Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Whither contemporary music?

The dichotomy of classical and pop music began with the twentieth century. Prior to that time the split would have been between professional music and folk music. In any era there was a basic continuity of style across the board. The scale, the harmonies, the importance of tonality, the rhythmic organization, all these elements applied to any music of an era. Classical composers in these times made use of and developed within the idea of music in their context.

With the rise of rag time African-American influence gave rise to styles of music of a strongly ethnic character which nevertheless transcended cultural limitations and spread around the world. Occasionally a composer came along who tried to incorporate black style elements into classical structures. This was a vogue in the twenties in Paris, for instance, but in general there has been little enthusiasm for this.

As the context of music in a culture changed to one based on African-American elements, simple harmonies and powerful, driving rhythmic materials, the relationship of classical composition to its context completely changed. This situation has progressed to the point where in the twenty-first century there is no cultural context for classical music. The music of the public mind and spirit is never the material used to compose larger compositions.

What is classical music in contemporary society? It is a body of museum-like institutions which revive the glorious achievements of past generations – we treasure Mozart more than his contemporaries did – and it is an intellectual activity that often seems closer to the world of experimental visual arts than to the institutions devoted to music, either popular or classical.

Wagner seemed to want to explain almost more than he wanted to compose, and since his time what we know as classical music seems to require a theoretical construct prior to the setting down of any actual notes. The music is never justification enough. Schoenberg did this. Messiaen did this. And apparently the minimalists also do this.

I have long suspected that minimalism was a direct response to serialism, and sure enough, that is the case. A principle of serialism is the rejection of repetition, and the minimalists responded by embracing and emphasizing repetition. The reason you don't really like either one of them is because both ignore the way the mind works, the way any human's brain organizes musical materials and sustains his interest in them, an organizing principle that works on the combination of repetition AND variation. Repetition creates anticipation, and variation creates interest and emotion.

The separation between public mind and classical composition creates a dissociation and detachment from the classical community that continues to increase with the passage of time. This leaves a chasm in our musical lives. No one is creating music for both our minds and our emotions, leaving us to search repertoire of the past for this.

Oswaldo Golijov's work really does seem different. He is making music based not in some arcane theory, but based in the music – we are strongly inclined to say popular music – of his own life. His materials are musical in origin. Perhaps he will start a trend.

3 comments:

Francesco said...

I am not familiar with Oswaldo Golijov's works. But I will definitely check it out. As a student composer and performer, one of my biggest concerns is how my music is viewed in the context of the "new music" scene. Thankfully, it seems that the kind of music I want to write has so far been easy enough to relate to that a few words of explanation win over the audience.

I've also heard that certain teachers (thankfully not mine) will pressure their students to compose "new music" - in otherwords, experimental music. Now I love cutting-edge music most of the time just as much as the classics, but I think it is so wrong for composition students to be pushed into certain styles if they wish not to be. How is contemporary music supposed to develop if the older generation of composers is telling the younger generation what is right?

Anyway, I've enjoyed your blog and it's always nice to discover someone else who enjoys the voice of Susan Graham. Thanks!

Dr.B said...

Just when I think I've become way too nerdy, someone sends me a thoughtful comment like this. Iconoclasm means you're tearing something down. But the institution of classical musical has been flat on the ground for at least 75 years. It's time to start building it back up.

Seal&Vito said...

nice articale! but im a bit tired that i have no strength to comment. maybe nex time.