26 November 2010

Wolpe's Symphony

With all the talk about digital music services around here lately, it's important to remember that YouTube remains an incredible resource for musicians despite the legal and ethical gray areas it operates in. I for one like to balance my legal acquisition of in-print compact discs and MP3 files with periodic tours of YouTube and MySpace, and I usually come away with a new name or sound that piques my interest. I recently searched for the composer Stefan Wolpe on YouTube and discovered his Symphony of 1956, which has since come to fascinate me, this despite my later discovery of its low standing even among Wolpe fans.

Let's start with some background from the Stefan Wolpe society:

During the 1950s...Wolpe was seeking a way through classical twelve-tone and developing variation into a new constellatory form. While director of music at Black Mountain College (1952-6), Wolpe had the time and the seclusion to compose a series of scores that mark the high point of abstract expressionism: Enactments for Three Pianos (1953), Piece for Oboe, Cello, Percussion, and Piano (1955), and his Symphony (1956). In these works he said that he aimed for "a very mobile polyphony in which the partials of the sound behave like river currents and a greater orbit-spreadout is guaranteed to the sound, a greater circulatory agility (a greater momentum too)." Rather than a single center of attention, he sought to create multiple centers, "to give the sound a wealth of focal points with numerous different directory tendencies." To obtain a more open sound he further fragmented and superimposed derivatives of the shapes: "To keep the sound open, that openness which leads me to think in layers (like the cubists), often I use canonic (or double canonic) foldings to keep the sound as porous as possible. I use then all possible techniques of inversions, retrogrades, like attacking an object from all sides, or moving out from all sides of an object."

If such lofty pre-compositional scheming would seem to doom such a piece from the start, think again. To my ears, any of these metaphorical allusions to "river currents," "orbit-spreadout," "circulatory agility," "multiple centers," "a wealth of focal points," "layers," "foldings," and "attacking an object from all sides," is as good as any other in describing what I find so great about his Symphony. (I just wish I spoke German so I could comprehend the true meaning of whatever untranslatable term got translated as "orbit-spreadout." The translation might find its way into my vocabulary nonetheless; it's just that good on its own.) The propulsive energy of this piece approaches an improvised quality, yet with audible unity in pitch selection and manipulation that one would be hard-pressed to improvise.

In digging around for information about Wolpe, I eventually stumbled on a peculiar recollection from Elliott Carter:

His music is terribly uneven, but some of it is remarkable. What it always has is one thing you like to have in music, and that is a kind of personal enthusiasm. It's always very lively, you feel it's always in touch with life. It isn't routine. It's unexpected in many ways. There are all sorts of different kinds of things that he tries to integrate into one thing, which sometimes don't go together so well in one piece, but in others they do. The whole question of the relation of the diatonic to twelve-tone or chromaticism, the combination of those is something he fought with. Sometimes he solved it, and sometimes he didn't, as in the Symphony. It seems to me to be extremely odd that a man as experienced as he should have written a piece that is so difficult for the orchestra that it is nearly impossible to get a good performance. It may have been as a result of his contact with musicians in Europe, since he went to Darmstadt in its early days, when composers were writing very advanced and very difficult pieces.

Uh, hello? Elliott Carter talking shit about someone else's "very advanced and very difficult" piece of which "it is nearly impossible to get a good performance"? Something stinks here. I think the "relation of the diatonic to twelve-tone" is a somewhat more valid criticism, but I think he overstates it. Forgive the idealism, but I dream of a day when there is no longer a simple dichotomy between tonality and atonality, consonance and dissonance, tension and release, or whatever. Modern musicians have been working toward this for over a century and it has not yet come to fruition, but I hold out hope. More importantly, though, the converted can always decide to go along ahead of the lemmings and proceed this way ourselves as best we can. It's difficult and not totally attainable given the world we live in, but we can try. And I'm not saying I had to try to like Wolpe's Symphony, because I didn't; I loved it the first time I heard it. But, there certainly are moments here (isolated ones, really) that threaten to sound incongruous to the rest of the piece by virtue of lending themselves to a tonal hearing. I can hear them that way, but I can also hear them as inevitable manifestations of the inner logic of the piece, and to me, that trumps everything. Our conditioning really can get in the way of enjoying this kind of music, especially if it has been very traditional or conservative. Just do me a favor and try not to be like that, okay?

Kyle Gann is an avowed Wolpe fan and Carter detractor who has nonetheless opined that, "Wolpe's Symphony is one of his weakest works." Here are two eminent musical thinkers whose work and ideas are at odds in most every respect except for their interest in Wolpe, and they're both unimpressed by the Symphony. I beg to differ, but thanks to the YouToobz, you can make your mind up for yourself. I've embedded the entire piece below. No one's ever accused me of being an audiophile, and I actually tremendously enjoy the various imperfections of this rendition, from the slightly scratchy sound quality to the obvious struggles of some of the players to execute exceedingly difficult passages. Whereas Carter complains that it's almost impossible to get a good performance of this piece, I have to wonder if it isn't the mark of a truly great piece that it can tolerate a certain amount of abuse. In any case, I'm imagining what a cleaner rendition would sound like and I'm not at all sure I'd prefer it.

If you navigate to the actual YouTube page for each of these videos, you'll find that, predictably, the number of views declines as you progress through the movements. Too bad; the piece gets better as it goes along. Of course, I expect everyone to listen to all four or you're not allowed to read my blog anymore.


GrahamRoe said...

Stefan - Had you noticed that a performance of the Symphony by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Emilio Pomarico is available on the BBC iPlayer at the moment (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08ch973).

Best wishes

Stefan Kac said...

Most excellent, thanks Graham.