Ouch my ears, pt. 1

The AFC Challenge, happening this Thursday, December 7, 7pm at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, seeks to present and demystify gnarly, difficult, dissonant music that we adore nevertheless. So, in this blog series we’re going to ring these pieces up on public disturbance charges, then get them off on technicalities...


Philip Glass: Echorus

Accused of: so much the same notes!


It’s easy to grow accustomed to music that’s either functional or narrative, which is to say dance music or music that tells a story (or both). We might not even realize it, but that’s 99% of what’s out there; even if we think of purely instrumental music as abstract, a Beethoven string quartet still tells a story by virtue of its structure, built on contrasting themes and their eventual resolution, like the rising and falling action of a play.

There’s also music that’s descriptive, like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Debussy’s La Mer. There, too, though, is a narrative (and a good bit of dance, too), in the same way that a nature documentary will still emphasize dramatic plotlines. This is where Philip Glass’s music, and a piece like Echorus, flips the script, foregoing the dramatic to instead reflect stable, harmonious systems. These kinds of systems exist in real life, only they’re often overlooked, because they work: the orbits of planets, the river’s flow, the systems of the human body, even mechanical systems like the device you’re using to read this. Nevertheless, these can still be fascinating to consider, even if they are stable, because they, too, are ever-changing, if only in subtle ways. Hence you get the repetition found in “minimalism.” It’s this contemplative, meditative state of observation, that Glass’s Echorus evokes.


John Cage: “Quietly Flowing Along” from String Quartet in Four Parts

Accused of: randomness!


Glass’s Echorus takes a step outside typically narrative music; Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts takes a step further, not only forgoing thematic opposition, but also intentional emotiveness. Of Echorus, Glass writes “the music is inspired by thoughts of compassion and is meant to evoke feelings of serenity and peace;” Cage, by contrast, was interested in writing music that would “sober and quiet the mind,” a subtle distinction, but an important one; while Glass is attempting to create a feeling in the listener, Cage is not.

To do this, Cage intentionally restricted himself, giving each instrument an extremely limited number of sonorities that he could employ, so a cello, which has thousands of different note + articulation + dynamic combinations, is whittled down to a handful. This was done to limit the “ego,” the will, of the composer, to force himself away from being able to formulate the complex combinations of sounds that form emotions in music, to make sonority the point of departure, rather than intention.

One might expect that this would create a bland result, but, in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Cage’s quartet is often very impactful, only the feelings are our own, not the composer’s. It might be useful to think of this quartet as a sonic temple: a respite, and in our world an especially precious one, from the constant onslaught of outside influences that affect us and that seek to cause an emotional reaction. To be gifted this delicate, serene, sonic space, then, is incredibly special.


Dmitri Shostakovich: “Scherzo” from Two Pieces for String Octet, Op. 11

Accused of: creepy crawlies!


Yes, but so cool! Also rock n’ roll.




Full playlist for The AFC Challenge here