Sunday, May 1, 2016

Tales of the Unexpected

A commentator put me on to this very interesting article by the retiring director of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. That's Birmingham in England, not Alabama. Here is an excerpt:
What do you do when a composer announces that the work you’ve just commissioned for 15 musicians will need 1,000 performers; or asks for the premiere to be in a boarded-up shop; or wants you to time precisely how long it takes to get from the top floor of your concert hall to the bottom?
Smile, breathe deeply, and cheer. Today’s composers like to tread new territory, and in hearing things afresh, they sometimes need to rewrite the rulebook. This urge to explore is what makes contemporary music so exhilarating and so unexpected. And it’s why I love it.
Well yes, me too, believe it or not. I love the idea of absolutely fresh ideas realized in an enthusiastic way and with a budget to pay for it! Three cheers for the city of Birmingham, who, I presume, funds these fascinating premiers. Go read the whole thing and listen to the two clips. Here is one, a three minute abbreviated version of "Crowd Out" by David Lang:

So what do I think of these pieces, aesthetically? Well, obviously I can only comment on the ones I have heard. What I think is going on here is a great deal of creativity being applied around the periphery of music. There is a lot, an awful lot, of what you might call music theater or performance art here. Which is fine, of course. But much of it, while eerie or complexly confused, is not interesting or genuinely moving--at least to me. Crowd Out is obviously a lot of fun, but that is partly because it turns the audience into performers, or vice versa. This checks an important box: egalitarianism. "Requiem to let" is rather more interesting, though not so interesting musically. It is about capturing the sadness of empty retail spaces, though the presence of an audience does rather remove the "empty" aspect. Still, an interesting idea. But what I hear, musically is a solo voice doing something that sounds rather like Hebrew cantillation, alternating with solo bass clarinet over a very dreary and repetitive pre-recorded vocal track. Neither seems to actually go anywhere so we are left trapped in the empty retail space, symbolized by the closed circle of the music. That is what I am hearing, at least.

The problem for any composer is to create something that is musically substantial and entertaining for an audience. But I think that those challenges are being fudged a bit here. On the one hand, government funding takes away the urgency of appealing to an audience and on the other hand, it is probably easier to come up with the idea of "1000 people shouting in the street" or creating a space that suggested oceanic depths than a fresh musical idea. I don't want to diminish the creative brilliance of theatrical ideas, but I do want to say that they are peripheral to musical ideas. I have to confess an ongoing disappointment when I read about some striking new idea, something really new and amazing, only to find out it is just people clapping and shouting at one another in a mall.

But this is just me, of course. I have very focused tastes and really like to hear music with a bit of meat on its bones, as it were.

Here is a piece that I think is creatively brilliant, with some fresh ideas, but that finds no need of any added theater or staging.

This is WTC 9/11 by Steve Reich and you really need to see the text as it is hard to make out what is being said in that recording.


A.C. Douglas said...

You're a damn sight more kind than I was after reading this _Guardian_ piece. In a four-part tweet on Twitter (I rarely post on S&F anymore) I quoted the opening question from the _Guardian_ piece and then wrote:

=== Begin Quote ===
ANSWER: Dismiss him (or her) as a charlatan, of course, instantly withdraw your commission and begin new search for a worthy recipient.
=== End Quote ===


Bryan Townsend said...

I must have been in a good mood. Yes, your response is entirely valid and a lot pithier than mine!

Marc Puckett said...

"I did wonder if the audience would hear the difference between this and, well, any other similar-sized paperback, let alone see it." I just shake my head: how can any reasonable man have to wonder about the answer to that question? I didn't make it through either video but then I'm preoccupied with Ariodante today; perhaps I will, eventually. Did listen to Rufus Wainwright yesterday-- so I feel that I've done my duty already for a few days. Listened to the Reich, however, which surely (although I found it interesting, engaging) is liable to a charge of 'theatre!' in its use of voice recordings &c?

Bryan Townsend said...

Interesting point: but no, to my mind the use of voice recordings from emergency services and NORAD and interviews is not at the periphery, musically, nor is it theater exactly. Just as he did in Different Trains, Reich embeds this material in the heart of the musical fabric. It is, in fact, the source for much of the melodic material. That was part of the point I was hoping to make: this is what a real composer does. He doesn't fuss around with the stage lighting or different paperbacks as percussion. He is doing something in the core of the musical substance.

But yes, you have done your duty for a while and are free to listen to Mozart, Haydn, Handel, whatever!!

Christine Lacroix said...

I still find the Steve Reich incredibly moving. Crowd Out leaves me indifferent. That's my sophisticated musical analysis!

Damián López-de Jesús said...

I'm flattered that you also found this article quite interesting. Also, I'm surprised that you took a liking towards the creativity being put forth in the projects in Birmingham and sharing their enthusiasm for "absolutely fresh ideas realized in an enthusiastic way and with a budget to pay for it!"

Please understand that I am not saying that you have no interest or support for said fresh ideas, but perhaps I was expecting you to be much more critical (or, dare I say, merciless) of the actual projects that arose from Birmingham, such as the 1,000-person crowd piece or the one involving an Italo Calvino novel being dropped on a drum (because seriously, NO ONE is going to notice the difference in the timbre quality - the fact that such a composer was very selective over such an arbitrary detail for their artwork - a common trope of the "contemporary artist" stereotype - in this day and age is beyond pitiful.

Anyways, I do agree with you on how there's little musical substance to many of the compositions - yes, they're interesting from a social or theatrical perspective, but as actual compositions, there's nothing truly "fresh" or new about them to keep me engaged the same way a Bach concerto, or even a Reich ensemble piece, does on a regular basis.

Bryan Townsend said...

@Christine: your musical judgement seems to be right on.

@Damián: If you read the post carefully, you will note that while I applaud the principle of being all in favor of fresh ideas realized in an enthusiastic way and with a budget, I am quite critical of the actual results! It would be all too easy to just harumph and pooh-pooh their efforts. But that is to go for the easy target. Yes, these are young composers some of whose ideas, or maybe most of whose ideas, are rather silly. But one hopes they will go on to better things. Especially if they are encouraged to do something with more musical substance!

Next time perhaps I will be more merciless!

Christine Lacroix said...

Bryan, I far prefer the 'whole picture' more measured perspective that you gave here to black and white 'merciless' criticism!

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Christine. Me too!

Damián López-de Jesús said...

Bryan, I apologize for not reading your post carefully, and I also truly appreciate your well-balanced review of these young composers.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Damián, your appreciation is appreciated!