Monday, June 16, 2014

Agony or Trance?

Much contemporary music seems to fall into two rather broad categories that I will label "agony" and "trance". I think I stumbled into this as kind of an offshoot of my Symphony Project to listen to most of the important symphonies written in the last two hundred or so years. I started to notice that while there are certainly exceptions, the two prominent moods of symphonies in the last half century seem to be, as I say, agony and trance.

The agony category is perhaps dominant and includes pieces like this one:


A piece doesn't have to be agonizing all the way through to fit my category. It is enough that the mood is generally unsettled, troubled, with ominous blasts from the brass and percussion. There is a sense of threat always in the background. Many of the symphonies of Shostakovich and Pettersson fit in this category. The other category, trance, might be epitomized by this piece:


The prevailing mood is one of calm and while there may be bursts of activity on the surface, there is an underlying level of stasis. Typically, music like this is slower moving or uses a lot of repetition. Another example would be one of the symphonies of Philip Glass:


I think that this phenomenon, not just restricted to symphonies, by the way, has come about for some historical reasons. The 20th century was an horrific time with the slaughter of tens of millions in war and genocide and totalitarian social experiments. It was perhaps the most inhuman century in human history. Artists recoiled in horror from this and as a consequence wrote agonized music. This stance is impossible to maintain indefinitely so an alternate aesthetic mode was developed, that of trance. The inspiration for this was likely older European musical forms like chant and passacaglia, but there is also an influence from world music. The melodic ideas of Indian music have been an influence on Philip Glass, for example.

The interesting thing about this is the narrowing of aesthetic possibility it implies. We are still so traumatized by the attempted suicide of European civilization in the last century that we are still processing the agony and our only relief seems to be a kind of narcotic, numbing trance...

Or am I oversimplifying? Comments?

6 comments:

Shantanu said...

I think a optimistic way to look at this artistic implosion of sorts is that it is like a clearing of the ground for the next cycle of more well-rounded creation. The 20th century was a phase when artists were vigorously shaking off the tradition of classical music - and the 21st is when they are trying almost childishly with new methods which look and feel bizarre right now, but you have to expect that it is only like an experiment. Maybe the easily available modes of distribution (like Youtube) is taking the improvisation of an artist onto the public platform. This means that it is more difficult to find what is a finished product and what is not. But maybe this will lead to a more collaborative and revolutionary kind of creation in the future - one that is not based on mystery, tension and revelation but on something else (I don't know what!).

Also, remember that while the 20th century has produced odd music in the classical sphere, rock (and jazz) music has given us a lot to be cheerful about.

Bryan Townsend said...

That is a wonderful way of looking at it! Yes, optimistic, but it might develop just as you envision. Lots of really wonderful rock and jazz, as you say. And some wonderful classical music as well. But, like you, I have the sense that we are going to move into a new and better era. After all, from an aesthetic point of view, we have rather worn out the present one.

Rickard Dahl said...

Good point about the agony and trance division. I'm also optimistic that we will find a good balance soon. I personally don't think of my music as being either agonizing or trancy, it's somewhere in the middle I guess. But anyways, a thought I have is that if you don't like something (in this case music), show how to do it right (if you have the abilities). I hope your symphony will be a good example.

Rickard Dahl said...

hmm, maybe I wasn't clear: I meant "if you don't like how something is done (in this case: music nowadays)..."

Bryan Townsend said...

I just think that there are quite a few aesthetic areas that just seem to be missing. My ideal example is the joy and sheer delight of a Haydn finale. Very occasionally, in the music of Steve Reich, I detect a bit of that...

My symphony, which now has four movements, has a first movement that is rather "agony", a second movement that is rather bouncy and somatic in the mode of a Beethoven scherzo, a third movement that is rather "trancy" and I am trying to find a way of reviving a Haydnesque joy in the last movement.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think I got it. Yes, it isn't the theorists or philosophers who will have a solution, but the composers. Seems simple, just write a better piece of music!

Easier said than done...