Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Desperately Seeking Relevance: Music Theory Today [3]

The following entry was posted in Essays & Endnotes in September 2013. I am copying it here in its entirety because it really belongs in this thread.

Procrustean Intonations

While packing up my library yesterday, I remembered a connection that came to me a couple of years ago.

There is an undercurrent I have observed within the music theory community (ever since I realized there was such an unlikely community) that I have come to call, in my inimitably bland way, "feature cognition." I mean by this the tendency in many an eager scholar to hear (or, more likely, view) a feature or set of related features in a musical work such that, once one is made aware of the feature, it threatens to obscure the work-as-a-whole (the "Music") – a musical version of missing the forrest for the trees. I hide behind this term because, while it is not altogether accurate for what I wish to express, still it points in the right direction and feels reasonably inoffensive.

But then one day, while reading through the David Lewin correspondence, I was a bit surprised to read my thoughts on this put in a much less polite way by David:
Too many analyses I have read (or performances I have heard!) proceed on the pattern: listen to the opening of the piece until you get an idea that interests you; then ignore everything else and plow through the rest of the way, trying to make the rest of the piece fit your idea. (This I call to myself "Procrustean intonation.")[1]
The first time I read those words, while I admired the way they cut right to the quick much better than my too-polite descriptive term, I thought "procrustean" a bit over the top coming from the gentleman I thought I knew – and David was no longer around to ask about whether he would still use the word or whether his judgement about the state of professional analysis had softened significantly over the intervening 30 years. His observation came, after all, in private correspondence. But still, "procrustean" is a violent word. Or do I read more into this than David intended?
Procrustean: in the figurative sense, "violently making conformable to standard," from Procrustes, mythical robber of Attica who seized travelers, tied them to his bed, and either stretched their limbs or lopped off their legs to make them fit it. The name is Prokroustes "one who stretches," from prokrouein "to beat out, stretch out," from pro- "before" and krouein "to strike."[2]
Arguably, David Lewin was contemporary music theory's Theseus, founder of our little Athens. So feature-cognition analysts, take care! Remember how Procrustes met his end.

[1] Letter to Oliver Neighbour, May 8, 1973. Correspondence, David Lewin Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.
[2] Douglas Harper's Online Etymology Dictionary.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Desperately Seeking Relevance: Music Theory Today [2]

The Possession of Doctor J
and How Ernst Krenek Saved Me from Drowning in the Devil's Triangle
(Another True Story)

I am sitting in a room.

Waiting for Dr. J.

It's Monday, September 24, 1962, a warm autumn morning on the campus of Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois.

The class is Harmony I, and six or seven other students are waiting with me. We've only met a few times so far – maybe half a dozen, and Dr. J has always been punctual. He seems a happy fellow, full of enthusiasm for his work and himself, but he also seems deaf to the possibility that his enthusiasm is not all that contagious and just might be grating on others – the sort of person who forces agreement by using the first-person plural way too much. How are we today? What do we call this chord? On the first day of class he introduced himself by reciting his CV. The two points he stressed were, first, that he was a doctor, and second, more importantly, that he had "studied with Nadia Boulanger." I don't believe anyone in class, including me, had ever heard of Nadia Boulanger before. But we figured she must be important because Dr. J managed to pronounce her name with due reverence – my teacher, Madame Boulanger – at least once every session. I had no problem with the material, but early on Dr. J started to really get on my nerves, as he would later get on my case.

Suddenly Dr. J bursts into the room. He has lost any semblance of composure. His face is red – eyes wide – jaw locked. There is no happy nod to his students. Instead of going straight to the piano and playing his clever signature unresolved dominant 7th chord greeting, he paces. He slaps his notes down on top of the piano. Starts to sit down. Paces some more. It is frightening to watch, and no one knows quite what to make of it. Finally, he sits down. He apologizes for being late. Then the story comes out.

He had watched the Sunday, September 23, 1962 broadcast of the dedication of Lincoln Center's Philharmonic Hall featuring Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. The centerpiece was the premiere of a new work by the great American composer Aaron Copland. It was horrible! Horrible! Horrible!! The great Aaron Copland, first among all the American pupils of my teacher, Madame Boulanger, had written a ... twelve-tone piece.


. . . . .

Dr. J somehow managed to regain his composure and get on with his daily triads. He never mentioned it again. But things were never the same for me. If the words "twelve tone piece" elicited such a violent reaction in such a little man, I had to know what the fuss was all about. A couple weeks after Dr. J's tantrum, I went to the library. I don't remember if I found it in the card catalog or just by browsing the shelves – but the library had one short [37 p.] book on the subject: Studies in counterpoint: based on the twelve-tone technique [1940] by Ernst Krenek.

Thus began my own 50 year journey through the very strange and exciting worlds of music theories.

Now put on your seven league boots.


After I devoured that little book I eventually got on to Schoenberg and the more usual suspects. This was a lonely project, but libraries continued to supply my teachers for this forbidden fruit during my undergraduate years, creating a schizophrenia I've never really found a cure for.

I mostly forgot about Ernst Krenek for many years. Then one day I discovered a box sitting on a shelf in the music division at the Library of Congress. It was barely taped shut, and on the top was written, "Noli me tangere!" [The only one in the music division I can think of who would have been capable of thinking up that little joke was Wayne Shirley – TOTH, Wayne, wherever you are!] The box contained the memoirs of Ernst Krenek and another label indicated the box was to remain sealed until 15 years after Krenek's death. Of course, the box had been opened before, so I admit I looked inside as well – but never spoke of the actual content with anyone until after December 22, 2006. The story of the writing and "publication" of the memoirs remains steeped in mystery to me. Here are a few facts.

The deposit is a typescript consisting of 1106 pages (single spaced as I recall). Beginning in 1950, it was sent to LC in six installments corresponding to six chapters. The period covered is 1900–1939, Krenek's birth until his arrival in the U.S. Beside being Krenek's account of his music and life during those years, they are an extremely valuable and detailed record of musical and political life in Europe & particularly in Austria leading up to the Anschluss. He began writing it September 6, 1942 in St. Paul & finished January 6, 1952 in Rio de Janeiro. The entire original manuscript was written in English. That's where the mystery lingers. Krenek died in 1991 in Palm Springs. In 1998 his widow, Gladys Krenek moved to Vienna and the Krenek Institute was founded there. I was told that Gladys Krenek has a (carbon?) copy of the English manuscript. In 1998, the English manuscript copy(?) was translated into German and published in Hamburg under the title Im Atem der Zeit. After going out of print, a second edition was published in 2012, again in German. To my knowledge, there is no published version of the Krenek memoirs available in English, the language in which he originally intentionally wrote them. I make no guesses, and certainly no judgements, regarding these facts other than: This is a bizarre situation in so many ways. And I can only hope that the original typescript at LC has been sent for preservation, as well as, ideally, digitization. The last I saw it in 2011 the type on the onion skin paper was beginning to fade in places.


I realize that bringing up the Krenek memoirs mystery here risks drawing attention away from everything else I'm trying to say as many rush to get their personal opinions into a list serv or email or FB page or tweet. But as much as I'm concerned about the memoirs (and many other important things ignored and gathering dust and worse at LC), my purpose in lingering on Ernst Krenek, a remarkable and important composer and teacher, is two-fold.

First, to make a statement to the Dr. J teachers out there. I have no desire to talk with you, let alone debate you, and I realize it's futile at any rate. So cherry pick history. Go ahead and ignore the repertoire and theory you consider irrelevant or dangerous. I doubt Krenek, at this point, will make it into your worthiness lists beyond a brief mention of Jonny spielt auf.  Just know that, through the miracle of the Internet, I'm now talking to your students directly, without your presence to ameliorate my evil influence.

Go for it, kids: Don't just question authority, chew it up and spit it out.

Finally, my reference to the Krenek English manuscript was background to quote the following (in transcription), without being able to supply a cite that's easily available to check. Some poetry from the first two pages that says precisely how I feel right now:
These pages are dictated by the fear that, if I would not write down certain things, the memory of them would be lost forever. It seems wise to do so now since I might be nearer to death than ever before. When I say that the memory of things may be extinguished, it means that the things themselves are in danger of being lost, because things of the past  do not exist except in our memory. Only the works of men last for some time, particularly those of the mind, which are sufficiently cleansed of perishable matter and have a peculiarly solid construction of their own. These we call works of art. The perishable matter of which the works of art must be free is precisely those things which exist solely in our memory: the bewildering maze of events which seemingly make up the reality of our lives. These events, innumerable as they happen every second to each one of the fifteen hundred million individuals living on earth, are nothing if we do not remember them. The work of art, in order to be experienced by those to which it is addressed, has to enter this process; somebody has to look at it, or to listen to it, in a certain given moment, and this will be one of the events which we must remember so that it would not be lost. However, the work of art will still be there, regardless of whether or not he remembers his experience. Remembering an event is a silent, inwardly act which in itself is an event doomed with oblivion if it is not remembered. Thus, if we want to salvage an event, or the memory of an event, from speedy annihilation, we must impart to it the durable quality of the work of art. The inherent difficulty of memoires, or of history for that matter, is that they are necessarily made up from that very perishable matter of which the work of art should keep free. The problem is not one of different degrees of significance. The outcome of a so-called decisive battle is in itself no more significant than the result of a private conversation between any two individuals, and the reader characteristically enough makes no distinction of that kind. At any time he is ready to prefer the imaginary quarrels of fictitious characters in a well-written novel to an allegedly faithful, but uninspired account of Napoleon’s campaigns. Thus the value of memoires does not rest upon their veracity (which can hardly be tested anyhow), but upon the amount of interest which their author can arouse by his peculiar way of remembering the facts which he relates. It is probable that this interest is proportional to the urge that he feels for preventing his memories from being obliterated by his silence. I feel that with me this urge has recently become so strong that I may dare to begin writing down my memories this Sunday, September the sixth, 1942, in St. Paul, Minnesota, where I arrived two days ago in order to take over my new job as director of the department of music at Hamline University, in this city.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Desperately Seeking Relevance: Music Theory Today [1]

A true story.

Years ago, but not that many, I was having a conversation with N – a good friend, a fine pianist and outstanding chamber musician. He also, like many musicians, taught theory to undergraduates. He's retired now, but at the time we had this conversation he was a full professor at a well-respected school.

It was after dinner and we were enjoying what was left of the wine. I had recently been to a music theory conference where one scholar reading a paper used a term that I hadn't heard before – theory-based performance. I was telling N that the idea was further discussed afterward on the smt list with a few participants enthusing over the idea of a theorist getting together with, say, the Juilliard Quartet in rehearsal and collaboratively preparing a "theory-based performance" of, say, a Mozart quartet. Sort of the ultimate test of a theory, although it was never clear what it would be tested against since it would still, like everything else in "applied theory," eventually run up against the wall of first person avowals. (Still, I was intrigued  entertained by the image of Doctor Ruth invited into the Juilliard's bedroom to coach them on how to improve their performance. But back to my conversation with N.)

Unspoken, but pretty obvious from the exchanges on the list, was the exciting notion that a theorist might be brought into the composer-performer-audience loop to provide "expert advice" prior to a specific performance that would bring that performance up a notch or two, clarify larger formal aspects or details that a performer working alone may miss, etc. [I don't recall the precise content of the smt list discussion, but enthusiasm for the idea was palpable.] I told N that this appeared to me to be an extension of the older notion of "theory-based listening" (not to be confused with "ear training," which has its own set of problems). At any rate, the conversation finally got more specific and came around to the relevance of Schenker to performance as well as (new) composition and whether Schenker training might improve a listener's experience and how could you tell if it had. Finally I asked N if Schenker played any role in his own work. (I was thinking of his work as a performer, but I wasn't clear about that.) His answer:

"My God! If it wasn't for Schenker I wouldn't have anything to teach!!"

We both laughed at his unguarded admission. And the wine was gone, so it was time to go home.