Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Music and Amnesia

One thing that really stuck in my mind from the Hilary Hahn posts was a quote from the Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov who said"I do not write new music. My music is a response to and an echo of what already exists."

I really loved that! "I do not write new music." One can imagine that with a certain emphasis: "I do not write new music." That is perhaps the clearest rejection of the modernist project I have seen from a composer. It is probably the case that the idea of writing "new" music is characteristic of a certain time in history and not of other times. Composers in the Middle Ages didn't think of writing new music so much as writing music that was needed for certain occasions. And they wove into most pieces a great deal of age-old chant material so a part of every piece was old music. The inventors of opera around 1600 didn't think they were creating something new as that they were reviving something very old: the music that had been used to accompany ancient Greek drama. Composers in the 17th and 18th centuries were certainly writing new music every day, but I think that the newness of it was less important than that it be pleasing to the right listeners. Composers recycled music by themselves all the time and sometimes, short of time, they might even recycle music by someone else! Again, what was important was that the music be suitable and pleasing.

But the project of modernism was all about the newness of the music. That it sound new, not sound like anything written before, trumped the pleasure of the music. This is frankly the best explanation of why so much music over the last one hundred years sounds so very bad! It is not meant to sound "good", it is meant to sound "new".

A lot of new music is new in the sense that it has no memory--it is music without any sense of the past, music with amnesia. If you are writing music as an amnesiac, then you have no idea what might work. You know nothing of harmony or how to build a melody or what rhythmic devices have what effects. You are like a toddler tossing building blocks around and delighted when some fit together.

This is the modus operandi of what is sometimes called "experimental" music. I am uncomfortable with that term because I think that it is meant to be protective rather than meaningful. The word comes from science where it has a clear meaning. Most importantly, experiments succeed or fail and give us information in either case. We drop a small, light ball and a large heavy ball off a tower and expect that the heavy one will fall faster. But we are astonished to find that no, they both fall at the same rate. The experiment failed in a very interesting way. But how could this possibly work with music? You write a piece of experimental music and play it for an audience. Has any composer ever said afterwards, "well, that was an interesting failure!" No, we are all just supposed to believe that every musical experiment is a success. How odd! If there are not a great number of failed musical experiments, then we cannot call them experiments at all. What experimental music really is, is just self-indulgence by the composer that we are supposed to accept.

Let's listen to a couple of pieces that might illustrate the points:


Bridge said...

I'm not sure why you hold such animosity towards modernism but in my opinion it is misguided to assume that the only criteria by which "new" music is judged is its newness. The 20th century is often described as a desperate attempt to escape the past and to abolish tonality but that strikes me as pure projection. Either you choose to link the music to the times, and conclude that a time of brutal, global conflict, harsh economic conditions and great uncertainty among everybody will produce ugly music (a diagnosis I don't fully agree with) or you can examine the chronology, contrast Bach with Beethoven, Beethoven with Brahms, Brahms with Wagner, Wagner with Mahler and Mahler with Schoenberg and draw a logical line through the entire timeline. These are just the first names that came to mind, but by examining the evolution of style throughout all of these composers' careers I find it hard to believe anyone can interpret modernism as an unnatural and forced development. The writing has been on the wall for a long time, and it is still there. Art is constantly changing, re-examining itself and adapting and we must adapt with it.

Bryan Townsend said...

Not animosity exactly, but I am certainly critical of modernism as an ideology for two reasons. The first is that it has indeed been an ideology of musical progress exactly as you describe: a line of compositional progress from Bach through Schoenberg and further. This is exactly how composers from some point in the 19th century until somewhere past the middle of the 20th century thought. You are expressing what Schoenberg saw as the simple destiny of music. My disagreements with this can be found in dozens if not hundreds of my posts here. The second reason is that modernism, again as an ideology, has produced immense heaps of very bad music and the "piece" I put up above is an example of the truly execrable crud that has been produced. All in the name of modernism, progress and musical experimentation. Please, spare me!

I don't think I said modernism was either unnatural or forced? But it does seem, based on many of its fruits, to be a mistaken ideology. I'm not much of a fan of artistic ideologies of any kind and modernism seems to be the most insidious.

As a composer I don't have to adapt to anyone else's particular notion or ideology of ART. I am perfectly free to have my own notions. And they are non-modernist!

Bridge said...

Not so much musical destiny as just a logical progression. Nobody says serialism is the height of music and we have now reached perfection, but it is an interesting perspective and should be embraced even if one doesn't particularly like it - there is certainly a lot to learn from it. Compare it to the French Revolution. Thousands killed in the name of liberty, equality and brotherhood which were certainly new and exciting concepts in 18th century France, and they were paradoxically enforced militantly (at least how I understand it). Yet even today many aspects of the French Revolution survive almost everywhere in Europe and the New World even though the guillotine has thankfully fallen out of use. You may think the 20th century crisis was extreme and great emphasis was placed only on "new, new, new" which in some sense is true but I don't see why it must now be considered a remnant of the old days. One can hear elements of it in many, sometimes unexpected, places. Now's the time to take those crazy ideas and temper them so that they can be better used to achieve musical goals. It's a shame in my opinion to shun them as a quirk of history.

Sorry about any insinuations you may have drawn. I wasn't implying you are required to comply no questions asked. What I was trying to say was that it helps no one to be closed minded. Like it or not, modernism was a monumental period in our artform (and many others) and it's better to draw lessons from it - because certainly many mistakes were made - rather than hope it fades away. You say the modernist spirit so to speak has disappeared but that is not quite my perception. Waned yes but even today you can hear interesting things.

Nathan Shirley said...

Great post Bryan, you make some very good points.

Bryan Townsend said...

I can't argue with you, Nathan, so I will just comment on Bridge's comment!

The interesting thing is that the proponents of serialism WERE in fact saying that it was the height of music (up to that point). This is kind of the corollary of the logical progression. You should read some of the manifestoes that the serialists wrote. And I think that noticing the kind of ideology that is associated with serialism is learning something pretty important.

But your point about learning from all the different phases of musical history is a good one. I'm interested in any music that is interesting! I find a lot of the high modernist music not very interesting because it seems to forget entirely about the aesthetic pleasure of the listener.

Why do you think that only modernist music is interesting? Just to pick an example, one piece that seems to shun the modernist aesthetic in favor of a quite different one is the Symphony No. 3 by Górecki. What do you think of it?órecki)

Bridge said...

I didn't say only modernist music is interesting. But I do find good modernist music interesting, and for all the "evil" it has brought us it has in kind brought us many fine works, which are still being written if you look. I just meant that it isn't quite dead. We can't expect music only to survive in golden ages, like the second Viennese school. There may be somewhat of a drought at the moment but I personally haven't given up hope.

Yes, I know about the really militant individuals, and most of them write horrible music even if some of them are vocal. My favorite modernist composers are the ones who didn't look at the 20th century as a chance to free music from the shackles of tonality. That may have been the original intention, and most revolutions tend to overswing, but all of the great ones realized that there is no good in blind rejection. Even Schoenberg, who could maybe be called the spearhead of serialism never fully abandoned tonality as did Webern, which I definitely don't like as much. Don't get me wrong, Webern has some great pieces, but he really took serialism a bit too seriously and I think his music suffered a bit as a result.

Just in case you misunderstand me, I'm not saying the modernist styles like serialism should replace the "old" ways. I happen to like diatonicism quite a lot. Nothing gets me more excited than a perfect authentic cadence, and I'm really not exaggerating when I say it is one of my favorite things in music. However I do like serialism and microtonal music quite a lot regardless. I couldn't take only listening to it or not listening to it at all, and why should anyone have to make an ultimate choice between the two? Composers have juggled them with success.

Save for Schoenberg and Berg, there is very little serialist music I would consider "great" in the sense that a Beethoven symphony is great, but that's to be expected seeing as the form is so new. It needs composers with fluency in it like those two. It's not impossible that it ends up as a footnote in a history book though, some people might even say it already is. Only time will tell, huh?

I'm not a huge fan of the Gorecki one. I listened to the first 6 minutes and then skimmed through it and it seems (although I have no right to claim expertise on it) to offer very little in the way of contrast. It sounds like it is all the same airy harmonies and slow tempi. Not very interesting to me personally, and some of the moments I heard randomly were in my opinion very uninspired. But as I said, there is plenty of music that "shuns" modernist aesthetics or is neutral toward it that is good and was written in the 20th century, hopefully by now you understand that I don't express a preference.

Bryan Townsend said...

It is my experience that when you discuss problems, issues, disagreements, in good faith, you often end up both understanding better what you think and even understanding the other point of view. Often, you end up finding that you weren't in great disagreement after all. As I think Bridge has just shown. I think I can agree with most of the above comment and the rest is just looking at things from a somewhat different perspective.

I also find good modernist music interesting and some of it is truly great. I mentioned Berg's Lyric Suite, but his Violin Concerto, Wozzeck and other pieces are also great. From Schoenberg there is some wonderful and unique music like Verklärte Nacht, the piano pieces op 11 and 19, Pierrot Lunaire. I am not quite as fond of Webern and in this we are also in agreement! But I could also add quite a bit of music by Bartók like the string quartets and the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste. From Stravinsky there are a lot of great pieces. There are also some wonderful pieces by Ligeti, Stockhausen, Messiaen and so on. I can't say that I have heard anything by Boulez that I would put on the list and there is a whole lot of modernist music that I'm sure we would both agree is not worth your time.

I think that pieces like the Gorecki need to be listened to a bit differently. One of the trends in high modernism was to make the music more and more dense. Eventually you end up with composers like Boulez, Elliot Carter and Brian Ferneyhough writing music so dense and complex that it becomes unlistenable. What Taruskin has called "absurdly overcomposed monstrosities". In reaction to this composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass started writing music that was intentionally pared down, simpler. The piece to listen to is Drumming by Steve Reich. Composers like Gorecki and Arvo Pärt came at this from a different angle, but they also simplified the textures. So you have to get used to this.

Bridge said...

I'm a big fan of Steve Reich, and seeing Drumming live is actually one of the most serene moments in my life. There is however a fine line between simplicity and inanity. My first impressions of the Gorecki are that it falls into the latter. Consider a piece of Satie, like the 5th Gnossienne which is a personal favorite of mine. It's ostensibly simple, with a slow tempo, a simple accompaniment figure and a fairly straightforward melody. The music seems to never change, but it would be foolish to say the the music isn't complex or dense - it's simply become subtler. There is a great deal to appreciate in the rhythm, dynamics and harmonic texture. This is the case with all good "simple" music in my opinion - it looks and sounds simple but isn't at all. The complexity is merely hiding. If somebody really wanted to listen to music with less substance there is a wealth of inane post-rock that they can access with far greater ease. I think the problem with "absurdly overcomposed monstrosities" is not the fact that they are dense, but that its composers tend to use the elements at their disposal imprudently with little regard for coherence. Sort of like a sculptor chiseling a bunch of cool shapes into his block of marble that ultimately mean nothing.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hmmm, well I certainly wouldn't insist on Gorecki, but it is a pretty widely appreciated piece. How do you feel about Arvo Pärt? I'm not much of a fan of Satie myself, but I recognize his uniqueness.

Bridge said...

There is a lot of drivel that is widely appreciated so I don't take consensus too seriously. I could be completely wrong about it but there is nothing about it that interests me enough to motivate me to listen further. Haven't listened to much Pärt but I much prefer his earlier music to the tintinnabuli stuff - it's not bad but not terribly interesting to me. I saw the second symphony live once - quite an interesting piece, but as I said I don't listen to him much.