Life Studies

As the course on American music winds to a close, and I work on the variety of different projects that complete the requirement, I chose to relax late one evening by listening to a new CD of an unfamiliar work, Life Studies by Nicolas Maw.[1]

This is set of eight movements for small string orchestra, numbers four and six combining two of the studies (IV/V) and (VII/VIII), so that there are eight studies in total. Maw has paid careful attention to the sonic balance of his composition, treating the orchestra as in essence a double septet (five violins, one viola, one violin in each) with a shared double bass acting as a bridge between them. Thus there is plenty of scope for interplay between the two groupings, and Maw makes extensive use of this.

These are harmonically very rich, often atonal, rhythmically vital works. They draw heavily from the sound worlds of Berg and Bartok, with Berg’s Lyric Suite (particularly the three movement version for string orchestra) as perhaps the most clear influence. But although parts of this work sound like variations on the Berg piece, it remains perfectly individual partly due to the interplay between the septet groupings that goes beyond what we hear in Berg’s piece (that was originally conceived for string quartet). But Maw makes much more use of glissandi and microtonal intervals than is found with Berg. This is particularly evident in the first movement, where slides and glissandi dominate the texture. The second study sounds like nothing less than variations on the Lyric Suite, with textures drawn right out of the string works of Berg, Schoenberg and Bartok. The third movement brings back the glissandi and surging rhythms, much more Bartokian here, with a similar approach in the 4th study. However, just when you are feeling confident that you are on familiar ground, Maw introduces a touch in Study V that places the work squarely into the late 20th century.

This is a solo for double bass, plucked not bowed, and a passage that would not sound in the least bit out of place in a Charles Mingus or Charlie Haden jazz composition. Only the interplay of the bass with the rest of the strings instead of the expected horns, piano and drums puts this study into the ‘classical’ camp.

After this rather remarkable interlude that serves to give the double bass its voice, we return to more conventional string orchestral textures, a meditative romantic study followed by a surging, rhythmically busy, piece where the double bass, played arco now, occasionally rises up to make itself heard once more. The final study is a blend of the relatively bare textures of the proceeding movement with richer harmonies, and occasionally antiphonal interplay between pizzicato and arco groupings. It ends with those rich descending chords that so characterize the finales of Berg’s works in particular before confounding your expectations of a decline into silence with a loud and long-held static chord.

This is a thoroughly Abstract piece in the Partchian sense. Yet, after reading and listening to Partch, I found myself searching the music for elements that resembled speech. Maw’s pitch palette certainly extends beyond the conventional 12-tones here, and, as Susan Bradshaw writes in the liner notes, Maw appears in this work ‘to investigate the degree to which chords can be enriched without actually passing over into the domain of undifferentiated textural noise[2].”But there is nothing directly resembling the word here, nor, if words were set to this music, would you get anything approaching the textural empathy with the voice that you find in Partch’s own works.

But, despite it all, I still search these sounds to find a text built into them.

And there is the greatest personal legacy of looking at the theories and music of Harry Partch. It has opened the door to yet another way to examining music, just as Cage and Lucier have done.

This is probably as good a place as any to review just what this American course has taught me. Firstly, it has demonstrated the sheer breadth of music in the United States – a breadth that is daunting to contemplate. In truth, in many ways American music is world music, as one expect from a land formed by immigration from all over the globe. It represents an initial, accelerated type of world music. Initial, because no where else was there the type of cross-cultural exposure that characterized the American experience right up until the mid-20th century when transcontinental communication finally established the beginnings of truly global exchange. And accelerated because many of the technological innovations that fostered such cross-cultural exchanges were first developed and made available on a large scale in the United States. Not just the obvious technologies of sound recording, reproduction, and transmission but the other innovations such as efficient mass transportation that allowed different groups of people to travel throughout the U.S.A., placing different cultures slap bang together from block to block in the growing towns and cities.

But American music is also more than world music in the sense that those very same cross-cultural exchanges established a unique series of forms, most importantly the result of European and African musical integration, that bore little relation to anything outside of the country. At least at first. For, unlike in Europe and Africa in the centuries prior to the 20th where it was possible, largely because people did not move around that much, to preserve discrete and relatively insulated musical styles for generations, that same social, cultural and technological fluidity that allowed such a cross-fertilization within the United States was rapidly exported to a changing world where it was embraced with enthusiasm.

Life Studies itself is a good example of this. Composed by a British composer steeped in the modernist traditions of central Europe, we find, right in the middle, that extraordinary Afro-American-influenced double bass solo.

Part of the worldwide love of American musical forms must relate to people seeing elements of their own cultures in this musical gumbo. And such elements form an easy access point for further integration and modification. Thus by the 1960s, music began to lose its strict nationalist or regional characteristics in all but the most doggedly isolated areas. America itself became open to a new flood of foreign vernacular music with clear American roots. This is the process that is still happening today, more so than ever. As we in the midst of this process, and because we are losing familiar aesthetic landmarks (such as the easy classification of music using stylistic qualities related to local origin), it is very hard to get a handle on the relative worth or importance of all this new music. This is exactly as it should be. Future generations will see clearly what we cannot, but it also means that as listeners we need to work harder and look more deeply into the vast diversity of current music and trust more to our own judgment than to perceived wisdom.


[1] Maw, Nicholas Life Studies performed by The Academy of St. Martin-In-The-Fields, cond. Neville Marriner Continuum CCD 1030

[2] Bradshaw, Susan; Liner notes from Continuum CCD 1030. p. 4

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