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CLASSICAL  March 2000

CLASSICAL March 2000

Subject:

Re: Conversations with Sessions

From:

Stirling Newberry <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Sun, 5 Mar 2000 22:03:32 -0500

Content-Type:

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text/plain (108 lines)

Thanh-Tam Le wrote:

>Dear listers, I apologize for not being more elaborate this time, but I
>would like to say that it is quite possible to immensely enjoy Sessions's
>music without being a proponent of atonality or 12-tone music per se.

But you are both Thanh-Tam so I'm waiting for a counter example.  Actually
my argument runs in the other direction - that there are fair number of
people who are supporters of the avant-garde who do not rate Sessions' very
highly, because for all of the dissonance in much of his music, he makes
himaslef a direct juxtaposition to Beethoven adn Brahms.  And ends up on
the short end of that comparison.

As I pointed out, Sessions' mature output has more to do with Diamond and
Hanson and Shuman than it does with Scheonberg.  Compare the differences
between Kirchner - an American Schoenbergian - to Sessions and one sees the
heart of the matter - Sessions' was clearly affected by the need to produce
an American concert music with the same monumental heft that was found in
the European one.  This is by no means the totality of what he did,but it
isthe area of his work most often presented.

He makes - in this book and elswhere - various claims for his music.  He
wants it to be judged against the older standard of music, and the failure
toattain any sort of foothold by that standard is a sign that the music has
fialed by the composers' own standard.  This does not mean that it does not
have supporters - it does - nor does it mean that his supporters don't have
a right to perform and listen and study his music - they do - but that the
various claims of him being "important" are overblown.  The charge that he
became a boogey man is exagerated - One can talk to a large number of
classical music afficinadoes and find only a few who know his music one
way or another, or even have heard of him.

>I certainly do mind when music is dull -- and Sessions's music definitely
>does not sound dull to me -- but I do not spend my time wondering which
>technique is being used, or what Sessions might have wanted to convey,
>while listening to his violin concerto, his 4th or his 7th symphony, or
>his Requiem (When Lilacs...).  I am, quite simply (but not simplistically),
>struck by the wealth of beauty offered by each of these masterpieces, or
>so they sound to me.

"Lilacs" is considerably above his general level.  Fist he does not
constantly fall back on certain tropes which dominate his symphonic output.
Secondly the text seems to force him to produce a greater variety of
texture than he is often motivated to produce, and finally the care with
which he has chosen his material stands in stark contrast to the rather
poor intervals of say his 4th symphony.  There is a long stretch between
hailing someone as a master and damning him to complete obscurity.  Many
composers have had only a few works which are worth remembering.

But in order to be "a masterpiece" a work needs to do more than appeal to
someone.  We are trained in this time and place to take "gushing" as the
most sincere endorsement for a work or experience.  Marketers work hard
to present exampls of people gushing over a restaurant, or movie, or book.
They hope that enough people gush, then others will think that there must
be something genuine going on.  But in reality gushing is the easiest thing
to fake in the world, it has no content.  I could take your post, replace
Sessions and references to his works with "REO Speedwagon" and a list of
their albums, replacing the techniques listed with "heavy metal" and "AOR"
and there would be no difference in the form.

In order to claim a work is a masterpiece there must be cotent which alters
how it can be spoken of.  It is possible, equally, to gush over Beethoven
and Jewel.  But it is not possible to write Gide's Symphonie Pastorale to
the later - or a review like ETA Hoffman's.  It is equally possible to play
great and banal music in grief, but it is not possible to argue over the
banal.

This is my charge that I level at the Session's suporters - that their
prose is purple, and without substance, that repeatedly we hear high
and low about how greathe is, and then are left waiting for the details.
I've read that "the second symphony's riches are piled recklessly high"
- but the materials themselves are not particularly intersting in their
implications.  Is there a new chord progression here? A ndew use of
modality? A new twist on an older idea? Or is their rather a circumstance
that Bartok describes "writing four banal ideas in different keys and
having people think 'what modern music we are hearing'" I believe Bartok
was speaking of Milhaud at the time, but it cannot be said that he was
afraid of either dissonance or atonality.

It is easy, too easy, for soemone to mimic or adhere to the ocabulary of
the romantic artist in interviews - and "Conversations with Sessions" is
loaded with examples of this - but then not produce a work which gives
substance to them.  The same prose is empty - because it does nto match
the result.  To take a different example, on critic recently excoriated
many teachers for speaking of Debussy's Autumn:Leaves in poetic terms,
commenting that instead they should show students how it is a series of
cells descending through an octatonic space.  If the teacher does not know
how to play the piece correctly, then he is correct, but a master will
simply play it, and the studnet will *see* the rippling figures in the
hands and will see both that ti is a series of cells, and that watching
the fingers move will produce an uncanny effect of watching leaves tumble.
Hence conjoining thetwo.

That you disagree in taste you are, ofcourse, entitled to, but that you
claim that something other than affection should cause us to re-examin
Session's music requires substance.  And to date, there has been *none*.
Hence the woord "masterpiece" is empty verbiage, the word "important"
mere bombast.  And the rpoblem with Sessions' music and the public s quite
probably the inflated words used to describe it.  It might fair better if
it were not couched in such high, and empty, praise, and isntead were given
the atention to its content that seems so lacking from his nominal
supporters.

But then, he would not be the first compoers who needed to be saved from
his devotees - I spend a good deal of tiem cringing at some of the words
that Beethovne's supporters throw around as well...

Stirling

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