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Once again, our definitions are vague.  These labels that we’re using are becoming less and less useful.  It appears that the term Totalism can be identified by two (or more) tempos going on at the same time, both of which are audible.  I can’t help but think of Ives and wonder if, by that definition, his music would be accepted as Totalism.  While listening to some samples, I ran across a lot of garbage, dredging up the bad memories of Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives.  One especially awful piece is Mikel Rouse’s Dennis Cleveland, billed as a “Talk Show Opera.”  The music is incredibly cheesy and the previews on YouTube are even worse.  I get that most talk shows are “in the box,” but this piece fails to instill anything except disdain for composers who want to be innovative and end up with a fifteen-year build up of crap!

Another sad excuse for a musical composition is Michael Gordon’s Four Kings Fight Five.  It’s as though Gordon took all of the cheesy electronica of the 1980s and crammed it together into one ridiculous episode.

And then I ran across a gem.  I enjoy piano music, for the most part.  I rarely find a piece of music these days that I’m listening to for the first time where I get a reaction different than “wow, that’s utter crap” or “that’s half decent.”  With Larry Polansky’s Lonesome Road, I was completely blown away.  I haven’t responded to positively to a first listen of a piano work since I first heard Ives’s “Concord” Sonata a decade ago!  Perhaps this reaction is relative to the previous drivel I had subjected my ears to, but Polansky’s writing is wrought with imagery and emotion and is easy on the ears, although atonal at times.  A few of the movements walk a fine line of cliche, but Polansky always avoids the pitfalls that his colleagues have fallen into, and the result is quite appealing.

And then we come to Postmodernism: “Postmodernism describes a range of conceptual frameworks and ideologies that are defined in opposition to those commonly associated with ideologies of modernity and modernist notions of knowledge and science, such as, materialismrealismpositivismformalismstructuralismdogmatism andreductionism.” [1]  That’s about as vague and all-encompassing of a definition as I could imagine.  Great.  So what does it mean?  It’s as though a bunch of artwork has been made in which no one can quite label, so it’s all one “post-modern” movement.

From the handful of examples I’ve listened to, nothing stands out as terribly inspiring, however I must commend the composers for writing actual music.  William Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and Experience is especially successful in its orchestration!  Thinking back on it, I haven’t heard the use of a full orchestra this well done since we were discussing Ives.  The addition of electric guitar as well as harmonica were lost on me a little, but the transitions are smooth and the musical intent flows nicely.

Lukas Foss’s Time Cycle is an interesting selection.  Composed in 1960, Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic performed this work twice in one night on the eve of its world premiere. [2]  Again, the orchestration is masterful!  Due to the time period, it’s surprising this work wasn’t grouped into some other category, like, perhaps, neoromanticism… but George Rochberg’s music was also referred to as neoromantic postmodernism.[3]

And so once again, our labels are unable to contain this music.  What the future holds for music is difficult to predict, but I am certain we will continue to attempt to label everything as it comes out, but we will not be able to contain the success or the failures of that music under any one identity.

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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: