Boulez comes to Oregon

The Berlin-based pianist Tamara Stefanovich is starting a cutting-edge festival of Boulez and Kurtag in a part of the US not previously associated with the European avant-garde.

Four days in November: looks good.

Tamara has just toured the Boulez piano works with her partner, Pierre-Laurent Aimard.

 

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  • Looks ambitious but…is there really a demand for this much 12-tone/modernist music in 2016? I can see playing one or maybe two such pieces as spice in a broader recital program. But several days of nothing but this? More power to her, I guess.

    • When a cultural movement has exhausted itself at its centre, it will still offer a mild afterglow at the widest periferies, where innocent inhabitants have not noticed its demise.

    • There’s very little 12-tone music on this program, if any. You seem to be conflating one very specific (and old fashioned) compositional process with all contemporary music. If you really think they’re the same thing, then you haven’t been paying attention since the 1960’s.

      You’ll notice on the final program are pieces by Vassos Nicolau, Hans Abrahamsen, and Steingrimur Rohloff. Those are three relatively young composers who are quite important in Europe and hardly ever played in the US. All three are very different from each other, and none of them have anything to do with serialism.

      The market is totally packed with thousands of very interesting and diverse composers, and there aren’t nearly enough performers nor venues to sift through all this new material.

      I’m very happy to see my home town making some small efforts in that direction.

      • That in itself is certainly true and – as has been said regularly and insistently during the last half century – there should be much more audio space for contemporary music in the established centers with their orchestras, opera houses, chamber music venues. But there should also be much more new music that players actually want to play and audiences actually want to hear. Cultivating PB as an appetizer for the purpose does not seem to be the best way of going about it. Mind the gap…

        • I’m working full time in contemporary performance. There’s an enormous output of very strong, interesting, even fun pieces which are simply overlooked.

          There are many, many reasons for that. The two biggest factors are money and general interest. One doesn’t really find the former without the latter, but gaining interest without money is nearly impossible. It’s our Catch-22.

          Performers and audiences alike generally have the same issue with new music: a complete lack of exposure. People enjoy what they already know. Audiences are generally unaware of most musical ideas, advances, and developments post-WWII, so it takes some effort to bring them up to speed. Once they understand the point of what they’re hearing, most people will begin to enjoy the new repertoire.

          For performers, this is even more difficult. Not only should they understand the point, but they have to be technically prepared to play this music. Conservatory students study the classics in great detail, but receive little or no training when it comes to mainstream contemporary concepts like complex rhythm, microtonality, extended techniques, and working with electronics. Contemporary music requires an enormous amount of flexibility on the part of the performer, which is really at odds with the “traditionalism” of classical training.

          Boulez isn’t the worst way to bring people in, either. Regardless of your own opinion of his music, his name is an important one and something people recognize. There’s still money to be made on that name, and obviously Aimard and his wife were very close with Boulez personally.

          • That may all be true….. but what about the perspective?

            “Audiences are generally unaware of most musical ideas, advances, and developments post-WWII, so it takes some effort to bring them up to speed. Once they understand the point of what they’re hearing, most people will begin to enjoy the new repertoire.” This assumes as taken for granted that music ‘develops’ from a state of ‘less advanced’ through ‘advanced development’ to ‘speed’, all terms which suggests that a preference for pre-WWII music betrays an outdated taste and ignorance and lack of understanding of post-WWII music. Also assumed is, that understanding of and information about post-WWII developments, i.e. developments which demonstrate ‘advance’, inevitably will result in acceptance. But what if these developments in being more advanced would be, in fact, erosion and decline? How could we know? Imagine: in a time where musical trends are judged in terms of advance, there is no way to make a value judgement if we don’t know the goal towards music is advancing. And there is no understanding whatsoever what this goal might be, neither at the composing nor at the listeners’ of performers’ side.

            “Conservatory students study the classics in great detail, but receive little or no training when it comes to mainstream contemporary concepts like complex rhythm, microtonality, extended techniques, and working with electronics. Contemporary music requires an enormous amount of flexibility on the part of the performer, which is really at odds with the “traditionalism” of classical training.” This suggests that post-WWII music advanced specifically in terms of notational complexity, i.e. advance = more complexity. But art history shows that this is not always the case, sometimes the arts focuss on simplicity after a period of complexity – would this be ‘advance’ or ‘decline’? Represented Mozart a decline after Bach? Also suggested is that a ‘classical ‘ training, being ‘traditionalist’, is less concerned about ‘complexity’, i.e. notational complexity, and that it lacks flexibility. It can be assumed that this especially, probably entirely, refers to technique/ notation. But what if a classical training is, in contrary, concentrating on musical complexity and flexibility? There are ‘classical’ pieces, which are quite simple in terms of notation and thus, pure technicalities, but very difficult to bring-off musically, i.e. in terms of expression, because of the psychological complexities. (Just two different examples out of thousands: Beethoven opus 109, and Chopin Polonaise-Fantasie opus 61, both pieces which require both lots of musical complexity and flexibility which are very hard to master for students.)

            “Boulez isn’t the worst way to bring people in, either. Regardless of your own opinion of his music, his name is an important one and something people recognize. There’s still money to be made on that name, and obviously Aimard and his wife were very close with Boulez personally.” This passes-by entirely the question of understanding the music and merely refers to marketing, and given the aural complexities of his work, people buying a ticket only on basis of a ‘familiar’ name and not much else, would be in for quite a surprise, and not a pleasant one.

            The perspective from which the comment is presented, and for which it is interesting and revealing, is historicist: music history as a line of development from relatively simple old music towards complex music, a line on which the transgressing works in terms of complexity articulate the advance of the art form. It is the progressive narrative of established contemporary music as developed by Schoenberg and since entering into academia and the hordes of new music advocates who deplore the lack of understanding of ‘the audience’. But what if this perspective would be all wrong? With which framework could we better understand the numerous problems still surrounding new music today? I think the said narrative is entirely wrong and biassed, and a better one would be to see the different forms of music in terms of traditions, not in the sense of fixed, codified rules, but in terms of value frameworks. Then, it could become clear that post-WWII ‘advanced’ music operates within a value framework, quite different from ‘oldfashioned’ pre-WWII music. Audiences don’t listen historically, but aeshtetically, and their rejection of post-WWII ‘complex, advanced music’ may be due to the conflict of different value frameworks rather than audiences being conservative, ignorant, and resistant to absorbing something new. There is in such ‘advanced music’ narratives a paternalistic, arrogant undertone which I find thoroughly unsympathetic, however well-meant the attempts to create more place for new music in concert life.

        • This is a great discussion, but I have to reject your re-framing of my points. You’ve presented a false dichotomy of “historical advance vs. decline”, but this is not a point of view shared by me or any of my colleagues. The elitist mentality you seem to be referring to is very dead.

          Art is not on a one dimensional track going either forward or backward; rather, every piece hangs on a different branch of the same tree. Any new work has to sit on the shoulders of its predecessors, but also within the confines of its own historical-cultural context.

          When we talk about “advances” or “discoveries”, we’re not using the words in the same way scientists would. We’re talking about new sounds, techniques, styles, technologies, etc. which give composers even more tools to work with. There’s no value judgement placed on these new compositional tools except for their effectiveness in a given piece.

          I know many people think this all means there are no rules for composers to follow any more, but that’s not entirely true. The best living composers understand that having more tools means they have to respect their craft enough to master those tools before employing them in a piece.

          Nor does it mean music is increasingly complex (in notation or otherwise), but the performers have to manage a lot of new information very quickly. The complexity isn’t so much in any one given piece (Ferneyhough aside), but in the exponentially increasing number of styles/genres composers are developing. It’s really a lot of work to keep up with everything.

          A Chopin piece is, of course, very difficult to perform, but it’s also well understood. There are hundreds of recordings available, entire books analyzing each piece, and several schools of pedagogy devoted to mastering those specific works. It’s far more specialized than anything I know of in contemporary music.

          I don’t see how any of that can mean there is “erosion or decline”, as you say. We understand classical performance, theory, and harmony better than ever, but it’s really strange to think music should stay there.

          I don’t believe audiences have to understand precisely how a piece is made in order to appreciate it, at least on a visceral level. In fact, any piece requiring a 30 minute lecture to explain itself is dead on arrival. But audiences can still be primed to enjoy something when it’s presented in a nice way. It’s about managing expectations, more than anything.

          If somebody comes to a concert expecting a nice Beethoven quartet and is forced to listen to Mark André first, they will likely be annoyed. But if you can bring them to expect something atmospheric, non-melodic, and creepy, you might convince some of them. Still, that’s maybe not a great program. It could be that those audiences are totally different demographics, in which case there’s really no point in trying to cram something aggressively contemporary onto an otherwise classical concert. You’re just going to bother people.

          • I agree with most of this, but that was not my point…. the level of increasing possibilities in the handling of the material is a different one from the level of artistic / aesthetic meaning, and this latter level is the only one that makes works viable, is the only influence which makes the material meaningful. So, the term ‘advance’ is meaningless in itself. The material / technial level has developed, and is still developing, in an accumulative way, so only in this sense, as an extension of possibilities on the material level, there is ‘progress’. But that has nothing to do with ‘progress’ of the art form – i.e. the results – itself. The first comment was merely aping the generally-accepted modernist narrative….

            And then, if a contemporary composer needs so many technical / material possibilities which did not exist before, to write his/her work, this means that he/she cannot do very much with the availabilities as have developed till, say, WWII. Realize what that means? The immensily wide range of what music up to that point has to offer in terms of material / technical possibilities, a kind of over-saturation, is ‘not enough’. Such composers have nothing to say, and explore instead the sonic surface, where all those ‘new possibilities’ are the only things to be explored anyway. Hence, the richness of material possibilities in most contemporary music and the remarkable ‘silence’ of all of that on the point of musical communication. And that has nothing to do with outdated aesthetic positions, or conservatism or worse.

            It is staggering to see young composers preferring to mess around with simplistic electronic gadgets (simplistic in an artistic sense), hip exitism mixed with pop etc. and being not interested in what happens next door in the concert hall…. It’s like a 3rd world immigrant walking around the Versailles palace and merely thinking: ‘Wow, to keep this place clean, what a job must that be’.

    • There’s never been a ‘demand’ for 12 tone music or any other music for that matter. I wouldn’t underestimate the value of all music and its ability for transformed lives resulting from listening with an open heart and a sense of willing acceptance.

  • Portland, OR is culturally similar to San Francisco, so I assume Boulez & co. already have fans there, hence the festival.

  • Hall seats only 465 people, the pieces are short, and it’s “Portlandia”, so all in all, it’s a viable event.

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