Composers Who Go Against Typecasting

Like almost everyone I spoke to, I very much liked Elliott Carter’s What Next?, which was performed at Miller Theatre last week. (I attended the performance on the composer’s 99th birthday.) But part of my delight was not just that it was so good, but that it was so in an expectation-confounding way. The idiom of the five small, late Carter chamber pieces of the first half I expected; the vocal lines in What Next? I did not expect. They were far less disjunct, the sung intervals far shorter stepwise than I could imagine they would be. Some sections of the score were positively lyrical, notably an orchestral interlude while the boy alto was alone onstage.

Carter waited until he was 89 to finish his first opera (not counting a 1934 effort, now withdrawn). I already commented in these pages some weeks ago about the ever-replenishing fountain of youth when it comes to Carter and a few other late-blooming composers. But the Elliott Carter of What Next? broaches another issue: the role played by (what in the theater is called) typecasting in the perception of composers. Many years ago, the critic John Simon suggested in a published interview that the salvation of the Broadway musical lay in producers’ wooing a composer like Elliott Carter to write one. This remark nonplussed the interviewer. (Was the interviewer Ned Rorem? I can’t remember.) The suggestion was so against type.

There are many different ways for a composer to go against type. First, there’s the Drastic Turnabout where the “against type” is actually the first incarnation of the composer’s style. John Philip Sousa began his career primarily as a violinist and composer of operetta. He was even the concertmaster for the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition’s orchestra under Offenbach. But his later march and bandleading m.o. dislodged posterity’s memory of his earlier persona. (Anton Webern’s early, un-Webernian Im Sommerwind is another example of this.) Next is the Perpetual Chameleon: Stravinsky, the ultimate sly fox of musical style, a serial evader of musical typecasting. (I mean serial as in “serial killer,” not as in dodecaphony.) A third is the Musical Traitor: George Antheil, who tergiversated from ultramodernist Ballet Mecanique-type pieces to write schmaltzy Hollywood scores and Shostakovich-y symphonies. Antheil’s volte-face was like John Dos Passos or Steinbeck becoming right-wing in their later years. In cases Two and Three, there can be a grudging feeling among the cognoscenti that its expectations have been trumped. Why couldn’t George Antheil continue to be the Bad Boy of Music, as he referred to himself in his latter-day penned autobiography? Why couldn’t Stravinsky continue composing Firebirds and Petrouchkas for 80 years? Why, he’s betrayed his genius! (Nonsense. Every note in every piece Stravinsky wrote is inimitably signaturized.)

Sometimes a composer writes against type by deliberately slumming: Beethoven composing Wellington’s Victory, for instance—a perfectly awful and sub-Beethovenian piece written for Maelzel, the inventor of the metronome. Twelve-tone composer Wallingford Riegger made a good part of his livelihood prolifically composing choral arrangements that were very un-Riegger. Bartók was by type a singular, innovative pianist, yet his deepest musical and instrumental innovations were for his string quartets. Rachmaninoff, also typed as a piano composer, wrote extremely idiomatic operatic and choral music that owes nothing to pianistic concepts.

But sometimes a composer can’t go against type even when he tries. During World War II, at a time when he was cashflow challenged, Marc Blitzstein tried writing—at film director Garson Kanin’s urging—a purely commercial song. After playing it once to applause, according to biographer Eric Gordon, Blitzstein eighty-sixed it, even rejecting Kanin’s suggestion that he publish it under an assumed name. “No. Someone will find out.”

When one gets to later 20th-century modernists, however, there’s a curious self-adherence to typecasting. Schoenberg wrote tonal music late in life, but I would find Cage more interesting if once in a while he had written a sonata, or Reich a piece unrooted in a phased motor groove. Such typecasting questions are really more questions of identity. I find a composer more of a tiger when he changes his stripes once in a while; such a composer to me has more complex identity and creative vigor. Luciano Berio’s remarkable Folk Songs for voice and small ensemble, for instance: for me that’s a masterpiece of composing against type.

By the way, can anyone confirm the apocryphal story that Ravel composed the pop standard “Fascination” on a dare, “covered” by F. D. Marchetti? (There’s an attempted disproof here.)

4 thoughts on “Composers Who Go Against Typecasting

  1. kontrabass47

    I think some composers are afraid of writing outside their personal style, because they might lose that individuality. In a time where there are blurred lines between musical styles, one must be severly individualistic to stand out in a crowd.
    On the other hand, composers could get outside their personal box, with the possiblity of reaching a new audience.

    Reply
  2. CM Zimmermann

    John Cage: Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano

    I am not quite sure that I understand why a composer, who is consciously setting out on a new path and reacting against conventions, would write a work in a traditional form in order to avoid ‘typecasting’. Much of Modernist art attempts to undermine form in some way. Certainly, there are those who brilliantly and effectively ‘critique’ traditional forms from within by using, often ironically, these same forms. And, there are others who outright reject traditional forms.

    I agree that it is very interesting when a composer radically changes her approach, however I hesitate to make this virtue a universal category. I think there are certain composers who singularly pursue their vision and intensely explore a limited territory. The danger is one of becoming static, complacent, of recycling. One does not have to radically alter one’s approach to remain creative, in other words.

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  3. Frank J. Oteri

    I also immediately thought of Cage’s wonderful and now seemingly ubiquitous Sonatas and Interludes, but they are hardly in sonata form, which is what I inferred Mark would have liked to have heard from Cage based on his comments. And while CMZ’s assertion that an “avant-garder” suddenly doing something traditional does not always an exciting new work make is definitely true, there are some fascinating examples in various art forms that make a compelling case for having a multiplicity of approaches rather than being pigeonholed into a specific sound or look which can make one’s creative efforts stagnate.

    Ted Curson, a fabulous free jazz trumpeter and composer put out a totally uncharacteristic album covering standards, Fire Down Below, which is a real treat. As are Philip Glass’s early, non-minimalist Brass Sextet, and the early Americana works of Elliott Carter, perhaps precisely because they make the listener listen beyond expectations.

    Sometimes refining traits in an artist’s more experimentally leaning creations in a work that is more mainstream can create a work that is much more far reaching and mature: I immediately think of Stephen Wright’s latest novel The Amalgamation Polka, which is less experimental than the three he had previously written, and as a result seems somehow more effective. (And I say this as a huge fan of those three other novels.) Similarly, Roscoe Mitchell’s Nine to Get Ready and Public Image Ltd.’s Album, which both streamline their rougher edges, are incredible powerful and subversive records. A painter friend of mine, whose work is predominantly abstract and monochromatic, rendered an excellent portrait of Arnold Schoenberg which proudly hangs in my apartment.

    On the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum, sometimes an aesthetic volte-face into more dangerous territory also produces fascinating work, e.g. Frank Stella’s three dimensional maximalist works from the 1970s onward, John Adams’s Chamber Symphony, John Corigliano’s Chiaroscuro for two pianos tuned a quartertone apart, even Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music.

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  4. JKG

    Against type?
    Oh yeah! To say the least, it would gratify me no end to know there are mannerists who can write accessible music. Its the ones who can’t I hold suspect as phonies, particularly if they teach at a university. There’s a project at the Delian Society in which tonal composers write non-tonally, and non-tonal composers write tonally. Check it out: http://www.newmusicclassics.com/nu_mu_sic_garden_folly.html

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