Saturday, September 13, 2008

Atonality at the Ordway

Peter's first assignment in ninth grade art class was to copy Picasso's portrait of Igor Stravinsky. The catch was that it had to be copied upside down, and only an inch at a time. I thought of this last night as I listened to the opening piece on the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra program, Stravinsky's Movements for Piano and Orchestra (1959), one of the composer's late forays into twelve-tone serialism. Serialism tosses out many of the traditional features of classical music—tonality, melodic motifs, development of themes—and builds upon the basic unit of the chromatic scale: a series of twelve notes, including both the white and black keys on the piano. Within this series, or row, a note cannot be repeated until each of the other notes in the series has been played. Instead of being related to a hierarchy of pitch based on the tonic (the first note in a scale), the notes are related only to each other. The music is drawn an inch at a time, unrelated to a continuous line of tonality. The effect is oddly upside down: the focus is on the abstract technique, the series of lines that don't add up to a traditional melodic musical picture.

Perhaps it's easier to understand if you watch this video, in which 12-tone music is explained at the piano by New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini (the video is also embedded in this article by Tommasini).

The result is a piece of music that—despite being based on an egalitarian distribution of notes—seems anarchic and random. It's music for the twentieth century, a time in which old hierarchical structures (including the structures of musical tonality) were breaking down and being replaced with new ideologies and puzzling new ways of looking at the world. In 1944, Time called Arnold Schoenberg, the inventor of 12-tone music, "the Albert Einstein of music." Serialism was relativity made aural.

I have to admit that I was relieved to come to the piece that closed the first half of the concert, Haydn's Symphony No. 103 in E-Flat, known as the Drum Roll. The piece opens with a daring timpani roll, followed by ominous-sounding basses and cellos searching for a key before the music kicks into melodic drive. It was radical for 1795.

The concert also included a piece for piano and orchestra, Flying to Kahani (2005), by American composer Charles Wuorinen, and the Concerto in D for Strings (1947) by Stravinsky (from the composer's appealingly neoclassical middle period). The soloist on the Wuorinen and the Stravinsky Movements for Piano was Peter Serkin, and the conductor was Roberto Abbado.


Christopher Tassava said...

Fascinating. I appreciated the link to the video, which I watched a couple times. I know next to nothing about classical music, but between Alex Ross' pieces in the NY'er and stuff like this, I wish I knew a lot more. Listening to the little snippets which Tommasini plays, though, I found the Schoenberg piece to be very appealing, in a slightly dissonant but also very jazzy way. I'll have to dig that piece up somewhere...

Christopher Tassava said...

Oh, yeah - fantastic drawing!

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .