What an eclectic selection of music to listen to! This evening I have listened to George Rochberg’s Bagatelles for Piano and String Quartet No. 3, George Crumb’s Black Angels, John Adams’s Grand Pianola Music, and Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together and The People United Will Never Be Defeated. A barrage of styles from the 70s and early 80s, these pieces contain such an extraordinary range of techniques and styles from a sound resembling serialism (Rochberg’s Bagatelles) to minimalism (Adams’s Grand Pianola Music) to a traditional, but very modern theme and variations (Rzewski’s People United).
Out of this collection of extremes, one piece stood out to me as transcending the element of music and was extremely powerful: Crumb’s Black Angels. A violent depiction of Hell vs. God written for electric string quartet, the powerful sounds emanating from my speakers got my attention and conveyed an extreme feeling of unease and torment. Rarely do I find music that has such a deep connection to its topic as this work. When the Dies Irae quotation was stated, I was floored.
It turns out Crumb quotes lots of major works, but the only distinguishable quotation, at least to my ears was the Dies Irae. This work is hauntingly satisfying, which is surprising coming from a virtually atonal (and toneless) piece. The affect is sublime, which, as I write this, I am realizing is exactly what Romanticism of the 19th century was all about – and now we’re discussing a new Romanticism or neo-romanticism.
For some reason, I like Frederic Rzewski’s music. I don’t know why. It feels moderately commercialized somehow – as though it is written for an audience that isn’t particularly well-educated (like the American masses) – yet I fall victim to its message (even though I don’t have a clue what it is). His Coming Together feels heavy-handed in its politics yet the groove behind it is intoxicating – and very 70s!! When I saw the music for The People United Will Never Be Defeated, I had two initial reactions: 1) Wow – that looks like something from 150 years ago (I hadn’t yet seen the last few pages) and 2) It was written for Ursula Oppens with whom I had the luxury of performing with (well, I was in the orchestra, she was up front playing all the notes) at the end of last year. What a great theme and variations. The progress of music over the last 200 years has stylistically freed up the possibility of variation and the journey we end up going on with this music is a far greater journey because of it.
I am posting a recording of People United that allows you to follow along with the music. It’s really fascinating to watch the complexity grow from such a simple theme into what is clearly a post 1950s composition: