W hile my studio technique derives from Davidovsky, the musical character is quite different. My instrumental writing is often at an energy level drawn from my experience with improvised jazz. My recent electronic music reflects this as well. By adding layers of manipulated recordings of spoken or sung text, the sound of the human voice often emerges in surprising ways.”
Chamber musical dialogue usually lacks textual reference to tangible things, but it abounds in internal references: expressions by each ensemble member directed toward the other members; associations among individual segments, lines, and instruments.
Look at the musical dialogue among ensemble members through the lens of musical segmentation and voice-leading. The approach to any given passage can be characterized by our answers to four questions:
- Do individual segments form mostly within one instrument’s part or across two or more?
- Are the strongest associations between segments mostly individual and ‘longitudinal’—within each part over the course of the composition—or sectional and ‘transverse’between instruments on a shorter timescale?
- How many distinct streams of association are active simultaneously? and
- How do the answers to (1), (2), and (3) change over time?
Much has been written about the dialogical nature of string quartets and other chamber music genres, yet the dialogue itself is seldom subjected to a detailed analysis. Chasalow’s own comments on pitch structure in the trio give us clues as to what an analysis of dialogue of this piece ought to include or directions that such an analysis might ought to take. Subtle changes in the structure of voice-leading, cadences, and segmentation manifest cumulatively as changing modes of interaction among the parts and produce a series of shifts from instrumental individualism to integrated ensemble—and from contrapuntal to sculptural, texture-oriented writing. This is not your grand-daddy’s piano trio.
Note too that these aspects are not merely matters of form and compositional technique. They hint at Chasalow’s deep views on the nature of interpersonal dignity and respect, and at his philosophy regarding what it means to pick up an instrument and behave like a decent human being. These aspects are also consistent with the ‘moral’ qualities that arise in other of his compositions. Eric Chasalow compositions from the early 80s through 1992 are on his CD, ‘Over the Edge’, with Speculum Musicae String Quartet; Fred Sherry, cello; Patricia Spencer, flute; Christine Schadeberg, soprano; Bruno Schneider; horn; Amy Knoles, Arthur Jarvinen, percussion. Each piece is in the style of a character piece. For example, The Furies, consists of four pieces for soprano and electronica that set texts from Anne Sexton’s ‘The Death Notebooks’. It may require a bit more imagination on the listener’s part to ascertain the moral content of these musical essays, compared to apprehending the moral implications of Chasalow’s piano trio ‘Yes, I Really Did’. But the moral thread that runs through much of Chasalow’s writing is there if you look for it.
Chasalow’s ‘Yes, I Really Did’ (composed in 1998; performed by Christopher Oldfather, piano; Andrea Schultz, violin; Michael Finckel, cello) takes Beethoven’s techniques for orchestrating and voice-leading in Piano Trios (Op. 1, Nos. 1-3 (1792-4); Op. 38 (1802-3); Op. 44 (1792); Op. 63 (1796); Op. 70, Nos. 1-2 (1808); Op. 97 (1810-15); Op. 121 (1803-16) ) as a point of departure. There are ‘avoided cadences’ and other deceptions, sleights, and feints—standard stuff in composition and analysis textbooks. But here they are employed to call into question what the nature of dialogue among ensemble members is really about. This piano trio questions whether any member of the ensemble has any moral duty to the other members, what the limits of that duty might be, whether breaches of duty cause pain or injury, and what the value and remedies of these might be. Torts!
Musical drama like this naturally intrigues us. The drama arises from tonal relations that elicit our expectations, and proceed to subtly manipulate and subsequently fulfill or frustrate them. This happens regardless whether we’re Schenkerians or not. But contextual processes may elicit expectations of their own, producing allusive effects that contribute to the work’s fascination. Formed from ordered sequences of evocative events existing within Chasalow’s tonal fabric, these successions of distinct-but-similar moments are unique and present a narrative that complements the unfolding of the piece. These processes gradually reveal their goals as they unfold—they’re dynamic, progressive systems of organization.
M usical ideas are … combinations of tones, rhythms, and harmonies that require a treatment like the main theses of a philosophical subject. [The musical idea] raises a question, puts up a problem, which in the course of the piece has to be answered, resolved, carried through. It has to be carried through many contradictory situations, it has to be developed by drawing consequences from what it postulates, it has to be checked in many cases and all this might lead to a conclusion, a ‘pronunciamento’… The furtherance of the musical idea... may ensue only if the unrest—the problem—[that is] present in the Grundgestalt or in the motive (and formulated by the theme or not, if none has been stated) is shown in all its consequences… Every succession of tones produces unrest, conflict, problems... Every musical form can be considered as an attempt to treat this unrest either by halting or limiting it, or by solving the problem.”
Arnold Schoenberg, The Musical Idea, and the Logic, Art and Technique of its Presentation.
Schoenberg once suggested that a musical idea, by nature, embodies some sort of conflict. Such an idea—which Schoenberg regarded generally as a unified combination of tones, durations, and harmonies, and sometimes also referred to as a Grundgestalt, or basic shape—expresses a musical ‘problem’ that demands a contextually coherent ‘solution’. For Schoenberg, a musical idea is a discrete entity that can be recognized and agreed upon by a majority of listeners, often as a component of a theme. The ‘problem’ that corresponds to a musical idea, in turn, entails/requires a motivic ‘force’—one that, if it is sufficiently effective at pushing or pulling us, stimulates meaningful collateral response(s) within the unfolding music, within the performers, and within the listeners.
Ensemble balance is a fundamental feature of ‘conventional’ trios, quartets, quintets, etc.—and Chasalow’s work does not dispute this. But traditional chamber musical texts seldom create situations where the composer deliberately intends that one or more players should exchange the honorable role of respectful discussants for that of virtuoso-narcissist, bully, or other deviant character. In ‘Yes, I Really Did’ we do not have banal theatrics. Instead, we get an 8-minute dialogue that suggests that ‘established’ Truth must be continually open to honest dissent, self-doubt, and Schoenbergian inter-voice drama and conflict. Chasalow’s composition asserts that such openness and healthy tension are fundamental to a civil society in which the dignity of the individual, the dignity of the group, and the dignity and moral standing of the environment (or other species) are all respected.
In the liner notes for the ‘Left to His Own Devices’ CD, Chasalow says that ‘Yes, I Really Did’ is about “misdirection ... [and] withholding [by ensemble members, from each other].” Listening to this wonderful piano trio, we cannot doubt the authenticity of this remark. In a genre that routinely and implicitly exalts the virtues and satisfactions of mutual ‘words’ and ‘deeds’ between ensemble members or pits a righteous ensemble in solidarity against external conflict and politics, here is a deeply meaningful piece that explores the nature of discord, admissions of wrongdoing, breaches between the ensemble members, redress, and forgiveness. The work achieves a remarkable textual plausibility that is a credit to Chasalow’s writing and to the skill and empathy of Oldfather’s, Schultz’s, and Finckel’s playing. We trust that they are all still friends and that no real torts were involved in the creation of this fascinating trio.
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- Chasalow page at Brandeis Univ
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