Innovation: the false idol of contemporary (and Baroque, and Classical, and Romantic...) music
"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 by Andy Akiho. "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.
Whenever I tell people I'm a pianist or that I write music, I brace for the almost-inevitable follow-up: "So what kind of music do you write? Classical? Or...?"
Person I Just Met: So do you do, like, classical music?
Me: Well, that's a complicated question, really! I guess by classical music maybe you mean the distillation and crystallization of various musical traditions in Europe—Renaissance madrigals, Italian opera, Church counterpoint, among others—around 1820?
PIJM: Well really I just meant...
M: But of course those traditions have always fit together rather uncomfortably and meant different things to different people (I mean can you even believe that Bach and Bocherini get lumped together?? Ha! Me neither!), and then in the 20th century they seemed to split between people who think music peaked in the 18th or 19th century (the Traditionalists, one might call them) vs. people who think classical music should make a clean break with the past in order to keep up with the times (the Modernists).
PIJM: ...I'm not sure I follow...
M: You see on the one hand, I agree with the modernists that classical music has to be a living tradition, but generally disagree with them on where that tradition is heading. I also sympathize with the traditionalists in their desire to preserve this canon of great music from 18th and 19th centuries, though I think they're a little close-minded about the possibility for music to keep evolving and improving along similar lines.
PIJM: ...really I was just wondering if you can play "Pachelbel's Canon."
M: **Shudders in horror**
After hearing this question approximately a thousand times, you'd think I'd have a good answer by now, something short and sweet to describe, or at least give some idea, of what my music is like. And I'm well aware that most people asking it are probably just being polite, ready to move on with their lives and forget what I say (or go listen to Pachelbel's Canon). But the question of what writing "classical music" means today is pretty much the aesthetic battle of my professional life. So since you asked...
The problem is—and sorry-not-sorry for the cliche—what do you mean by classical, exactly? Is it music that stems out of a specific tradition? Is it music that's "relaxing"? (No, please don't ever say that again.) Is it music with a certain type of feel or musical characteristic? Is it music written for a specific purpose? For specific instruments? Is it music that exists primarily as a written document? Is it music you can only understand if you're well-educated? (No, no, no, no, and no.) Of course the actual answer is complicated, and most people are no doubt happy with an approximate answer that isn't terribly accurate or specific, a "you know it when you hear it" type situation.
Why do I care then? Because people hijack the good name of this pseudo-almost-tradition, and all sorts of stuff gets lumped into this category that people put me in, and I want no part of it! This lumping takes many forms, but the two main ones are:
1. Mediocre music by any dead white guy from Europe, 1600-1800 ("so pleasant!"):
This is the Pachelbel's canon, put-it-on-in-the-background-or-to-fall-asleep brand of "classical music." If it survived in written form for 200 years, then it must be good, right? Uh, wrong! Most of this music was tossed off to be played a single time for a king, duke, or duchess, and doesn't really deserve our attention today. It was written for light entertainment and most of it is extremely generic. Exercise some discretion, people. Music from the past should clear a higher, not lower, standard, than music from the present, in order to garner precious attention, resources, and time. Exhibit 1 (pulled from today's WETA playlist...despite the fact that either he stole the opening from third movement of Bach's Brandenburg no. 1 or vice versa, the rest of this piece is thoroughly forgettable.)
2. Experimental, incomprehensible, or otherwise "radical" avant-garde music from 1920 onward:
There's this naive, narrow-minded, and surprisingly durable belief that concert music has to be somehow outside the proverbial box in order to be sufficiently or authentically innovative, as if all of the traditionally melodic and harmonic music has been "used up" and there's "nothing left" to write with "conventional harmonies." This mindset ignores all the subtle gradations of style throughout the history of music and the infinite possibilities for new ones in the same conceptual universe. It would be like saying everything creative and expressive that could possibly be written in English already has been (I mean there's been so many books, how many more could there possibly be, right?), so all novels from now on should be in a new made-up language that no one understands. But of course the expressive power of English (or any language) lies almost entirely in how the words are combined and re-combined. (This analogy requires further teasing out, as I will make sure to do at a later date.)
Anyway, classical music's chucking out of its traditional, umbrella "language" leaves the niche for beautiful, communicative music to other genres like folk, pop, rock, and dare I say, country, relegating the past 50 years of "classical" or concert music composition to relative cultural obscurity. Example (this piece was part of a grant-winning application from New Music USA, a grant I've applied for unsuccessfully many times):
I don't mean to sound bitter about the success of this music (financial success, that is), but I certainly am annoyed. To be clear, my problem with the above is not that it's radical or different (since it's not radically different from lots of other new music), but that it's boring. It lacks elements that would command and hold my attention: melody, harmony, and coherent, recognizable rhythms. It could work in supplement to something else, but why would I devote all of my attention to it? What emotions is it supposed to effect in me? If "classical" music means anything, it should refer to music that somewhat requires and definitely rewards paying attention, and elicits some kind of emotional response. (Neither the composer nor the artistic director of the ensemble responded to my questions about the piece and my invitation to explain what it's about or the philosophy behind it.)
Of course, the two categories above are at extreme ends of two axes, whereas most everything exists between them on a spectrum (or various spectra...maybe just a multi-dimensional space). I have no problem with composers themselves who wrote not-so-great music in Europe in the 1700s (they can't all be geniuses, after all), and I have no problem with people writing experimental music today (if that's your thing and you really find meaning in it, then go for it, I guess). My beef is with how the music in each of those categories reflects on, takes attention from, or gets associated with what I do, which is very, very different.
(More on that next time)
The Music Post
The Music Post is a blog / podcast for reflecting on all things musical, informed by years of writing, playing, and teaching music.