What Sort of Classical Music Should I Write? - Part 2
Should be it be Innovative (or avant-garde) or Accessible
a follow up for What Sort of Classical Music Should I Write?
An on going series of posts into what sort of composition is "good" classical music
As I mentioned in the previous post, there are numerous styles of Classical music, and camps of people who favor one over another. In this week's post I want to talk about innovative music vs accessible music, or music that pushes the bounds of what music is as opposed to music "joe blow" on the street might be willing to listen to - more than once.
There are plenty of quotes from major composers of the 20th century who take the camp of "I don't care what the audience thinks" or "It's better if they don't like my music at first. It means I'm really doing something new." (both paraphrased, but you get the idea.) The attitude of these avant-garde composers implies the audience has no real value to them. Music is the higher goal. Milton Babbitt said, "I dare suggest that the composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance and electronic media," suggesting that a composer is better served by not responding to the public, but rather withdrawing into his own world of music.
It is this lack concern for the audience that always surprises me. Art, by its very nature, is to be experienced. Music is an auditory experience, meaning it has no purpose without an audience to experience it. If composers write music that has no concern or interest in the audience and their auditory experience, then IMHO, it isn't music. It doesn't fit the primary function of music.
That said, it is possible to create music in a cave or as a hermit and then present it to the world; but eventually it takes an audience to realize the potential of a composition as music. If, the audience doesn't respond to it, or rather chooses to never want that experience again, the composer may have created a moment of music, but failed at creating lasting art. Besides, living in a cave how is one suppose to understand the current of modern thoughts and ideas, which music should reflect?
Arnold Schoenberg said, "Great art presupposes the alert mind of the educated listener." To me this suggests that great art(music) is only great art(music) if and when the listener is educated as to what they should be listening to. Hmmmm, again, that seems to miss the point. Children who are exposed to Bach or Mozart for the first time can still experience a sense of wonder about the music. In Bruno Nettl's book "The Study of Ethnomusicology: thirty-one issues and concepts" he discusses the effect of aboriginal children on hearing Mozart for the first time, their wonder and appreciation for music that is in no way similar to what they grew up hearing. Does this mean Mozart's music isn't great art to them because they are uneducated as to what they should be hearing? Of course not!
On the flip side, Anton Webern wrote while writing his "Six Bagatelles for String Quartet" Op. 9 (1913), "While working on them I had the feeling that once the twelve tones had run out, the piece was finished." This work has been studied and discussed in numerous books, dissertations and papers. So, we can therefore assume (based on Schoenberg's quote), it must be great art because so many educated people have studied it. Nearly 100 years later, these pieces aren't performed anywhere close to the same amount as either Beethoven's string quartets (100 years prior to Webern's) or Shostakovich's string quartet's (written after Webern's). Why? Because the general audience (no matter the state of their education) still has no connection to the music. After 100 years of the educational community trying to gain an audience for Webern's "Six Bagatelles" that audience still doesn't exist. Therefore I suggest, Webern's "Six Bagatelles" might be interesting intellectually, like a puzzle, but they are not great art. Music needs something more than just intellectual stimulation for musicologists and theorists to ponder over.
I'm not suggesting that Webern wasn't a great composer, or we should stop studying him. His Passacaglia for orchestra Op. 1 (1908) is a beautiful piece. The Second Viennese School and the 12-tone technique are hugely influential in later 20th century music. All of these are extremely important to study. But to say the pieces that are intellectually stimulating are great art is simply false --one does not equate to the other.
Another quote from Babbitt, "As for the future of electronic music, it seems quite obvious to me that its unique resources guarantee its use, because it has shifted the boundaries of music away from the limitations of the acoustical instrument, of the performer's coordinating capabilities, to the almost infinite limitations of the electronic instrument." Ok, I understand that creating music that is beyond the limitations of the performer has certain appeal. I certainly spoke about wanting to write acoustic music that pushes the bounds of what performers can do last week. But, just writing music that can't be performed by live musicians doesn't make it great art.
If you go out to YouTube, you can find thousands of budding artists creating music with their home computers. The whole point of House Music is to take pre-recorded sounds and mash them together to create something new. Predecessors to this like Luc Ferrari and Steven Reich used reel to reel tape machines to create a new sonic world. The work they did in their early careers paved the way for a host of electronic gadgets which digitally create reverb, chorus, delay or other effects. These are common tools for artists like Imogen Heap whose albums are heavily effected to create a whole new sonic world that is still very much music, albeit in the pop genre.
Ferrari's Hétérozygote (1963-4) borders on the realm between music and sound design, which is to say, the listener is taken on a journey of recognizable and unrecognizable sounds, but no clear form or structure is apparent if a sense of narrative is present, it doesn't come across in either a rhythmic or melodic way. His "Plaisir-desir" is on the same album (2001) as his "Far West News, Episode No. 1." The first, "Plaisir-desir," is very musical and performed by Orchestre National De France; the second falls into the realm of sound design. The difference is one has rhythmic pulse and a sense of movement which seems to propel the "sound" forward. The sound design pieces are interesting auditory experiences, but take the listener on a different type of journey, speaking to the listener through recognizable and unrecognizable sounds to create a sense of place or images. Music (IMHO) can have sound design, but doesn't necessarily expect the listener to recognize the sounds as that specific sound, rather as an impression of the sound, an illusion or analogy.
Steven Reich recently won the Pulitzer Prize in Music for his "Double Sextet" --which is BTW an acoustic piece. However Reich's Come Out (1966) is an interesting exploration of sound and tape delay. Again, like some of Ferrari's pieces, I don't consider Come Out necessarily music, and yet, part way into the piece it's hard to describe exactly what it is. Interesting yes ... music .... ???
The difference between sound design and music is nebulous at best. Certainly pieces like Beethoven's 6th Symphony have elements of sound design (the peal of thunder in a distant storm), and elements of sound design can be musical. What I disagree with is labeling all sonic experiences as music. In a pair of previous articles, Film and Music Acousmatique & Tonal Music and Atonal Music - what are they really? I discuss how sound-scapes (or sound design) has become a field of its own in the film industry, worthy of its own awards and artistic merit. In my opinion, to combine music with sound-design is to lessen both categories. The reason the Grammy's have so many different categories for awards is because what it takes to create a great Classical Ensemble Recording is vastly different that making a great Rhythm & Blues CD. In this case, both are music, but can't (and shouldn't) be compared with the same criteria. I believe the same is true of sound-design and classical music.
Ok, I've ranted enough about what is or is not music... but what sort of Classical Music should I write? I don't believe I should live (or compose) in a cave. The music I write should be understandable to those who get the chance to listen to it. Jennifer Higdon comments that few composers today get the luxury of having their pieces heard by an audience more than once. Just getting a piece performed in today's classical music world is difficult at best if you're not one of the few elite composers out there. So, if the audience is only going to hear your music once (as opposed to the hundreds of times they will listen to their favorite pieces on iTunes), it has to be something the audience will want to hear again.
Ensembles are struggling to find enough audience to make a living. If they program a piece and the audience doesn't like it, it's likely to have an adverse effect on their ticket sales - particularly if they try and program that same composer again. I feel very fortunate the Boulder Symphony asked for yet another work of mine for their 2011-12 season. They performed two of my works last year and could easily have said, "thanks, but we'll go with somebody else this year." They certainly have plenty of composers to choose from. The fact they came back to me says they not only liked playing the music, but their audience gave positive feedback --want to hear me again.
This is what I am striving to achieve --music that is both fun (and challenging) to play, but has audience appeal. One of my most popular pieces is the 3rd movement from my Symphony No. 1, "You Can't Catch Rabbits With Drums." It is highly rhythmic and while it has melodic elements, it is almost 3 minutes into the piece before you really get a sense of melody beyond just snatches. In another work (yet to be performed) Chasing Dark Dwarf Galaxies I definitely had a sense of sound-design in mind when creating the piece and yet a melody is quickly present. There is no specific narrative to Dark Dwarf but there is a sense of what the theme might sound like. Oddly enough, "Rabbits" is written in a very classical tonal style, whereas Dark Dwarf was done using pitch class sets in a more modern "atonal" approach --although atonal doesn't really fit. Insecta, like Dark Dwarf doesn't have a specific narrative, but did have a sense of sound-design in the composition process. The key for me, in these pieces, as with anything I write, is to make it accessible for an audience on first hearing while giving enough depth of compositional structure and voice to reward multiple listenings.
I would like to create great art. I believe in order to do so, it must be something listeners respond to and desire to hear again.