Monday, January 11, 2016

Scylla and Charybdis

In the popular media, composition is depicted as being mysterious, emotionally agonising but technically simple: you just write what you "feel". Alas, two of these beliefs are wrong. Speaking just for myself, of course, composing, while certainly mysterious, is more emotionally exhilarating than agonising but technically--or rather, aesthetically--complex. The problem is always to negotiate between the Scylla and Charybdis of, on the one hand, derivative boring regurgitation of music of the past and, on the other hand, of incomprehensible private languages that are aesthetic nullities. Philip Glass seems to have gotten by with little more than ascending minor thirds, a few hemiolas and fast tempi. But there have to be other possibilities.

It is rather difficult to pick out examples of boring, derivative music though I'm sure we have all heard them. Think of the least distinguished film music, for example. A lot of it is just re-hashing of standard musical tropes: John Williams does it very well, but many of the others, less so. It is all too easy, however, to pick out examples of aesthetic nullities. Most of the most well-known composers of post-WWII high modernism are instances: Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luigi Nono, Sylvano Busotti and so on. These composers share a number of qualities: they shocked audiences to some extent, they were technically innovative and rejected all prior music, and they were, to my mind aesthetic nullities because their music was so alien that it had no aesthetic effect. Some of the eeriest music was stolen by film composers for horror movies.

Here is a sample score by Busotti to give you an idea:

Click to enlarge

Now, am I simply a reactionary? Well, reactionary, sure, but not simply, I hope! The truth is that music composition in most places has moved far away from the maximal modernism of the post-war years and is much more consonant and clearly rhythmic. I suspect that one of the reasons that Boulez, for one, seemed less creative as time went on, is that he was unwilling to give up any of the avant-garde turf that he had conquered. In the meantime, the minimalists came along and now it seems that every other composer is writing music with drones.

But every composition needs to carve out something new and a lot of the recent droney music just doesn't seem to do much in that direction. Perhaps there is a great reliance on orchestration, or timbre, to give a newish sheen to the music. OK, but I'm not sure that is enough.

Anyway, I've been experimenting with some ideas partly inspired by traditional Thai music. Here is a sample:

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