The European Avant-Garde Marches On February 4, 1980

Boulez, Stockhausen, Penderecki, Berio, Xenakis. The names sound so familiar, yet many of their works have never been presented here. And when there is a major New York performance, such as the first complete version of Boulez’s massive ‘Pli selon Pli’ last year, it’s not as though tens of thousands turn out to buy tickets. Something has changed since the days when Mahler, Sibelius, Rachmaninoff, and even Schoenberg were practically idolized on these shores, even though they were still alive.

One of the changes is that as we Americans have gradually developed greater confidence in our own cultural resources, we have become less intimidated by those across the Atlantic. Even in areas like classical music, which are purely European in origin. It is true that orchestra boards continue to give preference to Europeans when they appoint conductors, but it is also true that critics now speak out against this custom more strongly and more confidently than ever before. Most Americans just don’t feel culturally inferior anymore. And a by-product of this feeling is that we now tend, often unconsciously, to regard Europe as an alien culture. We have our European roots, but we also have plenty of African roots, and have assumed a number of Asian traditions as well, and by now none of those continents are as important to us as our own. We may continue to be interested in them and influenced by them, but we don’t identify with them, and Europe is one of them. Or one of them.

But people who are trying to let go of apron strings are likely to overdo it for a while, and that explains another by-product of the development, namely our relative lack of interest in recent European musical developments. Of course, we know the names of the famous living European composers. We even know some of their music. But those styles actually stem from the ’50s and ’60s. European developments of the ’70s remain largely unknown here, and even rather difficult to find out about. I had done a little inquiring in this area, and developed a couple of working theories, but it wasn’t until Stephen Montague gave a concert-lecture on younger European composers at Brooklyn College this fall that I was able to develop this point of view.

Montague is an American pianist and composer who has been living in England for some years, tours the continent regularly, and keeps in touch with new music activity all over Europe. The taped excerpts and projections he presented that night reflected some personal biases. Jazz-based styles and improvised idioms were neglected, for example. Still, the presentation uncovered a lot of first-rate creative talent.

Roman Berger (Czech, b. 1930). A man who had an influential position in Czech culture in the mid-’60s and paid for it with a 10-year jail term. His recent electronic music is technologically a little behind the times, but it carries an emotional depth that I have never heard in any American music.

Ann Boyd (British, b. 1945). Delicate piano music. Soft, sparse, and mostly on white notes. Morton Feldman without dissonances.

Gary Carpenter (British, b. 1951). Soft orchestral work. Lovely colors and rich sounds. A relatively static texture that seems to reflect gamelan music as well as American minimalism.

Hans Joachim Hespos (West German, b. 1938). Raucous music for four antiphonal orchestras. He assaults the audience on four sides and seems to be very angry about something. A type of brashness that would seem totally unjustified in America, but which is apparently taken quite seriously in Europe.

Zygmunt Krauze (Polish, b. 1938). Music for piano and orchestra with everyone following a basic melodic line. Coloristic invention and special instrumental techniques, but also a concern for simpler folk traditions.

Helmut Lachenmann (West German, b. 1935). Very soft orchestral sounds that studiously avoid using the instruments in traditional ways. Some of the whishes, thumps, and squeaks are quite ingenious and reflect a Cage-like acceptance of all possible sounds. A Warsaw audience is heckling loudly in the background.

Serban Nichifor (Romanian, b. 1954). Music for string quartet that seems to stem from folk music. But rather than directly borrowing specific rhythms and melodies, as Bartok did, the composer works only with the modes and emotions of folk music.

Joseph Anton Riedl (West German, b. 1926). An older composer who continues to create multi-media environments, a medium now generally considered old-hat in Europe, as here. Yet his highly subsidized mazes, giant balloons, and excellent instrumentalists can be quite impressive, and the work is frequently presented.

Jean-Claude Risset (French, b. 1938). Super-clean electronic gurglings produced by computer. So polished technologically as to seem almost sterile, and yet there is some emotional impulse behind the sound.

Krzysztof Zarebski (Polish, b. 1939). Performance art activities with instrumental noises, bizarre theatrical images, and some nudity. Political messages are no doubt imbedded in the material.

Despite the variety in this music, much of it has standard or official quality. In general, it is scored for standard orchestral instruments or produced in official electronic music studios, and it reflects the official money that flows so bounteously through official European channels. Remember that the West German government provides approximately 45 times as much financial assistance to artistic activities as the American government does, and that it subsidizes about 40 festivals of new music every year. Remember that radio organizations throughout Europe produce special programs of contemporary classical music for which composers are quite well paid, and that composers’ organizations, particularly in Eastern Europe, dispense stipends to their members with a generosity unheard of here. Remember that there is, and long has been, a kind of cultural competitiveness in Europe, and that this requires each country to try to surpass the others in creative genius. According to Montague, one relatively unknown composer still in his twenties recently received a commission worth some $15,000 to write a nine-minute orchestra piece.

The European composers tend to write for orchestra and other established mediums and to create electronic works in well-equipped, state-supported studios because these facilities are available to them. But Americans like Philip Glass, Robert Rutman, and David Behrman work with their own ensembles, with homemade instruments, and with homemade electronic gear because that’s all they have.

The European composers generally write music for others to play, because fine performers are available and the composers are sufficiently paid through commissions and royalties. But Americans like Charlemagne Palestine perform their own music, since they must rely on performance fees to make ends meet.

European audiences tend to assume that talented composers will rise up through the ranks and receive orchestral commissions, and are suspicious of renegades who might want to make music with rubber bands or an ocarina ensemble. American audiences tend to assume that talented composers will find some ingenious way to make music, and are suspicious of those who have the audacity to write for symphony orchestra or to ask for lavish technological support. In a way, it would probably be as hard for a young European to find support for a wine-bottle orchestra as it is for a young American to obtain an orchestral commission. Obviously, it is quite possible to come up with good musical products through either the European system or the American system. But they will be different sorts of products.

It seems to me, though, that the biggest difference between the recent European and American music has less to do with economics than with emotions. A non-emotional, non-self-expressive coolness has swept over classical American music in the last few decades. One can hear it in the works of Milton Babbitt as well as those of John Cage, and one can hear it even more clearly in the formalism or minimalism of Philip Corner or Alvin Lucier or Phill Niblock or other members of the 1980/frederic-rzewskis-thirteen-studies American generation. This is not to say that there are no feelings in the American repertoire. But the music is not really about feelings, and current European works generally are.

This is not always true of the British. Certainly the British music Montague presented that night was rather cool. In everything else, however, I sensed that the music was coming from strong emotional impulses of one sort or another. I felt a little distant from it, and I felt it was a cultural distance that many other American listeners would share.

I suspect that the new music audience in America would have as much trouble relating to the emotional concerns of Berger, Hespos, or Nichifor, as the local Balanchine and Cunningham audiences had in relating to Bejart. There are strong cultural reasons why American promoters and conductors have not gone out of their way to introduce us to much of the recent European repertoire, and why the composers Montague presented that night are largely unknown here. Still, it’s unfortunate we’re so ignorant of so much talent.

Economics. Emotions. American ignorance. Those seem to be the main points, at least as far as the classically based, non-improvised idioms are concerned. Yet many questions remain. To what extent has European music really been influenced by American innovations in the past decade? Why have so many European composers continued to concern themselves with personal emotional expression while American composers generally don’t? Is it because they are still having a hard time escaping from 19th-century traditions? Or is it because they have been able to retain an essential musical value that Americans have lost sight of? What are the specific advantages and disadvantages inherent in lavish subsidy for new music? Montague’s sampling had been most instructive, but I wanted to find out more.

I obtained a recording of the First Symphony of Peter Schat, the 44-year-old Dutch composer who received his first major American exposure last summer when his new opera was premiered at Aspen. The symphony uses a large orchestra in largely traditional ways, but there is something fresh. Schat, who is clearly based in post-Schoenberg, post-Webern atonal techniques, has retreated somewhat from the angst usually associated with this orientation and found a style that once again embodies warm melodies and poignant harmonics, and even makes room for what sounds like a harmonica solo.

I spoke with several American friends who seem to know everything about new music, hoping to obtain a few additional names and insights. But the only younger European composers they seemed to know much about or have much interest in were born in America or had adopted the do-it-yourself methods common here. Like Gilius van Bergeyk, a Dutch composer who punches his music out on rolls of paper to be played on a barrel organ. Or Eliane Radigue, who presents her electronic music in specially controlled situations. Or Tamia, the young French singer who has evolved her own vocabulary of vocal techniques. Trying to find out about Berger or Nichifor from them was as frustrating as trying to gather such information in reference books or record stores.

I thought about Walter Zimmermann, a young West German composer who used to be particularly concerned with new American music, and had even compiled a book of interviews with American experimenters. For some time his own music developed along similar lines, but now he’s working on a series called ‘Lokale Musik,’ in which he transforms German folk songs into concert pieces. The results are refined, classical, and hard to play, though landler rhythms and polka harmonies can still be heard. It is clear that this return to folk traditions in Zimmermann’s music, as in that of other European composers, is related to the roots phenomenon so familiar here. But it is also clear that there are special motivations to turn in that direction on a continent where folk cultures are rapidly disappearing, and where artists have taken an interest in such things ever since Wagner and the Grimm brothers.

I thought about some composers I met recently in Cologne. They all seemed to survive as composers relatively easily, with the help of commissions from the radio, research grants, and performance fees. Yet they seemed rather frustrated too. Large fees do not guarantee large audiences, and they seemed to have at least as much trouble actually getting their music across to the public as young composers do here.

I also thought about Krzysztof Knittel, a young Polish composer I met two years ago. I remembered a tape he had played me of a political theater piece he had written involving a confrontation between a tuba player and a policeman. I remembered how interested he had become in some of the stripped-down minimalist statements he encountered in America and how he had decided to write a long piece based on a single drone tone. I also remembered my astonishment when he sent me a tape of the piece. The music consisted of one sustained sound, all right, but it was not at all like the sustained sounds we have heard in works by La Monte Young or Pauline Oliveros. This sustained sound somehow carried with it a number of implications, tensions, meanings. The sound did not just drone on, tuning into the universe, the way American drones often seem to. It vibrated intensely, as if it might burst out of its tight shell at any moment.

And I remembered a subsequent conversation with the composer. We had been talking about the piece and about some of the differences between European and American music in general, and suddenly I felt I could put it into words. ‘It seems to me that we have many ideas in common, but that we don’t have too many feelings in common.’ He paused for a moment, and then almost agreed. ‘Yes, maybe it’s something like that.’ I guess my remark sounded like one of those American drone tones. Just a little too clear, a little too sparse, a little too homemade to really satisfy him the way it satisfied me.


Making a living as a composer in Europe is not as easy as I imagined at this time, but much of this article seems to me to be valid even today.