Black Swans in the Rest That's Noise


Alex Ross and Leon Botstein have found an interesting and useful vantagepoint.  It enfolds Bang on a Can, and enlists that effort on its behalf. It is a vantagepoint that works very well with the 50 and over demographic--patrons of the not-youth-music scene.  They are up for serious stuff--one doesn't have to be banging on cans to appeal to  them.  It is the largest demographic; there are more of them than ever before in history.   The over 50 group is happy to put cold war Babbitt-type stuff well in the past, and this new Ross/Botstein vantagepoint succeeds with that.  The not-youth-music crowd are ok with some degree of highbrow without taking that to ridiculous extremes.

I am referring to a confluence of interest in Sibelius that I find in Alex Ross' book, The Rest Is Noise, and in Leon Botstein's recent work with the American Symphony, particularly this summer's Bard Festival, which focused on Sibelius.

I see Mtro. Botstein finding many points of agreement with Alex Ross.  Last year at the Bard Festival Alban Berg was featured, and  Botstein made the point that the minimalists as well as the neoromantics paved the way for a new moment for Berg.  I agree, and I think I get a sympathetic perspective from Alex Ross' book. 

The photos in the middle of Ross' book are dominated by two people--Steve Reich and John Adams.   Sibelius gets a nice long chapter where he is upheld as an important paradigmatic figure for the moment.  Stravinsky gets his due.


I suggest that we think of Sibelius as a *particular* Wagner.  As a paradigm we might say we all should become particular Wagners, as Sibelius and Mahler did.  (Ben Boretz made this point a long time ago in his Metavariations.)

For long enough we were trying to be particular Schoenbergs.  We are over our obsession with Schoenberg, he is (for the moment!) merely another particular Wagner, Brahms-infused, a wonderful synthesis, but still, for the moment, just another *particular* Wagner--one who let himself think that his synthesis gave him license to skewer us with dissonance!  

Ross and Botstein take us to a place where we do not feel Wagner is so far from Schoenberg.  In a certain manner of speaking, they are no longer far from each other.  They are merging in the rush of passing time.  We can now do what Wagner does (hinging around symmetries)  in our own way with roughly the same density.  (Schoenberg did it with unfamiliar and frightening chromatic saturation.)  While our neo-Wagnerian music will not be triadic, it can still be as diatonic as Wagner.     Stravinsky was doing this (symmetries hinging between non-triadic diatonic collections) between the wars and up into the '50s.  Moreover, I find his 12-tone work making the case that it is quite consistent with what preceded it.  

BOAC, Reich, & Adams--they don't whack us over the head with nasty non-diatonic harmony, but the music is plenty chromatic, and non-triadic.   It's unthinkable without Stravinsky, but taking Stravinsky as a special Wagnerian is somewhat new to us, at least to me.  It is an idea that, for me, comes out of this Sibelius moment.  There is an article somewhere that shows symmetrical tetracords across the diatonic collections in Stravinsky's inter-war music. The result doesn't sound Wagnerian, but the similarity of the procedures can't be missed.  
Here's the article:

Important Stravinsky Article
(a compilation of writings featuring some of our favorites, including Joe Straus & Claudio Spies)

--Also, see the Petroushka discussion in Ben Boretz' Metavariations.---

Much more to be said about this, touching on the sound world of minor third symmetries--the soundworld of Wagner & Sibelius, and contemporary composers who rely on the 8-note scale--which can begin to sound generic when compared with other symmetries--more customized symmetries, or practices that do not allow the minor third symmetries to become pervasive and tedious--Stravinsky & Schoenberg, Babbitt, and a few others who understood contextuality as the way to avoid fallling into a generic soundworld where one can cut out music by the yard.

Now perhaps what Alex Ross is not getting--that *noise*--

Wagner-Stravinsky:  the kinship is in what they do, not in how it sounds--symmetries spanning triads vs. symmetries spanning non-triadic diatonic collections.  At this moment there are composers who are quietly doing what's important to them, even while avoiding the sound that is associated with those cherished techniques.

These composers agree that the sound of 20th C. modernism is something to keep at arm's length; they nevertheless care deeply about stuff that people learned how to do in the 20th Century.  This is going on right now, and it is powerful.  I would never say it is better than what Ross, Botstein, Reich & BOAC are offering.  It offers quite different riches.  It does not eschew deliberate connections to the high 20th C. modernism that has fallen out of fashion, yet it does not sound anything like that cold war truck.  It celebrates that synthesis that Schoenberg made of Wagner and Brahms, and takes care to acknowledge how others in the 20th C. carried that synthesis into new directions.  There is now a new synthesis in the works, of course.

Tangentially--some of those nasty cold war modernists did and are still doing their greatest work during this moment where their values are momentarily eclipsed.  Yet while we live that moment they are totally eclipsed....

Schoenberg & Wagner

Please help me here:

Wagner and the Wagnerians, including Mahler, R. Strauss, Sibelius and  early Schoenberg,  are improvisors around minor third symmetries.  Far from dismissing them as reactionaries, I am ever amazed by these, all quite subversive enough. Yet my attempt to think of Schoenberg as yet another Wagnerian is not really feeling right to me. 

Two big differences:

Brahms & Schoenberg focus on melodic inversions.  The third movement of Brahms' clarinet trio--alternating gestures where the accompanimental figures are inversions of one another.  Moreover, the tune is a reduction of inversionally related figures.  Schoenberg takes this and runs with it. It seems that in Brahms and Schoenberg symmetries become incidental to these inversional relationships.  (Plenty of inversion in Wagner, no doubt, but I think it comes out of improvising around his symmetries.)   I welcome help with these distinctions.


Schoenberg & Babbitt both begin to treat mixed modal collections as entities in their own right, whose elaboration happens by teasing through the complement.  This development brings with it so much that is still not at all understood.  I am not really qualified.  One needs a Stephen Peles.   I have convinced myself that--in Swan Song, for example, Babbitt is thinking of 0127 and also the B hexachord not as mixed-modal or bitonal phenomena, but as mixtures of interval cycles--collections that m5 to themselves, meaning that they are perfect hybrids of 2 cycles (5th cycle and chromatic cycle.)   I make that argument here:   Decoding Babbitt's Swan Song

I need help with this question-- What is the substantial difference between "mixed modal" and "mixed interval cycle"?   The latter may help to move in the direction of accepting these non-diatonic collections as entities unto themselves, rather than unstable, bitonal things bridge between diatonic collections.  ?

Can we hear non-diatonic collections as entities worthy of being given a full stop, rather than as bridges between things. (The collection-an sich, unto itself.) This is the Schoenberg/Babbitt development that is absolutely distinct from Wagner's dance around symmetries.   It is very poorly understood, and it's often done very badly by Babbitt wannabes. It is something that is thoguht to be so far, aurally, from bourgeoise sensibilities, as to be hopeless.    Turns out that this is not really true.   People are doing it in ways that are quite listenable. It works when you take a more familiar sound and treat it as a collection unto itself.

For example:   0235   -  let's say C-D-Eb-F   Is there a meaning for this beyond the familiar meanings-- scale degrees 1,2,3,4 in C minor, or Scale degrees 2,3,4,5  in Bb major?   These are familiar diatonic extensions of the tetrachord.

Are there ways to extend this tetrachord other than by fleshing it out in C minor or Bb major?  If so then the collection has meaning outside of its scale degree context. And yet the sound will be no more daunting than neoclassical Stravinsky.  It will not evoke frightening memories of the cold war, and it will not scare away patrons of the not-youth-music scene.  There are very few people composing now who appreciate any of this, and their work is usually dismissed by the cold war holdouts as reactionary (because it puts cold war dissonance behind it).  It is not reactionary, it is cutting-edge.

The collection-an-sich is very important to me, yet my own compositions still (mostly) skirt the issue. Like most composers today, I do what's comfortable, taking Nadia Boulanger's advice to Astor Piazzola.  We live in a time when anything goes, and very very little really goes. Music doesn't have to be anything but wildly successful.  Yet, the issues that emerged in the last century are incubating and they could irrupt at any time; they will irrupt--black swans--if not in my work, then in others'.  The quiditas of music lurks just below its lovely surfaces, and it survives the whims of fashion.  Music's quiditas is its backbone.  Is it not always the case that verbal formulations of music's quiddity--what it is or does as understood by composers over the centuries--is, for the music-consuming lay public, pure snake oil, the rest that is noise?  And there was too much snake oil in the 20th C.--those days when Carter and Babbitt, and their hangers-on all blabbed too much about what they were doing.  (Carter & Babbitt learned their lesson eventually, and started to keep mum.)  The public doesn't care what they are doing.   Show them the music! Why should they care?  Yet I do believe that composers have generally cared, at least until this extraordinary moment.  Perhaps think of music's quiddity as that which might be "liquid" even after the winds of fashion change direction.

In one of his novels Murakami talks about "shovelling cultural snow".   Is that all we do in our discussion of the arts--a strictly topical dialogue--or is there something that penetrates into the middleground and background? We could look at the circumstances and psychology of Platonic years (Emerson's "flowing fortunes of a thousand years"), but we are focused instead on one algal bloom--the baby boomer generation.

Our powerful, life changing musical experiences generally take place within the collective space where that which we call "fashion" is very much in play.  I am not like Roland Barthes, for example, who is so pleased with himself for his finding logical inconsistencies in the workings of fashion.  Our palpable, bonechilling or heartwarming experiences are not the place to look for logical consistency.  It is here in this realm where I feel Alex Ross' , The Rest Is Noise, is most successful, necessary, pretty accurate, and of considerable depth. He is helping us understand this moment and how it related to the cold war era.  My black swans merely look into a shadow side of the present moment.