If Chopin is your musical
god then this CD is probably not for
you. To many people the very word 'ultramodernist'
is liable to make them reach for the
'off' switch even assuming that the
CD was ever put in the machine in the
However, if we assume
that this disc has nothing to offer,
then we would be depriving ourselves
of an interesting insight into music
written ‘stateside’ in the mid-twentieth
It is hard to equate
the aesthetic of this music with parallel
developments in jazz and popular music.
Yet with a little good will we can enter
into an alternative but exceptionally
We have alluded to
the Jazz age - the age of Scott Fitzgerald.
Everything was in your face. It was
the 'moment' that seemed to count. However
at that time there was a group of American
composers that were conscious of their
musical dependence on the emerging modernist
Western European tradition and on a
consequent desire to forge a unique
voice of their own.
Four composers were
at the forefront of this mid-century
avant-garde movement - Carl Ruggles,
Henry Cowell, Ruth Crawford and Dane
Rudhyar. They were all influenced by
the expansion of tonality and the acceptance
of greater dissonance that had been
exported from Europe. But they wished
to apply this new musical language to
express 'a deeper, richer, more cosmic
form of creative expression.'
It is not the place
to give a detailed exposition of the
philosophies and theories of the Ultramodernists.
But perhaps a few brief words from the
thoughts of Dane Rudhyar may help put
this music into context. During the
1920s Rudyhar, a French emigrant, wrote
a series of articles expressing his
views on the spiritual dimension of
dissonance. His theories were based
on a study of eastern religions and
theosophy. Theosophy effectively states
that truth is to be found in the wisdom
of the ancients. He imagined that dissonance
was the ideal musical constructional
technique to express the diversity of
the American scene. To quote him precisely
about ‘tone’: ‘an elusive concept celebrating
the dissonance imbedded in pulsating
sound and its intensification into the
I do not claim to understand
any of this high falutin’ language -
verbal gymnastics is not my ‘bag’. However
what I will say is that the music offered
on this disc is more attractive, beautiful
and appealing than the seemingly contrived
theoretical explanation. The Tetragram
No.8 dates from 1928 and is one
of those works that seems timeless.
The actual sounds of the music are quite
attractive and the piece is extremely
relaxing to listen to. It is a long
way removed from Gershwin’s American
in Paris which was written in the
same year. The Gershwin expresses the
vibrancy and excitement of the Jazz
Age; the Rudhyar the timelessness of
Ruth Crawford was the
only lady in the Ultramodernist group
of composers. She lived a bit of a divided
life with interests in this very cerebral
avant-garde music and also as a folksong
arranger. The Nine Preludes recorded
here were composed at the height of
her creative career in the mid nineteen-twenties.
I have no doubt that the Preludes
are extremely effective. She is
able to use the piano to its best effect
and being a piano teacher gave her considerable
understanding of the instrument’s possibilities.
The programme notes state that these
preludes nod to the theories of Rudhyar,
however their musical content and interest
is never in doubt. They are extremely
moving and often achingly beautiful.
Carl Ruggles (1876-1971)
has always been one of my favourite
American composers. He is best known
for one work - Sun-treader. He
used a style of composition called ‘dissonant
counterpoint.’ Ruggles actually crossed
the boundary between different generations
of composers - he was friends with Ives
and Edgard Varèse as well as
Henry Cowell and Ruth Crawford. He was
the oldest of the Ultramodernists yet
it was not until he was in his late
forties that he became totally confident
as a composer. In fact one of Ruggles’
perennial problems was his fastidious
approach to his art. Most of his few
works were written over a number of
years. His entire opus fits onto two
long playing CBS discs which are long
out of print and have not been reissued
Many words have been
written about Ruggles - some of which
are pretentious. For example Lou Harrison
wrote that ‘Ruggles professes as his
desideratum sublimity in the sense of
the elevated, individuated new explorative,
serious adventure on the edge of faith’.
Not words even a grammar school boy
like myself can get my head around.
However if what he means is that Ruggles’
music is a bit good - then OK.
The three works presented
on this disc are all written with the
dissonant aesthetic in mind. Ruggles
tends to build up piles of dissonances
based on relatively simple material.
Angels was originally scored
for brass ensemble and Organum was
an orchestral piece. Both have been
effectively transcribed for piano by
John Kirkpatrick. The Evocations
or Four Chants for Piano
is an intense work that needs a bit
of working at by the listener.
Henry Cowell is perhaps
the most ‘far out’ of the four composers
represented on this CD. His pianoforte
technique utilises the whole range of
modernist innovations including tone
clusters and the playing of the strings
inside the piano with fingers or plectrum.
Cowell was also party to the Ultramodernist
aesthetic - he believed ‘in music, in
the force of its spirit, in its exaltation
and its nobility’. Cowell was heavily
influence by things oriental. He was
a member of the Temple of the People
where a group of like-minded artists,
poets and composers underpinned their
works with theosophy and Eastern religion.
Perhaps the work that epitomises these
explorations is the Piece for Piano
from 1924. All the modernist effects
are put to good use here - from pounding
fists to scraped strings. Yet somehow
it all seems natural and even normal.
Cowell has extended the palette of sounds
without appearing trite or sensationalist
However the next piece,
The Snows of Fujiyama presents
Cowell’s art at its most suave.
It could be argued that this work
sounds remarkably like ‘souped up’
Debussy but whatever the case it is
extremely beautiful. In my opinion it
is a minor masterpiece; it is on my
(long) list of Desert Island Discs and
well deserves a place in the repertoire.
Cowell pays tribute
to the inspiration provide by Dane Rudhyar
and his ‘spiritual theory of dissonance’.
The Hommage à Rudhyar
is the shortest item on this CD and
probably one of the shortest piano pieces
ever at a cool 42 seconds. And it is
certainly dissonant - even if these
dissonances are not too unpleasant and
harsh on the ears.
Once again the presence
of Debussy is felt in The Harp of
Life. Yet it is Cowell’s original
work that counts. This quite wonderful
piece has impressed me tremendously.
I suppose I always imagined that Cowell’s
music would be well beyond me. However
this is approachable music -
and quite beautiful as well.
I have not heard Steffen
Schleiermacher playing before; and I
must confess that all of these piano
works are new to me. However all my
instincts tell me that we are listening
to a true virtuoso here. The programme
notes tell us that Schleiermacher specialises
in 20th century music and
is the recipient of a vast array of
prizes and fellowship awards. I am surprised
that we do no hear more of him. However
a brief look at his discography reveals
that he has recorded works by Stockhausen,
Antheil, Boulez and Reich to name but
four. Furthermore he is a composer in
his own right.
The sound quality on
this disc is perfect and the programme
notes are good. In fact the whole feel
of the CD is one absolute quality.
This is a fine introduction
to an extremely specialised area of
interest. However those who love piano
music should not be afraid to explore
some of these truly beautiful if somewhat