Serialism Is Over! Someone Call Milton Babbitt!

Daniel J. Wakin of the New York Times recently wrote about B. A. (that’s Bernd Alois) Zimmerman’s epic, impossible-to-stage anti-war opera “Die Soldaten”. I have no issues with Mr. Wakin’s writing. My issue is with the stage director, who…well, let’s see.

First, though, the production sounds awesome. The audience is moved around an empty armory on bleachers on rails! So freaking cool. And, well…let’s just read on.

The Brutality of War, on a Big Stage

A FOREST of aluminum greets a visitor to the normally cavernous drill hall of the Park Avenue Armory. The thicket of metal forms the backside of what is essentially a giant, horseshoe-shaped set of bleachers filling much of the space.

The structure looks as fixed as a rock. It is not. Underneath are 12 railroad tracks, on which the structure and its nearly 1,000 seats glide back and forth, straddling a ribbon of stage running the length of the hall.

That is awesome.

It is on this stage that a 40-member cast of singers, dancers and actors will play out “Die Soldaten,” Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s dark and brutal opera steeped in post-World War II despair, starting on Saturday as part of the Lincoln Center Festival’s opening weekend. The audience periodically travels back and forth, at a top speed of seven and a half inches a second — the rate of a slow creep — as the scenes evolve onstage.

For a month now, technicians have been loading and building the set at the drill hall in one of New York’s most logistically complex opera productions this year. It will also represent a milestone in the armory’s recent transformation into a performance and visual arts space.

How cool is that? Answer: deeply cool.

“Die Soldaten” is considered one of the 20th century’s most difficult operas, both logistically and, for the audience, emotionally, because of its difficult subject matter. The orchestra numbers 110; it also has a separate percussion ensemble, a jazz combo and recorded sounds. The film of war scenes that the score calls for has been discarded as outdated.

I think that the war scenes films being discarded is too bad, since it was the composer’s intent to include them, but the rest of that is all kinds of super-modern/postmodern kinds of fun.

Based on a 1775 play by Jakob Lenz, the opera chronicles the fall of Marie, the daughter of a French merchant, at the hands of soldiers. She is raped and turns to prostitution. For the audience it is a work of total theatrical immersion, in which Zimmermann sought to portray past, present and future action simultaneously.

Sounds like more modern/postmodern kinds of fun. What else?

Zimmermann composed a thoroughly thorny 12-tone score.

Uh-oh. Sounds fascinating to me, but is potentially critical dynamite…

There are overwhelmingly loud passages, but also delicate moments of chamber music, jazzy rhythms and Bach-inflected passages.

Passages passages passages. But still, sounds interesting…

Sometimes three sections of the orchestra play completely different rhythms. In one passage percussionists embedded in the chorus tap out rhythms with spoons on bottles, as jazz dancers sound out a cross-rhythm. The demands on the singers are formidable. One particularly devilish vocal passage will be recorded and played back during the performance, a compromise sanctioned by Zimmermann himself.

Wow. I bet that’s a spectacle to behold, I wish I could see it.

“It’s incredibly challenging from the technical point of view,” said the conductor, Steven Sloane, who will lead the Bochum Symphony Orchestra, of which he is music director. “It’s been billed as unplayable all these years.” Yet each scene is constructed according to traditional musical forms, like rondino and nocturne. There are flashes of Strauss’s “Rosenkavalier” and Berg’s “Wozzeck” and “Lulu.”

Modernist techniques are combined with older forms and influenced by other works, creating an intertextual opera with multiple influences, and, potentially, interpretations. Awesome! Sounds like a graduate student’s Instant Dissertation Topic (TM).

“It is one of the monuments of 20th-century music,” said David Pountney, the stage director. “You can say, ‘I don’t like it,’ but you can’t ignore it.

I have no desire to ignore it! I am jealous of people going to see it! But wait…

It’s the end point of 12-tone music, really.”

Really? “Really”? Because, no.

This opera was written in 1957.

Nineteen Fifty-Seven.

Here, with a really minimal modicum of research, is a list of composers who wrote 12-tone music after 1957.

Wait. First, I will now go compose a 12-tone piece…

…okay, back. It’s short, but I did it. Now for my list:

Louis Andriessen
Hans Erich Apostel
Milton Babbitt
Arthur Berger
Pierre Boulez
Robert Ceely
Luigi Dallapiccola
Ernst Krenek
Joseph Johnson
Bruno Maderna
Donald Martino
Luigi Nono
George Rochberg
Roger Sessions
Nikos Skalkottas
Karlheinz Stockhausen
Stefan Wolpe

So, yeah. Not the end of 12-tone music. You can keep wishing it’s still 1842, but (news flash) it’s not.

The rest of the article is available via the link at the beginning of the post.


A.C. Douglas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
A.C. Douglas said...

Saying, "It’s the end point of 12-tone music, really,” is NOT saying it's the end of 12-tone music. It's saying it's the fullest realization of what 12-tone music promised.

I don't know if that's a more correct characterization of Die Soldaten than the characterization you mistakenly took it to be (I don't know the work at all), but one ought to acknowledge the characterization as its author meant it, and not otherwise.

I'm just sayin' is all.


Sator Arepo said...

Thanks, you could be right.

Perhaps I'm always looking for an excuse to defend what I see as an all-too-oft-maligned idiom/technique.

Also, it gave me the opportunity to name some late serialists.

Finally, highlighting the awesomeness that this opera seems to be (I don't know it well either) was worth a post in itself.

Murderface said...

I was gonna defend Pountney (the disputed quote is Pountney's and not Wakin's, right?) and say "Oh, but he said 'an' end point, not 'the' end point," but it turns out I'd misread it.

Maybe the intention was as A. C. Douglas suggests above, I don't know. Also, is it "end point" or "endpoint"? I know what's written, but it's a quote of something spoken. The former seems like Arepo's interpretation, while the latter seems like ACD's above.

Either way, it's cool to know that the Armory is going to be a full-time arts space now. It's only blocks away from where I went to school (last time), and it used to only get used for antiques shows, it seemed.

Gustav said...

Okay, so there's a lot of offense taken on this blog about these declarations of the end of 12-tone music and serialism, but why? [And yes, I know that many are not so subtle jabs at the style, but regardless...] Serialism is in the past, and is demonstrably not the norm for composers today -- even your list is primarily constituted by composers of past generations, and no one under 40 (not sure about a couple...). Yes, there are composers today who continue to use the technique, and write in a style consistent with that era, fine, no problem, but that doesn't mean that serialism hasn't declined. There are composers who still write in the a late classical style, and I think we'd probably all agree that that style is passe and past its prime. In every school of music around the country you would hear that "Mozart (or Beethoven 3) is the end point of the high classical style", or whatever, and no would bat an eye. But, if you like, I can write a list of living composers still writing in that style. I guess I should say, I'm not sure why we're upset -- if it's a vapid attack on serialism, then I get the outrage, but if a person states that serialism is a historical style, then I think that we may be a tad oversensitive to criticism of 20th c. styles. Impressionism had a historical zenith, romanticism had its end point, same for periods of nationalism, hindemtihian counterpoint, and Shostakovichian blatant orchestrations, so why is it a problem to say that serialism was big in 1957, and not so much today?

Composers are free to compose in any style they choose, but be aware, that some styles have been done and are now considered by most to be a part of the past. Sorry, guys, but serialism is representative of the composition in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. And although, some composers may still write in the manner and write great music, it doesn't make it any less of an anachronism, just a more recent one.

Empiricus said...

"Why is it a problem to say that serialism was big in 1957, and not so much today?"

Really, I don't have a problem with anyone asking that question--it's true in your sense of anachronisms and mine as well. Instead, I have a problem with how it's generally answered. As if dodecophony, a technique, is what we're, as practitioners and listeners, reacting to or dismissing. I mean, the technique never hurt anyone, right? And as a technique, as a device, couldn't we say the same about half-cadences?

I have yet to make up my mind about Zimmermann's intent. But, speaking broadly, it seems to me that most declarations of this kind, "twelve-tone music is dead," is almost always linked to some sort of modernist phobia. And that's plain lazy and ignorant.

In that sense, this is why my anti-modernism radar is turned on at full strength all the time.

Again, I'm not sure what Zimmermann's motivation was, but I understand why that sentiment caught Sator's eye.

Anonymous said...

First off, Empiricus and Sator, you guys rule! Thanks for all the hard work in here- the blog is a pleasure to read. Just two points:

First a little music history- often we idolize the backwards looking composers at the end of an era rather than the forward looking composers at the beginning of and era. A fact which is often ignored in our current culture which over-emphasizes "newness" and "originality".

Bach (d. 1750) is our famous "baroque" composer approximately 30-50 years after the classical era had begun. His 4 part chromatic fugues are reminiscent of German organ music from the mid-late 17th century like Bruhns and Buxtehude. And the most cutting edge form of the time? Italian opera. How many did Bach write?

Schumann's (d. 1856) music is uber "classical" compared to the Symphony Fantastique (1830).

And there's no question that Brahms d. 1897 was writing super old fashioned music in the time of Wagner and Liszt. Pictures at Exhibition (1874) and Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (1894) should put Brahms in perspective considering his late organ works sound very similar to the organ music of Buxtehude and Bach.

Don't forget the Renaissance either. 200+ years of a static style that produced works of complexity that easily challenge and surpass complex music from any of our other time periods to this momemt.

The point being is that style doesn't die easily. Brahms writes music that sound like Schutz. I agree with Gustav that "Composers are free to compose in any style they choose" but disagree with the negative connotation of an “anachronistic” style. The fact that we’ve dated a practice as antiquated after 20 years is telling, if this is the case. Let's hope that theories based on the overreaching importance of "newness" themselves become anachronisms.

Second Point: True Empiricus, techniques don't die, but "I mean, the technique never hurt anyone, right? And as a technique, as a device, couldn't we say the same about half-cadences?"

No we can't say that. First of all, half cadences have been used for probably more than 700 hundred years with out hardly a complaint to my knowledge. Hell, they even ended pieces for a long time (to our ears)! Whereas serial techniques used for 30 years exacerbated a majority of concert goers, performers, and even composers (sparking minimalism). My point being that "techniqueS" are not reducible to "Technique" whereby simpling using a Technique one writes a good piece. Music is too complex to sustain that reasoning.

Again great work guys.

Sator Arepo said...

Mr Cereal:

My contention has never been that everyone has to like serial [sic] music, or even to convince people to give it a try (well, maybe a little...).

But using dodecaphonic techniques as an anachronism and/or slur (obviously) sets off my radar. So there's that.

Huh. Blogger doesn't recognize "dodecaphonic" as a word, go figure. Perhaps I have to re-evaluate my position...nah.

PS: Hi!