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Experiencing Stravinsky: A Listener's Companion.

Experiencing Stravinsky: A Listener's Companion. By Robin Maconie. (Listener's Companion.) Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2013. [xxx, 243 p. ISBN 9780810884304 (hardcover), $45; ISBN 9780810884311 (e-book), $44.99.] Timeline, bibliography, discography, index.

In 1972, a new writer specializing in the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen and the European avant-garde published a still-valuable article on the last music published by Igor Stravinsky. Robin Maconie made a number of tantalizing critical observations therein, at once analytically grounded, emotionally tinged, and interpretively suggestive, as evident in the following quotation: "More than the text, more than the period nostalgia, it is the music's sense of finality that moves the listener.... It is an effect due entirely to cadential movement, and one realises with a shock how much Stravinsky's music had always resisted the ultimate inevitability of a final resolution. Even in his own elegiac works the cadence is always harmonically inconclusive and rhythmically compromised, so that the listener is left with the impression that the decision to end is open and voluntary" (Robin Maconie, "Stravinsky's Final Cadence," Tempo no. 103 [1972]: 19). This richness of perspective survives intact into Maconie's recent venture on Stravinsky, which like the above, showcases writing of the same fine essay-review variety.

Experiencing Stravinsky marks the inaugural monograph of Scarecrow's new series of companions for listeners aimed toward general readers. According to the series editor, Gregg Akkerman, "The Listener's Companion is a series devoted to giving readers a deeper understanding of key musical genres and the work of major artists and composers. It does so by describing in lay terms the structures and historical contexts that serve as the ground for our experience when we listen to representative examples" (p. ix). This first book in the series, however, falls short of forcefully demonstrating the joint aim of "giving readers a deeper understanding of music by teaching them how to listen to key works by major musical artists and composers from recognized musical genres" (p. i). The book's preoccupation leans more toward how to think about Stravinsky's music than toward specifics of how to listen.

Perhaps for any writer in this series, the most daunting challenge involves sheer methodology: the question of how to write a book for a general, intellectual, musically-interested body of readers wishing to engage directly with a super-mediated body of music. With Stravinsky the problem reaches staggering proportions, given the ever-increasing pile of scholarly commentary about him. A related colossal problem of how to write engagingly about a master composer's complete oeuvre, without deteriorating into collections of program notes and superficial observations, and which rewards reading by music specialists and the musically illiterate alike, clearly remains one each contributor to this series of listener's companions must face anew. In the present volume, Maconie succeeds admirably in bravely heading the way toward reconciling these irreconcilables. Such a tricky enterprise permits only partial success.

If the quotation in the first paragraph above offers a litmus test for those likely to appreciate Maconie's critical style, then a broad audience of readers indeed should welcome this author's book on Stravinsky's music. The book best serves as a companion, though, versus a genuine guide. Readers uninitiated into the rudiments of music theory and history stand about as much to gain from this book as they would from Maconie's writing in 1972 on the temporal linearity associated with German romantic tradition as holding greater attraction for the elder Stravinsky than tonal stasis. Meanwhile, readers already familiar with Stravinsky's music surely can have perceptions sharpened from reading this text.

Bibliographic data on the verso of the title page specifies the subject classification "criticism and interpretation," not "music appreciation." The book's design also foregoes the usual trappings of texts on music appreciation, dispensing completely with charts, diagrams, music examples, tables, and figures. At best, the book bears on "experiencing" Stravinsky mainly through advancing aesthetic and philosophic perspectives from which to listen, all of which affirm the composer's utmost historical significance, staying power, contemporary relevance, and striking communicative potential. Alas, virtually nothing ever materializes about tonal and thematic relationships, or about any conventional formal relationships and labels.

The book is organized into ten chapters, the first one of a topical nature, followed by others chronologically based. The first chapter, titled "Ghost in the Machine," elaborates a tantalizing thesis first espoused in the introduction, which characterizes Stravinsky's works as "portraits of machines" (p. xxii). Throughout the book, Maconie develops this thesis in varying degrees, citing ways in which Stravinsky's responses to technical innovations of the twentieth century provide a key to his elusive personality. Each of the remaining chapters begins with an essay on a designated musical aspect. Comments then follow on specific groupings of individual works and recordings, or on single works. At times, only tenuous connections obtain among chapter title, introductory matter, and selected compositions, whose groupings sometimes border on arbitrariness.

Cited recordings privilege Stravinsky's own interpretations for Columbia Records, available in an economically priced set of twenty-two compact discs titled Works of Igor Stravinsky (Sony Classical [2007]), assisted by Robert Craft. Coverage ranges from a single sentence, as in the case of such minor efforts as the stand-alone Credo, to several pages on particular landmark compositions. Collaborative works receive the bulk of commentary, above all The Rake's Progress, seconded by The Rite of Spring. The only alarming omission involves the early Two Songs on Poems of Gorodetsky. Otherwise, every published Stravinsky work and most of his arrangements receive at least some acknowledgment.

Strangely, Maconie largely shuns the vast and greatly distinguished secondary literature on Stravinsky. A list of "Selected Reading" at the end lists some of the primary publications one would expect (including Stravinsky's conversation books with Craft), but otherwise little of crucial relevance, and no articles or major collections of essays. A considerable amount of cited material has only a meager, tangential relation to this music, included possibly to engage a broad readership. Yet, even the Stravinsky connoisseur can appreciate the wealth of rare and important discography appended. Titled "Select Listening," it offers a selection of compact discs featuring authoritative interpretations both recent and historic, and rarities, all nicely annotated.

Two very strong, fine points commend Maconie's addition to the literature. Copious in first-rate material overall, the book relies heavily on the author's close familiarity with avant-garde composers. As a musicologist and composer who studied with an impressive roster of composer-teachers including Olivier Messiaen and Stockhausen, Maconie possesses wide knowledge of the high modernism of these and other advanced composers such as Pierre Boulez and John Cage. He draws numerous stimulating analogies between these diverse repertories and Stravinsky's music, especially regarding his culminating serial period. Equally interestingly, he argues that Stravinsky's rhythmic and metrical innovations arose as ways of writing irregular, human inflections into performance, in order to enliven a music basically mechanistic in conception and intended for mechanical reproduction, including by piano rolls. While the latter topic holds curious fascination, related scholarly work awaits to flesh out Stravinsky's dialogue with evolving pianola technology, and to document how contracts with particular recording companies decisively impacted his composing.

Throughout, Maconie views Stravinsky's music unabashedly as that of a supreme genius, whose works exist on a transcendent plane having to do with universal truths and collective standards of excellence instead of with personal matters or individual tastes. Also throughout, Maconie brings in shared "cultural memory" and music history as equally important criteria for appreciating Stravinsky as is respect for his "individual talent"--a philosophy he sees enshrined in the music itself (pp. xiv--xvi). In keeping with modernist habit, Maconie identifies the principal challenge for listeners and readers alike as finding the unity underlying the scope of Stravinsky's multiple style changes or reorientations (see pp. xvii-xviii)--in actuality, an age-old concern with this repertoire and with modernism generally.

Unfortunately, Maconie frequently totters on gratuitous polemics, and this despite a preface condemning polemical writing about Stravinsky as being now abundant (p. xiii). At different turns the author rails against academia. Mostly, he registers discomfort with scholars discussing "the kind of person he [Stravinsky] was," rather than focusing on the uplifting "message" of his music (p. xvii). Complaints about the musical community extend to fellow composers as well. Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein come up for a share of unexpected bashing. Maconie charges them with having led something of a cabal against Stravinsky (pp. 135-36, 153, 190, 195, 196). These and other assorted complaints work by insinuation, nevertheless, leaving the majority wholly unsupported.

Some of the writing goes beyond quirky into the purely imaginary, as is true of the supposed cabal against Stravinsky mentioned above. Overly simplistic comparisons first appear in the preface and become symptomatic throughout, as when stating that the "musical language and intention" of George Frideric Handel's Zadok the Priest and John Adams's Nixon in China have "relatively little to distinguish" them apart (p. xv). One hesitates to disagree with an author as widely knowledgeable as this one, but who can assent, for example, to W. C. Handy's "Memphis Blues" conveying "atonality" (p. 218 n. 1); to George Gershwin's An American in Paris typifying "one-act situation comedy or domestic operas" (p. 218 n. 3); or to Handel's Zadok the Priest belonging to his Messiah (p. xv)? The author's knack for transcribing imagined or hypothetical conversations also makes for various awkward passages (e.g., p. 153).

Too many times music takes a backseat to morality and philosophy in the discussion, possibly in reaction to widespread belief that Stravinsky needs safeguarding against his own rhetoric about the meaninglessness of music. (An extreme instance of moralistic interpretation spins out of control atop p. 163) Similarly, the book avoids instructing readers on differences between diatonicism and chromaticism, to name but one musical polarity among many fundamental to this composer-giant's music. A great deal more, too, of traditional symphonic or sonata logic shapes Stravinsky's Symphony in C than this book allows, and far more tremendous wit, as at the end of the first movement.

One final problem exists. While Maconie's application of "a machine aesthetic" (p. xviii) to Stravinsky's oeuvre probably represents the book's most distinctive facet, the thesis itself only partially fits the music. One could more interestingly argue, for instance, that Stravinsky's works spring rather from the counterpoint of mechanical and ritualistic time, not from simply one or the other, or that Stravinsky seeks to bridge the two ends of human history, the ancient and the modern, as gateway from the temporal to the timeless. Moreover, for every fascination with a modern technological development traceable in Stravinsky, one could just as readily point to an enthrallment with the past: formal constructions leaving off where others begin; ideas not affecting or contaminating each other while they last; materials following from their opposites. Some of these essentially mechanistic traits of Stravinsky's music arguably have as much ancestry in Socrates via Plato as they do in novel playback technologies.

Maconie's singular qualities and exceptional perceptions easily outweigh such reservations. In all, his Experiencing Stravinsky comes intelligently written by a veteran writer and musical polymath. It offers highly informed reflections on the music and aesthetics of a monumentally significant composer. All framing rhetoric and advertising aside, it addresses anyone wanting to listen to Stravinsky's music, and to heighten their understanding or experience of this extraordinary music. Part of this book's distinction certainly lies in assuming ordinary, untrained listeners can make sense of the music by thinking of it in relation to broad intellectual backgrounds. Even so, the listener Maconie actually summons up in practice differs not at all from the fellow musicologist or academic. In one guise or another, coping with such dilemmas surrounding intended readership will undoubtedly mark each book in the series. This first installment, though very useful and in many respects excellent, poses no surefire model for reconciling such troublesome issues of purpose and aim. Presumed audiences of laypeople may be unable to follow the wealth of its learned content. Still, readers already knowledgeable about specific aspects of this music may be offended to see their expertise mattering too little.


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Author:Mathers, Daniel E.
Article Type:Book review
Date:May 23, 2015
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