Sunday, September 11, 2011

Arlington VA Church presents new work in memory of 9/11; some notes on the effect of twelve-tone music

On Sunday, September 11, 2011, the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington VA held a contemporary service at 10:30 in the gym, and after the sermon performed a handbell composition, about five minutes, “Prayer for Peace” by Michael Helman.

The composition opens with four twelve-tone chords, which on the score look overwhelming. (Handbell scores apparent print their notes without vertical lines.)  Helman writes “The four opening chords of the piece represent the four planes that crashed that day. The chords include all twelve tones of the chromatic scale to symbolize the effect that terrorism has on everyone”.  He also says the introduction, played today, is optional. The rest of the piece is a moderately tempoed medley, very tonal.

Back in the 1950s, music critics wrote about twelve-tone music as expressionistic and somewhat designed to convey emotions that are “morbid and terrifying”.   But sometimes twelve-tone music naturally grows out of Romantic chromaticism, originating with Liszt and Wagner, but very apparent in some music by Schoenberg but especially Alban Berg (as in the opera “Lulu”, which sounds like romantic opera now).

In my own 1962 Piano Sonata, which I have discussed plans to transcribe into modern software, I experimented with taking the C Major theme of the opening and converting it to a twelve –tone row in the Development section. The effect is that of hyperchromaticism, while fugal, and still sounds a bit postromantic
Two pages reproduced here.

Later, in the Scherzo middle section, I have a cadenza that sounds almost random in the choice of notes for trills and figures (like in the “diplomacy” music I reviewed on Aug. 24.   

In the slow movement, I open with a twelve-tone row “harmonized” in E-flat minor, but then go to F# minor, Bb-minor, and B Major with some very tonal, however meandering, music.

A NIH in 1962, the psychiatrists had written about me, “He had been an adequate piano player since childhood and developed considerable interest in music. He learned some composition and began to compose a series of piano sonatas based on a 12 tone scale. These were compositions that he did not hear in his head but rather were worked out on a prearranged formula.”  Hardly a ringing endorsement of a music future, but also quite inaccurate on what I had composed.  I’ve described the NIH experience in some detail on the “BillBoushka” blog.

Rev. Judith Fulp-Eickstaedt preached a sermon “Living Life, Living Faith”, references Genesis 50:15-21 and Matthew 18:21-35.  The sermon was on forgiveness, which is the basis of Grace.  It’s hard to separate individual forgiveness issues with the collective grief of 9/11 and the need for “justice”.  It seems that Grace and forgiveness are the only “intellectual bridge” between the need for a society to sustain itself “collectively”, requiring flexibility and sacrifice from its citizens, and still aim toward individual rights and abstract “equality” for everyone.  Without forgiveness in many cases that abrogate personal responsibility, Grace is not possible.  But its hard to separate the issues with, say, upsidedown mortgage debt and the forceful expropriation attempted by flash mobs – or the nihilism of terrorists.

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