Monday, September 10, 2012

Classical Cheerleading

The Guardian's series on contemporary composers by Tom Service is one of the more ambitious sets of articles about classical music to appear in recent years. Full points to the Guardian classical music section for giving lots of space where elsewhere classical coverage has been more and more squeezed. I previously posted on this series here.

But as I read the articles I notice an underlying deficiency. The articles, on an extensive group of contemporary composers, tend to be all-praise, all the time. This is not real education of the reader, this is cheerleading. We go to great lengths to avoid any suggestion of actual aesthetic evaluation these days, for fear of appearing 'negative' I suppose. But simply avoiding or denying aesthetic value distinctions does not make them go away. The issue is fundamental. Imagine you walk over to your CD shelf (or, to be more current, go to your iPod). Unless you only own one CD or only have one playlist, you have to choose what you want to listen to. On the very simplest level, you do so based solely on how you feel at that moment. But, if you own a bunch of music, as time goes on, you might discover that you keep coming back to certain pieces and listen more rarely to other pieces. In other words, you have noticed an aesthetic difference that is not just dependent on your mood. Congratulations, you have just discovered aesthetics.

A professional writer on music in a widely-distributed mainstream publication surely must have gone through this process. Perhaps they have even made some sort of formal study of music. Given this, were they not prohibited from making or mentioning any aesthetic judgments, they would surely be sharing them with us instead of carefully avoiding any hint of 'favoritism'. Oh, for Pete's sake, not all contemporary composers are equally worth our time. They are like books: some need to be read slowly and thoroughly, others skimmed briefly and still others cast aside with great force. But there is no hint of this in the Guardian series. Pauline Oliveros, whose music explores the narrowest of ideas and effects, is given the same weight and consideration as a composer of wide influence such as Ligeti. If you have no aesthetic judgement then you can't explain why J. S. Bach is a really important composer and W. F. E Bach is not.

Isn't it also true that this kind of approach puts the composer on a pedestal and keeps us from getting a real sense of what is going on in their music? There is nothing like comparing more successful pieces with less successful ones by the same composer to really give you insight into what he or she was trying to do. To give full credit to Tom Service, I notice that here and there he does get into this kind of discussion. One example is in the most recent essay, on John Adams where towards the end he writes:
To my ears, the saturation of the Chamber Symphony or a piece such as his orchestral Guide to Strange Places does not pay off, because there's both too much detail in the chromatic density of some of the harmony and not enough real complexity, and because Adams has a way of subsuming the diversity of his musical sources beneath the sheen and dazzle of his own language, so that everything sounds weirdly homogeneous. But if I'm struggling a bit with his recent work – and I found Doctor Atomic similarly disappointing compared with Klinghoffer or Nixon – there are many that would disagree.
The previous article was on Ligeti and it is rather hagiographic--perhaps with more justification. But in simply marveling at and praising Ligeti's music, the writer fails to reveal to us the very significant challenges that faced Ligeti. Unlike some 20th century composers, there is nothing of the charlatan in Ligeti. He experienced the horrors of the century at first hand and was able to communicate them in the music. The Requiem is a well-chosen example:

Tom Service describes this as "one of the darkest visions of musical terror ever imagined" and yes, it may be. But it is a traumatized vision, making it suitable for the soundtrack to horrific visions as in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Notice this about the piece: there is really no rhythm, no melody, just harmony, texture and dynamics. And that harmony is one big tone-cluster from beginning to end. This is very painful, obsessed music. And for that reason it is musically impoverished. Yes, it is fascinating to analyse, analysts tend to like Ligeti, but it is still obsessive and focused the way a nightmare is focused.

Ligeti had a terrible dilemma: he was a very gifted composer, but, because of the context of the time, he had to break away from the traditions of the past. Forced to be a member of the avant-garde by history, he was still at odds with some of its principles. This is where some of the satire in his music comes from. The piece for 100 metronomes is the perfect example. I posted on it here. In the absence of being able to compose in relation to the music of the European tradition, he looked for inspiration virtually everywhere else, from world music, to pop music, to the American 'minimalists'. I posted about some of the consequences of this here

But while I find the series falling short of the ideal, it is still a lot better and a lot more extensive coverage an introduction to the music of the last fifty years than we usually get. Can I give it two and a half cheers?

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