At 14, when my ears were fresh and my soul pliable, I attended a string quartet concert that I remember vividly — though at a distance of more than three decades, I have begun to suspect it never took place. The program, which at that time only the Kronos Quartet could possibly have come up with, consisted of Beethoven’s late and gnarled Six Bagatelles for String Quartet, Op. 9, from 1913, and George Crumb’s Black Angels, a work full of the ecstatic despair of the early 1970s. It sounded to me as though one continuous nightmare shuddered across the centuries, bursting out into Crumb’s first movement, “Night of the Electric Insects,” a wild scene of screaming strings.
That program gave me a frame in which to place the avant-garde weirdness of the ’60s and ’70s: It had all begun 150 years earlier with Beethoven, that rude churl of Hapsburg Vienna, whose urgent dissonances and angry rhythms could still rattle the establishment. The fact that the apparatus of concert music — the purpose-built halls, the genius-worship, the cult of quiet listeners — was created to honor his music made Beethoven’s ferocity all the more vital. Long after he had died and been deified, he was still throwing the moneylenders out of the temple.
It took me a while to understand that the composers who dominated musical life when I was growing up spent a lot of time trying to wriggle free of Beethoven. Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, György Ligeti, Jacob Druckman — these erudite revolutionaries wanted nothing to do with the massed melodic panting of an orchestra, or the triumph of a heroic theme. Theirs was music of fragmentation, of society’s doubts laid bare and left unreconciled. Composers have always been torn between convention and radicalism, but this generation felt the tension more desperately than most. The symphony orchestra was an especially fearsome bugaboo. The Vietnam War and the student strikes that spread all over Europe in 1968 had made it perfectly clear: Institutions were suspect and ranks of identically dressed men moving in lockstep constituted a form of oppression, even if they wielded violin bows rather than riot clubs.
It wasn’t just the orchestra that seemed antique; so did the old tools and genres. How could you write for violin in the nuclear age, or blow an oboe after the Holocaust? How could anyone just pen a tune? This kind of thinking could have led to a period of musical nihilism, a highbrow form of punk. Instead, composers dismantled the very tradition that had produced them, then got to work on the fascinating pile of springs and bits of wire. Rather than abandoning the previous century’s instruments, Luciano Berio methodically picked apart their techniques in a multi-year series of solos he called Sequenze. By the time he was done with an oboe, it sounded like a completely different creature. In the third “Sequenza,” he reassembled human song into a psychotic soliloquy of toneless consonants, phonemes, squeaks, giggles, pitches and assorted other forms of expression.
In the ’60s and ’70s, composers found themselves mirroring the period’s violent extremes. They exploded traditional genres, reinvented rules from scratch, rejected the orchestra or amped it up with electronics. Many were entranced by the challenge of wringing maximum complexity out of minimal means. Stockhausen was fired by the trancelike experiences he’d had in Mexico. “I’d spent a month walking through the ruins, visiting Oaxaca, Merida, and Chichenitza, and becoming a Maya, a Toltec, a Zatopec, an Aztec or a Spaniard — I became the people,” he recalled. He recreated that exaltation in Stimmung, for six amplified singers who pass around the five notes of a B flat ninth chord for more than an hour, producing an effect like shimmering heat.
But the orchestra wasn’t dead yet. In his 1961 Atmosphères, György Ligeti had a symphonic ensemble pour out a churning bath of sound, a sound so infinite, weightless and dark that Stanley Kubrick used it to give his 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey its apocalyptic mood. Ligeti had scraped away virtually all the traditional ingredients of music — just try to find a pulse, a key, or a tune in that! — and was left with a great sonic mural. That search for tone-pictures, for great glowing landscapes of sonority, replaced habitual kinds of beauty. This naturally unsettled audiences.
The traditional concerto, too, refused to be killed off, partly because the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich strong-armed every composer he admired into writing him one. Henri Dutilleux complied with Tout un monde lointain.The title (meaning “a whole distant world”) refers to a poem by Charles Baudelaire, in which a woman’s “black ocean” of hair evokes a geyser of exotic fantasies. The score, too, moves from languor to heat. It’s a Technicolor work, amplifying the subtle orchestral hues that Dutilleux learned from Ravel and Debusssy into an ever-changing polychrome vista.
Rostropovich also tapped Witold Lutoslawski, who took the opportunity to rewrite the roles that a soloist and orchestra play. His concerto (from 1970) opens with a single note on the cello, repeated slowly, an irritating number of times. Think of it: All those people sitting there on stage, representing a long tradition of complexity and drama, and what does the virtuoso do? Play a beginner’s exercise. The ordinariness doesn’t last, of course. The cello begins to argue with itself, sigh, mutter, and return to its fixed idea, while the orchestra stands by, as if the planet had stopped spinning, waiting for the conclusion of a single meandering thought. The world finally arrives in the form of a single trumpet blast, and then it’s the orchestra that goes giddily berserk while the cello keeps plodding along on the same damn note. What follows is a series of bleakly colorful episodes, crafted bursts of insanity: the cello emoting soulfully while percussionists tap madly in another part of the stage; angry fusillades of brass, the black-on-midnight-blue nocturne of a low cello against a growl of strings. Like Beethoven before him, Lutoslawski understood that the old established order didn’t need to be destroyed for a revolution to occur.