What Makes New Classical Music Classical?

In my review of Scott Pender’s release for Navona, 88 + 12, I closed by remarking that he “is inventive, expressively rich, and gimmick-free: his music is what I imagine when I dream of a future for classical music.” Not long afterward, a post by Greg Sandow on Facebook commented on his own blog post “It Can Be Done,” which reported on The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Wordless Music festival and their success attracting younger audiences. I was particularly interested in the Wordless Music model of combining various styles within a single concert: Sandow mentioned indie rock, noise improvisation, Shostakovich, the Bach B-flat-Major Partita, and more. It wasn’t clear to me how much variety there was within a single concert, but I got the impression that most of the concerts had a healthy mix of things. I’m certainly in favor of that: it seems more and more the case that the young composers and performers I know are interested in all kinds of music and very good practitioners of many styles. A similar, wider cross-pollination in concerts might increasingly appeal to younger audiences, too.

What most caught my attention, though, was Sandow’s overly optimistic observation that he sees no sign of classical music being dumbed down through attempts to reinvent its milieu and its programming. I disagreed and was immediately called upon to explain myself: I think people were concerned that I considered minimalism and other kinds of tonal-sounding music an example of dumbing down. I assured them that this was not the case, and promised to explain myself at greater length in a subsequent blog post. This is the result, which interleaves a number of related topics. First, some new classical music is dumbed down, and that comes from its failure to live up to the standards of what I would call new classical music—I need to explain what I mean by that. At the same time, new classical music should be distinguished from a great many other kinds of concert music (yes, yes, a vague term, I know) by composers who sometimes have very different expectations from a composer of new classical music. I conclude with some speculation concerning what these differing expectations might mean to the wider community of contemporary concert music composers and their prospective audiences.

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In order to set up properly the context for my thoughts on the subject, I need to cite some passages from one of my American Record Guide reviews published in the November/December 2013 issue. The disc in question was called Bach Re-Invented (Sony 94168) with the pianist Simone Dinnerstein and the Absolute Ensemble led by Kristian Järvi, who performed music by Gene Pritsker, Daniel Schnyder, and Tom Trapp. The album’s premise was to take some Bach Inventions and commission three younger composers to create new music in their own manner related to the models. I dubbed this “the musical equivalent of making a great Hollandaise—one miscalculation and the sauce breaks.”

I thoroughly disliked Pritsker’s Reinventions (Piano Concerto). The first two movements are based on the C-major and A-minor inventions, passages of which are mercilessly repeated with the finesse of a jackhammer. Bach is also mostly unrelated to the other music in the piece, which, as I wrote, “runs a gamut of popular styles that would sound perfectly at home in a Las Vegas megaclub.” I liked the third movement, which introduced a beautiful bandoneon (played by Hector Del Curto) and was effectively based on Bach’s D-minor Invention: the mixture of styles here seemed more plausible and each contributed to the other. Nevertheless, the whole effort seems wrong-headed from the start because Bach seems more of a pretext for the album than a font of inspiration facilitating a meaningful dialogue between the old and new. These composers, it seemed to me at the time, weren’t writing new classical music, and the presence of Bach’s work reasonably led me to expect them to.

Classical music is a tradition with a history and certain generic expectations—both formal and social—that come along with it. For instance, even though the exact meaning of the word sonata has shifted over the years (it originally meant music that’s played by an instrument rather than music that’s sung), composers who write a sonata probably expect their listeners to know other pieces by that title (maybe a great many of them) and probably also expect their listeners actively to consider their prior knowledge when they hear a new one. Scott Pender’s Cello Sonata is such a piece; it interests me as much for whatever merits it has on its own as it does for the way it makes me rehear other cello sonatas (Beethoven’s and Brahms’s, for example). Of course, a composer can strike out on her own, can write a piece so far against the grain of the generic tradition of the sonata that the result might productively engage with the tradition—but even then I’m inclined to think that the composer must be deeply aware of the tradition before such a work could succeed. Marc Chan’s music might be the best example of this I can think of: his pieces J’s Box and My Wounded Head 3 (the latter dedicated to and premiered by me, I should add) are remarkable pieces that treat pre-existing music (Bach’s first prelude from The Well-Tempered Clavier and the passion chorale settings from the St. Matthew Passion) as reservoirs of material for a highly nuanced intertextual dialogue. His later works involving the music of Schumann continue this trend and demand, I think, an even greater awareness of their compositional subject.

There are a number of different streams of concert musical composition now that have very little to do with the classical tradition but that, nevertheless, don’t fit comfortably in non-classical traditions. They include minimalism, chance and indeterminacy, and sound art; one might stretch and add twelve-tone array composition into the mix, but it’s possible to argue that it refers to Schoenberg, which in turn refers very strongly to the Austro-German tradition. Insofar as some fundamental aspects of twelve-tone array composition work against many of Schoenberg’s conceptions of composition (especially the formal ones), I would see it as essentially a different tradition altogether. To the extent that the composers imagine, hope, or expect their music to remain performed in years to come, however, that music subscribes to the same sensibility as classical music, even if has almost nothing to do with the tradition. Like classical music, it demands our attention and thought through multiple hearings; one performance is usually insufficient.

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Popular music, however, is different—it is predicated on a constant influx of new, relatively short and catchy items that stay in the mind’s ear for a few months and are eventually replaced by other offerings with equal staying power. That’s why I liked Tom Trapp’s Headless Snowman on the Sony disc. I wrote that it “clocks in at 4 minutes, makes its au courant musical points quickly and effectively—just as popular music does—and ends before it exhausts itself.”

I think that many people believe the solution to the “problem of classical music audiences” involves embracing the world of popular music more fully. This approach won’t do any damage when it’s well thought out and executed with honesty and imagination; and sometimes it leads to amazing results. I am by no means a purist when it comes to the updating of classical music performance, but I’m willing to be critical and call attention to when it works and when it doesn’t: the Kronos Quartet doing Jimi Hendrix worked; they’ve continued to have a strong career and presence. But Michael Torke singing the praises of Chaka Khan’s bass lines and thinking he was current for appropriating them (in one of his early releases) didn’t work: Khan was by then already a marginal figure in pop music, and Torke’s hitching his wagon to her star had no effect on his career whatever.

Torke is by no means alone in his misstep. I cringe when I recall Susan McClary gushing over Earth, Wind and Fire in her famous article “Terminal Prestige: The Case of Avant-Garde Music Composition.” She attempted to argue that the technology of recording was just as sophisticated as Milton Babbitt’s approach to array composition, that the band’s maintaining a groove was just as difficult to achieve as executing Babbitt’s complex rhythms. These are naïve, apple-and-orange comparisons, made still less tenable because Earth, Wind and Fire weren’t particularly sophisticated then and are now quaintly outdated except as the object of ’80s nostalgia. To be clear: I love McClary and think she’s one of the most important living musicologists. But even though there’s still a lot of useful material in her essay—above all her call for critics who can engage with the subjective aspects of twelve-tone and other post-tonal music in addition to (or even in absence of) the current tendency to offer little more than a technical description of its design—some of it has dated as surely as Earth, Wind and Fire’s “System of Survival.” And to the degree the ideas are outmoded, they cease to be intellectually or even culturally vital.

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I do think there’s a good deal of very sophisticated music outside of universities and concert halls, though some of it may inevitably date as inexorably as Earth, Wind and Fire. My own tastes are almost insanely eclectic: Satoshi Tomiie, Tristan Perich, John Cage, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Milton Babbitt, J Dilla, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich (to say nothing of Machaut, Bach, Liszt, Haydn, Wagner) are on my mind and my playlist, and I’m always looking for new material.

Some of the above individuals may or may not represent a trend I am increasingly noticing where I encounter a number of composers who are both clearly uninterested in the classical tradition (which, I emphasize again, is fine) and, perhaps, more open to the idea of a product that, like popular music, speaks vividly to a certain, finite present, can be easily grasped with one or two hearings, and is readily or even eagerly discarded when a new work in the same vein appears. The songs of Corey Dargel and Matt Marks have very little to do with classical music, even though their work can hardly be called pop music. They have a certain sophistication that several hearings reveal, but it’s not particularly necessary to grasp that sophistication in order to enjoy their music. Part of it is a question of scale: the shorter such a composition is, the more easily it can be digested (and either forgotten or not—how many of us are listening to Philip Glass’s Songs from Liquid Days now?). Even so, I might find myself returning to their work because their expressive or compositional merits still offer something that I want to experience again. In other words, Dargel’s and Marks’s chosen medium of song would no more assign their work to oblivion than Schubert’s.

At the same time, I can’t help but feel more than a little angst about the present tendency in new music, especially new American music, one that Milton Babbitt memorably resisted in 1975 when he said, “I dare to aspire to make music as much as it can be, rather than as little as one can obviously get away with music’s being, under the current egalitarian dispensation.” I like options. I like pieces that I want and need to hear again and again: Steve Reich’s Music for Eighteen Musicians (or WTC 9/11, lest I be accused of liking only Reich’s earlier music), Cage’s Etudes Australes, Robert Morris’s MA. I need pieces that can stretch my capacity for hearing, challenge my assumptions of what a piece of music can be. (Two more recent examples: Enno Poppe’s Salz and Michał Dobrzyński’s Magnus Dominus.) But I also like somewhat less durable pieces—charming, maybe a bit profound, and more instantly understood—like Dargel’s Last Words from Texas, which I may well continue to explore, or Sage the Gemini’s “Red Nose,” which I probably won’t.

But the question remains as to whether this cornucopia of options will remain in play or whether, as another, younger generation holds increasing sway over taste-making, the options will become more limited. I mentioned Milton Babbitt’s lament above, and the recent near-canonization of Steve Reich as America’s greatest living composer suggests that he is right—as I recall, the pronouncement was made while composers like Elliott Carter were still alive, not to mention John Luther Adams or Alvin Lucier. Then, too, there is the question of the changing environments for music performance, rightly hailed by Sandow (and which occasioned this essay). These new venues might condition changing listening habits as much as the kind of music heard there.

Classical music (and whatever you want to call the other kinds of music I don’t see as classical) needs new, younger audiences to be sure. But the new audience might come at a cost. The Dinnerstein debacle suggests that today’s composers are more open to the popular music model, which is not designed, in the main, to reward hundreds of hearings, let alone initiate or sustain a canonical literature. And this is by no means a new phenomenon. Think of the 70-some operas Donizetti wrote because his audiences needed a constant supply of new fare. Same with the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart. But I nevertheless worry that this more disposable concert music will lead to more superficial listening and a more fleeting sense of long-term musical memory.

I expressed more or less the same fear in the closing of my Dinnerstein review: “Classical music can wonderfully embrace the popular musical world around it—as in the work of Mason Bates or, in particular, Michael Gordon—but it cannot hope to offer momentary diversions in the same manner as pop music. That seems to be what this disc aspires to. And if this is all the future that classical music has, then classical music has no future.” I still believe this and hope new classical music will find a way to continue.

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