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CLASSICAL  March 2000

CLASSICAL March 2000

Subject:

Conversations with Sessions

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Sat, 4 Mar 2000 07:23:55 -0600

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (78 lines)

Sessions, Roger and Andrea Olmstead.  Conversations with Roger Sessions.
Boston: Northeastern University Press.  1987.  274 pp.  ISBN
1-55553-010-9.

A wonderful book.  Sessions talks about music and a lot of other things,
as befits his capacious mind.  Topics include tonality, atonality, musical
life in the United States, thoughts on various composers, how at least one
composer goes about his business, politics, as well as Sessions's own life
and works.  Andrea Olmstead, in the running for Sessions's Boswell, keeps
the man on topic - Sessions *loves* tangents - but also strikes a nice
balance and often lets him run.  Most of the time, we read composers to get
insights into music we already know.  I doubt, for instance, I'd want to
read a book by, say, Meyerbeer, since I don't know a lot of Meyerbeer and
the little I do know I dislike.  The book must give me some other reason
to read it.  Consequently, I doubt whether most readers would be tempted
to look at what Sessions has to say and would find the sections on his own
works the least interesting, simply because most don't know a lot, or any,
of Sessions's music.

Sessions came from the Copland-Thomson-Harris generation of American music.
He studied with Ernest Bloch and came away with a formidable technique and
a fire to find his own path.  Unlike most other outstanding composers
of his generation, he did not study with Boulanger, and after his early
period, moved away from the Stravinskian sphere of influence.  He became
increasingly interested in Schoenberg, although, like his great friend
Dallapiccola, he never followed dodecaphonic serialism all that strictly.
He learned much from his own writing, particularly his grand opera
Montezuma, a huge piece inspired in part by Prescott's Conquest of Mexico
and one which influenced Session's later work greatly.  I've heard (and
performed as a chorister) only the last act, but I want to hear more.

Sessions, through no fault of his own, became another musical bogeyman.
I suppose when most people think of him, if they do at all, they imagine
forbidding, austere, "cerebral" (in a pejorative sense) music.  Certainly,
with the exception of his incidental music for The Black Maskers
(wonderful, by the way; sort of an American equivalent of the early
Stravinsky ballets) and his first symphony, that's how I thought of him.
It took several things to change my mind.  First, Andrew Porter, as music
critic for The New Yorker, championed him.  I thought Porter so perceptive
a critic, I ran out and bought every Sessions LP he recommended.  I also,
as I said, took part in a concert performance of the last act of Montezuma.
Continued exposure to the music in rehearsal made me realize that, far from
some cold-blooded musical Moriarity at the center of an unholy web, this
was a passionate, highly Romantic composer, who took long breaths and big
strides.  Sessions didn't go in for what we've come to accept as musical
Americana, but to me he and Ives are the two American composers with a
spirit and sense of vista as encompassing as Whitman's.

At any rate, there's more here than Sessions on himself.  His reading
was broad and encompassed several literatures in their original languages.
He spent many years in Italy, France, and Germany and could read and write
all these tongues.  He also knew some Russian, enough to converse with
Shostakovich.  Indeed, Shostakovich became a Sessions admirer.  I find most
trenchant Sessions on the current musical scene and on musical aesthetics.
Contrary to what one might expect, it's hardly theoretical at all.  What
comes through is Sessions's strong practical and empirical bias.  Indeed,
he tends to castigate theoreticians and tries, whenever he can, to avoid
the jargon of musical aesthetic discussion.  One example will suffice:

   There is no twelve-tone idiom; every composer has his own idiom.
   But of course, all these words are so confused, they're so loosely
   used.  The word "style" is hopelessly confused.  This business of
   style analysis: If it is style, it can't be analyzed.  What they
   call "style analysis" is vocabulary.  Vocabulary is a very broad
   term, too.

Sessions characteristically makes sense.  His ideas about music
spring from the fact that he plays it and writes it.  They ring true
and reasonable, rather than partisan or hobby-horsey.  The prose is clear
and, excepting discussions of specific pieces of music, not excessively
technical.  Indeed, most of the time, Sessions reacts against that kind
of discussion as extremely boring and not necessarily helpful.  While
technical knowledge and the ability to read music might enhance a very few
sections of the book, it probably won't dim the lay reader's appreciation
of the rest.  Sessions wants to demystify things, and in very large part
he succeeds.

Steve Schwartz

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