Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Contours of Production: A Centenary of the Avant-Garde in Music Essay

2013, it can be argued, and will be I am sure, the Centenary of the coming of age of Avant-Gardism in concert music. A century of the avant-garde is not a cause for celebration, either among the opponents, who fear its longevity, or its proponents, whose epistemology, ontology, and deontology rest on its being the wave of the present, rather than a form of music. There are "21st century" music ensembles and centers that spend their time promoting music whose creators did not live one minute in the 21st Century. There are still writers trying to convince the world that the avant-garde isn't music. Which if it isn't, why is their an audience for it? Is it some new form of perception?

Instead of refighting the "Style Wars," this essay is going to look at some data, and draw conclusions about the place of composers in their environment. It is important to stack some qualifiers here. Composers are outliers, and composers that we remember are outliers among outliers, there is massive selection bias: what is remembered, what is published. Looked at in the fine grain, artificial precision is abundantly apparent. Works are revised, dragged out by publishers, extended. They have versions and places.

So any data set is going to be three selection factors deep: what the composer wrote and published for their own view of what a composer should be, their own time thought should be published and played, and then what we select out of the floatsam and jetsam. Thus this is not a way of getting at some truth of creativity or art, but a way of looking at one input to the process of making music culture, and the struggle between forces in that creation. This is an important question, because it touches on the problem of the present: relevance. The people in this dataset, by definition, achieved relevance, if not to their own moment, though almost always they did, at least to some future moments, and to some varying degree to our own. This then looks at what composers were striving for in terms of output.

I am working with Aaron Kozbelt's 2008 data set, not because it is perfect, because by selecting through a modern eye, it gives a sign of present relevance to one part of contemporary aesthetic judgment. It was compiled to answer some of his questions, and hence it is lacking – it is missing, for example Luciano Berio, Krzysztof Penderecki, Elliot Carter, Phillip Glass, Steve Reich, John Adams, i.e. the last wave of high moderism and all of minimalism, as well as a section of related movements. It is also missing some of the important late English eccentrics – Brian, Simpson - as well as movements related to this, e.g. LaMonte Young, Hovhaness. It is missing a larger swathe of the baroque than it should be, as composers from that era are coming back into use. A generation ago Vivaldi would have been a much more peripheral figure, for example. It also has the usual quibbles with using obsolete period divisions, but this will be addressed to some extent here. However absence is in some cases as important as presence.

Kozbelt's data set was compiled in the course of his research on the psychology of production, the original version of the paper is here. Since the point isn't to engage an entire era's search for its relevance, but to search for patterns of relevance in the past, further quibbles are best left to people who quibble professionally.

The first chart takes the mid point of composer's lives, and plots it against Kozbelt's estimates, for they have to be estimates, of production and production per year. Many of the datapoints, as Kozbelt admits, are based on averages and genre norms, however even from this relatively large error banded set some conclusions are immediately visible.

The blue triangles are Kozbelt's estimate of minutes per year of music, calculated by date of first work and date of last work in the output, itself a selected figure, and is read from the right scale, the orange diamonds are total minutes of music, as estimated from recordings, again a selected figure.

There are some features that are discernable, one is that there is no relationship between our conventional stylistic designations, and periods of music, and no general relationship between stylistic schools and production. For some exmples: the two most productive total outputs are Handel, a member in good standing of what we call the Baroque, and Haydn, who for most of his career was either in transition as a post-Baroque composer, or as a founding member of the Classical style. Similarly "transitional" figures are often lost in the haze, they do not look very much different from the preceding era. For example the last two "hyper-productive" composers are Bellini and Schubert, generally classified as "Romantic."

Instead there is a period of hyper-productivity that runs from the early 18th century through the early 19th century, crossing the middle Baroque (Vivaldi) the high Baroque (JS Bach, Handel), the post-Baroque and early classical (Gluck, the sons of Bach, young Haydn), through the high period of Viennese classicism (Mozart, Schubert) and bel canto opera (Donizetti, Rossini, and Bellini). One should note that Rossini's virtual retirement depresses his average output, because he did compose some music late, padding the denominator of his average. Then there is an output collapse, a compression not just of hyper-productive composers, but of the less productive wrote fewer minutes. I hope it is not necessary to point out that this is not to equate volume with quality, the point is to look at what composers were doing in relation to their environment, where volume is one parameter of output.

This deals a mortal blow to the old arguments about how "difficult" it was for Beethoven to compose. He's in fact a very productive composer: ranking 13th of 202 with ~4100 minutes, and an annual average of ~110 minutes per year putting him 16th out of the sample. He's just in an era of hyper-productivity, being measured against Haydn, Schubert, Mozart, Bellini, and after the Baroque. The entire square of the super-productive is virtually between composers at the middle of their lives in 1725, and 1825. Not one since then. It isn't that there haven't been hyper-productive individuals since then. The aforementioned Hovhaness (1911-2000) wrote 70 symphonies and 500 works of music. Nor was he a maverick, but a student of Roger Sessions, and learning piano in a line that reached Beethoven. Thus the early modern romantic lionization of Beethoven is guilty, at least, of lack of historical perspective. Beethoven's output curve looks similar to Schumann, and Mendelssohn, as examples.

On the other side, it is clear that there was an output collapse starting with composers whose mid-point was just after 1875. This is well before the avant-garde in any form, and generally before any modern movement. What this should tell us is that composers such as Anton von Wevern, Alban Berg, and Arnold Schoenberg, where part of general period where composers produced less music, both in total and per year. Ravel's output was small, as were Falla, d'Indy.

This means that in three important transitions - Baroque to Classical, Classical to Romantic, and to the Modern, output of composers resembles some population of their peers, with early Avant-Garde composers (Bartok, Stravinski, Scheonberg) not being outliers in the earlier population of time produced.

The last point from this graph is that one can see that there was a sharp divide between populations of composers in the 20th century, with a prolific cohort, and a low output cohort. Here there is a better correlation between reception and perception: the low output composers were often the more self-consciously new. (The lack of Henze and other "prolific" modernists is telling, Sessions is missing.) Is this innate or our selection? That the numbers of this data set cannot tell us, but there the arms of a lobster claw are, asking the question, whether prolific is conservative, or does it normalize itself? Is avant-garde slow? Or to composers seeking an avant-garde effect stand in the line of super-craftsman, which goes back before the avant-garde, including composers such as Satie, depending on how you count his most famous musical joke.

This graph helps answer some of the questions, it is simple the midpoint of the composer's lives against their total life span. We can see here an rather loud notch. Here there is less speculation need: in the 18th century composers were often able to be away from cities, and two forces converges: pre-public health urbanization, and the end of church and aristocratic patronage, meant that composers had to urbanize to support themselves, and thus were subject to the ills of their time. Haydn spent most of his life out in rural areas, Well known surveys of life expectancy show that urbanized individuals, especially poorer ones, died younger. Syphilis is also a present factor.

The the notch is accompanied by the rise in lower bound mortality,  which rises at the same pace. Thus the long lived live longer, and those that die young, do not tend to die as young, and then with the 20th century, the lines rise. The absence of several composers killed in death camps pulls up this average, again selective bias at work (no Pavel Haas, for example, in the data set.) The fall off at the end is also selective, the composers who lived longer had not died yet.

The coming of the Romantic, then, can be seen most clearly related not to production as a goal of a composer, or at least as the mark of a composer who was relevant, but by earlier death., the coming of the second half of the 19th century – of what should be called Musical Realism and Musical Symbolism, Romanticism being an ideological construct – is just as visible in the data. Here, again, is an empirical argument that the end of classicism is to some degree misdated, and that "Romanticism" is unduly bloated out at the end.

Lastly the "Lobster claw" is also visible: some of the lobster claw of output is explicable by lifespan of composers, though a closer look shows the match is not particularly statistically strong.

So what conclusions can we draw?

What this look at the data does is ask more questions than answer them: it lays to rest a few canards, such as the already debunked notions about productivity and Beethoven, it also indicates that there were distinct periods of valuing prolific composers – note Czerny isn't there, even though he is at least as good as JC Bach – and that super-production was no longer an important trait after the early Romantic. It also shows that the avant-garde's production curve was part of a population of composers who kept very tight rein on output, not because of style, but the composer's own response to creative, social, and personal, forces, but that the possibility of such a career only appeared around, at earliest, 1875.

So in honour of an arguable anniversary, an argument that we have accretion to wash away, and there needs to be a larger data set that includes the post-modern wave in this data.