Earle Brown and his String Quartet (1965)

HearThisLive_v2-01Schnittke’s Serenade
Monday, 12 March 2018 at 12:15pm
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory

What do the painter Jackson Pollock, the sculpturist Alexander Calder, and jazz have in common? Earle Brown. These were the greatest influences on his thinking as a composer. Born in the the state of Massachusetts in 1926, Earle Brown became a significant figure in the American experimental music scene. He is one of the four composers associated with what is termed the New York School, a group of composers based in New York during the 1950-60s that was interested in experimental compositional practices. Perhaps the most widely known member of the New York School is John Cage. But in contrast to Cage’s interests in aleatory and sound as music, Brown pursued what he called ‘creative ambiguity’. He liked to set up situations in which performers make important decisions in the realization of a composition, but with materials generally defined by the composer. His works provide a framework for an improvisation, much like the chord changes of a jazz tune give a backbone for the improvisations of its performers.

Arguably, Brown’s most famous composition is December 1952 from his Folio (1952). It is a frequently anthologized piece, a single page of horizontal and vertical lines of various thicknesses. It can be placed on the music desk in any direction and performed. In fact, you needn’t even read it from left to right, or from right to left, for that matter. Most musicians interpret the work with the x-axis indicating time, the y-axis indicating register, horizontal lines are single notes held for a proportionally-appropriate length, vertical lines are short clusters of notes, thicknesses indicate dynamics. Yet, it needn’t be interpreted this way, and it can be performed simultaneously by multiple players with different interpretations. In the notes to the piece, Brown suggests that the players imagine the score as a three-dimensional space that they are walking through. That seems to significantly change the way to interpret this piece. Instead of one object sounding at a time, there is a collection of objects that can sound at any time and their relationships change as one moves. This seems to connect with the influence of Alexander Calder’s mobile sculptures. Brown even spoke about creating mobile musical structures. Calder’s mobiles are both fixed and free. Their components remain the same but their relationships evolve through time. Musically walking through the “space” established by the score of December 1952, shifts the perspective of the player who in turn shares with us what she sees.

Alexander Calder’s Red Mobile (1956) By Montrealais at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2251484

However, December 1952 is not the best representation of Brown’s musical contributions. It is an early piece, and as time went on, Brown was able to develop his ideas and invent new strategies for projecting them in his scores. His String Quartet (1965) is an example of this.

Brown writes in his program note for the String Quartet that he attempts “to combine the ‘graphic’ and ‘mobile’ – improvisational qualities of the 1952 works (as in Folio) and the ‘composed material, open form’ conditions of Twenty Five Pages (1953) and the Available Forms works of 1961-62.” What are these open form works that Brown references? Twenty Five Pages is a work for solo piano involving 25 pages of music, which can be played in any order, with any number of pages included, and up to 25 pianos. Each page can be read with either short side up, that is, it can be played right side up or right side down. To a certain degree, this work visually resembles December 1952 with its lines. Yet, it offers more direction (and limitation) in interpretation. Still, the construction of the work, particularly its formal aspects, are a creative space for the performer. The Available Forms for large ensemble are also open form. These works have a series of pages with sections of music circled and numbered. In a performance, the conductor signals to the musicians which page and section to perform and spontaneously creates a work from the available materials. The conductor in Available Forms is like an improvisor or, better still, like Jackson Pollock creating a drip painting – at the ready are a collection of colors and brushes to be selected at the right moment and used to create shapes and textures in a continual response to where the work of art is (and where it was).

The String Quartet illustrates Brown’s further thinking on ways to incorporate creative ambiguity in his music. This work’s form is largely fixed. Yet, Brown creates a space for performer spontaneity and collaborative creativity between the composition and the players. The form of the work is like a series of modules. In some, performers must align with each other; in others, they must maintain independence. Each proposes differing materials and relationships between the performers. The final few minutes – the only section that has a range given for its length rather than something specific time such as 30 seconds or 45 seconds – is most similar to the open form approach of Available Forms. Yet, there is no conductor in a string quartet, so each performer is left to take responsibility to listen and respond accordingly, contributing music from a collection of phrases drawn from earlier parts of the piece.

The String Quartet was commissioned by the Südwestfunk Baden-Baden for the Donaueschinger Musiktage and written for the LaSalle String Quartet. It was premiered by the LaSalle String Quartet on 16 October 1965.


Categories Compositions

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