"I'm interested in any crazy, creative idea beyond normal imagination," says conductor Long Yu in a New York Times article about the New York Philharmonic premiere of a concerto for violin, percussion and two ping-pong players. "Classical music needs more like this."
Does it, though? [Ron Howard voice-over: No, it doesn't]
For a long time, the dominant mindset in contemporary concert music has been one of heavy-handed and sometimes downright frivolous convention-breaking. This mindset ignores an obvious problem: once convention-breaking is common, it's not only aesthetically problematic, it's also its own convention, and therefore self-defeating as an artistic goal. Classical music doesn't need more of that, it needs less! Music should get back to drawing people in the way it traditionally did in the past, with depth of emotion, beauty and subtle ingenuity. It may not be as easy as adding ping pong to a concerto, but it's definitely worth the effort.
This post got kind of long, so here's a tl;dr summary for those who aren't ready to commit to a long read, or only have 30 seconds to spare:
1. The culture of contemporary classical music (or a highly influential subset within it) is obsessed with an often cheap, surface-level notion of innovation.
2. This modern version was not much a value to musicians and composers before the early-mid 20th century (not coincidentally, when contemporary music lost its way and became wildly unpopular). Nor is it the reason that we appreciate and love past composers' music. Today's musicians and historians betray their modern bias in trying to force a norm-breaking narrative into music history.
3. For thousands of years, music (along with most endeavors of human culture) has evolved by gradually synthesizing and mixing different existing elements, with new elements sprinkled in and conventions broken only incidentally.
4. That doesn't mean music didn't evolve or change! Past composers, without relying on shortcut, attention-grabbing innovations, nevertheless developed deep and subtly distinctive styles through careful study of music past and present and a gradual honing of their individual crafts and idiosyncratic tastes.
5. Innovation should be a means to an end in music (and art), not an end in itself. Great music always has (with possibly rare exceptions**) and probably always will grow out of existing, established traditions and norms, because without those, people can't communicate on the same plane. When innovation becomes fetishized as it too often is today, and the common vocabulary of music tossed out the window, the results are neither meaningful nor fulfilling, and the resulting innovations don't tend to stick around or have lasting impact.
For supporting evidence, read on below:
[Note: None of the composers or directors of groups I criticize directly or obliquely in this post and the last one responded to my invitation to comment, respond, or otherwise explain their philosophies: Long Yu, Andy Akiho, Phyllis Chen, Anna-Louise Walton, International Contemporary Ensemble Director Rebekah Heller, and Switch Ensemble Director Jason Buchanan.]
Performers of contemporary classical music are overly obsessed with innovation, with breaking boundaries, with challenging convention, and with transforming and redefining music at every turn. These phrases, by themselves, are so overused on the websites of contemporary music ensembles and composers that they're essentially meaningless. Check or listen to the mission, artistic, or about statements from an assortment of leading contemporary ensembles here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here ...you get the point. (Aside: I like some of these groups' music, some of them I think are innovative in a good way, my point here is just to illustrate the innovation arms race which in general is destructive to the evolution of good music...As a rare contrast in outward philosophy, aside from my own chamber group, here's a leading / more famous group that eschews innovation-talk and goes more for the substance in their bio.)
Let's hear some of this path-breaking innovation in action (I randomly chose the first media sample from one of the group's links above, International Contemporary Ensemble):
Can someone who understands or enjoyed that explain to me the point? I genuinely do not understand. USUAL DISCLAIMER: my issue is with the music and ideology that gives rise to it, not the composer herself
Composers and musicians through the 19th century never considered norm-breaking to be an aesthetic goal. What makes their music great is not any (rare) tendency to defy norms, but rather the ability to forge unique styles within, rather than outside, conventions and boundaries.
Take a guy like Mozart. Never added any "new sounds" to the development of music. What a slouch, amirite? All he did was steal from the traditions of counterpoint, sonata form, concerto form, Italian opera buffa, etc. etc. etc. that were already well-developed before his time and re-combine them into something uniquely his own in stunningly brilliant fashion! Did Mozart do anything specifically radical or revolutionary in his music? No, he just took everything in front of him and made it into a distinctive mix of something better, and that's why we love him. [Hilarious aside: the Wikipedia entry for Mozart has a section on "innovations" which literally just lists all the styles that Mozart borrowed from. Modern innovation-bias, example 1!]
There's a great (in the pejorative sense) tradition in musicology of attributing radicalism to composers in a manner that is completely unsupported by evidence. Case study: chromaticism, and when it really developed in the history of music. Musicologists love to credit Wagner with being a great innovator in the field of harmonic chromaticism. But was Wagner really stretching the limits of harmony? Not if you believe Glenn Gould's assessment of the Art of Fugue by Bach ("it's very similar to Wagnerian and post-Wagnerian chromaticism")*. Well, if Bach did it first, then I guess Wagner clearly wasn't so radical after all, he was just stealing from Bach, and Bach was the real radical! Well, not if you know the music of Lassus and Gesualdo (which Bach surely did, though does that really matter anyway?). "Lassus' music is notable for its extraordinary chromaticism." And that was 200 years earlier! Is it possible, then, that none of the composers between Lassus and Schoenberg really innovated much at all when it comes to chromaticism?
Now admittedly, people like Beethoven and Wagner perhaps saw themselves as musical revolutionaries, but that's because they had massive egos! When you listen to the actual music they wrote, you hear that it's nothing like a clean break from that of their predecessors and contemporaries (although it is often bigger, longer, and louder) (and with some exceptions**). The more notable musical differences, besides the grandiosity (again, the ego thing), are subtle elements of style; they both operated well within a harmonic and rhythmic framework that had already existed for hundreds of years.
[Here's some really cool Bach for you (h/t Bernard for pointing me to this movement, and indeed for helping distill many ideas in this post). ]
Is this movement incredibly, hauntingly beautiful? Yes! Is it radically chromatic? Harder to answer. If yes, does it render Wagner (not to mention Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven) less radical or progressive? If I hadn't heard that movement, would I think less of Bach? Are these questions even relevant? Not really. The problem with this whole style of musical analysis is that it tries to force music onto a one-dimensional spectrum, from old to new, conservative to radical, tonal to chromatic. But music isn't one-dimensional, it's infinitely dimensional, which means there's always boundless room for new styles in the cracks between existing ones. Seeing music history as some kind of march forward totally misses the point, music moves sideways in all sorts of twists and turns.
In their (amazingly awesome and free comic) book Theft: A History of Music, Duke professors James Boyle and Jennifer Jenkins argue that the history of music is essentially a story of borrowing and remixing. Mozart borrowed from the traditions mentioned above and added a dash of his own personality to create his style. Scott Joplin (or really, whoever started ragtime before him) took the American march, some European harmonies, mixed in African syncopations and made a new style out of that. Their basic idea holds true today, except for this influential slice of the small world of contemporary concert music that for some reason is trying to perpetually reinvent the wheel.
For most great composers, his or her style develops / developed after a shorter or longer period of writing more generic music of the time (including those supposed revolutionaries Beethoven and Wagner), which is why their early works are so reminiscent of an earlier composer or contemporary. They all recognized that innovation comes with practice and mastery of craft, that it's the subtle, often hard-to-describe differences under an umbrella style that makes for the best music, not bludgeoning people over the head with something totally outside the boundaries of the norm.
Why did art evolve that way, and why should we move concert music back in that direction? The power of music, like language, is largely based on a common understanding or common vocabulary, and so people hear it in reference to that vocabulary. When you try to throw out or reinvent the vocabulary, people are, not surprisingly, confused, and the lines of communication are lost.
Composers in the past understood this intuitively: write in reference to the common vocabulary; look for ways to be expressive within the boundaries and break them where necessary. Most musicians still understand it today, which is why most contemporary concert music is not particularly popular***, and why other genres of music, written in that long-standing common vocabulary, are more so.
Only the wildly self-conscious need to perpetually push the envelope has led so many composers to abandon this common vocabulary. But music doesn't need redefinition, only continual refinement. It doesn't need to be forced a certain way; it evolves aplenty on its own.
So is all contemporary music terrible? Of course not! I'm only writing about what I still see as the dominant cultural strain, a lingering line of thinking that still has a strong grip on the music world. For a more detailed contrast of the terrific with the terrible in contemporary music— consistent with the above analysis— please stay tuned for a future post.
I'll close this one with a personal anecdote (and, admittedly, a chance to brag just a lil'). Recently I had the privilege of meeting, talking with, and playing some of my music (over headphones) for my #1 musical idol, pianist-composer-improviser Gabriela Montero, who, if you don't know her music, then what are you doing right now go listen to some. Okay here's a short piece that mixes traditional tonal harmony with Latin dance rhythms (and a ton of counterpoint):
One of the things she said to me was (I'm paraphrasing here) is "it's those unconventional choices, little moments in music that I live for, and I don't have time for music that doesn't have them." When she says unconventional, she's not talking about music that you can only experience live in a swimming pool, or adding metronomes to a piece for piano. Those are lazy forms of unconventionality. She means the subtle, hard work of finding beautiful surprises within a stylistic context. I hear those moments all over in the short piece above: the quintuplet-sextuplet combo in the melody at 0:13 (that comes back at 0:38, 0:58, etc.), the way the melody changes metric emphasis between 0:41 and 0:44 (so simple but so effective), the harmonic surprise at 0:52, and that's all in the first minute and doesn't even get to what's happening in the left hand! (I'm happy to report, she heard some of these moments in some of my music too :))
It's those types of moments that I miss in most contemporary music.
*The Art of Fugue is an interesting case. In fact, if you scroll back earlier in the linked video of Glenn Gould talking, he calls the Art of Fugue the most backward-looking piece of music in its time. So which is it, Glenny, backward or forward-looking? Again, false dichotomy, it's neither, it's both! And Bach didn't really care one way or the other, that's the whole point here. He wasn't trying to forge a new path for music, he was just writing some damn great music. And that he did.
**Various exceptions that probably should be noted, either genuine disruptions in the history of music, or mistaken ones. I'll get to those as well, how they variously fit in or not with what I'm saying here.
***Discussions of audience perspectives and whether those matter, another time. What did YOU think of the piece in the vimeo video above?