Category Archives: composition

The Music of Eric Zeisl: Jacob and Rachel, Variations on a Slovakian Folk Song (CD Review)

The Music of Eric Zeisl: Jacob and Rachel, Variations on a Slovakian Folk Song (Albany Records, 2019)

Los Angeles Jewish Symphony; Noreen Green, Artistic Director

Reviewed by Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Composer Eric Zeisl (1905-1959) was born into a lower middle-class family of Czech background in Vienna’s Jewish quarter (Leopoldstadt). His parents operated a café and maintained an identifiably Jewish, if not religious, household. The Zeisls were not “tribal” Jews; social and economic mobility outweighed whatever particularistic or ritual concerns they might have had. Still, according to Eric’s wife, lawyer Gertrud Zeisl (née Jellinek, 1806-1987), Eric learned to read Hebrew as a child (without understanding the meaning) and on Shabbat mornings would accompany his grandfather to a synagogue “in the backstreets.” These early experiences informed Zeisl’s use of a “Hebraic element” in a number of compositions.

Like many middle-class European Jewish families, the Zeisls viewed art music as a pathway to acculturation and integration into society. Piano lessons were a fixture in their home. The four Zeisl brothers each needed the piano for practice (two were singers), but Eric just wanted to “play.” Eric’s parents, concerned that he would never make a living in music, discouraged him from following his passion. Undeterred, Eric reportedly sold his stamp collection in order to pursue advanced studies. After a short time at the Academy of Music and Performing Arts, he continued learning privately with Richard Stöhr, a Viennese Jewish composer born in the same year as Arnold Schoenberg. In stark contrast to his better-known contemporary, Stöhr was a traditionalist who championed a nineteenth-century musical language. Zeisl would himself carry the traditionalist torch, favoring tonality and direct emotionalism over the cerebral systems fashionable at the time.

In the early 1930s, Zeisl studied with the conservative Joseph Marx and the progressive Hugo Kauder. Zeisl internalized Kauder’s infatuation with Gustav Mahler, bringing Mahlerian influence to the fore in the final movement of his First String Quartet (premiered in 1933), which features a Slovak melody he later developed into Variations on a Slovakian Folk Song for string orchestra (1937). The latter piece is faithfully performed on this new CD.

When avant-garde music was targeted for prohibition in the early years of the Nazi regime, Zeisl’s traditional sound was more or less tolerated. It was therefore especially tragic when he and Gertrud were forced to flee to Paris in November 1938—narrowly escaping the events of Kristallnacht—leaving his parents behind in Austria. They stayed in Paris for about a year. Unable to find financial security, they arrived in New York in September 1939. Zeisl befriended Hanns Eisler, a fellow Austrian who was teaching composition at the New School of Social Research. Eisler was leaving for Hollywood to work in film, and helped Zeisl secure an eighteen-month contract with MGM.

Zeisl arrived in Los Angeles in 1942. He was among the youngest and least connected of Hollywood’s émigré composers, an illustrious group that included “Hollywood Sound” architects Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Waxman, and Miklós Rózsa. A relative late-comer to the competitive film industry, he was limited to writing uncredited “moods” for short scenes and musical effects. Unable to secure a long-term contract from MGM or any other studio, Zeisl became a freelancer, working on background cues for more than twenty films between 1942 and 1958, ranging from Lassie Come Home (1943) to Abbot and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951). Zeisl found more stable employment after the war as an instructor of composition, first at the Southern California School of Music and Arts and, beginning in 1949, at Los Angeles City College.

From 1948 to 1950, Zeisl served as composer-in-residence at the Brandeis Arts Institute for young Jewish artists, musicians, and performers in Simi Valley. The experience allowed him to further explore a Jewish musical aesthetic, and inspired the “Brandeis Sonata” for violin and piano (1949-50), perhaps his best-known chamber work. His time at the Brandeis camp was bookended by compositions on Jewish themes, notably Requiem Ebraico (1945) for SAB soli, SATB choir, and organ (or orchestra)—a tragic setting of Psalm 92 commissioned by German-born Rabbi Jacob Sonderling, considered the first serious musical reflection on the Holocaust—and the biblical ballets Naboth’s Vineyard (1953) and Jacob und Rachel (1954).

Max Helfman, music director of the Brandeis Institute and a noted synagogue composer, was drawn to Zeisl’s use of “Hebraicisms”: stylized echoes of synagogal modes and Jewish folksong. Helfman’s compositions and arrangements similarly display a preference for modal melodies (using diatonic scales that are not strictly major or minor), pentatonic flavors, parallel fourths and fifths, and other vaguely Eastern (or Middle Eastern) elements meant to convey a “Jewish essence.” (To some extent, these propensities mirror those of the Eastern Mediterranean style of composition, which flourished in Israel among European immigrants and native-born Israelis in the 1930s-40s.) In Helfman’s assessment, Zeisl’s Hebraic sensibilities produced “compositions which spring strengthened and renewed from a base which unites East and West through the harmonies of the one and the techniques of the other” (B’nai B’rith Messenger, Oct. 6, 1950).

Zeisl undertook the ballet Jacob and Rachel with a grant from the New York Art Foundation and the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University) in Los Angeles. Together with Russian-born dancer and choreographer Benjamin Zemach (1902-1997), he adapted scenes from the biblical narrative. As Malcom E. Cole, the late musicologist and Zeisl scholar, explains in the liner notes accompanying the CD: “The action begins with Esau declaring his intent to slay his brother Jacob (Genesis 27:41). Jacob flees. After various encounters—human and divine—he fulfills the seven years of labor he pledged in return for his uncle Laban’s permission to marry the beloved daughter, Rachel. A trickster [like Jacob], Laban on the couple’s wedding night, replaces Rachel with Leah, the older sister.” Some incidents are omitted, others are embellished, and the ballet concludes with an invented ending: “embracing as they sit on a hill, Jacob and Rachel see a vision of angels and listen to God reiterate his promise [to Abraham, Genesis 22:17-18].”

Financial issues prevented Jacob and Rachel from being performed in Zeisl’s lifetime. The long-overdue world premiere took place on May 9, 2009, fifty years after the composer died of a sudden heart attack at age 53. Underwritten by E. Randol Schoenberg (grandson of Eric Zeisl and Arnold Schoenberg) and his wife, Pamela Lynn Schoenberg, the ballet was performed by the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony (LAJS), under conductor Noreen Green, and the BODYTRAFFIC Dance Company.

The recording of Jacob and Rachel, released in early 2019 to commemorate LAJS’s twenty-fifth year, was also underwritten by the Schoenbergs. Exquisitely executed and finely recorded at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, the ballet gives mature expression to Zeisl’s Judaic sound.

Punctuated by plucked strings, driving rhythms, percussive piano, and fluttering reeds and flutes—techniques used to replicate Middle Eastern aesthetics—Jacob and Rachel has a distinctive “Eastern” quality. At the same time, it is highly cinematic, with whole-tones underpinning the “neither here nor there” mysteriousness of “Night” (track 3) and a concluding passage suitable for “The End” title of any Hollywood epic (track 22).

“Hebraicisms” are heard in the “exotic” parallel fourths and fifths and shofar-like trombone in “Jacob’s Dream” (track 4), which also introduces a folk-like theme played to different rhythms throughout the piece (e.g., “Rachel Appears,” track 7; “Rachel Enters,” track 18; “Finale—The Promise Reiterated,” track 22). “The Wandering Feast” (track 17) and other dances could have sprung from Slovakian, Eastern European, or Israeli repertoires, while “Slaves at Work” (track 9) has hints of a quirky Raymond Scott ditty.

Noreen Green and the LAJS have done a great service in bringing this little-known work to life. One can only imagine that Eric Zeisl, who was regrettably underappreciated in his day, would have whole-heartedly endorsed this brilliant realization of his unique musical voice.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Literature as Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Aspects of music can be spatially represented through notation and recording, which freeze moments in time. But, as an experiential medium, which relies on performance and audition, music reveals itself in the present tense. This temporal quality is not only thought to distinguish music from spatial arts, such as illustration, sculpture, jewelry, and ceramics, but also from written language, which cements ideas and oral expression into fixed letters. However, this characterization has its limits.

Author Anthony Burgess restricts the framing of words as concrete objects to informational writing. Scientific texts, legal documents, historical records, and other types of non-fiction primarily appeal to reason rather than imagination. They are written for study, reference, and comparison to other writings in the field. Their words are artifacts to be mulled over, digested, quoted, and critiqued. Contrastingly, Burgess sees literature as a “twin of music,” which, like music, occurs in real-time, transcends physical space, and manifests in the imagination.

Burgess’s interest in the link between music and literature stems from his biography. Best known for his 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, featuring a deranged gang leader obsessed with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Burgess was also a composer of some 150 works, most of which have been lost. He wished the public would view him as a musician who writes novels, rather than a novelist who composes music on the side. Yet, in his memoir, This Man & Music, Burgess concedes: “I have practiced all my life the arts of literary and musical composition—the latter chiefly as an amateur, since economic need has forced me to spend most of my time producing fiction and literary journalism.”

Burgess’s fiction brims with musical content, from characters who are musicians or music lovers, to writing styles that consciously borrow from sonata form, symphonic form, and the like. Stressing literature’s performative essence, Burgess complains: “We have come to regard the text as the great visual reality because we confuse letters as art with letters as information.” While non-fiction works might be understood as monuments of human thought, literature is a lived experience akin to traveling through a piece of music.

This discussion has more to say about literature than it does about music. Like the poet E. T. A. Hoffmann, another composer who made his living in words, Burgess idealized creative writing as an art approaching music. Central to his argument is the conception of time as the canvas upon which both art forms take shape, and imagination as the invisible realm where their meaning is made.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

 

Wrong Notes

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Fidelity to the score is a defining characteristic of classical music. Pitches, values, tempi, volumes, and articulations are clearly written for meticulous enactment. In translating these symbols into sound, the musician ensures the piece’s survival even centuries after the composer’s death. There is, of course, room for (slight) variation. Because elements such as dynamics and tempo markings are at least moderately open to interpretation, no two performances will be exactly the same. Still, the faithful and accurate rendering of notes is key to the integrity—and the very existence—of a classical piece.

The foregoing outlines the nominalist theory of classical music, which defines a work in terms of concrete particulars relating to it, such as scores and performances. Because a musical piece is an audible and experiential phenomenon, which is symbolically represented in the score, it can only truly exist in performance.

This position raises two issues. The first concerns “authentic” performance. Is it enough to simply play the notes as indicated, or do those notes have to be played on the instrument(s) the composer intended? Does a cello suite played on double bass or a reduction of a symphony played on the piano qualify as an instance of the same work? How essential is the use of appropriate period instruments? These questions look for elements beyond the written notes.

The second issue centers on the notes themselves. Most performances of concert works include several wrong notes. However, we generally do not discount these performances for that reason (and we may not register the wrong notes as they are played). If all of the notes are wrong, then the work has not been performed, even if the intention is sincere. But what percentage of the notes can be wrong for the performance to qualify as the work? We might argue that the work is independent from any performance of it; but that does not satisfy the nominalist’s position.

Most discussions of musical ontology—addressing the big question, “Do musical works exist?”—are confined to classical music. Score-dependent arguments do not lend themselves to jazz, for instance, where the improvising performer composes on the spot, or certain kinds of folk music, where embellishments are commonplace and written notation is absent.

Questions about music’s ontological reality do not have easy answers, and the various philosophical camps have their weaknesses: nominalists, Platonists (who view musical works as abstract objects), idealists (who view musical works as mental entities), and so on. Whatever fruits such discourse might bear, it points to the uniquely “other” nature of music, which is both recognizable and ineffable, repeatable and singular.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Goal-Directed Movement

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Music listening is an unfolding experience. Without prompting, the listener naturally follows the direction of a piece, traveling through its curves and contours in a linear progression toward completion. In both the Republic and Laws, Plato comments on the ability of this temporal movement to “charm” the inner life of the listener. Roger Scruton contends that the mind moves sympathetically with motion perceived in music, such that it is felt as physical motion. These and other observations address the goal-directed movement of music. The whole piece is not revealed at once or in an order or manner that the listener chooses. Musical developments, whether simple or complex, lead auditors from beginning to end.

In contrast to print communication, which can be read and reread at any pace the reader wishes, music imposes its own duration and agenda. In pre-recording days, this necessitated formalized repetitions and recapitulations to get certain messages across, hence the use of sonata form (exposition, development, recapitulation), the doubling schema of keyboard partitas (AA/BB), the verse/chorus form of folksongs (and later commercial songs), and so on. Michel Chion notes: “This enormous redundancy—which means that if we buy a recording of Bach’s English Suites that lasts an hour, we only get thirty minutes of ‘pure’ musical information—clearly has no equivalent in the visual arts of the period.” Audio recordings afford greater freedom in terms of playback and repeated listening, but each listening remains a temporal experience.

The situation is not sidestepped with printed notation. Although a score can be read and studied, similar to a book or article, the notes on a page are essentially illusory. The paper is not the music. Jean-Paul Sartre argued in L’Imaginaire, a treatise on imagination and the nature of human consciousness, that music is never located in the silent symbols of a musical score, however detailed. Using Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony as an example, Sartre explained that the inability of written notes to capture music is rooted in the nature of sound itself. Unlike something that is empirically real—defined by Sartre as having a past, present, and future—music evaporates as soon as it is heard. Each performance is basically a new creation, and, we might add, each exposure to a recording is a new experience, due to changes in the listener and her surroundings from one hearing to the next.

Time, not paper, is the fundamental surface upon which music is made. Music involves a linear succession of impulses converging toward an end. Whereas a painting or sculpture conveys completeness in space, music’s totality is gradually divulged, sweeping up the listener—and the listener’s inner life—in the process.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Gesture Toward the Infinite

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The gradual decrease in volume toward silence, known as the fade-out, was once a ubiquitous part of popular music. One of the earliest fade-outs took place during a 1918 concert of Gustav Holst’s The Planets. The women’s choir sang in a room offstage for the concluding “Neptune” movement. As the piece neared its end, a door to the room was slowly closed. The contrivance was effective: the celestial chorus drifted into silence, conjuring the expansiveness of the cosmos and the remoteness of the gas giant—then thought to be the furthest planet from the Sun (an honor Neptune reclaimed in 2006 when Pluto was demoted to a “dwarf planet”).

A similarly “organic” fade-out is heard on an 1894 recording of the “Spirit of ’76,” during which a fife and drum band seem to get closer and then march away. The effect was achieved by carrying the phonograph toward and away from the sound’s source. With the advent of electrical recordings in the 1920s, engineers were able to decrease amplification, a process made easier with magnetic tape recordings beginning in the 1940s. The first pop hit to end with a fade was the R&B crossover song “Open the Door, Richard!” (1946), by saxophonist Jack McVea. The technique became commonplace between the 1950s and 80s. Each of Billboard’s top ten songs from 1985 ended with a fade-out.

The fade-out initially served a practical aim. In the 1940s and 50s, engineers often used the device to shorten songs that exceeded radio’s “three-minute rule,” or to fit them on one side of a vinyl single. The 1960s saw the fade-out as a creative avenue, especially in psychedelic and electronic music. The ending of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” (1968) fades over four minutes of repeated choruses. Other artists, like Stevie Wonder, used fade-outs to cut loose with ad-lib lyrics and extended jam sessions.

David Huron, an expert in music cognition, appreciates the fade-out as something beyond a practical solution or creative outlet. Commenting on Holst’s “Neptune” in his book, Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation, Huron notes: “With the fade-out, music manages to delay closure indefinitely. The ‘end’ is predictable, even though the music doesn’t ‘stop.’ The ‘stop’ gesture is replaced by a gesture toward the ‘infinite.’”

The fade-out, with its impression of unresolved infiniteness, fell out of favor during the 1990s. (The only recent hit featuring the device is Robin Thicke’s retro homage “Blurred Lines,” 2013.) Popular music historian William Weir connects the decline to the development of the Need for Closure Scale (1993) and psychology’s wider embrace of the concept of closure—a goal better achieved when a song concludes with a “cold ending.” Weir concedes that this explanation may be a stretch, pointing to the rise of iPods and DJs, which have created a “skip culture” (using songwriter/producer Itaal Shur’s term), where we are accustomed to skipping from song to song before they end. Why bother with the last few seconds if nobody ever hears them? Yet, even then, we experience a kind of infinity: the never-ending medley.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Objective and Subjective Emotions in Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc. Expression has never been an inherent property of music.” This oft-quoted statement from Igor Stravinsky’s 1936 autobiography Chronicles of My Life remains hotly debated. It seems to fly in the face of intuition, which automatically senses in music a definite emotional quality. Postmodern deconstructionists have taken Stravinsky’s statement to its extreme, discounting an essential relationship between music and emotions, and arguing that music can only express musicality itself. Nonmusical associations—emotional, symbolic, and visual impressions—have nothing to do with music per se, but instead prove the human tendency to endow everything in our environment with animate qualities. Advocates of this view, like Peter Kivy and Malcolm Budd, agree especially with the second part of Stravinsky’s statement: “If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality. It is simply an additional attribute which, by tacit and inveterate agreement, we have lent it, thrust upon it, as a label, a convention—in short, an aspect we have come to confuse, consciously or by force of habit, with its essential being.”

Stravinsky’s words might confound listeners of his music, which elicits a range of deeply emotional responses. However, his comment speaks more to process than impact. It articulates a formalist position, wherein music’s meaning is determined by form. Music invariably produces emotions, but it does not embody them. This viewpoint marked a shift from nineteenth-century romanticism, which valued irrationality, spontaneity, and transcendence over Enlightenment ideals of reason, order, and materiality.

Importantly, 1936 was the middle of Stravinsky’s neoclassicist period, bookended between a Russian “neo-primitive” period (1907-1919) and a period of serialism (1954-1968). Neoclassicism was a return to compositional attributes favored in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, including light textures, conciseness, conventional forms (dance suites, sonata forms, etc.), and tonality (more a reaction to modernism than to romanticism). It was not simply an imitative movement: “neo” denotes both return and innovation. Even Stravinsky’s dry and Bach-like Octet for wind instruments (1923)—an early effort dismissed in the press as a bad joke—bears the composer’s signature.

Stravinsky clarified his rejection of romanticism and its “supernatural muse” in Poetics of Music (1947): “Invention presupposes imagination but should not be confused with it. For the act of invention implies the necessity of a lucky find and of achieving full realization of this find.” Fellow twentieth-century composer Aaron Copland saw in Stravinsky’s approach the beginnings of objectivism, which came to dominate concert music as the twentieth century marched toward the twenty-first.

Unlike the overly expressive music of the Romantics, which expands harmony, dynamics, and form to transmit intensely personal sentiments, Classical and modern works, while sonically light years apart, share an air of impersonality. Construction precedes and produces expression, rather than the other way around. Thus, as Copland wrote in The New Music, 1900-1960, there is “no need, therefore, to concentrate on anything but the manipulation of the musical materials, these to be handled with consummate taste and craftsmanslike ability.”

Viewed in this light, Stravinsky’s provocative stance on music and emotion really answers a question of style: Should emotions drive composition (Romantic-subjective) or derive from it (Classical-objective)? The broader issue of whether feelings originate within musical sounds or are grafted onto them seems almost moot. Not to sidestep the debate entirely, but the experience remains emotional all the same.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

 

All is Medley

Jonathan L. Friedmann

A “megamix” consists of multiple song snippets played in rapid succession. Verses, choruses, and smaller sections form a unified chain, often supported by a steady backing beat. Megamixes come in three basic types: “album remixes,” a single track sampling songs on an album; “flashbacks,” comprising slabs of popular songs from a year or two; and “artist remixes,” stringing together song fragments from a career. These can be bootleg tributes or studio releases, as with promo mixes advertising an upcoming album. To some extent, cutting and pasting is a natural outgrowth of the post-modern digital age, where music belongs to consumers, and consumers function as (re)producers. Nevertheless, its roots are probably as old as music itself.

Before remix there was medley: a musical piece made from other musical pieces. The term first appeared in the fourteenth century, and originally applied to hand-to-hand combat—still idiomatically called “mixing it up.” The later musical meaning would have suited that medieval context, as folk, popular, and liturgical songs freely borrowed and rearranged motives and melodies from one another. In medieval Germany, common threads connected Minnesong (courtly love songs), Gassenhauer (street songs), and Gregorian chant. By the end of the eighteenth century, medley referred to a sequence of opera melodies. This sense carried into the modern usage, where medley—and its companion term, potpourri—signifies a patchwork of short songs or song-segments performed as a continuous piece.

As self-aware assemblages, modern mélanges differ from their organic predecessors. However, their organizing mechanism is hardly new. Melodies, whether modal or diatonic, improvised or pre-composed, rely upon sounds developed through reuse, reshaping, and repetition. This can be compared to language: just as we internalize vocabulary and grammatical rules from hearing and using existing sentences, so do musicians internalize musical rules from hearing and reapplying existing musical patterns. In this way, every melody is a medley, varying only in degree.

Of course, obvious mixing can attract criticism (and even lawsuits). Constant Lambert famously frowned upon such “pastiches.” He complained, “a composer with no sense of style and no creative urge can take medieval words, set them in the style of Bellini, add twentieth-century harmony, develop both in the sequential and formal manner of the eighteenth century, and finally score the whole thing for jazz band.”

Condemnation and exaggeration notwithstanding, Lambert’s illustration captures the music-making process. Music is fundamentally a generative art: its very status as music depends on its resemblance to other music. Regardless if the piece is a deliberate medley, hackneyed hodgepodge, organic amalgam, novel twist, or post-modern remix, it invariably absorbs, consolidates, reassembles, and builds upon prior music. Perhaps creativity, in the pure sense that Lambert meant it, depends more on the masking of influences than on their absence.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.