Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Composer's Role

That last post, about iconic cultural figures, got me thinking. Just what is it that a composer is trying to do? A classical composer, that is. We have a lot of husks of exhausted ideologies of the past littering the landscape of classical music. As I hinted at in the last post, there are pieces celebrating victories and mourning defeats in the 15th century; pieces showing the transcendent truth of Catholicism in the 16th; pieces that advance the principles of radical humanism in the 17th; pieces that express the truth of Protestantism in the early 18th; pieces that depict the revolutionary energy of the late 18th; and on and on. In the early 20th century there were musical ideologies that proposed wiping out the past and creating a new, more rational future. That hasn't turned out quite as they imagined! Many books could be (and have been) written just on musical ideologies, though they are often presented as the New Truth and not as just another ideology.

Given the precarious situation classical music and composers are in in the 21st century, just what role should composers be taking on today? Can they, or should they, try and express the central truths, or issues of our time? Or should they try and transcend all that? Both options have been chosen at different times in music history. Should classical music try to become popular, or should it absorb things from popular music, or should it ignore popular music? All these options have also been chosen in the past.

It's a conundrum... One thing that composers have usually done is try and please their patron, whoever is paying the commission whether it is a pope, a circle of Florentine nobles, the Canada Council (a separate body, funded by the federal government, who commissions most new music in Canada), the National Endowment for the Arts or the New York Philharmonic. In the past, doing so would usually result in music that might be of some real cultural significance. When various popes supported Palestrina, that guaranteed that his music was considered of real significance. Similarly with the activities of the Florentine Camerata. When it comes to the folks that pay for new music today, it would be an extremely interesting exercise to determine just what it is they want and why. The choices of the popes and the Florentines made sense at the time. How do the choices of the Canada Council or the NEA make sense now? What if they are calling the tune according to an obsolete ideology?

I'm putting all this in the form of questions because I really don't know the answers. What I suspect is that there are some serious fractures in our culture and, while there is music that certainly expresses this, it doesn't tend to tell us much about the nature of those fractures, and if it does, it probably does nothing to heal them.

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