Those who have been criticizing contemporary music for lacking true melodic lines, may be consoled to learn that some composers now are very much concerned with melody. I don’t mean that they are writing romantic melodies, or popular melodies, or any other familiar kind of melodies, but they are certainly writing melodies. I heard two very good new pieces of this sort last week. One was Frederic Rzewski’s ‘Coming Together’ at the Free Music Store on April 7, and the other was Petr Kotik’s ‘There Is
Singularly Nothing,’ presented at the Space for Innovative Development as part of a concert by the SEM Ensemble from Buffalo.
Rzewski’s piece features a speaker who delivers a very rhythmic reading of a text by Sam Melville, one of the prisoners murdered at Attica last fall. The text is divided into 15 or 20 phrases, which are repeated in continuously varied juxtapositions throughout the piece. Behind the speaker is a fast, white-note melodic line, which begins in the piano and electric bass, and later occurs in the clarinet, viola, horn and trombone. Essentially, the whole piece is simply this melody, played in unison by the five instruments. But many color changes are created as instruments drop out and return, and there are some slower lines that weave around the basic melody. The general effect is rather muddy and unpleasant much of the time, but quite appropriate to the irony of the text. ‘I feel secure,’ was one of the phrases written by the murdered man. The jazz-like syncopations and the louder volume toward the end of the piece also add to the mood, and drive the message home.
Kotik’s piece was performed by flute, bass clarinet, glockenspiel, and baritone voice. The melody in this piece is also fast, but it is a chromatic line. It moves in a curious way, hovering around a very narrow range for quite a while, and then gradually moving up or down a few notes. Like Rzewski’s melody, it keeps a steady beat, although the rhythm is far from square.
The flute is the primary instrument here, as it is the only one playing throughout the piece. The bass clarinet and glockenspiel make entrances sporadically, playing the same kind of melodic lines. It is a strange blend, since the glockenspiel is played with a harsh sound which contrasts with the flute almost as much as the bass clarinet does. Like Rzewski’s piece, the texture changes frequently as instruments drop out and return. But what sustains the piece is the singer. He enters five or six times, singing brief songs set to texts from Gertrude Stein’s lecture,
‘What are Masterpieces?’ His melodies are quite different from those of the instruments, and he stands out in bold relief whenever he enters. Both pieces are quite carefully thought out and the melodies which hold them together are disciplined as well as inventive. I suppose the only reason the pieces didn’t particularly move me is that I have developed a prejudice against flexible instrumentation. It is a very practical way to write music, but the problem is, one can usually tell that the parts are not tailor-made for the instruments playing them. The wind players have trouble breathing with the music; the piano never sounds very pianistic; and the over-all color of the music seems arbitrary. Of course, Bach was certainly an advocate of flexible instrumentation, and 19th-century composers frequently rearranged pieces for completely different combinations of instruments. But contemporary composers like Varese and Stravinsky have shown us how beautiful it is when the sounds of the instruments become part of the piece rather than an elaboration of it. And I find that approach more sensitive and gratifying in new music.