Tuesday, January 30, 2018


I was just reading NewMusicBox, a site for young composers, and ran across this passage:
Frankly, I’ve never understood why there has—until recently­­—been such a demarcation between genres in music.  As far back as I can remember, I’ve been enormously responsive to music, independent of genre.   I know I’m not alone in this, especially in today’s eclectic musical environment, but for many people, classical music’s vaunted tradition excluded an appreciation of popular or folkloric forms—and heaven forfend that any classical composer should write something as shallow as film music!  Fortunately, my open nature allowed me to at once love rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, Brazilian samba, and South African popular styles such as mbaqanga (township music), and hold a particularly reverent fascination with Indian forms, while immersing myself into the vastly diverse realms referred to as concert or classical music.  I believe this enabled me to survive the shark-infested waters of the classical establishment, especially at Columbia University, where I received my doctorate in composition, and Tanglewood, where I studied with 12-tone icon George Perle.  Of course, these institutions weren’t fatally dangerous, and I basically ignored any insinuation that my love of “non-classical” forms was a kind of intellectual or artistic weakness, because they were wrong: it was a sign of creative strength and somehow, in my heart, I knew it.
I have always understood this demarcation because of my personal musical journey. As you can see from my post yesterday about my mother, who was a fiddler, I come from non-classical roots. As a teenager I encountered rock music and started my professional career as an electric bass player, later switching to six-string. My first great conversion happened around 19 or 20 years when I first encountered classical music. I spent the next several years becoming a fully-trained classical guitarist (with a sideline in composition!). I was very aware, at each stage, of the differences between the different genres. Every time I reinvented myself it was in terms of the differences between different musical worlds.

My musical journey was one of moving from a landscape of traditional and popular forms to the highly disciplined one of classical forms and genres. So for me, aesthetics was about achieving more and more control over the materials and becoming more and more aware of the historical context.

I also journeyed across the political spectrum from a kind of received socialism to a more aware conservatism or libertarianism.

I have been recently watching quite a few clips of psychology professor Jordan Peterson and as a result have stumbled across an underlying problem. As he outlines it, liberalism is associated with openness and conservatism with boundaries--well, it is a lot more complicated, but that is one aspect. This leaves me with a bit of a dilemma! As a blogger and performer, it is perfectly reasonable to have a conservative leaning towards boundaries. But as a composer, the creative potential of openness is more important. How can I reconcile this contradiction? At the same time I believe very strongly in the demands of aesthetic quality and the rejection of poor quality, hodgepodge, fusion, crossover and all that stuff. But creativity is always, as Peterson also points out, a journey into the unknown, into what he calls chaos. An artist is someone who journeys outside the known and returns with what he has discovered.

It's a problem...

Ligeti: Continuum for harpsichord:


Steven Watson said...

I don't know what I make of this 'journeying into chaos' idea of Peterson's. Good composition, at least, is surely a result of boundaries? It is created by the imposition of limitations not the expansion of possibilities. Music has rules, boundaries, familiarity, order. Inspired use of what is left -- and the exceptional ability to play *somewhat* with the rules themselves -- is what makes it good music. But what is unknown about it? Was Mozart journeying into the unknown? He knew what he was doing; it's the rest of us listening who are journeying into the unknown.

But perhaps, as someone who seldom composes (and never well), I'm missing something.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks so much for commenting on this rather oddball post.

Not long ago I would have argued just as you do: composition is about order, rules, boundaries and so on. There was certainly a profound sense of order in music of the 18th century. But we seem to be in a different environment now. Peterson talks about artists as living on the boundary between order and chaos and their function, their role, is to explore chaos and bring some of it into order. This always involves going outside all the current rules and boundaries. The genius comes when the chaos ends up contributing something to our order, by expanding it in some way.

If you look at, just to take one example, the way Mozart handled concerto form, I think you would find a myriad of brilliantly creative innovations in the form. He was taking many features of the operatic aria and re-conceiving them to use in concerto form. This was certainly a voyage outside the boundaries at the time. Or look at the astonishing way he combines several different themes in the texture of the finale of the Jupiter symphony. That was a considerable leap into the unexplored.

From our perspective now, this all seems perfectly logical, but I doubt it was at the time.

Steven Watson said...

(I thought I had replied to this but clearly I must have forgotten! Better late than never...)

The process you describe invariably involves setting up new and equally firm boundaries, just as a country expanding does not diminish the importance of its boundaries -- often it does the opposite. As you say, it is about expanding order, so even I fully agreed with Peterson's idea it would not compromise my, well, conservative understanding of composition.

The one way in which Peterson's idea makes complete sense is in terms of music's origins. The great journey which brought order to chaos happened only once in music -- its 'big bang' as it were -- when we first had the idea of distilling noise into coherent sound. Everything since then has been incremental change. And in the grand scheme of things this has involved only very brief excursions outside the known, if that. I am quite fond of this Mendelssohn quotation:

‘New ground! Vexatious demon for every artist who submits to it! Never, in fact, did an artist break new ground. In the best case he did things imperceptibly better than his immediate predecessors. Who should break the new ground? Surely no one but the most sublime geniuses? Well, did Beethoven open up new ground completely different from Mozart? Do Beethoven’s symphonies proceed down completely new paths? No, I say. Between the first symphony of Beethoven and the last of Mozart I find no extraordinary [leap in] artistic value, and no more than ordinary effect. The one pleases me and the other pleases me.’

Bryan Townsend said...

That is a fantastically appropriate quote from Mendelssohn!

Yes, I quite agree, when you have tilled new ground you are setting up a new boundary. But now I find I have to debate a bit with Herr Mendelssohn. He makes a very good point. Yes, between the last symphony of Mozart and the first symphony of Beethoven there is only an incremental difference. Actually, Beethoven 1 is rather less adventurous (well, except for the harmonies at the very beginning) than the last Mozart. But by the time we get to Beethoven 5 and certainly Beethoven 9, we are on rather new ground, don't you think? I am wrestling with this even as I write. Like you I am a firm believer in aesthetic quality which often comes from the adroit use of what is known. But no great composer stayed entirely with what he inherited. Call aesthetic developments incremental if you want, but they add up over time, even within the oeuvre of a single composer.

We can see where much of what a composer does comes from what came before, but there is always that essential spark of something that is a bit or more than a bit different. The modernists exaggerated this to the point where doing anything different, no matter how aesthetically worthless it was, was celebrated. But a composer who never ventures onto unexplored ground is less than he could be.

Forgive me, but I think this is the problem with Mendelssohn!

Steven Watson said...

Well I think I agree with all that! And reluctantly I'll admit that I snookered myself: Mendelssohn is a good example what happens when a great composer does not journey into the unknown. I'd add Arthur Sullivan to the list too.

Bryan Townsend said...

It's really a twofold process: first you have to journey onto unexplored territory, then, and this is the often forgotten other stage, then you have to bring back what you have discovered/uncovered into the realm of order. You have to make it make sense or function within the boundaries. And yes, this probably means moving the boundaries. It always seems so logical and reasonable once someone has done it...