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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 9 After Everything
Richard Taruskin
A Parenthesis on CollageA Parenthesis on CollageA Parenthesis on Collage

ex. 9-1a George Rochberg, Music for the Magic Theater, II, end

In any case, the use of collage to represent the hurly-burly of the modern age was hardly unprecedented in 1965 (even if its most widely played example, Berio's Sinfonia, still lay three years in the future). Not to mention Ives, or even the French surrealist music of the 1920s, at least two prominent composers had by then made collage their main expressive vehicle. One was Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918–70), a German composer whose opera Die Soldaten (“The soldiers”), composed over a six-year period from 1958 to 1964, is a multidimensional collage in which split-level dramaturgy allows as many as seven scenes to play simultaneously, sometimes further augmented by the use of film and slide projections. Each scene, while coordinated with the rest, has a distinctive musical profile that often features quotations from the music of the past (Bach chorales, the Dies Irae, etc.) alongside Zimmermann's own serial constructions.

Some of Zimmermann's scores, like the riotous Musique pour les soupers du Roi Ubu (“Music for King Ubu's repasts,” 1962–66), consist of nothing but a tissue of promiscuous quotation. Zimmermann's collages expressed his conviction that the modern concept of time necessarily embodied a simultaneous awareness of past, present, and future, and that music, being “an experience which occurs both in time while also embodying time within itself,” should consist of symbolic “orderings of progressions of time”20 in the fullness of its modern conception.

His reliance on preexisting materials made Zimmermann suspect in the eyes of some of his contemporaries, who insisted on traditional modernist values of novelty, originality, and, above all, autonomy. Stockhausen insulted him with the dread term Gebrauchsmusiker (maker of music that is not for its own sake), associated with the discredited Hindemith. But by 1966 Stockhausen was making collages himself: first Telemusik, an ecumenical “world music” mix that celebrated technology's potential for bringing people and cultures together, then Hymnen (1967), a collage of national anthems distorted as if by a short-wave radio tuner. The influence of the despised Zimmermann is noticeable not only in the genre to which these pieces belonged, but also in their obvious “message-mongering.”

A Parenthesis on Collage

ex. 9-1b George Rochberg, Music for the Magic Theater, III, resumption and completion of the cadence

By 1969, a year before his death by suicide, Zimmermann was prepared (in his Requiem for a Young Poet, an elegy for three poet friends who had killed themselves) to pile Beatles songs on top of Beethoven's Ninth, while simultaneously piping in the recorded voices of Churchill, Stalin, Joseph Goebbels (Hitler's propaganda minister) and Joachim von Ribbentrop (Hitler's foreign minister), plus the noise of a political demonstration, all to be cut off abruptly by the sound of a lone poet's voice (one of the dedicatees) begging for peace.

The other master collageur was the Canadian-born Henry Brant (1913–2008), who had concluded as early as 1950 that “single-style music, no matter how experimental or full of variety, could no longer evoke the new stresses, layered insanities and multi-directional assaults of contemporary life on the spirit.”21 He developed a modus operandi that added spatial separation to the recipe, specifying his new technique in the form of four “rules”: compositions must comprise a multiplicity of “distinct ensemble groups, each of which keeps to its own style, highly contrasted to the styles of the other groups”; they must be as widely dispersed as possible “throughout the hall (not merely upon the stage)”; they should be independent in rhythm and tempo; and they ought to contain a degree of “controlled improvisation or what I call ‘instant composing,’ ” to ensure “spontaneous caprice and individual complexity of material quickly available,” and the “instant playability of technically difficult passages.”

Brant loved to point out that his first composition written to this prescription—Antiphony I (1953), for five separated and independent orchestral groups—predated Stockhausen's celebrated Gruppen for four orchestras by three years. But while the groups in Gruppen all pass around the same serially-constructed material, the groups in Antiphony I, each requiring its own conductor, all play in highly contrasting styles. A hearty maximalist, Brant traced his own development in terms of ever-expanding media and ever-increasing density of information:

Millennium 2 (1954) surrounds the audience on three sides with an unbroken wall of brass and percussion, and introduces cumulative 20-voice jazz linear heterophony pitted against a controlled 6-voice polyphony. In Grand Universal Circus (1956), contrasted dramatic situations, each based on a different creation myth with its own independent musical setting, are simultaneously enacted in widely separated locations in the theater. In Concerto with Lights (1961), a small (audible) orchestra occupies the stage while another ensemble of musicians, working light switches from musical notation, project visual images on the ceiling in exact but silent rhythms contrasted to those sounding from the stage. In Voyage Four (1963), the entire wall space of the hall is occupied by banks of instruments, as is the area under the orchestra floor, producing at times an almost total directional immersion of the hearer in sound.22

Brant's Kingdom Come (1970) pits a full symphony orchestra on stage against a circus band in the balcony. The former “plays at a strident forte throughout, in its highest-tension registers, and expresses its anxieties in long, frenzied phrases, celebrating life in the human pressure cooker.”23 The latter plays music suggesting “the bashed-up ruins of rusty calliopes still screeching; at other times a kind of computerized purgatory, all wires crossed, circuits blown to Kingdom Come, still grinding out the answers to its mispunched programs.” It includes a soprano “who impersonates a psychotic Valkyrie.” The two orchestras “engage in head-on collisions … culminating in a final array of smash-ups which leaves the contradictory premises of the piece unreconciled.” By the next decade Brant was ready to trump this dystopic vision with a more optimistic image of harmonized human diversity: Meteor Farm (1982), the grandest spatial piece of all, combines a symphony orchestra with a jazz band, an Indonesian gamelan ensemble, African drummers, and classical Indian soloists, all ranged around and above the audience.

A Brantian assemblage is a collage of characteristic media rather than of quotations from preexisting music à la Zimmermann or Rochberg, but it aims similarly to evoke modern life in its irreducible heterogeneity. Although these composers were all of them certifiably of the avant-garde, the collage style began in the 1960s to seep into the work of “mainstream” artists as well. We have already observed the way media and style collages helped express the ironies and pathos of Britten's War Requiem (chapter 5). Even Shostakovich, in his last symphony, the Fifteenth (1971), made recourse to enigmatically emblematic quotations. The first movement incorporates an unmissable phrase from Rossini's William Tell Overture, and the finale opens with (and returns to) the “Fate” leitmotif from Wagner's Die Walküre. The nature of Shostakovich's sources (solid “bourgeois classics” as Steve Reich would say) and the obviously portentous function of the quotes serve to domesticate the technique, draining it (freeing it?) of its avant-garde associations.

But, as all of these examples have shown, as an expressive resource collage remained well within the accepted boundaries of modernist practice, in no way contradicting or threatening its premises. Brant's progressively more ambitious collages subscribe fully to the modernist “onward and upward” project—ever grander, ever bigger, ever more omnivorous. Like other modernist devices that became conventional, collage was easily absorbed, in moderate doses, into the mainstream concert repertoire. There is no reason to apply a term like “postmodernism” to it.


(20) Andres D. McCredie (with Marion Rothärmel), “Zimmermann, Bernd Alois,” in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (2nd ed.), Vol. XXVII, p. 837.

(21) Liner note to Desto Records, DC-7108 (Henry Brant: Music 1970 [Kingdom Come and Machinations]).

(22) Ibid.

(23) Ibid.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 After Everything." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 16 Sep. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-009004.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 9 After Everything. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-009004.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 9 After Everything." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-009004.xml