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Notes of an Amateur - January, 2008, Part 3
by Bob Neill


Thoughts before a Review of the Music of Charles Wuorinen

The terms "modernism" and "post-modernism" are admittedly often little more than crutches (substitutes?) for thinking about twentieth century music; but like most clichés, they grow out of real differences, which in this case are central to the music itself.

The composers we have come to call modernists (Stravinsky, Britten, Bartok, Shostakovich, Prokofiev), despite being in varying degrees famously iconoclastic in their time, maintained a passionate connection to the artistic tradition. They defined themselves in bold reaction to the romanticisms of the nineteenth century but also as passionate proponents of the historical tradition they sought to revive and restore in more worldly forms—the tradition they felt the nineteenth century had diffused and weakened. As part of their commitment to tradition, they revived styles that predated the nineteenth (and even the eighteenth) century, giving them new, more sophisticated shapes and voices. The modernists were, in other words, not quite the radicals they were often taken to be.

But there was a rogue element in their work, just as there was in the modernist literature of Pound, Eliot, Joyce, Lawrence, Faulkner, and Proust and the modern painting of Picasso, Matisse, and Cézanne. They used it for satirical and ironic purposes: it was a weapon with which to expose and ridicule what they perceived as the aesthetic corruption and decadence of their immediate predecessors, and, by extension, of their culture.

In the music of composers we have come to call post-moderns, this rogue element has got itself cut loose, creating an aesthetic of radical freedom and radical criticism, which in many cases turns its energies against the artistic tradition itself. The critical engine that worked as a tool within modernism, runs free on its own in post-modernism, a whirling critical machine which has a tendency to undercut, reduce, deconstruct everything in its path. It is an aesthetic that uses irony not as a means of deflating sentimental romanticisms but as a point of view in and of itself.

Some see post-modernism as not just against the tradition it wants to step free of, but as 'anti-art' altogether, its essential impetus the opposite of the arts. They see it as about uncreating: art criticism posing as art. Seen from its own point of view, post-modernism can be seen as 'liberating art': art that aims to escape into the pure forms it is ultimately made from—shapes, sounds, words, colors—in an effort to make a more fundamental art that gives one the feeling of confronting human experience directly rather than through the more synthetic forms: chords, melodies, sentences, images. It is challenging us to live in a less constructed world, asking us to get by with less…art. Insofar as we feel, at least temporarily, this radical freedom and freshness, in, for example, the music of composer Charles Wuorinen (or Elliot Carter or Legeti, or Sariaho or Feldman or Boulez—not to mention the music of the Second Viennese School of Berg, Webern, and Shoenberg who were composing alongside the modernists), I think the post-modernists succeed to some degree in their aim. However, this success comes at a considerable cost: a large portion of their potential audience finds itself unwilling to give up the tradition (just as they initially thought they were being asked to by the modernists!), understanding it as a continuity of rich meaning that civilization has created over two millennia to give human life the kind of imaginative and moral substance—thickness—we value. An art that turns against its tradition altogether in order to free itself from it, strikes many as, at the very least, adolescent.

Post-modernism is not an aesthetic that succeeds, when it does, by sustaining, enriching, filling out, or building. In other words, it does not behave as art traditionally behaves. It is a reductive, de-constructive, separating, defusing force. It helps us to do some of the things that making distinctions does: it reminds us what the human world we have built looks like when it is broken down into many of its constituent elements. It makes us more self-conscious about creating and sustaining a culture. It separates us from our culture, somewhat as anthropology does. But a state of mind which resists, even opposes, the synthesizing urge by design and principle is in danger of becoming a state of pure irony. It has alienation built into it. I think the most radical post-modernism is based on bad philosophy, a fundamental misunderstanding of what art is, has always been. It often acts as if it thinks it is opposing Truth to Art in the belief that we innocents have taken art's synthetic power too seriously, been fooled by the beauty and power of its songs and stories. I find this view insulting, naive, and didactic.

All of this said, post-modernism's best practitioners—and I count Wuorinen among them—are definitely worth exploring. Because in the end the music they actually make in the name of unmaking art can be interesting, even moving. It sometimes sounds like a poignant part of something larger, which the composer has rejected, or lost: notes which refuse to cohere into a discourse, fragments which refuse to become images: music at the edge, beyond which is uninterpreted, unshaped sound, noise. Nature. And I expect many post-modernists would find this description just. One of their precursors, the poet Robert Frost, described his art as "momentary stays against confusion."

Charles Wuorinen: Cyclops 2000; A Reliquary for Igor Stravinsky

Charles Wuorinen, Cyclops 2000. A Reliquary for Igor Stravinsky. London Sinfonietta, Oliver Knussen, conductor. London Sinfonietta Label SINF CD 42006.

In 1974 Vera Stravinsky gave me her permission and blessing to enshrine certain musical fragments her late husband had been working on before his illness prevented their further development. These I would embed in a work of my own which (I hoped) would reflect my love of Stravinsky's music and my sense of deep indebtedness to it.

C. Wuorinen

A post-modernist 'completes' the work of a major modernist, providing us with a fascinating opportunity to hear these two artistic 'movements' or aesthetic forces pull against each other. For Wuorinen, Stravinsky is the influential force to both absorb and resist, as he takes the great Russian modernist's last musical fragments and sets them into a new context, which is meaningful to him and in his own voice. The result sounds like a familiar prodigy lost in the city! Eloquent phrases surround and overruled by cacophony.

Wuorinen's "love" of Stravinsky's music is clearly a love of something that he feels, for all the importance he ascribes to it, needs completing: a love expressed for something from which he feels compelled to move on. We feel in the Reliquary Wuroinen's sense that modernism had to lead to post-modernism. That is, Stravinsky's dissonance, rhythmic waywardness, relentless energy, and chromaticism were just the first step away from late romanticism; and that post-modernism is a necessary additional one. To be fair, this is how all composers overcome the 'anxiety of influence' they feel in the presence of their major predecessors. They have to create a theoretical space to move into with confidence, where they can achieve their own artistic identity. This may well be the most powerful force in art (meaning music, literature, and the visual arts) history: the need for individual major artistic talents to create something different in order to break free from their predecessors. Sons and their fathers.

How successful is Wuorinen's Reliquary? Perhaps not for me, a somewhat reluctant and poorly informed follower of post-modern music, to say. I can hear what's going on. I get its point. The Lament section in the middle of the work is where we feel the presence of Stravinsky most clearly. The presence of Wuorinen is also clear there, witholding some of his urge to move on. I enjoyed this section a lot. The rest of the piece makes considerable demands on us: on our patience, our willingness to suspend our accustomed expectations. Post-modernists dance with noise as some of their predecessors were said to dance with the devil. Nothingness as the new Evil?

Cyclops 2000 (1997) is a less conflicted work, closer to other Wuorinen music I've heard. It is more ruminative, whimsical. It wanders about, as if at some distance from the center of culture. It is a sort of musical 'walkabout.' It has the fragmentary feel of its kind but is also vaguely appealing, perhaps for this very reason. It invites us to attend to its meanderings but places fewer of the demands on us that the Reliquary does. The wind instruments are its principal voices, alone and together, reeds and brasses. It seems perfectly comfortable on the periphery of things; but to these ears, it sometimes feels a bit marooned out there. And sometimes the brasses seem to echo my sentiments, especially toward the end. Can one live a full life in Wuorinen's musical world? We once asked that same question of Bartok's world and many of us learned in time that yes, we could live quite well there. (And the scandal associated with the premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring was short-lived.) Is the post-modern musical world of Charles Wuorinen any different? In kind? Or just in degree? Will we catch up to it? Find we can live on its sparer diet?

Charles Wuorinen: String Sextet; Piano Quintet; Divertimento

Wuorinen, String Sextet. Second String Quartet. Divertimento. Piano Quintet. Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center; Tashi; The Group of Contemporary Music. Naxos American Classics. Naxos 8.559288. (Originally on Koch).

Someone who knows the Second Viennese School of composers better than I do would able to 'place' Wuorinen's String Sextet (1989) better than I can. I have the sense that Wuorinen dramatizes here, for those in the know, how clearly post-modernism in music has arisen from the music of those earlier composers, who were seen in their time as the avant-garde wing of modernism but who, our ears and experience now tell us, were actually the first wave of the future. We can hear a very different musical agenda in their spare and spikey works and in Wuorinen's piece than we hear in the music of Stravinsky, Bartok, and Britten. Relentlessly uncompromising, delirious, asking us to find satisfaction in a sound world with fewer of the usual consolations.

The Second String Quartet (1979) sounds to me like a sonic Rorschach in rapid motion or an abstract impressionist painting. Jagged lines crossing one another, especially in the upper registers, sonic splotches. I don't know what else to make of it, so I'm moving on.

I find the Divertimento (1982) for string quartet more accessible. There is more attention to the viola and cello and a (mostly) slower pace, resulting in a more reflective mood. This work lives a great deal in suggestiveness—it feels like a shorthand or outline of what a more traditional composer would spell out in greater detail and with more continuity. It is cryptic music and has the appeal of understatement, where the Second String Quartet feels, in contrast, relentlessly overstated. The pace picks up during the latter stages of the work, but the sense of a work in outline remains. We are connecting musical dots!

The Piano Quintet (1994) is music I can definitely live with, perhaps because its near chaos and cacophony are full of energy and musical life. Wuorinen is very convincing here on the question of how little (audible) order we can live on, at least for a while. This work is the opposite of minimalist post-modernism, which asks us to do without either order or energy: I am thinking in particular of the expansive, minimalist music of Morton Feldman. It definitely sounds like music written by the composer of the Divertimento—though the presence of the piano removes some of the cryptic quality. It adds a strong alternate voice and also considerable backbone. It is hard to pin down why the Piano Quintet satisfies me more than the other works on this disc. Its moods are more varied. I get more of the sense that something is going on here, that an emotional statement of some consequence being made. I am drawn in where with the others I am somewhat held off. It is the most recent and longest composition of the four. Its second movement is a very effective, slow paced, almost elegiac conversation between the piano and the strings: it is one of the most eloquent presentations of how profoundly different but essential to each other these struck and bowed stringed instruments can be. This is one of my favorite passages in all of Wuroinen. We slide from it into a short third movement that shares much of its quality but picks up the pace before delivering us to a finale that has much of the energy and bustle of the opening movement, assuring us once again that an exciting sense of musical order does not require all of the usual formalities. We are told that this piece was written for Ursula Oppens and the Arditti Quartet and it is certainly worthy of them. It makes a powerful case for winging ones way to a full musical life!

Systems used for these auditions: Audio Note CDT3 transport and Dac 4.1 Balanced Signature; Blue Circle SBTpreamplifier and SBM monoblocks, Manley Shrimp preamplifier and Mahi-Mahi monoblocks; and Blue Circle DAR and Audio Note OTO integrated amplifiers; Blue Circle BC6000 line conditioner; JM Reynaud Offrande Signature and Audio Note K/SPe speakers; Audio Note Sogon and AN-Vx interconnects and Audio Note SPe and Lexus speaker cable.

Bob Neill, in addition to being an occasional equipment and regular music reviewer for Positive- Feedback Online, is also proprietor of Amherst Audio in Amherst, Massachusetts, which sells equipment from Audio Note, Blue Circle, Manley Labs, and JM Reynaud, among others.