Cube Calendar Articles from 1996

Mark Rothko: The Spirit of Myth
Early Paintings from the 1930's and 1940's

Rothko Chapel, Houston, TX

"I think of my pictures as dramas; the shapes in the pictures are the performers. They have been created from the need for a group of actors who are able to move dramatically without embarrassment and execute gestures without shame. Neither the action nor the actors can be anticipated, or described in advance. They begin as an unknown adventure in an unknown space."

"I do not believe that there was ever a question of being abstract or representational. It is really a matter of ending the silence and the solitude, of breathing and stretching oneís arms again."

Mark Rothko, from ìThe Romantics Were Prompted,î originally published in Possibilities, I, 1947


Born Marcus Rothkowitz in Dvinsk, Russia in 1903, Mark Rothko spent his early childhood in the tumultuous surroundings of pre-revolutionary Russia. In 1913 his family emigrated to the United States, settling in Portland, Oregon. Here, during his formative years, Rothko was exposed to activists and lecturers in the Labor Movement and became acquainted with events on the world stage that left their mark on his political consciousness. Entering Yale as a scholarship student in 1921, Rothko was keenly aware of his identity as an immigrant Jew and as an outsider in the Ivy League environment. He left Yale two years later for new York, where he quickly became immersed in a literary and intellectual milieu.

In New York, Rothkoís interest in art expanded. He began to attend classes at the Art Students League, where his teacher Max Weber fostered his expressive depiction of contemporary urban life. Rothkoís sense of isolation in the city is suggested in a number of paintings throughout the 1920s and ë30s that portray faceless, solitary figures alienated from their surroundings.

During the 1930s Rothko became increasingly involved in political, social, and artistic concerns. Brought together by the Depression and pre-World War II anxieties, artists formed various groups for maintaining and improving their role in a changing society. He had his first one-man show in New York in 1933 and was exhibiting regularly by the time that he and several others formed ìThe Tenî in 1935, a group of artists with varied styles but common interest in expressive and loose representational technique. Rebelling against social realism and geometric abstraction, which then prevailed in American art, The Ten mounted several exhibitions that had emotional subjects as their primary focus. By the end of the 1930s, however, Rothko abandoned the use of the figure, feeling both that he could not render it without mutilating it and that the figure did not have the capacity of represent the anguish of modern life.

The decade of the 1940s represents the period of greatest transition and experimentation in Rothkoís thought and artistic vocabulary. His works from the early 1940s can be seen as a fusion inspired by the Nietzschean notion of tragedy as a foundation of art and by Surrealismís investigation of the unconscious. The literature that Rothko cites as being influential on his work and thought is telling: the poetry of T.S. Elliot and Wallace Stevens, James Frazerís anthropological work The Golden Bough and Nietzscheís Birth of Tragedy, among others. With their respective allusions to tragedy, universal myth, and the heroism of the individualís journey, these works served as a philosophical foundation on which Rothko based his pictures.

The delicate figures and expressive scenes in Rothkoís paintings from the l930s yield in the 1940s to increasingly abstract forms and settings inspired by mythological subjects. Drawing on Greco-Roman myths as well as on Carl Jungís notion of the collective unconscious, Rothko sought a mode of symbolic representation that would be universally meaningful. He saw his paintings as dramas, relating them to the well-known tragedies of antiquity. In the fact of the horrors of World War II, Rothko chose not to depict current events themselves, instead claiming that ìwithout monsters or gods, art cannot enact our drama.î

The works from the mid-1940s reveal Rothkoís closest association with Surrealism. Inspired by the theories as well as by the visual work of the Surrealists, Rothko sought to communicate basic human truths through forms that were both evocative and yet undecipherable. By using the surrealist technique of automatic drawing to release the unconscious, Rothkoís fluid calligraphic strokes suggest specific organic forms while still evading a clearly recognizable visual referent. Rothkoís surrealist-inspired works incorporate biomorphic figures with traces of geological and marine elements, and at the same time draw upon aspects of so-called primitive and Native American art, to evoke the essential and universal.

Between 1945 and 1949, Rothko painted a group of works known collectively as the Multiforms. Having diverged from Surrealism, which translated the literal into dream, Rothko searched for an alternative means of communicating nonreferentially the deeper reaches of human emotion and the tragedy of life. Recalling his earlier reading of Nietzsche, he began to focus more on internal experience through the direct emotional expression of color. Interested in depicting a balance of gravity and suspension, he opened the space in his paintings and allowed the forms to take on clearer identities in contract with each other, despite their overall ambiguity.

Rothkoís own analogy of painting with drama implicitly requires the unfolding of a narrative. By the end of the 1940s, his paintings had been emptied of anything vaguely resembling figuration. In its place appeared premonitions of what came to be known as his signature style, which he arrived at in 1950. The unity and sureness in his pictures from 1950 on reflect his belief that he was approaching a method of expressing what he wanted, what he termed ìclarity.î ìThe progression of a painterís work, as it travels in time from point to point,î Rothko noted, ìwill be toward clarity, toward the elimination of all obstacles between painter and the idea, between the idea and the observer.î His canvases became progressively larger in order to achieve a greater effect of intimacy, encompassing the viewerís field of vision through their increased scale and producing an effect of contemplative tranquility.

Rothko is often called an abstractionist, a term that he disputed, believing that he was attempting to clarify the world around him rather than rendering it abstract. Derived from Rothkoís consuming interest in the drama of human experience, the ìorganismsî in his later paintings perform for the viewer and communicate the essence of human tragedy and the spirit of myth. His goal was to establish a vision that embodied elements of universality. In his post-1940s work, which moved away from recognizable subject matter, Rothko elevated his visual themes to a level of psychological experience that required no recognizable form to evoke myth, tragedy, and the profound nature of human experience.

Mark Rothko, Untitled,1949, National Gallery of Art,
Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc., 1986.43.138

from text accompanying the exhibition at the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, NY

March/April, 1996

On Programming New Music

by Gerald Rizzer of The Chicago Ensemble

Introducing audiences to new works has always been important to me. Throughout the nineteen years that I have been crafting programs for my chamber music group, The Chicago Ensemble, I have presented a wide range of 20th century music. In programs of only new works, there is always the risk that aficionados will come and traditionalists will stay home, so more often I integrate new works into programs with other repertoire. That way, I have had the satisfaction of having audience members come up and say, "I really came to hear the Beethoven trio. I never heard of George Crumb and thought I probably wouldn't like any modern music, bit it turned out to be my favorite piece on the program."

To acquaint myself with new music, I have spent many hours going through the collections at Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, and the public library, and many a late night at WFMT, perusing their recordings on labels like CRI. Some of the works I chose were by composers who were established, like Crumb, but often I have presented works by composers who were quite unknown. For instance, the flutist of New York's Da Capo Players once introduced me to a young composer, Aaron Kernis, who had just graduated from Yale. He showed me his very skillful trio for flute, cello and piano - in a minimalist-influenced style. I liked it and we performed it. He has received enthusiastic press in the years since then.

Twice The Chicago Ensemble commissioned new works. For one of these - Phillip Rhodes' The Face I Carry With Me, for soprano, flute, viola, cello and piano, on poems by Emily Dickinson ­p; I appealed to our subscribers and we raised the money entirely through individual contributions. Phil and I took Gunther Schuller's contemporary music course together when we were at Yale, but I only got to know his work years later on one of my visits to the library. Another year, a trip to New York to study the collection at the American Music Center, led to my selecting Cambodian-born composer Chinary Ung for a commission, which was funded by the NEA. Prior to encountering his work in New York, I was familiar with Ung only by name: he had taught at Northern Illinois University. He went on to win prestigious awards. Ten years after our commission, we will be performing this work again on our series May 14th and May 19th. Scored for flute, violin, cello and piano, the piece sounds decidedly Oriental. Woven into the fabric i s a Cambodian children's song; hence the title, Child Song.

A few years ago, in the realization that despite my interest and efforts there were many composers whose works were unknown to me, I advertised for scores. This was 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus' "discovery" of America, so I used the name "Discover America" for our competition. 175 scores were submitted. I selected twelve, which were heard in two special concerts, one with violin, viola, cello and piano -i.e., the instrumentation of The Chicago Ensemble. Most of the pieces were Midwest debuts. The programs displayed a great variety of styles, from the atonal chromaticism of Jeffrey Stadelman's Friction Oracle for violin and piano to the Oriental sounds of Sulian Tan's By Leaps and Bounds for cello and piano, to the barndance references in Jan Swafford's They Who Hunger for piano quartet. All had been written in very recent years. Without any effort on my part to select pieces by criteria other than their excellence, it turned out that of the twelve, three were by women; two were by composers who were working in Chicago (Scott Anthony Shell, a DePaul graduate, and Lawrence Axelrod, a Northwestern graduate). An amusing moment occurred as I was addressing the letters to the winners and found that two had the same address. It turned out that Tamar Diesendruck and Eric Moe were married. The following season, I recycled some of the most successful of the pieces. Again, I sought to introduce these works to people who are not necessarily devotees of new music. I have also programmed some of the works on three different WFMT live broadcasts.

Although it is quite time-consuming to review so many new works, I consider it an important venture, so I launched "Discover America II" with a call for scores that yielded over 300 submissions. This time I integrated the winning works directly into our regular programs. Five compositions were presented last season, four are scheduled for this spring. (I selected several others for possible future performance.) Our concerts March 3rd and 5th include two of these works. The first is Variations for cello and piano by Delvyn Case, who is still an undergraduate at Yale. A variety of ostinato patterns shows the influence of minimalism and Stravinsky in this effective work. The other piece, in an atonal, contrapuntal style, is by Anthony Cornicello, who studied with Charles Wuorinen. This will be a world premiere. I felt supported in my assessment of Mr. Cornicello's talents when I learned that he is to receive another premiere, by the Civic Orchestra, coincidentally in the same week as ours. The piece we are premiering is Triple Play. Susan Levitin is the Ensemble's flutist, Julie Zumsteg the cellist, and I am the pianist in this concert.

Our June program holds two other winners: Wings, a work for cello and piano influenced by Latin American dances, written by David Vayo, who is on the faculty at Illinois Wesleyan University; and Michael Zajonc's Rondo for violin and piano, in a style influenced by Wuorinen. After I selected the piece, I noticed that the tape which Mr. Zajonc had submitted featured The Chicago Ensemble's violinist, David Wolf, as soloist. It turned out that the piece had been written for David before he joined the Ensemble.

This then describes the avenues I have followed in the presentation of new works. To aid those like me who wish to program new music, I would like to see the reactivation of a project once undertaken by Chamber Music America: a directory of new works, with descriptions by the groups which performed them, as well as a circulating library of performance tapes.

I am grateful to CUBE, with whom The Chicago Ensemble is a colleague in the Chicago Chamber Music Consortium, for this opportunity to discuss the new music programming of our Ensemble. I congratulate CUBE for its success in bringing new music to Chicago audiences and for providing this helpful newsletter to make us all aware of opportunities to hear new music. I would like to express my appreciation by offering the readers of this article two-for-the-price-of-one admission to any of The Chicago Ensemble's concerts this season. You need only mention this article at the door, or when calling the Ensemble office at (312) 907-2190.

March/April, 1996

Symposium on "Music and Gender" at Columbia College

On Saturday, March 2, Columbia College's Interdisciplinary Arts program will host a Symposium of Music and Gender, featuring four of the leading voices exploring these issues. The Symposium will take place from 1 to 5 PM in the Hokin Auditorium at 623 S. Wabash Ave, Chicago.

In recent years, the field of musicology has become an ideological battleground. While other disciplines, such as literary and art criticism, long ago negotiated the impact of sociological and feminist discourse, musicology has remained apparently immune to these changes in modes of thought. But a new generation of musicologists has begun to question the formalism and so-called "universals" of Western music, resulting in an explosion of controversial new scholarship. A recent op-ed piece in the December 17, 1995 New York Times (provocatively titled "Musicologists Roll Over Beethoven") noted, "Some of the hottest subjects in musicology now are feminism, homosexuality, race, and class."

Certainly, one of the most visible figures in this debate has been keynote speaker Dr. Susan McClary, of the Music Department at the U. of California, Los Angeles, and a 1995 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. McClary's ground-breaking book, Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality, published in 1991, set the tone for much of the new discourse about music.
In the introduction to her book, McClary commented on the fact that traditional musicology has side-stepped the idea that music might have meanings beyond the purely formal:

"Rather than protecting music as a sublimely meaningless activity that has managed to escape social signification, I insist on treating it as a medium that participates in social formation by influencing the ways we perceive our feelings, our bodies, our desires, our very subjectivities - even if it does so surreptitiously, without most of us knowing how."

McClary's work has helped inspire other musicologists to explore gender-related issues. Among the most notable of these is Dr. Philip Brett, Chairman of the Music Department at the U. of California, Riverside. Brett is one of the editors (with Elizabeth Wood and Gary C. Thomas) of the book Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology. Brett has been equally daring in exploring issues related to how homosexuality is portrayed (or disguised) in music, focusing most notably on the operas of Benjamin Britten. Indeed, Brett was one of the first musicologists to broach the "open secret" of Britten's homosexuality in an analysis of the composer's work.
Robert Walser's ground-breaking study Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music, explores the phenomenon of heavy-metal rock as both musical and social phenomenon. Unlike other studies of rock, which tend to focus more on rock as cultural phenomenon rather than as music, Walser uses transcriptions of such things as "power guitar solos" to explore the actual aspects of heavy metal.

Sandra Lieb, the only panelist who does not come directly from the discipline, has done extensive research on the Blues, and has worked with the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College. Lieb's pioneering study, Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey, explores Rainey's role as composer and performer, and takes into account Rainey's sexual relations with both men and women.

The symposium will be moderated by Interdisciplinary Arts Faculty member Jeff Abell. Abell is nationally known as a performance artist and critic in Chicago, and has been "composer-in-residence" with the InterArts program since 1981.

There will be a general discussion and a question-and-answer period following the papers in which the public is invited to participate.

March/April, 1996

chicago notes

The duo "Double Dialogue" - comprised of composer Howard Sandroff and clarinetist John Bruce Yeh - have recently completed a Midwest tour featuring Sandroff's Tephillah for clarinet and computer-controlled digital sound processors and Pierre Boulez's Dialogue de l'ombre double for clarinet and computer-controlled specialization system. The duo, which specializes in the performance of music for clarinet and computer, has been performing together since 1989 throughout North America and Europe. Sandroff is Director of the Computer Music Studio at the University of Chicago and Artist in Residence at Columbia College Radio/Sound Department. Grammy Award winner Yeh has been a member of the Chicago Symphony since 1977 and on the faculty of DePaul University since 1979. We have just been informed that Tephillah will be performed by Alain Damiens (ensemble contemporain) at the Paris Opera House on June 15 & 16 and that the premiere of a new work by Sandroff for bass clarinet, b-flat clarinet and e-flat clarinet will be performed by Larry Combs, John Bruce Yeh and Julie DeRoche at the International Clarinet Festival/Conference in Paris on or about July 7.

Congratulations to M. William Karlins, Robert Lombardo, and Jay Alan Yim, recipients of Illinois Arts Council grants. Robert Lombardo's Affreschi caldi (Chicago premiere) for soprano, mandolin, guitar and harp, and Farewell to Vienna, five pieces for cello and piano (World premiere) were played at Chicago Musical College on February 7th. Orpheus and the Maenads for mandolin and string orchestra (Dimitris Marinos, mandolin soloist) was chosen for performance in March at the National Society of American Composers Conference. The performers are from the Memphis Symphony.

May/June, 1996


CUBE in June

CUBE's final concert of the season, "Event Horizon," will take place on Saturday, June 29, at 2 PM in the Auditorium of the Harold Washington Library. Featuring the music of contemporary Asian composers, the program is dedicated to the memory of the internationally renowned Japanese composer, Toru Takemitsu, who died earlier this year. Compositions on the concert include Masque, pour deux flutes, by Toru Takemitso; Event Horizon for oboe and computer, by Surat Kemaleelakul; The Tenderness of Cranes for solo flute by Shirish Korde; Obsession for oboe and piano by Makoto Shinohara; Time for Marimba for solo marimba by Minoru Miki; Mei for solo flute by Kazuo Fukushima; Suite in Trio for flute, oboe, and piano by Fengshi Yang; and Improvisation based on Mei for flute, percussion and computer, as an homage to the memory of Toru Takemitsu. Performers include members of CUBE and guest performer Don Malone, computer. The concert will be free and open to the public. For information, please call (312) 747-4811.

May/June, 1996

The Eaton Opera Company Returns!

Just over two years ago, a new and exciting opera company had its launching performances Dec. 8, 9, 10, and 11, 1993. at the Court Theater in Chicago. The Eaton Opera Company* presented the world premiere of a new opera by John Eaton, internationally acclaimed composer of 11 operas. Let's Get This Show on the Road: An Alternative Version of Genesis was coupled with the Chicago stage premiere of Eaton's highly successful Peer Gynt. Although the 1993 performances were done in collaboration with the renowned New York New Music Ensemble, the present participants in the Eaton Opera are all outstanding performers from the Chicago area. Nicholas Rudall, for years the director of the Court Theater and a noted stage and movie director and actor, is the director; Barbara Schubert, conductor of the University of Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the president of the National Association of Conductors, is the conductor. The singers are Barbara Ann Martin, soprano; Nelda Nelson, mezzo-soprano; Harold Broch, tenor; Scott Baeseman, baritone. The instrumentalists are Mary Stolper, flutes; Erik Mandat, clarinets; Ilya Levinson, piano and synthesizer; James Boznos, percussion; Steven Gibbons, violin; Craig Trompeter, violoncello. Don Quixote, like Peer Gynt is for the instrumentalists alone. It is a collection of theatrical fragments in fourteen scenes with a prologue and epilogue based on some essential actions, chosen freely from the novel by Cervantes. The opera, however, is continuous, not episodic. The instrumentalists are asked to assume the personae of some of the characters in the novel. They wear parts of costumes and masks to identify them as such. They may be asked to whisper, speak normally, recite, shout, or sing in various ways; and, on occasion, dance. Many of the actions of the play and piece take place as fantasies, dreams, and other imaginings. In Golk, which involves the full company, the instrumentalists continue to take an active roll in the action, although the lyrical moments and sections involving traditional operatic singing are characteristically handled by the singers, with the instrumentalists accompanying. When a richer sound world is necessary, the full resources of the Eaton-Moog Multiple-Touch-Sensitive Keyboards are brought into play. (See the description of this instrument, featured on CNN News, below.)

The Eaton Opera grew out of a dream that composer John Eaton has had for many years of a new kind of opera company:

Instead of a large, uninvolved orchestra, a small group of instrumentalists should not only play for, but also take part in the action. There should also be an excellent vocal quartet, trained not only in traditional operatic singing, but also conversant with contemporary and vernacular vocalism from throughout the world. For more expansive accompaniment, the full range of electronic music should be opened up in real-time. The actions should not require elaborate sets and stage mechanisms, both of these being replaced by the use of projections and kinetic lighting techniques. Costumes and props should consist only of suggestive elements. With no cumbersome sets or an orchestra to move, after its premieres in a traditional theater, the Eaton Opera could hop into a van and appear in any museum space, theater, college or high school auditorium, or cultural center that would have it. Thus, a true democratization of opera would be effected.

Events in John Eaton's career in 1992 proved a stimulus to the realization of this dream. The first of these was the development of the Eaton-Moog Multiple-Touch-Sensitive Keyboard and its first appearance in concert in the spring of 1992. Eaton and synthesizer builder Robert Moog were engaged for nearly 20 years in the development of these keyboards, which impart a degree of human nuance and spontaneity to electronic music heretofore not possible.

The second stimulus for the formation of this opera company was the successful performances in May and June of 1992 of Eaton's Peer Gynt. Commissioned by the New York New Music Ensemble, perhaps the premiere performance group for new music in the country, Peer Gynt gives the players of the ensemble a good romp. "Whatever they did besides play their instruments seemed to be a natural outgrowth of what they were playing," exclaimed Andrew Porter in the New Yorker. The Music Department of the University of Chicago enthusiastically and unanimously endorsed Eaton's venture in the fall of 1992 and the Contemporary Chamber Players invited the fledgling company to present its premiere performances in December of 1993 as the first event of its 30th anniversary season.

The Eaton Opera Company will endeavor to develop and present exciting new kinds of music theater. It will reach out to as large an audience as possible with as small a company as is practical. Among its more specific objectives are:

  1. to give excellent performances of whatever pieces it undertakes;
  2. to introduce audiences to new musical possibilities to unfamiliar sounds and vocal/instrumental/electronic combinations and techniques in a most engaging fashion and with the added stimulus to appreciation by the public of being connected with dramatic performances;
  3. to contribute to the development of non-traditional audiences for contemporary music, especially youth with limited access to cultural programming, through outreach to schools and communal organizations;
  4. to involve the instrumentalists in the action in such a way that what they do in addition to performing their instruments in traditional and non-traditional ways eg., singing, dancing, acting seems to be a natural extension of what they are playing;
  5. to replace the large traditional operatic orchestral accompanying forces with new electronic music controllers, sensitive to human nuance, such as the Eaton-Moog Multiple-TouchSensitive Keyboards;
  6. to work with new possibilities of lighting and sound reinforcement whenever these enhance the action;
  7. to eventually commission new works by composers which are especially written within the scope of the company;
  8. to design productions so that they can be toured and easily performed in non-traditional spaces.

Ergo, the Eaton Opera Company will be performing with an exceptionally versatile group of instrumentalists and singers cum actors. Such performances, fresh, vital, and accessible, have the potential to win audiences unfamiliar with or uncertain about opera. This combination of the newest music, the finest performance values, and the most diverse audiences addresses the mission of the new company.

See the concert listing for John Eaton's two new operas: Golk and Don Quixote

*Originally it performed as The Pocket Opera Company but changed its name when the founders became aware of a totally different kind of group with that name in the Bay Area.

May/June, 1996

chicago notes

Kathleen Ginther has been invited to be a Visiting Composer at the Utrecht Conservatory of Music in May. She will conduct a composition workshop and present a series of lectures on her work and on new American music; she will also write a new piece for members of the Utrecht Conservatory faculty. In August, Ms. Ginther will travel to Scotland on a grant from the Chicago Artists International Program. The award will take her to remote islands in the Hebrides and Orkney to work on a collaborative project with Scottish visual artist Moira Scott Payne.

Howard Sandroff's work Tephillah will be performed by Alain Damiens (ensemble intercontemporain) at the Paris Opera House on June 15 & 16. Also the premiere of a new work for three clarinets (B, Bb and Eb) will be performed by Larry Combs, John Bruce Yeh, and Julie DeRoche at the International Clarinet Festival/Conference in Paris on or about July 7, 1996.
Cube co-artistic director Patricia Morehead and composer Julian Harvey will participate in the Talloires Composers Festival in Talloires, France, in July.

Sept/Oct, 1996

Conversations with Boulez:
Thoughts on Conducting with Jean Vermeil

Jean Vermeil, Conversations with Boulez: Thoughts on Conducting (Amadeus Press, 1996)
A Review by Frank Abbinanti

"Yes, well, you know how fashions come and go. I think at present people are tired of radical research, of looking radically at society. This is giving rise to a canned-product, crumb-picking kind of art..."

"...All right, maybe it will last only for a blink of an eye, but you know, if you spend your whole life blinking it can ruin your eyesight."

It seems no one has served modernity's impulse longer or as powerfully as Pierre Boulez. It's quite easy now to see him as the "eminence grise" of the institutional world of music. The various directorships he's held reveal this: The New York Philharmonic, and the BBC Orchestra in London, here belatedly The Chicago Symphony, which he admires; and finally in his native France - after some years of exile, he returned to a new home, IRCAM, a highly-subsidized "mecca" for experimental music in Paris.1 Even the insular world of opera has accepted him with token, yet important, productions of Debussy, Berg and Schoenberg operas. Yet Boulez does retain some subversive features, especially when along with fellow Frenchman Patrice Chéreau he directed the Wagner "Ring" Centenary in 1976 causing an impressive scandal2 by up-dating Wagner's myth to the industrial greed of the 19th Century. Boulez did as much as re-think the entire scheme of tempi which he claims hadn't been tried since Herr Wagner.

But the age of conformity and cultural stasis in which we live did much to reduce to accessible levels the avant-garde which harbored Boulez's generation. The avant-garde was lost to an eclectic Post-modern, a tribalist art that craves predictability and popularity. Forgotten are the days when young Pierre led riots at Stravinsky concerts, insisting all Opera houses be burnt to the ground. During these heroic days, right after the war, Boulez had engaged in polemics for a new musical language radicalizing every element, rhythm and surface.3 Anyone who didn't recognize the importance of the 12-tone achievement was not a composer, at least not one to be taken seriously. And Boulez wrote powerful music: for example, his Piano Sonata No. 2. Soon he strained every creative frame he touched, as in his Structures for two pianos and later his masterwork Le marteau sans maître, a chamber setting of the radical poetry of René Char.

In the interim Boulez's creative impulses retreated for an increased schedule of conducting appearances. In the Sixties, after living in Germany for a time he thought he'd return to his native France, bringing new life to France's moribund musical state. But he was shunned by André Malraux, then the cultural Czar.4 However, many well-placed institutional figures began to recognize Boulez's talent, the unique virtuosity and intellectual vigour he brought to a piece of music. It was conductor George Szell in Cleveland that opened the American door, then Sir William Glock in London, Paul Sacher, Heinrich Strobel and Wieland Wagner, who entrusted Boulez with his grandfather's music.

Throughout this exile Boulez has written frequently; he's always around to write program notes. He's given countless interviews, as well as thoughts on his on-going creativity,5 problems in administration, and essays on those he values, such as Debussy, Mallarmé, Adorno and Joyce.6 However, aside from an excellent interview with his conducting student Richard Dufallo,7 there's not much on his own experiences as a conductor. This is exactly the orientation of Jean Vermeil's approach to Boulez and these conversations. Originally published in 1989 from sessions the previous year, this book presents a Boulez willing to speak on a variety of subjects. Chapter headings are "Choosing Works," "Rehearsing," "On Gestures," "France and its Orchestras," "Colleagues," and "Audiences." There are more, but I found these segments the most interesting and unrepetitive from what you might find elsewhere. The English translation includes a reprint of an excellent account by Paul Griffiths, a seasoned new music author, of a master class Boulez had given at Carnegie Hall in 1993 with the Cleveland Orchestra.8 Boulez had guided four apprentice conductors through the pitfalls of Debussy's Jeux and Messiaen's Chronochromie, two works which quickly identify modernist dimensions the conductor must deal with, such as nuanced changes in color, small changes in tempi, orchestral balance, texture, etc. "You forgot your trombones," Boulez decries, as one apprentice belatedly acknowledges them with soft moans of "I know, I know." "You must try to think of everything," Boulez finally advises. Well, knowing everything, Boulez would tell you, means reflecting the analysis of the work you're conducting. Every gesture, no matter how insignificant, is supported by hours of thought and taking the work apart, looking at it from different perspectives. And conducting - we learn from these conversations - is never a "mysterious" art. As Boulez says, "You have to explain your expectations fully to the orchestra. That's what creates such an intense relationship with the musicians."

This translation also includes an (almost) up-to-date "Selection of Programs" conducted by Boulez. It starts in Paris in 1955 at The Marigny Theatre (now quite fashionable) in an event called "Music for Chekov" with Boulez's first beloved employer Jean-Louis Barrault. It continues up to the end of 1995 with The Chicago Symphony. If you know Boulez through his winter residencies here over the past four or five years, you know he has presented a vast number of modernist works. Here he recalls a time in Chicago:

"In very lengthy works, when stamina and breathing become important factors, I go through the whole work as often as is necessary. In Schoenberg's Pelleas und Mellisande, for example, you have to keep going for forty-five minutes. Even with the wonderful Chicago Symphony Orchestra, I went through the whole thing once before the dress rehearsal, and again during the dress rehearsal."

Boulez is not afraid of re-illuminating traditional literature where profound "sins" have been committed, as in the Wagner "Ring" I mentioned, but also in Berlioz's "March to the Scaffold" from the Symphonie fantastique. Here Boulez speaks about the importance of tempo: if it's wrong, everything is wrong.

"It's slower than usual versions, especially the ones you hear in France, where people have been in the habit of racing to the gallows since Munch conducted it. I think that so precipitate a tempo endows the music with an excessively vulgar character. Whereas as one respects the tempo that, after all, Berlioz himself suggested, the "March to the Scaffold" does not become some kind of polka."

Somewhat later, Boulez speaks on "quality":

J. Vermeil - You're saying good quality obtained through solid work is better than dazzling brilliance obtained in a day?

P. Boulez - As for dazzling brilliance, I don't believe in it at all! I can't point to any specific conductor, but how can you be dazzling with disorderly phrasing, with out-of-sync chords and tempos, with muddled entrances? I wouldn't call that dazzling - I'd call it a coverup.

I'd like to consider it prophetic that Boulez focused his life on the conducting world. In a way his life is like a citadel, a place where "high modernity" has a place to realize its implications.9 Often I've experienced an old work, say of Webern or Varèse, performed in concert, followed by a newer work, say of Berio or Cage. I always feel the older work's pioneering content while the newer work inhabits a half-world. There's an uncompromising element which I believe Boulez has brought to his entire career. This is why he is deeply respected by the musicians who perform with him, because his interpretations are definitive.

Some have argued that this is simply another brand of elitism, that Boulez refuses to acknowledge the temper and expressions of the age and refuses to conduct the American works: Elliot Carter is the exception (Carter has deep European roots anyway), but the Cage cadre of expression, minimalism, and any form of "Neo." But Boulez brings convincing arguments. Why return to a "Neo-expressionism"when you might simply return to the real thing? This is why he also refuses to conduct works from Stravinsky's "neo-classic" period, because it is simply a gesture.

One disappointment with Vermeil's conversations was that he didn't include the newer creativity which Boulez does value - for example, the French composers, Dufourt, Manoury, Bonnet.10 No questions venture into these creative realms. Or composers of Boulez's generation which he admires, such as Berio or Ligeti. It would have made interesting reading to learn how Boulez rehearses, for instance, the rhythmic complexity, or how he deals with the orchestral density of these works and balances the thinnest of orchestral moments, or how he deals with works utilizing micro-intervals.

In many respects modernity did need a "citadel" - as I venture to add post-modernism will as well, as it turns into an orthodoxy of the marketplace. Let's hope modernity's content has not been lost, and that music will never lose its sense of orthodoxy after a period of experimentation.


  1. For the most comprehensive account of IRCAM, see Georgina Born, Rationalizing Culture, IRCAM, Boulez and The Institutionalization of the Avant-Garde (University of California, 1995).
  2. For an appraisal of the profundity of this scandal, see Jean-Jacques Nattiez, Tétralogies (Wagner, Boulez, Chéreau), essai sur l'infidélité (Paris:Christian Bourgeois, 1983).
  3. For a good reflection on the young Boulez see André Hodeir, Since Debussy: A View of Contemporary Music (New York: Grove Press, 1961).
  4. You can read Boulez's response to Malraux (if you read French) in "Why I Say No to André Malraux," Nouvel Observateur, May 25, 1966.
  5. See Boulez's published lectures on composition, Jalons (Steps): Dix ans d'enseignement au Collège de France 1979-1988.
  6. See Pierre Boulez, Orientations (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986).
  7. See Trackings: Composers Speak to Richard Dufallo (Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 191-202.
  8. See New Yorker, April 12, 1993.
  9. For a good account of the implications for modernity see Jürgen Habermas, "Modernity - An Incomplete Project," The Anti-Aesthetic, ed. by Hal Foster (Bay Press, 1983).
  10. If you're curious about the French new music scene, not only IRCAM, see Paris Arts on Seine, ed. by William Mahder (Paris: Editions Autrement, 1985).

Sept/Oct, 1996

The American Composers Forum

The American Composers Forum (formerly the Minnesota Composers Forum) is expanding its national presence by creating local chapters. So far, there are chapters in Boston, New York, and Chicago. Future chapters are in the planning stages. The Chicago chapter is trying to cross the many gaps between the different new music communities in the city. We are reaching out to jazz and classical composers, performance artists, sound sculptors and improvisational musicians who are interested in expanding their communities. We have monthly meetings which can have guest lectures/performances, "show and tell" of the member's work, or they can simply be business meetings. On November 17, we have our first concert planned for the Lunar Cabaret as past of the ACF's "Sonic Circuits" series and will feature electronic music (taped, interactive, improvisational). The ACF sponsors over twenty programs which can help emerging composers in their careers. If you are interested in becoming involved, contact Keith Carpenter via email or phone at 312.866.0784.

Nov/Dec, 1996

Composers Corner
A modest proposal by Janice Misurell-Mitchell

A recent editorial in the Chicago Tribune spoke of funding for the NEA, even when functioning at its fullest, as "never more than a spit in the ocean." (Tribune, 8/30/96). Yet most of us who are deeply involved in the arts bemoan the loss of government support. We point out all the good things the NEA can do: support the community band, the ballet companies, the theatre companies, the orchestras, and so on. We tell them the art of Robert Mapplethorpe isn't at all representative of current American photography, and that if we want to insure freedom of expression we must include the offensive with the inoffensive. We speak, we sing, we dance, we write, we make pictures, we make sounds, and still our hats are empty. Isn't it time to change our tune?

Perhaps we should spend our time developing our links with the foundations, corporations and private donors, looking for that "angel" who will help us realize our most ambitious plans, or at least regular funders whom we can count on for the most basic operations. Or we can seek refuge in that restrictive, parsimonious but reliable patron, the university, who can give us space, equipment, publicity and, if we're lucky, an audience.

We can assist business in enhancing America's image, through art, not only in the boardroom but through better design, both of products and advertising. Or we can focus on our social consciences and encourage the creation of art in the less affluent urban areas.

We can help people meditate, contemplate (supply your own) and generally feel good about themselves. Or we can say, "art is art is art," or, "I know what I like! (And I like what I know.)"

Art as entertainment, art as education, art as religion, art as art-all of these, in a myriad of mixtures and relationships.

These are generally TAME, acceptable beliefs. But isn't the purpose of art also to mock, attack and illuminate the behavior of the society from which it comes? Isn't art also a human activity, and frequently also a social activity? And as a human and social activity, it is part of a larger society. It helps to define that society to the rest of the world, both in its popular art and its "serious" art forms. In the U.S. the popular form is well-supported - it's the serious art, being less commercial, that is getting shortshrifted. Yet it's the serious art that is often a source for the popular art. Therefore, shouldn't its importance be recognized by giving it substantial funding?

If you answer in the affirmative, then you will probably enjoy the following, very modest proposal. But first a little history. In an "Op-Ed" piece in the Chicago Tribune in 1977, Wayne C. Booth, professor emeritus of the Department of English at the University of Chicago, proposed that we establish a tax on television networks the proceeds of which would go directly to funding education. His reasoning was that since TV is one of the major culprits in discouraging reading and writing among schoolkids, it should be taxed to pay for the damage it has caused and to help improve the situation.

Similarly, the popular music industry, the movie industry, the television industry -they're all doing very well, thank you - while we in the arts, aside from a limited number of major institutions and well-established individuals, are not. Therefore in the spirit of the still-viable idea of progressive taxation, I propose that we tax each industry to pay for the wrongs it has done. Put another way, one institution in society must pay for the rewards it receives at the expense of another, equally important, institution. Let's start close to home.

According to the 1995 Annual Report of the Recording Industry Association of America, in the United States alone, 90% of all sales of recorded music, including movie soundtracks and music videos, totaled $12,322,300,000. Of this amount, sales of classical music totaled 2.9%, and jazz, 3%. (Small wonder we have a problem getting audiences for new music!) If we eliminate these percentages from the total sales, we can saythat roughly 94% of the total, or $11,582,962,000, comes from popular sources. If, for example, we taxed these amounts at the rate of 2%, a $17.00 compact disc would cost $17.34-a noticeable increase, but not a burden. That rate of 2% would translate into $231,659,240 as funds available for non-commercial (or "serious") music. By comparison, the amount of funding given the NEA for 1995 was $162,000,000; the amount given for music programs (composition and performance) was roughly $6,300,000 . (Statistics courtesy of the office of Representative Sidney Yates, the Harold Washington Library, and the Recording Industry Association of America.)

If you like this idea, think about applying it to the other artforms. If 2% of Hollywood revenues went to live drama, we could have a theatre on every corner-and Hollywood should of course pay for experimental cinema, and perhaps also art museums, galleries, and community art centers. And wouldn't it be interesting to write in a clause that they couldn't raise ticket prices to cover it?

A special tax on conglomerates like Microsoft could pay for computers in the public schools throughout the U.S. A similar tax on major news networks (now owned by the likes of Disney and General Electric) could help pay for that rapidly vanishing species, the city newspaper, and maybe also the alternative newspaper. Someone recently suggested to me that professional sports teams in this country should support dance. One could make up fascinating pairings, and some have already been done: cigarette companies paying for lung cancer treatment; the fashion industry paying for the treatment of anorexiaÉ

But returning to the matter at hand, I realize that there will be questions of how to implement this policy. I'll propose a couple of ideas, but I think that we must not get lost in mechanics; let's not lose sight of our main goal: to fund the arts with substantially more money than they now receive. States already collect sales taxes, so the collection of this revenue need not be different. The money would have to go to a national fund, but that shouldn't be an impossibility. As for the allocation of the funds, this can be handled pretty much the way it is handled already, through government arts agencies. I don't think that we need any more arts agencies than we have now-they're already in place, they know how to select artists and they know how to run programs-it's just that they haven't had any money for quite a while. This gives them something to work with. This is just an idea that I thought would be interesting to throw out to our CUBE Calendar audience. It is here to be talked about, joked about, modified, expanded, refined, whatever our readership wants to do. It's not an ideal-an ideal would be a different social, political and economic structure where this wouldn't be necessary. But this is practical and it works within the system. Say it loud and be proud: TAX AND SPEND ON ART.

Nov/Dec, 1996

Composers' Round Table

The American Composers Forum and CUBE will host distinguished composer-theorists Pozzi Escot and Robert Cogan of the New England Conservatory for a composers round table in the auditorium of the Goethe-Institut Chicago, 2nd floor, 401 N. Michigan Ave., from 5:30 to 7 PM Thursday, November 21, with reception to follow. Everyone welcome, admission free. For information call Keith Carpenter at (312) 866-0784 or Patricia Morehead at (312) 554-1133.

Nov/Dec, 1996

Special Notice

On Friday, November 8 and Saturday, November 9, at 8 PM, the DePaul Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of its music director Cindy Egolf-ShamRao, will present an all twentieth-century program featuring the music of two Chicago composers. Luminaria, by CUBE co-artistic director Janice Misurell-Mitchell, will be receiving its US premiere. The work will be released in 1997 on the Master Musicians Collective compact disc series, with the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra performing, Vladimir Valek, conductor. Concertino for Flute and Orchestra, by Lita Grier, will be performed by flutist Mary Stolper, soloist. The work was expanded from an earlier work for flute through a commission by the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra and American Women Composers, Midwest. It received its premiere in April of this year. The program will also include Dark Towers by Daniel McCarthy and Six Pieces for Orchestra, Opus 6, by Webern. Admission is free. The DePaul University Concert Hall is located at 800 W. Belden Avenue, Chicago.

Nov/Dec, 1996

American Composers Forum

The American Composers Forum (formerly the Minnesota Composers Forum) is expanding its national presence by creating local chapters. So far, there are chapters in Boston, New York, and Chicago. Future chapters are in the planning stages. The Chicago chapter is trying to cross the many gaps between the different new music communities in the city. We are reaching out to jazz and classical composers, performance artists, sound sculptors and improvisational musicians who are interested in expanding their communities. We have monthly meetings which can have guest lectures/performances, "show and tell" of the member's work, or they can simply be business meetings. On November 17, we have our first concert planned for the Lunar Cabaret as past of the ACF's "Sonic Circuits" series and will feature electronic music (taped, interactive, improvisational). The ACF sponsors over twenty programs which can help emerging composers in their careers. If you are interested in becoming involved, contact Keith Carpenter via email (dated address: or phone at 312.866.0784.