Piero Scaruffi's
History of Avantgarde Music

Back to the Index | Feedback welcome

TM, ®, Copyright © 2004 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.


The birth of the soundscape aesthetics

TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

Wagner's symphonic and choral extravaganzas had signaled a crisis of tonal music, the music that had been composed in Europe for four centuries. Western tonal music had the implicit purpose of building structures that were fundamentally narrative and emotional. Its "purposeful" nature made it predictable to the human cognitive system: one could anticipate how a motif would eventually reach closure, since it revolved around a tonal center.

Wagner's intuition that the tonal center could be expanded or disposed of altogether was seized upon by Gustav Mahler (Germany, 1860), the last of the great Wagnerian composers, in the metaphysical eloquence of Symphony 8 (1907), Das Lied von der Erde (1908), and Symphony 9 (1910); by Richard Strauss (Germany, 1864) in the titanic romanticism of Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896) and the expressionist opera Elektra (1909); by Claude Debussy (France, 1862) in the total art of Le Martyre de Saint-Sebastien (1911) and the free-form harmony of Jeux (1912); by Jan Sibelius (Finland, 1865) in the harrowing Symphony 4 (1911); by Leos Janacek (Czech, 1854) in the violent Glagolitic Mass (1926); by Aleksander Skryabin (Russia, 1872) in the blurring of demonic, hedonistic and spiritual dimension of Prometheus (1910) that featured an instrument projecting light instead of playing sound; by Erik Satie (France, 1866) in the low-key, unassuming suites Parade (1917), Socrate (1920) and Relache (1924), the prodromes of "furniture music" ("musique d'ameublement") played to be ignored.

Even the more traditional composers at the beginning of the 20th century displayed a post-tonal sensibility: Maurice Ravel (France, 1875) with the Piano concerto in G (1931), Manuel de Falla (Spain, 1876) with the Harpsichord Concerto (1926), Albert Roussel (France, 1869) with the exotic extravaganza Padmavati (1918), Gustav Holst (Britain, 1874) with the visionary The Planets (1916), Ferruccio Busoni (Italy, 1866) with the tormented opera Doktor Faust (1924), Alexander von Zemlinsky (Austria, 1871) with the Lyrische Symphonie (1923), Franz Schmidt (Austria, 1874) with Das Buch mit dem Sieben Siegeln (1938), Ralph Vaughan Williams (Britain, 1872) with the Symphony 7 (1952) and Symphony 8 (1955), etc.

The next wave of innovators was even more radical. Led By Charles Ives (USA, 1874), with his exuberant, urban, industrial Symphony 4 (1916), it included Bela Bartok (Hungary, 1881), who explored the dialectics between chromatic and diatonic structures, thus redefining the nature and role of scales and rhythms in western harmony in works such as Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1936), Violin concerto 2 (1938), Quartet 6 (1939), Concerto for Orchestra (1943); and Igor Stravinskij (Russia, 1882), whose polytonal textures and rhythmic outbursts in Petrushka (1911) and Le Sacre du Printemps (1913), and even the baroque oratorio Oedipus Rex (1927), reflected a growing impatience with the classical stereotypes. Arnold Schoenberg (Austria, 1874) upped the ante with the atonal music of his Second String Quartet (1908) and with the song cycle Pierrot Lunaire (1912), each song scored for a different ensemble and sung in "Sprechgesang" (between singing and speaking). These composers fostered a transition away from diatonic melody and towards chromatic freedom that weakened the tonal center and amounted to flirting with atonality.

At the same time, the impact of exotic music (mostly based on modal scales), as well as of jazz (not only improvised, but also microtonal due to the "blue notes"), was beginning to be felt in Europe.

A scale is an ascending or descending series of notes or pitches. The diatonic scale (seven tones per octave) was rapidly becoming obsolete and being increasingly replaced by the chromatic scale (twelve tones per octave: C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B), and later by the whole-tone scale (C D E F# G# A#), by modal scales (the seven scales used in medieval music, which can be seen as slight variations on the major and minor scales of tonal music, plus scales from other continents, which downplay the role of the dominant note), by pentatonic scales (which mix whole intervals and larger intervals), and by microtonal scales (that use intervals smaller than a semitone).

Not only elements of folk music, but even styles borrowed from the music-hall and the circus began to infiltrate classical music.

At the same time, classical music was under pressure to change its own rules. For example, in 1906 Thaddeus Cahill built the first electronic instrument. In 1907 Ferruccio Busoni published "Entwurf einer neuen Aesthetik der Tonkunst", predicting the use of dissonant and electric sound in musical composition. In 1913 the Italian "futurist" Luigi Russolo published "L'Arte dei Rumori", in which he proclaimed noise to be the sound of the 20th century, and especially noise produced by machines, such as his own "Intonarumori". In 1920 Eric Satie composed music not to be listened to ("musique d'ameublement", furniture music), the first form of "ambient music". In 1922 Laszlo Moholy-Nagy advocated the use of phonograph records to produce music, not only to reproduce it. In 1923 Arnold Schoenberg completed his 12-tone system of composition (the first form of "serialism"). In 1928 Maurice Martenot invented a new electronic instrument, the Ondes-Martenot. In 1927 the Russian composer Leon Termen performed the first concerto with his "theremin". In 1930 Leon Termen invented the first rhythm machine, the "Rhythmicon". All of these people were considered little more (or less) than eccentric characters, and widely ignored by the musical establishment.

It wasn't only classical music that was feeling the pressure. The early decades of the century witnessed a general rejection of the traditional codes of artistic behaviors, a rejection that started from Paris (homeland of the "Bohemian" lifestyle) and spread to the other European capitals. In 1908, Cubism was the new fad in Paris. In 1909, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti published his "Futurist Manifest" in Paris. In 1909, Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev revived ballet in Paris with the establishment of the "Ballets Russes". In 1915, Tristan Tzara founded the Dada movement in Zurich, which soon moved its headquarters to Paris. Painting, music, literature and (soon) cinema were tightly integrated because artists shared the same neighborhoods. The German world was no less restless. In fact, it created a wider network of "rebels". Expressionism was born in at least three cities: Dresden in 1905, with the group "Die Bruecke", Vienna in 1907 with the group "Fledermaus", and Munich in 1911 with the group "Der Blaue Reiter". Again, different arts influenced each other, coexisted, coevolved, cross-pollinated. This phenomenon fueled the Wagnerian myth of "Gesamtkunstwerk" (total art), that no artist was capable of realizing, but that became a sort of collective subconscious of the international scene.

Arnold Schoenberg (Austria, 1874) shattered the harmonic certainty centered on the melody by introducing "dodekaphonie" (twelve-tone, or "dodecaphonic", method of composition), a system (completed in 1923) to create permutations of a series of notes taken from the twelve notes of the chromatic scale. The resulting compositions were atonal but allowed the composer much greater freedom than the tonal system. He kept developing his new grammar of music until the large-scale achievements of String Trio (1946) and Moses und Aron (1951). Anton Webern (Austria, 1883) used the method to create a "pointillistic" style in which each individual element in a musical piece is carefully crafted and placed in relation to the others, each sound is important per se even before being part of a whole. His compositions, such as Symphonie (1928) and the Concerto for nine instruments (1934), were concise, austere and essential. Alban Berg (Austria, 1885) bridged the aesthetic and the emotional dimensions in the cryptic but evocative Chamber Concerto (1925), the Violin Concerto (1935) and the opera Wozzeck (1921). It was not only form over content, because such freed form soon came to symbolize a new kind of content, mostly aligned with the disturbing atmosphere of expressionism.

The revolutionary value of serialism, that began with "dodekaphonie" (whose idea was later extended to other musical "parameters" such as timbre, pitch, duration, register), was to usher in a methodic deconstruction of tonality.

Atonal composers of the following decades include Roberto Gerhard (Spain, 1896), with his Violin Concerto (1943), Ernst Krenek (Germany 1900), with the opera Karl V (1933), Nikos Skalkottas (Greece, 1904), with the Double Concerto (1943).

This development (basically, refocusing music on its internal mechanisms rather than on structuring content for narrative/emotional purposes) was actually paralleled in the visual arts, which liberated the individual components of painting (color, border, shape) from the "purpose" of representing nature. Paradoxically, the artist was gaining more freedom while her art was losing meaning.

This process led to an almost manic exploration of texture, mostly through timbre and juxtaposing of timbres and overlapping of timbres. Notes were, in a sense, less important than the timbre of the instrument that produced them. The "sequence" of notes itself was, in a sense, no more a temporal sequence than a spatial "choreography" of sounds. The composer was no longer creating a narrative but exploring a space, a soundscape. The relationship between background and foreground was turned upside down: the emphasis shifted towards the background, whereas the foreground became irrelevant.

A by-product of the "soundscape" aesthetic was the extension of the orchestra beyond the traditional western instruments. Not only eastern instruments, but also percussion, natural sounds and generic objects became valid "instruments" in sculpting the artist's soundscape.

Edgar Varese (France, 1883) was the first visionary of this new aesthetics, introducing percussion and noise (and, later, electronics) into the orchestra, particularly in the futuristic landscape of Hyperprism (1923) and in Ionisation (1931) for percussion alone. Alois Haba (Czech, 1893) experimented with microtoned in the opera Mother (1929).

Percy Grainger (Australia, 1882), an ethno-musicologist who had been collecting English folk songs, devised "beatless music" whose time signature changes at every bar, simulating the irregular patterns of speech (The Song of Solomon, 1899), used "chance" for compositions such as the proto-aleatory music of Random Round (1912) or The Immovable Do (1933), composed The Warriors (1913), "democratic polyphony" for two conductors, dissonance, polyrhythms and tuned percussion, conceived "unplayable" music for player piano, The Immovable Do (1933), conceived "unplayable" music for player piano, and built (1951) machines out of industrial junk and waste to create "free music" not limited by time or pitch intervals (gliding tones outside the scale that are impossible with acoustic instruments), the forerunners of the electronic synthesiser. Another brilliant eccentric, George Antheil (USA, 1900), pioneered the use of jazz and noise in chamber music and adopted the aesthetics of Cubism and Futurism in the Ballet Mecanique (1925). Harry Partch (USA, 1901) favored "just intonation" and a "corporeal" music, the precursor to compositions-happenings such as his Revelation (1960); but he also built his own acoustic instruments, sometimes of colossal dimensions.

In 1933 Henry Cowell (USA, 1897), a bisexual composer who in 1930 had commissioned the Russian instrument builder Leon Theremin to create the first electronic rhythm machine (the "Rhythmicon"), started the influential course "Music of the Peoples of the World" at the New School for Social Research in New York, promoting atonality, non-Western modes and percussion ensembles. Cowell also pioneered chance composition with the "Mosaic Quartet" (1935), whose score left the players to decide the order of movements, and was probably the first classical composer to live a parallel life as a successful pop songwriter. "Quartet Romantic" (1915) and "Quartet Euphometric" (1916) used combinations of rhythms and overtones that were impossible to play by humans. Cowell had also required pianists to play with the entire palm in Tides of Manaunaum (1917), that introduced ragtime's tone clusters into classical music, or to pluck the strings of the piano. In San Francisco his pupil Lou Harrison took advantage of the Bay Area's ethnic Babel and incorporated Chinese opera, Native-American folk, jazz and later the gamelan music of Indonesia into Western classical music. In New York his other pupil John Cage became famous by expanding on several of his master's intuitions.

Far from being abstracted from society, the soundscape aesthetics largely reflected the disorientation, alienation and neurosis of the urban and industrial world. The loss of identity was reflected in a loss of tonal center. The moral and material chaos were reflected in looser and looser structures.

Even the neoclassics couldn't escape the new vitalism, drifting towards a form of chamber music that was more "pictorial" than narrative: Karol Szymanowski (Poland, 1882), with the Symphony 3 (1916), Paul Hindemith (Germany, 1895), with the opera Mathis der Maler (1935) and the Violin Concerto (1939), Matthijs Vermeulen (Holland, 1888), with the Symphony 2 (1919), Frank Martin (Switzerland, 1890), with the Petite Symphonie Concertante (1945), Bohuslav Martinu (Czech, 1890), with the Symphony 6 (1953), Carl Orff (Germany, 1895), with the Carmina Burana (1937), Erich Korngold (Austria, 1897), with the Piano concerto (1923), Ervin Schulhoff (Czech, 1894), with the Symphony 5 (1938), Francis Poulenc (France, 1899), with the Organ Concerto (1938), and the ultimate neoclassic, Sergej Prokofev (Russia, 1891), with the Piano Concerto 2 (1913) and the Symphony 6 (1947).

Jazz infiltrated Concerto 2 (1923) by Ervin Schulhoff (Czech, 1894), La Creation du Monde (1924) by Darius Milhaud (France, 1892), Symphonie Marine (1931) by Jacques Ibert (France, 1890), Porgy And Bess (1935) by George Gershwin (USA, 1898), and Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (1930) by Kurt Weill (Germany, 1900). Jazz music was more than an exotic novelty. Jazz had been the first musical genre to fully take advantage of the three fundamental inventions of the first three decades of the century: the record, the radio and the talking movies. The inertia of the classical-music establishment (in the case of the record, also the limitation of the 78 RPM format) gave jazz a head-start of one or two decades.

In between the experimental composers and the neoclassic composers stood the giant personality of Dmitrij Shostakovic (Russia, 1906). At least five orchestral masterpieces, Symphony 5 (1937), Symphony 8 (1943), Symphony 10 (1953), Symphony 15 (1971) and Piano Concerto 2 (1957), and five quartets, Quartet 11 (1966), Quartet 12 (1968), Quartet 13 (1970), Quartet 14 (1973) and Quartet 15 (1974), marked a monumental synthesis of western music.

Classicism didn't die, but sort of migrated elsewhere, mainly north and east. Suddenly, Scandinavia became the homeland of a lively school of prolific "Nordic" symphonists. Notable examples are: the Symphony 3 (1947) by Gosta Nystroem (Sweden, 1890), the Symphony 6 (1951) by Hilding Rosenberg (Sweden, 1892), the Symphony 9 (1965) by Harald Saeverud (Norway, 1897), the Saga Symphony (1942) by Jon Leifs (Iceland, 1899), the Symphony 1 (1938) by Uuno Klami (Finland, 1900), the Symphony 10 (1973) by Eduard Tubin (Estonia, 1905), the Symphony 8 (1952) by Vagn Holmboe (Denmark, 1909), the Symphony 16 (1979) by Allan Pettersson (Sweden, 1911), the Symphony 3 (1950) by Karl-Birger Blomdahl (Sweden, 1916) , the Symphony 8 (1986) by Talivaldis Kenins (Latvia, 1919), the Symphony 3 (1976) by Torbjorn Lundquist (Sweden, 1920), the Symphony 1 (1967) by Ake Hermanson (Sweden, 1923). Among the "nordic" composers the innovators were Rued Langgaard (Denmark, 1893), with Music Of The Spheres (1918), Josip Stolcer-Slavenski (Croatia, 1896), with Sinfonija Orijenta (1934), Geirr Tveitt (Norway, 1908), with Piano Concerto 4 (1947).

German classicists included Stefan Wolpe (Germany, 1902), with the Symphony (1956), Berthold Goldschmidt (Germany, 1903), with the Violin concerto (1955), Karl Hartmann (Germany, 1905), with the Symphony 8 (1963), Wolfgang Fortner (Germany, 1907), with the Symphony (1947).

Orchestral music was also popular in the periphery of the empire, as proven by the Symphony 2 Minneapolitana (1952) by Sandor Veress (Hungary, 1907), the Symphony 3 (1960) by Ahmet Adnan Saygun (Turkey, 1907), the Byzantine Concerto (1959) by Ljubica Maric (Serbia, 1909), the Symphony 3 "Symfonia 1945" (1974) by Jan Cikker (Slovakia, 1911), the Symphony 6 (1966) by Stjepan Sulek (Croatia, 1914), the Symphony 2 Lesta (1965) by Rudolf Bruci (Serbia, 1917), the Concerto for Orchestra (1986) by Karel Husa (Czech, 1921), the Sinfonia Appassionata (1948) by Zvonimir Ciglic (Slovenia, 1921), the Symphony 4 (1968) by Primoz Ramovs (Slovenia, 1921), the Symphony for Timpani and Strings (1962) by Edvard Mirzoyan (Armenia, 1921), the Symphony 5 (1979) by Vasilije Mokranjac (Serbia, 1923).

Chromatic visionaries multiplied, as the new freedom allowed spiritual and political latitude.

Three Italian composers well represented the quest for the perfect timbric amalgam: Luigi DallaPiccola (Italy, 1904), with the opera Prigioniero (1948), Goffredo Petrassi (Italy, 1904), with the Concerto 8 (1972), and especially Giacinto Scelsi (Italy, 1905), who developed a highly personal and spiritual language of sustained tones, clusters of tones as well as simple stillness, for example in the Quattro Pezzi per Una Nota Sola (1959) and String Quartet No. 4 (1964).

Britain produced works of inferior timbric sophistication but grander scope: Belshazzar's Feast (1931) by William Walton (Britain, 1902), A Child Of Our Time (1941) by Michael Tippett (Britain, 1905), culminating with the Requiem Symphony (1941) and the War Requiem (1961) by Benjamin Britten (Britain, 1913).

Music is immanent in the works of Olivier Messiaen (France, 1908), both in his large-scale orchestral works, such as Turangalila Symphonie (1948) and La Transfiguration (1969), in his ghostly, surreal chamber works, such as Quatuor Pour La Fin Du Temps (1940), and in puzzles of arcane symbols such as Harawi (1945). His harmony made of color and hypnosis, permeated by an underlying theme of human humility amid the surrounding grandeur and mystery, seemed to coin the language of eternity.

Alan Hovhaness (USA, 1911) fused Eastern and Medieval mysticism in the Concerto 7 (1953) and the Symphony 2 (1955).

New instruments and sounds entered the orchestra, as proven by Andre` Jolivet (France, 1905) with the Concerto pour Ondes Martenot (1947), Conlon Nancarrow (USA, 1912) with the Concerto for Player Piano and Orchestra (1989), and by Lou Harrison (USA, 1917) with the Concerto in Slendro (1961) and La Koro-sutro (1972), influenced by Indonesian gamelan.


Back to the Index | Next chapter

TM, ®, Copyright © 2004 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.