Thursday, January 31, 2008

The trouble with kids these days

My God, what does sound have to do with music?
-Charles Ives

Circumstances have led to me singing a lot of pieces of contemporary a cappella choral music recently, and noticed that much music being written in this genre is essentially interchangeable, and often of dubious quality. There's a definite aesthetic to this music, one which can be summarized as follows:

1) Little polyphonic interest. The textures are hymnlike, with a melody in the soprano and all other parts harmonizing in the same rhythm.
2) Rich choral sonorities, with liberal use of suspension dissonances and even
3) Chords with added seconds, fourths etc. resulting from unresolved suspension dissonances.
4) Formal simplicity. Brief, through-composed settings of (usually) contemporary poetry.
5) Bassploitation. The piece ends on a carefully voiced major chord with a root of E-flat or lower.

The exclusion of all other elements of musical interest (counterpoint, form, and rhythm) means that the substance of the music is pure sound. It stands or falls by the aesthetic pleasure of the choral sonority. And, when this music is well-constructed harmonically and when the chords are well voiced, the impact is considerable. It's hard to remain cynical when you hear a lovely, widely spread D-flat major chord blossom, perfectly in tune, from the voices of a well-trained choir.

And yet, and yet. Perhaps it's the bassploitation that bothers me most; I sing bass in choirs, and generally take the lower part in any divisi, which means that I'm the one struggling with the low D-flats which I can only sing about 20% of the time. (I often hope for head colds before concerts.) I think my gut reaction against this kind of music goes deeper than this, however. I find it hard to believe, for example, that it's a coincidence that this kind of music flourishes at the same time that sixteenth-century counterpoint is disappearing from the education of young composers. The a cappella chorus, after all, is a four-voice ensemble, and is most naturally treated in a contrapuntal manner. Worst of all is the almost illiterate manner in which many of these composers treat text - both in their selection of texts and in the way they are set. One particularly egregious example sets a Petrarchan sonnet by a well-known English poet, but brings the music to a screeching halt after the penultimate line of the octave. The result is that the structure of the poem is lost, and the meaning of several lines is made totally unclear.

The essential characteristic of this style of writing is voluptuousness - a deliberate emphasis on the sensual pleasures of musical harmony at the expense of structural rigour. And the flourishing of this kind of music has a lot to do with the size of the choral market; thousands of schools, community ensembles, churches etc. are looking for new choral repertoire and are happy to pander to their audiences with these sonic baths rather than challenging them with more serious repertoire. And the choral-industrial complex, with its stable of composers, is more than happy to continue to supply more repertoire in the style.

I've been hard on this music, and I've deliberately avoided naming names of composers or pieces because I don't consider such frontal attacks particularly productive. (Besides: love the sinner, hate the sin!) What's more, this style has become such a part of the North American choral scene that one can see traces of it in the work of otherwise fine composers. However, serious composers should take note, and should set chorally-inclined students suitable purging exercises. (Assignment: Set a nonsense text in an entirely heterorhythmic style, cadencing on a unison middle C.) But it's interesting to note that this exaltation of sound as an ideal in itself is not unique to bad early twenty-first century choral music. The empty virtuosity of many 19th-century display pieces serves the same function. So does flashy orchestration. Ives was right: sound and music should be kept carefully separate.

An interesting side note here is that this style of music is entirely European. That is, only our art-music tradition could produce a style of music which places so high a value on harmony and vertical sonorities and so low a value on the integrity of individual lines. After all, the subtle harmonic shifts which characterize this music lead to rather difficult and sometime unvocal parts for altos and tenors. Their parts are totally uninteresting and often unpleasant in themselves, but create nice chords. In contrast, every non-Western tradition I'm aware of (other than monophonic folksong) has a great deal of polyphonic interest between individual instrumental lines. The kind of choral music I've been describing is dependent on a Western ideal of submerging group identity into the realization of an individual's compositional artifice. I'm not taking a position against this, I'm just sayin'.

And a discussion question: Why does schmaltzy music emphasize style (pretty harmonies) over substance (musical narrative, as expressed through form), while shmaltzy poetry emphasizes substance (narratives about tragic lives, dying puppies etc.) over style (euphonious combinations of sounds, pungent word choices, etc.)? Perhaps the answer's obvious, but I find this disparity very interesting.


Alice said...

Pretty music is easy to understand. No thinking is required -- just let it was over you (and sometimes that's a really nice experience!). Schmaltzy poetry is easy to understand. No thinking is required -- just let the emotions wash over you.

Alice said...

I occasionally play recorder music with friends...I have been known to totally rewrite a folk song arrangement, because the harmony parts made no sense by themselves. But then, I enjoyed learning counterpoint...perhaps some comosers don't.