Kiddies Dance to Webern!

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WEBERN: Satz für Klavier. Sonatensatz (Rondo). Klavierstück. Variationen für Klavier. Kinderstück (2 vers.). CHAU: Nachtschatten. GACHE: A Frolic in the Woods. AMODEI: Thinking Cap (For Emily). STODDARD: Row Motion. D. JOHNSON: Kinderstück nach Webern: Laughing Man. OATFIELD: Subarctic Penguins. MATZION: Das Kleine Holzpferd. McMANUS: 4 Pieces for Children (after The Four Seasons). BELÉT: Drei Kinderstücke. FURMAN: Trip to Twelve Tone Town / Janis Mercer, pno / Centaur CRC 3771

About a half-century ago, some critic—I forget who—proposed that if children were raised only hearing 12-tone or serial music, the idiom would be completely natural to them. I, who was still young at the time, wasn’t the only one to object to this. Children are primarily attracted by rhythm, and if there’s one thing that 12-tone music generally doesn’t have, it’s rhythm. And of course, second to rhythm is melody or at least a melodic “hook,” and there’s no way in hell that 12-tone music has melodic hooks.

But here is intrepid pianist Janis Mercer, who was apparently part of something called The Kinderstück Project back in 2005, an attempt by 10 contemporary composers, none of which I ever heard of before, to follow up on Webern’s own Kinderstück (which frames their works with two performances) with 12-tone pieces for children. Thus you have such kid-friendly titles as A Frolic in the Woods, Subarctic Penguins (hey, what kid doesn’t love 12-tone penguins?), Forest Path and Pablo E. Furman’s suite, Trip to Twelve Tone Town, which includes “Can you count to twelve?,” “Retro rock” and “How far can you reach”? Since Centaur didn’t see fit to provide liner notes with the album download, I can’t give you any more information than that, but I would think that was enough.

Of course, Webern’s earliest pieces here, from 1906, are tonal (the Satz für Klavier and Sonantensatz), yet Mercer plays them in an angular style as if channeling the later, edgier Webern to come. The remaining pieces are from 1924 (Kinderstück), 1925 (Klavierstück) amd 1936 (Variationen für Klavier), by which time he was firmly committed to writing knotty musical puzzles in his terse serial style.

Now, I can take Webern occasionally, in moderation, but I know a few people for whom anything by this composer is poison, so what it was that inspired the Kinderstück Project is beyond me. According to the artist’s website, these are professional and student composers from the San Francisco Community Music Center, and all of these pieces were written at her request for inclusion on this CD, but that’s all I can tell you.

What’s interesting about the 1906 pieces, written before Schoenberg developed the 12-tone system, is that they are already leaning far beyond chromaticism towards something else. This makes me wonder if Webern himself might not have invented serial music before Schoenberg got around to it.

spastic dancerFirst up among the “inspired” pieces is Nachtschatten, which sounds a bit more like the early (1906) Webern, but A Frolic in the Woods sounds like the frolic of a psychopath…or something very close to it. Mind you, it’s not that I don’t appreciate the cleverness of this music, but as Rafael Kubelik once said, if you’re only trying to be clever and play head games it’s not music that inspires you. Row Motion is one of the very few pieces to have a strong rhythmic base; perhaps this one would appeal to a really intelligent child, maybe not. Laughing Man, based on a descending series of chords meant to simulate laughing, comes close to conventional music but not close enough for a kid to “get it.” The James McManus suite, purportedly based on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, sounds nothing like them. Retro Rock was another piece with a strong, consistent rhythm but, again, no little kid I know is going to respond to that dark, ominous melody or chords.

As I say, I have no real objection to the music on this album so much as I do the concept, which plain and simply will not work. But even within the premise, Webern wrote in an essentially dead-end style; there was nowhere else to go with 12-tone music after him, and so it eventually died out after about a decade or so of academic composers tryng desperately to keep the corpse alive. Interesting for what it is, however.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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