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George Rochberg - "Black Sounds"

Black Sounds for Small Orchestra

George Rochberg

Born: July 5, 1918, Paterson, New Jersey

Died: May 29, 2005, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania

Instrumentation: Small Wind Orchestra

Composed: 1965

Duration: 14 minutes

Rochberg, on Black Sounds:

In 1964, I wrote a large wind ensemble work entitled Apocalyptica – from this work I drew the material for a 17-player wind piece called Black Sounds. This new work was done in 1965 on commission from Lincoln Center for a dance called The Act, choreographed by Anna Sokolow for inclusion in a special TV composite project Lincoln Center, developed in cooperation with WNET, New York; later that show was awarded the Prix d’Italia. Since the dance concerned itself with the “act of murder,” the music, to be appropriately “black” had to be unrelenting in its intensity, dark in its gesture. The result was a totally chromaticized texture, though not necessarily atonal. In a through-composed, single movement, Black Sounds, is stylistically consistent from beginning to end. At the time I wrote it, I also thought of it as an “homage” to Varese, whom I admired greatly for his directness and power of dramatic expression. The intensity of juxtaposition of the works presented here is probably the best way to understand my personal “credo” as a composer. Perhaps the very friction of their side-by-side relationship will heighten the particular qualities and characteristics of each, and throw them into sharper and more pointed relief. Whatever the effect of the “accidental” juxtaposition, each work ultimately exists for itself alone.

Rochberg's Naxos biography provides valuable insight into the composer's ever-changing sound world, especially in the 1960s, which proved for him to be turbulent both on a national and personal level.

As long ago as 1963, Rochberg, in The New Image of Music, wrote that the successive revolutions of twelve-tone composition and of the post-war avant-garde had brought about a liberation that “permits sounds to create their own context”. This liberation of sound from tonal harmonic functions, led to “the overthrow of a long-dominant temporal structure”; to a world in which conglomerates of pure sound are able to interact in ways that are not necessarily hidebound by structural considerations. “Subjective man,” writes Rochberg, “views existence as change; himself and his history at the center of a process of becoming… Subjective man cannot transcend time; he is trapped in it. However, when man seizes on the present moment of existence as the only ‘real’ time, he spatializes his existence; that is, he fills his present with objects that take on … a state of permanence.” Thus did the composer allow broader means of expression to be added to his vocabulary, constantly enlarging it, making possible what he later came to call an “all-at-once world”.

[As early as 1959]... he was rethinking his language, already dissatisfied with the limitations of expressivity of the strict twelve-tone environment. Having mastered the idiom, he was far ahead of his time in seeking to go beyond it. The oft-repeated assertion that it was predominantly personal tragedy that led Rochberg to abandon dodecaphony and embrace tonality, is not entirely borne out by the facts. His evolution towards a multiplicity of simultaneous languages was already well in train from his earliest compositions.

For more from this vivid biography, visit the composer's Naxos page.

Additional Rochberg Resources:

- Saarbrucken Radio Symphony Orchestra Recording of Black Sounds

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