses on arpeggios in the right hand and rolled 10th intervals in the left as well as sudden dynamic changes, tone colors, and sequencing. The Étude in C focuses on balance and separation of the melody from the harmony in the right hand, while maintaining steadiness of the fast notes. As the piece grows more complex, eventually the left hand doubles the fast notes of the harmony. Like the Étude in F, Szymanowska's Étude in C also utilizes sequencing to move through different tonalities, as well as sudden dynamic contrasts. The Étude in E is much different than the previous two; rather than fixate predominantly on the right hand, the left hand is equally difficult and involved. The Étude in E also sounds starkly different than the other two études. It is fast and driven by syncopation - almost what we would consider jazz-like in harmony and rhythm. And unlike the other two études, it modulates by sequencing to F and then back to E, an almost prophetic Romantic modulation. The piece is charismatic and oddly modern. Aside from some of the more unusual harmonies, I feel like I could hear Schroeder wailing away at this piece while Snoopy dances around the piano. The abrupt ending is strange and out of place, however. It's almost as if Szymanowska is presenting a musical joke, but she doesn't quite pull it off like Haydn. But in all, the pieces are études through and through, each honing specific technical difficulties for pianists.

The Nocturne in Bb Major is resolutely in the nocturne's style: the left hand outlines chords and the right hand contains the lyrical melody. It is obvious why her critics, audience, and peers praised Szymanowska for her cantabile style of composing and playing - it is easy to imagine a vocalist singing the line. Interestingly, the nocturne could also fall under the term "rondo," as the piece has sections of ABACA and a coda of sorts, with variations on the A theme as it progressively gets more difficult and involved with both hands. The B section is in the parallel minor (Bb minor) and the C section is in the parallel minor's relative major (Db Major), but the A theme is always in the original key. This nocturne is a good example of a pre-Romantic piece; like Beethoven, Szymanowska greatly expands the range of the piano, using both low and high extremes. It is also a good example of a pre-cursor to a composer like Chopin, who also used and expanded Szymanowska's distinctly "Polish" chromaticisms.

The Études, but the Nocturne in particular, fall in the gray area between Classical and Romantic music. The tonality and styles contain elements of the Classical period, but elements of the Romantic style creep into the piece through its chromaticism, virtuosity, expansion of the melody and range, and the simple fact that these are solo piano pieces intended to be performed by virtuosi, not necessarily by amateurs. Syzmanowska was ahead of her time, leaning toward Romantic music but still somewhat stuck in the confines of Classicism.

I loved the pieces. I am almost ashamed that I am a pianist and dedicated to female composers and did not know of Szymanowska. In fact, I promptly checked out scores of her piano music after I was finished listening and sight-read them. They are not terribly difficult to read through, but to perform them and perform them well would absolutely require a high level of technique, a sensitive ear, and a delicate touch.

Why then, is she not included in the canon? Although I enjoyed the pieces, there are several reasons she is not widely known. First of all, Szymanowska was primarily a performer, not a composer. She gained her reputation through touring and playing for royalty, not being commissioned to compose. Secondly, she did not have a huge output of music and primarily wrote for solo piano. Although they were published and even to a degree renowned in her lifetime (due to her fame as a virtuoso performer), composing was not her objective. Finally, and this is my pure speculation and opinion, she was overshadowed compositionally by John Field and, later, Chopin. It is almost known for certain that Chopin and Szymanowska were acquaintances, and it has been implied that because Szymanowska was 21 years his senior, Chopin looked up to her and even revered her - much like a teenager would look up to a rockstar in our culture. Thus, it is understandable and even expected that Chopin would attempt to emulate Szymanowska in style, genre, and tonality. The problem lies in the fact that he did it so much better and prolifically that Szymanowska has been fast forgotten. Composing in the same medium and style as others who have a larger output and go to even more extremes lends to an understandable fall to the wayside. This is not to say, however, that I agree with the fact that Szymanowska is not well-known. I am actually undecided on whether or not
I think she should be included in the canon, but I find her music beautiful and well worth listening to multiple times.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Anna Amalia: Four Regimental Marches

It is no secret that women and minorities are frequently overlooked in the broad history of Western music. I find it particularly frustrating that women and minorities were (and are) not given the same opportunities that wealthy white men could afford. So, it is no surprise that out of the choices we were given for our listening journals, I chose a female composer.

Through some extensive research, I learned that Anna Amalia was a princess and her father despised music but loved unnecessary shows of military force. Only after his death could she pursue music, which was "her secret consolation against his cruelty to her."1 She studied music theory and composition with Johann Philipp Kirnberger, who studied with J.S. Bach.

The pieces are four marches Amalia composed, each dedicated to a different military general or count. As a whole, they are influenced by the Rococo style, but not within strict boundaries. The style of a march does not quite give itself to a lovely melody like one would expect of the Rococo style, but the impression of the pieces is well within the Rococo framework. All four pieces are in some variation of the binary form (AABB, ABAB, AABA) with the opening theme well present throughout the entire piece. They all also hint at the sonata-allegro form in terms of tonality, beginning in a tonic key, moving to the dominant, transitioning through a short modulatory development period, and moving back to the tonic. (Count Lottum, General von Saldern, and General von Moellendorf begin in C, modulate to G, then back to C; General Buelow begins in F, modulates to C, and back to F though I am not sure why it is the only piece in F. My speculation is that Amalia sets him apart because the general himself loved music.) All four pieces are short and in moderate tempos, the harmonic structure is very simple, and there is no counterpoint. There are no string instruments in the ensemble; rather, there is a small group of wind instruments and a small group of brass instruments (one player per instrument), some percussion instruments, and slight variations on what instruments are included from piece to piece.

Count Lottum (1767) begins the collection, which does not match march expectations at all. It is very much a "Rococo march," as it is light-hearted, has a small sound due to the small orchestra, and it sounds more intimate than what we would expect of a march. It is more of a small processional. Amalia includes a timpani but does not include a snare, which is only used for the pieces dedicated to generals. General Buelow (1767) does feature a snare, but Amalia also groups the wind and brass instruments against each other in more of a call and response fashion. General von Saldern (1768) solidifies this feature, and the wind instruments and brass instruments switch off for the duration of the piece, entirely separated from each other. It is almost as if Amalia gives metaphysical characteristics to both of the groups of instruments, separating war and art as far as she can. General von Moellendorf, composed ten years later than the previous pieces, sounds the most important of the four. I am not sure whether or not that is true, or if it just sounds that way because her compositional style is more advanced. She introduces cymbals to this character, but more significantly, achieves dynamic contrast through her orchestration and, most likely, dynamic markings as well. Moellendorf is the only piece of the four that has distinct shifts between loud and soft. Amalia also utilizes sequencing in the piece, which she did not in the previous three.

It was interesting to listen to these pieces for several reasons. First of all, although the pieces are called "marches," they are a different style of march that I had not heard before and it is always great to have expectations thwarted. I also found it fascinating that Amalia chose to compose "regimental marches" long after her father was dead, considering the fact that he was, literally and figuratively, a militant force in her life, and she sought refuge in music to escape him. Listening to these pieces was also a tiny window into what music instruction and composition might have been like for female aristocracy.

That being said, the force behind the music is far more compelling than the music itself. None of the four left me with any melody to hum as I walked away (and I listened to them many times), or, frankly, any incentive to listen to Amalia's other compositions. I did not dislike the pieces so much as I found them lackluster and run-of-the-mill musically. They left me with the impression that these had been composed many times before, and written in a much more interesting way by someone else. The music does not leave much room for interpretation, and I am not surprised they are not performed or recorded often. I am not disappointed to have heard the four regimental marches, however. The pieces and their background did give me some insight to the time and geography in which they were composed.

1 "Princess Anna Amalia of Prussia," Wikipedia, (accessed January 20, 2010).