Monday 2 September 2013

experimentation and integration

My own work comes directly from tradition.  I value the same things Beethoven and Mozart did-- clarity of form, dynamic harmony, counterpoint, melody (more or less), and a general commitment to the fullness of human experience.  I have, from time to time, experimented in works which do not embrace one or more of these qualities, but I return to them as "first principles".

There are those who seem unable to grasp that, despite these fundamental values, I am in great harmony with the music of Webern, the post-WW2 modernists, the conceptual art of the 50s, the high avant-garde of the 60s, the unbridled explosion of creativity in the 70s, the amazing accomplishments of Feldman and his followers, pattern music, crossover, post-modernism, New Complexity, New Age, meta-modernism, and almost every other stand of musical development in the last 70 years.  All of these musics make up music.  Each has its place.  I can name many examples of each approach which I not only respect and admire, but like and listen to.  I have programmed, performed, and recorded music written with virtually every one of these approaches.

Why are the exponents of so many of these artistic points of view so adamant that they must be exclusive?  They are not.  I won't, in this posting, go into the Freudian problem of insecure artists who need to band together to make sure they're right, but I will say that human beings in general seem to need not only to believe, but to convert, apparently to reassure themselves that they are doing the right thing.  This is truly unfortunate, because it weakens the art of music, which is a rich and variegated human experience.

I find it funny that I am often cast in a position where I am defending the work of someone who is absolutely certain I hate not only their music, but their point of view, and their own self personally.  Even more amusing to me is that many of these composers are convinced that I hate anything that does not sound like my own music.  Most of them would be surprised to learn that I actually largely agree with many of their tenets, but that I have no interest in applying them in a "pure" form.  Experimentation is vital to any art.  But after the experiment is concluded, a lesson must be learned.  That lesson is central to my artistic process.

I agree absolutely that music must be contemporary to be relevant.  Busoni actually first espoused this.  But what many composers seem to want is music that is ostentatiously, flamboyantly, and, frankly, rather stupidly "contemporary", a music which is so obvious that it ends up lacking the power to sustain anyone's interest except as an experiment.  I agree absolutely that the point of the art must be to move forward, and that moving backwards is not the real job of the artist.  But composers cannot agree on what this actually means.
I also believe that one cannot judge a composer's output on the basis of his or her lightest works.  We don't remember Beethoven for "Wellington's Victory" or the Equali for 4 Trombones.  And by the way, the finest composers of any era have light works in their output-- look at Ligeti's "Hungarian Rock" for harpsichord, for example.  Most composers have music in their output which does not push the art forward.  I have several works which are light and occasional, and they serve their purpose.  I would not disparage them, as many of them are, I think, rather well written.  But I point to works like my Symphonies and Concertos as works in which I am attempting to move the art forward in my own way.

And what is that way?  I hope I am integrating contemporary experience into a traditional framework.  Not obviously, not heavy-handedly, but in the details.  It is fascinating to look at Turandot by Puccini or several works by late Strauss or early Britten and find the subtle indication that these essentially Romantic composers were actually listening very carefully to Schoenberg, Bartok, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky, among others.

Somewhere, there is a scientist who is working on a new rubber-like compound.  It is, let us speculate, a compound which is sourced eco-responsibly, inexpensive, stronger than rubber, with excellent heat dissipation, a high degree of flexibility at low temperatures, and it can heal itself when it is cut.  Somewhere, there is a company manufacturing auto tires who could take this substance and make a new and better tire.  Somewhere, there is an scientist who has created a metal that is lightweight, completely rigid but flexible enough to withstand concussions, easily formed and with a "memory" which makes it return to its original shape.  Somewhere, there is a wheel manufacturer who can take this metal and make an almost indestructible lightweight wheel for an auto.  Somewhere, there is an auto designer who will take the tires and the wheels, along with the thousands of other developments born of thousands of experiments, and make a Porsche.

This is music for me.  Every strand of experimentation yields something.  But the highest accomplishment of a composer is to take these thousands of strands and make a coherent statement from them.  Not all of them will work in every piece.  Not all of them will be appropriate for every composer.  But each of these strands reflects a unique and different kind of human experience.  To be able to find a cogent way to weave them together would be a high accomplishment.  It would yield a work which truly reflects contemporary experience in all its complexity.  We live in a far more complex world than Mozart.  Art should not always shut out where we are as a species and reflect only one small part of what we are.  Of course, there are works where a narrow range would be acceptable, and even desirable, but for me, the goal should be a more human art, a more complete art.  Narrowly focused works are like experiments, in which we learn what that particular approach is capable of, but my goal is to take what is learned from these works and put them into a larger perspective.  Moving art forward, for me, means expanding our ability to make art reflect everything that we are.  This is the job of the artist.