Archive for August, 2015

Reposted from 2011

Some say the New Music began with Debussy.

It is the opening flute piece of his Prelude a L’apres midi d’un faune of 1894: “It gently shakes loose from roots in diatonic (major-minor) tonality.” (Paul Griffiths, Modern Music: A Concise History).

One of the main contributions to this loosening is the deliberate avoidance of key signatures: “the first two bars of the flute melody… fill in the space between C sharp and G…The third bar indicates an arrival in the key of B major. But diatonic harmony is now only one possibility among many…” (ibid).

This must be set against the contemporary background of Romantic music, particularly Wagner’s epic cycles. Many looked on these as a new flowering of Romantic music; but it may be Debussy better caught the tone of the times: Wagner was “… a beautiful sunset which was taken for a dawn.” (ibid).

Alban Berg was born in 1885, in Vienna. He initially made his living as a bookkeeper. He also took part time classes in composition from the age of twenty, with Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg at this time was a leader of the current avant-garde. In 1909 Schoenberg produced his Three Pieces for Piano, which was the first wholly atonal music.

Berg and Schoenberg:

berg_schoenberg (1)

Atonal music dispenses with tonal keys and signatures, traditional harmonies and, instead, assigns an equal importance to all notes in the chromatic scale: there are no major or minor keys, and therefore no traditional melody.

Chromatic awareness slowly developed throughout the previous century: “you only need to try humming along to Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue to realize that chromaticism had come a long way since Mozart.” (Joe Staines and Duncan Clark).

In some ways it was Wagner himself who brought this about, by taking tonality to breaking point “with music in which there are so many and such extreme modulations” (ibid).

One characteristic of atonal music was the belief that the music must flow directly from the unconscious.

Schoenberg, Berg and Webern became known as chief amongst the Second Viennese School (the First being Beethoven, Haydn etc.). The setting is important: Vienna, home of Freudian psychoanalysis, and the concept of the unconscious.

Berg’s tutelage finished when he was twenty-five, the year of his first fully achieved piece, the String Quartet Opus 3. The audience reception was bemusement. Schoenberg, however, was enthusiastic.

Berg was now to live solely by music. Coupled with this though, was the problem of finding players capable and willing to take on the new music.

Berg stands out in the development of the new music, because of his janus-like stance: constantly referring to tonality but also developing atonality further and further. This is what gives him his richness, accessibility. Mahler’s 6th and 9th Symphonies become as much reference points as Schoenberg’s experiments with 12-tone structure. Berg was present at Mahler’s funeral.

This was part of a lingering Romanticism, and fertile ground for development of belief in the idea of the Freudian unconscious. The wonderful sonority of the Quartet, Berg owes to a shared aesthetic with post-Romantic harmonics, and his appreciation of classical harmonics.

The Lyric Suite of 1925, Berg’s next major piece, followed the development of atonal music through into serialism. The development was in the concentration on “small groups of notes which are rearranged and transposed in a multitude of ways… elaborate new arrangements and extensive cross-referencing between… movements.” (Griffiths); in this instance around a poem by Baudelaire. The main expressive impulse was unfulfilled desire: deep in the structure is a musical acrostic of a love affair: “The pitches… are often arranged so that the letters of their notes refer to the names A-lban B-erg (B flat) and H-annah (B) F-uchs and going on to obtain independent status.”

Griffiths notes, “The system governing the duration of the various chords consists of a numerical series binding for the whole passage: 5-4-3-2-1, 1-2-3-4-5. “ This row is submitted to a process of intensification where two tones each are “exchanged in all 12 tones… as well as the intervals in the chromatic scale.”(ibid).

Berg’s exasperated wife responded: ‘he can only work once he has completely complicated matters’.

Does serialism point up the failure of reliance on the unconscious, of the previous works? Perhaps the complication was in order to throw the reason into disarray, to distract it by embroiling it in detail, allowing the unconscious expression.

As serialism flowered into its hay-day in the 1950s in America, it became notorious for a certain aridity of emotional content.

Parallel with the development of atonal music and serialism, were Stravinsky’s innovations in rhythmical organisation. His later work Agon proved a bridge between the two, thought to be, antithetical styles of composition.

As for Berg, with two operas behind him, Wozzeck, and Lulu (unfinished), his never very strong constitution gave way, and he succumbed to blood poisoning at the age of 50.

His legacy is a wonderful richness; and an emotive centre, expressed with a cool, careful and rigorous tenacity.

Alban Berg:

AB1

PS
This is a piece I wrote following the research

MUSIC OF LANGUAGE

Alban Berg, his quiet words to Alma Mahler,
a soft Austrian German, private in funeral air;

and the voice used alone with his wife, the early years,
toned by the constant put-downs, rare successes:

the undercurrents to be read there. Did she read also
of his affair before he knew himself? Harmonics

discovering for themselves inner lives: ‘Alban
always needs frustrated ambitions.’ Her own voice twists.

The demands of a new language teasing known tones
to different possibilities.

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Reposted from 2011

The Swedish novelist Kerstin Ekman, hit world status in 1994, with her European blockbuster Blackwater.

A writer of wide and wonderful facility; she is essentially a fabulist: stories, anecdotes, myths tumble from her in abundance.

Blackwater has all her best novelistic traits, and also her failings.

One detail from Blackwater – a local policeman, at the end of a long day’s stint talking to a senior school, tells a class the real story of a failed robbery. The robbers, two city types, made off with their swag in a stolen car, heading up north. Holed up in an empty house, they were found next day, frozen to death. The simple flaw in their plan: being city types they did not have the basic knowledge for living in the north: how to light the wood stove.

Taken as it is, it is just another, authentic-sounding, statistic. But the time was the early 1970s, the Cold War, and fears of nuclear attack, which seemed immanent. The children insisted the teacher made two school curricula: one standard, and one covering everything they could ever need to know to survive: how to bake bread: which grain to use, how plough to prepare it, how to harvest it, how to make sickles, plough-shares etc. The children were avid for more; then a parent found out, and the teacher, one of the book’s main characters, was sacked ‘for frightening the children’.

The writer ably picks up here on the aftermath of fear of that period as echoed in the recent Soviet Union nuclear disaster at Chernobyl; the cloud of radioactive dust swept across Sweden, Scandinavia, as indeed it did northern England.

All of her books are rich in a wide variety of technical expertise. To be fully paid-up responsible adults, these are things, the book suggests on one level, we must question and be able to respond to. To be responsible to our children, another of the book’s main themes; what it is to be a child, and how being a parent is a part of that: from the bottom up. Blackwater makes us question all those things we take for granted.

The irony, also, is an Ekman hallmark.

Kerstin Ekman was born in mid Sweden in 1933. Like many other writers of her generation she moved north: north means, beyond the Arctic Circle. This was their authentic experience of the real Sweden.KE3

This is the setting of one of her earlier books, Under the Snow, written in 1966, translated for the first into English in 1997. It is a thriller based in a tiny village in the Swedish arctic; settled by nomadic Sami, for whom Swedes helped set up a local school.

Thorsson, local policeman, receives a call about a death. It is subzero still, the last of the long winter. A wonderful vignette: the super-fit younger colleague, all the right clothes, turns an ankle in the first few yards. Also, in the summer, a language academic excitedly scribbles the ferryman’s curses.

Someone says ‘killed’, another ‘accident’; everything suggests suicide. In arctic communities it is a matter of honour that everyone looks out for each other. This is the clue: honour plumbs the meaning of the death. It is essentially a clash of cultures, Sami and Swedish. It is played out against a backdrop of the long endless night of the winter months, and the neverending days of summer, when the sun scarcely sets.

In the 1970s she put herself through a strict discipline. This was the tetrology of books Witches Rings, Spring, Angel House, City of Light, available from the Norvik Press.

KE1                                                                  KE2

They follow the growth of an end-of-the-tracks village where the railway ended, into a prosperous city; but followed through from inside, that is, through the lives of its women. A wholly successful enterprise; this gained her wide recognition.

Rich and full of authentic detail. At best the books tread a careful line between character-led organic development, and explorations of history. Angel House, set in WWII explores the cost of Sweden’s neutrality: local militia guard rail stops as retreating German troops pass through from Norway; and then the sealed train that stopped briefly in the out-of-the-way station. Some said ‘German collaborators’, but the truth was ‘the last of Norway’s Jews’. The sudden jolt of implication is ours, for historically those realities were not then known. The fallibility of our humanity is the main thrust of the book.
This ‘conscience’ .

This consciousness of the consequences of the Swedish neutrality in the War informs Swedish writing to the present day: we can see it in Mankel Henning’s Wallander series of books, where the books examine the role of the military in peacetime, in its role in international peace-keeping, and in the writer’s African concerns. It is also reflected in the Kerstin Ekman’s resigning from the Swedish Academy due to their refusal to condemn the fatwah on Salman Rushdie in 1989

After the success of Blackwater readers wanted another, similar book; what they got was The Book of Hours. Published before Blackwater in Sweden, translation and English publishing demands have skewed chronology.

The Book of Hours takes on the long sweep of Swedish history, again from the inside, but this time explored through the exploits of a strange, sinister character: long lived, non-human but passing as human; a troll. And the magic realism of the book disconcerted some readers.

Where Blackwater explored contemporary concerns about nuclear war, sexual relations, social structures, and the a wonderful section unravelling the mythologies around the hunter in a modern setting; The Book of Hours was full of the culture of forestry, medieval alchemy, the histories of religion, medicine, and commerce; of the Hundred Year’s War, and the Lutheran revolution.

I mentioned her failings as a writer; this centres on the problem that plotlines do not always come together. If, like me, however, you become so engrossed in the storytelling, then it ceases to be an issue but a wry quirk, a humourous signature.

Kerstin Ekman

KE

Reblogged from 2011

To view a Howard Hodgkin painting is like being in on some event, but with the sound turned off. Everything is happening at once, but there’s this gap.

His paintings are visual ‘events’; you feel the churn of intensities.

It works by being so tightly contained. Most of his paintings are comparatively small: 37×38 cm (Still Life), 26x30cm (Venice Sunset). It’s only in later works he takes on size: 196x269cm (When Did We Go To Morocco?); but these are the exception.

The fierce overpainting objectifies emotional responses. The technically assured range of brushstrokes persuades us into seeing the harmonics of the piece.

So what soundtrack would we put here, then?

Harrison Birtwistle (Sir), for his layered textures and sense of theatre? Because Hodgkin is dramatic, his “emotional responses” (ie his paintings) lift and shape, throw into relief, subjective experience onto an objective plane.

But also for both their idiosyncratic Englishness. Unmistakable. Hodgkin’s focus is mostly domestic, the interior: we, the public, look either into frames into the picture, or out of an interior. Our sense of perspective is jeapordised to such an extent whichever way we look, that Hodgkin’s intensity becomes ours.

The unmistakable overpainting of the frame, and the painted frame within the painting (see Snapshot) is to “protect from the world” the at times fleeting emotion of the painting.
SNAPSHOT, 1984-93

snap

His paintings are deeply figurative; witness the quantity of portraits. At their heart (the canvas level, or, as he uses mostly board, the wood level) is generally a figurative leitmotif, before arpeggios of response, a polyphony of tonal qualities, describe their way out.

Ok, joke over, but you get the idea.

Painting for Hodgkin is about creating “illusionistic spaces” through the use of a specific vocabulary: colour is to create depth, the richly textured surfaces that allow underpainting to show through create counterpoint; patternings and obliquities help suggest space, while other techniques defeat space, keeping our eyes on the surface of the painting.

He has learned, surprisingly, from Sickert: “one way to make a painting exciting is the intimation of a human drama through psychological and sexual innuendo”. He does this through his tightly controlled focus, an almost keyhole perspective. Hodgkin himself writes: “I paint representational pictures of emotional situations”, that is, not emotions themselves. He also writes: “Pictures result from the accretion of many decisions, some are worked on for years, to find the exact thickness of a feeling.” (to Susan Sontag).

But is the Sickert so surprising? Hodgkin studied at Camberwell School of Art 1949 to 1954. Camberwell at that time was very influenced by the Euston Road School, in reaction to avant-garde’s pure abstractionism, and Surrealism. The Euston Road School (William Coldstream, Graham Bell, Victor Pasmore) was all about disciplined realism, observation, everyday life. And deeply influenced by Sickert and the Camden Town Group.

You also need to consider early Vuillard for the mood and interior scenes. Later, of course Hodgkin’s peers, Matisse, Derain, and who were to become fellow travellers: the neo expressionists.

His focus has always been intimacy, the understated; his figuration cubist, similar to de Kooning. Hodgkin’s observation is very much a consideration of remembered moments, his disciplined realism the veracity of the self.

Of It Can’t Be True (1987-90)

Itcantb

Michael Auping writes, it is “echo-like in its composition. It is composed of tilting frames jostling each other for position within the whole.” So, a constant tension set up by structural elements: the bright yellow frame in the centre is stopped short by a series of abrupt brush strokes that “violate its containment”.

And the title: what can’t be true? I question the need to know. The painting stands, for us; it emerges out of the personal life of the painter. As with all creative works there are always the unknowable elements: the subjective self’s containment is challenged, maybe compromised, but never wholly claimed. The titles are at times oblique because they are commentaries, jokes even, on the self, the legislated life, the legislators of life.

Auping comments, on Snapshot (1984-93), “We are given an inside view…  how the artist allows the marks to show through other marks, how he half buries and obliterates, leaving only what is necessary to re-engage his memory of the subject, though that memory and its relation to the title remains mysterious.”

As with all things, we have to learn to read paintings, their vocabularies, their aesthetics. Those who praise Old Masters for their perspicacity only see, in fact, a fraction of what they look at.

And so we begin to hear the soundtrack to these paintings (and it is not Birtwistle) in the dramatic tensions of the canvases, the emotional sweeps and uncoverings of colour, the personal chiaroscuro.

What has not yet been addressed is Hodgkin’s purpose in using the technique of the overpainted frames. It is a constant feature in his work, this bleeding out from the canvas onto walls, into the room’s light, but most importantly, into the viewer’s own existence.

There is something Derridean in this, how Derrida interrogates Kant and his logic of the parergon: “those things attached to the work of art but not part of its intrinsic form or meaning” eg the frame of the painting, the colonnades of a palace, drapery of statues…. The strict demarcation between one thing and another.

Derrida’s ‘indeterminacy’ informs Hodgkins’ sense of self; sexual orientation, and a sense of community are all implied here; hence a democracy of being, of being in the world. Hence, also, the personal quality, the familiarity, of some of his titles, implying a relationship with the viewer. Like all relationships it has to be worked at, constantly renewed, updated, changed.

HH