Wednesday, July 20, 2016

"Where have the great composers gone?"

The Guardian has a piece up with the title "Where have the great composers gone?" by Philip Clark. The occasion for the essay was his attendance at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. I know Huddersfield as I attended a conference there several years ago at which I delivered two papers on the oeuvre of Joss Whedon! So what does Mr. Clark have to say:
At the end of last year, I paid my first visit in a decade to the Huddersfield contemporary music festival and, alongside some excellent music, heard an underlying rumble of chatter that posed the question: whatever happened to the great composer? Time was when a visit to Huddersfield meant rubbing shoulders with the greats. I queued once behind Luciano Berio at an ATM; saw Elliott Carter dining in an Indian restaurant (and sightings of Karlheinz Stockhausen in various Huddersfield Indian restaurants are legion); and the history of the festival is haunted by the ghosts of John Cage, Olivier Messiaen, Pierre Boulez, Iannis Xenakis, György Ligeti, Henryk Górecki, Alfred Schnittke, Hans Werner Henze and Michael Tippett, who all made the trip to this unassuming West Yorkshire town. But who had even heard of last year’s headliner, the Swiss composer Jürg Frey?
Hmm, well yes, Switzerland is not known for its great composers. But while those cited are certainly well known, I'm not sure any of them, other than Messiaen, actually qualifies as a great composer. In the course of the essay Mr. Clark rather moves the goalposts from great international names to British composers and laments that no-one these days matches up to the great names Britten, Tippett and Birtwhistle:
[T]he truth is, it’s over. The confident forward march in British music that handed us a lineage of great composers – Britten, Tippett, Maxwell Davies, Birtwistle – has shattered. Given that all the obvious “isms” have been exhausted, composers now face an existential crisis over where music might head next; and, anyway, our culture has decided to privilege ephemeral celebrity over anyone who cares enough about the future to utter anything difficult or challenging. And clued-up composers realise that.
How does a march "shatter"? You got me. But mixed metaphors aside, this is an oddly lackluster complaint that boils down to "Thomas Adès just isn't as meaty as those older modernists." Well, no, we do seem to be on to a new chapter. I kind of suspect that Mr. Clark is a modernist ideologue who is mistaking a change in idiom for a lowering in quality.

The world does seem rather diminished these days. When I was at university it was not uncommon for friends not involved in music in any way to know and appreciate the music of people as diverse as B. B. King, Bob Dylan, J. S. Bach, Ravi Shankar and even Charles Ives. I doubt this is any longer the case. But I don't actually think that the most outstanding composers working today are lesser figures than the icons of modernism. Is Philip Glass a poorer composer than John Cage? Is Thomas Adès lesser than Benjamin Britten? Is Steve Reich on a lower level than Karlheinz Stockhausen? Not in my book. What has changed is the degree to which artists out of the pop mainstream have any exposure at all. The classical music world is entrenching itself to ride out the storm. But there are still some seriously fine composers and performers.

You just know who I am going to pick as an example, don't you? This is Steve Reich's Mallet Quartet, dating from 2009 in a performance by Sō Percussion from memory:


8 comments:

Marc Puckett said...

I read through much of the comments thread, or skimmed much of it; lots that might be paraphrased, 'what is great?/there is no great! any longer' and 'so and so is great/so and so is not great'. One person raised the question: does 'greatness' always involve being revolutionary? I think not, but that's one of those ideas that require so much stipulating to this and that and distinguishing there and here that one's head is left spinning. Not that head spinning is always a bad thing, of course; it's often necessary.

Bryan Townsend said...

I completely neglected to look at the comments to the Guardian article. Just had a look now and there are some quite good comments. I didn't see the one you quote about greatness always involving being revolutionary. Sounds like a good topic for a post!

Jeph said...

the curmudgeonly author asks a fairly interesting question. I think I agree that "greatness" is conferred mostly in the rear-view mirror, usually by OTHER ARTISTS who are influenced by and advocate for the composer's works to be played and/or studied over time.

But I also think that the old composers we consider great made music which is massively appealing to the audience. That has to factor in somehow. During the Modernist period, the philosophers got a stranglehold on art music establishments, I think a certain contempt for the audience developed, and subsequently audience interest in art music just cratered. The appealing music moved elsewhere, into film, popular forms, etc.

Bryan Townsend said...

I weep to hear that it was philosophers who had a stranglehold on art music establishments! Was it not ideologues? I'm rather fond of philosophers, myself...

Marc Puckett said...

That is an interesting hypothesis, Jeph-- once the Boulezes began preaching with 'conversion or death' in their hearts, the traditional audiences' interest "just cratered" and they escaped by going away &c. Hmm. But I think Young People's Concerts were doomed once the kids decided that those pop musicians' culture was more appealing, and this for lots of reasons, many of which weren't much connected with the music itself.

Bryan, I paraphrased a comment to arrive at the 'greatness always = revolutionary' sentence. The actual commenter was perhaps not alleging that the two are always connected, although it seemed to me that he was implying that. :-)

Bryan Townsend said...

See today's post.

Jeph said...

I've done a lot of young people's concerts, and you can see the fascination in their eyes when they finally see how an orchestra works. That the orchestra is is such an incredible example of human cooperation is not lost on them. And the instruments themselves are mysterious beautiful machines that THEY can learn how to work.
Pop music culture is incredibly seductive, it's true. But give an audience full of kids a rousing version of "Sabre Dance" and you'll see some enthusiasm.

Bryan Townsend said...

I'm quite sure you are right! There really is nothing like the symphony orchestra, which demonstrates all sorts of qualities and values. Pop music, on the other hand, seems mostly intent on demonstrating the values of a reality tv show...