New Music in Old Europe

Here’s the difference between Moscow and Berlin: I came back from Moscow with 35 compact discs of new music, one of which I paid for, the rest pressed on me by young composers eager for me to hear them; from Berlin I returned with 15 compact discs, almost none by young composers, for which I paid top-dollar prices. I have long had trouble finding out what the young Western European composers are doing. I picked up some discs by people I’ve been wanting to know more about – Helmut Lachenmann, Claude Vivier, Gerard Grisey, Walter Zimmermann, Tristan Murail – but these composers were all born considerably before me. My impression has been that the European scene has been dominated by the Darmstadt serialist generation of Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono, Kagel, Berio, and co., and that the students of these Great Men are afraid to venture beyond the stylistic boundaries the Darmstadt serialists set forth. A couple of years ago I had the chance to spend several weeks in London, and I avidly sought out concerts of the newest music. I found a Hans Werner Henze retrospective, and a Mauricio Kagel retrospective. “But those are composers I studied in college,” I told a musicologist friend. “Where’s the stuff that’s going on now?” “That’s what we do here,” he replied with a mixture of apology and surprise.

The view from the MaerzMusik festival in Berlin was a little more nuanced. What I’ve been discovering, via the influence of my British musicologist friend Bob Gilmore, is the spectral school, a group of composers, mostly French, who have provided the sole European collective challenge to serialist hegemony. The idea of spectral music, as I understand it from scores and recordings and enthusiastic description, is that the music imitates the microcharacteristics of sound. For instance, spectral composers build up chords using the pitches of the harmonic series, using microtones (usually defined not exactly, but with quarter-tone equivalents where necessary) to accommodate those pitches that don’t fit into the 12-step scale. Beyond that, some spectral composers (notably Tristan Murail, as far as I can tell), have computer-analyzed wave forms of natural sound phenomena (ocean waves, for instance), and compose instrumental music to recreate the envelope shapes and harmonic spectra of natural sounds. The movement was, apparently, a reaction agaubst the arbitrariness of serialism, an attempt to once again ground music in some concept of nature – in this case a rather scientific concept.

Leave aside for the moment that, while everyone hates the attempted description of new American “-isms” like postminimalism and totalism, spectral music is given an unobjectionable free ride as an important new movement. The thing that strikes me even more is that American composers who work in alternative tunings such as just intonation, like Harry Partch, Ben Johnston, Terry Riley, Larry Polansky, David Doty, myself, and many others, have been building up harmonies from the harmonic series for decades. Why American just intonation composers remain only misguided visionaries, while the French spectral composers are urgently ushered into the canon, I have trouble figuring out – especially since we just intonationists get our harmonies perfectly in tune, while the spectral composers merely approximate with quarter-tone and third-tone pitch bends. Perhaps what we just intonationists should study from the spectral composers is their PR, which is certainly more effective than ours.

In any case, it was refreshing to go to a Western European concert and not hear the same old serialism. If Tristan Murail’s Terre d’Ombre wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, at least it didn’t put up the same intellectual pretensions as Boulez and Stockhausen, nor did it repeat the same textural cliches, and it was nice to be challenged by something new. Natures mortes by Georg Friedrich Haas (what an 18th-century-sounding name!) was, if not entirely compelling, at least the first German orchestra work I’ve heard to acknowledge the seductive influence of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians.

In the local music store – Gelbmusik, run by the legendary Ursula Block, a store that deliciously caters to only the most avant-garde palate – I laid out some $300 euros, but didn’t succeed in discovering any musical movements I had never heard of. I could have filled up on Wolfgang Rihm, Lachenmann, and the names that float across the Atlantic. But I do get the impression that, if there are composers in Europe who have rebelled against the serialist generation, they don’t have much luck getting recorded, or at least distributed. A veteran American expatriate composer confirmed my impression. That Darmstadt serialist generation, he told me, took control of the concert halls, and nothing radically different is going to be played at major venues as long as they’re in charge.

I did, however, find discs whose existence I was already aware of by my two favorite living European composers: Maria de Alvear and Giancarlo Cardini. Cardini is a Florentine postminimalist with a gorgeous ear for harmony, whose piano music makes me think of minimalist Schumann. De Alvear, half-Spanish, half-German, and living in Cologne, is a fiery composer of immense orchestral canvases, often with herself declaiming impassioned texts. She refuses to notate rhythms, and only writes noteheads, and her music has an indistinct pulsing energy to it. It does seem to me that Europe, as in America, much of the best new music gets buried by the establishment – perhaps even a little more than here.

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