Saturday, August 24, 2013

Discovering Musicians, Part 5: Kevin Puts

I think I have mentioned the American composer Kevin Puts a couple of times. He is one of a new generation of composers that manages, successfully I think, to meld the role of being a new music composer with an awareness and respect for the past traditions of classical music.

In response to a comment about how composers are either recognized or neglected I wrote:
I think that one of the interesting historical phenomena of music since 1900 is the deployment of modernist (and then post-modernist) ideology in shaping the public reception of music. Books like René Leibowitz' "Schoenberg and His School" were designed to influence and shape public opinion. That they were not entirely successful was due to two things: competing narratives such as the one put forth by Igor Stravinsky in his (probably ghost-written) book "Poetics of Music" and the series of books written in collaboration with Robert Craft, and by public resistance to atonal music generally. Since 1900 it has been almost de rigeur for composers to further their careers with some kind of written manifesto. John Cage is an outstanding example of this.

But at this stage in music history, where I think a more conservative stage is beginning, the radical manifesto is really not the right strategy. What does a composer who writes music that acknowledges a relationship with the past that involves the use of elements like harmony and melody do? Well, this one started a blog that is attempting to subvert the modernist and post-modernist narrative in music!
 Since the 1960s there has been a backlash against the fiercely dissonant, rhythmically jagged music of modernism. The first figures in this trend were Steve Reich and Philip Glass with their early 'minimalist' work that featured harmonic stasis and a strong beat. But this soon developed, both in their music and that of others like John Adams, into more complex structures that still featured consonance and rhythmic coherence. A still newer generation with composers like Osvaldo Golijov and Kevin Puts are using textures and gestures taken from or reminiscent of older music in compositions that are still new. It is hard to generalize, but one way in which what they are doing is different from post-modernism is that they are using these elements in a non-ironic way.

Let's listen to some music by Kevin Puts. Here is a string quartet, Credo, dating from 2007. YouTube refuses to embed, so here is the link:

This is certainly a piece of new music, but at the same time, it is not afraid of using consonance and melody. Golijov has gone even further in transforming music by Couperin into a piece for string quartet:

But back to Kevin Puts. He has been successful in writing larger works for orchestra including symphonies and concertos. The very fact that he uses these terms instead of more modernist ones like "Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta" or "Momente" or "Gruppen" indicates a different attitude towards the past than that of a modernist composer. Alas, none of Kevin Puts' four symphonies seem to be available on YouTube, so let me put up instead the first movement of his Piano Concerto entitled "Night". This is Bernadette Harvey with the Canberra Youth Orchestra conducted by Rowan Harvey-Martin giving the Australian premiere:

There is no mistaking that for Beethoven, certainly. Nor for Stockhausen! Occasional bits of it might have been composed by Prokofiev or Bartók. But the unabashed ending with tonal harmony and the consistent rhythmic texture would have been avoided by most 20th century composers.

How can you write music like this, frankly tonal, and not be accused of pandering or of sounding like "movie" music? I think that the answer is that this is a genuine musical expression that comes from both real compositional expertise and from aesthetic sincerity. I'm trying to avoid the word "authentic" as it is often abused, but there is something that sets apart music like this from mere melodrama and I'm at a loss for another way to describe it. I think that the many manifestations of musical post-modernism all share the common feature of being like costumes the composer puts on. "Let's have some African music here, then some Dixieland, maybe a little atonal wash for contrast." None of this flows from any genuine artistic conviction, it is just window-dressing. Post-modernism is all window-dressing which is why it is so unsatisfying, aesthetically. But I think that the music of Kevin Puts is well composed. It manages to be satisfying to audiences and to players and it seems to be a genuine expression of the composer.

Here is an interview with Kevin Puts that is somewhat interesting:

And here is the piece they were talking about, And Legions Will Rise for violin, clarinet and marimba. This is the first part, performed bMatt Slack, Kerstin Tenney, and Justin Laukat:


Rickard Dahl said...

A move towards more conversative music would be nice. By conversative in this context I mean before things went too crazy. Basically mostly up until the avant garde of the 2nd half of the 20th century. For instance Stravinsky, Debussy, Shostakovich, Britten or even Schoenberg (at least sometimes) can be considered conservative today. That doesn't mean I would want music to sound like it was written by a specific composer in the past, just using different composing methods and styles available to compose good-sounding pieces.

"It is hard to generalize, but one way in which what they are doing is different from post-modernism is that they are using these elements in a non-ironic way." That's a good way to describe it. The postmodernists seem to mix and mash all in to a big pot and the result turns out to be pretty bad much of the time.

Bryan Townsend said...

All those composers you name are ones that composed very worth-while music. But only three of them are considered by academic music historians to fit the narrative of modernism: Debussy, Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Britten and Shostakovich have been considered outside the pale because they did not fall in line with the way the modernist mainstream went after WWII. The composers who were following the "correct" course were people like Stockhausen, Varese, Cage, Boulez, Berio, Ligeti and Xenakis.

I haven't collected any data on this, but my sense is that while Britten and Shostakovich are ever more popular, the others are less and less performed. In other words, the extreme 20th century avant-garde in music was a bit of a dead end.

Rickard Dahl said...

Yes you are probably right. Performances of Shostakovich or Britten seem far more likely. I haven't yet heard any performance of those extreme avant garde composers in any regular concert at least.

By the way thanks for sharing Kevin Puts. I will check out more of his music. A very interesting contemporary composer you might want to check out is Kalevi Aho, here's his 7th Symphony "Insect Symphony":

Bryan Townsend said...

And thank you for the link to Kalevi Aho. I have not heard of this composer before! The opening, at least, sounds quite interesting. I will listen to the rest when I get a chance.