How to be Relevant

Style, John Wolf Brennan and Fergus Johnston.

In the last issue of JMI I raised the issue of contemporary music operating in styles of such number and variety that confusion, if not a crisis, seems to prevail. My overview, suggesting that each composer almost creates a new style separate from his/her colleagues’ is, at the very least, at variance with the tidy world assumed to exist by most of us most of the time. Where there is no stylistic coherence, then the word ‘style’ itself becomes much less important. Mind you, only if everyone realises this to be the case.

Maybe to embrace this situation would be a good thing, since instead of always being guided (or distracted) by issues of style and genre, we would move quicker to categorise music into the only important boxes: good and bad! But the big problem there is that without stylistic coherence we become less able, not more able, to judge good from bad. It reminds me of Chesterton’s comment that what is remarkable when religion breaks down in society is not that people then believe nothing, but that they will then believe anything!

But what do I actually believe? Well, firstly I believe in good versus bad. I do not believe we need anyone, and especially not arts administrators, to be the style police. My attitude would resemble Schoenberg’s when he said that there are plenty of good pieces in C major left to be written – he obviously did not mean that he should be concentrating on them. There is room for all these composers who write in accessible styles, but there is also a vitally important signpost pointing to ‘cutting edge’ (twinned, alas, with inaccessible). Therefore, while avoiding a prescriptive tone, I would still point out that the greater challenge for a composer is to write music that is both good and unprecedented. That is the place where the most serious endeavour exists. There is, potentially, a whole debate surrounding this view, and I am very much aware that many composers have lost faith with this model. The main problem seems to be that when a piece in a truly revolutionary style comes along, it is virtually impossible to work out if it is good or bad. Only after some context exists, in the shape of more pieces in a similar vein, is it easy to assess quality. In general I would downplay this problem as it applies to composers, because such major stylistic revolutions are extremely rare. The normative level of innovation going on is something which the serious composer is not surprised by. It is therefore also the job of the serious composer to be the person best equipped for working (which involves knowing good from bad) in these dizzying heights of innovation; and this is perfectly achievable if the composer is up-to-date on all recent developments. The composer who takes on the task in this way resembles a research scientist: it is not enough for this kind of composer to produce new material, he/she has also to work in the existing context of the subject under research. It seems to me that someone, though not everyone, has to work at the coal-face.

Multiple genres
It follows from all that I have said, that if he/she has the energy and time there is (according to my personal view) nothing stopping a composer writing at the coal-face while supplementing his/her income with good quality genre work. If I could chance predicting the future, which is of course extremely unwise, I would say that perhaps soon we will see more composers who do this. Writers do it all the time. The author Iain Banks is quite able to write in two veins, literary on the one hand, and the more bankable (excuse the pun!) science fiction on the other. Usually a pseudonym is all that is needed to help avoid confusion. Why don’t more composers do this? Beethoven certainly tried to earn a few ready thalers by arranging Scottish and Irish folk tunes, though it appears he did not have any financial success with it. In fact a few composers are already involved in making music in separate genres. Jürgen Simpson writes very high quality contemporary operas, but also produces rock music with The Jimmy Cake. There are Irish composers who write in more than just two genres: John Wolf Brennan, whose output breaks down into serious contemporary classical and jazz. His jazz output seems to range from avant-garde to folk-jazz. Roger Doyle is another who floats in and out of the genre borders.

So while it appears that there is an irreversible excess of stylistic variety, and that it seriously hampers the possibility of a general agreement (among the wider population) on what is good or bad, the two main axes on our map continue to be good-bad and precedented-unprecedented. Some composers and cultural commentators have thrown that map out, but unless they demonstrate a good replacement, I would assume they are lost. Also, composers don’t all have to crowd into the unprecedented/masterpiece corner of the map at all times, but they should definitely know a bit about how to get there.

John Wolf Brennan has released many CDs in recent years, and I would echo his own view that the most important of them is The Well-prepared Clavier. That represents his more serious work, in the sense that I have used the term here. It is where he demonstrates that he knows ‘how to get there’. But his most recent CD project is Phoenix, from Pago Libre, a four-piece jazz ensemble, just one among several groups he is part of. In fact the four members of this line-up share the composing credits. The most imaginative and innovative aspects of this live recording is in the use and combination of unusual colours: the instrumentation that the four use is violin, voice, horn, flugelhorn, alphorn, alperidoo, piano, arcopiano, prepared piano and bass. This is music of great quality in a folk-tinged jazz style, but Brennan himself seems to provide the safer sounding tracks, while it is Arkady Shilkloper who stretches the boundaries. The various stylistic leanings manage to complement rather than grate, when listened through as a whole. An introduction to John Wolf Brennan’s very large oeuvre and stylistic span can be gleaned from his website

Evolution of a single style
Fergus Johnston was featured in RTÉ’s Horizons series on Tuesday 30th March, and his two pieces, a flute concerto (1996-7) and Samsara (1991), were written five years apart. Thus it was just possible to trace the gradual evolution of his style and to detect some movement on the above-mentioned map. While both pieces were substantively original and contemporary, the earlier piece was more clearly reminiscent of the sound-world of previous composers (Lutoslawski and Ligeti) while the later concerto was in a more individual voice. The most impressive part of this work was the slow movement, where this composer’s own particular research into harmonic and rhythmic technique were evident in passages of great subtlety and interest, while the broad gesture of the whole movement remained very clear.

Fergus Johnston’s approach to style, and his pattern of stylistic development does not require any post-modern mediation or explanation. A tendency to emulate great masters, and later to pursue and develop a more personal voice, is a common pattern among many historical composers also.

Published on 1 July 2004

John McLachlan is a composer and member of Aosdána.


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