From my point of view, most music is banal and mediocre. Or worse. Don't worry I am going to provide examples! I just ran across one. The great classical guitarist John Williams formally retired a few years ago, he is seventy-six this year, but has taken the opportunity to release some recordings on his own label. There seem to be three to date. The first one I think was this one, titled From a Bird.
Let me get the caveats out of the way. John Williams was a huge influence on my development as a guitarist and musician. He was the greatest technical master of the instrument during my formative years in the 1970s and also an important figure in developing the core repertoire. He was the first to do a really authoritative integral recording of all the Bach lute music on guitar, the first to record all the important guitar concertos, the first to do a whole disc of the music of Agustín Barrios and so on. His thoughts on the education of guitarists are ones that I agree with entirely:
Williams has expressed his frustration and concern with guitar education and teaching, if it is too one-sided, e.g. focusing only on solo playing, instead of giving guitar students a better education including ensemble playing, sight-reading and a focus on phrasing and tone production and variation. Williams notes that "students [are] preoccupied with fingerings and not notes, much less sounds"; some are able "to play [...] difficult solo works from memory", but "have a very poor sense of ensemble [playing] or timing". He notes that students play works from the solo repertoire that are often too difficult, so that the teachers often put more "emphasis [...] on getting through the notes rather than playing the real substance of each note". To encourage phrasing, tone production and all-around musicianship, Williams arranges for students to play together in ensembles, choosing works from the existing classical music repertoire, such as the "easier Haydn String Quartets". [from the Wikipedia article]But over the years I also became aware that there were some areas in which I was not entirely in agreement with his approach. While I am less a fan of the way Julian Bream approaches the instrument, in many ways he was the more dynamic interpreter and he certainly had an unerring sense of which composers to approach to write for the instrument. Williams, on the other hand, tended to collaborate with non-classical musicians with varied results and, to my knowledge, rarely commissioned music from composers of much significance. I think we might deduce from this that Williams does not have a lot of sensitivity to contemporary composition.
His recent private recordings have included a number of his own compositions so when I first noticed a clip of one of them on YouTube the other day, I was very interested to see what he was doing. This was not least because I find myself in a similar boat these days: a classical guitarist, retired from performing, who has a serious interest in composition. The CD From a Bird is temporarily out of stock at Amazon, nor are there any clips there you can listen to, but there is a clip of one of the pieces on YouTube played by Stephen Kenyon. Let's have a listen:
Williams also has a website where you can download this and other pieces:
Please let me know what you think in the comments. Here is another piece from the album, the title cut "From a Bird" this time played by the composer (Blogger won't embed):
What to say about these pieces? I suppose the positive side and the reason that people are enjoying them is that they are pleasing and relaxing. But to my ear they are painfully banal. The melodies are repetitive in a fairly uninteresting way and wander about aimlessly. Harmonically everything is either predictable or awkward. The rhythmic structures are also oddly awkward with the stresses never quite falling where they should. This is just a superficial appraisal, of course. I haven't done a real analysis. I do notice things like where he writes a 4/2 inversion he doesn't resolve it to a first inversion chord as would traditionally be done. The result is both random and flabby, harmonically, because he ignores the function of the harmony. Actually, that is a pretty good description of the musical language: random and flabby, but pretty in an innocuous way.
I won't go any further because neither Williams nor his fans need my comments! These clips came around just when I was looking for some examples of banal and mediocre music. The playing is neither banal nor mediocre, of course!
There is something interesting to learn from this, though. One's instinct as a performer is to write music that is pleasing and that will charm your audience. This tends to lead to banal and mediocre compositions, however. The problem is that a composer, a real composer, has to come to grips with something rather more than just the passing fancy of the audience. He (or she) has to live through, aesthetically, the times, has to experience and confront the disturbing aesthetic context of the last hundred years, has to go beyond pretty sounds to the bedrock beneath. This is, in fact, what composers have had to do for centuries.
Yes, a lot of the music we hear from the past seems perfectly innocuous, but I doubt it was perceived so at the time. Take almost anything by Bach, for example. While his music is lovely and charming, it also has real firmness and substance and sometimes is very challenging. The same is true of Mozart and Haydn though they have the gift of concealing the steel fist within a velvet glove.
On one of the Williams albums he plays a Bach Andante and I think it is this one. Make the comparison for yourself: