Regular Irregularity, or Round Pegs in Square Holes

Regular Irregularity, or Round Pegs in Square Holes

The last post delved into some of the issues surrounding the multiple editions of Bruckner’s Symphonies, and the obstacles they imposed on me as a student.  It’s high time we got a bit more into the music.  There are things that should make a Bruckner score easier to follow.  All of his (finished) symphonies are in four movements, with the first and last being in sonata form.  The two middle movements always are a Scherzo and a slow movement Adagio in ABABA form.  Bruckner usually places the Adagio as the second movement followed by the Scherzo, but as we will see in coming posts, that ordering is reversed in the Eighth.  His musical phrases are often very regular four bar phrases, creating nice neat square holes.   We will hear some very round pegs being hammered into those square holes as the music goes on.

AustriaANK953I think one other issue demands comment before we go too much further.  Buckner was an Austrian composer, and died in 1896.  It would be somewhat surprising if Anton didn’t have some anti-semitic leanings, given the time and place where he lived.  There is no excusing that, but he died decades before the world ever knew what a Nazi was.  More than a generation after his death, the German Nazi party championed Bruckner as good German music and culture.  Anton’s music was on the “good” list, as many other things were on a “bad” list in the Nazi attempt to “purify” German culture in music and the arts.  Still, Bruckner was an Austrian, died over 40 years before the Anschluss, and should not be blamed for the posthumous, political uses of his music by the German Nationalist Socialists.  I propose we take Symphony No. 8 on it’s own terms.

The terms of the Eighth are those of a work of art that is intended to be monumental.  This is a big musical statement, of considerable weight and length.  I am not kidding about length, there is a pathological numbness of the gluteus maximus that occurs during a performance of one of these symphonies that I refer to as “Bruckner Buns”.  These are massive musical works of solidity and grandeur.  The first movement is in sonata form, but I would contend it is not a very “well behaved” sonata form.  A model sonata form is usually about key areas, thematic development, and resolution of key area tension in a recapitulation.  Bruckner’s use of a highly “Wagnerian” harmonic language creates problems in politely establishing a key area.  Richard Wagner may have advanced music in a number of ways, but he wrote almost exclusively operas (or music dramas as he liked to call them). He used a high level of chromaticism in his harmonic language, used motives (leitmotifs) to identify characters and ideas, and wove all of this into a sort of “endless melody”.  All the while, there is a story and plot to hold the action together and give it structure.

Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner

Bruckner is often seen as one of the composers who took some of Wagner’s musical language and adapted it to a symphonic form.  This is a particular challenge, using a highly chromatic language of roving harmonies that rarely establish a clear key, in a sonata form that is (on one level) all about establishing key centers.  Anton’s themes and thematic groups eventually wander around to the key they are supposed to be in, but sometimes only finding the dominant seventh chord, and not the actual home tonic chord.  This is a habit directly borrowed from Wagner.  These themes of roving harmonies are the round pegs hammered into four bar square holes.

The truth of the matter is, Bruckner’s forms are more held together by the motives of the themes.  Many times it is the rhythmic aspect of these motives that is the glue, more so than the actual pitches.  The pitches and direction of the themes are sometimes inverted, elongated, augmented.   Through all of these mutations, it is their rhythmic DNA that defines their relationship.  These relationships connect parts within a single movement, as well as across all four movements of the symphony.


The first movement is a sonata form with three thematic groups in the exposition.  The first group starts at bar 1 (the beginning of the recording below) and eventually (not immediately) establishes the tonic key of c minor.  The shimmering opening of a single pitch, with the soft entrance of a chromatic motive after a couple of bars, is a signature Bruckner device.  The second thematic group starts at bar 51, about 2:09 in the recording, and is in the dominant key of G.  This second group gives us the characteristic “Bruckner rhythm” , a 2 + 3 (duplet + triplet) grouping that Anton loves to use. The third thematic group, the closing section of the exposition, begins at bar 97 (4:12) and is the key of E flat (the relative major).

A long development section starts at bar 153 (6:22 in the recording) and runs for about  six minutes.  The recapitulation, something that is usually a big landmark, happens at bar 311 (12:14)  is really “artfully blurred” (to use Benjamin Korstvedt’s words).  Anton really only brings back the second and third sections of the exposition, and that’s all he really needed since the end of the development section relies heavily on material from the first section of the exposition.  Anton has taken that big seam, between the development and the recapitulation, and just spackled right over it.

A short coda section ends the movement quietly on c as it is supposed to.  Looking forward to the next movement, we see that it is the Scherzo (in the place Bruckner would usually have the slow Adagio).  We also notice that it is in the tonic key of c minor, also something unusual for Bruckner.  The fact is, because of all the roving, chromatic ambiguity in the first movement, our ears are not worn out on c minor yet.  Anton can provide us with some more of the tonic key, but that story is for the next post.

I don’t think it is necessary to paste in pieces of the score here showing each of the rhythmic motives so you can listen and wait for each to occur.  Listening just a bit at each of the landmarks I pointed out above, is plenty enough to find them.  They are not hidden in the least, in fact, often they are blasted out by an army of brass players.  These are the things that form a web of connections that hold the movement together, and they let the harmonies push tonality to its limit throughout the work.

For now, enjoy Herbert von Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in the first movement of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 in c minor.  Karajan uses the score edited by Robert Haas, published in 1939 by the International Bruckner Society.  We know from the last post that this is a bit of a hybrid of the 1887 and 1890 versions.

Anton Bruckner, Symphony No. 8, First Movement


The Bad Plus, “Inevitable Western”

The Bad Plus, “Inevitable Western”

Last month, The Bad Plus released their tenth studio album, Inevitable Western.  That first sentence sort of blows my mind.  Wasn’t it yesterday I was in the used CD store buying These Are The Vistas?  How could this be album number ten?  I’m just now starting to wrap my brain around their version of The Rite of Spring.  That just came out in March!  It seems impossible that they have another new release already.  I just saw them live, with Joshua Redman, at the Detroit Jazz Festival.  How is the grey matter supposed to digest an entire new collection of original music?






If you remember, The Bad Plus is made up of  bassist Reid Anderson, pianist Ethan Iverson, and drummer David King.  The three of them are equals in this endeavor, all writing original music, and no one man acting as leader ahead of the other two.  They form a true collective organism, and play with an unspoken communication and connection that only exists with master musicians that have played together for a long time.


In listening to Inevitable Western this week, a few thoughts come to mind.  I was always blown away by their cathartic, over-the-top, hyper-energetic deconstructions of tunes by other artists (Nirvana/Neil Young/Ornette Coleman etc).  They brought things to the point of chaos, and somehow brought you back.  Sometimes I didn’t want to come back, I just wanted to embrace the entropy.  Either I am getting used to this group, or they are beginning to replace some of that kinetic frenzy with some meditative music.  The first tune on the new album is “Hear You” and serves as a good example of The Bad Plus serving up the sublime.Western

The three of them have listened to and absorbed so much music.  The second track, “Gold Prisms Incorporated”, sounds to my ears like they have borrowed some things from the minimalists.  The group has sponged up their Philip Glass, Steve Reich and the like, and given it back to us as 100% Bad Plus.  Frankly, The Bad Plus gives it back to us a lot more interesting than the way they found it.

These guys work so well together, they make some very difficult things sound easy.  They play effortlessly through time signatures that are uneven and changing rapidly.  Not just play, but improvise as a group and brilliantly.  Check out “You Will Lose All Fear”.  Maybe you have to have played an instrument with other musicians to appreciate how difficult it would be just to all be in the same place at the same time, let alone do something with this high level of musicality.  This band had a reputation of putting out music of rhythmic complexity, energy, imagination, and high intellect.  Real brain candy.  This new album is no exception.

I really miss liner notes at a time like this.  My digital copy doesn’t tell me who wrote each tune, although I know they are all originals penned by members of the band.  The artwork on the cover of each of their albums has been very intriguing as well, and I wish I could tell you more about that.  In that sense, I might recommend the quaint old Compact Disc version, hoping that the included text would offer more than I can right now.  For those of you with a desire for more instant gratification, I give  you the link to Inevitable Western on Spotify.  Enjoy!

 The Bad Plus, Inevitable Western

The Mysteries of Minimalism

Minimalist Music.  Repetitive New-Age Crap.

Drawing by minimalist artist Agnes Martin

Drawing by minimalist artist Agnes Martin

Originally, that was going to be the whole post.

Then I thought I could elaborate with something like this:

Repetitive New-Age Crap.  Repetitive New-Age Crap.  Repetitive New-Age Crap.  Repetitive New-Age Crap.  Repetitive New-Age Crap.  Repetitive New-Age Crap.  Repetitive New-Age Crap. Repetitive New-Age Crap.  Repetitive New-Age Crap.  Repetitive New-Age Crap.  Repetitive New-Age Crap. Repetitive New-Age Crap repetitive New-Age crap repetitive new-agecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecraprepetitivenewagecrap ………

I didn’t care for Minimalist Music, I didn’t like the recordings of the composers that were lumped together as minimalists and I didn’t understand why they were so popular.

Here is an example of the kind of thing I am talking about.

Philip Glass Glassworks : Opening

Its all just consonant mush.  No form, no themes.  No beginning, middle and end.  As far as I’m concerned it could end in the middle of the track, or could go on for ten more minutes.  It doesn’t seem to make any difference.  I sincerely believe that understanding something of the forms that classical music contains can give a deeper meaning to the listener.  Theme and variations form,  Sonata form, or rondo form:  these are all conventions that help the listener follow where they are in a piece.  Even if a piece has some original formal structure, repeated listening helps one uncover that structure and leads to a deeper understanding of the work.  This minimalist stuff has none of that, it’s just repetitive new-age crap.  Or so I thought.

Then I read something that helped me unlock some understanding of minimalism.  The music of Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass was very early on referred to as the  New York Hypnotic School.   This gave me the clue that this stuff was MEANT to be formless.  On the About page of this blog I said something about taking each piece of music on its own terms and not asking it to be something it wasn’t trying to be.  That is exactly the mistake I was making with the Philip Glass piece above.   It is supposed to sound formless, without a beginning or end.  It is hypnotic, trance like music.  You are dropped into the middle of something infinite and flowing.  The rhythms shift and come in and out of phase as some musical elements are brought to the foreground and  others fade into the background.  The listener is supposed to lose their place as their attention wanders from bit to bit.

You can’t listen to this music in the car, or while doing something else.  It has to be in a live performance, or at least a recording playing in a quiet room with nothing else going on.  It is meant to be a formless, meditative experience.  As a matter of taste, one can still like or dislike this kind of music.  My point is that it has to be judged a success or failure as a piece based on how well it achieves the meditation that it was trying to create.  You shouldn’t fault it for not being a minuet, or a twelve bar blues, or not having the structure of a sonata.  It was never trying to be that.

John Adams is another composer that is associated with minimalism. (It is good to note that someone else came up with the name minimalism, not the composers.) One of his pieces I really, really like is John’s Book of Alleged Dances, for string quartet and recording of prepared piano.  I don’t know if it is the best example of minimalism.  It is definitely a work I admire from a composer ACCUSED of minimalism.  I hope you enjoy it too.

– Rich