Music Composition in the 21st Century
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Music Composition in the 21st Century

A Practical Guide for the New Common Practice

Robert Carl

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eBook - ePub

Music Composition in the 21st Century

A Practical Guide for the New Common Practice

Robert Carl

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About This Book

The state of contemporary music is dizzyingly diverse in terms of style, media, traditions, and techniques. How have trends in music developed over the past decades? Music Composition in the 21st Century is a guide for composers and students that helps them navigate the often daunting complexity and abundance of resources and influences that confront them as they work to achieve a personal expression. From pop to classical, the book speaks to the creative ways that new composers mix and synthesize music, creating a music that exists along a more continuous spectrum rather than in a series of siloed practices. It pays special attention to a series of critical issues that have surfaced in recent years, including harmony, the influence of minimalism, the impact of technology, strategies of "openness, " sound art, collaboration, and improvisation. Robert Carl identifies an emerging common practice that allows creators to make more informed aesthetic and technical decisions and also fosters an inherently positive approach to new methods.

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Information

Year
2020
ISBN
9781501357596
Edition
1
1
What’s in a Name?
Every composer, once so identified, immediately is asked the question, “What sort of music do you write?” It always causes a moment of panic, because there are so many different answers. You can point toward a particular recognizable style, language, or tradition; indicate the sort of instruments you write for; reference ancestors you claim as yours; describe what you want your music to achieve with the listener, maybe place it in a sociological context. But in the end, the questioner is mostly asking, “What’s your style?” And that demands some tough reflection. For me, as for many composers, the first answer is “classical.” But that’s a wholly unsatisfying response. It marks you are part of an elite, writing music fewer and fewer people have heard, even the supposedly educated audience you’d love to reach: the sort that goes regularly to contemporary art shows, reads the most discussed novels, sees the latest films. (Of course, one does also usually get a polite “Wow!”-like response, as much from amazement you even exist, as for the field you toil in.) “Classical” will also bring up one of two images for most folks: it’s either music that apes the romantic tradition, and without postmodern ironic intent, or a highly dissonant, deliberately ugly, expressionist/modernist outburst, the only type of music produced by the twentieth century in their eyes (or more precisely, as they’ve been brainwashed to believe). And while there are always a few outliers who actually do write both such types of music, the vast majority of composers who are lumped under this category don’t. So before we look for either a new name or how to cope with the one we’re stuck with, we have to tease out some underlying issues.
The first is just what constitutes this music most people call “classical.” It’s impossible to try to define it in terms of a single style, since there are so many different ones that have emerged and succeeded one another through the Western tradition’s centuries of development. So it may be better to start off with identifying its essential elements. What are the core constituents of this music?
First, it is comfortable with notation. Note carefully the phrasing: I am not saying everything is written down. “Classical” music has always had open-ended elements, such as the cadenza of a concerto. Later in the chapters I’ll look more closely at the whole issue of openness, which I feel is one of the critical and defining ones of this era. But let’s accept that the tradition up to this point has done an astonishing job of developing a notational practice that is flexible, practical, and universal. (Indeed, a sort of counterproof to this is the fact that so many of the mid-twentieth-century experiments to replace traditional notation have fallen by the wayside, by a sort of rigorous and practical winnowing.) It may seem unfashionably Euro- or Western-centric (and opens itself to the charge of colonialism), but the notation that was standardized by about 1700 now is used worldwide, in cultures that it never even touched until the late nineteenth century, and for a huge range of music. Part of its genius is that it’s actually quite neutral, and hence easily appropriated by diverse users. At its core it shows pitch and duration, everything else is an add-on. Early on, attempts to notate non-Western music often blanched out their harmonic and melodic subtleties, but Western notation also has a capacity to grow in complexity, in response to any new musical objects it encounters. Rhythm is particularly hard to pin down, but once again, many of the great modern advances on that front are admirably suited to ethnomusicological transcription, which in turn filters into the broader practice. The great emerging challenge I see younger composers taking on ever more frequently is the precise rendering of noise and sounds beyond the normal pitched spectrum. One response to this is a growing reacquaintance with graphic notation after mid-twentieth-century experiments, but also I see a deepening effort to discover exceptionally precise strategies that mix verbal, graphic, and traditional elements. (Helmut Lachenmann seems a salient model.) In short, Western notation opens up great possibilities and vistas for any who make it part of their tool kit, and it has continued room for seemingly infinite growth.
Second, this music privileges acoustic instruments, in particular those found in the symphony orchestra. Again, this is just a starting point. All sorts of other instruments than the traditional strings, winds, and brass can and have entered into the concert composer’s color palette over the last couple of centuries. While the saxophone—conceived in the French tradition as the natural link between woodwind and brass—has taken its time to enter its intended practice, jazz snatched it up fast and ran with it (creating an iconic sound of genius in the process). Only with time do we have an alternative tradition of composition for the instrument, ironically in the manner to which it was originally conceived, above all in the chamber medium of the saxophone quartet. In the twentieth century, percussion has become a standard part of the orchestral setup, with pitched mallet instruments, an endless array of instruments of relative pitch, and makers of noise (in the scientific sense of the word, yet another upcoming topic). And now instruments associated with rock and other popular music, such as electric guitars, synthesizers/samplers, laptops, and even turntables, are no longer unusual or shocking. The whole emergence of an endlessly mutating world of electroacoustic music is creating an ethos of hybridization whose effects we can only begin to imagine (and composers are imagining them all the time now).
The corollary to this point is that the tradition tends to privilege (or at least protect) instrumental music. Note again this does not mean that “classical” music doesn’t include vocal music. Just the opposite—there is chanson, lied, song cycles in every possible language, and, of course, perhaps the synthetic royalty of all musical forms, opera. I only mean that this music is not slavishly beholden to the demands of the song (and short-duration song form). In most contemporary popular music, you have to have words. In fact, an “instrumental” is usually the kiss of death or at least of cult. The Western classical tradition has no such qualms about the abstraction of untexted music. The symphony, concerto, string quartet, sonata—all these tell stories that are real: some are actual narratives in tone poem form, but just as many, if not more, are not reducible to easily recounted narratives. (And can I add that everything I’ve said in this point applies to jazz as well?)
Third, this music is conceived more often than not for a concert environment. By that I mean it is music written first of all to be heard, considered, and responded to in a highly personal and often private manner, even if the audience is packed together into a hall. Again, this music can have a social function, but it does tend to be abstracted. Perhaps regrettably, people don’t get up and dance a t a symphony orchestra concert—the tradition has channeled that onto stage in the world of ballet. Though Charles Ives would object, we don’t start singing along with our favorite concert pieces.1
And this too has a corollary: this music tends to be written for its own sake, as an expression of the personal vision of the composer. It can be commissioned, it can be tailored to the needs and abilities of specific performers, and it can reflect the interests of a patron, but in the end, it is the composer’s passions that are on display. Anyone who decides to collaborate with her takes the gamble that the result will be something all can live with, even be proud of. But it is a gamble. As such—and this is its most radical aspect, something we’ll be returning to as well—it is resolutely non-commercial.
Next, this music is not afraid of abstraction or formal ambition. To write a piece of half an hour, in multiple movements, for only instruments, is an accomplishment, but not unusual for a composer in this tradition. And so much of this music attempts to express something that can only come in this disembodied form; like architecture, it begins to define an intangible but still real space for contemplation. This ability to tie together sonic elements into a whole that is larger but no less powerful than a single tune is at the essence of composition (the Latin word compare simply means “to put together”). So even though a Mahler symphony may last over an hour, it is a journey we are willing to take, precisely because it needs that duration to accommodate the ideas and varying landscapes it must traverse. And lest you think that this property is a unique aspect of a specifically European legacy, listen to Ellington’s Black, Brown, and Beige, or Mingus’s The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jiveass Slippers.2 Here, you hear composers stretching the initial assumptions of their language to new lengths of expression, duration, and multiplicity. Or, moving farther away from classical sources, take Sergeant Pepper or Tommy. The list is potentially long if not endless.
Finally, something transcendent often emerges from this music. Of course, this is not always the case, and if it were, we’d quickly become exhausted by the sheer seriousness of it all. But it’s not for nothing that the first great patron of European music was the Catholic Church, and in other cultures the great enduring musics have tended to emerge from their respective religions, and sacred rites. As we move further into the modern age, post-Enlightenment, this quality becomes more generalized. What was once explicitly religious may be instead more “spiritual.” Or it may become more “humanistic.” In its abstracted form, this visionary quality ties into what Charles Ives called “substance” as opposed to “manner.” Schoenberg called it “idea” in contrast to “style.” In any case we are talking about music that attempts to be a portal to something beyond.
These characteristics go a long way toward defining the music written today for whose name we search. I think, though, that it’s worth taking a moment now to cast a glance backward, applying these criteria over music history. It may make our task easier and our ultimate goal even clearer.
The whole idea of a “canon” by now has been subjected to a heavy dose of criticism, at times vilification. There is no doubt that the Eurocentric, “classical” tradition is tainted by the exclusion of so many who wanted to enter its course, in particular non-Caucausian and female. It’s been pretty much a white man’s club, with a few outliers who managed to squeeze in, but whose presence is basically the exception that proves the rule. (To take just the case of female composers, post-Renaissance it seems to be Barbara Strozzi in the seventeenth century, then the nineteenth opens up to just two, Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann, who did already have a little bit of name recognition beyond their own efforts.) As such it’s understandable how disreputable this looks now, even though happily the demographics are changing rapidly, and not a moment too soon.
So let’s accept that this tradition is tainted by a legacy of prejudice and discrimination. Guilty as charged. And yet I don’t want it discarded just on the basis of this limitation; there’s just too much wonderful music there that we all can share, love, appreciate, and learn from, and yes, even appropriate. Both contemporary support and historical research can vastly expand the diversity of the roster. But can we possibly reclaim the tradition in a manner that’s more inclusive, and yes, forgiving?
First of all, we need to take the principles outlined above and apply them across time and culture in a manner that’s not been done until recently. It is important to realize that there are several traditions, both within the West and without, that have followed the practices and shared the values I’ve identified as belonging to “classical” music. In Asia, Japanese gagaku, Korean pansori, Tibetan chant, Beijing opera, Indian raga, Turkish makams, Indonesian gamelan—just to name a few—have fully evolved over centuries, rivaling in sophistication anything produced in the West. In many aspects, their sophistication is far greater: consider the microinflectional subtleties of the makam, the sublime pacing of gagaku, and the dazzling rhythmic cycles of the raga’s tala. True, in some cases they are preserved as if in amber: gagaku comes to mind. But even here a new generation of both Japanese and foreign composers are again writing for this ensemble and its remarkable timbre, and the same can be said for many of the others above.
Further, musicology is developing ever more sophisticated tools to notate and explore music that may fall outside my criteria. African (especially what I’d call “precolonial”) and European folk music can now be seen to have levels of sophistication that composers can only gasp at. Composers as varied as Reich and Ligeti acknowledge the cross-rhythms of African music as a critical influence. Bartók would not be Bartók without the pioneering musicological research and preservation he undertook throughout Central and Eastern Europe with Zoltán Kodály. For those who object, yes, there will always be a certain amount of appropriation when formally trained composers approach and incorporate aspects of this music into their practice, and it will always be controversial. I can only respond that it’s going to happen no matter what, and the more we become sensitized to the issue and look for wa ys to make the interchange as equal and respectful as possible, the better off we’ll all be.
I’m not an ethnomusicologist, and I don’t want to become too entangled here, as the field is supremely vast, and the point I am trying to make will always unleash an onslaught of qualifiers. What is clear is that we now easily see what was already evident in art history: there are several parallel world music traditions of equal worth, but also profoundly different from one another. And we are in a period when composers from every tradition are being exposed to and examining music outside their initial tradition.
This also goes for traditions that up till now were seen, even within Western practice, as being lesser or more simplistic, that is “popular” music. In some ways, America has been the great pioneer in opening up such music to a new level of critical understanding and appreciation. In my own lifetime, I’ve seen Tin Pan Alley be renamed The Great American Songbook, and we now acknowledge Berlin, Porter, Kern, Rodgers, and Arlen as masterful art song composers rivaling their European antecedents.3
Gershwin is an even more supreme example of a composer who truly bridges the gap. It is one of American music’s greatest tragedies that he died so young (I think one of the greatest “what ifs” of all is what sort of music he would have been writing in the postwar era, still alive with Copland, Bernstein, Barber, even Babbitt and Carter.) Jazz, of course, is the great parallel American musical tradition, to the point that its influence internationally is greater than any other “sophisticated” (to take Ellington’s term) homegrown musical language. And black musicians are a very special case, due to the cultural constraints under which they worked. It seems clear that from the very beginning, those such as James Reese Europe, Jelly Roll Morton, Fletcher Henderson, and the young Elli...

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