Monday, March 27, 2017

Special Post on Elliot Carter and Dmitri Tymoczko

Special Post (New or Newer Music)

In our Brass Literature class this morning, 3-27-17, we listened to Elliott Carter's Brass Quintet, and Dmitri Tymoczko's Rube Goldberg Variations.  Carter's work dates from 1974 and it was written for the American Brass Quintet.  The instrumentation is two trumpets, horn, tenor and bass trombone.  Tymoczko's work from 2014 was written for Proemium Metals a brass quintet from Granada, Spain. The instrumentation for this work is two trumpets, horn, tenor trombone, tuba, and prepared piano.

Our professor, John Manning, has asked us to explore the following questions with these two works.
  1.  What is the overall affect of the piece? How does it make you feel? How does the composer achieve that?
  2. List three remarkable or noteable aspects of the piece. Include measure numbers or rehearsal numbers or letters and explain your answer.
  3. Comment on the harmonic, melodic and rhythmic language used. What are some of the challenges presented in the performances of this work created by these languages?
  4. Finally, compare and contrast both works. What are their similarities? What are their differences?
I will begin with the Carter:

The Carter composition's effect strikes me as conversation between the full ensemble and duo's, trio's, and one solo (the horn about 3/5's of the way through the piece.)  Each small ensemble section explores a particular interval or color combination, while the quodlibet sections for the whole ensemble focus on an emotion.  In my rudimentary examination there are ten small ensembles, one solo, six quodlibets, and a Coda in his formal plan.  Each quodlibet is followed by two small ensemble sections except for the sixth.  The sixth is followed by a duo before the Coda.  The formal structure and the motivic development of the work enable the composition to maintain cohesion despite the atonality nature. 

This composition makes me feel unsettled and uncomfortable.  This is difficult, dense, and cerebral music.  The process of the composition is more interesting to me, than the sound.  I find this is the case with most difficult music for me.  I imagine if I listen to the piece a dozen or so times, and analyze the motives, the metric modulations, the pitch rows, and the organization of timbre it will become easier to process and less uncomfortable to listen to.  If I had to perform this work, I would be extremely intimidated and unlikely to have success.  

The three characteristics of the work that I feel are notable were the solo horn at measure 236, the final duo at 388-395, and the ending tremolo.  The tritone is developed in the solo horn.  The writing is expressive, and since it is the only monophonic section of the piece the listener is able to identify with the line more easily.  The minor seventh is developed by the final duo.  The use of this interval in half diminished chords and as a melodic device in many works always captures my interest.  The final tremolo shimmers between a two fully diminished seventh chords, but there is a major ninth added to the first chord in the bass trombone.  This added color provides ambiguity.  Are we done?  Or is there more to this conversation then meets the eye?  I'm not sure yet.  Check back with me in a year or two.

The performance challenges of the Carter start at measure one and end at measure 400.  There is so much detail to consider.  The metric markings are exact.  One section is marked at 53.3 beats per minute.  The dotted eighth is used as a metric pulse rather than the eighth note.  He has nearly a dozen different time signatures.  The vertical alignment will require a conductor in early rehearsals, or at least a metronome.  The individual lines are all difficult to play.  The interval development is sometimes compounded by cold attacks in extreme registers or by extending the interval an extra octave.  Once you add polyphonic rhythms to equation, how does the performer maintain a sense of line or concept of the whole?  I feel as if I am trying to have a conversation on the nuance string theory with physicist, while looking at the score.

The Tymoczko is a different piece altogether.  You may find a link to the recording here:  The four movements are To a Leaf, Stravinsky Fountain, Homage, and Father Makes the World.  

The goal of this work appears to be a musical rendition of a machine that can do something simple in the most complex way imaginable.  Rube Goldberg was an inventor and cartoonist who created complex machines for simple tasks.  The piece seems full of tongue in cheek humor, but delivered in a very serious context. That is the impression the composition leaves with me.  Tymoczko creates this effect through the change of metrical rhythm and timbre.  The piano is key to holding the composition together.  The brass are the little tools in the chain, while the piano is the machine itself propelling everything.

The three sections that I feel are notable are the tempo marking of the second movement (Whole Note=80,)  the lack of cadence for the entire work (very machine like,)  and the use of polyrhythm to portray the different aspects of the machine's movement.  I think of these devices as part of a musical sculpture.  

Rhythm and timbre are very important driving forces behind the work.  Melody and harmony are not present.  Musical motives derived from pitch and rhythm represent different functions of the machine.  The piano provides multiple sound effects, or moving parts generating the energy for the brass quintet to add to the landscape.  It is an unique sound experience.  Performance challenges include, the preparation of the piano, and alignment of rhythm.  The parts by themselves (beyond the piano) are quite playable technically.  The placement of the rhythm is the most challenging.  The prepared piano will make it difficult to feel a rhythm, so one must be cognizant of the meter at all times.

The Carter is a piece of abstract absolute music.  The process of attaching the eleven intervals through development are key to the design.  The piece is conceptual, through process.  It is hard to process the individual events as music, without understanding the conceptual framework.  The more homework you do studying the music the more understandable it becomes as a soundscape.  The Tymoczko is a musical sculpture.  The sounds and form are a Rube Goldberg machine.  You are hearing an interpretation of the machine in the design and placement of notes from the composer.  Both works must be listened to from the distance to capture the nature and scope of the artistry.  Both works are process pieces that require more than a superficial listening to grasp the work.  I am still working on the Carter, and I probably will be for a long time.  

As I conclude this installment I want to provide an analogy.  In Millennium Park in Chicago there is a sculpture that we call "The Bean" in Illinois.  The proper name is Cloud Gate. This reflective sculpture captures the skyline of Chicago, but when you first examine it, it is easy to laugh at your distorted reflection.  You as the viewer are looking too closely at the minute detail that you are unable see the broader picture or purpose of the sculpture.  When you look at "The Bean" from afar you are then able to appreciate the artistry before you.  The image is never the same as the sky is always changing.  Both of these musical pieces are very much like "The Bean."  When I listen to them as a performer, I get bogged down and lost in the minute detail.  When I start to listen from afar the image or sculpture becomes clearer.  Here is where the artistry of these two contemporary works lie.  I am not sure how far I need to be from the Carter in order to truly appreciate it, but I know that one day I will feel more comfortable with the piece.  Go for a walk and then look back.  I hope you begin to hear or see what I am perceiving.  

1 comment:

  1. Sorry for the late comment on this, but I thought that although both pieces were abstract, the Tymoczko seemed to be more accessible to listeners who are not as exposed as much a we are to "new music". I think Carter's Brass Quintet required more attention and focus due to the exactness and precision he calls for. The same can be said with Tymoczko's, however there was much more drive.

    Carter's quintet seemed to grow and develop organically even with the organized "chaos" he wrote and specific markings while Tymoczko's was more obvious with his intentions.

    In my opinion, I liked and enjoyed the Rube Goldberg Variations more than Carter's Brass Quintet.