Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Globalization of Music

The repercussions of the development of sound recording technology on composers have been talked about a lot in one aspect: how it led to the creation of electronic music and musique concrete. But there is another consequence that has been little discussed; how it widened the possible influences on composers. For example, much of the music that influenced me was experienced through listening to recordings. I spent one whole summer when I was young listening to nothing but music from the Folkways collection and this included music as remote as Javanese and Balinese gamelan, mbira music from Zimbabwe, harp music from Mali and so on. I spent another summer listening to nothing but Haydn string quartets. This kind of listening is only possible if there are libraries of recorded music from the whole world. And now, with YouTube, the amount of music you can be exposed to is very nearly unlimited.

How might a composer respond to this kind of stimulus? It seems a lot of the post-modern spirit in music has to do with this broad spectrum of influence: everything from 12th century organum to The Grateful Dead seems to be an influence on the latest couple of generations of composers. Sometimes I think that this can be exaggerated, either by critics and commentators or by the composers themselves. Perhaps this is just romantic of me, but I think, out of the myriad of possible influences (i.e. everything), we choose the ones that we like or that we think matter. Sometimes it is music that we feel closest to, but not always. Jigs and reels on the violin were what I grew up hearing my mother play, but I can't say that they have ever had the slightest influence on my music. Sometimes we go far afield to find something intriguing. Javanese gamelan has interested composers like Debussy, Ravel, Britten and myself.

But my own feeling is that we choose our influences because we have certain inherent tendencies, which is to say that we are individuals. As Borges observed, we even 'create' our own predecessors. This to me seems just as valid as the opposite theory put forth in Allan Bloom's Anxiety of Influence where creators stumble upon their own ideas by misreading their predecessors'. Personally, there always seems to be some music that attracts me and other music that repels me. I abhor massive pieces, full of seemingly pointless activity and redundancies. I love music that is sparing of material and I find the expression more effective as a result. So I prefer Debussy to Wagner and technical ingenuity or lack of it may be interesting, but it doesn't make the music better or worse.

So I suspect, at the end of the day, no matter how many different kinds of music you listen to, if you are a composer of any substance, you will pick and choose which ones will influence your work. I am reminded of the story of the composition of Elliot Carter's first string quartet. He was awarded a grant in aid of its composition so he temporarily moved from New York to the Sonora Desert outside Tucson where he spent a year composing the piece in complete isolation. It resembles, more than anything else, some of the mensurally complex music from the 13th and 14th centuries.


Nathan Shirley said...

Rostropovich speaking of performing Prokofeiv, Shostakovich and others once said something to the effect of- performers are prostitutes for composers. But composers learn to hate.

The composer who "loves" everything will never be able to find their own voice and perfect it through intense focus. Instead they'll drift about aimlessly in a boat with no sail.

Bryan Townsend said...

Sometimes in idle conversation with someone I might ask what kind of music they like. It is surprising, to me at least, how often they reply, "oh, I like all kinds of music!" I've learned to follow up with "even cumbia and ranchero?" Two kinds of Mexican popular music. Or perhaps, "you like 11th century organum?" Then they suddenly start saying what they don't like. But what is interesting is the culturally correct necessity to SAY you like everything.