Beethoven and Cage
At Adams House Wednesday Night
The program which Adams House presented on Wednesday night seemed at the start totally miscellaneous. The Beethoven Violin Sonata, Op.96, opened it, the Schoenberg String Trio, Op. 45 followed, and the second half plunged into the electronic music of Cage, Mache and Schaeffer. But all the pieces closely complemented each other, for the modern works were all intent upon evoking a sense of enigmatic direction, of thoughtful uncertainty, and the Beethoven at least approached them by using an unusual formal scheme. Listening to all this raised the important question of what should determine taste within so free a style.
Schoenberg abandoned classical forms for his Trio. Although he divided the work into three meetings, these movements (perhaps better called "episodes") do not fit the conventional categories of movements. The work does not, as do classical forms, progress through several distinct, encased areas; it rather distributes its contrasting moods throughout the piece and makes quick changes between with neither obvious or formal transitions. It is the probing nature of the music which constitutes its development: it stops and starts, moves in one direction only to shift toward another, never leaving the bounds of what it marks out as its own world.
But the work is powerful not because its progressions are "surprising" but because these shifts seem natural--and even quite necessary. What Schoenberg has done is to integrate musical emotions which in much music are usually separated or opposed to each other. Most important of all, he has linked pensive, "introspective" musical expression with a variety of other moods--violence, passivity, melancholy--and has thereby diffused the thoughtful tone throughout the music. The trio is profound because its expression is indirect, submerged; the work gives the listener its ideas not by pointing them out to him, but by shuffling him about through a variety of situations whose sum is the work's expression.
The performance succeeded--superbly--in taking the listener thorugh this variety of situations. Judith Davidoff, cello, Tison Street, violin, and William Hibbard, viola, performed brilliantly the savage bowing Schoenberg demands and made no attempt to give the piece an artificial form. They did not have any trouble with the important harmonies and their coordination was good.
The performance of the Beethoven was also good. Ursula Oppens, piano, and Tison Street, violin, created excellent balance between themselves and, while Street was somewhat uncertain in the upper register, they had generally fine technical control. Their exploration of their instruments' sonorities made the second movement particularly moving.
But they neglected an important formal element in the last movement. Beethoven speeds through the primary section, keeps skidding through several more quite different areas and stabilizes the movement only when he lands in an unusual Adagio section; the movement then bolts from this mood and returns to its unsettled roving. The performance, however, settled down in the first section, and the unrooted character of the movement was lost.
The three electronic pieces also have a preoccupation with free progression, but in this music the movement remains "surprises" and goes no further. The aesthetic ideas of these composers aside, such unpurposeful repetition of sounds (unpurposeful to my ear at least) is simply dull. This is particularly true of John Cage's Fontana Mix, where two tapes can be superimposed in any fashion--and where in this instance the combination resulted in twenty minutes of nonsense. Yet a recording exists in which that is not true: the record's particular overlapping of the tapes gives the noises a consistent texture and rhythm and its addition of Cage's soprano Aria above them puts the sound to a real artistic purpose, making their strange noises and enigmatic direction seem perfectly chosen for the piece. As in the Schoenberg Trio, unusual sonorities appear out of nowhere, yet seem very much in place.
The best of the tape pieces was the one which did have a clear form and a set of consistant textures. Francois-Bernard Mache's Volumes winds voices together much in the manner of orchestral writing and was in places quite tasteful. But it too rested its expression primarily on obvious effects--sudden entrances and booming crescendos. Much electronic music like these three pieces has borrowed the formal freedom and dramatic quality of the Schoenberg school, but many composers of such electronic music have buried these techniques in pretentious display. Initiated as a medium of innovation, electronic music has in many cases created a reactionary style.