Monday 27 April 2009


Bit of an odd one here. Have little time to write a proper post. Will quickly just round up all the interesting things that have happened to me. Well I met Emma Thompson when I was working up the top of York Minster's Tower. Apart from that my life has been rather boring so I thought I'd post an Essay I recently wrote about the influence on the Darmstadt school (Boulez, Stockhausen and Berio) and whether the term Darmstadt school was relevant in their case and what it's musical aesthetic was. Hardly the most influential piece of writing ever but certainly not the worst.

The summer of 1945 was a turning point for music. After the musical explosion and revolution of the early 1900’s music had become stagnant throughout the war periods. From the bombed out cities of Europe there was a call for new work, a fresh start. The centre of this desire for the new in music settled on a small town in Germany. The Darmstadt Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik created by Wolfgang Steinecke provided an opportunity for the young composers of the period to meet and exchange new ideas. Indeed it turned out to be the most important catalyst in the rise of the European Avant-Garde, from which emerged Pierre Boulez, Karl-Heinz Stockhausen and Luciano Berio, who along with others became known as ‘The Darmstadt School’. This essay will set out the work of each composer and discuss their similarities and differences, to assess the validity of the label and examine what are ultimately the aesthetic characteristics of this school.

The oldest of the three was Pierre Boulez, who in 1945 as a precociously gifted 20 year old had already studied with Olivier Messiaen (another catalyst in the music of the time). The most important moment in the life of the young Boulez was the February 1945 performance of Schoenberg’s Wind Quintet (1923) conduced by Rene Lebiowitz , his first taste of serialism. Griffiths describes Boulez’s language of this event as nigh on a “religious conversion” . It is easy to see why, given the content of his works after the Sonatine for Flute and Piano (1946) and the 2nd Piano Sonata (1947-48), which use completely as well as extend the serial technique by the division of the series into cells which could be expanded. His initial impetus came from Schoenberg; however his early work is more influenced by Webern, especially the use of the series to create a more intervallic texture. However, as Griffiths points out: “direct imitation was never Boulez’s way, and it makes little sense to define his serial technique as ‘post-Webernian’” .
In fact this is a key part of Boulez’s working. He himself said: “you assimilate what attracts you, whilst rejecting constraints that don’t seem fruitful enough” . This ideal, whilst engaging in polemical rants (especially in the early years) against the ‘constraints’, seemed to be Boulez’s main compositional spur in the 50’s. The Sonatine is, on the whole, a rejection of aspects of Schoenberg and Webern and the Second Piano Sonata is a reaction against classical forms. He even rejected himself; Structures Ib and Ic (1952) are reactions against the automatic workings of Structures Ia.
It is quite odd considering that Boulez’s name is most associated with Darmstadt, that he did not attend until 1952 (it had been running since 1947). As Osmond-Smith says “[Boulez] already had a formidable body of compositions to his credit, and the publication of the second piano sonata in 1950” . However from then on he was a regular attendee and then lecturer at the courses. It was the regular interaction with other composers which brought him into contact with composers like Stockhausen, and arguably helped in his development of musical style.

“What counts in the creative act isn’t only developing oneself or coming up with a variation on the pre-existent baggage of tradition, but rather adhering to the original process of invention” . This adage seems to sum up the compositional process of Karl-Heinz Stockhausen perfectly, the man that through all of his pieces up to the monumental Licht series (1974-2003) kept developing and extending his compositional technique into new territories and ideas. This multiplicity of musical languages was crucial to Stockhausen, just as Boulez’s search for a definitive new musical language was to him.
Stockhausen’s willingness and imagination meant he was often on the pulse of the avant-garde. Kruezspeil (1951) was a key piece in the development of integrated serialism, and he was at the front of the Elektronische Musik movement in Cologne, but never to for away from the Musique Concrete of Paris. His Piano Piece XI (1956) was vital in the development of mobile form, and at the same time started a swing towards the music of Cage in the European Avant-Garde. He was also instrumental in Darmstadt’s two changes of focus, from Schoenberg to Webern in 1953 (along with Boulez), and from Webern to Cage in 1958, convincing Steinecke to invite Cage over to replace the absent Boulez, which started a gradual slide away from serialism and the first nail in the coffin for ‘the Darmstadt School’ (the other being the death of Wolfgang Steinecke in 1961). As the pianist David Tudor (a close friend of Cage) said: “he’s our man in Europe” , and although he never really adopted Cageian principles in full (the 70’s saw a return to melody with his ‘formula technique’) he certainly dabbled with the ‘New York School’ more than any other member of the ‘Darmstadt School’

Just as Berg was known as the human face of the Second Viennese school it is arguable that Berio held the same position in the 'Darmstadt School'. Griffiths, talking about his Requies says it is “beautiful (but then that is a word claimed by almost everything Berio has produced)” . It is true that Berio’s music is much more accessible then Stockhausen or Boulez, especially the pieces such as the Sinfonia (1968-69), which suspend our relationship with the past by juxtaposing the old with the new.
Berio, like Stockhausen had been introduced to Serialism at Darmstadt though through Bruno Maderna, later to become a collaborator at the RAI studio in Milan. However even in the early days of total serialism he managed to avoid the polemical rants of Boulez whilst never really diving fully into total serialism. Of this he said: “As far as I was concerned the serial experience never represented the utopia of a language and so it could never be reduced to a norm or to a restricted combination of materials” . This, interestingly, is what Boulez was trying to achieve, and Berio's serial thought, whilst related to that of Stockhausen and Boulez is obviously a completely different strand, in which plurality is key.

After putting the composers in context this essay will now compare the composers over a number of different areas to analyse better the similarities and differences between them.

Serial thought is the obvious common ground in any assessment of the ‘Darmstadt School’ and indeed the most important as it is the fundamental bedrock of the European Avant-Garde in the 1950’s onwards. Serial thought was a philosophy which embraced not just music but also poetry and writing in general. Umberto Eco is perhaps the greatest writer on serial thought and indeed on open form, another important cross art-form philosophy. On the fundamental concepts of serial thought he says:

“Every work of art is the linguistic foundation of itself, the discussion of its own poetic system…the whole notion of plurality of meaning overturns the Cartesian axes of the horizontal and the vertical…the effect of serial thinking is the evolution of new codes, not a progressive recoil to the original foundational code”

This quote boils down serial thought very well, and also seems to sum up the three composers’ attitudes to composition in the post war period: the establishment of a new compositional practices and moving away from what had gone before. However a general summing up of the practice of Serial thought cannot completely define the music of the Darmstadt school.
If we examine Eco’s quote we find slight differences in interpretation of serial thought from the three composers. A glaring example of this is in the last sentence of the quote above ‘the effect of serial thinking is the evolution of new codes’. This definitely sums up Stockhausen’s musical thinking, that there are a vast number of new musical codes to be discovered and utilised. Boulez on the other hand was aiming for a single unified musical language. Thus in some ways, whilst uniting the composers together, serial thought also highlighted the ways in which they were different. Thus serial thought by itself cannot really be used to justify the labelling of the Darmstadt school.

The fact that these composers were grouped together, at least in philosophical terms meant that, inspired by each other we see them all moving through the same new compositional devices at around the same time. As has already been well documented the starting block for all three was total serialism. The attention then turned to electronic music, with Boulez’s Etude’s (1951) and Stockhausen’s Studien (1955). The attention then turned to mobile form in the 1960’s with Stockhausen’s Piano Piece XI (1955), Boulez’s Piano Sonata No. 3 (1955-57), and Berio’s Passagio (1961-62).
There were many detours from this, especially in the case of Stockhausen for whom these were just one of many new compositional techniques he used in every piece. However the above serves as a very rough timeline for the development of the schools compositional thought. Berio summed up the situation by saying “We were interested in the same things and rejected broadly the same things” . If anything this is the wrong way round, this has shown that they were all ‘broadly interested’ in the same things whilst through serial though they rejected the same principles together.

One of the most interesting and important innovations of post war music and one that shows up very well the differences between the members of the Darmstadt School was that of electronic music. Electronic music is closely wrapped up with the Darmstadt school and all three were closely involved, indeed earned a living through it.
Stockhausen’s Electronic music is as varied as his instrumental music. His starting point was the splicing of sine waves in different ratios in Studie I and II, a completely different approach to the transformations of sounds in the Parisian Musique Conréte. However it was the Gesang der Jünglinge (1955-6) which set the way for the rest of his electronic music. Griffiths says of Gesang “In using natural alongside synthetic sound Stockhausen mediated…between the Musique Conréte of Paris and the Elektronische Musik of Cologne, opening the middle ground for exploration” . It is obvious that what Griffiths calls the ‘middle ground’ between the two is vitally important in the development of Stockhausen’s electronic music, especially in his later approaches starting with Mikrophonie I in 1964, which combined live sounds generated from a Tam-Tam altered in Real time by electronics, indeed through this mediation between natural and synthetic, it is easy to see it as looking ahead to a time when live electronic manipulation would be possible.
Stockhausen used electronic music as a key focus of his compositional development and aesthetic. Boulez and Berio’s both had official connections with electronic music, Boulez with IRCAM and Berio with RAI and later at IRCAM. However both composed only a limited repertoire for the medium. Berio’s most well known Electronic piece Omaggio a Joyce (1958) is obviously inspired by Gesang, even if it is just in the idea of matching human voice with electronics (in this case his wife Cathy Berberian), as again with Visage (1961). However after this his electronic work is limited, despite work as the Head of Electro acoustic music at IRCAM from 1974-80 and other similar positions. Likewise Boulez had a few early pieces, Etude sur un son and Etude sur sept sons (1951), there was a long gap with the exception of the 1958 Poesie pour pouvoir, until the IRCAM years before he focused on electronic music again. Griffiths says of this that after his first foray with the Etudes his attitude towards electronic music thereafter was “tempered with misgivings” whilst Boulez himself said there was a “confrontation with an uncharted material which was impossible to supervise… that suggested no standard unit in time, space or pitch” , which seems to affirm Griffiths’ point. Maybe this is the reason for both Boulez’s and Berio's lack of compositions for the medium, they were both involved heavily with, both feeling that electronics were still very new and undefined. However Stockhausen’s ‘Originator’ method of working allied itself very well with discovering the undiscovered and indeed was more a help rather than a hinderance in discovering the new sound world. Thus, overall, despite differences between the three. Electronic music was a key part of the Darmstadt aesthetic.

The relationship between words and music was another area which developed after the war and was taken upon by the members of the Darmstadt school. Boulez developed his technique in the early Char Cantatas. However it is Le Marteau sans Maître (1953-55) which really captures the essence of Boulez’s relationship between the two. Here the poem is the basis which the music is based around, however at the same time it is absent from it. This disembodied approach is very similar to the one tried by Berio, most famously in his Sequenza I (1958), whilst in Le Marteau Boulez uses Chars disjointed poetry to great effect, here the words themselves are broken up, an effect best seen in Circles. Here there are settings of Joyce in a palindromic form, where the syntax breaks up towards the middle.
Stockhausen on the other hand was unhappy with this. He saw comprehensibility, something Boulez and Berio treated with some but comparatively little order, as another thing to be completely organised. This view was further enhanced after his study with Walter Mayer-Eppler at Bonn University. Thus by Gesang as Kurtz says he was able to order voice and electronics in “a timbre continuum extending from the sine tone to white noise” . This was a completely new perspective on the human voice. It is obvious from the way that Boulez and Berio use the human voice that they treat it as something special, something different. However Stockhausen treats the human voice and its unique characteristics as just another collection of sine tones to be altered, although it still does have a resonance that no other instrument can provide.

Throughout all of this period, though there was marked a gradual dealignment within the school, it was clear that there was a burning desire to create new music of a certain type, a new tradition. However the split came in the process used to compose, not the composition itself. Stockhausen since his very first electronic piece had become increasingly fascinated with the nature of sound, from his initial work on Sine Waves in the Parisian and Cologne Studios, through past the work that lead to Gruppen (1955-57) and his discovery of the relationship between pitch and rhythm to the search for the microstructure of a sound wave in Mikrophonie I (1964-65).
Boulez was however more concerned with creating a new tradition out of the ashes of post-Webernian and Bergian serialism. However in some ways Boulez was the most ‘traditional’ of the three, ruggedly sticking to forms, compositional devices and instrumentation which were, despite their ingenuity only extended from their use in the music of 1900-1945. This clashed with Stockhausen’s belief of the multifarious compositional devices available to the composer. In some ways Berio was a mix between the two, indeed there are times where he has been inspired by one or the other composer, such as his relationship between words and music, as above very influenced by Boulez whilst what little Electronic music there is shows signs of Gesang about it. However Berio is always a little detached from the group, his style of composition, the dramatic edge as seen in the not only the theatre pieces but also the Sequenzas sets him slightly apart from the other two.

So ultimately can the Darmstadt School Label be defended? Labelling of groups tends to be a feature of western music, allowing an order to be established in an otherwise maze of music history. It is true that collecting Boulez, Stockhausen and Berio in the same group is more problematic than collecting say Reich, Glass and Adams under the label ‘minimalist’, (Minimalism is based on a collective musical aesthetic rather than a collective background though, then there are still problems) they are ultimately three composers from three different countries with three very different musical backgrounds, that right very different music. However whilst there music may be outwardly different, as noted above, all three composers do start off from the same point, with ultimately the same intention, to start music afresh and whilst doing so go through some of the same new compositional areas. We are once again back at Berio's quote: “We were interested in the same things and rejected broadly the same things” .
It has to be noted as well that the label, the ‘New York School’ centred around Cage across the Atlantic is widely established and often used. The New York School were again a group of composers ascribing to a set of principles whilst not writing exactly the same kinds of music, thus it gives precedence to this. The label ‘Darmstadt School’ has its problems. However overall it is definitely a valid one and can be defended.
What then is the Schools Musical Aesthetic? Ultimately it is a desire for the new, not the old, in terms of form, tonality, melody and instrumentation, whilst still keeping this to a large extent within the old concert environment. And it is (with the exception of a few Stockhausen pieces from the late 60’s as already noted above) a champion for order over chaos, even the mobile form pieces like Boulez’s Third Sonata are fixed to a certain extent. This strong aesthetic overcomes any differences the three composers may have and creates an adequate defence for the labelling of their ‘school’.

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