Music at the Turn
Artwork by Peter Bennett
A year begins, a century ends. The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s last 1998 concert included music by Olivier Messiaen, a significant creator and inspirational force of recent decades; it starts this year with music by Toru Takemitsu, another. Last month, the Los Angeles Opera premiered a new American score; later this month, UCLA will put on a concert of ages-old but very new music for drums, only drums. Ends of years — or of centuries or millenniums — are the listmakers’ glory days, the time for summing up in tabular form. And so, like Gilbert and Sullivan’s Lord High Executioner — exalted archetype of paid criticism — I too have got a little list.
I was 16 when music first attacked me. My friend Normy and I were in the 25-cent rush seats, upstairs in Symphony Hall, on a Friday afternoon in 1940; Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony had begun the concert with Gluck and Mozart, full of comforting tunes and harmonies in a familiar language. After intermission, however, I was hurled across a boundary onto a strange and scary landscape. Midway in the first movement of a brand-new symphony (the Fifth) by a composer with a barely pronounceable name (Shostakovich), the man on kettledrums started up a huge bim-bam-boom. A xylophone joined in, maximum hysteria. The piano, for God’s sake — whoever heard of a piano in a symphony? — banged away. All around us elderly matrons pushed their way quickly to the exit doors. (The Boston Herald’s great satirical cartoonist Francis Dahl noted that one of Boston’s indigenous sounds was the rustle of Grandma Saltoncabot’s black bombazine in the Symphony Hall corridors, beating a hasty exodus from Dr. Koussevitzky’s Shostakovich.)
The first thing I learned about new music was that it survived on a battlefield. The critics — including the Herald’s Rudolph Elie, who would later hire me as a stringer, my first writing job, at $3 a review — greeted the Shostakovich Fifth with howls of protest. The dissonances and the banging were bad enough, the sentiment ran; what was worse was that the music, to those apprehensive 1940 ears, contained clear evidence of Soviet conspiracies against the American government. Koussevitzky, ever the warrior, immediately rescheduled the Fifth Symphony for a repeat performance later that season. (There are now close to 50 recordings of the Fifth in the latest Schwann catalog. It is easily the best-known symphony composed in this century; people whistle its subversive tunes in the streets.)
That afternoon’s encounter with the music of my own time brought a sense of astonishment that I can still feel; I simply had no idea that people could take the orchestra of Beethoven and Brahms, throw in a few more instruments, and create sounds like this. A few months later came Walt Disney’s Fantasia with its Rite of Spring sequence (hacked to pieces, I learned only later, from Stravinsky’s original score, but thrilling even so): more exhilaration, up to the edge of terror. I’ve never been much for horror movies or roller-coaster rides; the passion for new music I acquired on those two afternoons, and have tried to nurture on the thousands since, satisfies whatever craving along those lines I might otherwise entertain.
Of all the arts, music inspires the greatest fear of the unknown. If a painting or a sculpture offends, you can walk away. Music attacks, grabs hold and imposes its own time frame; try to escape from a live performance of some act of blatant musical innovation, and you risk stepping on toes, both literally and figuratively. A piece of new music sounds new because it does battle with expectations we’ve amassed from listening to other music not as new; therein lies its power. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring aggressed upon its first audience — in Paris, 1913 — with its very first notes; a solo bassoon isn’t supposed to wail like that in its highest register. Beethoven’s "Eroica" Symphony got in wrong with its first audience right at the start — in Vienna, 1805 — because the C sharp in the eighth bar doesn’t belong in the key of E flat. In the early 1700s, Bach was constantly in hot water with his employers because of his wild and dissonant organ improvisations. In Florence around 1600, Claudio Monteverdi enraged a critic named G.M. Artusi with passionate harmonies that no composer had dared to use before. In all those cases, and thousands more, the passage of time has smoothed the feathers of those first enraged audiences; Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring also gets whistled in the streets.
These offenses all seem to have taken place in the early years of their centuries — by coincidence, or because the chronological upheaval at a century’s turn inspires a certain state of mind. Now we’re there again, and while the computer guys try to figure out how to cope with double-zero dating, the culture guys are having a fine old time with compiling lists: the best, the most favored, the greatest or just the most.
My list is different: 100 pieces of serious musical artwork, arranged in no order other than chronological, that seem to me to define where composers of serious music have tried to take their art in the century now slouching toward the history books; perhaps also to suggest whence and how these creative urges arose back around 1900, and to intimate where music might — repeat, might — be headed in the years 2000-plus. Many entries that strike me as defining I do not personally like. Some things not on the list I like quite a lot, but they belong on someone else’s list. I would rather listen to early Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald or the Stones any day than Elliott Carter (and to Elliott Carter rather than Scriabin). "Serious" music I define as written-down music designed to be heard by non-participating — I almost said "passive," but that’s wrong — audiences, and with the substance to warrant serious rehearing.
The question arises: By "defining," am I also implying a prophecy that the music on this list will still be played and respected into the next century and even beyond? I think I am. I must assume, of course, that the performing forces that occasioned this music will survive; in these days, when not only symphony orchestras but whole national economies can fall off the map, that may be a foolhardy assumption. You gotta believe.
Music that embodies the strength to define its own era must also have the strength to outlast that era. There were string quartets, orchestras and opera houses in 1799 and 1899, as there are in 1999; there’s a chance, therefore, that something similar to them will be around in 2099, playing the new music of the day but also music created one, two or three centuries before. There are other imponderables, of course, that sometimes create curious additions to any survivors’ list. If I were compiling this kind of list in 1799, I probably wouldn’t have included the name of Antonio Salieri, yet there he is on the charts today, for well-known reasons beyond his own making. In 1899 I wouldn’t have dreamed of including the symphonies of Joachim Raff, or the piano concertos of Anton Rubinstein, yet some current enthusiasts have exhumed these presumed-dead figures as well. I can’t guarantee that someone in the year 2050 won’t make a movie about, say, George Rochberg or Nikolai Lopatnikoff, and then I will be reviled as a lousy prophet for not including those less-than-defining figures on my list.
To make it look less listlike, I’ve broken the chronology into 25-year, 25-item segments. That works out to be not as arbitrary as it sounds; 1925’s Wozzeck and 1976’s Einstein on the Beach are major milestones, and 1950, plus or minus, works well as the nuptial year of music and technology. I’ve followed each segment with my own take on the music therein: not so much a history of music in the 20th century, but a memoir of my own evolving reactions in the century’s twilight years. I have, after all, been through a fair amount of it myself.
1. DEBUSSY: Pelléas et Mélisande (1902)
2. SATIE: Pieces in the Shape of a Pear (1903)
3. DEBUSSY: La Mer (1905)
4. IVES: Central Park in the Dark (1907)
5. SCRIABIN: Poem of Ecstasy (1908)
6. STRAUSS: Elektra (1908)
7. MAHLER: Symphony No. 9 (1910)
8. STRAVINSKY: Petrouchka (1911)
9. SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 4 (1911)
10. SCHOENBERG: Pierrot Lunaire (1912)
11. STRAVINSKY: The Rite of Spring (1913)
12. COWELL: Advertisement (for Piano) (1914)
13. IVES: Sonata No. 2 ("Concord") (1915)
14. FALLA: El Sombréro de Tres Picos (1919)
15. VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 2 ("London") (1920)
16. JANÁCEK: Katya Kabanova (1921)
17. VARÈSE: Amériques (1921)
18. PROKOFIEV: Piano Concerto No. 3 (1921)
19. HINDEMITH: Kammermusik No. 1 (1922)
20. MILHAUD: The Creation of the World (1923)
21. STRAVINSKY: Les Noces (1923)
22. SCHOENBERG: Suite for Piano (1923)
23. GERSHWIN: Rhapsody in Blue (1924)
24. COPLAND: Music for the Theater (1925)
25. BERG: Wozzeck (1925)
No time in recorded history could match the euphoria, the eager curiosity about the future, that gripped the Western world right around 1900. The previous two decades had given the world the telephone, the light bulb, the phonograph, the automobile and, in 1903, the airplane; these were not merely improvements on things already in existence (as the compact disc might seem an improvement on the 78-rpm shellac disc, or the Concorde on the DC-3); they added up to an explosive expansion beyond what had previously been assumed the limits of human possibility. All the arts seemed to draw new energy from the spirit of innovation in the land; in the decade and a half from 1900 to the outbreak of the First World War, the air crackled with the shock of the new.
Some of the newness may have been the logical consequence of the recent past; the whisperings and half-lights of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande clearly stemmed from the impulses that guided Claude Monet’s brush at his lily pond; Gustav Mahler’s last symphony and the first works of Arnold Schoenberg took the agonized harmonic frustrations of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde onto the concert stage. So did Richard Strauss in his blood-drenched Elektra, with more surface glitter and less inner substance. Igor Stravinsky’s first ballet scores were recognizably the work of Rimsky-Korsakov’s star pupil. Yet the spirit of the times seemed to drive the new creators hard and fast. The merely two-year gap between Stravinsky’s Petrouchka and his Rite of Spring yawns wider than the 20 between Beethoven’s "Eroica" and his Ninth. So do the two years between Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and the Pierrot Lunaire of his self-anointed apostle, Arnold Schoenberg.
Jump back a few decades — to 1880, say. The European bourgeoisie prospered; the great cities celebrated their grandiosity by building concert halls and opera houses. Virtuosos flourished — sopranos, pianists, conductors. The old masters held their place — Beethoven, Haydn, Bach in monstrously perverse reorchestrations; just the opening bars of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, that supremely romantic gesture of bringing the music in gradually as if from a distant cloud, became the gambit for dozens of latter-day rip-offs, some successful. It was taken for granted, however, that by far the majority of the concert and operatic fare was to be music hot off the press. The audience eagerly awaited the latest Brahms symphony, the latest Verdi opera. Richard Wagner died in 1883, and the world awaited with bated breath the emergence of his successor, assuming beyond argument that there would be one.
Around 1900, however, the first signs of a schism appeared between "music" and "new music." Wagner had implanted some of the attitude with his orotund pronouncements about "the music of the future." By 1900, too, Europe’s great music-publishing houses had caught up with the past, with complete performing editions of practically every major composer, from Bach to Beethoven and on through Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Berlioz. Performers could, better than before, think in terms of a "repertory" of past masterpieces; audiences, too, developed a fondness for wallowing in the familiar. The world at large no longer awaited the next symphony by Mahler or the next string quartet by Debussy with the hunger for newness that had driven taste in, say, 1880. Newness had become newer, and therefore more fearsome, than in the good old days. The impact of Pierrot Lunaire and The Rite of Spring — and the dozens of similar assaults on the musical status quo — drove the wedge.
Music’s world expanded beyond its traditional French/ German/Italian/Slavic boundaries in these years. Finland’s Jean Sibelius brought his country its first fame, with music rooted in the mainstream past but with at least one splendid work, the bleak, ascetic Fourth Symphony, which does indeed mirror the shrouding fogs of its native soil. Spain’s Manuel de Falla wrote Spanish-tinged music that went past post card prettiness in a dark, edgy and wonderfully witty manner. England’s Ralph Vaughan Williams, though defiantly anchored in his country’s ancient musical styles, at least turned out a repertory of symphonies that did not sound fresh off the boat from Germany, as did those of his countryman Edward Elgar. And the United States, whose handful of respectable 19th-century musicians also composed with heavy German accents, produced its first generation of indigenous crackpot geniuses with the likes of good ol’ boy Charlie Ives, Henry Cowell, Carl Ruggles and the émigré Edgard Varèse, who proclaimed his Americanness with a wildly dissonant piece called Amériques, which had the critics disputing whether it was more descriptive of a zoo or a boiler factory.
The War happened, and then jazz happened, and the timing was just right. Great wars always leave the creative world with the need for a fresh start. In the post-WWII decade, composers would flop around for a time in desperate search of fresh impetus, adopting and rejecting a variety of artistic possibilities; but in 1918 that impetus had come ready-made, or so it seemed: an immensely vibrant language laden with fascinating interconnections to other arts (Cubism, for one), its potential beyond reckoning. Like the music, its very name — jazz — was a hybrid of arguable origin. Almost everybody was hooked at first. Visiting New York, France’s Darius Milhaud raided the shelves of Harlem record shops and returned home to create his "ballet nègre," The Creation of the World; Germany’s Paul Hindemith blended the kicky new rhythms into his Bach-inspired chamber concertos; Stravinsky tried his hand at a couple of ragtime pieces, both terrible. Paul Whiteman toured Europe with his big, symphonic jazz band and played George Gershwin’s synthetic Rhapsody in Blue to awestruck crowds — lively stuff, even if neither jazz nor symphony. In Paris, another young innovator, Aaron Copland, was urged by his teacher — the legendary Nadia Boulanger, godmother to a generation of American composers — to use music as a way to define himself and his world. He did so by including, in his delicious, lighthearted Music for the Theater, a generous admixture of the newfangled jazz.
Stravinsky’s revolutionary orchestration in The Rite of Spring gave off all kinds of messages about new ways to make musical sounds. Ten years after The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky created Les Noces, depicting a Russian folk wedding, with an orchestra consisting of four pianos and a large battery of percussion; the American George Antheil, in cahoots with the Cubist painter Fernand Léger, did some of the same in his Ballet Mécanique, whose scoring included an airplane propeller. Before either of these, a San Francisco teenager named Henry Cowell astonished audiences with his piano pieces that involved reaching inside the instrument to stroke the strings, or whomping down on the keys with a fist or forearm to produce what he called "tone clusters." Later, Cowell would become mentor and role model to the most carefree and influential of the century’s innovative spirits, the Los Angeles–born John Cage.
If Arnold Schoenberg had little taste for percussion ensembles or airplane propellers, he had his own visions of musical sounds hitherto unheard. Six months before Stravinsky’s bombshell had gone off in Paris, Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire had earned a comparably hostile — if less vociferous — reception in Berlin: music in which a solo voice keened, wailed and whispered poetry about a moonstruck madman, joined by a chamber-music ensemble enhancing the spooky atmosphere with music devoid of any clear sense of harmonic progression or key. Standing aloof from all the jazzy razzmatazz, Schoenberg sought to codify his wholesale revision of traditional musical values with his "method of composition employing all 12 tones," which he perennially explained as the logical extension of principles reaching back to Bach. His 1923 Suite for Piano, his first "pure" piece employing all 12 tones in strict serial order, did indeed link hands with Bachian models. But it was Schoenberg’s disciple Alban Berg, in his harrowing, immensely powerful operatic setting of Georg Büchner’s Wozzeck, who proved the expressive potential of the Schoenbergian style, moving in and out of 12-tone writing, also in and out of the Mahlerian shadows, as the moods of the intensely moody story dictated. Just by themselves, The Rite of Spring and Wozzeck were enough to prove that the new century had not lost the ages-old power to produce masterpieces.
26. BARTÓK: Quartet No. 4 (1928)
27. WALTON: Viola Concerto (1929)
28. WEILL: Mahagonny (1929)
29. STRAVINSKY: Symphony of Psalms (1930)
30. VILLA-LOBOS: Bachianas Brasileiras No. 1 (1930)
31. CRAWFORD SEEGER: String Quartet (1931)
32. RAVEL: Piano Concerto (1931)
33. WEBERN: Concerto, Opus 24 (1934)
34. THOMSON: Four Saints in Three Acts (1934)
35. GERSHWIN: Porgy and Bess (1935)
36. BERG: Violin Concerto (1935)
37. SCHOENBERG: Quartet No. 4 (1936)
38. McPHEE: Tabuh-Tabuhan (1936)
39. ORFF: Carmina Burana (1936)
40. HARRIS: Symphony No. 3 (1937)
41. SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 5 (1937)
42. PROKOFIEV: Alexander Nevsky (1939)
43. CAGE: Second Construction (1940)
44. MESSIAEN: Quartet for the End of Time (1940)
45. BARTÓK: Concerto for Orchestra (1943)
46. BERNSTEIN: On the Town (1943)
47. BRITTEN: Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings (1943)
48. COPLAND: Appalachian Spring (1944)
49. SESSIONS: Symphony No. 2 (1946)
50. BARBER: Knoxville, Summer of 1915 (1947)
In attempting to force any aspect of artistic history into the listmakers’ Procrustean bed, you inevitably end up with a dualism, "then" versus "now." The musical "then" is a vast, safe area of sure-fire masterpieces, beloved by audiences and by concert managements as well: two centuries, give or take, bounded at the far and near ends respectively by, say, Bach’s "Brandenburg" Concertos and Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. You wouldn’t mistake one for the other, yet there are aspects they share: They are both entertainments composed for performing forces that are required to exhibit a certain amount of solo virtuosity; their harmonies honor the assumption that listeners like the security of the music being in a specified key; their rhythms can, if you’re so inclined, set your toes to tapping in regular patterns of twos, threes or fours. (There had been music before Bach, of course, and one of the great events of recent decades has been its accession to popularity in something close to its original sounds.) Over the 200 or so years of music’s "then," the works that best exemplify the ideals of those years were developed in a certain few countries of Central Europe — France, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy — plus an occasional outsider from England, Spain or the Slavic lands who, most likely, had studied music within the inner circle.
The crumbling of that tradition which began right after the First World War — the invasion of that inner circle by aliens from (horror!) the United States, by alien styles (jazz, Asian gamelan, Appalachian folk song) and sounds (percussion ensembles, junkyard salvage, silence) — brought about a vast expansion of the means by which a composer might achieve uniqueness of musical language. This in turn meant that the differences among the works composed during music’s "now" tend to be far wider than in any previous century or even two centuries. Not all the aliens, of course, carried the seeds of revolt. Britain’s William Walton and Benjamin Britten, and America’s Samuel Barber, found plenty of new things to say within the old conservative language. One of the first Americans to respond sympathetically to Arnold Schoenberg’s principles, the still-underappreciated Ruth Crawford Seeger (stepmother of folk singer Pete), blended the atonal manner into her own powerful outlooks in her vibrant, intense String Quartet, music which has only now, 67 years later, been accorded worldwide masterpiece status. Stravinsky alone among music’s towering role models never handed down a legacy for others to follow.
With the expansion of sources and resources available to musicians practically from the start of this century, new music maintains its power to intimidate far longer than before. People still flee the concert hall during Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (of 1913!) and probably always will. Béla Bartók’s Fourth String Quartet, 70 years old, still strikes me as a very "daring" work, with the needle-sharp pizzicatos of its scherzo and the shiver-inducing nocturnal sounds of its slow movement. So does much other music as it approaches respectable dotage: Crawford Seeger’s Quartet (1931) and Schoenberg’s Quartet No. 4 (1936), with their slow movements that seem suspended in outer space while holding us spellbound here on Earth. So does the searing beauty in the 1935 Violin Concerto of Alban Berg, his last completed work, which — as in his Wozzeck of a decade before — explores the "romantic" potential in the 12-note serial technique. And so, from 1943, does the interplay of deep mystery and sublime wit in Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra — the most recent large-scale work on this list to achieve permanent repertory status — music by a composer desperately ill and impoverished, but driven by that indefinable force that makes music happen against all odds.
From my 1999 vantage point, the music of this second quarter is astounding above all for its mix. Jazz continued its inroads into the "classical" world, thus speeding the crumbling of the wall between "serious" and "popular" that the 19th-century bourgeoisie had erected and labored to maintain. Maurice Ravel’s fascination with blues harmonies shone forth in his elegant Piano Concerto. In Berlin, Kurt Weill and the poet Bertolt Brecht stirred their preachments into a pot already aboil with jazz, ragtime and atonality, and produced the sizzling agitprop opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Four years later, Virgil Thomson and the sibylline Gertrude Stein wove their Four Saints in Three Acts out of a much more polite jazz plus hits from a Baptist Sunday-school hymnal. In his 1935 Porgy and Bess, George Gershwin’s attempt to meld a vivid blues style into a grand-opera format was uneasily received at first, and grew to masterpiece stature only slowly. And eight years later, the arrogant, jazzy rhythms of Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town signaled a giant forward step in literary and musical quality for the Broadway show, a breaking down of the wall of snobbery between musical theater and opera.
In the early 1930s, the American Colin McPhee traveled to Bali, and came home to compose music inspired by the rhythmic patterns of the Indonesian gamelan. Brazil’s Heitor Villa-Lobos produced amusing amalgams of his native folk rhythms and the stringent outlines of Bach. Closer to home, Roy Harris proclaimed his symphonies as illustrative of the "hard fastness" of the prairie soul; Aaron Copland succeeded somewhat better with his own fashionings of authentic or contrived "American" tunes in his cowboy ballets Billy the Kid and Rodeo, and the eloquent Appalachian Spring.
All of this happened within the context of an even greater upheaval, one that probably helped shape some of these other changes: the great communications explosion and its impact on the availability of music. By 1930, radio listeners coast-to-coast could hear live broadcasts by the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera; by 1950, they could also watch them on television. In 1926, the process of recording was greatly advanced by the development of electronic technology to supplant the acoustic horn; in 1948, the long-playing record made it possible to survey the realm of masterful and not-so-masterful pieces in remarkable likenesses of the original performances. The spread of broadcasting also established music as an unparalleled political resource. In Adolf Hitler’s Germany, Carl Orff turned medieval German songs into musical poster art to help celebrate his nation’s past; Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union made good use of its composers — the great Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich among them — to spread the communist word, and came down hard on them when they strayed in the direction of originality.
In previous centuries, the construction of the first public concert halls and grand-opera houses, offering accessibility to an ever broadening social spectrum of consumers, had greatly influenced the development of grander, noisier and more flamboyant music. In our own century, the infinitely greater expansion of access through recordings and broadcasts seems to be having the same effect, infinitely magnified.
51. STRAVINSKY: The Rake’s Progress (1951)
52. CARTER: Quartet No. 1 (1951)
53. CAGE: 4’33" (1952)
54. BOULEZ: Le Marteau sans Maître (1954)
55. BRITTEN: The Turn of the Screw (1954)
56. STOCKHAUSEN: Gesang der Jünglinge (1956)
57. STRAVINSKY: Agon (1957)
58. COPLAND: Piano Fantasy (1957)
59. HENZE: Kammermusik (1958)
60. SHOSTAKOVICH: Quartet No. 8 (1960)
61. PENDERECKI: Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960)
62. RILEY: In C (1964)
63. BABBITT: Philomel (1964)
64. XENAKIS: Eonta (1964)
65. LIGETI: Requiem (1965)
66. PARTCH: Delusion of the Fury (1966)
67. REICH: Come Out (1966)
68. SCHNITTKE: Violin Concerto No. 2 (1966)
69. SUBOTNICK: Silver Apples of the Moon (1967)
70. NANCARROW: Studies for Player Piano(1968)
71. STOCKHAUSEN: Kurzwellen (1968)
72. BERIO: Sinfonia (1969)
73. CRUMB: Ancient Voices of Children (1970)
74. LUTOSLAWSKI: Symphony No. 3 (1973)
75. HARRISON: Suite for Violin and American Gamelan (1973)
To John Cage, composing music meant redefining music. One of his first teachers, Arnold Schoenberg at UCLA, tried to stanch his creative juices by telling him that he was more an inventor than a composer; Cage took it as a compliment. He invented the notion of creating music by pounding on resonant junkyard objects, by "preparing" a piano (i.e., imposing bits of hardware among the strings) to alter its tone quality, by allowing four minutes and 33 seconds’ worth of the ambient room noise around a silent performer seated at a piano to stand for the entirety of a titled piece. In 1951, Cage established the Project for Magnetic Tape in New York, encouraging composers to create music out of taped sounds collected the world over. Magnetic tape had been invented in Germany in the 1930s. By the 1950s, armed with electronic sound-producing and sound-processing equipment — and, not many years later, reinforced with the ancillary marvels of computer technology — a composer could state with justification that the previous two millennia of music represented only the base of the mountain of possibilities.
Actually, there had been some attempt to redefine the very sound of music long before Cage. As early as 1914, the Futurist poet/painter/composer Luigi Russolo had built massive room-filling machines to produce an array of harsh, mechanized cacophony that he and his Italian cohorts had proclaimed "the music of the future"; unfortunately, Russolo’s machines and most of his musical sketches were destroyed during World War II. After that war, several composers in France — Pierre Henry, Pierre Schaeffer and, for a time, the young Pierre Boulez — had used the recently invented tape recorders to process natural sounds, overlaid upon themselves or otherwise transformed into the designs of what came to be called "musique concrète." These experiments would soon be supplanted, however, by the broader potential in the range of sounds produced by electronic means and processed by computer.
Karlheinz Stockhausen, one of music’s most ardent redefiners, used the vast electronic mainframe facilities of West German Radio at Cologne to produce his Gesang der Jünglinge, a work of symphonic proportions constructed entirely out of synthesized sounds plus the processed voice of a boy soprano. The Hungarian expatriate György Ligeti worked at Cologne for a time, and then succeeded in duplicating some of tape music’s marvelously atmospheric sounds with live performers. Some of the ethereal swooshing in Ligeti’s spellbinding Requiem found its way into Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where it underscored the spaceship’s journey to Jupiter through psychedelic space.
In California, young composers — among them Morton Subotnick, Pauline Oliveros and Terry Riley — worked at the San Francisco Tape Music Center, blending poetry, visual art and electronically produced sounds into a unique multimedia art. Their guru was the Michigan-born Robert Erickson, whose own music often included natural sounds (waves pounding the coast, a brooklet in the Sierra) blended with instruments.
A building-filling electronic installation set up in New York, funded by Columbia, Princeton and the Bell Laboratories, attracted hordes of composers young and old, including the venerable 12-tone evangelist Milton Babbitt, whose immensely appealing 1964 Philomel used synthesized sounds to describe the maiden of legend transformed into a nightingale. Not many years later, Subotnick used a synthesizer no larger than a dining-room tabletop, designed by Donald Buchla, to compose his Silver Apples of the Moon. Electronic gadgetry shrank in size (and in price) as its versatility expanded. Subotnick would soon move on to CalArts and develop one of the pioneer college-run electronic-music curricula.
Whether inspired by John Cage’s libertarian proclamations or off on their own, composers in these years seemed hell-bent on expanding music’s boundaries. Freedom rang; to LaMonte Young, a proper musical experience might consist of watching a violin burn in an East Village loft, or enduring a single tone sustained for two weeks. Stockhausen, not long after the implicit rigidity of his electronic pieces, turned 180 degrees to invoke principles of chance in his "happenings," quasi-theatrical events to bear out the Cageian dictum that "Everything we do is music"; Stockhausen’s Kurzwellen had live musicians improvising on the spot to whatever happened to be emerging from a shortwave radio at the time of performance. In San Francisco, Terry Riley dreamed up a trance-inducing piece called In C in which any number of performers played a series of short fragments at any speed and at any length; a performance might last 20 minutes or three hours. Steve Reich concocted an extended piece in which a short spoken phrase, "come out to show them," was repeated on multiple tape loops, with the tracks gradually oozing out of phase to create an enormous onslaught of sound. A new word, minimalism (borrowed, like so much of music’s vocabulary, from the visual arts), stood for their kind of music: maximum impact created out of a minimum of material, gradually changing.
Wherever you tuned in, there were new sounds. Greece’s Iannis Xenakis, renowned both as a composer and as a disciple of the great architect Le Corbusier, devised music that did, indeed, seem in its undulations to suggest physical structures — proving Goethe’s famous dictum that architecture is frozen music. Lou Harrison — like Cage a onetime Schoenberg student — flooded his music with the bright jangle of the Indonesian gamelan. Conlon Nancarrow, an American expatriate working in Mexico, composed music for player piano, punching out the paper rolls by hand and thus creating rhythmic complexities beyond the reach of any ordinary pianist. George Crumb’s haunting Ancient Voices of Children (based on García Lorca’s poetry) used small, tuned stones as part of its "orchestra." Crumb’s Black Angels, written in 1970 as a Vietnam protest, subjected a string quartet to violent overamplification — grinding, gnashing, intensely disturbing — to send its outcry skyward. The self-taught hobo-turned-composer Harry Partch devised fantastic, colorful pieces that employed scales of 43 tones (instead of the "normal" 12), and built his own fantastic, colorful instruments to play them. Luciano Berio’s exhilarating Sinfonia included one movement in which a group of actors declaimed selections from various activist writings while the orchestra performed a collage compiled from familiar symphonic works of the past.
It was a time, too, of striking contradictions. Cage and his disciples proclaimed the notion of "anything goes." The element of randomness motivated others as well, notably Poland’s Witold Lutoslawski, whose Second and Third symphonies contained episodes that freed the players in certain passages to improvise (within a stipulated time frame). In sharp contrast, the young Frenchman Pierre Boulez had re-examined the Schoenbergian principles of strict 12-note organization and discovered that Schoenberg’s disciple Anton Webern had taken the notion of strict serial organization into matters of tone color and rhythm. Boulez earned his early fame with Le Marteau sans Maître: poetry by René Char intoned by a soprano with a chamber ensemble (a conscious tribute to Schoenberg’s seminal Pierrot Lunaire), remarkable also for the way recurrences and structural details in both words and music are rigidly worked out as a kind of audible mathematics. Boulez would go on to found his famous Parisian Institute for Acoustic/ Musical Research and Coordination (IRCAM), a hotbed for experimentation in the ways the computer, the live musician and electronically generated sound might join in this whole redefinition process.
Some, however, continued to nurture the old ways. Benjamin Britten’s powerful if small-scale operas, including a harrowing setting of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw, sustained faith in the supremacy of the lyric stage. Deeply distressed by his first view of war-ravaged Dresden, Shostakovich — for whom the death of Joseph Stalin was an act of liberation — produced in his Eighth String Quartet a transfixing personal statement. Its mood was echoed, surely not entirely by coincidence, in the glistening, convoluted writing for full string orchestra in Krzysztof Penderecki’s wrenching Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, composed in the same year. Igor Stravinsky, who for most of his life had stood as a kind of antithesis to Schoenberg’s atonality, began after Schoenberg’s death to incorporate some of that methodology into his own work, notably the ballet Agon, arguably his last masterpiece. Even Aaron Copland, his fame secured by his "cowboy" ballets, tried his hand at a more abstract style in his 1957 Piano Fantasy. His Connotations was composed in 1962 for the opening offerings at Philharmonic Hall, the first component of New York’s Lincoln Center. The music drew far more critical admiration than the building.
76. GLASS/WILSON: Einstein on the Beach (1976)
77. REICH: Music for 18 Musicians (1976)
78. GÓRECKI: Symphony No. 3 (1976)
79. ERICKSON: Night Music (1978)
80. SONDHEIM: Sweeney Todd (1979)
81. UNG: Khse Buon (solo cello) (1980)
82. GUBAIDULINA: Offertorium (1980)
83. KURTÁG: Messages of the Late Miss R.V. Troussova (1980)
84. RILEY: Cadenza on the Night Plain (1981)
85. HARBISON: Mirabai Songs (1982)
86. MESSIAEN: Saint François d’Assise (1983)
87. CARTER: Triple Duo (1983)
88. PART: Frâtres (1980, revised 1983)
89. TAKEMITSU: riverrun (1984)
90. FELDMAN: For Philip Guston (1984)
91. BIRTWISTLE: Secret Theater (1984)
92. LIGETI: Etudes (1985)
93. LINDBERG: Kraft (1985)
94. SCHNITTKE: Viola Concerto (1985)
95. ADAMS: Nixon in China (1987)
96. CAGE: Fourteen (1990)
97. KANCHELI: Midday Prayers (1991)
98. KNUSSEN: Horn Concerto (1994)
99. TAN: Ghost Opera (1994)
100. SALONEN: L.A. Variations (1997)
The most obvious thing to be said about music in the last 100 years is that there isn’t just one thing to be said. The sonata tradition continues, grown dense with newly devised structural complexity from the Americans Roger Sessions and Elliott Carter, and Britain’s Harrison Birtwistle and Oliver Knussen (who of all this group at least holds on to a sense of humor). German opera pretty much died out after Richard Strauss, but Olivier Messiaen’s spacious (if ponderous) 1983 Saint Francis couldn’t have been written if Wagner’s Parsifal hadn’t paved its way. Comic opera has spawned Broadway theater, a populous and populist brood written purely for money, but also with an occasional stage piece — Stephen Sondheim’s works, culminating in his Sweeney Todd; Leonard Bernstein’s output from On the Town to West Side Story — that suggests that artistic quality and box-office success can sometimes coexist. The collaboration of filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein and composer Sergei Prokofiev, in their Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible, might have presaged a future for the epic-nationalist style that Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov had spawned 80 years before, but this has not yet happened. When Hitler’s proscription drove Germany’s leading composers to seek refuge in other countries, some came west with hopes of creating a new kind of musical drama — modeled, perhaps, after Wagnerdream of a "total artwork" — hand-in-hand with the film industry. The composers who succeeded best, however, were the ones who could scale their ambition down to fit the straitjacket of the Hollywood soundtrack.
The traditions held fast, but the impact of Einstein on the Beach was in its complete disassociation from any kind of musical past. Philip Glass had studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris; more to the point, he had traveled extensively through the music of other worlds — India, North Africa, Central Asia — and absorbed the ways of making music out of stillness and repetition instead of sonata forms and 12-tone rows. With the poet/director/designer Robert Wilson, Glass evolved an allegory about the space age and the atomic threat, with the iconic figure of Albert Einstein (playing the violin but not speaking) as the generative force. Dance, chant (sometimes just strings of numbers repeated, repeated) and lighting effects blended into an uninterrupted five-hour musical trance. Unlike Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring of 63 years before, Einstein hasn’t exactly become a repertory item; its physical proportions are too daunting. Like the Rite, however, it was like nothing that had come before.
Minimalism didn’t last very long in its pure state (with Terry Riley’s In C as its paradigm). Steve Reich, who had once played in the Philip Glass Ensemble, created one other minimalist masterpiece, the hourlong Music for 18 Musicians. John Adams’ early Shaker Loops and his stunning piano piece Phrygian Gates also belong on that list. Glass found it profitable to remain anchored in his old methods, but both Reich and Adams moved on, Reich most recently to multimedia dramatic works incorporating music and video, and Adams via the astounding "newsreel" opera Nixon in China and in a large legacy of orchestral works as often-played as anyone’s new serious music these days.
The musical buffet is well-stocked at century’s end. Over here there is the curious mix of the so-called "holy minimalists," Estonia’s Arvo Pärt and Poland’s Henryk Górecki, with music that looks far back into history and tries to reconcile the pre-tonal harmonies of the Middle Ages with a contemporary awareness, both the 11-minute Frâtres of Pärt and the nearly hourlong Third Symphony of Górecki spinning their webs of enchantment by obsessive reiteration of austere, ancient-sounding harmonies. Over there is the growing influence of the Pacific Rim, with China’s Tan Dun and Chen Yi, Cambodia’s Chinary Ung and Japan’s Toru Takemitsu casting their shadows over their eager American admirers Lou Harrison and Terry Riley. Among us also, the smiling countenance of John Cage encourages all comers to continue to dare, to question; his old friend and disciple Morton Feldman hands off his four- and six-hour concoctions of few notes and many silences, and rewards our patience. An extraordinary generation of Russians — Alfred Schnittke, Sofia Gubaidulina and the Georgian Giya Kancheli — bursting out of captivity after the end of Soviet artistic repression, writes symphonies, quartets and operas that pour into these venerable molds music of extraordinary vitality that, once again, sounds like nothing else in this wide musical world.
I was attracted to California, 20 years ago come September, by the new-music scene here: the electronic music at CalArts and Stanford; the mix of acoustic instrumental virtuosity and natural sounds at UC San Diego as taught by Robert Erickson (whose Night Music is one of only two works on my "100" list unavailable on disc); the Monday Evening Concerts at the County Museum, with their tradition reaching back to 1939; the Ojai Festival, with its unlikely mix of Pierre Boulez’s music in a rural setting; the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s ongoing service to new music, more ardent than the work of any other American orchestra I know, via the "Green Umbrella" concerts and similar projects. With the noble music patrons Betty Freeman and Judith Rosen, I helped produce in-home concerts of new music, which allowed me to shake hands with György Ligeti, John Cage, Elliott Carter, Lou Harrison, Morty Feldman . . . you name ’em.
That all actually happened during my second California incarnation. In the first, I studied music at UC Berkeley during the days of Roger Sessions and Ernest Bloch, and with Darius Milhaud a few miles away at Mills College. I helped start KPFA, the first-ever venture into public radio. We put Harry Partch’s music on the air, and when the rapturous phone calls came in after a live studio performance of Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (music still terra incognita in 1949), we simply had the players repeat the performance on the spot.
A few other memories: Shaking hands with Bartók in Boston after the world premiere of his Concerto for Orchestra. My first hearing of Mahler’s Ninth, conducted by Bruno Walter in Carnegie Hall (and a revelatory later performance conducted in Los Angeles by Carlo Maria Giulini). Pushing my car with its dead fuel pump into an illegal parking space in order to get to the Metropolitan Opera House for the premiere of Einstein on the Beach (and finding it neither towed nor ticketed five hours later). Discovering for the first time the music of Schnittke and Gubaidulina, on tape in a Soviet information office in Boston. Sitting for four hours on a chair carved out of stone at the Ace Gallery, transfixed by Morty Feldman’s For Philip Guston. The ovation after Esa-Pekka Salonen’s L.A. Variations at the Music Center.
I’m not a composer — the world isn’t ready — but I’ve spent most of my life close to creative people, and I think some of their sweat has rubbed off. I know that if I go to a new-music concert in Los Angeles, San Francisco or New York, I’ll run into lots of old friends; when I went to a Kathleen Battle recital at UCLA a few weeks ago, I ran into nobody. Among living composers, I listen to György Ligeti’s music with the greatest pleasure. I found Salonen’s 1997 L.A. Variations — the other as-yet-unrecorded work on my list — enormously appealing and reassuring: complex, sometimes even gritty, music that has the same sense of confident propulsion that I hear in Ligeti.
All but five among this final 25 are still active, including the 90-year-old Elliott Carter. If there were room for No. 101 in this list, it would surely be some brand-new work by the immensely talented young Brit Thomas Adès, still in his 20s, whose opera Powder Her Face is currently making the rounds. Rather than defining the century now slouching to its end, his success so far stakes out the solid ground on which to plant our hopes for the future. Onward!
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in Los Angeles.