Posts Tagged ‘european art’

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).

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.

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Every so often English tv comes up with something amazing. 1985 was a real coup: a full televised performance by the Pina Bausch company.
It’s not dance, not theatre; how could you describe it? Try this: “…speech, song, circus tricks, gymnastics, brilliant visual images, and monumental sets.” Exuberance. Or would you prefer: “…the pornography of pain.”?
What could arouse such strong emotions?

Interesting, the first quote is from the Sydney Morning Herald (2000), and the last from Stamford University, USA. Interesting also the Stamford’s last comments: “In the fifteen years since Bausch’s last appearance in Los Angeles, American dance has found its way into the territory of pain…”

The territory of pain.

The tv performance, like most of Pina’s work was long, discursive, digressive, yes even uncomfortable at times. A bridging motif between pieces had the performers form into a long snaking line all enacting the same rigorous, obsessive body-manipulations as they wound around the audience. Wound and wound around, up to the edge of discomfort, until the novelty became an affront, then picking up on the audience mood the performers took it back up onto stage and used it for the tone of the following piece.

In some performances the performers chat to the audience, ask intimate questions: “Are you here on your own? Do you like me? Do you want come round the back?”
Challenge, confrontation, but also movements of great lyrical beauty, emotional intensity. Huge ensemble pieces constructed from the performer’s own experiences:
Copy someone else’s tic
Do something you are ashamed of
Write your name with a movement
What would you do with a corpse?
Move your favourite body part
How do you behave when you have lost something?

Pina (Phillipine) Bausch was born in Solingen, Germany in 1940. At 14 she was already studying with Jooss, the German top choreographer. (“I loved to dance because I was scared to speak.”). She studied in America under such people as Jose Limon, Paul Taylor, Antony Tudor. In 1973 she was made director of Wuppertal Dance Theatre.
She died in 2009.

Why choose Wuppertal? An industrialized urban area in the Ruhr valley, its one characteristic a century-old overhead monorail system.
For its ordinariness.

She changed the Dance Theatre utterly.
She loved forms, materials. Her sets could be breathtaking: a sea of flowers for Nelken, a stage of heaped leaves for Bluebird, a water-flooded stage for Arien.

She used dress to send sexual messages to the audience; women can be vampy, or dressed in girly clothes, stilettos, or evening gowns.
She also loved romantic pop songs, the ritual of the cigarette, social dance. She may fool around with sex and sexual forms, but she always took romantic love seriously.

In 1982’s Nelken male performers in ill-fitting frocks frolicked in a sea of flowers whilst, separating them from the audience were guards with guard dogs. Real ones. The dogs were going frantic as the men ‘fooled around’; the guards struggling to hold them. The audience were scared, horrified. Then officials came onto the stage checking passports. Politics: gender politics, Cold War politics. But a performance for Pina Bausch is always many things: simple statements, positions, belief systems are starting points only: all is filtered through the personal lives of the performers; they all bring to the piece something of their personal lives. Such political statements may be a beginning but the piece soon moves away into the vastness of the human arena.

“In the work of Pina Bausch repetition often evokes an overwhelming image of pain and imprisonment.” We are presented with a take on our own lives: is this how we really seem? Do you recognise something of yourself there?

Is this the story of our time?
It may well be. Who was the psychologist said the way the pessimist sees the world is probably nearest the truth?
Performance though, engagement, are their own rewards.
A love affair falls apart: it is not that pain, distress, collapse of the self, but the wonder that was there. Not the easy relapse, but the straining, striving for the topmost apple.

Pornography of pain? America now knows it has relearned pain.
Perhaps I do Pina Bausch a disservice: like all works of wonder the edge of threat is always present. But it is still a work of wonder.

2004 should have been the year of Germany’s industrial music pioneers Einsturzende Neubauten.
It was the year their trailblazing album Perpetuum Mobile was released. So what went wrong?

History got in the way. Or rather, their history.

Their history stakes their claim on dissonance, on stadium stage-wrecking concerts using road drills, industrial machinery and off cuts, on clanging, banging, headache sounds.
But anyone who heard 1980’s STAHLVERSION, a live recording of rhythmic beats and drumming on the metal casing of an autobahn overpass, will attest to greater things to come.

Ok, it took a long time to come: things had to be done first. But in 2004 the fruits of those earlier plantings bloomed, and bloomed wonderfully. This was a classic album, in every sense of the word.
And not so unprepared for: the earlier two albums, Ende Neu of 2001, and Silence Is Sexy of 2003, lay out new, more generally accessible areas of harmonics and melodies to be explored.
Perpetuum Mobile is at some levels a collaboration between the band and fans: pieces were put out on net pages for dedicated fans to respond to, suggest what worked, what could happen next.
This resulted in a still industry-heavy sound, but one capable of greater subtlety and harmony.

The title-piece an extended exploration of our continually more mobile lifestyle, and its changes and effects on the ways we live and view the world. Still utilising industrial machinery: air compressors, plastic tubes, amplified steel wire, also coming to the fore is greater use of electronic loops, standard guitar and organ.
The piece goes through a number of dramatic tonal shifts, sustained by the same driving rhythm throughout.
Boreas is an ethereally breathy piece, evocative of the strange brittle brilliance of the aurora. Surprised? Oh, yes: greater subtlety, see?

And the more accessible Dead Friends (Around the corner), although no doubt alienating some of the band’s older fans, could not have done better to win more mainstream airplay.
The overall tone is experiment tempered by maturity: industry and melody. And it works.