Contemporary style

When discussing ideas on a new mainstream, it is natural to ask about the styles of composition which do represent the classical music of today. There is certainly a sense that none of these styles can fulfill a mainstream need, that they are too specialized or too sophisticated to reach a broader audience or form a real basis for cultural developments ranging farther afield. This assessment aside, I do enjoy the avant garde music of the 20th century, and continue to value it, even if I have neglected developing most of my online remarks on the subject (with the notable exception of Scelsi, upon whose work I have been asked to comment more extensively by other organizations). This state of affairs is partly coincidence, as I did much of my own exploration and discussion of this music immediately prior to maintaining web resources beginning in the early 90s. I was reluctant to attempt to redo work I had just done, and the subsequent timing of the web explosion has served to isolate me from what was at one time my primary interest, contemporary music. That I still consider contemporary application the underlying motivation for other scholarly activity goes to illustrate how contemporary styles can become isolated from even sympathetic people, through no real fault of their own.

To some extent, the sophistication of individual styles, and their consequent divergence from each other even within the broadly defined avant garde arena, drives this situation. Stepping from one style to the other, especially with some intervening withdrawal, is no easy task, as the reinvestment and plasticity of mind required can be substantial. That the styles (Stockhausen, Xenakis, Cage, Boulez, Ferneyhough, Ligeti, etc.) do reward this investment is certainly an important fact regarding their absolute worth, but makes stepping from one to the other little easier. It is general musical knowledge which is the primary aid in such a task. For the broader audience, of course, these remarks are vastly understated. There are barriers to understanding these composers' oeuvres which may simply never be crossed. In fact, given the hour-after-hour musical obsessions of some of us, one might as well ask why the general public should want to become so sophisticated — jaded — as to feel a need for these styles at all. From the audience's perspective, is there not enough "classical" music already to last a lifetime, to fill the leisure moments in which they desire such a thing? Indeed there is. It is a very few people, mostly collection-oriented, who are familiar with the full scope of historical music, who want music they have never heard before, but who never yearn for anything particularly different. Composers, of course, are something else entirely. Composers are driven to express themselves today, and their extensive training gives them such musical sophistication that the old styles seem insufficient.

Are these composers who formed their styles in the mid-twentieth century — many of them dead — even to be considered "contemporary" composers? Probably not, but naming the most significant music of the current generation is that much more difficult without a little intervening time to give us some rhetorical distance. What is current now, rather than 20 years ago? With the advent of historicism, composers interested in a deep connection to tradition have the choice of "skipping over" the most recent strands of art music tradition, and basing their work on earlier historical styles. This is largely unprecedented, although composers such as Bach and Beethoven did refer to some relatively early music in conjunction with their work in the style of the times. With contemporary composers such as Tavener & Pärt (and again, to some extent, Scelsi), medieval style has had an impact in the music of today. This is likely to continue. Although its representatives have not received the same acclaim, Baroque style seems even more popular today. I find numerous composers writing in variants of Baroque style, often as a hobby. This is also, to some extent, exactly what the record-buying public wants, a conventional "common practice" work they have not heard. As suggested, any new mainstream will involve some creative forgetting of this sort. Indeed, it has been suggested that the composers named here may form something of a lost generation, as later creators simply skip over their oeuvres, to be inspired by those of earlier times.

The implication is clearly that later 20th century style is too sophisticated, or maybe too personal, to be a basis for further composition within a traditional (i.e. adding one's own creativity to that of another) framework. Perhaps it is a musical dead end. Nonetheless, the music of these and other composers has a great deal to offer. There is certainly more to it than an exclusionary feeling, even if the sort of musical knowledge required makes it exclusionary in practice. The two cannot be connected, and one should not fault a composer for learning so much about music that simpler styles do not fully engage his faculties. That complexity per se is inherently virtuous is equally untenable, but much of this music, even if one never comes to fully enjoy it on a personal level, can yield a much greater sense of perspective on music one does enjoy. Indeed, much of it is not especially complex, at least not as measured by concurrent sounds or other style-neutral metrics. Much 20th century music is, of course, rather complex. When it comes to explaining what I find valuable in various modern styles, I have some remarks on my pages for those composers, although I should spend time writing more & deeper discussions. Xenakis' mathematical explorations have yielded new melodic & rhythmic combinations. Boulez' structural rhetoric is, in many ways, a natural extension of literary structure. Stockhausen's sense of interrelationship in layers points to broader connections between sound phenomena. Ligeti's sense of mechanistic polyphony fits the industrial age.

The various merits of modern style can be readily appreciated with exposure, and on more than the intellectual level, even if that sense of perspective is the one non-subjective value. Simple expression certainly has its merit, but simple expression cannot incorporate and relate a broad range of stylistic influences and traditional debts. It can be an emanation of the world, and an invaluable one at that, but it cannot relate the world to itself in any detailed fashion. This is what the classical dialectic is all about, and it is consequently the tremendous weight of available musical knowledge which has mandated highly personal or even convoluted styles by way of connecting it. As this mandate melts away under the heat of impossibility, and it is, perhaps we can be left with an abstract respect for the earlier work of others, but no direct creative connection to it. This may also mean that contemporary style (i.e. not the 20th century) is not even connected to itself, but is personal in the most straightforward way.

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Todd M. McComb