Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Popular Pack & the Conservative Ear

Someone recently, in a listening session devoted to choosing between five composers for a new musical commission, labeled my music as "modern." I don't take this is a slight, although the speaker partly intended his remark as such. As I was reminded later by a musician colleague, "modern" like "experimental" is often used pejoratively by the musically untrained. The untrained ear likes the familiar, not the challenging. Untrained listeners like pop songs because the words carry meaning, regardless of the quality of the music or the execution of its performance.

Let's face it, your average rock star is a Dionysian performer, taking on the god's aspect of revelry and rule-breaking onstage and off, but only rarely does a rock star have the musical skills of a trained musician. Music school was an Apollonian environment; playing in jazz, rock and punk bands later, for me, was comparatively Dionysian. As a composer, I often seek to balance the two gods and their aspects. The point is, you need both gods in dynamic balance to make genuine, authentic music.

In this same listening session, I was surprised and dismayed at the works presented by the other four composers. My dismay was not caused by any lack of quality, as each was a skilled, accomplished composer. What dismayed me was that every piece by a given composer sounded alike: the same basic style, the same basic treatment of materials, the same basic tempi and harmonies and chord progressions. And everything was in 4/4 meter. The sameness to each piece by more than one composer made one wonder where one piece ended and another began. As if each piece were a single variation on the composer's deeper theme; as though each piece were a fresh attempt to climb the same mountain.

And there was also a certain deeper-level sameness of style between all these composers. Perhaps there was a self-selection process going on that led to a certain sameness in samples chosen to be presented on this occasion, that led to this veneer of identical cabinetry. Nonetheless there was an overall blandness and stylistic cohesion. Each composer seemed to represent a variation on a deeper, perhaps subconscious, theme. I suppose this is what has made each of these composers popular and gotten them commissions: they are unthreatening to either performers or listeners, their music not too hard to execute, not very challenging to listen to. I suppose that a certain blandness has always led to popularity. In this instance, it also led to conformity.

As my musician colleague expressed it later, the reason my pieces were pejoratively labeled "modern" was only partly because I sometimes employ 20th century musical vocabulary rather than 19th century. The other, deeper reason was simply that my compositions stood out from the pack as, well, different. (Which was completely unintentional on my part.)

Thus one wonders if there isn't a deadening of creativity going on in new music these days, just as there has been in poetry and the other arts of late; a certain mannerism that has come to replace spontaneous originality or diversity of musical style. Two of the composers presented works that were overtly neo-classical, by which one means they overtly quoted or copied early 19th century tonal music styles. Does faux Mozart represent wit, these days? Does recycled classical tonal music represent what's cool? (If so, this is indeed Mannerist.) Is it more hip nowadays to sound Schubert than Messiaen? (If so, then I am indeed genuinely out of step with my times.)

In contrast, as my musician colleague reminded me later, my own music stood out in this listening session as the music with the most diverse range. Not that I do not have my own recognizable style and voice. Nonetheless, I presented sample pieces that were alternately consonant and dissonant, small-scale and epic, up-tempo and down. While it is true that I am more naturally drawn to life's adagios than to its allegros, my music can be passionately intense and celebratory, as well tranquil and contemplative.

And for this difference, this lack of sameness among the other composers in the listening session, I was dismissed.

Well, this was a feeling I've had before, of course. I've felt it many times at poetry readings, where I was also the odd man out (as it were). Even more so at poetry critique group gatherings, or at online poetry wrokshops. I recall more than one occasion where my poetry has been criticized for being too passionate, too intense—we do after all live in a culture and era skewed more towards Apollo than Dionysus, overall—and where I was told to "tone it down." It seems this is equally true for my music. Perhaps if I toned down my music, and blanded it out, it might be more acceptable and popular, at least to the untrained ear.

The irony is that I never set out to stand out from the pack, to be Original, or different, or unpopular and experimental (which are the same thing in most circles). I only ever set out to write in ways true to my experience and my inner life. Which is what I was taught that all artists are expected to do. Apparently there is more of popularity contest, more expectations of conformity, going on than I was early led to believe.

I grew up in a thoughtful household wherein was often repeated the myth of the Hero-Artist, the Solitary Innovative Genius. My mother, after all, was a classically trained pianist and teacher, and she had biographies on the family bookshelves of several great composers and performers, which I read avidly when young. I grew up thinking the composer's (and artist's) job was to explore or discover or invent the next new thing, not to repeat the old. I was raised in the belief that innovation in the arts was a positive value, a necessary contribution to cultural evolution.

And yet I am reminded, in recalling that childhood reading, of the constantly recurring narrative of bad reviews of genuinely original music. The popular, average, musically-untrained listener and reviewer almost universally despise the innovative when confronted with it in the present moment. No matter how much the average listener recycles the narrative of innovation in the arts throughout history, or the stories genius innovators, whenever they hear genuinely original music they at first misunderstand it, misrepresent it, even vilify it. One thinks of Beethoven in this context as much as Stravinsky or John Cage. Beethoven, Berlioz, Bizet, and many other composers received notoriously horrible reviews of the premieres of works now considered classics, essential parts of the musical canon. John Cage, dead nearly two decades, and Charles Ives, dead nearly half a century, still get bad reviews. Cage once joked that his work was more acceptable to people when they thought of him as an inventor rather than a composer.

In other words, the ears of the average listener are in fact deeply conservative. They remain so.

In hearing the music presented by those other composers at that listening session, I wonder if perhaps they aren't wiser than I. If perhaps they are consciously aware that the music they compose is more conformist, more popular, more bland, and therefore more, to blunt, sellable. Certainly they've all received numerous prior commissions. Maybe they're on to something, and once again I'm just the odd man out.

To be clear, I make no claims for the originality of my own music. I never have. While it's true that my training as a composer is diverse and wide-ranging, in the end I just write what I hear in my head, and what I want to hear. I write the music that I want to listen to—that's the real bottom line. I can't help it if it seems unfamiliar, or strange, or original, or experimental to the untrained listener. I make neither apologies nor excuses for this.

I am aware of my influences, the most prominent of which are, paradoxically, the music of 14th century and 20th century composers. I find deep spiritual and emotional riches Bach's music, but I don't imitate him. I enjoy Mozart and Beethoven and Brahms, but I don't try to sound like them. If I listen for overt influences in my own music, I can hear Perotin as well as Steve Reich. I am aware of using techniques invented by Earle Brown and John Cage and Morton Feldman, but also others invented by Tomas Luis y Victoria, John Dowland, and William Byrd. Lately I hear a strong tendency, which I welcome rather than try to conceal, to absorb and redefine for myself the lineage of Debussy, Messiaen, and Takemitsu.

So it seems to me that my music is not particularly original or unusual. It's true that I prefer to write modally (which is part of the Medieval influence) rather than conventionally tonally, and that alone makes my music sound different than the neo-classicists. Perhaps the Mannerists are more adapted to the times, more tuned in than I, since after all it does seem as though we live in artistically Mannerist times. For most of post-Modernism nowadays is fundamentally mannerist.

It is perhaps a personal failing that I seem unable to conform, to blend in, to not stand out from the pack. It is very likely that the results of this listening session will be that one or another of these other composers, whose music is easy on the conservative ear, and non-threatening, will be chosen to undertake the new music commission being competed for. And not I. Maybe they're right, and I'm wrong. Maybe they're completely right that their more sellable music is the way to go, if you want to get commissions. Even if to my ears it is relatively dull and all sounds the same.

Well, what can I do? I seem unable to conform or blend in, no matter what I do. I've never been good at blending in with the pack, no matter how I've tried. All I have ever done artistically is try to be authentic, to be true to my inner experience, and to try to write the music that I want to listen to, write the poems I wanted to read, make photographs that I wanted to see. All I have ever done is pursue my own course. if that's not popular enough, if that's too "modern," I have to accept that there's nothing I can do about it. Well, I would love to receive this musical commission, in part because it would give me work for the next year; and it seems increasingly unlikely. In any event, I'll keep writing what I want to hear, even if no one else does.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

"Stand up and use your ears like a man," as Ives is supposed to have said when someone in the audience complained about a piece of “modern” music that was being performed. I’ve always believed that piece to be Sun Treader by Ruggles but I’ve also heard it said about a composition by Cowell and even at a performance of his own music so who knows when exactly he said it but his comment remains a valid one. On one of the original printed scores Ives wrote "made mostly as a joke to knock the mollycoddles out of their boxes and to kick out the softy ears!" Challenging music is not necessarily difficult music but it invariably is different.

Both Ives and Beckett have one thing in common: a sense of humour. People often fail to get both of these because they treat their works too seriously. Who said that classical music had to be serious? It was a documentary I watched on Ives many years ago that helped me get Ives – and really this is the point I was making in a recent blog about knowing how to approach certain writers – because the presenter explained that in a lot of his works Ives is having fun. The idea of two bands marching towards a town square and continuing to play as their paths crossed is pure fun. Once I got that I got Ives. I think the ‘raspberry’ at the end of his Second Symphony is just marvellous.

As for whether the other four composers you mentioned are wiser than you all I can do there is remind you that Ives did not need to rely on his music to pay his bills. He could afford – in a very literal sense – to be as modern as he liked.

7:17 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

All good points, including the last one. The problem is, I don't know anymore what other work I could do, just now. I just don't know.

But as for Ives, that's a great story. Even if it were apocryphal, it would be a great story. Thanks for reminding us of it.

Ives has been my touchstone many times in life, for just such reasons. You're right about the humor. Like Beckett, too, even with the humor in the art, the purpose underlying everything was serious as well as humorous. Ives has been one of my favorite composers since my teens—and his music is still "out there" compared to most. I think "The Unanswered Question" is one of the most sublime pieces of music ever written.

So thanks for the reminders of such good role models, and also for the stories, and the fun.

11:32 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

The Unanswered Question has long been a favourite piece with me to. What is interesting is that the first version I heard – and, as you know, that’s the one that tends to become our default – was used as a backdrop for Prospero’s ‘Our revels now are ended’ soliloquy (The Tempest Act 4, scene 1, 148–158) and it was several years before I learned that the words were nothing to do with the music. Much as it might surprise you they went well.

Anyway I was once out with my family when I knew a performance of the piece – sans voiceover – was on the radio and so I tuned in. After a few minutes my mum complained about the music only to be informed by my dad that the orchestra was still tuning up. The piece had, as you will have guessed, was about half way through at this point.

As for what you should do, that is a conscience matter. I don’t write for a living and never have had to kowtow to anyone. It may be that you can draw a line between what you do for yourself and what you do to earn a buck. If you can compartmentalise like that then the next time give them what they want and let’s face it there have been plenty of composers who have taken on commercial work to pay the bills: Malcolm Arnold and Dmitri Shostakovich’s film music jumps to mind.

12:09 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Good story about "The Unanswered Question." That's dead on target about all this.

I have no problems with compartmentalizing, and would be happy to do so. You've got to get your foot in the door, first, though.

After all, I compartmentalized my visual art for many years. The whole time I was working as a graphic artist and commercial illustrator, I was always making my own Photoshop art. There were a few grand occasions when some editor saw my fine art and asked to use it for a commercial illustration, and that was terrific. So I have no problem with doing that with the music, if it came to it. We'll see if I even get that far, though.

12:41 PM  

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