Sunday 25 January 2015

Martin Iddon, New Music at Darmstadt: Nono, Stockhausen, Cage and Boulez (Cambridge University Press, 2013)

Martin Iddon’s book, backed up by extensive archival research, is, as its publishers tell us, the first full-length study of Darmstadt to appear in English. However, as its subtitle, indicating a focus on four of the Darmstadt big guns, suggests, its focus is somewhat more narrow than might have been expected from such a publication. This is not to say that it merely enshrines a canonical narrative, in which Nono, Stockhausen, Cage and Boulez line up to take their respective places as grand masters within an accepted view of musical history – quite the contrary, in fact. The book’s purpose is twofold: first, to demolish the myth of the ‘Darmstadt school’ as stable compositional style or method and to situate the origin of that myth in the discussions that were taking place in and around Darmstadt during the 1950s; second, to examine the impact of Cage’s visit to Darmstadt in the late ’50s as, in some ways, the nail in the coffin of serial unity that never really existed. As Iddon shows, this unity was one promoted partially by the composers themselves – though never consistently, and often in line with shifting personal and musical relationships – and partly by organizers and critics such as Herbert Eimert and Hans-Klaus Metzger.

In this regard, his method is, in general, to focus on key performances and points of debate – lectures and essays by Adorno, Hans-Klaus Metzger, Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono and Cage – with detailed analyses of particular pieces, often drawing on previous work by other critics, peppering proceedings. Thus, central parts are played by: the early confrontation in one of Adorno’s workshops between Adorno, Stockahusen and Karel Goeyvaerts over the latter’s Sonata for Two Pianos – one which is obliquely referred to in Adorno’s essay ‘The Ageing of the New Music’, an attack on what he perceived as a tendency towards a quasi-totalitarian, a-humanist construction of music through ‘objective’ tables and quasi-mathematical methods; a 1953 radio debate on the influence of Webern in which Eimert polemically responded to Adorno; Metzger’s own responses to Adorno over the years; and lectures by the composers themselves, which increasingly came to consist of veiled and direct attacks on each other, including Boulez’s ‘Alea’ (whose target was in part, Cage) and Nono’s ‘The Historical Reality of Music Today’.

The book is, then, not so much a strictly analytic study of particular compositions as one which is concerned to carefully record the musicological reception and the various narratives of influence and development that emerged from within and outside Darmstadt during its most formative period. Yet, in a sense, this means that it is neither one thing nor the other: in terms of specifically musical detail, the analyses are generally kept to a minimum, while, on the other hand, one at times wishes that the parameters were slightly wider, and that the socio-political background to the debates were addressed more fully. If Iddon’s summaries and delineations of various positions expressed within Darmstadt debates are detailed almost to fault, there is, nonetheless, little real sense of audience reception – who exactly, for example, are the various discontented individuals who boo and whistle through various different premieres, and what sort of contemporary impulse do they represent? Furthermore, how and out of what might any collective entity that might be described through terms such as ‘audience’, ‘students’, ‘performers’ and ‘composers’ be said to have come to be? And what of the status of musical institutions in post-war West Germany; the status of repertoire and of modernism in the wake of Nazi suppression, American-influenced conservatism, Cold War suspicion, and the like; and the tensions that might exist between these contexts and Darmstadt’s avowed intent to be an international course? Addressing these obviously complex questions might truly allow Darmstadt to be presented as something more than the mythic institution which, for all Iddon’s efforts to show up through examining the narrative constructions and administrative niceties behind the façade, it somehow seems to remain.

An introduction, for instance, sets up the founding of the summer courses and the role of Darmstadt’s first director, Wolfgang Steinecke, within the post-war climate of West Germany and the American-led process of de-Nazification, but this thread is dropped throughout the rest of the book to focus on the details of the various music-focussed polemics. Yet such concerns are clearly to the fore in both Adorno’s and Metzger’s arguments around the political implications of serialism, as well as in Nono’s polemical attack on Cage and indeterminacy, a 1959 lecture translated in English as ‘The Historical Reality of Music Today’, which is given a useful and typically detailed reading towards the end of the book. The three-page conclusion, in which Cage’s presence at Darmstadt is read through Zygmant Bauman’s figure of the ‘stranger’, is frustratingly cursory and brief, and perhaps suggests a different study – one in which, for example, Iddon himself might lay down his own analyses of or opinions on the political implications of Cage’s music, and, indeed, of multiple serialism, and their place within both the musical and political situations both of Germany and of America. Mention of Cornelius Cardew, then Stockhausen’s assistant, leads one to make the tantalizing connection between discourses surrounding improvisation, graphic scores and indeterminacy and Cardew’s own graphic score ‘Treatise’, even if the dating of that work falls outside the range of Iddon’s study. Certainly, the recent discourse surrounding Cage and improvisation is one that extends far beyond the parameters of the often over-simplified understanding of improvisation in the Darmstadt discourse Iddon describes (by which I don’t mean to imply that he necessarily shares it). It’s also something which would open up beyond the callous dismissal of all non-western art music that might be suggested, for instance, in Boulez’ statement, quoted on p.252, that “he, as a westerner, had been shocked to discover the absence of ‘masterworks’ in non-western musics.” (The statement as quoted is somewhat perplexing – Iddon’s sentence construction implies that either Cage or Boulez might be the shocked subject: “Cage did not feature at all, although Boulez mentioned that he, as a westerner…” – and statements made elsewhere by Boulez suggest a more nuanced attitude: in relation, for instance, to the echoing of non-western timbres in his own Le Marteau Sans Maitre, he discusses the risks of “a clumsy appropriation of a ‘colonial’ music vocabulary” of a piece with early twentieth-century exotica.)

Iddon’s book is not intended to be a definitive history of Darmstadt, as his focus on the composers named in the book’s title indicates, and a broader sense of Darmstadt’s evolution and situation might be gleaned from an examination of his stand-alone articles published elsewhere, such as ‘Trying To Speak: Between Politics and Aesthetics, Darmstadt 1970–1972’, which deals with controversies surrounding the organisation of courses during the 1960s and 1970s, particularly in the wake of the political upheavals of May ’68, as well as a volume of Contemporary Music Review, ‘Other Darmstadts’, co-edited with Paul Attinello and Christopher Fox. That said, it feels somewhat frustrating that one has to burrow around in various different sources in this manner when the book itself – as a University Press-produced book, rather than a single-issue article – might reasonably be expected to give some sense of scope as well as of specific detail, particularly given that it was published in 2013, some years after much of Iddon’s previous work on Darmstadt.

Likewise, brief mentions of other composers and students present at Darmstadt are often frustratingly brief, even though some of them – most notably, Henri Pousseur – were often enlisted as figures in these debates. Here, they barely even receive walk-on parts, with the result that the contextual backdrop to the debates Iddon does address, or even the details of arrangements and cultural situation of Darmstadt in general, sometimes feel a little fuzzy, despite the wealth of correspondence, reviews and radio broadcasts cited. This is not necessarily to do with a lack of focus on politics, more to do with the fact that it might be useful to have some sense of how personalities beyond Goeyvaerts, Metzger, Steinecke, Adorno, Bruno Maderna, David Tudor and the book’s titular figures might have functioned within Darmstadt and within the debates surrounding it. But it is also to do with politics, or with politically-inflected issues. To take one example, the brief mention of the controversy over Sylvano Bussotti’s Pieces de Chair II, which Stockhausen, Steinecke and others agreed should not be performed due to the homosexual and “possibly paedophilic” content of their texts, raises issues concerning sexuality touched on in Antonelli’s essay ‘Gay Darmstadt’, which centres on the tension between Bussotti’s open sexuality and preference for transgressive, theatrical work in the tradition of Artaud, Genet and others, and the more ‘academic’ approach of the closeted Boulez. Likewise, if Cage’s ‘otherness’ in this context is perhaps as much to do with his status as an American and his particular and distinctive theorisation of the role of composition and the composer, it’s worth noting that he was also gay – as was Metzger, at that point Bussotti’s partner – and that sexuality might have been worth at least a brief digression.

To be sure, Antonelli’s distinction between Boulez and Bussotti could easily be caricatured into an opposition between a bloodless, academic, closeted serialism and a chance-influenced, theatrical and flamboyant approach which could be seen to reproduce unhelpful binary visions of Darmstadt, as well as mapping these onto sexual characterisations which they don’t necessarily fit. He himself is careful to qualify and to avoid this – and, indeed, his article is cited by Iddon in the discussion of Pieces de Chair – yet the impression one gets is that, in situations such as these, Iddon seems to feel that the wider ramifications of sexuality, or politics, are not worthy of a place in a book which insists on unpacking the actual technical workings of multiple serialism as method against the oversimplifications of both its detractors and advocates. Yet, beyond any caricatures, they might nonetheless still be said to form part of a political and musical discourse whose examination could well have enriched his study. In another instance, we are presented with a tantalizing remark from an anonymous member of the ‘Schoenberg school’, quoted in a secondary source: “enough with feeling and alcohol! I am an engineer!” It’s conceivable that this might be explored further, not to suggest not the crass distinction between ‘mechanistic’ or ‘technocratic’ mathematical procedures and – say – an expressionist or neo-romantic ‘access’ to emotion, but the actual social environment in which such music was created, presented and performed, and the emotional, political, social and cultural lives out of which it emerged. Nono’s letters to Steinecke, frequently quoted from here, are full of exaggerated punctuation, colloquialism and the like, and something of this spirit must be recoverable without necessarily descending into an exclusively gossipy biographical focus. Similarly and beyond this, institutional complications potentially caused by Nono’s political commitment – which Iddon mentions in passing with reference to the fact that Nono, a member of the Italian Communist Party, was present at Darmstadt a time when West Germany, just as Hitler had done, had outlawed its own Communist Party, the KPD – seem a further area of concern that might usefully have been explored. Even if performances of Nono’s music were not necessarily as politically charged in Darmstadt as they were at, say, both the Italian and American premiers of his opera Intollorenza 1960, which was blighted by right-wing protests in both countries, Nono’s politics is surely a more central topic than it is allowed to be here. Indeed, Cage’s role as an American, and what might be termed his performance of Americanness, given the complex history of American influence in West Germany, is perhaps somewhat under-stressed as well. In the conclusion, Iddon argues that “the order that Cage truly ruptured was hardly musical but social”, and an expanded sense of what is here meant by social – not just in relation to Cage, but to Darmstadt as a whole – would have given the study a greater resonance and range than it has, however useful it is as a source of research.