Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Emerging Musical Genres

I tagged this as "musical humor" because I am 73% positive that this is meant to be humorous or satirical or something. The Guardian article is headlined: What's the hot emerging musical genre of 2017? Welcome to serialism. They link to a BBC piece on Spotify that has various lists of statistics from the past year like:

Top five artists worldwide

  1. Ed Sheeran
  2. Drake
  3. The Weeknd
  4. Kendrick Lamar
  5. The Chainsmokers
But they also have the very promising list of:

Biggest emerging genres
  1. Melodic power metal
  2. Chaotic black metal
  3. Chillhop
  4. Trap Latino
  5. Future funk
  6. Jumpstyle
  7. Serialism
  8. Cinematic dubstep
  9. Vintage swoon
  10. Gamecore
Now I'm sure you can pick out the odd-man-out in that list? Which of these is not like the others? I'm guessing serialism is the one. It is also the only one that I actually know anything about. "Chillhop," "Trap Latino" and the others are a complete mystery, though I have to confess a curiosity about "Vintage swoon." Would that be, like, Puccini? In any case, the folks over at the Guardian do a little question and answer schtick on serialism:

Name: Serialism.

Age: Has its origins in the early 20th century.

Appearance: The next big thing.

I know about this – all melted watches, people with apples in their faces and whatnot. That’s surrealism. This is serialism, a form of modern musical composition that began with Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique.

And what’s that when it’s at home? Essentially, it’s a system that uses repeated patterns to ensure that all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are given equal importance, thus avoiding the constraints of keys and traditional harmonies.

I’m no expert, but it sounds like a hard listen. It may be difficult for the uninitiated, but serialism of one kind or another was the dominant classical music form of the first half of the 20th century.

I’m still confused. Can you give me an example? Of course. Are you familiar with, say, Le Temps Restitué by Jean Barraqué?

I’m not sure. Can you hum a few bars? I’ll try: hmmmnyiunnnnnhhhmmmmioooohnnnymyhmmmmmmmmm…

Are you OK? You sound like a dog that has been hit by a car. It’s difficult to reproduce.

Let's have a listen to Mr. Barraqué's piece:

It is really amazing how similar all those pieces from the post-war serialist phase sound. I suppose a real expert could distinguish Boulez from Stockhausen, Pousseur, Barraqué and others, but the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic style, from this perspective, forces them all into a very similar musical space. Of course I may have just revealed myself to be a complete dolt! But what I am listening to is not so much the technical devices, as the aesthetic result. Sameness.

If you dig around on Wikipedia you can find a lot of lists of musical genres, all of them very ill-defined, with a lot of hilarious names. At least we know what serialism is, even if we doubt that it is a "hot emerging genre."


Anonymous said...

In truly expressive and great music, the gestures of the textures relate to the order of the notes in a way which creates the strong impression of energy going from note to note; also in quiet episodes, the notes relate to each other to form a network of connections, creating a ‘virtual space’ within the musical work, which defines its own context. In such music, all notes relate to a central tone, present or hinted at, like the lines in a figurative painting refer to the vanishing point of the perspective system, similarly creating a ‘virtual space’. The perspective created on a flat surface of a painting is something we can see ‘into’ the surface; we see with imagination, recognizing the signals as given by the artist’s imagination. In the same way, we hear ‘into’ the material surface of pure sound the tonal perspective of the inner space of music.

In the work of people like Barraque, Boulez, Carter, Xenakis et al, in spite of occasional tone groupings where the notes suggest, for an isolated moment, a slight relation to each other, the composer has done everything to avoid the appearance of this inner, tonal space, through over-complexity, irregular rhythms and metrum, extremes of sound and colour, absence of narrative and closure, etc. etc. and especially the avoidance of audible relations between notes. What remains is the material surface of sound, and however ingenious this surface may be organized, a whole dimension is absent. But only in this dimension of inner space, the experience of ‘expression’ – in a musical sense – is possible. Any ‘expression’ mentioned in relation to Barraque's work, stops at the flat surface of sound. Mere gestures on the sonic level are different from the intrinsic quality of musical expression, and it is THIS that audiences, developed on music with an inner space, miss in this atonal music. The capacity to create an inner space which is part of the listening experience, i.e. which is directly audible, is the fundament of Western music, present from its earliest beginnings. It can be argued that music, which does not want to create this inner space, is another art form altogether: sonic art. This art form requires a fundamentally different listening attitude (one should not expect musical expression) and a different cultural context (one should relate sonic art to the imagery of 20C utopia).

Audiences’ incomprehension of music like this can thus be interpreted as not being ‘conservative’ but as an objection to the intrusion by another art form into the context of a music performance. For anybody with some intelligence and musical experience this should be obvious. Gestures with unrelated notes are comparable to the gestures of throwing confetti at weddings…. They are imitations of musical gestures which are related to the inner connections of the intervals.

Let it not be confused with real musical culture.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Anonymous, for a very well-conceived discussion of the difference between art music and sonic art. There are some pieces of music that lie in the grey area between those two categories. For example, the Berg Violin Concerto, because of its strong tonal references, likely lies on the art music side, while the Schoenberg Violin Concerto lies a bit closer to the sonic art side. But they are both listenable as art music, I think. Similarly, there are pieces by Steve Reich, and I am thinking of Drumming as an example, that are not tonal in the usual sense, but are again listenable as art music.

But yes, there are a huge number of pieces in which the composer is basically writing against the possibility of the listener hearing this "inner space" you refer to. I suppose we could characterize it as an aesthetic gamble, produced by an historic context in which Western Civilization was experiencing a crisis of its own making--an aesthetic gamble which failed.