Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Good and Original

One of my favorite quotable authors is Samuel Johnson and I usually have one of his quotes ready just in case. The other day I quoted this in a reply to a comment: "Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good." Mind you, the source of that has been questioned so perhaps I should just say it is attributed to Mr. Johnson. Reflecting on the quote I had some thoughts on recent music history.

We have talked a bit about the dilemma of the composer: for the last hundred years and more he (or she) has had to somehow produce works that are "instant classics." They have to not only appeal to the general public and performing musicians, they also have to not be derivative of other popular works and they have to be "edgy" or challenging enough to appeal to granting and commissioning bodies. That's a pretty tough list to fulfill. Remember Haydn's oft-quoted remark that because he was so isolated in Esterházy, he was forced to be original. That is the kind of originality that comes from following the logic of the material in the most promising direction and NOT paying any attention to other voices.

Going back to Johnson's remark: the concatenation of "good" and "original" has become a problematic one for several reasons. One is that in the general disparagement of aesthetics no-one really knows what "good" is any more. In the absence of any objective criteria, it is simply the subjective reaction of every individual, hence epistemologically unknowable. The idea of "original" also has a few problems. We have seen from our long series of posts on Stravinsky that while he is justly honored as a great and original composer, so much of what he did built on and made use of ideas and techniques that were in the air at the time. He just made better use of them. A sketchy list would include Roerich's research into pagan ritual, the structural use of octatonic scales and harmonies derived from them, investigation of Russian folk music, especially its kind of heterophonic counterpoint and so on. Even Stravinsky's brilliant rhythmic devices have some relationship to those found in folk music. This is not to detract in any way from Stravinsky's achievement, instead to point out that originality is very often (always?) built on the selective use of various kinds of traditions. Incidentally we see this in Haydn as well who recycled fugal technique, folk music, Hungarian recruitment songs, Italian buffo opera and other things into the synthesis of the Classical Style.

When it came time for the early modernist composers to make their mark on music history, they added one more nearly impossible demand: that music now have no relationship to the past, but be inscribed on a blank slate. This revolutionary demand is revolutionary because, ironically, of its source in history: it was an inherent characteristic of the French Revolution, who even started the calendar over again from zero, and the Russian Revolution, who spoke of the New Soviet Man, who was an entirely new creation, free of the traditions and values of the past. Insofar as the modernists took this plank as one of their own, they were aligning themselves with the radical forces of revolution. As we have seen in France, Russia, China, Cambodia and Cuba, this usually results in severe damage to artistic traditions. In France they actually burned the harpsichords. Russia is a bit of a puzzle, though, as their musical traditions largely survived the Revolution, though one can only imagine the career of Shostakovich if he had not lived in constant fear of being dragged off and either executed or sent to a Siberian work camp as happened to several of his associates. One thing we know for sure, his career as an opera composer was definitively halted by Stalin!

What I am drawing out of this glance at recent music history is that the hidden assumptions of musical creation were derived from political ideologies that make them problematic. As much as a piece of music complies with these ideologies it becomes ideological itself and hence, to my mind, far less interesting aesthetically. Ideologies we see reflected in music include the environmental fantasies of John Luther Adams, recent winner of the Pulitzer prize in music, and the tradition-erasing ideologies we see in the music of John Cage, Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

I am not ignoring the interesting discoveries that the latter three are responsible for, just pointing out that they accompanied that with the complete disavowal of the influence of any tradition whatsoever on their music. This is also what makes their music not only difficult for most listeners to access, but it makes the music somewhat sterile as well, from an aesthetic point of view. This was not an issue for these composers, however, as the first tradition they disavowed was in fact, aesthetics. Being original does not, as Stravinsky's career illustrates, necessitate the erasure of tradition. Indeed, if you do that it is nearly impossible to create something that can be recognized as "good"!

Music is not a language, but it is language-like in that communication is based on a shared set of cultural symbols and arbitrary signs. It was precisely those shared items, traditions, that modernism excised. What they wanted was to create an entirely new set of cultural symbols and arbitrary signs. Whether or not they were successful is still a very open question. Let me know what you think in the comments.

For our envoi today, the piece Répons by Pierre Boulez that does make use of one cultural tradition, in music the use of different antiphonal groups of instruments responding to one another.


Christopher Culver said...

"I am not ignoring the interesting discoveries that the latter three are responsible for, just pointing out that they accompanied that with the complete disavowal of the
influence of any tradition whatsoever on their music"

Even during the 1950s, Boulez and Stockhausen were constantly talking about the music of the past. This is the time when polemics raged as to whether Schoenberg, Berg or Webern offered the best example to follow, and different composers took sides. These are the years when Boulez was delving into Debussy’s Jeux, and Stockhausen was inspired to take the direction he did after hearing a Messiaen piece in the latter’s class (Mode de valeurs et intensités").

The claim that these composers disavowed tradition is patently false; their own writings and public statements repeatedly show that they are aware of a lineage and were concerned how to take the best from it in writing their own work. When people make the accusation that they felt no sense of tradition whatsoever, it usually means 1) the music is outside their particular comfort zone, and/or 2) the tradition those composers were aiming to carry on is outside their comfort zone.

Bryan Townsend said...

Leaving to one side the attribution of a "comfort zone" I wouldn't disagree with anything you are saying here. But all the people you mention are in the first wave of modernism, with whom the people in the second wave of modernism felt a close connection. Webern, of course, is the real anomaly. He wrote his doctoral thesis on Heinrich Isaac and his music does make interesting references to the past.

Anonymous said...

It's hard to think of a composer more intimately familiar with the traditional idiom of classic music as Schoenberg (whose treatise on harmony is still a classic). Or for that matter Boulez, who was one of the best conductors of his day.

But their break with tradition was willful, radical, and unprecedented. Of course one could argue that the Second Viennese School lived through unprecedented times.

Marc said...

And of course for those of us who value and are attached to the traditional cultures and the Western civilisation that our histories are outgrowths of, is it any wonder that we treat the artefacts that are created explicitly to replace them with antipathy, disdain, or distaste? I don't think that there are many people who will refuse to listen to Boulez and that crew because of the ideological conceits or pretensions themselves, however; it's just that the music is insufficiently compelling aesthetically, in terms of its beauty, to draw significant audiences over a significant period of time in a significant number of places. History is full of developments stunted in early growth & never come to fruition, dead ends, as it were: no necessary
world-historical reason that there should be perpetually celebrated Boulez festivals in every land, after all.

Bryan Townsend said...

I want to point out that I was not claiming that the modernist composers of the pre and post-war period were ignorant of the past. Not at all! Schoenberg's book on composition is full of examples from Beethoven! But they turned their backs on those traditions, consciously, to seek an entirely new path. Yes, the conditions were extreme, but Schoenberg, for one, set out on the new path even before WWI. There are a couple of incidents that illustrate the distaste these composers had for the musical traditions. At a premiere of his own Gurrelieder, Schoenberg actually turned his back on the fulsome applause of the audience in contempt! And in turn, when Schoenberg died Boulez published a very nasty essay about him titled "Schoenberg est mort!"

Christopher Culver said...

"it's just that [Boulez] is insufficiently compelling aesthetically, in terms of its beauty, to draw significant audiences over a significant period of time in a significant number of places."

Careful, the same argument can easily be applied to most of the classical canon, which has mainly lost its relevance for wide society and even most elites, and as the years go by its longterm viability as a live performance format in most places (as opposed to something hanging on around a small community of enthusiasts listening to recordings) seems doubtful. There is no shortage of ordinary people ready to tell you that your Brahms or Beethoven is "insufficiently compelling aesthetically", while they are ready to put their money to classical crossover instead.

Bryan Townsend said...

Sad, but possibly true, Christopher. However, the perennial appeal of composers like Bach and Mozart is a couple of orders of magnitude greater than that of M. Boulez! Plus, we have hopes that one day people will get tired of Kanye West and Niki Minaj.

Marc said...

I asked a co-worker the other day 'why do you think Lil Wayne's music is beautiful?', adding, 'or attractive?'. 'Oh, I don't know; I just do, and my friend and I are going together.' It must have been last Thursday because it was the night of the last Eugene Symphony concert. But I did pursue the conversation if only briefly because her son is interested in music this school year and she's been having to answer questions that she doesn't really know the answers to, which is a good thing because she's at least vaguely motivated to do some thinking and learning. I regretted this, later, as it happens, because she didn't get to go to that show because her friend cancelled etc etc.

Christopher, I will admit that the audience for Lindsey Stirling here, whenever that happens, December sometime (the 'Warmer in the Winter Christmas Tour'), is going to be larger than that for last week's Read Thomas/Beethoven/Tchaikovsky concert. And that there is a problem in general with declining audiences for classical music events. I'm willing to wager, though, that Brahms and Beethoven and Bach will be performed here in Eugene long after it becomes the norm that revivals of Boulez are confined to small festivals of enthusiasts in NYC, Paris, and Berlin or Stuttgart. But in this, as in so much else, I may be wrong, of course. :-)

Will Wilkin said...

Bryan, we tend to agree on a repugnance for the political correctness dominating much artistic and intellectual life, but I caution against therefore seeing it everywhere even when other impulses may be more dominant. Just because revolutions have burned down a few institutions in the past few centuries doesn't mean everything red is simply reflecting those fires. Composers and artists of all sorts have no doubt always struggled to balance respect for tradition with originality. I lean so far into tradition that, were I to be young and talented and an aspiring composer, I'd try to get into the Yale Institute of Sacred Music just to tap into so many enduring church forms, from masses and Stabat Maters to Passions and choral settings of hymns. The secular musicians of our time, by and large, seem quite iconoclastic, and as exciting as some of their moments may be, overall I find such music impoverished.

Over the past 7 years my son and I have attended perhaps 50 "New Music New Haven" concerts at the Yale School of Music, where students and faculty of the composition program roll out their latest works, usually premier public performances. Generally, and especially with student compositions, there seems a disdain for tradition, for melody, for any homage to great composers of the past, or even for traditional forms like a sonata or concerto. No doubt these students (and absolutely the faculty) are intimately familiar with the "canon" of great (and lesser-known) composers, but there is such an individualism and introspection and personalism is just about all of it, such that often it is hard to listen to and harder to like. The performers are virtuosic and often I wonder "why would somebody so good work so hard rehearsing THAT music?"

Often the sounds make me imagine there is a "composition laboratory," where students conceive of a novel concept or compositional experiment that yields something perhaps interesting in an academic sense but is, to me, not good music. As if they are distilling some elemental product from a scientific (or alchemist) curiosity but then presenting the product as if it were a finished work, which to me it often is not. But none of this is to discount their great technical abilities, both to think about music and sound and to notate it and coach their players to realize it. This is often music I love to hate, because it obviously proceeds from talent and imagination but just doesn't take the form (or formality?) and structural discipline that my tastes increasingly want.

Bryan Townsend said...

Let's let you two, Marc and Will, have the last word.