Of the perhaps inappropriately named New York School, I find Earle Brown's the most musically rich and articulate. Sign Sounds is for a small chamber orchestra. Brown's structural ideas are intriguing as always, presenting materials to be shaped by the conductor in performance. His open-form concept, an important aspect of this piece, is revolutionary in the best sense of that word. In this work certain cells used in repetition create a certain mantra, a possibility always inherent in Earle's music. But here there is a plasticity that is downright luscious. The percussion parts sound like a million bucks as they glisten and swirl. His working out of these ideas over the years, and the memorable ideas in this piece (if conducted appropriately) make it one of his most charming.
I also find that his String Quartet, an early piece, contains fine moments of whimsy and humor, not something one associates with the avant-garde of the fifties and sixties. The textures are novel and the sounds haunting. Browne's harmonic palette allows for the gritty and glowing. In another work, Windsor Jambs, there is even a section of harmonies inspired by Messiaen.
By the way, there is nothing aleatoric or of chance in these pieces, and in fact these ideas didn't appeal to him. As he said about Cage's use of chance:
Often, such singlemindedness results in self-repetition. I hate to say it, but I think John rode the chance horse for about thirty years, which no longer makes it an avant-garde idea. But he was so hooked on it.
About Feldman he also had interesting things to say:
I asked him once why he was writing these four-hour quartets, and he says, 'It's a career move'. He was very conscious of painters, and career, and being a success; he really wanted it, without making any bones about it.
I prefer shorter pieces of Feldman like I met Heine on the Rue Furstenberg, Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety, and his greatest work, Rothko Chapel -- pieces that require neither the performers nor the audience to be catheterized. This last piece should be performed much more frequently, but alas, like Ligeti's Lux Aeternae, it is a difficult piece for a chorus to learn and sing.
First posted on the Huffington Post, posted here with the kind permission of the author.
by Michael Johnson