Expressionism and Atonality
The decade before 1914, in pre- War Germany and Austria, witnessed the birth of Expressionist Art. Expressionism rejected bourgeois culture, materialistic Germany, and Industrialisation. It was a return to primitive art forms.
Friedrich Nietzsche’s work of dramatic theory ‘The Birth of Tragedy’ (1872) had an influence on the movement. (Trashface, 2007 ) Nietzsche refers to two opposing forces: Apollonian (the world of the mind, order, logic, individuality) and Dionysian (the world of intoxication, ecstasy, madness, enthusiasm). The Expressionists identified with the Dionysian impulse. (Hollingdale, 1999)
Sigmund Freud’s theories of the unconscious mind were a source of inspiration for Expressionist artwork, which was highly subjective, focusing on the individual’s hostile interpretation of the world around him, expressing himself through nightmarish and very dramatic images. Visual artists such as Kandinsky, Edvard Munch and Vincent Van Gogh used distorted shapes, violent brushwork, vivid and contrasting colours, primitive symbolism and fantasy in order to express powerful emotions, in particular repressed inner desires. Expressionists were inspired by Schopenhauer’s idea of using art to go beyond the limits of human reason, reaching the ultimate truth. (Trashface, 2007 )
Schoenberg would bring Expressionism to music with the use of atonality. Dissonance was already present in music by this time, but tended to be held back by consonance. Impressionist composers such as Claude Debussy had experimented with dissonance in ‘pour le piano’, and Charles Ives with bitonality and pantonality (Rosen, 1975) Even earlier, Wagner with chromaticism and Brahms with asymmetrical phrasing. Schoenberg saw atonality as the logical development of dissonance; he was “merely taking a step along a marked path.” (Rosen, 1975 p23)
Schoenberg’s Erwartung (meaning ‘Expectation’) is an example of musical Expressionism. Composed in 1909 for solo soprano and orchestra, the opera is about a nameless woman who wanders through a moonlit forest in search of her lover. The woman is anxious and possibly mentally unstable. In the final scene she discovers the dead body of her lover and angrily suspects that he was having an affair. She mourns him for the remainder of the work and wonders how she can continue living without him. (Carpenter, 2002)
Marie Pappenheim, a medical student, was commissioned to write the text. The protagonist is very similar to Freud’s case studies, Anna O. and Dora, who both show signs of amnesia, hysteria, hallucinations, and traumatic, repressed memories. (Ford, 2002)
Erwartung consists of 426 bars without thematic repetition due to the lack of tonal centre. (Carpenter A. 2002) The text is unpredictable and fragmented, complimenting the music. The work is very dramatic with sudden contrasts in dynamics ranging from very soft to quite loud, contrasts in timbre are achieved with the full use of the orchestra. Another work associated with this piece is Bela bartok’s opera ‘duke bluebeard’s castle.
Expressionism continued after WW1; although Schoenberg went on to create the 12 tone row. Schoenberg’s rejection of tonal harmony prepared the way for future musical experimentation.
Albright D. 2004, Modernism and music: an anthology of sources, University of Chicago press, U.S.A.
Brand J. & Hailey C. 1997, constructive dissonance: Arnold Schoenberg and the transformations of twentieth- century culture, university of California Press, L.A.
Ford A. 2002, Illegal harmonies: Music in the 20th century, Griffin, Sydney.
Frisch W. 1999, Schoenberg and his world, Princeton university press, New Jersey. Hollingdale, R. J, 1999, Nietzsche: the Man and His Philosophy, U.S.A
Rosen C. 1975, Schoenberg, Marion Boyars, London.
Carpenter A. 2002, Schoenberg’s Erwartung and Freudian Case histories: A preliminary Investigation, Last viewed 1/05/ 2011. http://www.discourses.ca/v3n2a1.html
Recording of Erwartung: http://www.schoenberg.at/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=186&Itemid=361&lang=en last viewed 2/05/2011
Trashface, 2007 http://www.trashface.com/germanexpressionism.html Dublin Ireland, last viewed 2/05/2011
John Cage, spirituality and 4”33
A pivotal moment in John Cage’s musical career occurred in 1940 with the composition of “Perilous Night”. The piece wasn’t received in the way Cage had hoped; which led him to conclude that traditionally expressive music was unsuccessful as a mode of communication:
“I had poured a great deal of emotion into the piece, and obviously I wasn’t communicating this at all. Or else, I thought, if I were communicating, then all artists much be speaking a different language, and thus speaking only for themselves. The whole musical situation struck me more and more as a Tower of Babel. (Bernstein D.W. & Hatch C. 2001, p 43)
Cage began searching for reasons other than self expression as inspiration to compose music. Gita Sarabhai, a musician of Indian background and one of Cage’s students, explained that Indian music was composed for the sole purpose of silencing the mind, that “removing the self from the mind, allows room for divine influences.” (Shultis, 1995, p37)
He became interested in Zen Buddhism’s concepts of dualism and nondualism : adapting these thoughts to the relationship of sound and silence. The transformation of Nature in Art’, by Indian art historian Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy, was another text that influenced Cage. Like Coomaraswamy, he believed that art should imitate nature and because traditional harmony did not occur in nature, it should be rejected. Cage grew to believe that Art should be used to alter the self, through the influence of the natural environment, not as a tool for self expression.
In his attempt to remove the self/ the ego from the composition process, Cage relied on indeterminacy or chance operations by consulting the ancient chinese text ‘I ching, book of changes. A process of coin tossing on hexagram charts eventually leads a person to make random decisions. (Cleary 1992) Cage used the ‘I ching’ when he composed the work 4”33. 4” 33 was a random number provided by the book. (Ford, 2002)
4”33, composed in 1952, has three movements, each named “tacet” (“don’t play” or “it is silent”) Initially composed for solo piano, the performer would approach the piano, raise his arms as though he were about to play, but stop mid- way, with his arms in the air, and do... nothing...he would then relax after a minute or so, pull out a stop watch to monitor the time, and turn the pages when the next movement arrived. The sounds created by the audience- breathing, heart beats, coughs; the air conditioning and the sounds of the environment become the composition. Cage saw no distinction between musical sounds and found sounds. In his view, they all have the potential to be used creatively. (Patterson, 2002) The act of listening is all that is necessary for a sound to become music (Ford, 2002 p 127)
For 4 minutes and 33 seconds, the border between life and art no longer exists. non- intention is achieved as the desire to express oneself is removed from the work, nondualism -the coexistence of ‘something’ and “nothing”, and equality between performer and observer are also achieved. The world is a real- time, indeterminate composition; a process of creation occurring around us all the time, Cage has just provided the frame in which to observe it.
Cage would continue to use I ching for the rest of his compositional career. Other composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Toru Takemitsu’s works have spiritual elements to them. Takemtisu sites John Cage as one of his musical influences. ( Burt, 2001)
Burt P. 2001 The music of Toru Takemitsu, Great Britain.
Bernstein D.W. & Hatch C. 2001, Writings through John Cage’s music, poetry, and art. Chicago.
Cleary T. 1992, I ching: the book of change. Shambala publications, Canada.
Davies S. 2003, Themes in philosophy of music, Oxford University Press, U.S.A.
Ford A. 2002, Illegal harmonies: Music in the 20th century, Griffin, Sydney.
Patterson D.W, 2002, John Cage: Music, philosophy, and intention 1933-1950, Routledge publishing, Great Britain.
Pritchett J. 1993, The Music of John Cage, Cambridge University Press, England.
Suzuki, S. 1987 Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. uSA
Shultis C. Silencing the sounded self: John Cage and the Intentionality of Nonintention. The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 79,
No. 2. (Summer, 1995), pp. 312-350. http://beauty.gmu.edu/AVT307/AVT307-001/Christopher%20Shultis%20silencing%20the%20sounded%20self.pdf last viewed 2/05/2011
Cage, J. I have nothing to say and I am saying it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y3hO7B80dWQ
Performance of 4”33 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gN2zcLBr_VM&feature=related viewed 02/05/2011