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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 12:57:52 -0500

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (120 lines)

In the 19th century, architects drew freehand, in the early 20th - they
moved to straightedge and tools.  Wright explained it as "sine this was
hte age of the machine, I wanted to be able to make the machine produce
beauty." My grandfather tells the story of a draughtsman who drew
mechanical drawings freehand so well that his employers thought he was
using tools - and how the man nearly quit when his supervisor said this in
public.  In the present as computerised and coloursied drawings have become
the norm a new and different presentation has come to the fore with each
project.

The point of this is that buildings are approved based on their sketches
more than their reality.  In each age the kind of buildings that people
wanted to build fit with the kind of tools they used, which presented their
desired conceptions in the best possible light.  Some years ago there was
a large push to make Sessions an "important" composer.  There wer several
laudatory articles about his symhonies, his second in particular, and
several performances.  The book that Steve mentioned was published - and ...

Nothing happened.  The same people who liked Sessions before liked him
after, the same people who disliked him disliked him afterwrads.  But these
few in the fish bowl are the very small minority.  The vast majority of
classical listeners had not heard, nor heard of, Roger Sessions.  There was
not great fear of his music as "cerebral", "dissonant" or anything - it was
simply obscure.  Unknown.  And the burst of publicity - labelled by critic
Steve Hicken as "The Flavor of the Month" syndrome - did nothing to make
those people care about his music.  It did not generated condemnation or
much of anything else.

Sessions music looks a certain way "on paper" - 12 tone, but not serial,
American, studied here and there - and - these criteria for his music
all come out of the obessions of his moment in musical history.  His
personality comes across the same way on paper.  They are, if you will,
the sketch of the building, the sketch which apporves or disapproves the
performance.  More perfromances are given based on a firendly meeting over
drinks or cofee than on readings of scores.  But then it gets down to the
music, the building itself.

And here is where Sessions fails - he fails because he is - even under the
terms of what he is doing - dull.  Let us take the slow movement of his 6th
symphony as a paradigmatic example of why.  The chord progression should be
familiar to anyone who has listened to any amount of atonal music.  It is
sufficently recognisable that even people who do not like atonal music can
hum along with it.  Notice how each note in the main progression - the goal
tone - follows ex-act-ly at e-ven -int-er-val-s to the last.

Now let us compare the same basic material in two other places.  First in
one of its early uses - Messiaen's Turangalia, and the second in Cart'ers
First string quartet.  Both predate the Session's symphony.  In Messiaen
the horns are indeed churning along the same progression in several places.
But in each case there is a wleter of counter rhtyhms swaying around them,
a wealth of ideas which make the hrons sound like resolutions of an
overtone series - paticularly in the manner described by Messiaen - "the
faintest after echo of the tritone resolves down to its fundmental - as any
sensitive ear can hear." The horns become - not a chord progression, but an
echo and a reverberation of the totality of sound.

Carter's use is very different, he is indeed using the same, highly
recognisable, progression in the first movement of the first string
quartet.  However note how the flling of each note is rhythmically variable
- the listener, far from being boared by having the expected note heard in
the expected register at the expected time - is waiting upon its arrival,
it ecomes the manner in which the listener participates in the unfolding
rhythmic complexities of the work.  Its very recognisability is not a
detriment - but a key feature - of what is being done, a more attenuated
progression would not be useful in the same way.  This is analogous to
Berliz' use of root tone based progressions in areas where - "the falling
of the note follows no ordained or predictable pattern." Again to represent
"Nature" and its predictable, yet ungridable, movement.  Liszt said t best
of Chopin - "Note the swaying of the tree, notice how its myriad sounds
move back and forth over the main rhythm, and yet are recognisable as a
whole.  That is Chopinesque rubato."

When compared with his words - the music falters.  Sessions the interviewer
wites "I tried to use the row rhapsodically, based on my feeling and
intuition." But next to the rather staid use of large scale rhtym, with
its blocky four bar sound - "rhapsodic" only in the reveries of the private
marching in strict line.  His mind is free, but his actions are not.  He is
like all the others in his rank, perhaps his fantasies are necessary for
him to keep going, but he cannot see himself at a distance.  Or perhaps he
can, and hence indulges ever more in ideas such as this.

What comes across is a common tragedy - one shared by fellow New York
Schooler David Diaom.  Diamond spends a long time talking about the
importance of basic technique in his classes as compared to various other
teachers - often jabbing at Sessions by name.  But Diamond is no more
imaginative than Sessions in the same areas - and Diamond certain does not
excel Sessions in any identifiable area of counterpoint, harmony or melodic
construction.  His music is more aimable, and hence more listenable to many
people.  People often confuse this aimiability with "accessibility".  The
two are not the same.  Haydn is oftne aimiable in works with extremely
subtle, indeed almost inaccessible complications, and the message of
Penderecki's "Threenody for the victims of Hiroshima" is intantly
accessible, but hardly aimiable.

The drawing which Sessions presents, as Steve Schwartz implies, is indeed
one which has its appeal - romantic, rhapsoidc, expressive, intelligent.
It draws one in sympathy and makes one wonder what this music would be
like, produt of such an erudite and humane exterior.  However, the same
qualities shine through in an interview by Phillip Glass - humane, reacting
against mechanism, intelligent in his observations, curious, brightly
skeptical about easy ways out.

Interviews with composers end up being pretentious, composers, from
moment to moment generally know no more about what they are doing than
anyone else.  It takes an entire ecology and environment to produce coffe.
And yet eating the dirt will not do you any good.  Nor will taking a
picture of a beautiful vista - many beautifuyl areas have soils useless for
agriculture.  In fact the uselessness of their soil makes it more likely
they would have bene left alone, and hence remain in their natural wild
state.  The saem is true of the contoritons needed to create - oftne they
alter the personality of the bearer to make him or her less attractive to
others, because of the tensions and tastes required.  How much easier to
remain a sketch of ones possibilities, and reserve ones genius for ones
career and ones talent for ones art.

A common problem, and, in view of the generally flat reaction to Sessions
even among those who are interested in 20th century music, quite possibly
true.

Stirling Newberry <[log in to unmask]>

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