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March 2, 2006 12:24 PM   Subscribe

American Mavericks: Fascinating radio piece about the ultra-modernist composers, narrated by Suzanne Vega. [more inside]
posted by Squid Voltaire (22 comments total)
While working on Tone Clusters, the Joyce Carol Oates play, I found this excellent piece from American Public Media about the ultra-modernists. That last link is to the wikipedia article on Henry Cowell, which contains a wealth of information about the whole scene. I had heard of John Cage (english text on bottom of page), of course, but had never really explored Cowell or Leo Ornstein. I find it classy, beautiful, discordant, and exciting.

The program is full of interesting tidbits, such as the fact that Ornstein lived to be 110, or that Charles Ives invented tone clusters by banging his fist on the keys in an attempt to immitate a bass drum--he was playing brass band scores on his piano.

This page has a stream of Ornstein's Suicide on an Airplane. The main link has pieces from many of the other composers.
posted by Squid Voltaire at 12:26 PM on March 2, 2006

Not to knock Charles Ives but I was something of tone cluster prodigy as a child while being completely unaware of his corpus.
posted by ernie at 1:02 PM on March 2, 2006

posted by basicchannel at 1:06 PM on March 2, 2006

I just dig Suzanne Vega’s voice.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:10 PM on March 2, 2006

Anyone have this in non-real format? I can't get out past my firewall with it.
posted by jon_kill at 1:18 PM on March 2, 2006

Not to knock Charles Ives but he did falsify dates on his old scores to make it appear he'd "invented" more things than he really did. And depending how you want to define them, tone clusters date back at least as far as hte fifth movement of Symphonie Fantastique.
posted by soyjoy at 1:49 PM on March 2, 2006

To call the "tone cluster" an innovation demonstrates why people need to stop treating music (and media in general) as something those magical other people do, instead of something natural and universal you (yes you!) could do if you wanted to.
posted by phrontist at 1:58 PM on March 2, 2006

Lots of ugly music.
posted by MotherTucker at 2:17 PM on March 2, 2006

soyjoy: I'm still quite new to classical music, and have a very small collection. As it happens, it does include Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. Witch's Sabbath sounds frickin' awesome, and I love the church bells, but I'm not hearing anything terribly similar to the pieces above. Where should I look for these proto-tone clusters?
posted by Squid Voltaire at 2:44 PM on March 2, 2006

Fortunately 'modern' orchestral music has overcome the need to be 'maverick' to be considered worth anything.

The blind pursuit of 'new' and 'different' at all cost has thankfully been left in it's appropriate historical bin along with all the other past oddities in lieu of music that seeks a wider range of value and connection to its listeners.
posted by HTuttle at 3:02 PM on March 2, 2006

(Still, interesting to research, and some experience with the extremes can increase the appreciation of the much better music which followed)
posted by HTuttle at 3:04 PM on March 2, 2006

See also: this post on Harry Partch
posted by The White Hat at 3:21 PM on March 2, 2006

HTuttle, 1914 called. It wants you to come back home.

Neat post Squid. And yes, Ives was a buffoon, but a really talented buffoon. I find some of his work to be just incredibly fun--I'd play it for my kids if I wanted to expose them to a gateway drug to more conservative pieces.
posted by bardic at 3:48 PM on March 2, 2006

"HTuttle, 1914 called. It wants you to come back home."

Well, you have to admit that fetishizing "new" and "different" is a pernicious tendency in all varieties of art. I think a required component of art is provocation—but "new" and "different" are a bit of a cheat because it's not possible for the audience to avoid being provoked because "new" and "different" are inherenly provocative. They focus attention disproportionately.

My argument is coherent only if you accept that provocation is a necessary, but not sufficient, requirement for art. If you think that art essentially is provocation, then I suppose that "new" and "different" would be the primary artistic mode.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 4:39 PM on March 2, 2006

EB, I agree completely, and with HTuttle's second comment as well.
posted by bardic at 4:49 PM on March 2, 2006

Wow, this radio program is totally taking me back to Intro to Western Music.
posted by ddf at 5:49 PM on March 2, 2006

Squid - very close to the beginning, like within the first ten bars or so if I remember right, the violin sections are subdivided into something like eight parts apiece, and they play various high triplet runs, all diatonic but consisting of different notes around the same area, so that at any given moment several adjacent tones are playing at once, and the effect is of a jabbing cloud of high-pitched sound. Think Psycho only down a fifth or so, quieter, and a little cloudier. Right after it they have a long descending scale where they play two notes per scale degree. Hope this helps.

I'm sure we could find some in Wagner too, maybe even Beethoven if I knew his last quartets better - the point was simply that the "invention" of new techniques, which only seemed to become important to Ives once he was already famous (before that his goal seemed to be simply to do absolutely whatever came into his head), is not a cut-and-dried event easily tagged to one person.
posted by soyjoy at 7:22 PM on March 2, 2006

Well, you have to admit that fetishizing "new" and "different" is a pernicious tendency in all varieties of art.

And an essential one.
posted by cortex at 6:21 PM on March 3, 2006

"And an essential one."

In the stricted sense, yes. But "new" and "different" in this context has clearly meant something a level above an individual artwork. On that level it certainly is not an essential attribute.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:30 AM on March 4, 2006

I'm not sure I understand. If the aspiration to do new and different things is not an essential attribute of an art form as a whole, it seems like all art forms would stagnate and die.
posted by cortex at 11:34 AM on March 4, 2006

I mean something a bit more than this, but the best way to describe it is to say something like "a new and different style or technique".

I agree that evolution in style and technique, or whatever else I'm referring to, is important. I don't think it's necessary. Certainly I don't think it's necessary for each individual artwork. Yes, a style or technique can become "worn out"; but what I'm criticizing in both artists and audiences is focusing on novelty as an end itself, or using it as a means to an end that would otherwise be unremarkable. It's lazy.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:35 PM on March 4, 2006

I think I see what you mean, then. Senseless newness being as bad as senseless repetition, and being perhaps less criticized because of the novelty.
posted by cortex at 12:38 PM on March 4, 2006

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