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Since 2300 B.C., the music's gone 'round and 'round.

Dec 11, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 13 • By JOHN SIMON
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Finally, Griffiths is not afraid to stick his neck out in offering subjective interpretations as having universal value. So, for instance, he volunteers about the above-mentioned Scriabin work that it combines static harmonies "with urgent propulsions that come from a trumpet melody, resulting in a series of waves that mount with unabashed sexual connotations." All right, waves; but whom do they mount with unabashed sexual connotations? Could this have something to do with Griffiths's knowledge (unmentioned in the book) that Scriabin abandoned his spouse and mother of his children to take on, as common-law wife, a young admirer, with whom he begat several more children? But whether this made the music erotic, let alone unabashedly so, remains open to question.

Or consider the following three passages. It seems that "in the first movement of [Mahler's] unfinished Tenth [symphony] alarm--alarm conveyed by the music about itself as well as about the world or the persona whose feelings are being expressed--sounds out in a chord of violent dissonance." Alarm about the world, if you like, but why and how about itself? And who is this persona whose feelings are being expressed? Could it be Alma, the tempestuous Mrs. M?

Similarly, we read that Chopin's "gestures could be as terrifying as anything in Berlioz, as at the close of the
G minor Ballade." I promptly put on the formidable Maurizio Pollini's performance of that piece, expecting him to do his terrifying worst, but nary a tremor did it elicit from me.

Even more mysterious is Griffiths's exegesis of Charles Ives's Unanswered Question: "A sound drama for instrumentalists in three different positions, such multi-locality being another of his innovations. A solo trumpet keeps placing the barely tonal question, to which woodwinds respond with atonal scurryings that suggest evasions, while strings, like seers, guard their own answer in slow descents of dense concords." Here I worry especially about strings like seers--why? And what seers would guard their answer? Surely seers relish trumpeting their prophecies, whether by solo trumpet or any other means of foisting them on us.

To give him the benefit of the doubt, Griffiths may have ruthlessly compressed his text in the interest of concision, sometimes to the point of opacity; or, more often, by squeezing it into supposedly suggestive, poeticizing tropes that seem de trop.

A more serious problem for me is his excessive catholicity. Granted that, in the capacity of historian, Griffiths must rein in critical predilections and antipathies, and try to be objective and impersonal. This, we might assume, justifies the following: "In his 4'33" [John Cage] asked his closest musical associate, David Tudor, to sit at the keyboard for that length of time and play nothing. The piece was of course provocative, an indication of Cage's closeness not only to east Asian (especially zen) ideals of non-intention but also to the 'anti-art' of Europe in the 1920s. But it was also an invitation to listen to whatever sounds were being produced in the room or outside. Music was liberated from composers, performers, instruments and occasions. It was everywhere."

Cage, whose importance is luckily diminishing, though not nearly fast enough, was esteemed by many in his day. That Griffiths is paying this kind of attention to such nonsense attests to more than a historian's duty. Clearly, 4'33'' belongs at the utmost to the history of Dada, or of the great hoaxes; with music it has precious little to do.

Griffiths pays far too much attention to unlistenable composers such as Cage, Kagel, Stockhausen, Ferneyhough, Barraqué (about whom he has written a book), Babbitt, Birtwistle, and sundry others of that ilk, to make it pass for mere duty. There are a great many composers that Griffiths could have treated as summarily as he does Horatiu Radulescu: "A Romanian who moved to Paris in 1969 and became something of a wild card in French music, worked with grand pianos that he had retuned to pure frequency ratios and turned on their sides so that their strings could be bowed; he also used whole orchestras of flutes, or other instruments, to create new timbres."

I guess that if "Timber!" can be a warning cry, so can "Timbre!"

To my mind, Griffiths sails most smoothly with music up to and including the classical period; starting with Liszt, he begins to list rather too heavily. With the later 19th century he becomes barely seaworthy. He now places what he considers experimentation and innovation way above intrinsic worth. Thus, for instance, the wonderful Gabriel Fauré gets only one paragraph, and even that he must share with Debussy, who, quite rightly, gets plenty of space of his own.