G. Watkins, Soundings

Let's start with a few characteristic general features of this peripheral book. Its first two parts are titled Vienna: 1885-1915 and Paris: 1885-1915 and span over first 164 pages. If that doesn't sound like an exemplary 20th century, it has a rationale in the orientation of the book, which is to look for connections between periods. Gustav Mahler, and even on occasion Wagner, are important references for consecutive chapters.

The second interesting fact about the book is its intense usage of quotes. Our wiki shares this affinity, but in the book the usage is broad as for the types of quoted material, which includes notated scores, correspondence, publications, and literary works. In the case of poetry, texts are often presented in parallel columns for the original and the translation. This strongly influences the reading experience, preferences may vary.

Another feature which distinguishes Soundings from many other overviews akin to academic scripts (although this exact usage is not stressed by the book's author), is the chapter Rituals, Liturgies, and Voices of War (464-497) which details sacral influences in music after WWI. Games are descendants of rituals, but the chapter is concerned with a developed modern cult practice in the context of fixed services (Christianity dominates these pages). Similar (false) hope with rituals is made also at pp. 668-676 where they are considered in the context of genre changes. More participatory ritualistic work is here omitted (e.g. Pauline Oliveros appeared once just as a name on a list of "other American composers" at p. 458).

The last general remark about the book would be commendable distance to labels and frameworks. Even the word "isms" appears in the book on occasion (p. 64). Some of the author's musical preferences may be grasped, but there is not a lot of canonization towards arbitrary "masterpieces". This might seem like a default caution in the work of musicologists, but alas not always observed. Interestingly, in the context of composing similar sentiment is expressed (p. 522):

[Some composers] have been fundamentally concerned with a personal theoretical basis of composition (with occasional attempts to insist on its relevance for listeners) … The consequences of their systems for others have ranged from marginal to nonexistant. [sic] … But a lesson may have been learned: namely that a theory can justify music no more than a venerable model.

Loose notes

Here, we'll jump through pages and gather all interesting passages to present them in a chronological order, instead of the original organization by topical threads with overlapping timelines. The footnotes will be after Soundings in the form provided in the Notes of the book.

The first two snippets are connected to Igor Stravinsky, one (p. 214) as a background to The Rite of Spring (1913) and another (p. 222) is a quote from Stravinsky said about Pribaoutki piece (1914). Both are connected to Russian folklore:

Taruskin has detailed the potential importance of a movement begun by Melgunov to transcribe Russian folk tunes in a new and non-prejudicial manner. Attention was given not only to the principal melody but to the "heterophonic aspects of its performance practice"1

"The word pribaoutki denotes a form of popular Russian verse, to which the nearest English parallel is the limerick. According to the popular tradition they derive from a type of game in which someone says a word, which someone else then adds to, and which third and fourth persons develop, and so on, with utmost speed … One important characteristic of Russian popular verse is that the accents of the spoken verse are ignored when the verse is sung. The recognition of the musical possibilities inherent in this fact was one of the most rejoicing discoveries of my life."2

It's a worthy side note, that in the well-sourced book Stravinsky and the Russian Tradition, Richard Taruskin doubts (p. [1145]) the accuracy of Stravinsky's explanation presented in the second quote above. Pribaoutki may rather be closer to fixed, repeated sayings, jingles, or tongue-twisters.

Then, (changing topic), page 239 quotes a footnote to the score by a futurist Francesco Balilla Pratella:

Immense shout from the crowd. Each single individual will attempt the most acute intonation of his own chosen tone. The intonation and the duration will be arbitrary and independent, but the entries will be rigorously observed.3

The piece, whose part is mentioned above, is called Joy, and it is from 1914. It uses both standard and new notation and builds on a work of Luigi Russolo. In a fashion typical for the book it is summoned to show connection to developments essential for our wiki's topics that will happen almost 40 years and 400 pages later.

We learn at p. 165 that at about the same time, but probably also earlier, Scriabin had a…

lifelong ambition to create an ultimate masterwork, to be entitled Mysterium and to be performed in an Indian temple in a regenerative coming together of all the arts and all the senses. Sound, color, smell, and bodily motion, involving all witnesses (there would be no audience, only participants), would be put in the service of creative synthesis.

At the time of Scriabin's death (1915) it remained a project, but the participation and multimodality are interesting here.

The detailed chapter connected to John Cage will be described in the final section, but there are a few more dispersed notes, that are chronologically later. Two of these quotes are connected to electronic music, one from Varèse (p. 585):

I think of musical space as open rather than bounded, which is why I speak about projection in the sense that I want simply to project a sound, a musical thought, to initiate it, and then to let it take its own course. I do not want an a priori control of all its aspects.4

And the other about Rzewski's Musica Ellectronica Viva (p. 599) based on the book reviewed here:

Tapes, complex electronics — Moog synthesizer, brainwave amplifiers, photocell mixers for movement of sound in space — are combined with traditional instruments, everyday objects and the environment itself, amplified by means of contact mikes, or not. Sounds may originate both inside and outside the performing-listening space and may move freely within and around it. Jazz, rock, primitive and Oriental musics, Western classical tradition, verbal and organic sound both individual and collective may all be present.5

After the topic of electronic music, which also provides a profile of Iannis Xenakis, the book follows towards a few lines of thought loosely connectable to our focus. "New Virtuosity" examines the more active role of performers in composition, notices the increased role of percussion instruments (pp. 624-627), and mentions Vinko Globokar (p. 631), unnecessary struggles, and conceptual elements (p. 632).

27. The International Avant-Garde: Choice and Chance — and the summary

By both the title and content Chapter 27 (pp. 557-576) is the closest to home for music gaming. But still it doesn't go directly into issues of importance to our field, and as a whole it's rather short and includes all of Minimalism. Again, the line of thought stresses evolution of the tendencies — while John Cage is established as the central figure and profiled in detail, comparatively, but a background is drawn from anti-masterpiece attitudes of the Dadaists and Eastern philosophies, and "elastic forms" of Henry Cowell directly preceding. Another thread present is the parallel development of openness in America and in France, where Pierre Boulez continued in music what was started earlier in poetry by Mallarmé. This kind of historical interpretation might be rare in American books, where influence of John Cage is usually more stressed.

Ultimately both the sense of game, or performer participation, and sonic freedom that had been won through Cage's fresh inquiry led to an ever-widening field of possibilities. The listener without benefit of score could scarcely be aware of whatever sense of exhiliration [sic] might have been felt in the live performance …

The quote above from p. 572 shows the broad strokes approach, and the centrality of listener's perspective — not much to gather. Practically the same amount of insight is given in the final chapter, which sums up many threads of the book in a look over "the most current" music for the author at the time of writing (in the late '80s):

… in many instances music is the fleeting variable, the performer the constant member of the equation and today's music hero. It is small wonder, then, that the notion of "performance art", combining the creative and re-creative roles, should at least momentarily be exercising such a significant appeal, …

All in all, it's hard to pin down values embedded in Soundings. Subjective reading aside, but there seems to be a level of humorous dismissal towards some eccentricities of the modern music. In general, indeterminacy doesn't seem to be of interest to the author (not an obligatory passion indeed). The final chapter seems to show some ambivalence as for the relation to the past and maybe as well towards pluralism. On that note, let's finish with a quote from p. 688 that reveals also some layers of belief:

Computer music, mixed media, improvisation, indeterminacy, theater music, Minimalism, New Romanticism, happening, biomusic, danger music, soundscape, and performance art have come and in some instances departed from our vocabulary, leaving terms such as "Post-Avant-Garde" or "Post-Modern" with a hollow ring. Yet the latter two expressions may be important indicators that many composers are currently less interested in insistently probing those frontiers that appear to point to some unknown, unconceivable [sic] and perhaps glorious future than in surveying and synthesizing the vast sonic terrain of human cultures past and present.

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