MEIRION BOWEN - Articles & Publications


Elliott Schwartz

BRITAIN HAS IN THE PAST been harshly labelled das Land ohne Musik: a more accurate observation, now on examining programmes of contemporary music in this country, would be that it is das Land ohne amerikanische Musik. We still hear predominantly the works of Europe-orientated figures like Barber and Copland: music by American composers who have struck paths outside the horizons of Sibelius, Stravinsky or Webern, is slow to penetrate these shores. How many musicians (let alone members of the general public) are at all aquain- ted with the work of Henry Brant, or Otto Luening, or Harry Partch? And these are of the older generation. Any number of younger names are available, among whom is Elliott Schwartz, who was until recently practically unheard of over here. That he should have come to this country was the work of the American Music Society - about which a few words might be first worthwhile.

The society started life in 1963 as the American Re- corded Music Society, which presented record recitals of American music and lectures about some of the leading composers. Nearly two years later, it metamorphosed into the American Music Society, whose basic aim was to enable English audiences to meet in the flesh, composers from the United States, hear them give (if possible, illustrated) talks about their own music. The society soon widened its scope to include complete recitals of American music. Among those who appeared were Larry Austin, Morton Feldman, George Barati and Stuart Dempster. The society in addition began exchanges of English and American musicians - English music needs promotion in the States, too - and so it was that Elliott Schwartz came to Trinity College in London for the 1967 Autumn Term, having swopped with Richard Arnell, who went to Bowdoin College.

Schwartz figured in a concert arranged by the society at the American Embassy last December, which also included works by Milton Babbitt, Earle Brown, Morton Subotnick, Cornelius Cardew and Britten. A distinct success, the concert was played to a large and responsive audience.

Elliott Schwartz is a composer worth getting to know. In a sense, he belongs to one of the mainstreams of music in the United States, rather than what more conventional minds regard as the lunatic fringe. While he is not an out-and-out dadaist like Cage, his work opens its doors to the dadaist gesture. He belongs to a defin- able tradition, one that can be traced back to Charles Ives. In fact the work which had the greatest formative influence upon him early in his career was Ives' The Unanswered Question.

Born in New York in 1936, Sehwartz started playing the piano and composing 'terrible little pieces' at about the age of seven. He wrote lengthy, ornate, unplayable works, filIing the pages with notes, taking sheer delight in their calligraphic quality as much as interest in how they would sound. Piano music remained his main concern until college days, but a musical career then was far from his mind. Following in his father's footsteps he began studying medicine at Columbia University, and there developed also his interest in literature and the theatre. The urge to compose asserted itself after about a year and a half at college. With the help of Otto Luening, he was transferred to the music course, where he took, as well as the current syllabus, all the prerequisite studies he had missed.

Although he studied with Luening, Jack Beeson, Paul Creston and Henry Brant, Schwartz would be more incliined to regard himself as self-taught. In this respect, he is complimenting his teachers: Luening, especially, ncted more as an adviser to whom he could take works for suggestions as to how, on their own terms, they could be improved. Not that he was way-out in those days: he was, in fact, so relieved to get back to music that he derived great satisfaction from sonata form and pastiche, for instance.

While at college, however, Schwartz became fascinated with composers whose ideas took them outside the Viennese tradition, even though they were utilising the common chord. Ives was one, Satie was another. Interestingly, too, Vaughan Williams took his fancy, and he wrote a dissertation on the symphonies of Vaughan Williiams which he later turned into a book. Schwartz saw him as a kind of English equivalent to Ives. This might raise some eyebrows in, Britain, but he was not at all aware of RVW's insular, English qualities, and less off-put by the Brahmsian aspect also. What appealed to him was RVW's use of the common chord and modal, non-diatonic, non-chromatic melodies, in ways which seemed to have little reference to Teutonic precedent. In spite of the gaucheness of the orchestration, he finds RVW's symphonies, the Two-Piano Concerto etc texturally exciting, and his affection extends also, in these respects, to the music of Holst. Yet RVW's Pastoral Symphony would be characteristic of an attachment that has remained with him always.

As far as European composers are concerned, Schwartz has been most drawn to those 'flawed' figures whose reach exceeded their grasp - eg Berlioz and Liszt - the ones who explored sound almost intuitively, aimed at the big- gest, grandest effects, and frequently just missed realising their dreams. (Schwartz would pIace RVW's Sea Sym- phony in this category.) He compares them favourably with those of Beethoven, Brahms and (above all) Mendelssohn (his bete noire), whose aural preoccupations were not always their primary creative impulse. It is thus that he will have no truck with serialism, which he regards as a relic of dead tradition. With Schoenberg and his followers the logic of a composition on paper became more important than the sound itself. Schwartz finds a similar conflict within the music of Stravinsky (which he respects but cannot identify with) as opposed to Bartok or Varese, whose work seems to stem from a primitive, empirical quest, originating from the raw materials of sound itself.

Schwartz studied piano as well as composition. His first full-time appointment was in Massachusetts, where he was primarily an instructor in piano-playing. In his current work a,t Bowdoin College, he is first and foremost a composer. He still figures as a concert pianist, mainly in his own works, but his sympathies as composer have always extended to his piano-playing. He would, for instance, take more time in getting right the exact chord-spacing and emphasis in Schubert than in Beethoven, for he feels Schubert's thought to spring from the medium itself more closely than that of Beethoven.

In his mature work, dating over the last seven years or so, Schwartz has been preoccupied with the possibilities of different textures and timbres. His compositions are for a variety of novel media - eg Music for oboe, trumpet and cello; Sonata for violin and double-bass; Serenade for Oute, double-bass and percussion - but this is only symptomatic of his concern to explore the dramatic potential of such instrumental combinations (a concern not surprising in one who numbers 'sportswriter' - dramatist of sport - among his unfulfilled ambitions).

In this respect, he stands close to Varhse, whom he admires, but has not studied in depth. As with Varese, the instrumental timbres have intrinsic musical value, the composition grows as a polyphony of timbres, what Varese calls 'crystallisation'. Interruptions (1965) for woodwind quintet, which is to be performed at the Kingston College of Technology on March 8, has affinities with the latter's Octandre, for instance. The first movement grows from a basic cell played by the oboe and then complemented by related figuration on clarinet and horn (Ex 1). Flute and bassoon join in as the movement is built out of horn themes which are decorated, and lyrically extended at the climax of the movement. These relationships are also found in Soliloquies (1965), where, in the first movement, each instrument (flute/ piccolo/alto-flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, violin/prepared piano) grows its own extended theme from basic fragments - apart from the clarinet, which has its own long t:heme at the start. Linear growth of this kind is found strikingly in most of Schwartz's music. Consider, also, the Music for oboe, trumpet, and cello (1964). The melodic lines are athletic, freewheeling, angular in unforced, improvised ways;

In these works, Schwartz is adapting to his own ends, the concerto pvinciple whereby the individual member of an ensemble can stand out from it and improvise. The urge towards cadenza-like freedom is strongly felt, and the composer introduces it as a prominent generating force in his scores. When they appear, these cadenzas are most often riveting in effect, eg those in the second movement of his Concert Piece for 10 players (performed in the American Embassy Concert referred to above). Unsynchronised ensemble-writing, particularly at climaxes is thus an important aspect of his design. It is used in Soliloquies, in passages marked Free, where the order of entrance for eaoh instrument as printed in the score is to be disregarded.

This technique is most systematically applied in a major work, Texture (1966). To look at, this score is not unlike some contemporary Polish music - eg Lutoslawski's Jeux venitiens, or h,is Trois poemes de Henri Michaud. Scored for strings, winds and brass, the music is arranged as a series of blocks which contain not merely parts to be played straight, as it were, but lines which can be repeated until a stipulated time-duration is reached, or a cue given. The chance element is most fully realised in the section where violins play a round: cello and viola have dislocated motifs, and woodwind and brass play a game of musical snakes and ladders (Ex 3).

Texture is an impressively controlled structure that embraces a wide range of musical experience. It produces one notably dadaistic touch a Vaughan Williams-ish cadence, amid a page of complex heterophony (p 25). This is, in fact, exactly what Schwartz learnt from Ives in The Unanswered Question: the interruption of one level of (say) complex musical activity by another of a 'naive' kind. It has a magical quality that relates composition to the sheer unpredictability, the anarohy of life, to the eccentric, wayward human being who produces it. Schwartz, incidentally, had not heard any Lutoslawski until he came to this country.

Schwartz was further stimulated by Henry Brant, whose dramatic placing of instrumental forces so that they intervened in each other's music produced startling results. A memorable example was Brant's Barricades: at the normal stage-paint in the hall (although no raised plat- form was used), he placed a string ensemble with their backs to the audience; above the audience, on the left balcany, he placed an oboist, and on the right balcony, a singer; a piccolo-player was sent up into the attic (he had to be cued by a succession of three people); and a lady organ-grinder in the middle of the audience.

The resulting interplay of sounds and unexpected relationships was astonishing in itself, but not least because it involved the audience in the music in an original way. Schwartz follows Brant in trying to find new modes of theatrical presentation for music. 'Down with the concert hall! ' is his battle-cry - as with a large majority of young composers in the States. (He finds the traditional opera-house presentation equally stultifying.) Ideally, Sehwartz does not want his works (eg Interruptions) to be conducted: where possible, the players should rely on cues and responses to the situations the music itself creates.

His most devastating experiment with new types of musical presentation, Elevator Piece (1967), might be called, for that matter, a 'happening'. For this, he made use of the 14-storey Senior Centre at Bowdoin College. On 12 of the floors he stationed groups of performers, varied in format, eg on the second floor was a grand piano; the third floor had a tuba player and singer etc. The audience was taken in groups of 10 for a ride in the lift by the composer himself, who, at random, selected which floors they would visit. Duration for each ride was three minutes, so everyone's musical experience was thus three minutes. Every five minutes, he rang the emergency bell as a signal to the players to change their styles of playing.

The results were both varied and imaginative. Obviously, when the doors were opened, a cadenza of sound entered from whichever floor they had reached. More interesting was the changing melee of sound while they were in transit. Using 12 floors like this struck Sohwartz as a good way of presenting dodecaphonic music, so on two occasions he gave the 12 notes of a series to musicians on separate floors - they could be heard clearly on the way up, and in retrograde version on the way down Perhaps one day Elevator Piece will receive a British premiere, and I suggest the Post Office Tower as an ideal location.

While Schwartz has not pursued his exploration of sound into purely electronic spheres, he has written a number of pieces involving both musical instruments and either tape loops or prepared tapes. In the final movement of lnterruptions (which uses a tape loop), for example, the wind instruments play any or all of a series of figurations, and are encouraged to react to the taped version (ie play in canon etc) that 'interrupts' them.

His Fantasy (1965) for fiute, double-bass and tape combines the Varese-like 'crystal-formations' of his other instrumental works with pre-recorded tape. The opening material returns to take various new directions, and each instrument has a cadenza. Ninas (1967) is for fiute/ piccolo/alto flute, oboe and electronic tape. The 'events' on the tape amount to a collage of sound-material, including declamation of the word Ninas (which the instrumentalists later emulate), some Ives-like 'intrusions' Liszt's Liebestraum and Piano Sonata, a Strauss Polka, some Bach, jazz and pop music.

During this piece, the instruments themselves are mes- merised by the taped emanations: the players speak into their instruments at various levels, and their textures dislocate into a flurry of fiutter-tonguing. Again, no synchronisation of parts played by the instruments is allowed, save for those indicated in the score. The taped contributions in Schwartz's music are not to be assessed in themselves, for he is more concerned with their dramatic interaction with the normal instrumental sounds.

Always, in fact, does Schwartz's bold exploitation of instrumental sonority become synonymous with theatrical investigation. This is true of the four sihort Arias for various instrumental duo-combinations (Nos 1, 2 and 4 are shortly to be issued on the Advance label): and also of his larger-scale Piano Coneerto (given its premiere in February this year), wherein the piano is a kind of central object of attention, a totem. Everyone plays on it and in it (striking it, blowing into it etc), the performers being kept in motion around it. The conductor himself leaves the rostrum near the end to make contact with the piano.

The acute need Schwartz has felt to evolve new drama- tic relationships among the performer has applied equally when he has written for amateurs. He has natur- ally made it easier for them, but not sacrificed musical integrity. His great skill in negotiating the problems of such a task is evident in Music for the Ascension (1967), commissioned for the Grace Episcopal Church, Amherst, Massachusetts, and scored for mixed chorus, organ, percussion and narrator.

The chorus is given novel opportunities: one person in each of the four sections (SATB) plays a percussion instrument; and the chorus often functions independently of the other forces, improvising upon cues by the conductor (apart from solo passages where non-synchronisation is called for). The Narrator, too, contributes scriptural readings, unsynchronised with the chorus, but the chorus is guided by the ample tonal references within the music, and synchronisation is easy to achieve where it is needed.

An infuence that helped to push Schwartz towards his present creative position was that of the Op-artist, John Godyear. Godyear was strongly interested in forms that overlap, that tend to synchronise or not synchronise levels of movement, of squares and blocks set against one another and this had some relevance to Schwartz's musical thoughts at that time (1961-2). Godyear was also one of the first persons he met who took Cage seriously. 'fhus Schwartz's ideas gained impetus, and he has always been interested in developments in the visual arts (although not a painter himself, he might have become an art-historian - and his wife is a graphic artist).

In one of his early ehoral works, Hymn to the Colours, this parallel technical interest is reflected. It is written for men's chorus and two solo brass instruments. The names of colours are sung on random pitches by a number of chorus-members, the intention being to create a musical kaleidoscope out of the collision of sung and spokcen pitches, unsynchronised uses of brass instruments and chord-clusters which might even conjure up a vision of the colours themselves.

Schwartz is both a prolific composer, and an active musician, organising concerts and festivals and writing articles and reviews. He recently edited, in collaboration with Barney Childs, an anthology of writings, Contemporary composers on contemporary music. His sensitivity to a range of influences both inside and outside the world of music might have deprived his compositions of an identity of their own, yet exactly the reverse seems to have happened. The sound of Schwartz is distinctive, intelligible, and rewarding, and we should hear more of it.