Saturday, August 25, 2018

My Ramble on the The New Yorker's Survey of the "New-Music Landscape"

This week's The New Yorker includes a book review by Alex Ross that is identified in the table of contents as (oh how I remember the days when The New Yorker stood apart from all other magazines because it didn't have a table of contents) "Surveying the new-musical landscape." You can read it on page 81 of the magazine, or you can read it here. Oddly the link gives the title of the article as "the sounds of music in the twenty-first century," but what's in a title anyway, right?

The book review concerns Music after the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture Since 1989 by Tim Rutherford-Johnson. Like Ross, I know Rutherford-Johnson from his blog "The Rambler". Rutherford-Johnson has a post on his blog about the book that includes a table of contents, a short summary, and a link to a bunch of glowing reviews. The book looks interesting, and I do plan to read it.

From reading his blog from time to time over the years, I know Rutherford-Johnson is interested in a lot of music that I know little about, and have found that he doesn't write much about music that I am interested in, which is fine. There is much to know in this musical world. The menu is vast, and there is only so much room in any reasonable human stomach during any meal to consume more than a fraction of its (table of) contents at a time. And there are many restaurants in many cities, and in many towns.

Alex Ross says that Rutherford-Johnson's book has changed the way he listens to music. Wow. No book has ever done that for me.

Making the transition from living musical life as a flute player to living musical life as a violist changed the way I listen to music. As a flutist, and even as a violinist, I would listen from the top (which is so often the tune) down. Once I started playing viola in ensembles, I could actively listen to the treble from a position in the middle and to the bass from above. Even the most familiar music sounded completely different, and it drastically increased the dimension of my experience. Composing changes the way I listen to music because I can't help noticing the way other composers (both past and present) use the same elements of music I use, but in vastly different ways. Practicing Bach and Haydn on the piano also changes the way I listen to music, as well as the experience of playing the viola part of a familiar orchestral piece for the first time. Actually, every time.

Ross has sprinkled his review with the names of many female as well as male composers in this piece, even stating parenthetically, "The suffocating maleness of music history is at an end, even if the news has yet to reach most big-league orchestras and opera houses." One of these days Ross might "step out" and make the same statement without the "cloak" of parentheses. Still, it's a big leap from the days of The Rest is Noise, which I wrote a post about back in 2007. He even spends several paragraphs quoting Susan McClary. Even though I have a very different "world view" from McClary (she is an academic, I am a practicing musician), I appreciate Ross making mention of her.

He quotes McClary in relation to Steve Reich's "Different Trains," (written one year before the time Rutherford-Johnson has for the beginning of his survey). Ross says "Different Trains" "typifies the late-twentieth-century return to fundamentals--what McClary describes as 'composing for people.'"

If composers didn't compose for people before, who (or what) were they composing for?

There is a contemporary trend that some careerist composers (i.e. composers who want to make a living from composing and seek out commissions and partnerships that will keep them involved the musical "economic food chain") use to their benefit. It's the notion that music should be immediately accessible to audiences. In order to be that way it should be programmatic, and draw upon subject matter that can be explained, so that it makes the listening experience "relatable." Unfortunately the people who get left out of this equation can be the musicians themselves.

When music is written in a way that does not allow for physical grace and instrumental resonance, it is not a joy to practice, rehearse, or play. When the purpose of a musical gesture of phrase does not involve the creativity of the musicians who will be playing it (either by recognizing where it is compelled to go by the way it is written or by having a handful of equally good choices to make) what is printed on the page is merely an arrangement of pitches, rhythms, articulations, and dynamics with programmatic directions.

The minimalist repetitions that hypnotize listeners can cause tension in musicians (either from the movement or from not knowing if you are counting the repetitions correctly). In some situations complex rhythms can create tension without the opportunity for physical release. When that happens, the physical tension gets transferred to the people who are listening, and nobody has a good time.

I guess you could take McClary's comment in reference to the era that followed the prominence of strict twelve-tone music. It could easily be said that in the second part of the 20th century a lot of strict twelve-tone music (and other serial music) was written for the enjoyment of the composers who wrote it. Twelve-tone music is a lot of fun to write, and while you are in twelve-tone limbo land, where dissonance is good ("dissonance good") and consonance is to be avoided ("consonance bad"), lots of unusual and pleasurable things can happen, particularly at the keyboard, where the uniform tempered scale helps with consistency. Once you have an ensemble made of instruments that are not tempered like the piano, and once you take away any sense of tonic or dominant, playing in tune becomes a problem. You need a lot of rehearsal time to have a successful and rewarding performance.

Composers who end up writing music that is a joy to play, a joy to rehearse, and a joy to hear, are usually composers who write music for the pleasure of the musicians who will be playing it. It is the way it has always been, and as long as people blow into tubes, hit things, sing, and either draw horsehair across strings or pluck them, I believe it is the way it always will be.

1 comment:

Lyle Sanford, RMT said...

"When music is written in a way that does not allow for physical grace and instrumental resonance, it is not a joy to practice, rehearse, or play. . . . Amen!!!!