Saturday 2 July 2022

 rigor mortis

In the last several months, I've had the opportunity to hear premieres of several new works by several composers.  With some exceptions, I have been struck by, firstly, the similarity of some of these works, and secondly, by their seeming rejection of anything like discourse.

For me, the best music is music that wants to discuss something with me, or, at the very least, show me something I hadn't thought of.  In the most obvious cases, like Beethoven 5, there is a clear-cut process of exposure and development.  Beethoven presents the famous basic motive, and then goes on to discuss this, in the process showing us all the possibilities we would not have thought of ourselves.  In less obvious examples, like Piano and String Quartet by Morton Feldman, there is a beautiful and subtle evolution of detail from a poignantly presented central sonority, almost as though the composer is reconsidering his basic idea very slowly, gradually exposing more and more of the nuances.

Much of the new music I have been hearing is the opposite.  Almost none of it involves any kind of forward momentum-- rather, it seems content to expose some sounds (some of which, I admit, are truly beautiful) and then move on.  Any suggestion that the composer wants me to reconsider or think about what they have just let me hear is swept away as the work progresses.

Perhaps the most striking thing about much of what I've heard is the insistence on scales, repeated notes, and that very Hollywood ominous, swelling low register chord.  I remember having a conversation once with a very clever young composer who was deliberately avoiding any kind of motives, themes, development, etc., who felt that he was creating a work from texture, without reference to more traditional means.  I couldn't say I felt he was successful, but at least I respected the fact that he had a concept (albeit one based on a misunderstanding of spectralism.)  This is not true of much of the music I've been hearing lately.  So many works seem to be scales careening up and down (mostly up,) followed by short, sharp chords, interpolated with repeated notes, followed by "scary" low register growling.  The actual harmonic language seems not to matter much-- I've heard both aggressively consonant modal music of this type, and aggressively octatonic-y dissonant music of this type.

The net result is music that I just can't care about.  I can't retain it, and I don't have any interest in hearing it again.

And let me be perfectly clear:  these are very accomplished composers.  The instrumental writing is impeccable.  They seem to be doing exactly what they want to be doing, and they are doing it well.

I just wonder if what they seem to want to do is actually worth doing.

Is new music truly going to become New Age music?  Because that's how some of this comes across to me, especially the modal stuff.  The octatonic-y stuff isn't New Age, but it works the same way, washing over the listener and attempting to create an immediate impact without worrying too much about the big picture.

Yes, rigor is old-fashioned.  The rigor that defined what has come to be regarded as standard repertoire is very much a part of the past, part of a tradition that perhaps no longer applies.  Are audiences really not interested in discourse anymore?  Because I can't think of a single "standard rep" work that doesn't engage with rigor.  Even Debussy, the godfather of non-developmental music, couldn't completely forsake tradition.

Time will tell if this new music is relevant.

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