"Not […] a Program, but an Afterthought": Discovering Ernst Krenek’s electronic work 'San Fernando Sequence'

Current Research

Last summer, musicologists Luca Cossettini and Alessandro Olto (University of Udine) published an article about Ernst Krenek’s 'San Fernando Sequence' in the journal 'De musica disserenda' (16/2, 2020).
The following essay summarizes their findings. You can see the complete article in Italian here.

'Not […] a Program, but an Afterthought': Discovering Ernst Krenek’s electronic work ‘San Fernando Sequence’

With the exception of the unfinished Oratorio ‘Spiritus Intelligentiae Sanctus’ (1956), little has been written on Ernst Krenek’s electronic music in the field of musicological research. Not even the composer himself, otherwise prolific in the description of his works and his compositional techniques, has left much information. In particular, there seems to be a wide gap concerning his works composed in the 1960s, from the failed completion of the electronic oratory to the purchase of the Buchla synthesizer in 1967, an instrument that will give a new impulse to the development of the composer’s thinking. The reasons for this silence can be many, linked both to the personal and professional context in which Krenek found himself operating, as well as to a troubled path of stylistic maturation towards the electronic medium.

Krenek moved to the United States because of Austria’s ‘Anschluss’ in 1938. He taught music in several institutions (Malkin Conservatory, Boston; Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York; Hamline University, St. Paul, Minnesota) before settling permanently in Los Angeles in 1947 where he married the composer Gladys Nordenstrom in 1950. She will describe the difficulties encountered in those years: ‘[...] those beginning years in California were terribly difficult, [...] we practically didn’t make it, almost starving to death really’.  Not only poverty: in Los Angeles Krenek will also have to face isolation from the American musical ‘avant-garde’, which at that time gravitated around the East Coast: from Nadia Boulanger’s New York ‘school’ to electronic experimentation at the Columbia-Princeton University and the Bell Labs. So, his electronic music of the ‘60s, for lack of adequate means and perhaps not yet mature experimentation, never went on international stage and was soon consigned to the oblivion of the history of music.

The persistent silence is mainly also justified by the difficulty in finding sources. Only recently (2014), thanks to a new acquisition of documents belonging to the beneficiaries of the composer, the archive of the Ernst Krenek Institut in Krems an der Donau was able to catalogue and provide audio sources related to electronic works composed in those years - among them five magnetic tapes containing the ‘San Fernando Sequence’, a piece long believed lost.

Information about the genesis of the ‘San Fernando Sequence’ is scarce, mostly derived from a modest number of sketches and notes (28 pages). Instead, the writings of and on the Cuban composer Aurelio de la Vega shed light on the place of its realization: we know that in 1959 he began his teaching career at San Fernando Valley State College, Northridge, California. During the following year he founded an electronic music studio and shared its direction with Beverly Grigsby and Krenek himself. Thanks to a work plan found on the first page of the sketches, we can assume that Krenek began to compose the ‘San Fernando Sequence’ on November 15, 1962 in the Californian studio, using the instruments present there, in addition to material recorded at his Tujunga residence in Los Angeles. The equipment was rather scarce, and its quality was far from the professional standards which he had used in Cologne for the composition of ‘Spiritus Intelligentiae Sanctus’. ‘San Fernando Sequence’ was performed for the first time at the San Fernando Valley State College on March 15, 1963 as part of a concert of electronic and experimental music organised by de la Vega in collaboration with the Society for Contemporary Music on the occasion of the Third Annual Festival of the Arts.

The Krenek Archive has made available the digitisation of five magnetic tapes catalogued as ‘San Fernando Sequence’ (TB162, TB164, TB166, TB168, TB170). Among the sources, differences in duration are measured, on the one hand due to differences (even if minimal) in the speed of sliding, and on the other to the presence of variants in the sound fabric. There are two different versions of the work: one lasting about 18 minutes and the other about 16 minutes. The inscriptions on the case and in the materials accompanying the tapes TB162, TB164 and TB170 confirm the existence of what is called ‘new version’, dated ‘16. März 1963’, shortened and distinguished from the ‘original version’ in TB166 and the ‘Master’ in TB168. Assuming the TB170 dating is correct, it seems that Krenek created the short version the day after the first public performance of the work. Quite common scenario: the ‘premiere’ has always been an essential moment for the evolution of compositions, an occasion for rethinking and refining. However, in the absence of a recording of the concert, it is not possible to determine with certainty which of the two versions was performed on March 15, 1963.

According to the sketches and to the text of the work’s presentation, the ‘San Fernando Sequence’ should be divided into six sections. However, their recognition is not easy, notably because the information on their duration is incomplete and not always consistent. Help comes from the cretic foot that opens three sections (the first, the second and the fifth) and that also appears mixed in the opening of the third section. The sections are strongly differentiated both for the sound materials, and for the compositional techniques used, going from strict serialism and canonic counterpoint to free improvisation.

A few years before the composition of the ‘San Fernando Sequence’, Krenek published a fundamental essay: ‘Extents and limits of the serial technique’ (1960). It contains a lucid examination of the serial compositional techniques historically employed by him and other composers and it highlights the potential explored, and yet to be explored, in a path that he had chosen since the composition of ‘Karl V ‘(1932/1933) and that, by his own admission, had always been reluctant to abandon. It is therefore not surprising to also find dodecaphonic series and their permutations in the sketches of the ‘San Fernando Sequence’. What is surprising, however, is that they are used very sparingly. As a matter of fact, Krenek cautiously brings the serial techniques also to electronics, without giving up the use of temperaments other than the equable and microtonal alterations.

The fourth section of the work is composed entirely of what the composer himself calls an ‘electronic canon’ in the sketches. The attempt to apply counterpoint procedures taken from Renaissance music – of which Krenek was a fine connoisseur – to electronic music ¬is not new in his compositions: it is also the basis of a large section of ‘Spiritus Intelligentiae Sanctus’. In the ‘San Fernando Sequence’, however, perhaps also because of the limited technological means at its disposal, the subtle processes derived from the isorhythmic motets of Josquin Desprez, that characterized the previous electronic work, give way to a simpler structure: a specular but asymmetric construction on four layers – perhaps inspired by the architectural profile of the Californian College – where the reduction of the length of the layers corresponds to an increase of frequencies. According to the practice of the electroacoustic laboratory, the canon is realized by acceleration/deceleration and consequent transposition of the same sound materials, which appear altered and overlapped in the four layers.

The analysis of the canon shows many ‘errors’ that affect materials, frequencies, durations and synchronous. The doubling (or halving) of velocity is not accurate, probably due to the presence of incorrectly calibrated tape machines. Since the precise ratios of duration between layers are no longer present, the identification of montage points must have been far from easy. Thus, the central symmetry is lost, and different axes for each layer can be found. The composer collided with the duality of abstraction/realization here. The crystallinity of the project, so well determined in the sketches, was altered in the performance due to the medium, the human and mechanical tolerances and the interpretation. When comparing the project and the sound fabric of the ‘San Fernando Sequence’ canon, all the friction between formalization of the musical language and its expression in practice is revealed. The pragmatic work in the electronic studio blurs the boundaries between error and rethinking: this is perhaps the very essence of electronic music, long veiled by the utopia of control, which Krenek was intuiting in those years.

Source criticism and musical analysis have contributed to the evaluation of the authenticity of the recently found audio documents. This is a first step towards returning the ‘San Fernando Sequence’ to publication and concert life. At the current state of research, the only accessible audio sources are those made available by the Krenek archive, and there is no certainty about the stage of processing to which they belong. Writings on the enclosures, such as ‘master’, ‘new version’ and dating make one think of approved documents. On the other hand, the variants lead us into a world of rethinking, of a work in development. In an electronic composition, which is for the most part regulated by improvisation, variance becomes natural: either you search for the perfection of the model or you work, even in a vague way, for subsequent adjustments aimed at refining or even distorting the compositional project in the feedback relationships between the idea and its becoming sound.

A little less than ten years earlier, Krenek significantly suspended his electronic Oratory ‘Spiritus Intelligentiae Sanctus’, perfectly modelled in the idea and in the sketches, on the biblical episode of the construction of the Tower of Babel and the dissolution of the original common language. It is inevitable to think about what was happening in those years in the research of musical avantgarde. Reflections on the musical language were taking increasingly complex and diversified paths: combinatorics would gradually be abandoned in the world of electronics on tape, and taken to the path of acoustic research rather aimed at Varèsian-inspired concepts like "organized sound" and ‘sound masses’. Thus, in the ‘San Fernando Sequence’ the procedures inspired by the mensural canons are relegated to a single section and the serial ones to a few spots, which are almost symbolically placed in the opening and closing. In the rest of the piece Krenek opens the doors to the uncertainty introduced by improvisation, error, noise. The linearity and narrative of ‘Spiritus Intelligentiae Sanctus’ is opposed in the ‘San Fernando Sequence’ by an anti-diegetic organization of the meso-formal elements that fully take advantage of the discontinuity of time organization implied by the montage procedures of the magnetic tape.

Krenek belongs to a generation that cultivated the utopia of the logical formalization of musical thought. The article ‘Den Jüngeren über die Schulter geschaut’, published in 1955 in the first issue of the journal ‘Die Reihe’, is significant for the difficulty of combining the past with the thrust imposed by new technologies and original musical thoughts. In open opposition to ‘the young’, in particular Karlheinz Stockhausen, Krenek inaugurates new electronic research with the ‘San Fernando Sequence’ in California, isolated from the European avant-garde. After another serial parenthesis with ‘Quintona’ (1965) – also composed in the studios of the San Fernando Valley State College and also inaccessible for many years ¬– in subsequent works such as ‘Tape and Double’ (1970), ‘Orga-Nastro’ (1971) or ‘They Knew What They Wanted’ (1977) Krenek will investigate the possibilities offered by synthesizers and mixed music. Paths that will lead him to a more pragmatic approach to composition and to renounce the chimera of the unification of language and the overcoming of Babel yearned with ‘Spiritus Intelligentiae Sanctus’ in 1956.

Luca Cossettini und Alessandro Olto

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