Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Is music entertainment or education? Thoughts on Leon Kirchner's string quartets

Is music entertainment or education? Why, you say, it should be both -- and I agree. However, which way one leans does influence strongly how one listens to music: Are you intellectually curious enough to listen to new works often, or you would rather sit on the same couch and listen to your twenty-first version of Bruckner 8th or fifty-seventh Mahler 2nd?

Leon Kirchner's string quartets are certainly not for those who want nothing but relaxation after a hard day's work. (Think of the workers in Fritz Lang's Metropolis!) Born in Brooklyn, NY on 24 January 1919, Leon Kirchner began his music study at the age of four and studied composition with Arnold Schoenberg, Ernst Bloch and Roger Sessions. He was influenced by all of them, esp. by Schoenberg (by his own admission), but remained fiercely individual in the post WW II era, when the constant-changing mainstream was populated by Total Serialism, Minimalism, Indeterminacy and New Romanticism, among others. He single-mindedly followed his own vision, his inner voice and developed a distinct language of his own. He was a well-rounded man and had very broad intellectual and artistic scopes. A Harvard man, one might say. (Leon Kirchner succeeded Walter Piston at Harvard in 1961 and retired in 1989.)

His music is complex, chromatic, rhythmically irregular, rhapsodic, but never serial. In his earlier works, as in his String Quartet No. 1, the construction is often sectional with strongly contrasting textures and tempos. (See below.) In his later works, as in the String Quartet No. 3, the textures and tempos are more continuous and changes more gradual. If these general characterization reminds pre-12-tone Sessions, Kirchner's music nonetheless sounds quite different: It's not as "masculine" and "angular" as Sessions'. Instead it is often lyrical, freely atonal, with very few Weberneque big skips and with a lot of (minor) 2nd and 3rd motion. (Aren't 2nd and 3rd also Schoenberg's favorite intervals?) For example, the transposed Shostakovich motive (D-Es-C-H = D-E flat-C-B), which moves strictly in minor seconds and third, appears at approximately [0:15] of the first movement of the second quartet. My guess is that the appearance of DSCH motive is purely accidental: If the music moves a lot with 2nd and 3rd, DSCH is bound to occur by the Law of Large Numbers! 

There are two recordings of his "semi-complete" string quartets. The first is by the Boston Composers String Quartet (BCSQ), which includes 3 of his 4 string quartet. Thus, it is incomplete despite the title! BCSQ, founded in 1985 and debanded in 1997, was a group specializing in contemporary music and worked a lot with composers in the Boston area on "new music". However, its repertoire also contained Baroque and Classical music, which the group performed on period instruments, as historically informed as possible. The BCSQ played Kirchner's quartets with such verve and precision, making its debanding in 1997 even more regrettable. (My understanding is that debanding happened when 2 of the members started families and the work load became unsustainable.)

This recording was made in 1993-1994. The composer was present for the recording sessions, having previously discussed at length with BCSQ about these works. For the third quartet, a CD is used instead of "an electronic tape". Hey, technology progresses!

This CD includes excellent liner notes, written by the performers (BCSQ) and based on conversations with and material provided by Leon Kirchner, are excellent. It gives a biographical sketch and composer's own analysis of each quartet. 

Kirchner, 1919-2009, wrote in 2006 his String Quartet No. 4, which was immediately recorded by the Orion Quartet in Kirchner: Complete String Quartets. Thus this second album is truly complete. 

Of note, the first and the second String Quartet were written in 1949 and 1958, and both won the New York Critics' Circle Award. The third "For Strings and Electronic Tape" won the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for Music. (If I have to choose one Kirchner's work among those I know, SQ No. 3 might be it.)

The following are composer's own notes. Personal use only.
String Quartet No. 1 (1949)

(By the composer's own admission, this string quartet is strongly influenced by Béla Bartók.)

The first movement of the Quartet, Allegro ma non troppo, is divided into 4 sections. The first section contains 2 expositions of thematic material presented in the opening measures. The second section contrasts this material harmonically, metrically and structurally. The third section is a pre-recapitulation of the modified introductory material and the final section combines the functions of the recapitulation and coda.

The second movement, Adagio, is an outgrowth of a detail in the original thematic material. It has one principle theme built from various alterations of the interval of a third, first introduced by the cello.

The third movement is a Scherzo with obligatory Trio. The last movement, Adagio, serves as a recapitulatory movement in which character and tempo relationships are largely modified. The final section of this movement presents the opening thematic idea in a new and closing ambience.

String Quartet No. 2 (1958)

String Quartet No. 2 opens by stating its basic thematic principles. The descending minor second in the first violin against its inversion in the second violin, the rising third in the viola, and the rising scale topped by a third in the cello, all heard in the opening measure, dominate the material throughout. THe first movement is mostly vigorous until near its end, when a recapitulation of its first two measures develops into a discussion around arising scale passage.

Mysterious chords open he slow movement. Exotic colors soon provoke accelerating climaxes. Discussion of the first movement subsides into an evocation of the opening. The concluding section is more florid and expansively lyrical, especially the cello solo near the close.

Repeated chords predominate in the finale, and descending scales are now quick to rebuke rising ones. An intense passage for the first violin dramatically leads to a recapitulation of some sixteen measures from near the opening of the slow movement, to which the cello contributes an important new pizzicato chord and a new coutermelody. The rocking figure leads back to the earlier material. The quietness of the ending is only its first surprise -- the intrusive cadence near its conclusion sounds brand new but has actually been heard at various points in all three movements.

String Quartet No. 3 for Strings and Electronic Tape (1967)

Before beginning my String Quartet No. 3 for Strings and Electronic Tape, I gave considerable thought to the particular attributes of electronic music. The electronic medium is frequently spoken of as being absolutely unlimited in possibility. In general, I would say tha tmusic has gained new insights from the manipulations of electronic sounds, but the supposed lack of limitation is quite deceptive. Theoretically, it would seem to be unlimited, and yet I think this is the area which is most problematic. By a third, if not second, performance of even an exemplary electronic piece, one develops a certain listener's fatigue... it could be boredom. There is no 'characteristic limit' or instant accommodation to a brilliant whim or 'accident.' The subtle manifestations, the deep reflections on structure and gestalt that are subject to human control in the great performer have a restrictive life in the electronic medium.

More interesting to me are the combinations of instruments with electronic sounds and filters. Instrumental qualities are then somehow reflected, extended, and adumbrated in interesting ways. 'Human involvement' is, of course, essential; for the problems of composition remain the primary factors. I set out to produce a meaningful and musical confrontation between 'new' electronic sounds and those of the traditional string quartet.

There is a great deal fo talk these days about systems analysis, determination of rules, and so forth, but the act of total involvement, of physical and spiritual play, seems to be forgotten. One of the naive assumptions in the construction of electronic or computer music, for instance, is that if one programs the parameters (duration, density, pitch, harmony, etc.) music should result. Granted competence in techniques, it is their use that is essential -- and their artistic use depends on the vast and total memory bank of the human mind. In this sense, though the electronic sounds in my Quartet took four days to write, the notes took fifty years.

Music is an art not a science, and if a science, as Machaut postulated, "it is a science which must make people laugh and dance and sing". The recent, almost exclusive involvement with the 'substantive' and the craze for 'verification' or 'causal explanation' seems to me to fossilize that art and make it bloodless. My String Quartet No. 3 with Electronic Tape is not concerned with systems, rules, procedures -- or that monstrosity known as 'total control.' I composed the work because of sheer musical urge. It was fun, and wh
ile I composed it I was very conscious of the joy of creating music.

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