First of all, many thanks to Steve and Stirling for launching this thread.
Maybe something would be worth pointing out before I go on: Sessions's
music is not known to a minority of listeners in France, it is virtually
unknown to most musicians. What I mean is that what may have been written,
said or praised about him in the United States has little part, if any, in
my own approach of his music. I also have to apologize for my approximate
English, which does not help in making my point:-)
If I understand Stirling's remark ("you are both Thanh-Tam"), he means that
I am both an admirer of Sessions (not all of his works to the same degree,
though) and a non-proponent of atonality. Indeed, my posts about Sulek or
Natasa Danilovic bear witness to that, and atonality or 12-tone music per
se is not something one should be for or against IMHO. But I have nothing
against Boulez and have taken part in some premieres of fairly
"modernistic" works myself.
Demonstrating that Sessions was a great composer by detailed analysis
of what he has invented is difficult, and what appeals to me in his music
more than the vast majority of 20th century composers I know (which leaves
a few dozens at a comparable level, don't worry) is not primarily his new
modulations, rhythmic patterns or orchestral timbres. I am saying this
neither as an excuse nor as an attempt to avoid the discussion by the
eternal "art is beyond words and ideas" argument, simply stating a fact.
As Steve rightly points out, Sessions considered himself a composer of
synthesis, believed in the unity and coherence of the European tradition
and wished to bring this out in his own music. Oddly enough, these views
are almost opposite to my own. I do agree that there are links between
all "Western" composers, and the French obsession with "tabula rasa"
really is not something I'd endorse, but there is a vast range between
this and acknowledgeing the possibility to gather the whole Western
musical tradition within a single man, and a single work. So what do I
find outstanding in some of Sessions's works (to make it clear, four or
five "masterpieces" and a dozen more rewarding ones make an important
composer in my view)? His perception of time, very flexible, intensely
contrasted but always balanced. His orchestral sound: there are indeed
composers with a similar intervallic range, others with "comfortable",
spacious sonorities, but I know few who manage to combine both qualities
with such ease. A kind of tautness which is not dry. The often-praised
ending of his 7th symphony is more than a trick, like deciding to dissolve
the material while it should reach a climax. I cannot "prove" that this
ending is convincing and satisfactory at that stage of the work, of course,
but it strikes me as such. If there is no reason for this feeling, why
don't other masterfully conceived symphonies convey the same impression to
me? Naturally this "impression" is not of the level of being romantically,
sentimentally enthused by an illusion. As a performer, I cannot indulge in
such undetailed, blurred approach. As a mathematician, I generally find
that long analysis striving to unveil all of what makes Beethoven's 5th or
Sibelius's 7th so impressive in architectural terms fall short of reaching
a comprehensive explanation, however intersting and illuminating they may
be. Schematically, my point here would be: this Sessions ending is not
very common. It does not come as a discrepancy, or a cheap way to get rid
of the work. It comes after a rather dense and eventful movement, and does
not appear to be prompted by exhaustion. I can imagine that bringing it
out, as a conductor, is no dull task, just as persuasively bringing out the
climax of Sibelius's Nightride and sunrise is a subtle one, worthy of apt
performers. And it does strike me as fully adequate. So, it is remarkable
to me. I am ready to change my mind, but I, in turn, would need some
argument like "you are biased" for this or that reason, and "here is what
makes this movement ordinary, and your impression a mere illusion".
I pay much attention to intervals, and, to put it plainly, to the eloquence
of intervals. Can a third or a seventh be eloquent per se? Only within a
framework, not necessarily a sustained melodic line anyway. Sessions's
violin concerto is constantly interesting about this. Yes, it does show
the influence of Stravinsky's concerto (I would not say that it "betrays"
this influence, since Sessions probably would not have denied it). But the
pace is different, the temporality is different, long-term, fully-fledged.
It also has a special radiance, a "spiritual" light (I mean, not physical,
chromatic as Debussy's would be -- a parallel could be found in comparing
Schoenberg's violin concerto on the one hand, Valen's on the other, or else
contrasting parts of Berg's). All this might look like vague, general
statements again, but they cease to be as soon as you take your violin and
start to play. The density of events in Sessions's music, certainly high,
is not unique, Nancarrow obviously beats him. But it is outstanding if we
consider that there are very few inert, anecdotic, filling elements in it.
Some composers follow one idea at a time and enliven it with short
interjections, timbral variations, spicy modulations (e.g. in Prokofiev),
and others really deal with several ideas, each developing with its own
logic, its own voice, and yet interacting in non-destructive ways, so
that the listener is not left with the depressing choice between isolating
one element and following it, or taking the whole picture as a kind of
undiscriminating chaos. If Sessions's ideas were so dull, and if his
technical clarity was less than impressive, I really do not think that we
(I) would care to follow them, and they would collapse one after the other,
either by its own exhaustion or by mutual destructive interference.
In short, Sessions's music sounds as eventful to my ears. But what is
captivating is not the density of events, it's the density of events which
I wish to understand. This may sound arbitrary, but we should think it
over, and see if the interest we take in most musical works does not partly
come "down" to that.
I am fully aware that most of my arguments refer to "balance", "expert
handling", and so on. Sessions's music is not revolutionary, it never
meant to be. I read that he had been called "the American Brahms". Did
Sessions simply take German Romanticism and put it in Schoenbergian closes
which did not fit it? I don't think so. I have never read disparaging
comments from avantgarde musicians, but they may well exist. Let us not
forget that (at least in France) inventing new techniques is not lofty
enough for radical thinkers, they always want to build a brand new world,
and this, for instance, implied that 12-tone technique was totally
incompatible with classical patterns and Romantic expression (an assertion
which Schoenberg himself would undoubtedly have rejected). Most works
written for conventional forces do use the same frequencies, the same
instruments, and if I may say so, the same performers and audiences. To
which extent is novelty enclosed in unheard-of elements? Of course it is
much more difficult to point out what makes Sessions's use of classical
forms, exuberant juxtaposition of fully-fledged thematic lines, use of
ordinary metres personal and new, than to isolate a new modulation, a new
pattern, but is one really more "real" than the other, more significant?
Sessions's 7th takes elements which, while not being spectacularly new,
are well-wrought, boldly stated, carefully instrumented; and he brings
them together, and creates new correspondences between them, leads us to
hear them in different surroundings, within a new context. Listen to the
beginning of his 4th symphony, airy, dynamic, made of short notations, but
smoothly flowing; always balanced, because no part of the orchestra or the
spectrum is left void, but not thick or static.
Can another composer build on what Sessions has created? This might be
difficult. Does this make him unimportant, and reduce him to the mere
enjoyment of a few individuals, at the level of unthinking praise? So many
Hungarian composers have unsuccessfully tried to carry on Bartok's work.
Maybe the problem was that Bartok had fully realized what he had in his
mind, not as a theory, but within the limits of each single work. Mozart
had no heir either. Some take it for a proof of his lack of genuine
significance, but not everybody has to endorse this opinion.
Now, to really express what makes Sessions's best works worth hearing,
maybe I should take a CD and stop it every other second. Why not. It
would say much less about his music than actually playing it, and that's
why we are performers rather than musical analysts (others are much more
competent for that). But it might be the only way to oppose the notion
that if we cannot reduce our interest and admiration for a composer to a
page of clear-cut reasons, then we are at the level of blind (or deaf)
acceptation. I simply don't see myself as an unreflecting or primary
person, and this is not meant as autocelebration or bombast of any kind.
I wonder whether we are not criticizing Sessions for not having more
clearly expressed his thought in words than he did in music! Quite a
paradox, don't you think?
Sorry if this post was wholly useless, or at least unsatisfactory. As a
matter of fact, I've never found one satisfactory written description of
music and what it implies, and sadly (or fortunately) quite a few composers
are even less adapted to words than others. Nevertheless, discussing them
is interesting. Unquestionable demonstrations may well be more utopic, not
just about Sessions but about any (interesting) composer, and that is good
enough a reason for me not to argue, as Steve said.
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