Week 7

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Expressionism, Minimalism and Mavericks

A brief introduction to Abstract Expressionism and minimalism in the USA and Europe, material relating to the essay question:

Detail an instance of exchange of aesthetics and ideas between composers and the Visual Arts? Use a specific example.

Abstract Expressionists: Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning

These are considered to have grown from German Expressionism, Futurism, Cubism, etc.

Minimalists: Sol LeWittRichard Serra

European: Kazimir Malevich, Yves Klein, Piet Mondrian

In preparation, you should research both abstract expressionism and minimalism with a view to investigating how these forms of visual art influenced music. In particular you should investigate how the two forms both support and contradict each other (see in particular Mark Rothko and Morton Feldman).  Musically, Feldman became involved in ideas and techniques which, with guidance from John Cage, put him outside the western art music mainstream involving either chromatic harmony (Bartok, Stravinsky), neoclassicism (Stravinsky) or serialism.

Life Outside the Canon

A brief introduction to Experimentalism with Charles Ives: his explorations in fracture, simultaneity and rhythm were central to his project of creating a fresh start outside the prevailing Germanic compositional styles prevalent at the end of the nineteenth century. The pieces we will sample may include General Booth Enters into Heaven (1914) and Central Park in the Dark (1908) and The Unanswered Question (1908).  Discuss relationship to Cage and transcendentalism, see also here.  Compare with Berio’s Sinfonia. (Original Mahler here.)

Also we discuss Harry Partch’s life and work in microtones and original instruments.

In Europe some composers also lived ‘outside the canon’, for instance Cornelius Cardew (contrast Treatise with Song for the British Working Class), and those who moved away from their origins to create something new, for instance Arvo Part and John Tavener. (e.g. Protecting Veil)

Listening and Watching

  • 8:30: exposition of microtonality, including notation;
  • 12:40: “much in contact with primitive man”;
  • 14:37 microtones, etc., e.g. 43 notes per octave (also see gamelan and exoticism in general);
  • 16:40: for life on the road “life is too precious to spend it with important people”;
  • 25:50: microtonal lyres demonstration;
  • 29:20: “he was concerned as much with their visual beauty as with the sounds that they made”;
  • 31:20: Gavin Bryars;
  • 32:30: “visual, corporeal, active… an ancient ritual in modern terms”;
  • 34:11: performance 1966;
  • 43:30: West Coast composers and exoticism (Glass: “the maverick tradition … profoundly American … west coast”);
  • 45:15: Partch’s popularity, Partch vs Cage (opposed to chance and indeterminacy);
  • 46:30: Lou Harrison and Partch;



Indicative Seminar Discussions

Choose one of the followings questions (or come up with your own) and be prepared to discuss it:

  • How do we view Ives use of compositional structure?
  • How did models of organic structure break down over the 20th century?
  • What does it mean to work ‘outside the canon’? What are the problems with this study?
  • Can we use non-musical processes as compositional structures?

Other Activities

  • Discuss and compare Ives’ use of simultaneity and Partch’s use of new instruments and microtonality.
  • Choose a page (or a couple of pages) from Cardew’s piece Treatise (the score is available in the University Library) and arrange a performance of it for a small group of performers.  Read Cardew’s notes on performing the piece (also in the University Library).  Consider the positive and negative effects of his use of notation in the piece.