Monday, October 17, 2011

Report from the Front: 21st Century Composition

This week, I read an article in The New York Times titled “The Century’s Sounds, So Far,” Anthony Tommasini’s review of the opening of the festival “SONiC: Sounds of a New Century.” As the title suggests, it is a festival entirely made up of 21st century music. In addition, all 100 featured composers are under 40 years old.

Here is the link:

Near the beginning of the article, Tommasini confirms what we have often put forward in class: the future of classical music appears to include a wider set of musical references and styles that disregard “high” and “low” classifications.

From just the opening concert I am not ready to venture an overall impression about the state of music in the 21st century. Still, one theme did emerge. Young composers today, born after the stylistic battles that stultified creativity during the 1960s and 1970s, exude independence and feel entitled to draw from, borrow, use (or abuse) any style of contemporary music that interests them.

I commented two weeks ago on how this celebration of fusion is not bad in itself, but may willfully ignore classical music that does not choose to integrate other genres. Tommasini likewise appears to reserve judgment on the trend he notices: contemporary styles may be “used” just as easily as they are “abused.” We can also find these concerns in Nicholas Cook’s conclusion, not with regard to composition, but to musical culture in general. “If we find the music of other times and places too easy to hear, too well adapted to our own modes of understanding and pleasure, then we are all too likely to assimilate it to our own values… [Music] cannot abolish cultural difference at a stroke.” (1998: 127) As fusion is more and more embraced as a practice, we see more critics cautioning against abuse of these techniques. However, these are points I have already touched on to some extent.

What I thought was particularly interesting in Tommasini’s article was his suggestion that these new works definitively mark the end of the “stylistic battles” between composers. We have not only achieved a pluralism of styles within the works themselves (where twelve-tone rows can exist alongside tonal chords and driving rhythm, as in Christopher Stark’s work), but also a pluralism of styles between works (where two different styles of classical composition are considered equally good).

Tommasini clearly thinks it is good that the composer battles have been left to the past. This seems to be a reasonable claim. However, looking ahead in the reading, it appears that Ivan Hewett would not agree. He claims that some pieces, such as John Cage’s Variations III, have such a strong compositional worldview that they obliterate any other piece on the program (2003: 137). He suggests that pluralism may be a bit precious and polite; angry gangs of composers make for more interesting musical debates (2003: 118). Art and democracy are both born from heated debate. This has some truth, but I can’t help feeling, like Tommasini, that the bitter rivalries of 20th century composition limited art more than it expanded musical possibilities.


Aimée C said...

Forgot to post the link to the article:

Simon said...

Sorry Sarah, I didn't realize you had already posted about the SONiC Festival! It's relevant and interesting, so we might as well have 2 posts about it...