While folks across the country marched in parades, fired up the barbeque, or went out-of-town, I spent the Memorial Day weekend catching up with listening to recordings I’ve acquired over the past six months, and in some cases earlier. Of course, in Zeno’s Paradox fashion, every time I feel like I make a dent in the piles of unheard CDs and LPs, the piles magically grow again. Well, perhaps not so magically—I kicked off the weekend going record shopping, and so my listening festival was a combination of stuff waiting in the queue and the newly acquired.
It would be difficult to enumerate highlights, especially since I’m not a partisan of ranking, but curiosities included a 1980 Western-styled Chinese opera by Wang Shi-guang and Cui Ke-xiang called The Hundredth Bride which sounded somewhat akin to Rimsky-Korsakov; solo piano music from Albania created under the strict guidelines of former dictator Enver Hoxha (who by comparison makes Stalin seem like a fan of Helmut Lachenmann); an incomplete collection of the complete pre-1955 recordings of jazz/R&B singer Dinah Washington (I’m still hunting down a few volumes); and a three-hour sonata for solo violin by an enigmatic Swedish composer named Claude Loyola Allgén (1920-1990) who was forced to melt snow in his bathtub in order to drink after his water supply was cutoff for lack of payment.
But two things I listened to struck me not just because I really liked what I was hearing but also because of provocations contained in the recordings’ liner notes. The first comes from the premiere recording of Alec Wilder’s 1959 Suite for Brass Quintet, performed by the New York Brass Quintet, one of the first such groups. (By the way, the NYBQ’s playing both on the Wilder and a quintet by Don Hammond on the LP’s other side, sounds nothing like contemporary brass quintet playing; it sounds more like either a jazz combo or a reduced pit orchestra for a 1950s Broadway show.)
There is an ever increasing trend among many of our contemporary composers; the seeming necessity to divorce their creative impulse from their performers and listeners. Often by the simple device of adopting a “system” which is complex beyond the ear of the auditor, the composer achieves a dual victory over critic and competition, and at the same time, through the completely abstract method of approach, the creator remains unscathed and unrevealed.
(New York Brass Quintet presents Two Contemporary Composers,
Golden Crest LP CR-4017)
The second is a quote by Peter Mennin accompanying a recording of his all-too-little-known Five Pieces for Piano from 1950:
I feel that it is inappropriate for the composer—who has been looking inward during the creation of the work—to have to explain merely the compositional technique without the emotional involvement with the content of the musical ideas that created the urgency to make the work come into being.
(from Contemporary Record Society LP 8528)
Both liner note comments seemed very effectively reinforced by the pieces of music they were describing, 1950s works of a decidedly un-modernist bent that came into being as modernism was becoming the paradigm for that era. In fact, while both pieces of music might come across as quaint and somewhat old-fashioned to some listeners today, they actually seemed downright defiant to me. Perhaps even more defiant than Arnold Schoenberg, who in his Harmonielehre drew a distinction between beauty and truth which now nearly a century later seems like yet another Berlin Wall:
Beauty begins to appear at that moment when the noncreative become aware of its absence. It does not exist earlier because the artist has no need of it. For him, truth suffices.
Mind you, I write this as someone who finds a whole lot of beauty in Schoenberg’s Fourth String Quartet and Piano Concerto and many other works. But as I continue to struggle with two pieces of my own music—as luck would have it, a brass quintet and a composition for solo keyboard both inspired by the working out of systems—I would counter that truth probably doesn’t suffice. However, despite truth allegedly being objective and beauty inevitably being subjective, is it possible for truth not to always contain some beauty and for beauty not to always contain some truth?