Bright Blue Music

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As a followup to last Wednesday’s post, here is another exuberant slice of musical postmodernism by American composer Michael Torke (b. 1961).

Bright Blue Music (1985) is a celebration of one of the most basic and fundamental building blocks of tonal music: the pull of the V chord (the dominant) back home to I (tonic). Throughout the twentieth century many composers avoided tonal relationships altogether, which makes the opening of Bright Blue Music, with its conventional dominant-tonic resolution, particularly shocking. Keep listening, and you’ll hear that this music takes great joy in prolonging the dominant, increasing tension and listener anticipation. For all of Bright Blue Music’s fun-loving bombast, the final, lasting resolution comes at one of the piece’s most intimate moments. A few bars later, the final chord evaporates into a surprise afterglow, heard in the woodwinds and string harmonics.

Despite an outward feeling of motion and development, in many ways Bright Blue Music stays in one place. It’s obsessed with a simple, ascending four note motive, which pops up in unexpected places (listen carefully at 2:25). The entire piece is in D major. Torke describes his series of “color” pieces:

you start by establishing a “room.” Then you move out of that room into different musical spaces. But in writing the color music, I wondered what would happen if I just stayed in one room and didn’t leave it. I thought, what happens in life when you don’t want to leave a room? When you go to a really great party, for example, you don’t want to leave—you want to stay and celebrate that room. So I decided to do a composition in the “room” of E-major—which is a powerful green—and to celebrate that bright green “room” for all it was worth.

Since early childhood, Michael Torke has experienced synesthesia, a neurological blurring of senses. Musical keys take on involuntary associations with colors. D major is blue. Here is Torke’s description of Bright Blue Music:

Inspired by Wittgenstein’s idea that meaning is not in words themselves, but in the grammar of the words used, I conceived of a parallel in musical terms: harmonies in themselves do not contain meaning; rather, musical meaning results only from the way harmonies are used. Harmonic language is then, in a sense, inconsequential. If the choice of harmony is arbitrary, why not use the simplest, most direct, and (for me) most pleasureable: I and V chords; tonic and dominant. Once this decision was made and put in the back of my mind, an unexpected freedom of expression followed. With the simplest means, my musical emotions and impulses were free to guide me. Working was exuberant: I would leave my outdoor studio and the trees and bushes seemed to dance, and the sky seemed a bright blue.

That bright blue color contributed towards the piece’s title, but in conjunction with another personal association. The key of D major, the key of this piece (from which there is no true modulation) has been the color blue for me since I was five years old.

At moments, I hear faint hints of the Spanish flourishes of Manuel de Falla. See if you agree. This is David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony:

Even Better Than the Real Thing

Philip Johnson's AT&T Building in New York (now Sony Building)
Philip Johnson’s 647-foot-tall AT&T Building in New York (now the Sony Tower)

In 1984, a bold, new skyscraper emerged on the Manhattan skyline, which captured everyone’s attention and became the subject of intense controversy. The Chippendale-inspired broken pediment crown of architect Philip Johnson’s AT&T Building shocked the architectural establishment because it so profoundly violated the ruling aesthetic of the day. This bizarre new icon seemed to be cheerfully thumbing its nose at the solemn, modernist glass boxes which surrounded it. Postmodernism was born.

Modernism, with its mantras of “less is more” and “form follows function,” was about pure, abstract geometric form. Its clean lines were stripped of ornamentation, historical reference or symbolism. It offered a standardized, mechanized, futuristic, utopian vision. The serene beauty of the modernist, glass curtain wall-clad office building was best exemplified by post-war structures such as Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Lever House.

By contrast, postmodern architecture embraced symbolism and drew upon historical references. Postmodern buildings became signifiers. At their best, the whimsical new icons enlivened skylines and engaged the imagination. At their worst, they became monolithic corporate billboards.

In the early days of the skyscraper, there were plenty of buildings which invoked history. For example, Cass Gilbert’s Woolworth Building suggested a Gothic cathedral. But these buildings often drew upon past styles as a way of avoiding what were, at that time, unresolved aesthetic challenges of building on such a huge scale. The postmodernism of the 1980s and 90s, championed by architects such as Michael Graves, Robert Venturi, and Johnson, played with historical reference, scale and symbolism to create signifiers. Philip Johnson’s turreted PPG Place says “I’m the Houses of Parliament” and Republic Bank Center in Houston says, “I’m a Dutch canal house.” As glossy symbols, these buildings start to seem even better than the real thing, in the same way an advertisement romanticizes a product.

Interestingly, as postmodernism was sweeping architecture in the late twentieth century, similar trends were surfacing in music. Can you hear the postmodern aesthetic in the examples below?

Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso No. 1

At times, Concerto Grosso No. 1 (1977) by Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) becomes “more Vivaldi than Vivaldi” (listen to the Toccata and the Rondo movements). In this piece, the Baroque Concerto Grosso functions as a signifier in a dark and terrifying drama. Vivaldi-like sequences descend slightly too far and imitation between voices grows into an out of control caricature. Mozart, Beethoven, Tango music and a quote of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto (15:57) surface and disappear amid musical breakdown. Hints of Shostakovich emerge in the opening of the Recitativo.

Concerto Grosso No. 1 is filled with voices of lament. Slowly awakening in the first movement, they sometimes shriek out in pain and other times sink into resignation. In the last movement, we hear distant echoes of the Toccata (27:22).

Here is violinist Gidon Kremer’s 1988 recording:

  1. Preludio. Andante (0:00)
  2. Toccata. Allegro (5:01)
  3. Recitativo. Lento (9:27)
  4. Cadenza. [without tempo indication] (16:22)
  5. Rondo. Agitato (18:54)
  6. Postludio. Andante – Allegro – Andante (26:00)

John Adams’ Grand Pianola Music

Grand Pianola Music (1982) started with a dream. John Adams writes:

As with Harmonielehre, which began with a dream of a huge oil tanker rising like a Saturn rocket out of the waters of San Francisco Bay, Grand Pianola Music also started with a dream image in which, while driving down Interstate Route 5, I was approached from behind by two long, gleaming, black stretch limousines. As the vehicles drew up beside me they transformed into the world’s longest Steinway pianos…twenty, maybe even thirty feet long. Screaming down the highway at 90 m.p.h., they gave off volleys of Bb and Eb major arpeggios. I was reminded of walking down the hallways of the San Francisco Conservatory, where I used to teach, hearing the sonic blur of twenty or more pianos playing Chopin, the Emporer Concerto, Hanon, Rachmaninoff, the Maple Leaf Rag and much more.

The majority of Grand Pianola Music is firmly rooted in minimalism. Its opening pulse suddenly emerges, as if the volume has been turned up on something which has always been present. There’s a sense of time moving through the music as it slowly develops, forcing us to become one with the moment. The circular nature of minimalism flows from the isolation and repetition of single chords or progressions. In Four Organs (1970), Steve Reich sustains and elongates a dominant eleventh chord for fifteen minutes. As voices join and drop out we get a changing, kaleidoscopic view of the chord. We anticipate a resolution, but the chord remains suspended in air.

But listen to what happens with the similar, prolonged dominant harmony in the opening of the final movement of Grand Pianola Music (23:01). In a sudden and unexpected move, the chord resolves. The abstract purity of minimalism is shattered and the music takes on postmodern meaning. A melody emerges which suggests Lisztian bravado, Beethoven, and gospel music all blended together. This is the moment where Adams finds the musical equivalent of the AT&T Building’s outrageous Chippendale top. It’s a theme which seems brash and out of place, like the fanciful, arbitrary historical references of a Johnson office tower. It comes out of nowhere, but it’s a voice which demands to be heard.

Grand Pianola Music was so shocking in 1982 that the first performance was met with boos. Adams writes,

True, it was a very shaky performance, and the piece came at the end of a long series of concerts, many of which featured serialist works from the Columbia Princeton school….Grand Pianola Music must have seemed like a smirking truant with a dirty face, in need of a severe spanking.

  1. Part 1A (fast) (0:00)
  2. Part 1B (slow)
  3. “On the Dominant Divide” (fast) (23:01)

Michael Torke’s Ash

In the late 1980s, Michael Torke wrote a series of pieces with titles relating to color. Torke experiences a neurological blurring of the senses, known as synesthesia, in which musical keys and sounds evoke involuntary associations with color.

If you’ve ever heard music in a dream, Ash (1988) may remind you of that experience. This piece is made up of fleeting moments where you might swear you’re listening to the classical orchestration and counterpoint of Beethoven. This is not real Beethoven but a glossy representation of Beethoven. Even “better” than the real thing.

December

composer Michael Torke
composer Michael Torke

Music occupies the mysterious realm of metaphor, expressing realities which cannot be put into words. For American composer Michael Torke (b. 1961) music is inextricably bound to extramusical associations like colors, memories and feelings. His evocative titles give us a glimpse at these associations. In a previous post we looked at Torke’s synesthesia, a neurological blurring of the senses which allows him to “hear” colors.

December for string orchestra was written in 1995. Why do you think Torke chose this title? Is there something about the music which specifically feels like December? For me, there is something satisfying about the the way Torke’s music neatly unfolds with one small musical cell and harmony spinning into the next. Consider the role of repetition and gradual change in the music:

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Now that you’ve heard December, here is what Michael Torke has to say about the piece. His description sheds some light on mysteries of the creative process. Some questions worth considering: What is the source of a musical idea? Do extramusical associations unlock musical ideas for Torke, or are they just a simultaneous byproduct?

[quote]I remember experiencing a kind of cozy cheer in the early days of winter back in suburban Milwaukee, when, on the rounds of my afternoon paper route, I would anticipate with pleasure the forecast of the season’s first snow. The cold and the precipitation never bothered me; I loved the season: young girls wrapped up in parkas with only their bright faces showing, outdoor Christmas lights being strung out on the front lawns, warm meals waiting when I got back home. Music never literally represents things, but it does evoke feelings, impressions, and sometimes memories. In writing this piece, I noticed that the music that came out didn’t just refer to itself — it is my habit to set up certain compositional operations to give each piece its own profile — but that the music seemed to refer to things outside of itself. This is something I discover as I’m writing; it is not that I set out intending to describe the last month of the year through music; rather, the associations creep up on me, as I’m composing. I had originally called this piece Rain Changing to Snow because at first the listener might hear a kind of musical ‘precipitation’, a resultant wetness that comes from some of the strings sustaining notes that are moving in the other instruments. And as this develops, the music moves to a more tranquil key, where it sounds as though the rain has turned to snow and there is a strange stillness everywhere. But to me the music is about more than meteorological patterns. In my goal to write more thematic music which is less process oriented, I believe this music can afford a wide range of responses in the listener. I am against music that is merely cerebral, and I welcome the simple, physical experience of listening, and responding directly, without undue brain circuitry.[/quote]

December snow