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.