How to compose in your own time

We might as well start by stating that this article will not provide any solution to the problem of how to compose in your own historical time. Like an academic character from a David Lodge novel it will instead, ‘merely seek to raise some interesting...

We might as well start by stating that this article will not provide any solution to the problem of how to compose in your own historical time. Like an academic character from a David Lodge novel it will instead, ‘merely seek to raise some interesting questions around the topic’.

Stravinsky said something like, ‘On the question of writing the music of the future? … I am happy to write the music of the present.’ While Varèse, whose music sounded, in its day, ‘futuristic’ and more modern than Stravinsky’s, said, ‘The artist is never ahead of his time, but most people are far behind theirs.’ But these are just composerly sound-bites – what, if anything, can really be gained by considering these questions more deeply? Well, we certainly have to remember that both of these composers made those remarks in a context of feeling misunderstood and under-appreciated (plus ça change…); that in their day few listened, and few of those who did understood. What’s more, whenever his public started to cotton on to Stravinsky’s style, he changed it radically. Varèse never had such a problem.

But there is a serious problem with composing in one’s time that was not always really there. We are familiar with the notion that composers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were in touch with their audiences in a way that is rare these days (Mozart’s German-language operas and so forth). What is not always taken into account is that up to the 1830s there was nobody playing the music of fifty years or more before – that is, until Mendelssohn came along and started ‘reviving Bach’. Composers were not ‘keeping’ in touch with their audience; they were simply ‘in touch’, because there was a lingua franca for audience and composer alike (the complete opposite being the case today). It took another seventy to a hundred years before that revivalism took centre stage to create the problem of canonical ‘classical’ music: concert music as museum curatorship. If we could imagine a world where ‘the new music’ was the only thing the classically trained musician played, and all older music was seen as archaic and mostly irrelevant, then we would be closer to the state of mind of audiences of 150 years ago.

Composers nowadays operate without clear stylistic reference points. This means that to relate to one’s times is not as simple a question as it used to be. There seem to be many styles which may be an authentic reflection of the times, and many more that are accepted in the concert halls but are probably bogus. For example, one composer may regard minimalism as a bogus style, another may see it as a valid style of the past, and another may find it still useful to explore. Can all three be right? The same example could be posed for a certain kind of schoolish avant-gardism, or for other styles.

But Stravinsky and Varèse already showed two ways out of this problem. For Varèse it was simply to be in a vanguard of one, sticking to a personal style that could never be mistaken for old hat or for anyone else (though it did take pointers from other art forms); while for Stravinsky it was to question both the model of personal style and that of historical progress, and still succeed through the strength of what can only be described as his ‘voice’. When it comes to writing the music of the present these two approaches seem to still be the main models for most composers, who pick one route or the other (though they are not entirely contradictory). But as either of these represents a solution from seventy years’ past, is that itself a problem? The world has moved on substantially from those days. It could be argued that the conditions no longer exist for either of these approaches to guide us. The argument against Varèse’s model is that it relies on the notion of inexorable progress in all culture which we are no longer so certain of. The problem with Stravinsky’s model is that it partially relies on a supply of dead styles waiting to be borrowed, and the supply of those becomes increasingly limited over time – especially if no-one uses Varèse’s model!

These days, there is another approach when it comes to being ‘of one’s time’. This view states that the approach taken by any composer of seventy years ago is going to fail because the relationship with the audience has, since then, become so remote that addressing this problem is actually the key issue facing composers of today. It is felt by many that the ‘time lag’ between the music being written and some kind of general understanding by the concert-goer (not to mention the musician) has reached a critical, indeed infinite, length that suggests that the music of, say, Boulez or Nono will never actually reach the kind of acceptance that a Wagner or Debussy have. A large number of mainly American composers have really embraced this view, taken it as a point of departure for developing their style, and have achieved wide public recognition while so doing. The main names are fairly obvious: Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams spring to mind, but in fact there are many others, and the trend – which is a forty-year long trend now, is also strong in Eastern Europe (and to some extent everywhere else). Incidentally, the basic idea of a shift towards accommodating the listener covers a massive range of styles, lest it appear this is just about minimalism. Those major three names are no longer minimalists either, each having evolved (and essentially commercialised) away from the (relative) rigours of actual minimalism. For them the style is no longer ‘of the times’, interestingly.

Let us pose the question: ‘can you be of your times if you never connect with an audience?’ Surely there must exist a danger that the overly recondite can never even be art since it may never have sufficient meaning to anyone besides the creator. If so, then the question of whether the music someone writes is meaningful can depend on this. How we judge if that connection exists or is going to exist, however, is just another minefield, whilst a connection with others is clearly not a guarantee that the result is art either. Essentially, then, it seems that those who have turned towards writing more accessible music are just pessimists for the future, and those who continue on the recondite road are optimists. It also happens to suit Reich, Glass and Adams to take the pessimistic view of music history since it gives them a rationale for writing the music they actually just want to write (and I’m sure the same can be said in reverse for the optimists).

Then there is the question: ‘does that which seeks actively to connect with an audience automatically disqualify itself from becoming art?’ That one goes against the prevailing mood and will sound absurd to some, but in these times of ever-greater commercialisation of formerly cultural activities (e.g. football), being more sensitive to this question is actually a sign of noticing one’s times! The argument here goes: once you start thinking about the wider reception of your art-work while actually making it, you change the course of its creation. That change is in the direction of reifying the work before it is even completed. In other words the position of the artist as expressive creator is fatally compromised by an attempt to receive (as an imaginary other) the work in the course of its creation. Now this is a rather purist view, and we can hardly imagine Handel or Bach giving it much time (but only because it is a view that belongs to later musical eras), but it lies at the root of the recondite tendency in music and art. If you worry about commercialism as a creeping force that eats away at the remaining meaningful cultural space, then this question is one to consider. However, one also has to be aware of the danger of the corollary: ‘Does that which actively seeks to distance itself from an audience automatically qualify itself as art?’ Wherever that unconsciously becomes a core value for artists, they are lost.

These thoughts were all stimulated by the recent RTÉ Living Music Festival, as it provided us all with a welcome opportunity to hear live a wide range of John Adams’ work. I came to the conclusion that he is a first-rate musical talent and an incredible bundle of creative energy, but not a composer of the importance of Stravinsky or Varèse (or Berio). The problem seemed to be in the area of how he stands in relation to his times as discussed above. I had severe problems with his Harmonielehre for orchestra, in which he places stretches which sound like Schoenberg (Pelleas und Melisande, perhaps) right next to fake Philip Glass. His ability to do that is reminiscent of Stravinsky’s chameleon tendencies, but it failed for me as a work because (a) there was no Adams in it, (b) the two styles jar incredibly, and (c) there is no discernible reason internal to the work why any stretch goes on for any particular period of time. In most of the other works in the festival there was an Adams sound, and there were no competing styles. But I was left with the third problem returning in many pieces: e.g. in John’s Book of Alleged Dances, for string quartet, some movements feel very clearly too short and others very clearly too long. Always the user-friendliness of the style is a little unsettling, as if we can hear him intervening to make the music accessible. In Tchaikovsky’s memorable phrase (about his own music), ‘the seams are showing’. His Chamber Symphony is an electrifying thing to listen to, but it is essentially in an historical style. Speaking of which, his minimalist Shaker Loops stands out as the most demanding thing he wrote in some ways, unlike the later Hallelujah Junction, which, although satisfyingly layered and rhythmically vibrant, boils down to minimalism as slow tonal development. It just seems that Adams is so busy listening to the effect of his music that he can’t hear what it might be trying to say, and his response to the question of living in the present is to live with the majority, in the past.

Published on 1 May 2007

John McLachlan is a composer and member of Aosdána. www.johnmclachlan.info

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