The Serious 1950s String Quartet

A dutiful part of my research on Ashley has involved listening to music by his composition teachers, Ross Lee Finney, Leslie Bassett, and Wallingford Riegger. For the most part, it is well-crafted, relentlessly earnest, dour, unpersonable music, much of it for string quartet or quintet. I was glad to get that part over with. And then I run into Ashley’s own characterization, in an unpublished but wonderful lecture he gave at UCSD in 2000:

…I like dance music. I like America. I like our innocent people. I am one of them. But I have come to like, as well, another kind of music, which is in conflict, I discover, with the idea of music as something to dance to. I have come to like a new kind of “devotional” music, which has moved out of the churches into some unlocated, secular place. I say “devotional,” because I don’t know a better word, but it is music to be listened to, not danced to. In the listening it takes you to some place you have never been. It is mental. It doesn’t require head-nodding. You just sit there and it flows through you and changes you.

I have brought up this point of the difference between dance music (music to be danced to) and “devotional” music (for want of a better word), because Americans keep trying to arrive at some sort of “compromise.” Check out the term, “accessible.” It almost invariably means the music has a “beat.” I don’t think there is any reason music has to have a beat, unless you are going to dance to it. That is a pleasant aspect of some music. I do it myself. But unfamiliar music that doesn’t have a beat is being discriminated against. The composer knows this. And so the composer is always trying to compromise….

There was a brief few decades, early in the century, when the better-off went to Europe (Germany, in particular) to catch up with non-dance music. Charles Ives didn’t go. But everybody else went. They brought back imitation German music. It was good in Germany, but here it was imitation. Then, in this “serious” music there was a brief flirtation with jazz, which mostly came to nothing, because the black people were better at jazz. And black people could not make “serious” music, because they were oppressed. Then (this is a chronology) there came American-Serious-Music. It was taught in the conservatories. Every music school had a Resident String Quartet (the cheapest form of ensemble), a Graduate Student String Quartet, and numberless Undergraduate String Quartets. They played American-Serious-Music. The string quartet was the university computer-music-studio of the 1940s and 1950s… It is a characteristic of the string quartet to emphasize moving the bow back and forth. The more the better.

Insert: Mr. Arditti, of string quartet fame, complained to Alvin Lucier, in the presence of a large number of people, that he didn’t like to play Alvin’s String Quartet, because there was very little bow movement, which lack of bow movement made his arm tired. To which Alvin replied, “Why don’t you play it with the other arm?”

American-Serious-Music became a matter of moving the bow back and forth as much as possible, with accents here and there. You might call it sawing. One of its foremost practitioners called the style, “motor-rhythmic.” It is characterized by a continuous sawing of sixteenth-notes or eighth-notes (depending on the time signature and the tempo). Up-bow, down-bow, up-bow, down-bow, endlessly. You know what i mean. This is where I came in. I went to music school. I hated “motor rhythms.” Gradually I came to hate string quartets, when they got into that sawing, because that relentless sawing was simply a senseless update of the circle-dances that those innocent people had brought with them to America…. Everything about “motor rhythms” was just another version of the polka, the hora, and whatever else the dances were called wherever they came from. A circle of mostly poor people holding hands and jumping up and down. A long way from Morton Feldman. And I didn’t even know Morton Feldman existed.

I print this here because I think it’s wonderful reading, wonderfully put, and an insightful reading of the times. This is not to say I would have said everything he says the way he says it – I have my own thoughts about what “accessibility” means – but, as usual, I can’t argue with him. He’s a brilliant writer, which has not yet been acknowledged much – so brilliant that even his prose is nearly impossible to paraphrase, so that I end up quoting larger chunks than I’d like to get away with. American-Serious-Music: I know the genre well, and it’s a good term for it. We still have a lot of it around.

I keep running into evidence that musicians have never heard of Ashley. (For instance, last night Bill Duckworth told me his interview with Ashley got axed from his Talking Music book because the editor had never heard of him.) This flummoxes me. Ashley has been at the center of my musical focus since I was in high school in the early ’70s. When we brought him to New Music America in 1982, he was our number-two celebrity, after only John Cage – and much of his best music hadn’t even been written yet. In those days I didn’t have a musician friend who wasn’t into him. I would have easily said he was as famous as Stockhausen. I can only gather that Stockhausen continues to get taught in music departments, and Ashley doesn’t – partly because his insights, such as those above, don’t sit well in those music departments. My book will make the strongest attack on that problem that I’m capable of. I am finding that to really get into some of Ashley’s works I have to go through the text pretty thoroughly – especially true of Foreign Experiences and Now Eleanor’s Idea. It’s a lot less work than reading analyses of Gruppen and Le Marteau, and repays the effort.


  1. says

    Oh please, no attacks!
    The case for Ashley is strong enough on its own. I can’t wait to read your addition to it, but there’s no need to go on the offensive with it.
    Having a pile of scores in front of me to sift through to determine Iron Composer finalists, I marvel again and again and again at how our fellow American composers ritually neuter themselves in order to be taken ‘seriously’.
    You can see it in the first bar of most scores, and then you find, somewhere around the middle, or maybe in the end, the glimpse of a genuine voice, breaking through the clouds. All you want is for them to nurture that voice and stop committing Bernstein’s mistake of striving for profundity.
    KG replies: Interestingly put – that need to appear profound has ruined tens of thousands of pieces, hasn’t it?

  2. Bob Gilmore says

    Kyle, you’re doing immensely great work – Ashley is a genius and his work is inspirational to people today and will be for generations to come, and well done you for being the first to devote a book to him. Who cares how Stockhausen fares in academia – he’s great too, but his time at the pinnacle is passing. All these great musicians deserve to be remembered, and will be.
    By the way, a friend of mine here (in Europe) applied for funding to commission new work from the 75+-year-old Eliane Radigue, also a great composer, and was turned down for the reason that the committee had *never heard of* her work. C’est la vie. No committee ever stopped great music from being made. (Discuss.)
    KG replies: True enough – except, for sake of argument, how about that Guggenheim that Schoenberg never got that would have allowed him to finish Moses und Aron? (Actually, I thought he was a contemptible wimp for not finishing it anyway. His greatest work….) Too bad about Eliane, she’s fantastic. It’s tragic that in “the information age” we’ve got certifiably great composers over 60 that musicians have never heard of.

  3. says

    Kyle – it’s very exciting for me to see you post about your research. Coincidentally (or perhaps not entirely coincidentally) I’m now researching Ashley myself, less in-depth than you are doing of course, in order to write an essay about his work in the form of a review of his MusikTexte book. I’m very much looking forward to your book (though it will be far too late to be of use to my essay).
    It’s a great delight studying this work. Just today, listening to Dust, I was marvelling at the brilliant (and brilliantly uncomplicated) way Ashley treats popular music in his work. Coming myself out of a school (Andriessen school) where any integration of popular elements was on the one hand almost mandatory, on the other hand always to be accompanied by token forms of “irony” that would express your “distance” to the “model” (this is the Dutch academization of the Stravinsky legacy), it is very refreshing to me to hear popular music be taken seriously, used intelligently AND with a profound, more “artsy” (you know, a bit more reflective or something) perspective all at the same time. Very moving. The world is simply taking a long time to receive this body of work.
    But then, it deals with stuff that is very far outside of what we normally think of as music. I’m trying to focus on what my essay should be about; I think I’ll attempt to relate his fascination with involuntary speech (and its political implications) to his idea of the imaginary space that a piece constructs.
    And it’s funny to read your post about 28,278,466 – I was wondering about the exact same things just yesterday… even Sloane’s On-Line Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences doesn’t turn up anything.

  4. says

    I think that your description of much of the music if the 1950’s as dour is on point. It is not the attempt at motor rhythm that I find so tiresome though I certainly find it tiresome in the endless Galuppi and Telemann pieces American “classical” music stations play). I think it is not a relationship to the polka that makes the 2950’s music so tedious. If it bore more of relationship to a polka it would be more interesting because it would relate more fully to the body. The academic music of the 1950’s tried so hard to high art that it reflected a puritanical fear of the body. That attitude has not vanished. A friend told me that while having drinks with a very, very well known composer that the unnamed famous guy declared “Why does anyone dance? What a stupid thing!”

  5. mclaren says

    Antonio Celava mentioned: I think that your description of much of the music if the 1950’s as dour is on point. It is not the attempt at motor rhythm that I find so tiresome though I certainly find it tiresome in the endless Galuppi and Telemann pieces American “classical” music stations play).
    Dour? When I think of 1950s music I think of pieces like Low Speed by Ussachevsky and Luening and Todd Dockstader’s Eight Electronic Pieces. Nothing dour there.
    Mention 1950s music to me, and what comes to mind is Herbert Eimert’s Klangstudie I and Luigi Nono’s Sequenza I and Iannis Xenakis’ Eonta and Nancarrow’s Study Number 8.
    The 1950s was all about moon rockets and big fins on futuristic cars, and you can hear ’em in pieces like Bruno Maderna’s Continuo and Henri Pousseur’s Scambi and Henri Dutilleux’s First Symphony.
    Maybe you’re talking about some other kind of music done in the 50s. When I think of the music of the 50s, what comes to mind is the good stuff, the stuff that holds up, not the junk — and the good stuff ain’t “dour.”
    Antonio makes a damn good point about the puritanical fear of the body. It’s a deep pathology in a puritanical joy-hating pain-worshiping country like America, where our intellectual elite react to sensual beauty like vampires in a crucifix factory.
    KG replies: Well, we’re specifically talking American, and your examples are almost all European.