Some time ago I wrote about how I came to start composing new music unexpectedly, using tonal, classical modes (just notes). I didn’t go into how I feel about normal new music, avante garde music, experimental music, contemporary classical, or whatever you might want to call it. We each have our own ideas about these descriptors. Working over 30 years as a professional symphony and chamber musician, I’ve played at least three hundred new works. While very few did I ever want to play more than once, it’s important to keep in mind that there are a million legitimate ways to make music.
One of the many challenges as a working musician is to tackle new works, even though we didn’t choose the pieces ourselves. Our job, in fact, is to represent each work in front of us as though we love it. The first part of the challenge for the orchestra is showing full mastery of what’s requested on the page: playing the page, often with new-ish techniques. Patterns and trends develop (real or perceived). Some pleasantly; others, not so much.
It used to be that new music meant experimental ways of organize the same 11 different notes (serial, atonal, dense, sparse, clusters, quarter-tones). Stravinsky favored primal rhythms; Bartok, folk dissonances; Schoenberg, serial counterpoint; Berg, emotional colors; Boulez, pointillism; Stockhausen, orgasmic morphing. Today, more often than not, new music brings in non-traditional instruments, sounds or techniques in an orgy of seemingly random dissonant notes where strong rhythm takes precedence over melody or harmony. Other composers may choose to use motorific or minimalist repetition with slow changing harmonies, or a simple groove that builds up to a single dramatic turnover: a turn toward harmony but often without much activity or consequence.
It seems that many living composers still avoid conventional melody, development, modulation or previously proven structures, as if these were easy, nostalgic or pandering. The results are often less than satisfactory. Missing is the sensuality (flow) of harmonic tensions rising and resolving before sinking (or rising) into trouble again. Have we forgotten the techniques to spin melody into intense drama? Why would that be less challenging for the composer than trying to challenge her audience with static organizations? What happened to finding just the right notes to compel empathy, virtuosity or catharsis? Were Martinu and Shostakovich among the last dramatic composers? Was the baby in the bathwater?
The academic or scientific approach imposed by composition instructors leads me to love the unscientific Schubert and Brahms all the more, which may be why most concert programs have mixed programs. Side-by-side comparisons are instructive. Even though I never lived in Schubert’s time or place; even though that music may not challenge me in any way, or redefine music, I prefer the relative simplicity, accessibility and beauty of his music over modern music. The conventional provides more to play with and this music and I become very good friends.
Tonal music not only comforts me because I know them well enough to sing along, but by listening deeper, I often find new details, hidden lines or correlations to other composers. As a performer I learned to shape phrases, much like an actor. As audience I pick up on unusual phrasing, balance and timing. The potential reward remains to experience renewal, validation or epiphany. The best works build on what came before. The keys to hearing them are experience, focus and patience.
Between the three of us (composer, performer and audience), I am immersed in each encounter, to fall in love with humanity, the Earth and the cosmos again and again. This never gets old. So I wonder why so few established composers today tackle the challenge of creating works in the styles that worked so well before, but perhaps with modern subjects and twists. Must music really be constantly reinvented? Are we NOT free to buck the current trend of avoiding tradition? Must art music be confusing or non-apparent?
If I said I’m going to invent a new food dish, would I start with something that’s never been eaten before, or would I take a standard dish and modify it by processing, cooking or spicing it differently? My own works apply familiar techniques to conventional melody. Some of it sounds more my own than others; but they are emotional, beautiful and dramatic. In some works I blend in urban pop rhythms so that they’re tons of fun and easy to digest; rather akin to mixing favs like spaghetti with diced BBQ chicken & broccoli.
For this, I might be called a populist composer, and that is exactly what I choose to do; to prove classical music need not be academic. Music must be obvious in its joy, melting into tears and struggle, and back again, because this is how human emotions flow from one to another (a classical ideal). Tonality lets us shape phrases like a great screenplay.
Composing myself lets me weave together music that might draw listeners into the sonata structures used by Dvorak, Schubert, Hindemith, Brahms, Mahler and my other favorites. It’s amazing what variations can be made with only the eleven different notes available. Music builds on what came before and innovation is most often incremental. CutTime is the tool I fashioned by first emulating the tools that came before. Imitation is the basis for counterpoint and dance in music, connecting the present with the past. Sample some on the player on the sidebar. Classical music can be fun and sexy, as well as violent and profound. There are a thousand ways to spice it up, when we give ourselves permission.
Yes, after a lifetime playing all of them, I prefer the expressive potential offered by the traditional composers. They gave us great drama, excitement, beauty and opportunities to shape music so that they belong to all of us now. Because we wear their genius like a magical hat or technicolor coat, whether performing or just listening, we can look at human nature in ways that make us love life and the world, as ironic as it always is. We can trip out and visualize singing, dancing or flying freely to this music. So when my Big Dream in 1999 made me start composing, what came to mind was music built on this cannon. It suddenly became quite natural for me to express some dramas, feelings, griefs, joys, resolve and even my black heritage in this way.
While I don’t have a chance of composing on the level of a Brahms or a Mahler, the simple works that I am able to create (employing long melodies, busy counterpoint, contrary motion, modified sonata forms, surprise modulations, easy development and emotional climaxes and conclusions) allow me to challenge the status quo with this statement:
New music can feature beauty and convention without being nostalgic.
For me the chief characteristic of great music is its memorability. Will this music be something that will haunt me, such as in line at the bank? Next is growth. Did this music build to transformational climaxes in a series of waves? And like trying out a new food, did I want to try it again? Esp. as I get older— because I’m getting older— I hardly care to spend time on music that lacks compelling direction, peaks or potential (music). I have learned the value of mediocrity: truly great work stands out because of it.
Tonality tends to offer more surprises per minute: the harmonic turn of a phrase, the subtle harmonic differences on each restatement, the fireworks of scales and arpeggios in new twists and turns, the animation of melodic skips and rhythms. These never get old when well-writ. And how about the motion and furious counterpoints of a great fugue? Are these really too worn to express modern life? Must music be statements on ugliness, horror or nihilism of modernity? Was there not ugliness, horror and nihilism previously?
We still appreciate beauty in the world. The suspensions, the appogiatura, a French sixth chord are not anathema to modern living, esp. when we look from the mountain we are climbing or into our lover’s eyes. And classical, esp. symphonic music, seem to express things unspeakable about the larger questions of life. Gustav Mahler told Jean Sibelius, “Music must embrace the world.” What are we trying to express if not the constant presence of mixed feelings? This music offers a balance of inevitability and surprises. I don’t learn anything from ALL surprise, from ALL unpredictable notes. But when the music starts to slowly build, twist and reach into a tremendous climax I never thought possible, we internalize the experience of progress that we might realize in our own lives.
That progress tends to come when we experience a mix of surprise and inevitability. Inevitable thematic returns comfort us with familiarity while making us anticipate them. When correct, we experience validation. And when mistaken, we feel tension rise or explode. The disruption in confidence should be strong but need not be extreme or maxed out: limiting the carnage is part of the charm. Compositions with an overabundance of surprise don’t take me anywhere: the emperor gets no clothes from empty gestures, avoiding retro or theoretical music. Rhythmic counterpoint is no substitute for setting up a growing harmonic discourse. Sonata form is not broken, but effective and adaptable.
And really, why can’t we try to please the audience (pandering, entertainment)? At a rock concert the singers aren’t trying to challenge us to find some music or meaning; they make it obvious and fun. New music might preserve a balance between music and mild challenge. If what is memorable in new music is only weird new sounds leading nowhere, or an orgy of rhythm for a short, hip groove, I ask where is the craft, the clever invention painting a compelling narrative or portrait? This is hardly classical music. Instrumental music is compelling when there is shape, direction and purpose so that most can feel it welling up internally. That welling up we used to call tension and release, is most visceral. It seems largely forgotten.
I accept that many people can’t stand standard rep; they may see it as tired and worn. But I don’t think it’s a problem of the music, rather the presentation & performance. Classical is only truly alive when performers exaggerate. The more drippingly emotive the better. If we musicians don’t shape phrases or play with notable risk, an otherwise note-perfect performance sounds comparatively boring. There’s already enough mediocre music circulating. We must hit new audience over the head with the difference of music. We should take ownership and flaunt what we can do with music, including rewriting and condensing works for popular markets. That’s what artistic license means, and what public domain is for. Music is automatically refreshed and riskier this way. Veteran listeners have never heard it this way, the musicians have never played it this way, and the newcomers may never hear it otherwise.
I believe that a historical pendulum eventually swings in the other direction, but halftimes quite unpredictably. So the full use of simple 1-4-5 harmonies, which has continued to an extreme as the vehicle for popular music, may return slowly to classical. The 20th-Century proved that really any sounds can be considered music, including random noise. Now can we get back to the relative music of Schumann or Bartok (related, shaped, dynamic, dual), while we keep exploring absolute music of pop (extreme, static, mono)?
We clearly enjoy many kinds of music, if only to confirm what we most prefer. But the warhorse objection to classical is unavailable to those who have never heard standard rep performed live even once. Often it’s just about our mood going in: we often find only what we’re expecting.
Add a little wine or beer, a personal tragedy or triumph, listening to the lead artists, or a good or bad day at work, and we are cocked for a very spiritual experience. Our minds leap at reflections of our own stories, feelings and dramas. The combination of conductor and orchestra are the sauce and noodles of the Phad Thai. So I recommend newcomers sit in the very last row, where they can relax the most and get a bit carried away without disturbing anyone. (Where my sister sits.) I conduct behind the seat in front of me and ride the BIG BEAT.
Tell me how or why YOU want to interact with classical music?