Friday, July 25, 2008

Happiness is exciting

The latest football being kicked around in the music blogosphere is this David Byrne article condemning the supposed excesses of musical modernism, apropos of the recent New York performance of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Die Soldaten. Of course, music bloggers as a species are generally fairly welcoming toward modernist music, and so Byrne's article has been subject to fairly widespread attack. (The Rambler's counterargument is irrefutable: "How many nights do you need to sell out at up to $250 a seat before critics stop calling you perversely obscure?")

While my natural inclination is to come out on the modernist team and attack people like Byrne as Philistines, I feel a certain reservation about doing so if it means defending, say, the academic twelve-tone music of Milton Babbitt. Kyle Gann at Postclassic makes the welcome point that not all complex modernist music is great music, but that much of it is worthwhile, and that people have every right to enjoy it. His caveat, however, is that searching for a simpler style, one which communicates more directly with a broad audience, is a valuable and challenging exercise for any composer, and that composers should not cultivate complexity for its own sake. Total common sense, but much-needed. Read the whole thing. I am reminded of Edmund Rubbra's Fifth Symphony, which I listened to recently - the orchestral texture is based entirely on tonal, two-part counterpoint, but the notes are so carefully chosen that this becomes incredibly powerful when played expressively. And when you listen to his First and Second symphonies, you realize that to reach this point, he had to learn to strip away every unnecessary note. His reward was to be told by his colleagues that it was 1947 and he should be writing serial music.

One of my projects recently has been to add dates to all of the pieces of music on my iTunes library, which allows me to sort my music by date instead of alphabetically by composer. For example, if I'd let the Bartok string quartet finish, it would have gone on to play Britten's Te Deum in C, also written in 1934. I find these little coincidences really interesting; they show the sheer variety of music being written at various points in history. For another eye-opener, let's look at what was written in 1969, a year which was supposedly a high point for the European avant-garde:

Arnold - Concerto for Two Pianos, Three Hands
Berkeley - Symphony No. 3
Bryars - The Sinking of the Titanic
Carter - Concerto for Orchestra
Howells - Magnificat and Nunc dimittis "Hereford Service"
Ligeti - Ramifications
Mathias - Ave Rex
Messiaen - La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jesus-Christ
Milner - Roman Spring
Shostakovich - Symphony No. 14
Tippett - The Knot Garden
Yttrehus - Music for Winds, Percussion, Cello and Voices

The avant-garde is represented by Ligeti and Elliott Carter, but we also have academic serialism (Yttrehus), conservative liturgical music (Howells and Mathias), relatively straightforward neo-tonality (Arnold), a sort of British tonal expressionism (Berkeley and Milner), early minimalism (Bryars), and three geniuses following their own unrepeatable paths (Messiaen, Shostakovich and Tippett). The same pattern recurs anywhere you look - there's never a consensus on musical style, but always different voices. Not everyone will like every piece on the list above, but I doubt that even the most dyed-in-the-wool conservative would have much trouble with the Arnold or Bryars pieces.

My contention is that the same pattern persists anywhere you look in music history; if you scroll up a bit in my music library, you find that Schubert was writing some of his simplest Lieder while Beethoven was at work on the Grosse Fuge. And so perhaps the issue has less to do with a crisis in modern music, and more to do with a continual balance between simplicity and complexity. Otherwise, you're left with the nonsensical conclusion that Gesualdo is a more audience-friendly composer than Vaughan Williams.

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