WWII Avant, Part 1/5: Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell et al. MP3 (1939)

“What did you do during the war, Daddy?” It’s a question that sums up the collective national consciousness of World War II, whether that is a matter of heroism, guilt, victimization or some combination thereof. Ken Burns’s new WWII documentary, The War, is running currently on PBS. It documents the engagement from 1939 through 1945. Seeing the names Wynton Marsalis and Gene Scheer credited with the series’s score brought to mind what music was actually being written while the Axis and Allies battled — that is, what the composers of experimental music were doing during the war.

The soundtrack album to The War includes two contemporaneous classical pieces, one by Aaron Copland (his Clarinet Concerto, written for Benny Goodman a few years after the end of the war) and the other by William Walton (his The Death of Falstaff, written shortly before the end of the war), as well as Arvo Pärt’s Variations for the Healing of Arinushka, which dates from 1977. Pärt was born in 1935, the year the Nurenberg Laws in Germany revoked the citizenship of Jews. Much of his work, with its attenuated structures and off-kilter harmonies, provides a self-evident score to mourning and remorse.

All five Disquiet.com Downstream entries this week will focus on music composed and/or performed during those seven years of global conflict. First up is an installment of Charles Amirkhanian’s Ode to Gravity radio series. The program includes percussion work by Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell, John Cage, Johanna Beyer and William Russell, much of it recorded live in 1939 in a concert at the Cornish School in Seattle under Cage’s direction (MP3). Credit any surface noise to provenance: the rare acetate recordings come from Harrison’s own collection. The compositions are almost uniformly searching — note how the percussion is less tribal than meditative, and how the melodic components are kept remote and secondary to the emphasis on pulse and motion. More info at archive.org.

Tomorrow: Part 2/5, A shopworn Harry Partch.

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