Slowly, Finally, Coming to Grips with Modernism?

Who's up for some well-intentioned propagation of the Myth of the Awful Modernist Music? I know I am!

As programming approaches go, the one that James Levine ventured in a concert by the Met Chamber Ensemble at Zankel Hall on Sunday evening was a doozy.

It''s artful the way the structure of the sentence seems to reflect the purported programming approach.

So what was so, uh, zany about this program? Or, rather, the Maestro's approach to the program?

Oh, sorry. The title of the article was:

Part 1: A Dose of Knotty Modernism. Part 2: Quaint Nostalgia.

(Steve Smith, New York Times, 1/11/2010)

Ah! Knotty, then quaint. Say, that is a doozy!

The first half of the program offered vocal works by Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carter, formidable modernists for whom Mr. Levine has shown a durable affinity;

Ha ha! His affinity is "durable" because, I mean, who really likes that knotty, formidable modernist crap anyway?

the second, Richard Strauss’s “Bürger als Edelmann” Suite, quaint, nostalgic music written for a staging of Molière’s play “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.”

Now that's more like it. Nostalgia is outstanding. Things were better back when things were awesome.

Finding offers for midconcert ticket handoffs on Craigslist would have been no surprise.

I know, right? Sheesh, people were probably giving their tickets away for free. I mean, what's wrong with Mozart? Could we please get some Beethoven up in this bitch?

It was surely a sign of faith in Mr. Levine’s judgment, and in the talents of his collaborators onstage, that a sizable audience assembled for Sunday’s quirky concert and seemed to appreciate it throughout.

Because there's no fucking way that 599 people in all of New York City would possibly want to hear Elliott Carter and Milton Babbitt's music. Even, presumably, if you bribe them with nostalgia after the intermission, .00723% of New Yorkers would not go downtown for that shit.

They must, therefore, "surely" really, really trust James Levine.

Figure 1: The Face of Trustworthiness, even vis-a-vis Modernsim.

If there was a unifying element to be found, perhaps it was in how far each composer had bent to accommodate the particular demands of a text.

The doozy of the (perceived) programming approach was that its unifying element (if there indeed was one) was the degree to which each composer accommodated the text?

Okay. That kind of is a, uh...doozy.

In “The Head of the Bed,” Mr. Babbitt’s 1981 setting of a 1974 poem by John Hollander, the answer was, evidently, not much.

Ah. Oh, Milton. You're no fun, and you never let the text have any fun, either.

Figure 2: Fun!

Mr. Hollander’s text, parceled out in 15 stanzas of 15 lines apiece, offers a haunting barrage of vivid impressions dealing with sleep and dreaming.

15 X 15 sounds like extra serial goodness. So in what way did Uncle Milton not accommodate the text?

Mr. Babbitt varied the instrumental combinations to indicate the poem’s formal boundaries;

Man, delineating the formal structure of the text with instrumentation is totally unfair to the text. That's the text's form, man! Get your own damn form!

...vocal lines wrinkled and leapt over a constant rustle that could be interpreted as unconscious fitfulness.

That sounds pretty good. What's the catch? What was his big non-text-accommodating faux pas?


Oh, here we go...

...it would be hard to imagine this poem set more convincingly by any conventional method.

Still...what? That sounds...good. What the hell? Where was the...

And the soprano Judith Bettina, a seasoned, persuasive interpreter of Mr. Babbitt’s music, was dazzling in her lucidity and commitment.

That sounds great!

I'm confused.

Not for nothing, but without all of the appeals to the "nobody likes/wants to hear this music" meme in the opening paragraphs, this comes off as really positive.

Instead, though, after being warned that the music is knotty and formidable, taken quasi-medicinally in "doses", and remarking that it's surprising that anyone at all came to hear it instead of giving their goddamn tickets away on Craigslist, the ultimately positive review is rather tepid.

Look: I'm not saying the music's not sometimes hard, but rather that those descriptors have a loaded, negative connotation which ultimately dissuade the prospective listener from giving it a serious hearing.

[deep breaths]

So, where were we? Carter?

But where Mr. Babbitt’s work resounded for its formal accomplishment, Mr. Carter’s “Syringa,” a 1978 setting of ancient Greek texts and a modern poem by John Ashbery, rang out as an instantly perceptible masterwork.

Figure 3: Elliott Carter (l) with Frederic Rzewski in Berlin, 1964. (He was 55!)

Interesting. A Carter masterwork, eh? High praise for thorny modernism!

Through long acquaintance, Mr. Carter’s complex webbings of simultaneous sensations have become not only approachable but also familiar.

Who knew that if one became familiar with a style or musical language it'd be easier to understand?

More and more, he has come to seem like a prescient sage of a multitasking era:

Ooh, careful. That almost sounds postmodern.

...so much the better for a listener to respond as Evan Hughes, a bass-baritone, barked lines of myth in Greek, while Kristin Hoff, a mezzo soprano, patiently intoned Mr. Ashbery’s parenthetical observations in English. Mr. Carter’s music sounded responsive to the words, even voluptuous at times. The guitarist Oren Fader, the work’s third featured performer, played brilliantly.

Outstanding. This isn't the same performance, but here's a clip:

Embeddence 1: Carter, "Syringa" (part 1 of 2)

Had Mr. Levine not been sidelined by spinal surgery for several months, he might now be conducting Strauss’s luscious “Rosenkavalier” at the Metropolitan Opera.

He...might be?

The same mix of flamboyant technique and wistful nostalgia found in that opera saturates the zingy Neo-Classical “Bürger als Edelmann” music to slighter effect, and Mr. Levine and his players — especially David Chan, the principal violinist — had an easygoing loll in it.

That sounds dreadful, but maybe I'm just not in the mood for "flamboyant technique and wistful nostalgia".

Figure 4: Oh, no thanks. I had too much casual Orientalism over the holidays, I'm trying to cut down.

Yeah, no. I'll take a dose of Thorny Modernism for a thousand, Alex.

Figure 5: Trebek, cannily presaging Levine's hair-thing (see Figure 1).


Gustav said...

I suppose we could forgive Mr. Smith his dumbfounding introduction since he seems to have actually enjoyed the Babbitt and Carter and given due praise. It is disappointing that this same "modernism is weird" meme should continue. Think of how much more effective the article would have been if he had just started with this sentece:

Through long acquaintance, Mr. Carter’s complex webbings of simultaneous sensations have become not only approachable but also familiar. More and more, he has come to seem like a prescient sage of a multitasking era...

This both acknowledges the difficulty of modernist music, but allows for the fact that 50 years have past and doesn't treat this music as something to be overcome. The lesson, of course, being that familiarity does breed understanding.

Sator Arepo said...

I agree; I think Mr Smith did a great job, except for some loaded language.

It's interesting that Carter and Babbit, who have long been sort of lumped together, are getting some aesthetic space between them, as it were.