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Composers -- at last -- are using today's new musical language

By Thor Eckert Jr. / January 8, 1981

Boston and New York

A few years ago at the opening of the annual Fromm Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood, Gunther Schuller noted that composers were beginning to sit back and assess the innovations that had been made in the expansion of the musical language. He noted that we were now entering a new era of assimilation.

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In recent weeks I had a chance to hear three works by three composers that represent contrasting aspects of contemporary music. Through these three one can hardly assess where music is going at this point -- there are no obvious trends to be deciphered as yet -- but it is interesting to note just how big a difference there is among composers today.

Iannis Xenakis's music was shocking in its day.When "Metastasis" was first heard in 1955, it created, in the composer's words, "quite a scandal." Serialism was still the language of the avant-gardists back then, and Xenakis's more mathematical compositional style roused them lividly. Though a seminal piece, it is no longer particularly interesting, as is so often the case with works that break new ground. As the purely theoretical formulas that fascinated Xenakis gave way and began to be tamed to the needs of communication -- the essence of music -- his compositions took on a newer invention, a richer thrust. Thus, when Zubin Mehta programmed "Metastasis," he preceded it with the US premiere of "Imprints," written in 1975. It seems odd, considering how interesting a piece it really is, that it has taken so long to get to this country, but such is the state of music directors' commitment to new music today. It seems that in most orchestras across the country, the commitment is to the recording companies, which invariably means war horses and other popular favorites are scheduled and performed, then recorded. What this is doing to new music as well as classics of the recent past has yet to be tabulated, but the long-range negative effects will be profound.

"Imprints" was inspired by waves washing footsteps out of the sands of the seashore.The pitches rarely change, there are numerous stunning effects, and throughout it seems that Xenakis really took pains to create a communicative work that, in its undulations which eventually envelop then swamp the basic core , makes for a brief (12 minutes) but compelling piece. The Mehta performances of both works were dutiful, the New York Phil- harmonic played sturdily. But it was not until after the intermission of the program that things took spectacular wing with a stunning performance of Bartok's "Concerto for Orchestra" (in honor of the composer's 100th anniversary). Here the orchestra played handsomely, and Mehta gave a supple, volatile, superbly detailed account of this masterly score.

It is quite a long way from Xenakis to David del Tredici. The latter is as conventional as they come today in his musical language. Of late, del Tredici's all-consuming occupation has been Lewis Carroll and "Alice in Wonderland." It was the subject of the bicentennial-commissioned "Final Alice," of the commission for the opening of San Francisco's new symphony hall ("Happy Voices") , and of the piece that eill precede "Happy Voices" and which won him the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for Music, "In Memory of a Summer Day," for soprano (amplified) and orchestra (huge).

But this work could have used considerable trimming, Pulitzer Prize notwithstanding. Attention does not sustain itself in the course of this work, and for all the superior effects and illuminations of the text -- both in the "Simple Alice" sequence, and the more fantasaical, phantasmagorical "Ecstatic Alice" -- the offshoots from the imaginative trunk are too often distracting and confusing. And in the tremendous "Triumphant Alice" sequence that is a sort of march-scherzo full of asides, explosions, deviations, and thrilling developments , one is too often forced out of the mood to ask why this, or why that, and not receive any clear answer.