Music After 1950 | José Luis Delás

José Luis Delás: Music After 1950

 Observing the most recent evolution of instrumental music one can identify the development of a new form of sound expression around 1950. Characteristics differing substantially from those of the music that had been called contemporary up to that point were seen in compositions by Nono, Boulez, Stockhausen and others, arising from an intense approach to the work of Anton Webern. By way of orientation, it may be worth recalling the most salient features of the period immediately preceding consolidation of the new style. Until the end of the Second World War, the musical field seemed determined by the polar figures of Stravinsky and Schönberg. For a large majority of composers and musicographers, Neoclassicism (and the forms related to it; above all a more or less direct folklorism must be mentioned) was the most authentically modern medium of expression. The decaphonic atonalism of Schönberg “and his disciples” (Webern appeared as the pale author of sound miniatures) was for them an end point in Romantic evolution. The distance between the two trends seemed insurmountable. Some of the most famous composers of the moment (which does not necessarily mean the most important) like Hindemith and Bartók tilted ever more clearly towards a revival stance. Schönberg’s sporadic returns to a vague tonality seemed to provide, on the other hand, the best of arguments to those who were obstinate in operating with inviolable physical laws of sound material. Only in the midst of a general incomprehension did Webern follow his aesthetic ideas with radical consistency. The early post-war years made it possible to glimpse a change in the situation. From the German sphere – the origin, in short, of the twelve-tone school – one could hardly expect a new impulse. Twelve years of Nazism had stifled all external evolution and the war had cut off contact with the musical centres of other countries. It is not surprising, therefore, that the twelve-tone conception was championed in the most varied of points, brought by isolated personalities.

 In Paris, thanks to the teaching of René Leibowitz, a disciple of Schönberg, a communication centre for traditional twelve-tone approaches was soon created. The presence in the city of a composer as restless as Olivier Messiaen, who was ultimately the first to perform serially organized music in Quatre études de rythme(1949), contributed to creating an atmosphere of fertile discussion. In his years studying in Paris, Karlheinz Stockhausen, one of the young composers most active in forming a new language, found the city’s environment brimming with stimuli, important for a musician from a country that remained disconnected and forced into a certain cultural narrowness by the circumstances. One of the most salient characteristics of the new artistic movement was thus marked, a conscious internationalism that in no wise constrains the indirect expression of the most essential features themselves. Very soon, however, Germany became the most favourable country on the whole for the development of the new music. At the Darmstadt International Summer Courses for New Music, held for the first time in 1946, composers and musicians from various countries meet annually to practically discuss and consider new sound trends. Radio stations too, so sterile in other countries in this respect, carried out valuable dissemination work, especially Baden-Baden’s SWF and Cologne’s WDR with their recordings, night studios and concert series. As the new works began to be heard, debuted almost without exception at the courses in Darmstadt, the general situation had changed considerably. Schönberg’s work (leaving aside, of course, its intrinsic value) appeared clearly as a transition to a new style. One significant fact contributed to manifesting the change that took place. Stravinsky, who had shown a growing interest in twelve-tone thought since composing The Rake’s Progress, expressed his admiration for Webern and soon adopted elements of his characteristic technique of intervallic structuring. Stravinsky paid tribute to Webern in the following words: “The 15th of September 1945, the day of Anton Webern’s death, should be a day of mourning for any receptive musician. We must hail not only this great composer but also a real hero. Doomed to a total failure in a deaf world of ignorance and indifference he inexorably kept on cutting out his diamonds, his dazzling diamonds, the mines of which he had such a perfect knowledge.”

 If Schönberg’s work contained all of the characteristically expressionist violence of a contradiction between revolutionary language and a substantially traditional sense of gesture, the balanced totality of a new sound space was realized for the first time in Webern. In his music, filled with an exquisite and retained lyricism, a different interior time in effect opens up. In a prodigious structuring of the material, a new dimension is created in which the traditional categories of harmony, melody and rhythm are blended, surmounted. In this multi-dimensional aspect some young composers saw an open path to the future. Not so much, obviously, in a continuation of concrete stylistic features, which could easily have become a dead end with Webern’s radical reduction of means. The first works of Nono, Stockhausen and Boulez appeared, then classified as “intermittent” for their characteristic impression of the breaking up of sound elements in time, the result of Webern’s fundamental discovery of silence as a value equivalent to sound.

 Traditional twelve-tone technique, established as a system around 1923, had structured the pitches of the sound, and it is not surprising that expanding serial thought was now proposed for the remaining sound categories like duration, dynamics, density of layers and attacks, timbres, regions and more. An intention of totality is thus fundamentally revealed in the orthodox serial system, also manifested in the desire to relate and serially derive the different categories, even when there is a clear heterogeneity among them. Critical voices were soon heard, ever concerned with the salvation of human values, accusing the new music of sterile cerebralism. Putting aside consideration of controversies in which ignorance usually plays an important role, it is nonetheless unquestionable that the use of formulas by epigones can lead to producing works of little value in serial music (as in any artistic school), although at the same time to awakening a consideration of dangers in the most conscious of composers. Where an exceptional personality is expressed, works are produced that represent a given form while seeming at the same time to transcend its limits, freeing it from all possible academicism. Examples of this are some of the most representative compositions of the new music such as Kontra-Punkte(1953) for ten instruments by Karlheinz Stockhausen; Epitaffio per Federico García Lorca(1952); Il canto sospeso(1956) for soloists, choir and orchestra by Luigi Nono; and Le marteau sans maître(1955) for voice and instruments by Pierre Boulez. Along with these composers mention must also be made of two musicians initially connected with the serial trend who soon sought different paths: Hans Werner Henze, who after a promising start drifted towards a neo-Romantic position, formulated with the most heterogeneous of elements, and the Greek composer Yannis Xenakis, who worked in an attempt to overcome traditional categories using a form of orchestral music performed according to mathematical principles.

 Music produced by electronic means developed in close connection with the new instrumental music, primarily in the WDR Studio for Electronic Music in Cologne and the RAI Studio of Musical Phonology in Milan. This opened extraordinary possibilities. Electronic music created a heretofore unknown sound world; its extremely varied material made it possible to go beyond the tempered system and achieve a sound formulation that was unitary in its dimensions and extremely precise. At the same time, the composer became a performer, participating in the creation of sound itself. A number of works by Stockhausen, König, Berio, Pousseur and others make it possible to speak of an artistic reality that had already moved beyond a period of initial experimentation. On balance the same requirements of all authentically modern sound art apply for both electronic and instrumental music. Multipolar, asymmetrical and differentiated music, experienced by the listener at each moment and felt, in the perpetual renewal of them, as a unit. In connection with this demand for constant communication where there are no psychological developments or transition passages, characteristic concepts of serial music like informative power, time of inner experience and degree of surprise are explained. Resulting from the consideration of these problems, a more flexible idea of the series was subsequently reached, understood less as a totalizing principle of an almost mythical character (and one which could be lost in the undifferentiation of a uniform result) and more as an auxiliary instrument, designed precisely to ensure the greatest realization of freedom. In fact, the arrangement of sound material in a tempered system and resulting instrumental limitations make a total automatic intuitionism problematic, leading too easily to symmetrical configurations and arrangements of surprising banality. The series becomes, then, a medium of statistic control, adapted to each specific work and therefore non-existent in itself.

So far we have considered the development of a musical line that shows a clear linking with the Western sound tradition, starting from the years of expressionism (and in a broader but more direct sense from a chromatic whole already present in, for example, passages from Mozart). Another radically different line developed alongside it beginning around the years of the First World War, and its first exponent was the Bruitism of Italian futurist Luigi Russolo. The main concern of this school, which would be developed later, especially in the United States, was opening up to all of the sound phenomena that surround us, recording the impact of modern life and the noise of its factories and cities. Edgar Varèse, a composer of French origin resident in New York after 1916, experimented with the emancipation of noise as an aesthetic factor and with instrumental and rhythmic forms that often evoked the chaos and anguish of aspects of the present. The reformist action of Varèse (to whom the American composers connected to Cage such as Earl Brown and Morton Feldam accord an importance analogous to that of Webern for Europeans) is related to aspects and intentions of electronic music and, above all, to so-called musique concrète. This form, started in 1948 in Paris by musician, engineer and playwright Pierre Schaeffer and which has frequently become a medium of dubious literary pathos, works directly with the most varied of sounds. The development of auxiliary devices later allowed for frequency transpositions, modification of timbres and so on that have interested a number of composers, among them Messiaen, Boulez and Haubenstock-Ramati. It enabled Schaeffer to create a spatial musicachieved through the distribution of speakers at different points in a room. Recent instrumental works by Stockhausen (Groups for Three Orchestras), Boulez, Pousseur, etc., are an interesting phenomenon in this sense. Further development will require, on the other hand, the construction of suitable rooms where listeners can be in the centre of the different sound sources, whether they are instrumental or played through loudspeakers.

With the serial procedure made flexible and extended, the concept of chance has appeared in the most recent moment of its evolution. The increasingly problematic nature of certain aspects of serial technique had in fact not gone unnoticed to the most conscious composers. The arrangement of sound pitches to cite an example (the first to be done historically) had in many cases become problematic from the moment in which real sound spots made it nearly impossible to perceive interval relations, precisely the foundation of rigorous serial thought. Viewing the situation in this way, one understands the receptivity a personality as original as John Cage met in the most open group of young European composers. Cage, born in Los Angeles in 1912, represents a position that is somewhat impossible to situate in the field of contemporary music. A disciple of Schönberg but belonging more to the world of Varèse, Cage owes his fame first and foremost to his “prepared piano”. By placing different materials (wood, rubber, etc.) between the piano strings, he achieved highly novel effects. Cage’s general concept, related to Buddhist philosophical principles, eludes all judgment formulated from the perspective of a traditional aesthetic. Following a deliberately disconcerting external formulation, the simplicity of his message, where elements of chance play a primordial role, emerges. For example, Cage determines the material for his works using a coin oracle taken from the Chinese book I Chingor through the irregularities of a sheet of paper. His compositions, often written for two pianos with the aim of achieving a certain spatial effect, are represented by scores in which graphic signs, conceived as a guide and stimulus for the performer, replace the usual notation. Cage’s ideas have provoked different reactions in the most prominent figures of the new music. In fact, a trend has been appearing in which constructive and random elements coexist and contrast, not only in the process of creation but also in the process of interpretative realization.

EL PASO – 14

October, 1959

Fernando el Católico, 34 – Madrid