American Modernism Seen & Heard: The Abstract and Geometric Tradition in Music and Painting, 1930-1975

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert American Modernism Seen & Heard: The Abstract and Geometric Tradition in Music and Painting, 1930-1975 performed on Dec 20, 1992 at Carnegie Hall. 

Modernism in music during the twentieth century evolved in ways fundamentally different from the manner in which modernism flourished during the same period of time in painting and literature. Three central and novel techniques of modernism in the visual arts – expressionism, abstraction and non objective painting – rapidly became widespread and popular, despite the expected initial shock and critical rejection. These elements became absorbed into popular culture, advertising design and interior decoration. Modernism in the visual arts found the large and appreciative public it maintains to this day.

Likewise, in literature, the stylistic innovations of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein and James Joyce (and their counterparts in France, Russia and Germany) in gained a significant following among critics and readers. In fact, the continuing conservative tradition of realist painting and narrative fiction which h flourished alongside of modernism in literature and painting profited from the very success of modernism. The self-consciously progressive work of living artists and writers has dominated the discourse in painting and literature throughout the twentieth century, just as it did during the nineteenth century.

In the world of concert music, dramatic innovations emerged during the first three decades of the twentieth century: the emancipation from the idea of dissonance, and continuity and predictability in rhythm; polytonality; atonality and twelve tone music. However, these all had the effect of alienating the large audience for music inherited from the nineteenth century. Despite critical acclaim for these novel strategies for writing music, the twentieth century turned its back on this new music It embraced the world of concert music as a museum designed for the art of recreation. In this century, the performance of music from the past has held center stage.

Therefore, both the novel music of the century as well as the more conservative music by composers who retained tonality and traditional forms became part of a cultural ghetto. Today the audience for contemporary music is a fraction of what exists for art and literature. This fact presents a marked contrast with the state of affairs of a century ago. Dutiful and symbolic presentations– almost exclusively first (and therefore last) performances – of new music certainly have continued to exist. However, without the protective presence of the university, twentieth century modernism in concert music, from the perspective of American culture as a whole, might have become even more marginal than it is now. Furthermore, very few of the hallmarks of musical modernism have seeped into our cultural consciousness, whether in popular music, film music, or advertising jingles. The clichés of Mahler, and a few derivatives from Stravinsky and Bartok have made their way, but little else.

As this century draws to a close, this should not deter us from attempting to make the great achievements of musical modernism of this century, particularly in America, better known and better liked bye concert audience. This concert attempts to use the appreciation for the great legacy of modernism in the visual arts as an approach to this task. Perhaps the work of the musical peers of Mark Rothko, Agnes martin and Ellsworth Kelly (and by inference, of William Carlos Williams and e.e. cummings) presented on this program needed more time to be accepted and embraced than the work of modernist painters and writers.

Indeed, the works on this program have been chosen to parallel chronologically the works on display at the Whitney museum. Beyond mere contemporaneity, the works on this program show how certain American composers explored modernist approaches which engaged a non-traditional and non-representational, almost abstract and angular surface within which the expressive possibilities of music could be extended in an evidently twentieth century manner. In some cases (e.g., the pieces by Steve Reich and Morton Feldman) the composers cultivated a direct link to the world of painting. All the composers on this program were leading figures in American modernism during the years 1930-1975. They were innovators whose works offer suggestive opportunities for comparison with the creations of American painters and sculptors who were their contemporaries.

Beyond the challenge facing all twentieth century composers to extend a pattern of musical innovation which began with Richard Wagner, the American composer has also felt compelled to locate his or her peculiar “American” voice in order to break from the overpowering hegemony of the European example. As in the visual arts, the impact of European modernism on Americans in the early decades of the twentieth century was decisive. The European influence in music would be renewed with the emigration of European composers to America in the 1930’s and 1940’s. The allure of the example of Europe, did not, however, relieve the sense of a burden, widespread among American composers, to find some sort of national voice. In the 1890’s, in part spurred by Antonin Dvorak’s sojourn in America, American composers, from Edward MacDowell and Charles Ives to Arthur Farwell and Rubin Goldmark struggled to reconcile their European artistic heritage with some construct of Americanism.

In this sense, the composers on this program were all motivated by three objectives which were not always easy to reconcile: 1) the desire to sustain the ideal of music as a universal language, inclusive of modernist ideas; 2) to embrace non European sources, from the African American, native American and Asian traditions; and 3) to assert some clear American identity. Henry Cowell wrote “I want to live in the whole world of music.” Yet Roger Sessions argued against “national character” as the “aim” of art. Aaron Copland and Ruth Crawford Seeger sought to carry forward Charles Ives’ assertion the American composers should be “interested in working things out for themselves to a great extent.” At the same time, just as Burgoyne Diller was influenced by Mondrian, Sessions and later Copland adapted Schoenberg’s twelve tone strategy and continued to work within European formal models such as the sonata and symphony. Like MacDowell, Sessions, Copland and Riegger all studied either in “Europe or with Europeans. In contrasts, Henry Cowell, the great inspiring experimenter, was trained in America and was invited to Europe in the 1920’s to present his peculiarly American innovations.

At this concert, the listener is being asked to respond to the musical results and to think of the strategies adopted by each composer as analogues to the more familiar path breaking attitudes toward form, materials, surfaces, the relationship between observer and object, and the purposes of art adopted by American modernist painters. Searching for precise parallels between visual modernism and musical modernism in America during the half century covered by the Whitney exhibition and this concert ultimately may appear artificial or futile, despite evident historical commonalities and linkages. But by comparing these American composers with their counterparts in art, rather than with their predecessors in music, a new avenue of appreciation and affection can be opened up to a vital powerful and too often overlooked American aesthetic legacy.

Steve Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert American Modernism Seen & Heard: The Abstract and Geometric Tradition in Music and Painting, 1930-1975 performed on Dec 20, 1992 at Carnegie Hall. 

Steve Reich (b. 1936) is one of America’s leading composers. He was trained as a drummer and quickly became interested in the music of Asia and Africa. He has also developed extensive interest in the traditions of Jewish music. During the late 1960’s, Reich experimented with combing composition and performance, integrating the traditions of notation and improvisation. Perhaps his most famous work is a piece called Drumming, first performed in 1971, which incorporates aspects of ritual into performance. Reich’s music has consistently focused on issues of rhythmic variation and repetition. Within a minimalists texture he has achieved a subtly of timbre and listening that projects as intensity of color, mood, and contemplation we might associate with the luminosity of certain minimalist painters and sculptors, including Agnes Martin and Sol LeWitt. Reich is one of America’s genuine innovators and perhaps the greatest exponent of musical minimalism. But his minimalism, ironically, is truly one of surface. Depth and variation are apparent beneath the externals of his work.

“Music for Pieces of Wood” was written in 1973 and is designed for five players. It is written for claves, which are percussion instruments with particular pitches. There are two types used in this piece, the so-called standard and the “African” claves. The clave, which comes from Cuba (the word in Spanish means “key”), is made of two pieces of hardwood that the player beats. Audiences may be most familiar with the instrument in its use in the rhumba and other Latin-American dances. They have been used in orchestral works by Varese, Copland (in Connotations, among other works), and Berio. The Claves in this piece are designed to create a particular pitch differentiation. The composer specifies the physical arrangement of the players. While the notation is precise, the composer asks the players to repeat each bar “approximately” the number of times indicated, perhaps giving the performers a chance to vary not only the character but the duration of each performance.

Henry Cowell’s Synchrony

By Judith Tick, Department of Music, Northeastern University

Written for the concert American Modernism Seen & Heard: The Abstract and Geometric Tradition in Music and Painting, 1930-1975 performed on Dec 20, 1992 at Carnegie Hall.

Henry Cowell (1897-1965) used the term Synchrony, because he planned to combine music with the elements of dance and light, and he expected his tone-poem to be choreographed by Martha Graham. Although Graham never used Synchrony, which Cowell completed in 1930 and soon after recast as an independent orchestral piece, the music still testifies to the affinities between modernist expression in dance and in music, so important in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. Cowell shared Graham’s desire, to create “something uniquely American.” When Nicholas Slonimsky conducted the premiere of the work in Paris on 6 June 1931, in the first of a series of historic tours that also brought Ruggles, Crawford and Ives to Europe, Cowell declared critical reception to have acknowledged that “a new side of American feeling has been revealed.”

Exactly what Cowell intended the feeling of Synchrony to be is hard to say, since no scenario has surface for this work. Yet perhaps it is no accident that Graham’s dance “Primitive Mysteries” appeared soon after this score was completed; for in Synchrony the slow rhythmically regular tread of the predominant thematic material, underscored often by gongs and drums, and reinforced by dark orchestral colors and murky timbres, exudes the atmosphere of transcendental ritual.

Synchrony opens with a brilliant muted trumpet solo written in the “dissonated” technique that Cowell learned from his first teacher, Charles Seeger. Through careful avoidance of melodic consonance, uniform meter or regular phrase sequences, the trumpet plays a long atonal fantasia. And then the orchestra begins its theme that reappears throughout the work, holding in abeyance most of its batter of percussion instruments, including Cowell’s own invented timber–“piano-strings”–the five lowest strings of a grand piano played on directly with a padded gong-stick. As a piano virtuoso in the 1920s, Cowell had made his reputation as a “first and elbow” pianist, a strummer and scratcher of piano strings, and in Synchrony he continued to explore special orchestral effects. Cowell was an American original, a pioneer who harnessed his prolific musical imagination to acoustical theories and scientific models. Around the same time that Cowell finished Synchrony, his book New Musical Resources was published after many years of gestation. Some of his ideas about the overtone and the “undertone” series, polyharmonies, dissonant counterpoint and dissonant rhythms explained therein find their expression in this work. His massive heterophonic textures occasionally recall his friend and forerunner, Charles Ives, but motivic discipline clarifies and unifies the array of ideas and effects into a whole. Synchrony remains one of Cowell’s most impressive and original adventures.


Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Three Songs to Poems by Carl Sandberg for Voice, Oboe, Piano, Percussion, and Optional Orchestral Ostinato

By Judith Tick, Department of Music, Northeastern University

Written for the concert American Modernism Seen & Heard: The Abstract and Geometric Tradition in Music and Painting, 1930-1975 performed on Dec 20, 1992 at Carnegie Hall. 

As a composer in the 1920s and early 30s, Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953) was regarded as one of the “most independent, able and promissory of the new American composers,” in new music, according to the leading modernist critic, Paul Rosenfeld. She was discovered by Henry Cowell in Chicago around 1925, where she was studying composition and piano at the American Conservatory of Music. Compressing her training in theory and composition into four years, Crawford wrote a set of piano preludes in 1924-1925 that convinced Cowell to put her on the board of his New Music Society; by 1927 she had appeared on the League of Composers concert for “young Americans” and, in 1930, she won a Guggenheim Fellowship in composition, the first awarded to an American woman (and the only one for the next fifteen years.)

In Chicago, Ruth Crawford met Carl Sandburg around 1925 or 1926, and she was a great admirer of both the man and the artist, using his poems as texts for eight of her ten solo songs. His artistic use of vernacular inspired her own acute observations of dissonance and asymmetric rhythms in nature. “One can draw a kind of rhythmic and dramatic pleasure from the very smallest things,” she wrote in 1927; and she affectionately parodied Sandburg’s poetic aesthetic by describing how his “spirit goes swooping into byways, pinching a piece of dust and asking ‘Are you a fact or a fancy? Have you a little dust-soul somewhere? Where are you going and what for?”

In 1930 she preserved this wry wit in her setting of a Sandburg poem that asked similar questions–“Rat Riddles” in which Rat asks “who do you think you are and why is a rat?” Crawford’s vocal line is intended more as declamation than as lyrical melody, interacting most with the oboe, which darts and scurries about, depicting Sandburg’s wise hyperactive rat. “Rat is joined by a Bee,” Crawford wrote about her setting of “In Tall Grass” (1932), which describes the frenetic “honey-hunting” in the third section of the poem by activating the piano and persistent buzzing drones through “dynamic” writing for the string ostinati, in which the pitches should scarcely be audible as single tones, submerged instead in the waxing and waning of crescendo and decrescendo and glissandi. “Prayers of Steel” (1932), a text of simultaneous construction and deconstruction, punctuates its severe declamatory vocal line with percussive hammer-blows.

Beneath the surface of these expressions pictorial devices is an avant-garde aesthetic build on paradox–on the one hand the ideal of “heterophony,” that is to say, a texture of non-relationship among the parts, depending primarily on Charles Seeger’s method of dissonant counterpoint; and on the other hand, the ideal of pre-compositional organization. From 1929-1930 Crawford studied with Seeger, whom she later married, and the songs reflect his influence. They are prophetic tours de forces of the application of serial thinking to elements other than pitch–including rhythm, articulation and dynamics–in an approach to composition that would later move to the forefront of a post-war generation of composers.

The scoring of these songs is also quite progressive. According to Charles Seeger, he suggested to Crawford that she add an orchestral component to the original instrumentation when she readied them for publication in Cowell’s New Music Quarterly in 1932. Therefore the original group of instruments was designated the soloistic “concertanti” and Crawford added two groups of optional orchestral “ostinati” to each song, one of clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, horn and trombone, and the other composed of strings, to be placed apart from the concertanti, and “if possible at the rear of the stage,” in order to underscore through spatial relationship their “other-soundingness” and their ambiguous relationship to the main material.

Along with the String Quartet 1931 Crawford’s Three Songs brought her the most recognition in her lifetime. She regarded their acceptance for the annual festival of the International Society of Contemporary Music in Amsterdam in 1933 as a high point of her career.

Roger Sessions’ Symphony No. 5

By Martin Brody, Professor of Music, Wellesley College

Written for the concert American Modernism Seen & Heard: The Abstract and Geometric Tradition in Music and Painting, 1930-1975 performed on Dec 20, 1992 at Carnegie Hall. 

Born (in 1896) in Brooklyn and raised in Hadley, Massachusetts, and New York, Roger Sessions became the exemplary proponent of international modernism in American music. A student of Horatio Parker at Yale and then Ernest Bloch in New York, Sessions went to Europe during the latter half of the twenties, staying long enough to encounter a number of prominent musicians and to observe the rise of fascism. Some twenty years later, as an established composer and teacher back in the States, he would see the demised of the European fascist regimes and observe “Europe come to America,” as he would describe it in an essay title of 1945. Announcing that “a great and luxuriant musical culture in America” would occur only if we “have the courage to take and absorb whatever can be genuinely nourishing from any source,” Sessions renounced xenophobia both in his going to Europe and its coming to him.

Throughout the reaming forty years of his life, and over a long and distinguished teaching career–much of it at Princeton and Berkeley–Sessions remained dedicated to the ideal of revitalized European culture on American soil. Many of his compositional colleagues, also second generation modernists who matured between the world wards, viewed the first explosion of modernism as a mandate to chart largely divergent paths–pursing the “ultra-modern,” searching for an American idiom, rooting around for a “new objectivity,” or transforming expressionism into an overtly political movement; but Sessions maintained his belief in a great, sustained, and, above all, a single Western musical culture. Not surprisingly, then, he channeled his thought into music for ensembles and genres associated with the culmination of the central canon of European music. He especially favored the le symphony, writing nine over a fifty year period.

The Fifth Symphony, written in 1964 when Sessions was 68, was the first of the four symphonies he wrote during a magnificent creative period , 1963-71, bordered on one side by the opera, Montezuma, and by the monumental Whitman cantata, When Lilacs Las in the Dooryard Bloom’d on the other. With its long lines, concentrated structure, dense counterpoint, and expressive volatility, the Fifth Symphony is a characteristic “late work” in Sessions’ oeuvre. Over the course of its three movements (played with a pause), slow passages of extraordinary timbral delicacy and inventiveness alternate with concentrated, muscular, fast music and tutti textures. An opening, oscillatory figure, first presented in bassoons an muted horns, emerges throughout the work in various guises and under various transformations. Ultimately, the opening motive is revealed as the destination as well as the source of all of the le symphony’s material –its vigorous, motoric rhythms as much as its mercurial figuration.

Wallingford Riegger’s Music for Orchestra, Op. 50

By Judith Tick, Department of Music, Northeastern University

Written for the concert American Modernism Seen & Heard: The Abstract and Geometric Tradition in Music and Painting, 1930-1975 performed on Dec 20, 1992 at Carnegie Hall. 

Wallingford Riegger (1885-1961), began his long career as a modernist in 1927 with the string-orchestra piece, Study in Sonority. One of Cowell’s circle, he worked hard for a new-music collective, the Pan American Association of Composers in New York in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and in 1932 Nicholas Slonimsky performed Riegger’s first serial composition, Dichotomy in Berlin.  Riegger had learned the fundamentals of Schoenberg’s technique from Adolph Weiss, Schoenberg’s first American pupil, whose long monograph of Schoenberg’s method in magazine Modern Music in 1930 was crucial for the dissemination of serial thinking in the United States. Like many in Cowell’s circle. Riegger regarded Schoenberg’s method as a starting point, to be assimilated rather than emulated.

Although the onset of the Depression dissipated much of the energies of 1920s’s modernism, Riegger maintained creative continuity by working within modern dance, and he produced scores for some of the great American innovators of the period, among them Martha Graham, whom he venerated, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman.  Switching gears in 1939, he returned to autonomous concert music once more, beginning an orchestral piece he titled Consummation. That work, laid aside at the time, eventually formed the nucleus of Music for Orchestra, written thirteen years later, in 1952.

Although a short work, Music for Orchestra nevertheless encapsulates many features of Riegger’s mature style. Although two twelve-tone rows, are placed at the head of the score, proclaiming its serial pedigree, one is at prime and the other a fifth away and their metaphoric dominant relationship foreshadows the post-tonal eclecticism of this work, with its final cadence impudently recalling dominant to tonic motion. The clarity of the motivic development, as we move from the opening clarion-call gesture to the Scotch snap of a new theme group is propelled by Rigger’s fondness for aggressive syncopated rhythms. In his own lifetime his rhythmic vigor was highly regarded and often pointed to as an American stylistic trait that differentiated his music from the kind of atonality explored by his European contemporaries.

Morton Feldman’s On Time and the Instrumental Factor

By Paul Beaudoin, Composer & Clarinetist

Written for the concert American Modernism Seen & Heard: The Abstract and Geometric Tradition in Music and Painting, 1930-1975 performed on Dec 20, 1992 at Carnegie Hall. 

In 1949, John Cage introduced 24 year old Morton Feldman to fellow composers Earle Brown, Christian Wolff and pianist David Tudor, but, more influential to Feldman were the new painters he befriended: Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Robert Rauschenberg, Richard Lippold and closest of all was his lifelong friend, Philip Guston. For Feldman, this “new painting made me more desirous of a sound world more direct, more immediate, more physical than anything that had existed heretofore. “  “My desire here was not to ‘compose,’ but to project sounds into time, free from a compositional rhetoric.” Feldman created compositions using graph scores that designated which register should be played, the time structure for the entire work, and what became Feldman’s trademark–a soft, almost inaudible dynamic level. Feldman grew increasingly dissatisfied with the realizations of these scores, by “allowing the sounds to be free –I was also liberating the performer” and the music sounded too improvisational. “It was too one-dimensional. It was like painting a picture where at some place there is always a horizon.” Feldman moved to create music which specifically defined pitch but allowed the temporal dimension to remain indeterminate, thus creating a sonic world which Feldman described as “each instrument is living out its own individual life in its own individual sound world.” By 1967, Feldman began abandoning graph scores, and his return to precisely notated music is the composition On Time and the Instrumental Factor, completed on August 1, 1969.

“What I picked up from painting is what every art student knows. And it’s called the picture plane. I substituted for my ears the aural plane and it’s a kind of balance, but it has to do with foreground and background. It has to do with how do I keep it on the plane from falling off, from having the sound fall on the floor. Most people have a sound that doesn’t fall on the floor by giving it a system. Harmony or twelve-tone… Now, this could be an element of the aural plane, where I’m trying to balance, a kind of co-existence between the chromatic field and those notes selected from the chromatic field that are not in chromatic series. And so I’m involved like a painter, involved with gradations within the chromatic world. And the reason I do this is to have the ear make those trips. Back and forth, and it does get more and more saturated. But I work very much like a painter, insofar as I’m watching the phenomena and I’m thickening and I’m thinning and I’m working on that way and just watching what it needs. I mean, I have the skill to hear it… I’m the only one that works that way. Buts it’s like Rothko, just a question of keeping that tension or that stasis. You find it in Matisse, the whole idea of stasis… I’m’ involved in stasis. It’s frozen, at the same time it’s vibrating.”