It may seem strange to be coming to the end of the school year in April, but that's the way it is over here. What with my earlier promises to give you all an insider's view into graduate school, I thought I might at least let you know what I worked on this semester, in case you might be interested. But first, important business:
1. Thank you all for voting in the Spring for Music contest. We almost won! Hopefully some people reading this have newly discovered the blog from the contest. Many of the contestants have completely awesome blogs, and it was disappointing to see some of my favorites weeded out when they should have easily taken the cake. Major kudos to Neo Antennae, one of the finalists, whose blog I didn't know and who is apparently only sixteen! If I could write that well when I was in high school, I would be some Alex Ross-Justin Davidson-Michael Kimmelman critic fusion-monster by now.
2. Do you live in the Triangle area? Do you know what that is? If you do, will you be there this coming Monday, or the Sunday after that? If not, would you be willing to?
Either way, you should come to: New Music Raleigh! At CAM Raleigh and Motorco! I'm playing sax (for the first real gig since, well, I graduated in 2010) on Louis Andriessen's Worker's Union, David Stock's Keep the Change, and, in the second show, the premiere of Duke composer David Kirkland Garner's the machine without horses. The rest of the crew will also provide Judd Greenstein's Be There, Scott Lindroth's Bell Plates, and John Supko's Into the Night. Details for both shows here.
3. This is going to be awesome, trust me. Get ready.
And moving on:
My two big projects this semester brought me to opposite ends of the American musical spectrum: sacred music circa 1790-1844, and secular music circa 1950-1963. I've never really thought of myself as an "Americanist," but that's certainly the direction I'm headed in. One came out of an awesome seminar on Copland: an examination of the context of, and circumstances behind, the premiere of his Connotations at the opening of Philharmonic Hall, and Lincoln Center, in '61. Let's take a listen:
Not exactly Appalachian Spring, right? So why be so audacious to an audience which included Jackie Kennedy, the Secretary of State, the UN Secretary General, Henry Cowell, Isaac Stern, and a slew of Vanderbilts and Rockefellers? I wish I had some footage from the CBS live broadcast (it's housed at the Paley Center), where you get to see Jackie chatting up Bernstein and Copland at intermission. It's a fascinating historical moment, and I was surprised to see no one had written a dissertation about it already.
Anyway, the case I made in the paper basically boiled down to: Copland expressed much concern about orchestral programming in several lectures/essays in the 1950s, and writing a deliberately hostile, serial piece for a New York Philharmonic gala audience was an attempt to advocate for the programming of more difficult music. Basically, he was doing what I whine about all the time on this blog, but in musical form. Here's what he said about NY Phil programming in 1956:
"Under such conditions we composers are strongly tempted to ask: What are you doing to our audiences? Frankly, we have very little confidence when we bring our pieces before such audiences. Often we sense that the audience that listens to us is not the right audience for our music. Why? Because they have not been musically nurtured and fed properly, with a resultant vitamin lack of musical understanding."
What's the solution?
"Every concert should deliberately have an element challenging to an audience, so as to counteract conventional attitudes in music response."
So that's what Connotations is about -- Copland was dismayed by major American orchestras abandoning younger composers, and by younger composers thus abandoning the orchestra (and the broader public). In staking out a claim for a style of music popular among his contemporaries and younger colleagues -- serialism was, in many different forms, omnipresent in the late '50s/early '60s -- Copland hoped to incite change. Unfortunately, it didn't really work (the change, that is; I think the piece itself is pretty great).
And, paper no. 2:
This one's a bit harder to explain. I initially launched an independent study on The Sacred Harp, a tunebook I've written about here in the past, and in an attempt to find a way "in" to a book which contains over five hundred pieces of music, I decided to focus on two oddities. Pleyel's Hymn (First) and Pleyel's Hymn (Second) are the only two tunes in the Sacred Harp with the same name; the only two which have a composer's name in their title; the only tunes by Ignce Pleyel, a pupil of Haydn who was actually the most popular European composer in America in the late 18th century; and the only instance of more than 1 tune by a non-American composer in the Sacred Harp, a notoriously American musical tradition.
And that's not all! I ended up tracing the origins of both Pleyel's Hymns -- they were transformed in Britain from instrumental works into hymn melodies in the 1790s (by composers who were not Pleyel), made their way over to America in the first decade of the 1800s, and slowly weavedthrough traditional hymnals before arriving in the shape-note tradition in editions of The Easy Instructor in the 1810s. They go through many of the major shape-note tunebooks before finally arriving in the first edition of The Sacred Harp together in 1844. It's a complicated, twisted history, which I'm not going to get into here.
The gist of the paper has to do with American conceptions of European psalmody, and how Pleyel's hymns intersect with a big shift in American sacred music in the early 19th century -- the "Ancient Music" movement -- where reformers attempted to eradicate the nativist musical tradition derived from Billings and replace it with simpler (perhaps "blander"), classic European hymns. Pleyel became a kind of weapon in this reform movement.
Here's Pleyel's Hymn (originally Pleyel's First; there's some confusion in the recent Sacred Harp revision)
And Pleyel's Second (here incorrectly called the First)
Fairly simple tunes, and very conventional harmonic writing, compared to other Sacred Harp fare:
What's really interesting is that it then hung on into The Sacred Harp, which we usually think of as the quintessential Southern, American tunebook. That both tunes endured through numerous revisions of The Sacred Harp, and are still in the latest 1991 edition, confound some of our notions about the American exceptionalism of the shape-note tradition. It's a really complicated story, and one that I'll delve into more in a Master's Thesis next year.
Following a pretty busy school year, I've actually got a pretty busy summer. At the end of May, I'm off to Vienna for two weeks for the Arnold Schoenberg Center's Summer Academy, with lectures, archival work, concerts, and hopefully hanging with composer-in-residence Helmut Lachenmann. I'll be giving a paper there (which I'll be writing in the coming weeks) on Schoenberg's band Variations. Many thanks to UNC's music department and graduate school for assisting with funding.
Then we're off to Washington D.C. for eight weeks. I am very fortunate and grateful to have received the music department's Pruett Fellowship, which allows for two months of research and work at the Library of Congress. I'll be splitting my time between working for the library's special collections and doing my own research -- continuing both the Copland and Pleyel projects. I'm looking forward to checking out the D.C. musical scene for the first time, and meeting up with all those cool bloggers.
Hopefully this will lead to more frequent blogging -- we shall see.