Sunday, October 27, 2013

Fleeing from the Center

I'm not sure my title is the best metaphor for what I am noticing, but it seems as if a lot of composition today falls into one of two different strategies. One strategy is to maximize events so that the ear is confronted with an ever-changing palette of sounds. In this strategy, repetition is forbidden. This is what you might call high modernism. The other strategy is to minimize events so that the ear hears constant repetition. This is the opposite strategy to the first. This music is often called "minimalist" though most of the practitioners dislike that term. Here are examples of both strategies. First, high modernism. This is an example from a recent Donaueschingen music festival:

And here is a recent example of the repetitive strategy from the group Dawn of Midi:

The advantage of both strategies is that you can completely avoid sounding like music of the past. But each strategy has unique disadvantages. The high modernist strategy is very difficult to listen to and seems to have fundamental structural problems. I want to save my thoughts on that for another post, but suffice it to say that the idea of avoiding any kind of narrative flow or formal structure by avoiding repetition seems a dysfunctional strategy for a time-art. The minimalist strategy avoids any traditional formal structure by freezing time. Again, a problematic strategy for a time-art. Plus, boring!

But it certainly isn't easy trying to write music that does have formal structure in a listenable way. Still, a few have managed:


Nathan Shirley said...

Good point about the lack of functional structure these two styles suffer from.

I think people like Kevin Puts are becoming much more common, which is certainly a breath of fresh air.

Based on this concerto mvt. the Prokofiev influence is his strong point. But he seems to suffer from what a lot of these promising composers suffer from- the music is very forgettable. Many of the last Pulitzer Prize winning composers are in the same boat. Nothing wrong with the music, some nice bits here and there, but nothing that stays with you, no inspired melody or gripping harmonic progression.

Like much of this type of music, the composers seem to be insecure, pandering to their old professors by adding in tone row like bits here and there, while tempering it with traditional harmonies. It's certainly not bad music, it just lacks purpose.

However it's a big step in the right direction, considering the recent musical dark age!

Bryan Townsend said...

I was talking with a well-known young violin virtuoso a while back and mentioned that I was trying to "re-invent harmony". He looked at me as if I were mad! But I think that that is pretty much the challenge all composers are facing these days.

Nathan Shirley said...

Perhaps. Or instead of re-inventing it, many might benefit from re-learning it... or even just learning it!

Bryan Townsend said...

I strongly suspect that a lot of young composers don't do a lot of "woodshedding". I mean they don't spend long hours studying dusty old scores. But I suspect that Stravinsky and Shostakovich did.

Nathan Shirley said...

Very true, and along with the dusty old scores woodshedding they also neglect the first duty of any real composer- being a musician.

Shostakovich and Stravinsky could have easily outplayed most any living composer today, many of whom can't even be considered amateur musicians.