Thursday, April 11, 2019

Roger Scruton on George Rochberg's legacy raises a question, was Rochberg's innovation turning "back" to tonality or moving forward into systematizing code-switching across tonal and atonal idioms? I lean the latter, Scruton the former
Our model for the future should therefore not be the sterile works of Stockhausen and Boulez but the patient attempts to adapt the old to the new, and to find notes that touch the hearts of listeners because they express the heart of their composer. George Rochberg's music points us in this direction. But it raises the question that surely troubles all serious music-lovers now, which is whether we can find our way to a musical syntax which is as expressive as the tonal language of Rochberg, but which is not shut off from the surrounding world of popular culture. This is the theme to which I shall address myself in the next post.

There was clearly a nostalgic impulse in Rochberg's work when he repudiated purity of methodology when he abandoned serialism.  His son died of cancer. He had the bluntest and simplest reason to cast aside serialism as a musical language that was not up to expressing the grief he felt over the death of his child.  Even so ... I've read enough of Rochberg's work (i.e. The Aesthetics of Survival) that I am not so sure Scruton has ever done that much to represent what Rochberg said he was attempting to express. 

The Aesthetics of Survival: A Composer’s View of Twentieth-Century Music
George Rochberg
Copyright © 1984 by the University of Michigan
ISBN 0-472-10037-8

Page 240
… the twentieth century has pointed—however reluctant we may be to accept it in all areas of life, social as well as political, cultural as well as intellectual—toward a difficult-to-define pluralism, a world of new mixtures and combinations of everything we have inherited from the past and whatever we individually or collectively value in the inventions of our own present, replete with juxtapositions of opposites (or seeming opposites) and contraries. …

Page 241 (from “On the Third String Quartet”) [which you can hear here]

Granting pluralism, how is a composer to deal with it? From the inside out, i.e., from the internal psychic imagery which becomes the musical gesture to its artistic manifestation. Gesture, singly or in combination, successive or simultaneous, is the determining factor—not style, language, system or method.

Scruton hears in the neo-tonal music of Rochberg someone who repudiated atonality.  That isn't exactly what happened.  Rochberg repudiated the necessity of internal consistency in a musical language.  Depending on how you presented the break, the American composer introduced pastiche.  
Take the Caprice variations, where Rochberg explicitly builds on a Paganini caprice and  varies it along the styles of, for instance, Beethoven and Schubert. 

What Rochberg introduced was not just a rejection of total or integral serialism but a rejection of the idea that a musical work had to retain a single cohesive style.  An Andrew Clements could regard Rochberg's variations on a Paganini caprice as a "pointless exercise" but that has to be assumed on the basis of an assumption that there could not be any point to Rochberg composing dozens of variations on a well-known caprice in the styles of composers spanning centuries of Western traditions.  

I recently finished Richard Cohn's book Audacious Euphony and he pointed out an idea from linguistics that's known as "code-switching". If you want to read something that discusses what code-switching is in linguistics and how its relevant to some current events, John McWhorter has something at The Atlantic of potential interest.

The idea is that people can habitually shift across languages within a conversation or switch dialects of a single language in a conversation and that people can keep up with this.  Given the common core of equal temperament in the string quartet idiom what Rochberg did in his Third String Quartet can be thought of as making a point of "code switching" between atonal and tonal idioms.  He wasn't even the only composer who was exploring this range of possibilities in the early 1970s.  Schnittke was playing with this sort of eclecticism, as was Berio, and to a lesser-known degree Rodion Shchedrin.  The main point I'm trying to make here is to point out that what Rochberg did was not exactly revolutionary in terms of the sheer principle of what he did in developing a poly-stylistic framework for a chamber music work, but that he chose to do so after having refined the total serialist style.  

What I sometimes think guys like Roger Scruton and John Borstlap have done is present Rochberg's turn from serialism primarily as a turn "back" to tonality away from total serialism.  But to go by what Rochberg wrote himself, his turn was not "complete". You certainly aren't hearing lyric Beethoven style quartet writing in the first movement of Rochberg's Third String Quartet.  If we go by what Rochberg said himself, he was considering that pluralism in society and music was the great challenge of his day (and, by extension, ours).  He regarded gesture as the foundational basis for dealing with the social and artistic reality of pluralism.  System, language, methodology were not adequate to the task of dealing with pluralism in Rochberg's assessment, quoted above.  

That does not read as if it were a "return" to tonality of the sort that someone like Scruton would say happened in Rochberg's career.  

Rochberg's rejection of atonality in its serialized form tends to be what men like Scruton or Borstlap zero in on,  but since they don't bother to quote Rochberg himself very much they miss what that refusal entailed. Rochberg explicitly said was the challenge of the recent modern age, finding a way to come to terms with pluralism in art and society. 

Let anyone get the impression I'm suggesting that a polystylistic or code-switching paradigm of shifting across forms of musical language was only happening in classical music in the 1970s that's hardly the case I intend to make.  I've written about the genius of Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City" and how in that song he starts off with a I, IV, V style chordal vamp that moves forward from an oscillating set of chord changes that include minor third ornamental chordal patterns.  It means that he has the circle of fifths style harmonic language for the verses and choruses but for the bridge or post-chorus "tag", easily the most legendary part of the song, he shifts into a chain of minor third relationships floating above a descending octatonic bass line.  

In other words, one of Stevie Wonder's greatest songs in a great career features code-switching in its tonal organization, from a circle of fifths to a chain of minor thirds, from a broadly diatonic tonal with blues elements to a more octatonic system.  

That musicians who have mastered these sorts of code switching approaches at a gestural level have been African American musicians like Stevie Wonder or Jewish composers like George Rochberg might be some kind of anthropological study for someone who is actually an academic.  Since I'm not I can only just toss the idea out into the realm of the internet as something of possible interest.  It's a bit faddish, perhaps, to talk about code-switching at a linguistic level but the concept seems like an important one to bring into musicology and has probably already been bountifully chronicled in a lot of writings I just haven't had the time or resources to go read yet.  

Code-switching may not have to happen within or across skin color patterns.  Some of my lineage involves Calvinist Native Americans and white Arminians, for instance, so there can be theological as well as ethnic divides to navigate.  The basic idea of code-switching as it has been discussed in scholarly and journalistic contexts is that a good number of us can jump from language to language and dialect to dialect and a lot of people will understand us.  There will be those who don't, and there can be those who regard the shift in dialects or languages as a fault.  For advocates of serialism what Rochberg did was a betrayal. For advocates of traditional tonality (whatever that is, since it seems to vary a bit depending on what a polemicists for tonality wants it to be), Rochberg may not have gone far enough back to the post-Romantic tonal language.  

I guess I don't mind that Scruton makes a point of citing Rochberg as an example of a composer who mastered serialism and twelve-tone techniques and then dropped them, but the more I read Scruton's take on Rochberg compared to what Rochberg wrote as a composer and what he wrote expressing his ideas in prose about composing the less clear it is to me that Scruton's version of Rochberg is more than an anti-atonalist.  I think there's more value to Rochberg's ideas and music than just that.  I'll grant that Rochberg is going to be marginal because in a sense he was never "important" enough for advocates of high modernists to keep in mind when he broke from high modernism, and yet his lyricism and nostalgic element in his music aren't nearly lyrical or nostalgic enough for the sorts of music fans who want their nostalgia and lyricism 200 proof.  

One person I compared notes with on Rochberg said that he couldn't help but admire the "balls of steel" it took to formally repudiate total serialism when he did, but that a lot of Rochberg's music just doesn't stick with him.  In Rochberg's way of putting it, his music rendered itself forgettable, though perhaps not necessarily because it demands so much of listeners the cognitive overload dooms the music to oblivion.  It might be simpler to say that Rochbergs work is impeccably crafted but sometimes wants for compelling, memorable tunes.  But then Roger Scruton has made a point of saying hardly anybody seems able to write tunes in classical music these days and he doesn't want to grant that tunes really exist in contemporary popular song, either.  

I would say perhaps the problem is that Scruton needs to listen to a whole lot more Stevie Wonder.  

If I had to articulate my frustration with Scruton's approach it's to say this, he's had fifty years in which to contemplate "... whether we can find our way to a musical syntax which is as expressive as the tonal language of Rochberg, but which is not shut off from the surrounding world of popular culture. ... "  As I was saying, Stevie Wonder would get the job done within the realm of popular music.  If by "musical syntax" Scruton means a musical syntax that exists within the realm of what Richard Taruskin has called the literate musical traditions of the West the level of syntax we're looking for would probably not be a chord by chord or melodic line by melodic line language.  And to put my point more starkly, Scruton is a philosopher who deals in aesthetics and has had half a century to make some progress toward the stated potential goal.  What progress has he made?  That he can recognize the nature of the musical problem as he perceives it is noteworthy but he hasn't given me a reason to think he's going to develop a solution.  That solution will, of course, have to be developed by those musicians and composers who think there's a solution of some kind that's worth chasing down. 

For guitarist composers, whether it's Leo Brouwer or Dusan Bogdanovic or ... myself ... the straightforward answer  seems to be some kind of fusion of classical and popular idioms.  This has, as Brouwer has pointed out, been going on for generations, but it's not the kind of music-making academics like to spend time on. 

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