Category Archives: 20th- and 21st-century music

Electronic music and the Cold War

For a decimated post-War West Germany, the Studio für Elektronische Musik at Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) was a beacon of hope.

In the 1950s, when technologies were plentiful and the need for reconstruction was great, West Germany began to rebuild its cultural prestige via aesthetic and technical advances. The reclamation and repurposing of wartime machines, spaces, and discourses into the new sounds of the mid-century studio were part of this process.

The studio’s composers, collaborating with scientists and technicians, coaxed music from sine-tone oscillators, noise generators, band-pass filters, and magnetic tape. Together, they applied core tenets from information theory and phonetics, reclaiming military communication technologies as well as fascist propaganda broadcasting spaces.

The electronic studio nurtured a revolutionary synthesis of science, technology, politics, and aesthetics. Its esoteric sounds transformed mid-century music and continue to reverberate today. Electronic music—echoing both cultural anxiety and promise—is a quintessential Cold War innovation.

This according to Electronic inspirations: Technologies of the Cold War musical avant-garde by Jennifer Iverson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).

Below, Herbert Eimert’s and Robert Beyer’s Klangstudie II, one of the first works produced at the WDR studio.

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Béla Bartók, entomologist

Béla Bartók is renowned as one of the twentieth century’s greatest composers and as one of the founders of ethnomusicology. Less known is his love of animals, particularly his fascination with insects.

When he was a child he bred silkworms, and later he systematically collected insects, assembling a beautiful assortment. His son Béla Jr. recalled helping him with this hobby. “The most important instruction that he gave…was that no pain whatsoever was to be inflicted on the animals. And so he always took the appropriate drug with him on his insect-collecting expeditions. The insects, therefore, died and came into his collection without any suffering.”

This according to “The private man” by Béla Bartók, Jr. (as translated by Judit Rácz), which is included in The Bartók companion (London: Faber & Faber, 1993; RILM Abstracts 1993-4867).

Today is Bartók’s 140th birthday! Above, a watercolor caricature of him as an insect enthusiast by his cousin Ervin Voit. Below, his “Mese a kis légyrõl” (From the diary of a fly, Mikrokosmos, BB 105, Sz. 107, VI/142).

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Halim El-Dabh, electronic music pioneer

 

After earning a degree in agricultural engineering in Cairo, Halim El-Dabh traveled to outlying Egyptian villages to assist with agricultural development projects. During these visits he became increasingly drawn to traditional music and dance.

Fascinated by the possibilities of manipulating sound, he borrowed a wire recorder from a Cairo radio station and began recording folk songs, religious rites, and vendors’ cries in the city’s streets. The experience gave rise to an early electronic composition using his recording of the zaar, a traditional exorcism ritual, which he manipulated in the studio.

“I was carving sound,” he told The Christian Science Monitor in 1974. “I used noise like I would a piece of stone”.

That work, later released as Wire recorder piece, was well-received, and became one of the catalysts for El-Dabh’s decision to pursue a career as a composer. In the late 1950s he became associated with the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, a hotbed of sonic ferment.

This according to “Halim El-Dabh, composer of Martha Graham ballets, dies at 96” by Margalit Fox (The New York times 8 September 2017).

Today would have been El-Dabh’s 100th birthday! Above, a photo by Robert Christy (Kent State University; used with permission); below, Leiyla and the poet, which brought him international recognition in the early 1960s.

BONUS: An excerpt from Wire recorder piece, often cited as the earliest example of musique concrete.

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Frank Zappa and classical music

 

Although he was best known as the guitarist and leader of The Mothers of Invention and other rock bands, Frank Zappa grew up with a keen interest in 20th-century concert music and aspired to be an orchestral composer as well; his scores have been recorded by Pierre Boulez, Ensemble Modern, and others.

Appropriate listening strategies for Zappa’s pieces for acoustic concert ensembles should be based primarily on models developed from his more abundant commercially successful output, and less so on the music of early–20th-century composers, such as Stravinsky and Varèse, whose music he admired.

This according to “Listening to Zappa” by Jonathan W. Bernard (Contemporary music review XVIII/4 [2000] pp. 63–103; RILM Abstracts 1999-44563).

Today would have been Zappa’s 80th birthday! Below, conducting his G-spot tornado in 1992 with Ensemble Modern and dancers Louise Lecavalier and Donald Weikert.

Related article: Frank Zappa and Uncle Meat

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Art création recherche outils savoirs synesthésie

 

In 2019 Delatour France launched the book series Art création recherche outils savoirs synesthésie with L’émergence en musique: Dialogue des sciences (RILM Abstracts 2019-14429).

The volume collects papers from the conference L’Émergence en Musique: Dialogue des Sciences, which was held in Plaisir and Versailles in 2016. This conference explored musical examples of how in certain complex systems radically new properties appear unexpectedly and are characteristic of a higher level of organization; these emergent properties are not found in any individual parts of the system, but occur as an effect of the system as a whole.

Below, a work by Horacio Vaggione, one of the composers who contributed to the book and conference.

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Aaron Copland’s “gold nuggets”

 

While Aaron Copland’s works are widely celebrated for their elegant formal coherence, his compositional method was strikingly nonlinear; in fact, he spoke of himself as an artist who primarily assembled materials.

Rather than writing pieces from start to finish, Copland wrote down fragments of musical ideas when they came to him. When it was time to produce a complete work he would turn to these ideas—he called them his “gold nuggets”—and if one or more of them seemed promising he would write a piano sketch and proceed to work on them further at the keyboard.

This piano phase was so integral to Copland’s creative process that it permeated his compositional style in subtle and complex ways. His habit of turning to the keyboard tended to embarrass him until he learned that Stravinsky did the same.

This according to Copland. I: 1900 through 1942 by Aaron Copland and Vivian Perlis (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984, 255; RILM Abstracts 1984-3448).

Today is Copland’s 120th birthday! Above, the composer in 1962; below, a selection of his “miniature” piano works suggests how he worked with his gold nuggets.

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Morton Feldman and Persian carpets

 

Repetition and variation are important components of the music of Morton Feldman—components that he extracted from his observation of Persian carpet designs.

Rug design and music are arts that use symbolic language to express certain concepts with a focus on the idea of unity in multiplicity. The designs of some Persian carpets are based on the weaver’s mind map, which resembles Feldman’s musical approach. Key elements of these carpet patterns correspond directly to Feldman’s use of repetition and symmetry in his works.

This according to “A study on the rug patterns and Morton Feldman’s approach” by A.A. Javadi and M. Fujieda (International journal of music science, technology and art II/1 [2020] 48–53; RILM Abstracts 2020-3041). Many thanks to Improbable research for bringing this study to our attention!

Above, a comparison of selected carpets with excerpts from Feldman’s Crippled symmetry; below, the work itself.

Related post: Morton Feldman’s The viola in my life

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Ernst Krenek and Charles V

 

Ernst Krenek’s Karl V is a testimony to the anachronistic—in the best sense of the word—exploitation of the memory of the Holy Roman Empire, or the imperial idea of Charles V as the composer understood it, reflecting the unrealized possibility of a transformation of the medieval concept of empire into a contemporary form.

In its interpretation of the Holy Roman Empire, the opera builds a bridge to the world of values of the Austrian corporative state, which sought to attribute a special mission to Austria by linking it with the supranational idea of the Habsburg Empire.  This involves a distinct rejection of the National Socialist idea of empire. On the musical level, this is expressed by the use of the proscribed 12-tone technique. which in various respects corresponds to the conceptual theme of the work.

Krenek’s position can be defined both from the standpoint of music-art and of philosophy-politics, as that of a border-crosser, one which resists classification in any specific direction.

This according to “Die Idee des Reiches in Ernst Kreneks Bühnenwerk mit Musik Karl V, op. 73 (1933)” by Raymond Dittrich, s essay included in Was vom Alten Reiche blieb…: Deutungen, Institutionen und Bilder des frühneuzeitlichen Heiligen Römischen Reiches Deutscher Nation im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert (München: Bayerische Landeszentrale für Politische Bildungsarbeit, 2011, pp. 421–33).

Today is Charles V’s 520th birthday! Above, Titian’s La gloria, once owned by the birthday boy, who is depicted in white near the top; Krenek called for the painting to be used as a stage backdrop for his opera. Below, the opening of the Bayerische Staatsoper’s production.

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Stravinsky and Pergolesi

 

In his statements on the origin of Pulcinella, Igor Stravinsky leads the reader astray; none of the models used by him are, as he alleges, fragments, incomplete, or sketches, and none were unknown.

Stravinsky’s ballet is a parody based on 21 pieces transmitted under Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s name and taken from various contexts. Four are from Pergolesi’s Frate ’nnamorato, three from Flaminio, one from the cantata Luce degli occhi miei, and one from the violoncello sonata. The rest of the pieces have been incorrectly attributed to Pergolesi; one is a modern forgery.

The texts of the arias are distorted to the point of unrecognizability in Stravinsky’s ballet; the curious double text in the trio results from a misunderstanding of the manuscript source. Apparently Stravinsky became acquainted with the music from both of Pergolesi’s comedies in 1917 in Naples. The material that he took from these was later supplemented by primarily unauthentic pieces from printed sources in the British Museum.

This according to “Die musikalischen Vorlagen zu Igor Strawinskys Pulcinella” by Helmut Hucke, an essay included in Frankfurter musikhistorische Studien: Helmuth Osthoff zu seinem siebzigsten Geburtstag uberreicht von Kollegen, Mitarbeitern und Schülern (Tutzing: Schneider, 1969, pp. 241–50).

Today is Pergolesi’s 310th birthday! Below, Stravinsky’s suite from Pulcinella.

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International journal of the study of music and musical performance

 

In 2019 Open Music Library launched International journal of the study of music and musical performance.

The journal advances both a general and professional interest in music and its performance with essays that cover a range of approaches: from discussions of little-known composers and musicians drawing upon primary and secondary sources to more specialized studies of composers, works, instruments, performers, audiences, and institutions. A review section covers new books, scores, and recordings. Whenever possible, international contributions are presented in the original language as well as in English.

Below, Hans Werner Henze’s Du schönes Bächlein; the work’s performance practice is discussed in the inaugural issue.

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