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Wuorinen's Electric Quartet

Charles Wuorinen
heavy metal gag

Wuorinen's Electric Quartet

12 November 2020 / William Anderson / Announcements, On the Beat, Compositions, recodings, composers

November 12, 2020 Dan Lippel & New Focus Records produces a recording of Charles Wuorinen’s Electric Quartet (2013)

Dan Lippel, Oren Fader, John Chang and William Anderson, guitars
Ryan Streber, producer/engineer – Oktaven Studios, Mount Vernon, NY

So grateful to Dan Lippel for spearheading this project, and for all involved.

In progress –An Introduction to the Historical Wuorinen

Wuorinen spoke at a Composers Guild of New Jersey event at Rutgers in 1989 or so. He mentioned then that his music starts with something as simple as Varese and those Varese pitch fields. He described the process that Dina Koston described. Koston got it on her own and from Berio & Darmstadt.

–Set pitches in registers

And Wuorinen’s book, Simple Composition talks about nesting.

The opening harmony is so lovely and deep.The piece might be entitled, *9*. Wuorinen’s Psalm 39 is another work that focuses on a single dyad.

Looking for 9s and tracing E & C# through the piece might crack it open. I’ll make mistakes along the way, follow false paths. You can help set me straight.

We will likely see 9s and 3s in 1-cycle, 5-cycle and 3-cycle harmonies (chromatic, diatonic and octotonic).

In measure 2 the C# returns as a Db and the high E comes back. Wuorinen’s book, Simple Composition shows an interest in nestings; some pitches will stay put in their register until they are nudged to the next note in that time scale. So we’ll hear notes coming back, with kaleidoscopic changes of harmonic context.

Can we say that commiting to that juggling act–nested pitches unfolding on various time scales, is a commitment to pitch fields? Also this move into measure 2 shows E and C# separated and reinterpreted. The [C# E] dyad as a distinct, recognizable thing is saved for the beginning and the end. The piece keeps those pitches alive, but separated from one another, or with other pitches added (measure 11). It does not keep any one collection alive, with the exception of the [ E C# ] bookends.

make a list of memorable moments with C# & E in proximity– measures 25, 95, 111, 115, 121, 133, 145-147, 170-171, 181, 184, 196 (very A major)

This is not the Haydnesque way to proceed. In tonal music, the triad is instated, transposed through the midphrase and landed again, usually re-disposed in the next phrase or at the phrase end. In Robert Pollock’s 0279 pieces, that collection is pulverized in the midphrase, but reassembled periodically throughout.

Wuorinen assembles E & C# at the beginning and at the end only. *Simple Composition* talks about nested pitches, not nested collections. This is very weird and it’s the charm and curse of Wuorinen’s music.

**Every composer focuses attention on some things and lets other things be worked out unconsciously.**

What composers work out unconsciously becomes their habits their. In Wuorinen, nested pitches, not collections are the primary focus, and so the harmonies become preponderantly idiosyncratic.

Despite this, I’m finding very interesting harmony stories in the Electric Quartet. This has a lot to do with a shift away from rows and toward tetrachords. Charles told me that. He said I won’t find the row. It’s too far back.

Interesting harmony stories that are highly idiosyncratic, not prolongations of a collection.

09 is the focal harmony of the piece.

In measure 24, at :55

There is this harmony:

Think of the opening to measure 24 as arpeggiations over big pitch fields, ending in a very shiny and memorable sound– [ E D# B ] the shiniest trichord. Here there’s also an A. It’s a V7 over a tonic pedal.

Fernando Sor saves this sound for the most luscious moments. It’s also big in post tonal music, and for the same reason. It has foregrounding power, it says *this moment*. It’s a marker, but one that’s hard to miss. And notice, it does not have to be loud.

For reasons that will be clear soon, we should also consider this harmony as a hybrid of whole tone, diatonic and octotonic. B A D# is both whole tone and octotonic. It’s also a subest of the diatonic septachord. The way the notes are presented in time leaves us with E B D# anchoring us and swallowing the whole tone and octotonic aspects.

Think of this relatively familiar harmony as the goal for the piece to that point.

As a goal for the crazy arpeggiations over pitch fields it works because it is such a strong signature of the E diatonic hexachord. To say this is not to insist on a tonal hearing of this work, but diatonic harmonies are not excluded from Wuorinen’s music, especially not his late music. This ‘cadence’ has one of the two focal pitches from the opening, but it points to the other in the B–D# major surrounds the missing C#. As a signature of the entire E diatonic hexachord, the sound points to C#.

So it’s fair to call measure 24 a half cadence because only one of the focal pitches of the opening sound comes back.

With regard to harmoies like E B D# and E A B D# I’m fond of saying that for the listener who doesn’t know how to process the crazy arpeggiation over Wuorinen Pitch Fields, this harmony serves as a stopper harmony, a watershed. It has foregrounding power. That comes through its feeling of finality, its stability.

I’ve spoken of a problem with this harmony…..

blah, blah, blah [045]! – like a magpie spotting something shiny

But the opening pitchfields are very catchy and they move. They are static until they move. They are of interest because of what they avoid. They avoid the diatonic (or ‘modal’, using a deliberate malapropism) associations of measure m. 24, but also avoiding the modal sounds in the pitchfield that ends the piece.

Electric Quartet ends with this very groovy pitch field. It starts at 7:06 in the Tenri performance. Sparing use of undiluted diatonic sounds (look for other insances) makes the A major & E major harmonies in 196 very memorable (look for the M5 of this – chromatic hexachord), setting up this final pitch field–

As measure 24 is a watershed moment, this progrock passage is likewise on larger scale. Notice that this pitchfield is not static. Flickering around E Locrean and E Lydian and not excluding a blending of the two.

Post tonal music tips into the unfamiliar, which is utterly off-putting, alienating, and audience unfriendly. Wuorinen when there. But post-tonal music also tilts back into the familiar. In Wuorinen’s late music diatonic and other known quanitites are not avoided. Here is a heavy metal harmony. It also has that interesting feature where E is present, but C# is missing.

The pure octotonic passage in measures 53 through 55 is a heavy metal joke. (See Damon Ferrante’s Footbridge #3)

E finds its way to C#, the G#, A natural & B break the octotonic.

measure 53 & 54.


Call such “3-cycle harmonies”. The prevalence of 3-cycle harmonies is not surprising given that the focal harmony is a 9, the inversion of 3. Look for minor thirds and major sixths in diatonic, octotonic and chromatic contexts, but also in customized mixtures of those. The customization will likely relate to his row, which is buried deep, deep in the background. Wuorinen felt the pressure to abandon twelve tone, and his did. The deep backgrounding is tantamount to a deep 6ing of the row. The row is, and always was, something suggestive of specific intersections between the public entities–the known and well travelled paths. And Charles told me around 2013 that he was all about tetrachords, with the row buried very deep.

We’re looking for tetrachords and how they relate to [ E C# ] and how they finally assemble into a row.

Most of us would make pitch fields that fall squarely within known harmonic entities.

The well beaten paths through 12-EDO harmony is something like this:

3 cycle - octotonic scale (m. 53)
2 cycle - whole tone scale (not much of this in Electric 4tet–no 3s in the whole tone scale)
4 cycle - augmented scale (aka E Hexachord–still looking)
5 cycle - diatonic (measure 196)
1 cycle - chromatic (penultimate measure)

I’d also add the mystic chord, which dodges by a semitone the octotonic, whole tone and diatonic.

To find his row, we’re looking for something with greater profile–characteristic blendings of the elements in this list.

Finding C# in a diatonic context in measure 196 called for a search of the M5 situtation–C, C# in a chromatic context. We find that in the penultimate bar–

More to come. We will continue to trace EC# and its transpositions through the work.

Charles was understandably hurt when Mario didn’t invite him up to Harvard, after decades of Group for Contemporary Music concerts helping to keep Mario in the spotlight.

Mario told me he had issues with Charles’ music. Mario felt Charles was wrong.

Not really.
Charles & Mario are both beautifully imbricated in what they are not. Right and wrong is not the point.

What Macherey says is liberating.Terry Eagleton on Macherey, from a book of essays entitled Against the Grain

Criticism is not merely the elaboration of the text’s self-knowledge; it establishes a decisive rupture between itself and the object, distancing itself from that object in order to produce a new knowledge of it.

To know the text is not to listen to, and translate, a pre-existent discourse: it is to produce a *new* discourse which ‘makes speak’ the texts’s silences. Such an operation, however, is not to be misconceived as at the hermeneutical recovery of a sense or structure hidden in the work, a sense which it possesses but conceals; it is rather to establish a new knowledge discontinuous with the work itself, disjunct from it as science is disjunct from ideology…..

For Macherey, the library object is determinate, and so can be the object of rational study. It is the effect of a specific labour, the product of a writer who doe not fabricate the materials with which he works. (This is why it is mere mystification to speak of the author as ‘creator’.) Those materials are not neutral, and so spontaneously assimilable to a unity imposed upon them by the writer; they preserve, rather, a specific weight and autonomy of their own. The necessity of the text is not the reflection fo the author’s sustaining, unifying intention; the writer’s ‘choice’ of how to construct his narrative is the merely illusion of a choice, since his ‘decisions’ are already determined by the exigencies of the narrative itself. (The hero, in a given fictional genre, cannot disappear in the first few pages.) The writer ‘discovers’ rather than ‘invents’ his narrative, ‘encounters’ rather than ‘creates’ his solutions; he is the first reader of his own work.

**The true necessity of the text manifests itself in the fact that not a word of it can be changed and nothing can be added, even though it appears at each moment as though a new topic could be chosen, an alternative narrative selected. But it is precisely this ceaseless shadowy presence of other possible phrases which could be pronounced, this ineradicable sense that things could have been other than they are, which enforces the constraining necessity of the text we actually have before us.**