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“A constant search for variety brings forth only a vain and ever unsatisfied curiosity. It is natural and healthy to tend rather towards the reality of a limitation than towards the infinite possibilities of multiplicity. Music is that which unifies. But unity has its reverberations. The accomplished work spreads out in order to make itself known and eventually flows back to its principle. In this way music appears to us as an element of communion with the future---and with the Supreme Being”.

Igor Stravinsky

My work is not an evolution from my past (which I am faithfully recreating) but rather designed to be felt as contemporary with those past forces and figures, a posthumous affair, artwork out of its time and place, somewhat like an undetected forgery.

Wings of the Morning is an improvised suite of pieces that tricks you into thinking it is contemporary with Liszt’s En Reve, the fifth piece on the project. Dusk of the Nightlands, the final piece which follows it, is a fantasy-impromptu paraphrase of the Liszt.

Like Berlioz, “Time and Place” are of no interest to me and if a label is helpful, call me a “Post-Beethoven-Modernist”.

No wonder Debussy loved Schumann, nachtmusik, magical enchantments, everything fantastic. The lineage of Six Pieces for Piano, back through Debussy to Schumann.

Six Piano Pieces (1992-99)

(adapted from The Bent Knife Blade by Robert Martin Adams from Joyce a collection of critical essays from Twentieth Century Views series) a bit of shameless self promotion.

“… has only to hear the music and see the score of the Six Pieces for Piano 1992-1999, it takes less than two measures to encounter the dramatic richness, flexibility and complexity of the musical idiom. The music moves with elegance and under its own power; the hand of the composer does not have to tug it along. A complex of energies is set moving in these phrases; the economy of means and richness of effect marks a genuine imaginative achievement. Thomas works to standards of subtlety, economy and exactness by which contemporary music will be measured for years to come and his ability to do so is quite independent of technical innovations…….” P.169.

Modest as they are, they represent the most tender and passionate feelings I have about music.

My involvement with jazz is not casual. Note the testimony of The 17 Solo Piano Improvisations. When I first encountered it (1965) jazz took on the same weight and significance immediately as my association with Stockhausen had the year before, or my special interest in Literature, Berlioz, Stravinsky, or Liszt previousy. These Six Piano Pieces reveal treasured classical echoes in a compressed formal setting, everything seen through the “lens”, if you will, of the broader and quite specific sensibilities and methods (but not the stylizations) of American Jazz. This is what makes the pieces more than nostalgia. 

Jazz has a specific definition for me. It is the Miles Davis-Gil Evans-(Stefan Wolpe)-George Russell-Charley Parker axis, what was called “modern jazz” or “progressive jazz” or “Bebop”. It is their disposition towards their art that propelled my liberation from avant-garde-historicism. Their approach makes available innumerable technical innovations far surpassing the innovations I learned from the post-ww2-european /experimental composers. Jazz turned my attention back to my own American roots,Edgar Poe, Emily Dickinson, Jackson Pollock, Charles Ives, Miles Davis.

Jazz gave me the recovery of Tonality (Chord functions in relation to Key centers) as a design factor in my music. This is not to say that my music is now Tonal. No new music is Tonal as it once was. My tonal practice is derived in part from the particular harmonic practices demonstrated by the great recorded works of aforementioned Jazz artists. Through this influence I was blissfully reconciled to the larger world of music to which I was formerly joined and from which I was painfully estranged during my impoverished wanderings in the howling, barren wilderness of avant-garde-historicism.

Further, my harmonic technique is a variant (as Busoni’s in his time was) of J.S. Bach’s method of part-writing as perfectly illustrated in his four-part-chorales. This technique enables the construction of musical phrases which proceed by development and variation techniques along adjustable points, with many adjustable scales or “degrees of differentiation“ , a triadic-diatonic point on one end, a non-diatonic quasi-serialized-chromaticism on the other, Piece No. 1 of the Six (the ultimate G#minor piece!) any number of steps in between, any size steps I want, any size scale (I want) (Stockhausen).

As a form of Harmonic-Counterpoint it depends largely on an expansive development of Common Tone Technique. This has an application to the building of both large and short forms.

There are other formal features derived from conversations with Stockhausen in 1964 especially during his analyses of his own pieces particularly the (then-unfinished) Momente. Karlheinz’ “all kinds of scales” derives from total-serialization works which in turn grew out of tone-row-technique derived from Schoenberg’s 12 tone system, levels of high to low, near and far, right and left, above and below, bright and dark, more or less loud, more or less thick.

Neo-Classic Stravinsky changes everything

My friend George Dragonetti introduced to me the post-Sacre music of Stravinsky by taking me to hear the Symphony of Psalms at Carnegie Hall conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Previous to my study at the Manhattan School of Music, my modern music passions were Debussy, Ravel, Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. I knew nothing of Stravinsky’s so-called “neoclassic” works.

I wanted to analyze the Symphony of Psalms right away. The Department “rule” said it was scheduled for third year 

Composition-major curriculum, I should wait until then, and besides it was not considered a great work anyway (sic). I didn’t go for that. In 1960 Bill Karlins offered to analyze it with me privately. Thus began our lessons. 

Bill and I covered a lot of the music of Stravinsky and Varese, Kontrapunkte and Gesang der Junglinge of Stockhausen, and many other pieces. I worked through Hindemith’s Traditional Harmony thoroughly, in fact we went through it twice. Bill gave me his understanding of composing with rows and he started me off composing with a 5 note row (Five Miniatures for Flute Clarinet and Percussion) then 12 tone rows (String Trio and Sextet). We stayed closely to these three subject areas for two years and some months. 

When I was a child, my mother Helen let me decorate the inside doors of the floor-level kitchen cabinet (home for her pots and pans) with cut out pasted up magazine pictures. She let me (at appointed times) make music-pieces with the assorted pots and pans. A little Gesamkunstwerk of my own! Thus, the known world of my own everyday reality at home with Mom included a parallel commentary (my art) on it. Right alongside the obvious everyday reality, this commentary was not an escape. The known world and my questions-and-commentary regarding it were not separate.

I rule my own art world in solemnity and with a severe exactitude.

From Stravinsky Inside Out

Charles M. Joseph

p.254 It is often the opening compositional material that is (or later becomes) derived.

p.248 Webern “The architectonologist”. 

p.247 Stravinsky rightly observes that in Schoenberg’s Ewartung and Die Gluckischehand, the dissonances are not “heightened consonances” as Schoenberg contends, but comparative dissonance.

p.231 Virginia Wolff on Shakespeare:

“All desire to protest, to preach, to proclaim an injury, to pay off a score, to make the world a witness of some hardship or grievance was fired out of him and consumed. Therefore his poetry flows from him free and unimpeded.”

p.204 Lukas Foss:

“Stravinsky did away with orchestration and substituted writing for instruments as he called it. He would say, why did you give that to the trumpets? Foss remembers that if an idea made sense as a ‘trumpet tune’, Stravinsky would insist that it be “given to the violins which reveals something about his approach to orchestration”.

This nicely reveals much about Stravinsky’s “method”. Such logic makes innovation possible. I have made full use it.

p.196 quote from Mann’s “Doctor Faustus” on the order to destroy this letter. ”I learned to regard it as a document of the which the order to destroy was a part, so that by its documentary nature it canceled itself out.”

p.192 Aria 2 of the Violin Concerto is (allegedly) an apology to his wife Catherine for his affair with Vera.

p.185 Stravinsky reveals one of his rarely revealed serial procedures, repeating two notes in the series but not three.

p.172 Balanchine: “We are representing the art of dancing, art of body movement, in time, in space. It is the music, it is really time more than the melody, and our body must be subordinated to time because without time, dance doesn’t exist. It must be order. It’s like a planet, if it’s not precise, it falls to pieces.”

p.170 the Schopenhauer origin of the infamous “Music expresses nothing but itself” statement. “….and the musical tones inhabit and form a universe of their own in which the human mind has created the materials and reduced them to order.”

p.28 “musical sounds inhabit and form a universe of their own” The sounds of a composition exist in the context of a world those sounds themselves have fashioned.

Screenplay writing: catchphrase of the 30’s in Hollywood “cinematizing prose”.

Cinematizing music perhaps?

p.274 Henri Poincare: “….a construction of an aesthetic order out of the entire realm of imagination.”

p.285 Virgina Wolff reviews L’Histoire du Soldat.

“Like all highly original work, it begins by destroying one’s conceptions, and only by degrees builds them up again.”

p.286 David Raksin on his friendship with Stravinsky.

“His mind was like an attic. Everywhere you looked there were precious ideas to be rediscovered and explored.” 

My quest was philosophical and art seemed the best tool with which to probe the “known world” in search of the meaning of “meaning” and the nature of “explanation”. I was driven to examine “meaning” and “explanation” through art, and particularly through music.

Fellini comments to Rota about music: “You composers don’t invent anything. You find what already exists, like water-finders with their sticks”.

Translation pictures the general problem of making art. It is itself is a sub-category of creation. (Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude).

Art is a translation of something FROM the imaginative world (creating and constructing) TO the actual world (the art work itself).

Everything is partial and incomplete. Therefore since my goal is to create art which reflects accurately the “space time configuration” of everyday reality in the “known world”, my constructive process necessarily is built on this axiom “Everything in the known world is fragmentary and incomplete”

Kafka: “I don’t want freedom. Just show me a way out” (Morton Feldman p. 85 “Radio Happenings” 1966-67).

It seems that certain linguistic scholars have come to the conclusion that metaphor is a component of cognition. Borges’ work led cognition-theorists to consider the “role” played by metaphor in our re-cognition processes.

Originality is usually a self-created illusion but it can be, at best, a natural by-product of thoughtful imitation, the habit of working from models, in my case the models provided by the whole body of musical masterworks. I regard any music I am writing as “foreground” against a “background” of one or several musical and literary models. 

“On va donc jover ma musique” Berlioz’ last words “So let’s play my music” Perturbed? Sarcastic?

  • Ron Thomas
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