Saturday, July 31, 2004

A rose by any other name...

Yesterday's class was on Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima and Ligeti's Atmosphères and Lux Aeterna. Tim Rutherford-Johnson has a vivid description of Threnody as part of his Music Since 1960 series, which I encourage you to read. Instead of going through all of the details that Tim has already covered, I will discuss a few things that Tim didn't include in his review.

Something that is not discussed in all the literature about Threnody is the influence of John Cage. He published 4'33" in 1950, creating quite a stir with his concept of ambient noise as music. But Cage's piece is also about parsing a musical work by specific chronometric time, with no organizing principles of beat or meter. Penderecki's original title of 8'37" is a clear reference to Cage's work, as is his notation of durations in seconds rather than beats. Granted, Penderecki could have also been inspired by Stockhausen's 1956 article in Die Reihe #3 called " time passes...", but we see other referents to Cage's piece. At precisely four minutes and thirty-three seconds the instruments reach a climax, which from previous experience should have led to a very brief pause and the start of a new section. Instead, this climax is interrupted by a new swelling in the lower strings, leading to a tapered finish and much longer pause at 5'30". That this climax occurs at the duration of Cage's piece is enough to make one say, "hah" but the treatment of this climax is also influenced by Cage's ambient music. Cage was providing a framework for sounds that we have no control over, but which are constantly part of us. Penderecki maintains a composer's control over the sounds, but he takes away the listener's control of the sound by denying expectations about the climax. The way he disrupts the climax, with a new and somewhat unrelated sound, also evokes the idea of discontinuous ambient noises.

The main division point in Threnody, the five second pause at 5'30", provides a silence unlike the silence in Cage's 4'33". Yes, we can still hear our hearts beating, but this unexpected pause after over five minutes of continuous noise is highly dramatic and very unsettling.

This leads me to the idea of form. Tim suggests that Threnody could be perceived as variations upon a tone cluster. Penderecki creates dense blocks of sound through the use of quarter-tones, so these tone clusters are harsher than Cowell's. It is an interesting concept, but I'm not sure how the pointillistic section from 5'33" to 7' fits as a variation, as no tone clusters are created. Instead, I offer Mary Wennerstrom's concepts of three different possible forms, dependent upon the criteria used. (Mary actually suggests four forms, but I don't understand her application of the ternary form so I'm skipping that one.) The 5 seconds of silence mentioned above divides the work into a two-part binary form, with suggestions of a rounded binary as the tone clusters from the beginning come back at the end. If we focus on texture, the piece divides into four parts, A B C A. The A sections are the continuous blocks of unspecified pitches, the B section is the shaped blocks of sound from about 2' to 5'30", and the C section is the scattering of disconnecting pitches and percussive noises (fingers tapping on the bodies of the instruments). And if we look at timbre and duration, a quasi-rondo form appears: A B A' B' A. The A sections are the continuous blocks of sound, including the shaped blocks as A'. The B sections are percussive effects, starting with a gradual shift from A to B at around 1'30"(I don't have the score with me, so I'm going by memory). Within any of these formal sections we can hear phrases created by shifts in dynamics, timbre and pitch. Thus Threnody rewards repeated listenings with many possible ways of parsing the sounds.

Tim talks about the change of title to the much more evocative title that ensured the popularity of this work. Yesterday a student asked whether Penderecki purposely chose a subject that audiences would be sympathetic about, to counter the resistance they would have to the harsh discordances of the actual music. Was it salesmanship, or a genuine belief that his piece did express a tribute to the victims? I don't know the answer to that, and I'm not sure whether it makes a difference.

This post is long enough, and breakfast is ready, so I'll write about Ligeti later.

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