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CLASSICAL  March 2000

CLASSICAL March 2000

Subject:

Re: Conversations with Sessions

From:

Stirling Newberry <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 7 Mar 2000 09:37:46 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (110 lines)

Steve Schwartz wrote:

>I was under the impression that Sessions was a darling of the "hard
>music" crowd.  I've not seen an avant-gardiste (except possibly from
>the minimalist end of things) knock Sessions.  Of course, I'm defining
>avant-garde as current journalism defines it.  There are many strains
>of music out there that could reasonably be defined as in the forefront.
>However, the remark about Beethoven and Brahms I find dead on, ...

In the world of vegetarians there are gradations of strictness invisible
to the outside - in the world of avant-garde radicals there are gradations
which are invisible to the outside.  Sessions clearly wants to go farther
in the use of Modern techniques than do many of his brethern, but compare
him to the hard core of his era - Stockhausen, Cage, Boulez, Scelsi - and
he seems rather conservative in his musical objectives.  I would place his
goals, as he articulates them, closer to Schostakovich's that Cage's.

>Reading the letters, you find it's one of his obsessions, and he had it
>all his composing life.  I think that "heft" is what attracted him to Bloch
>in the first place and led him to undervalue the neoclassical Stravinsky
>and, hence, the Boulanger students.  The influence of Bloch on Sessions I
>don't believe has ever been discussed, mainly because Bloch's music is so
>low-profile these days.

An interesting connection to draw.  And the kind of detail which starts
to penetrate the world of the composer and his music.  Perhaps you could
elaborate a bit...

>Yes, but "importance" is over-rated.  Besides, it's early days yet, as far
>as a performing tradition goes.  So few of the recordings of Sessions's
>music are very good.

Perhaps so, but then so must words like "outstanding".

>There's a great difference between having no propositional content and
>insincerity.  Thanh-Tam is not arguing at all, just stating an opinion,
>at this stage unsupported.  I don't think he realized it's a quiz or
>that someone would suspect him in the pay of evil marketeers.

I don't think I accused anyone of being "in the pay" of anyone else, merely
that the substance of TTL's post was more appropriate to selling Wu-Tang
tickets than making claims about what is, and is not, a masterpiece.

>I have no idea what a masterpiece or greatness is, as I've often stated,
>so I'll stay out of this part of the discussion.

There are two definitions of masterpiece that make sense.  One is to argue
that a work is better than other works of the same kind - that those who
find a particular genre appealing should prefer this work, and its means of
execution, should study it more carefully and note the signs of an artist
who had command of the materials.

The second is to state that even those who are not interested in the
genre or message of the music should pay attention to the work, because it
possesses a surpacing coherence.  One that reaches beyond its own circle.

To argue for the first means placing the work in the genre, and secondly
showing how the artist used the materials, tropes, topoi and forms of that
genre in a manner which indicates a deeper understanding.  The difference
between someone who can recite a proof, and the person who can find a way
to make that proof more elegant, and the person who can use that proof in
a more complex proposition.

Usually it is easy to place a work in its genre - it is self-evident in
many cases.  However not always.  In this case you've been arguing that we
should take the composer at his word, that he is trying to compose music
which should be viewed in relationship to Bloch, or to Prokofiev or
Rachmaninoff rather than to Webern or Boulez.

The second part is usually complicated in execution, but simple in
conception.  Show how the artist used the materials which are an accepted
part of the genre.  But if the first step is difficult the second
usually requires a different tactic, one that argues for an expansion or
reinterpretation of the genre and its methods.  A classic example is the
reinterpretation of form offered by Czerny - moving the idea of form from
a bipart closed form, to an open - indeed open on both ends - tripart form,
and then arguing that Beethoven was not an eccentric who expanded Mozart
and Haydn to the point of grotesque, but instead was the apotheosis of the
trend which they had started.

The argument which you presented in germinal form runs this way, here
paraphrased from several critic's statements on Lutoslawski.

The fundemental characteristic of the 19th century Romantic is long vocal
melody.

Vocal melody is heard when a single part or interlocking set of parts holds
the musical argument, and is juxtaposed by more fragmentary material around
it.  And in addition when the breaks between musical sections in this
melody are used in a means similar to "breath" in the singing of vocal
lines.

Hence Lutoslawski's 4th symphony should be seen as "Romantic" because of
its uses of long vocal lines and the correspondance of the lines to the
mid-ground structure of the work.

>Does there have to be? Can't he simply use existing ideas very well?
>I have no specific examples to offer.

Why, that would make him a master, and some of his works "masterpieces".
The argument is there if you wna to make it.  I'm merely pointing out that
events seem to indicated that Sessions' music has not persuaded others -
yet.

The reason this sort of thinking is important is because performance
practice often grows out of what musicians and audience feel is important
to bring out in a work.  A work has artistic coherence when the ideas about
the work - the sketches - match good performances - the building.

Stirling

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