Some Excellent American Modernism, Confusingly Explained

I found this excellent review in the Times. I dig the subject matter. And it is, mostly, well-put together. But I didn’t understand all of it, sort of.

Rebels With Instruments: Dashing Tradition, Sort Of

I hope that “Rebels With Instruments” is an oblique “Rebel without A Cause” reference. However, the “Sort Of” clause makes me leery. Also, I thought that we do not, as a matter of course, capitalize prepositions. Am I crazy?

“Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?”

Awesome. Brando. This reinforces the James Dean reference in the title. This very quote is evocative of the…

The question was posed to a leather-jacketed biker tough played by Marlon Brando in the 1953 film “The Wild One.”

Yes, exactly! I thought this was self-explanatory, but, okay. Everyone knows his famous…

His response is now legend: “Whaddya got?”

Yes. Yes it is. I…

The lines effectively defined an American type: the rough-hewn iconoclast with no use for the rules of polite (read: uptight) society.

Wow. Yes, but…the thing about references is… See, the very point of starting with the Brando quote is that it evokes the whole thing you just spelled out. You can omit the spelling-out part by starting with the reference. There is no need for the rest of the paragraph.

I thought of that exchange, strangely enough, after the first half of a program

Okay, that sounds good. Sounds like a cool concert. Your pedantry is forgiven for now.

presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center at the New York Society for Ethical Culture on Friday night.

The New York Society for Ethical Culture? Cool. I am down with that. Count me in!

The concert was the opening event of American Voices, 1750-2008, a festival offering an admirably expansive overview of American chamber music.

Excellent. American music, especially 20th century American music, is unjustly neglected. I am insanely for this idea.

Apart from the genial Quartet No. 2 for three violins and cello attributed to Benjamin Franklin,

Attributed to Uncle Ben? Huh. I have read about such things.

played entirely on open strings,

That is also strange.

the first half amounted to a nose thumbed at European tradition.

That sounds iconoclast-y, rough-hewn-y, and impolite. Like Marlon Brando or James Dean. Perhaps. Also, it sounds deeply awesome.

Henry Cowell discarded the piano’s Romantic lineage by taking the instrument at face value, as a sonorous box of hammers and strings.

He sure did! He is famous for that. It almost seems cliché to go inside the piano now, but it was a leap of great import when Cowell did it almost 100 years ago.

Louis Gruenberg sought to foster a new idiom derived from jazz.

Also true.

The notorious bad boy George Antheil wrote a violin sonata that mocked virtuosity and decorum.

I am a fan of Antheil. He is totally going to be Composer of the Day! Sometime soon.

That was the theory, anyway.

What was the theory? This is the most confusing part. Is it that Antheil “mocked virtuosity and decorum”? I am confused about the antecedent to “that…theory”. I know I’ve broken up the article and blurred the distinction between paragraphs, but go read the original and tell me what the “theory” is. Is it nose-thumbing? Is nose-thumbing a theory?

In practice Cowell’s radical experiments in “The Aeolian Harp” (1923) and “The Banshee” (1925) seemed to extend Romantic and Impressionist impulses into a literal-minded hyper-realism.

Is there a theory/practice dichotomy playing out here? If so, what is it? Is it the idea that Cowell’s Romantic/Impressionistic gestures are not sufficiently nose-thumbing?

Leaning under the piano’s lid, Gilbert Kalish strummed quaint melodies and rubbed eerie wails.

Can you rub a wail? Seriously though, those are two cool, ground-breaking pieces that re-imagine what a “piano” is, and how it can make sounds. Sounds and/or music.

In Cowell’s “Quartet Euphometric” (1916-19), a string quartet begins and ends together;


in between,


the musicians play superimposed rhythms

Superimposed…rhythms? Aren’t all rhythms in an ensemble superimposed upon one another (except in, say, a chorale texture)?

derived from overtone intervals.

The rhythms were derived from overtone intervals? I do not understand this sentence.

In the hands of the Escher String Quartet the music sounded like an Expressionist bagatelle.

Is this a description or a backhanded compliment? A bagatelle means a “trifle” or an innocent diversion. Hard to say.

The group also provided a vibrant account of Gruenberg’s “Four Diversions” (1930), with jazz-inspired rhythms and inflections more colorful and lively than idiomatic.

Not idiomatic of…? Jazz? Nose-thumbing?

Antheil’s Sonata No. 2 for Violin, Piano and Drums (1923) was an uproarious clash of Romantic and modernist gestures.

That sounds awesome. The ambiguity of “Romantic and modernist” gestures seems like it presents an opportunity for irony. However, why is "Romantic" (and earlier, "Impressionist") capitalized, but not "modernist"? Subtle undermining, that.

The violinist Daniel Phillips offered stately virtuoso figures; Mr. Kalish countered with exaggerated hiccups, sweeps and crashes.

More ambiguity and irony, I’m guessing.

The music constantly leapt from one style to another, prefiguring the work of composers like Carl Stalling and John Zorn. It ended with Mr. Kalish beating a steady tattoo on two drums while Mr. Phillips played a wistful melody.

Cool. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Stalling and Zorn mentioned in the same sentence. Carl Stalling (famously the composer for many old Warner Brothers cartoons) should absolutely be featured soon as Composer of the Day!.

After intermission the pianist Anne-Marie McDermott and the Escher String Quartet played Amy Cheney Beach’s Piano Quintet in F sharp minor (1907). The work has a grandiose Romantic sweep and a heart-on-sleeve emotionalism that the composers of the later works rejected. But there are flashes of real ingenuity in Ms. Beach’s handling of the tradition she inherited, particularly in the ethereal string passages of the opening Adagio and the shivering fugue of the concluding Allegro agitato. Ms. McDermott played with her customary power and exuberance, and the Escher members demonstrated a persuasive unanimity of expression.

Amy Beach is underrated. She is, truly, also more European-styled than the other composers, but that’s okay. What happened to the theory? What happened to the topic from the opening of the article?

I’m confused.

Was the program not modernist enough? Too modernist? Not nose-thumbing enough?

Rough-hewn? Iconoclastic?

What happened to Brando and Dean? Did they live?


Murderface said...

Ethical culture is outstanding!

Sator Arepo said...

Ethical culture is totally outstanding. Well observed.

Anonymous said...

Hey SA, maybe you should write a piece with superimposed rhythms and multiple harmonies!

Ethics... like morals for liberals!

(Isn't that a weird coding thing? The 700 Club-types have ruined the word "moral", so we have taken ethical? Can you imagine a music series called "The New York Society for Moral Culture"? Sounds fucking scary, no?)

Aaron said...

I believe the "New York Sociery for Moral Culture" was better known as "the Giuliani administration."

Sator Arepo said...

You all are unbelievable. Word.

Sator Arepo