I came from a very humble background: prairie farmers going back generations and my mother was an old-time fiddler. I started playing electric bass when I was sixteen and soon joined a rock band. Every rock band needs a bassist and there aren't that many around. In a few years I was writing songs (music and lyrics) and taught myself music notation so I could write down arrangements for orchestral instruments. Somewhere in there I discovered classical music, previously unknown to me (no symphony orchestras in northern Canada, then and very few now). I soon discovered the Mass in B minor by Bach and read everything in the local library about music, which included some books on the 20th century: praising 20th century music fulsomely, of course. The logical next step was to enroll in the music program at the university. First I was in music education, but soon switched over to the music department proper. I did not think of myself as a composer, but as a guitar student, by the way.
There were student composers in the department and they put on their own concerts from time to time. One that particularly sticks in my mind was a kind of "happening". Oh, you should know that the year was 1971. At this happening, one fellow stood on a ladder and declaimed French café chansons while another fellow fried pork chops on an electric hotplate. There were some other things going on as well. For the finale they, in homage to French Baroque composers, presented several chickens in the form of an egg or two, a raw chicken in a plastic bag and finally a live rooster who gazed around with great puzzlement. We were just coming out of the 60s you understand: LSD, Jimi Hendrix, the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Woodstock, lots of weird stuff. So this just seemed like more weird stuff. The little group of student composers also had a performing ensemble they called the "Vegtaband" that consisted of various vegetables like carrots, rutabagas, potatoes and so on, fitted with woodwind mouthpieces and hollowed out with finger-holes so they could be played.
At the time I didn't even ask myself if these people were serious. After all, I had just discovered Schoenberg, Stravinsky and John Cage myself. But were they serious? I should have been asking that. Classical music, whose traditions most certainly include music like the Mass in B minor of Bach, was one sort of thing, but happenings and the Vegtaband were another, weren't they? Had Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Cage changed everything? Surely if you thought that the B minor Mass was a piece of classical music you could not also claim that whatever the Vegtaband was doing was also classical music? Even if you called it "contemporary classical"? So perhaps they were not serious--or maybe they were just consuming too many recreational drugs. But maybe they were serious, which is actually considerably worse.
In either case, if that was what student composers were up to I was completely uninterested. The disciplines and traditions of the classical guitar seemed much more significant to me at the time.
Later on, after discovering Steve Reich, I did start composing again, but I was still very committed to being a performer instead of a composer. Only in my late 30s did I start to question the ideology of modern music and my identity as a composer, though these two things did not seemed linked at the time.
Now I have come to understand that I have an ideological objection to the main currents of music composition in the 20th and even 21st century. As I have come to see this, I am able to understand that I am a composer after all. Just not in the modernist camp. In order to be comfortable with where I am I have had to work out the ideology of modernism and see where it has gone wrong. I have done this in a number of recent posts, especially the one yesterday on cultural hegemony. As that was rather intellectual, let me lay it out in more concrete terms.
Here is the kind of composer I refuse to be:
- the hip, up-to-date kind who is writing music that supports the popular ideology of the day. Examples include John Luther Adams whose music supports the "climate change" myth and the other John Adams whose operas play off current events.
- the technocratic kind whose music makes use of the latest technology because it is the latest technology and strives for the maximum in complexity. Examples include Boulez and Stockhausen.
- the jester kind who strives to outrage everyone with the outlandish but claims it is just the next stage in music. Examples include Charles Ives and John Cage.
- the politically-committed kind who wear their ideology on their sleeve (and always seem to be Communists). Examples include Luigi Nono and Cornelius Cardew.
Notice that I have not cited Schoenberg, Berg or Webern in the list. They, along with Stravinsky, are very complex figures essentially caught between the traditional aesthetic concepts and the new ideological concepts.
So if you reject all that, what is left? Minimalism? Spirituality? Examples of these two categories include Steve Reich, Philip Glass on the one hand and Henryk Górecki and Arvo Pärt on the other. I think that both these approaches can bear fruit. But we are still very, very far from the aesthetic standard of the Mass in B minor. Or, for that matter, the first prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier. Still, I am almost convinced that the attempt to destroy Western Civilization, of which the Vegtaband was the merest example, may have failed.
J. S. Bach, Mass in B minor: English Baroque Soloists & Monteverdi Choir Conducted by John Eliot Gardiner.