Thursday, April 28, 2011

Anthony Braxton

Anthony Braxton (1945- )
Composition No.165

It is difficult to summarize Anthony Braxton as a musician. During the Civil Rights era, he was involved in the Chicago Freedom Movement and was a member of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), an organization created in 1965 to support African-American composers and improvisers in their pursuit for serious and original music. Braxton is a superb alto saxophonist, and also proficient at playing the flute, clarinet, and all members of the saxophone family, including the contrabass saxophone. He is also a prolific composer who has written more than 350 works and has recorded more than 100 albums as a soloist and composer. When not making music, he spends his free time doing research and development in literature, philosophy, science, and global music. Sometimes the topics he researches would inspire his musical compositions. He is an intellectual man who loves to learn about the world.

Most of Braxton's compositions merge the avant-garde and jazz styles, such as in his Composition No.165. Its story follows two young happy children infatuated with watching the clouds. The music was performed by the University of Illinois’ Creative Music Orchestra and was conducted by Anthony Braxton himself in 1992. The instrumentation is comprised of the conventional instruments of a jazz orchestra, plus flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, tuba, and synthesizer, totaling out at 18 instruments playing about 50 minutes worth of music. The music is a mix of American avant-garde, a deviation from conventional practice, and free jazz, an experimental approach to create innovative sounds, atonality and free structure of improvisation. Sometimes I could hear aspects of the avant-garde style, and other times I would hear free jazz improvisation. As far as the European sound is concerned, it is similar to Edgard Varèse's "Hyperprism”, as Braxton creates a sound mass by using different combinations of instruments. Since almost all musical events happen linearly and progressively, this piece gives that sense of linear motion as well. It reminds me of a motor vehicle moving at a uniform speed down the road; sometimes it slows down, sometimes it speeds up, but it never comes to a complete stop. I cannot tell if there is a climactic moment in the piece or not, and I really cannot find the harmony, rhythm, or melody, which are familiar in compositions employing conventional methods

Creating musical sounds without deploying the conventional elements, Anthony Braxton, instead, focused on creating the timbre by using extended techniques such as trills, flutter- tonguing, and sliding. The language of his work is avant-garde and experimental, which invites the musicians to become a part of his creative process and contribute their ideas as well. In my opinion, this compositional approach can make the music flow on continuously as long as sound is being created. Braxton was experimenting with the endless possibilities within the sound world.

The problem with his music is that since he combines free jazz and avant-garde music, it is difficult to put him in either the classical or the jazz canon. His music is almost in a category of its own. Music of this kind is short-lived, in my opinion. It only matters within a short amount of time. What Braxton does matters at the moment but it doesn’t necessarily carry through the next generation. The music he creates lacks the universality or sustainability of the canonic masterpieces. They are the products of this certain time period. As result, the music only resonates within a small group of people and is only meaningful during certain circumstances despite his experimental spirits. This makes it tough for Braxton to be represented in a particular genre of music, so it makes it difficult to find followers of his music. On top of crossing the genre, I believe the racial issue is always a concern for Braxton when it comes to doing serious and experimental music. Black musicians have acclaimed much more respect in the world of jazz than in European music. This racial stigma casts a shadow over Braxton’s reputation as a serious composer, even though his music doesn’t sound “black.” His experimentation with music is the very spirit of the Avant-Garde composer.

Braxton really took a conscious effort into understanding many things that the world had to offer, from being able to play a wide array of instruments, doing research on numerous fields of study, and experimenting with untouched musical possibilities. His music is a product of his time and will most likely stay in his time. Nonetheless, I personally admire his spirit and perseverance in continuing to make discoveries in the world of sound.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Alexander von Zemlinsky

Lyric Symphony, op. 18

Alexander von Zemlinsky’s caliber of music can be compared to his masterful contemporaries, such as Mahler, Strauss, and Schonberg. He was known for being Schonberg’s only composition teacher, although he never took credit for it. He was humble man who could care less about recognition of his musical talents.

Zemlinsky was a notable Austrian conductor, professor, and composer born on October 14th, 1871, in Vienna. Throughout his career, he was noticed and supported by many famous composers, including Brahms and Mahler, and was very close friends with Arnold Schoenberg. He helped promoted contemporary music by conducting their works. Although he was popular with many early modernism composers, he wrote tonal music which showed little influence by the new music of the early twentieth-century. His Lyric Symphony is an example of the mastery of his tonal language; it is his most notable work which stands as an exemplary  accomplishment for his talents in composition.

Zemlinsky started working on the Lyric Symphony in the summer of 1922. It wasn’t premiered immediately after it was finished due to the disappearance of the original manuscript, which reappeared in 1923. His Lyric Symphony was finally premiered in Prague for the International Society for New Music in 1924. The entire symphony lasts for 45 minutes and is written for Soprano, Baritone and orchestra. The vocal writing for Lyric Symphony is in an operatic style. It was based on the works of a notable Bengali poet by the name of Rabindranath Tagore, from his collection “The Gardener”. Zemlinsky chose seven poems from the collection and constructed them in a way that presented the dialogues of longing, hard love, and self-realization between a man and a woman. The first movement is a sad ballad of a lonely man looking for a companion to love. The second movement is more light-hearted, describing a woman’s love for a prince passing by her street on a horse drawn carriage. The preceding movements sing powerful songs of love, desire, and the pain associated with both.

In the prelude, Zemlinsky created an enormous sound with the orchestra; the orchestra started out with a tutti and was followed by roaring timpani rolls. It is as if he was announcing that something significant was coming up. What Zemlinsky was trying to achieve was to set up the mood for his entire symphony. It was a very Romantic gesture to create such an emotional turmoil in music. The orchestration was thick in texture, a sound produced by the brass and string section. He also used chromaticism, a practice of the Romantic style, all over his music to build up the intensity. His music has good unity, much like any well-established orchestral work. The prelude opened up with a motive of the dotted eighth and eighteenth note, which kept reoccurring and getting denser. This provided a unity for the whole movement. However, though his music was full of emotional expressions, I had difficulty in deciphering the exact mood he was trying to depict. It appears as if he tried to create a mood for the sake of doing it, instead of naturally creating a mood that flowed into another person’s soul. 

Regardless of his talents as a masterful composer, Zemlinsky was overlooked by the musical canon because of his place in history - he never used a modern approach like twelve-tone technique or wrote atonal music, so general interests of the early twentieth-century gravitated more towards modern techniques. Lorraine Gorrell, a music historian, said Zemlinsky’s works represented “a crucial nexus between nineteenth-century fin de siècle music and the avant-garde of the 20th century” (Gorrell, Discordant Melody, xiii). Zemlinsky was also an Austrian composer of Jewish descent who lived under the Nazi regime of Germany, so many of his works were prohibited from being performed to the public. Only until now has his music been rediscovered and appreciated for its aesthetic value.

Zemlinsky once stated: “As long as I live, I do not expect my music to be recognized, but after my death it will be (Gorrell74).” In a sense, he was quite aware his own musical talents, but he didn’t care of becoming famous during his lifetime. His humbleness, although a great virtue, failed to serve his right of becoming a star. I am confident that his music will be revived, as great music shall never cease living. It will be a testimony of his statement for his music.

Gorrell, Lorraine. Discordant Melody: Alexander Zemlinsky, His Songs, and the Second Viennese School. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Romantic Listening Journal

Giacomo Meyerbeer: L’Africaine (1865 Posthumous)

There was once an operatic composer whose works dominated the opera house in Paris and all over Europe in the nineteenth century, and whose operas were performed regularly even fifty years after his death. The genius of the musical legacy he left behind had influenced composers like Donizetti, Wagner and many others. It is daunting to realize that a composer who achieved such great success and became extremely popular with his grand opera would fall out of favor in today’s world.

Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1865) was a German composer born into a wealthy Jewish family in Berlin, a lifestyle which allowed him to pursuit his passion for music as a career. He studied piano and composition at a young age and was deemed a prodigy by many musicians. He travelled on his reputation to Italy for further study. During his travels, he realized his main compositional interest was in French opera, a discovery which led him to Paris in 1824 to embark on a new career. His Grand Operas, including “Robert Diable” (1831), “Les Huguenots” (1836), “Le Prophète” (1849) and L'Africaine” (1865) established him as the model of operatic style of the century. He was a phenomenon, the most performed opera composer of the Romantic period.

Meyerbeer began working on 'L'Africaine' in 1837, but continuously revised the work, only completing it during his last year of life.  'L'Africaine' is characterized by its large orchestration, vast casts, and extravagant staging, which is an exemplary of Grand Opera during this period. The libretto, written by Eugene Scriber, takes place in early sixteen-century Portugal and tells a story of complicated and lavish human relationships and of hatred towards Christians. The story centers on Vasco de Gama, a naval officer, who is on an expedition to the New World. His beloved fiancée, Inès, waited desperately for him back home in Portugal while his future father-in-law, the admiral Don Diego, worked against the marriage because he wanted her to marry Don Pédro instead. During his expedition, de Gama has two servants; Sélika, who grew feelings towards him, and Nélusko, who was jealous of Sélika’s feeling towards Vasco. Nélusko almost killed his master because of his hatred toward Christians and the pain from his unobtainable love. Meanwhile, back home, Don Pédro married Inès, but is soon captured by the natives of Madagascar in a stormy expedition. Vasco and Inès were set free from the captors by Sélika, who committed suicide as she realized that she could not have her love back. Nélusko, who was deeply in love with Sélika, accompanied her in death.

Meyerbeer’s music was very monophonic in texture. He focused on creating tuneful melodies. For examples, often times, the vocal melody would be singing the same as the orchestral backgrounds, or the orchestra would be imitating the vocal lines after it was sung. As a result his music was lacking in dramatic effect which was could be achieved through more dense texture, His musical language was extremely tonal where the dissonant always resolves. This limited his possibilities of creating tension by using the clashes of dissonant to build up the tension. Rarely did he try to develop tension as music progresses. He was, undeniably, a musician with excellent compositional techniques who made creative melodies mostly based on chord tones and from the scales and was an accomplished orchestrator. However, these were very conventional by today’s standards. This will lead us to one of the discussion of why his works were not popular as they were in the nineteenth century.

Meyerbeer seemed to fall victim to what is “correct” instead of being creative. For instance, he used cymbals or rolls of timpani whenever he reached a climax. It became a cliché, obvious and lost its effectiveness. I would definitely want to hear more of his ingenuity because of his brilliant musical talent. In addition, there’s a general lack of interest of Meyerbeer’s music today, which I think has to do with the fact that audiences’ are exposed to so many different sounds now. As a result, Meyerbeer’s music tends to not have universal and emotional appeal these days.                                                                                     

Grand Opera in the nineteenth century was adorned by extravagant stages to cater the bourgeois. People attended the opera not only for the musical experience, but to witness the extravagant spectacles on stage. For example, in the third act of L’Africaine, there was a scene where the shipwreck took place. A large model ship had to be crafted and designed specifically for this scene, which required lots of time, effort, and money from the production crew. It cost a fortune to make these things happen for the opera company. People are less willing to put up this opera today because of it.                     

There’s also a historical reason behind his lack of popularity, which is also the most critical one that contributes to his obscurity: the rise of Nazi government. As Hitler came to power in the 1930s, he came up with the idea of destroying everything that was associated with the Jewish culture. Meyerbeer wrote in Grand Opera style, which was favored by Hitler, but he did not neglect the fact that Meyerbeer was born Jewish. As a result, Meyerbeer’s music was banished from the opera house and it hasn’t been fully revived since.

Despite being highly regarded as the most influential composer of the nineteenth century, Giacomo Meyerbeer did not stand the test of time, whether it is with his musical sensibility or his misfortune after his death. Musically speaking, he was capable of creating appealing melodies, but he was limiting in thematic development or contrapuntal combinations. He had the talent to create uplifting moment in his music, but he fails to provoke deeper emotions through his writing and composition. Historically, his music was not favored by the Anti-Semitic government that came after his time. This stands as a great obstacle for people to rediscover his glory. He was a lucky guy in life, but an unlucky one in the grave.

Burton, Fisher. Meyerbeer's L'Africaine : Opera Journeys Mini Guide Series. Opera Journeys, 2005. Electronic.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Betty's Classical Listening Journal

Carl Michael Bellman: Song’s of Fredman (1791) & Epistles of Fredman (1790)

In the eighteenth century, Europe underwent the age of Enlightenment. The learning of music became accessible to amateurs and the middle class. Carl Michael Bellman who came from the middle class had the fortune to become literate in both music and poetry. Although he's considered to be an obscure musician by historical standards, Carl Michael Bellman was, in fact, a major pioneer in Swedish folk music and culture.

Carl Michael Bellman was a Swedish poet and musician, and was born in Stockholm, Sweden in 1740. His music was largely influenced by Swedish culture and history, which is why his music looms large in that culture up till this day. He wrote his poetry and the music, often taking melodies from the operas and adopting them into his songs with new lyrics. Most of his poetry celebrates the sensual aspects of life- the joy of drinking and sexual pleasure, and fun living. His most notable compositions were the Song’s of Fredman and Epistles of Fredman. He gained popularity with King Gustav III, who supported him for his musical activities and made him a central figure in Sweden.

Song’s of Fredman consists of 65 poems and songs. I listened to song no. 31 “The Fishing Party”. It describes the life of a fisherman who is trying to wake up his companion, Amaryllis, in the morning to go fishing with him. The song is in 3/4, a dance rhythm. The guitar accompaniment provides harmonic progression of I-IV-V-I; the vocalist sings repeating notes on each chord for the first phrase. The last phrase the melody is taken over by the descending arpeggios in the tonic key. The dance-like rhythms with the repeating notes give the song an uplifting energy for the brand new day. In the second section, the fisherman gives Amaryllis his personal narrative on why she should refrain from sleeping. The melody becomes very lyrical and stepwise which give a personal feeling intimacy. Near the end of the song, the fisherman gets Amaryllis out of the bed and they go fishing together. They celebrate the joy of life on the boat and find comfort in each other’s arms.  

For second song, I picked “Drick ur ditt glas”(Drain your glass), song no.30 from the collection of Epistles of Fredman . The whole collection of consisted of 82 songs which took Bellman over twenty years to finish them (he completed them in 1790).  The texture is light as there is a simple melody sung over the guitar accompaniment. The song has two stanzas. The poem is elegiac, mourning Father Movitz who is dying of tuberculosis. The melody opens up with a descending line describing how death awaits him. Bellman built up the tension by using bigger intervals while the lyric describes the seriousness of his illness which will inevitably be fatal and seek hope. This is a good example of how the music reflects the poem and vice versa.
In order to be in the canon, the work has to not only to have expressive nature in music that connects with the listeners but it also needs to be artistically-crafted. In Bellman’s case, he wrote songs that aren’t as complex in texture which is suitable for amateur singers. I could imagine people on the street of Stockholm learning and singing the song joyfully. The second reason why I think these songs are not in the canon is because it is written in Swedish which is not as well-known compared to Italian or French, the major languages at the time. However, using Swedish in the song gives the song a distinct and vernacular flavor, showing specificity to the people of Sweden and their own culture.

The songs of Bellman reflects the musical trend during the mid-eighteenth century in which Italian opera travelled north to the main continent of Europe and merged with national style. Bellman adopted operatic melody and set to his own texts. Homophonic texture and emphasis on the vocal lines over sparingly accompaniment, features related to this period, were also present in Bellman’s works. His music is very straightforward, which makes it approachable, personable and enjoyable. His songs precisely express the tones and nature of the poem of which they are based on. Unlike grandiose the typical opera works, Bellman’s music is driven by heart-felt emotion. When I listen to his song, it is as if Bellman is telling me stories of his life through guitar. The lyrics and the music really complement each other very well throughout all Bellmen’s songs in Song’s of Fredman and Epistles of Fredman.