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  Re: The trouble with contemporary classical music..  MartinY at 16:43 on 26 November 2008

You raise some interesting points and I will make a considered reply later.

I worked in the university system for 30 years and I say I can agree with you that to a large entent what gets taught is not what ought to be taught but what is easy to teach and examine.

I sometimes compose in a kind of Bartok / Hindemith style. How would you teach a style like that in a few months on a MA course and who can tell the difference between a good and a bad piece in that style without making deep subjective aesthetic rather than mechanical decisions. Much easier to knock off marks for having a few notes out of series or not being 'innovative' enough.

  Re: The trouble with contemporary classical music..  scott_good at 22:35 on 26 November 2008

Hi David,

I have a few opinions on what you are talking about (surprise, surprise...)

I apologize for the quoting - I know it isn't classy. But you did organize the argument (thanks!), and I would like to follow what you have said (paraphrased) with comments.

D.H: "It was started by my early evening listening, mainly to MP3 clips on the SPNM website (shortlist, events etc) and was at pains to find a piece of what I would term 'accessible' music."

S.G: Sure, OK. Now, I don't know much about the British music scene, but isn't this a "new music" organization? So, therefor, are going to have "new music" which is in a sense, a genre to it's own? Do they claim to be a "contemporary classical music" institution.

D.H. "Don't get me wrong, I'm not against avante gardism or experimentation but a lot of the composers (in their notes, biogs etc) have focussed on the process of making the music, rather than the music itself....I found this rather depressing but not just this comment but the rather abstract way in which these young composers appear to be talking about music making."

S.G: Well, have no worries, this will ultimately be to their own detriment. I mean really, are these composers getting performed so much, say, compared to Steve Reich, John Adams, John Williams, Andrew Lloyd Weber, or even Radiohead covers that we need to consider them such a major cause of depression? As you said, you have no problem with the music - good - the I say live and let live. There are many people who derive much joy from music of a more experimental and esoteric nature - great! Variety is the spice and vigor of life. Sometimes I am very much in the mood to listen to this kind of music, and I'm glad there are organizations and support for them. And sometimes I like to compose esoteric music - I'm glad people will play it and people want to hear it.

D.H. "So the discussion we had came up with these points..

1 Contemporary Classical music is obsessed with process driven abstract art and it appears to be divorced from the emotional aspects of music making (tradionally associated with composers)"

S.G: I actually believe that it is classical music that is obsessed with process. What, pray tell do you think of functional tonality? Sonata form? Fugue? Raga? Maqam? So, this is not only a western music phenomena, but much more global and human. The human desire to understand, organize, and create process. Palestrina, Bach, Mozart, Debussy, Messiaen, Chopin, Brahms, Shubert, Schoenberg etc etc etc. The greats have been masters of process, so, why stop now - I mean, if that's what one wants to do?

D.H: "2 Unless you can back up your piece with some form of system (atonal, aleatoric or other) and explain it in depth, noone will be interested in programming your music"

S.G. Really? Where does this 'stat' come from? All who want to program my music are interested in what it sounds like. Few care about the process. BUT, I believe that well trained musicians HEAR music in it's process, and are attracted to music which is well conceived and constructed, even if they do not know exactly what that construction is. Good musicians have good instincts.

Maybe, once again, this is a British thing...

D.H. "3 Tonal/modal/tonally centred composers have been totally ostracised by the 'establishment' in the Uk, perhaps with the exception of certain minimalist composers."

S.G. Really? See list above. Please go through the programs of major performing organizations, and measure the number of tonal vs. non tonal composers being programmed. No, not new music organizations because that's what they do (and most of these have small seasons compared to LSO and the like).

D.H. "4 The above has also alienated audiences who would like to engage with CCM but are unable to find accessible music in concert programming."

Now we are venturing into some big territory. It is so easy to blame the composer, but what about the responsibility of the audience? have you read "art in the age of mechanical reproduction" by Walter Benjamin? I think he speaks of the potential problems of modern audiences better than any I have read. In essence (and this is my interpretation open for critique), because art is now mass produced (none more so than music in the age of the IPod), the necessity of the audience to actually engage in a critical way with art has diminished. It has allowed for intensely passive critique - in essence, we can all just like or not like things without any critical thought as to what the art is trying to do - why? - because art is so ridiculously common - it is mass produced and is imposed on our lives as we pass through it on the conveyor belt of modern convenience.

I can't go into this too much because it is such a huge topic. But please read the Benjamin paper (which btw was written in 1937) - I feel what he has to say is much more important than Adorno, simply because it is more a more objective look at how the subtle effects of mass reproduction have on the larger conscious of what art means to society.

D.H. "5 A lot of composers are giving up as a result of the above"

S.G. Oh man, cry me a river. One who gives up making art for me is not truly devoted - they are hobbyists. Sorry if that sounds harsh, but if one truly needs to make art, one will, economics and status and all that aside.

D.H. "A couple of the reasons we thought might be at the heart of these problems..

1 Musicolgy..My girlfriends mother was also a musician and she was one of the first 'class' in the 60s that embarked on a music degree that included the teaching of musicolgy (music history). She was of the opionion that this has had a big impact on the way universities and institutions 'teach'composition. Both me and my Giflfriend went to uni in the 90's and noticed the emphasis on teaching and discussing composers who have a clearly defined process. If you could not discuss your process for composition, you were 'persona non grata'"

S.G. Hummm, sounds like a confusion between disciplines. Music history should contextualize composers and music makers in their interactions between society, artistic practices, philosophy, and politics etc. Music theory, on the other hand, should discuss theoretical invention and technique - the nuts and bolts. I do not want to go to a theory class and study emotion and meaning except (and this is very important) to how it relates to theoretical constructs. This is the sign of a great theory teacher, and in my experience, the very best have been composers, not pure theorists. Only a composer really understands this relationship because it is what they do - create emotional impact with technique.

These pedagogical disciplines can cross pollinate for some very interesting pedagogy. Especially in graduate work where classes can be more tailored to the teachers specialty.

In my experience, the problem with teaching has more to do with the individual teacher than any kind of "global" educational concern. In fact, the problem with teaching is the same as the problem with composition to my mind - a kind of laziness - a lack of drive...I will get more into this later.

D.H. "2 The music programmers..."

S.G. Too big of a topic to even scratch for this.

D.H. "3 CCM is now an abstract artform rather than an emotive one. This means that the same composers are promoted each month, the same family members of said composers go to the fairly empty concert halls and, of course, support them etc but it is very, very inward looking indeed."

S.G. Well, listen, even though I have been argumentative, I do think there are some serious issues at hand - but, it is for me far deeper. As I have said, I think people should read Benjamin to first address the fundamental problems with art before looking for solutions like melodies and tonality.

Ultimately, change comes from the individual. A work of art is infinitely more powerful than a critique of said work. The composer must have both great vision supported by solid philosophy paired with an intense, and somewhat obsessive work ethic. I have heard people on this list say that they need to "think" about being a composer to be a good composer - I say one must compose to be a good composer. One must have the highest of standards that they put upon themselves, and then work their creative muscle hard like an athlete.

This is where the revolution will take place - in the work itself. I have to often heard composers say they aren't recognized because they are composing in some kind of genre (tonal or not tonal...). They seem to not even consider to look within - that just maybe their music isn't that good - yet. Many of these performers whom are doing the rejecting have dedicated WAY more of their time to their art form than said composer, and they can smell the amateurism right away. How many composers write for 4-10 hours EVERY DAY? But, how many concert violinists, pianists, and other performers have? Most if they are successful because it is incredibly competitive. That maybe they should study harder, work harder, read more philosophy, and compose much more music till they reach the goal of quality that can stand along with the greats. That maybe this will take many years, because writing music is bloody hard, and should be treated as such - with reverence.

(note: I have absolutely no problem with amateur music making - it is essential and should be far more extensive for a healthy society. I have been very moved by amateur performances and compositions. But please, if one is not ready to spend the kind of time that the professional players performing their music do (years of study, practice, and performance), then do not expect to be paid and rewarded in the same way. No getting a degree or two isn't enough.

D.H. ".. and in that spirit, as a composer myself (SPNM shortlisted some years ago!) I would like to see things open up.. otherwise I fear CCM might disapear up its own behind in the next 10 years or so.."

Dude, don't worry about that, just make the absolute best music you possibly can.

And seriously, if you want to build a career, don't worry too much about new music organizations if you don't want to write the kind of music they are into. Go right to the source - the performers. Compose music for people you know - form ensembles - put on concerts - gain experience and let very few days go by without seriously working on your goals artistically and career wise.

Classical music ain't going away. It will just evolve.

D.H. "The reason that composers with a process, system, method etc are taught and discussed at University by Music Educators is because they are much more easily taught. What I mean is that there is a system in place, a tone row, a note cloud or whatever the term is and this can be disected and analised in much the same way as perhaps a maths paper would. "

S.G. Great! Something can be explained and it is explained. I see no problem. Numbers are very useful tools of analysis.

D.H. "Now, take a piece, lets say by Orlando Gough, Michael Torke, Graham Fitkin..yes they can be disected but it is much more difficult to do so.. why? Because perhaps with those guys, being tonal/modal/jazz influenced it is more emotionally engaging (harder to discuss and pin down in a lecture)and also perhaps it is seen as outdated by the establishment. It is much easier to discuss systems than moods.."

Do you really want to dissect and analyze moods? Humm, I think there is something there but it would have to be codified in some way to have any relevance to musical education - the thing for me, and I was trying to elude to this, is that moods should be related to technique for it to be valuable to composer pedagogy.

Ok, I'm done. But I hope it continues. Please, as was invited before, rip my comments to pieces. That way we might all learn more.



  Re: The trouble with contemporary classical music..  Nicolas Tzortzis at 21:23 on 27 November 2008

"How would you teach a style like that in a few months on a MA course and who can tell the difference between a good and a bad piece in that style without making deep subjective aesthetic rather than mechanical decisions."
this style is actually pretty easy to teach.It was actually the first that my first ever composition teacher (almost ten years back) tought me.Some basic "rules" on what kind of intervalic relationship one should priviledge and there you have it.A Hindemith-like 3-part canon!
Who can tell the difference between a good and a bad piece in that style??anyone capable of listening to it.Are you implying that "in that style" one can't tell the difference between good or bad?Why can one tell in a 17th century piano sonata and not Hindemith,or Bartok,or Webern or Stockhausen etc?
It's never the material,it's what one does with it.Notions like imagination,invention,risk,surprise,innovation etc have nothing to do with "style".
If one only sticks to what he has been taught,he will never make good music.
It seems to me like too many people expect too much from their education.You can teach composition,but you can't make someone a good composer.Like anything else.You can teach someone what architecture,surgery,philosphy etc is all about,but the Le Corbusiers and the Wittgensteins are who they are thanks to the amount of WORK and EFFORT they put in their work.
And please,don't talk about "emotional" as opposed to "structural".If a piece has an "emotional" effect,it's because it is structured the way it is structures.Intervals,form proportions,harmonies,timbres etc.I personnaly feel that many many times the "emotinally engaging" composers who you mention just reproduce good-old clichés that have a very precise effect,also because the audience has connotated certain things to certain emotions.
As far as the talk about music is concerned.When one talks about his music to his peers,he just has to say what he did and how or why he did it.Nothing more,nothing less,because that's what composers want/need to know.I don't agree with that,but that's how it goes.You can't say "I was feeling a bit down that day,so I wrote this...".Well,sure you can,but if the piece suckes,then everyone will just laugh at that statement.
I am always amazed at how many times the same things come up:tonality,atonality,accesible music,the british establishment...I have never studied in the UK,but reading you guys does not make me wanna pay a visit.

  Re: The trouble with contemporary classical music..  Nicolas Tzortzis at 23:23 on 27 November 2008

Dear David
There is no reason to stop posting just because some people might have opposite "strong" views on a subject.on the contrary,it is then that a discussion becomes interesting.We are here to discuss,right?

One should always question direction in the arts,but in the end one just does what he "has" to do.I believe that one does not "choose" the musical language one uses.It's just who you are,at the time you write.I think that if someone wakes up one morning and says "today I'm going to write like 'this'(hindemith,stockhausen,reich,mozart,you name it)" then the music is already dead.
You,as any one else,should write what you feel like writing.If you do a good job,it will be recognized,eventually.But it's never the style that makes a piece good or bad.It's not the 12-tone technique that makes Stockhausen's good works good music.It's something way beoynd that.And it's not "tonality" that makes the Appassionata a great work.It's what the composer does with it.

You are not at all wrong when you talk about "the composers who rely heavily on extended technique as a means to gain attention and detract from the absence of musical direction".Yes,there are a lot of them! And yes,there are people that gain attention with really crappy pieces just because they make weird sounds on a cello.But that does not get them far.The attention gained is only short-lived.Lachenmann makes art with extended techniques,and it is a very very hard thing to do,but he makes it.Few other people do.But that goes also for tonal,serial,minimalist,spectral etc composers.But you'd have to admit that there are also many composers that write A-minor chords for 15 minutes and pretend to "write like this because I have deeply understood atonality and now I am proposing a new language that is not afraid of simplicity",while in the end everything sounds like a bad, cheesy pop ballad.or bad Vangelis,at the best of cases...

Sometimes people,and unfortunately very often composers ,don't take the time to deeply listen to a musical work,just because it fits into a category "they don't like".So they condemn it immediately."Oh,this guy writes tonal,I won't listen to it,that's crap". or "this guy uses way too many extended techniques,beuuurgh.write a note,a melody,man!!!!!!". This is a pity.Too many narrow minded people in this world that only look for what they do.Probably looking to have others make them feel less insecure about themselves.

The thing I cannot agree with you on is that if someone read your post,or others' some weeks back,one would assume that atonal/avant-garde composers are making huge amounts of money,live off composing,while neo-tonal/modal composers have to work at McDonald's to make a living.
If we step out off the hardcore (and extremely small) academic circle,tell me,is that true??Is avant-garde music helping anyone live off composing or is it the "neo" stuff?

  Re: The trouble with contemporary classical music..  MartinY at 08:36 on 28 November 2008

Dear Nicholas,

I do not agree that it is easy to decide whether a piece is good or bad. When we play a new piece there are always big differences of opinion among my circle of players about both new music and established classics. There are also big differences of opinion about whole genres, for instance players who think that the whole of the baroque canon except Bach is inferior to the masters of the classical period.

Re: style I do not think replicating styles is of any value but there is nothing wrong with new music growing out of the music which we play every day. In fact it is advantageous for music to reference both the outside world and other music as well as being original.

And I do not agree you can teach a style in a short period of time. Such mechanical reproduction of the characteristics of a style will produce something which sounds stale and contrived, even though it you could not readily say why the real thing is so different from its apparant copy. There is interesting research work going on in the new field of computational creativity. I will follow this work but I doubt if it will produce answers very readily. A side effect will be the digitisation of a lot of scores...... good for players of old music!

Re Britain. It is still, as in the time of Bertie Wooster, a class ridden, parochial and toadying place, but I suspect all countries are once you look below the surface.

  Re: The trouble with contemporary classical music..  MartinY at 08:48 on 28 November 2008

Re: reproduction of past styles

Do people remember when a person to be unamed, (as I suspect he is still trying to earn a living as a musician), managed to publish over a dozen fake baroque works by himself in a prestigeous publisher's catalogue and was only descovered when he could not produce the original manuscript of the Haydn piece he had written.

I do remember innocently playing one of these pieces, a trio sonata. I thought it was a rather uninspired and slightly clumsy example of an Italian Trio Sonata which I was not keen to play again but the harpsichord player got quite agitated and said "there's something wrong with this piece. It is very strange. I wonder if it is bogus". It was of course so some people can tell the real thing.

As an example of the insrumental heirarchies in British society the Guardian said (and I paraphrase, "the forger was masquerading as a flute performer when he was actually a recorder teacher". So that puts those of us who play the recorder, (or even worse compose for the recorder, sorry Berio), rather than the transverse flute in our place.

  Re: The trouble with contemporary classical music..  MartinY at 10:25 on 28 November 2008

Dear David,

I have decided to answer your points in 4 separate EMails because so many interesting things are raised.....

"1 Contemporary Classical music is obsessed with process driven abstract art and it appears to be divorced from the emotional aspects of music making (tradionally associated with composers)"

In the past composers were part of a homegeneous culture. Beethoven had a background of "classical" music and the contrapuntal works of J. S. Bach which were still revered and played. Earlier music largely existed in church where the music of the great renaissance composers never entirely died out. This is why we have a "linear theory" of music history and development which goes from Bach > Mozart > Beethoven > Romantics > Late Romantics > Modern, which everybody learns at college. Each culture largely develops under the influence of the practitioners of the previous twenty years and in the linear model stretches expressionism, harmony, tonality further at each stage until we get modernism.

It is a faulty model but it is also not a bad model. As new works came out they were generally appreciated or discarded fairly quickly as enough people wanted to either play or listen to them even if there were adverse reactions to what have since become accepted masterpieces. The vast majority of music was played, appreciated, and then in time discarded because it was what we would now call minor work. Nobody wrote music for Arts Coucil Grants. Commissions were for patrons usually for specific reasons such as an event or a regular ensemble.

In the twenty-first century we have so much knowledge and so many influences that there are no role models to follow in the same way that 19th century composers had. (There are also no individual patrons with their unique tastes.) We are apparantly at sea and have to chose an aesthetic and a system in order to decide what notes to write. However everything is possible. This is both good and bad as there is both an embarrasment of riches and the feeling that if everything is possible nothing is good, bad or indifferent. The system and the background culture is needed to generate the notes.

I see the problem in that I do not sympathize with the background culture of much contemporary music. I am largely a player, not a concert goer. I really enjoy playing chamber music for fun. A lot of contempory music never gets published because the publisher would be unable to sell any sheet music. It is not worth storing the paper. It might as well sit on the publisher's computer and get sent out just when there is a performance and a performance fee. Publsih on demand is the answer here.

(This raises an aside about composers who write in a squeaky gate style to get lots of Arts Council money, and composers who write neo-tonal music to get lots of punter's money. Nobody gets lots of money from composition, not even Bejamin Britten did. If you want lots of money forget music and do something else and buy a massive CD collection with a tiny percentage of the proceeds.)

Selling sheet music for people to play makes little money. It comes from the performance fees in significant venues. However I can give advice about selling playing parts here. One of the few good things about the summer schools of the 80s was the chance to see new scores and parts when the publisher's stalls and music shops came round. I hardly ever however bought any music unseen and when I did I was usually disappointed. Many composers have websites without free sight of a few pages of their playing parts. It would not do any harm to have a pdf of a page or two of what they have on offer. Nothing is lost as there is no possibility of stealing a free playthrough from a fragment.

Another piece of advice re: the the production of sheet music. Unless you have a real compulsion to write music which is difficult to play, write hard pieces only for one or two instruments, where the players have the opportunity to practise. Groups of 3 or more will not get together to reherse fiendish stuff unless they are paid money, so difficult pieces for odd chamber ensembles really need to be written to commission or for a set of specific people you know will appreciate the piece.

Do not regard your works as some kind of icon, there are enough of those in the past. They are there to be played.

  Re: The trouble with contemporary classical music..  BillyJardine at 17:41 on 28 November 2008

1 Contemporary Classical music is obsessed with process driven abstract art and it appears to be divorced from the emotional aspects of music making (tradionally associated with composers)

Isn’t Contemporary Classical an oxymoron? I thought the Classical era was between 1750 and 1830. Shouldn’t the term be Contemporary Art music? Anyone who calls themself Classical composers today are actually saying they write pastiche music that is over 200 years old! How can that be called contemporary?

2 Unless you can back up your piece with some form of system (atonal, aleatoric or other) and explain it in depth, noone will be interested in programming your music.

Isn’t all music based on some type of formal system? Be it Sonata, Rondo, Time-Point? We only describe the system in depth in order to give the would-be listeners a way into this alien world of ours. And anyway, can anyone hazard a guess as to the ratio of “classical” music performances to contemporary art music performances? I would suspect that the former out-weighs the latter 100-1 AT LEAST! The term “Classical” has been used by big business to commodify our art to make it easily packaged and call it “product”. Theodor Adorno foresaw this early in the 20th century and he had a point!

3 Tonal/modal/tonally centred composers have been totally ostracised by the 'establishment' in the Uk, perhaps with the exception of certain minimalist composers.

This is wrong. Thomas Ades is a good example. His music is tonal yet he is loved and revered by almost everyone! I think he writes for a public not himself, which is wrong.

4 The above has also alienated audiences who would like to engage with CCM but are unable to find accessible music in concert programming.

Why should music be accessible? Art shouldn’t be accessible. It should be hard to grasp and make you think about what it is composed of and why. Any self-respecting artist should create challenging works of Art that cannot be absorbed in a mere glance or a single performance. If you want something easy to digest put on Classical FM and become a passive idiot like the rest of the culture vultures.

5 A lot of composers are giving up as a result of the above

If composers give up that is their problem. Grow a backbone and get on with it.

CCM is now an abstract artform rather than an emotive one.

I don’t get this at all! Why can’t abstract art be emotive? If you look at a Jackson Pollack you WILL have an emotional response. If you listen to abstract music you WILL have an emotional response. I think it says a lot about a nation when we need our art to be easily accessible and un-intellectual. As artists we should try to evolve the human race and the society we live in. Surely that is best achieved by moving forward instead of looking back.

Adam Bell

  Re: The trouble with contemporary classical music..  piargno at 05:47 on 29 November 2008

Wow! In the states here, I'm having just the opposite problem! I often come across composers around my age who have been programmed widely and have received amazing opportunities, yet to my ears they are all composing the same piece, which more often than not is post-minimal with Stravinskian rhythms, and mixes shallow tonality with an apologetic/obligatory atonality (or doesn't include atonality at all).

My biggest problem with new music is the amount of dishonesty on both sides. There are composers that compose highly academic, highly atonal pieces for the sake of conformity to that crowd, then there are composers who compose the same post-minimalist crap that most people think is "pretty" or "exciting" (and usually that's it, even though the thesaurus is utilized to unprecedented levels with variations on these two adjectives). It is rare to find composers who don't think about tonality and atonality as two boxes, who just sit down and compose good music. This is why I like Scott Good's music (and most of his ideas). This is why I also love Stockhausen as much as I love Steve Reich.

There SHOULD NOT BE two fractions in modern classical music based on tonality and atonality. It should be based on good music and bad music.

  Re: The trouble with contemporary classical music..  MartinY at 09:23 on 29 November 2008

I agree wholeheartedly with the last correspondent's sentiments about good and bad music. (As an aside has everyone found the 12 note series in Mozart's 40th symphony. It is a bit of fix because it is the 3 unique dim7th arpeggios.)

2 "Unless you can back up your piece with some form of system (atonal, aleatoric or other) and explain it in depth, noone will be interested in programming your music"

There is a strong element of this. The programme notes are all important, and in many cases better than the piece which follows! There has been a long succession of pieces produced in the UK with impressive sounding program notes about the aesthetic background of exciting influences on the piece and the innovative techniques used in its composition. Clearly this is what impresses programmers and commissioners of new music. Then when we hear the music it is ordinary dull modernism, which inspires non of the feelings which the composer clear thinks it should.

Is this the auduence's fault? My own opinion is that some of the techniques used cannot carry the weight of expression which the composer thinks they can. Even the best piece in the world written in that style probably could not carry the emotion and vision the composer is trying to convey because both the cognitive science and cultural background is against that happening. It must also be remembered that audiences are busy people with other interests and unless the music is really gripping or satisfying there are probably better things they could be doing. (I usually leave a poor concert thinking I will go home and write some music or edit some early music so I myself do not have anything better to do.)

Most of the audience will have something better to do. The musical establishment react to this by a constant moaning about outreach and educating audiences. Audiences need to be somehow "improved". This idea goes right back to Second Viennese School who were always thinking our time will come when performances are better and audiences are better educated. I can be pretty sure this will never happen.

Really first rate music hardly needs any promoting. Once you hear it you will be obsessed with it and will do whatever is necessary to get hold of the CDs, scores etc. We are waiting but not with baited breath.

3 "Tonal/modal/tonally centred composers have been totally ostracised by the 'establishment' in the Uk, perhaps with the exception of certain minimalist composers."

In the UK the new music establishment are going to fight a losing battle over funding as there are now so many areas which also require academic and cultural funding such as folk music, rock music, early music, outreach programs, world music, new 19C scholarship, community music etc. These areas legitimately are saying we have just as much right to taxpayer's funding as high art music and we can get good audiences and many participants which justify the funding. The art music world have an elitist hierarchical attitude and until recently control of the purse strings but this is not likely to continue. One can sense that the defensive reaction will be "if the folk musicians and community music is going to get some of our money we are damned well not going to share it with neo-tonalists and minimalists. They have plenty of money coming in from their ignorant deluded fans..... so will keep on doing what we have been doing".

In any academic subject the establishment are biased to their own ex-students and the ex-students of their chums. This is all unconscious but people tend to promote younger versions of themselves, unless there are strong mechanisms to prevent this happening, and there is a danger of the whole thing going stale. This has happened in science as well as the arts. (See Lee Smolin's book "The Trouble with Physics" for what happened in Physics. There are strong parallels.)

The issue of the programme notes being better than the composition is not however confined to the more avant-garde music. I had the misfortune to waste a few hours reading some neo-tonal manifestos and then listening to some of the music. The manifestos were over polemical but plausable for the individuals concerned, if they were backed up by practice. However the tonal music was in a sort of incompetent mid-19C meets American showtune style and I honestly thought I had written better tonal music when I was an eleven year old imitating what I heard on the radio. I feel like quoting from Pepys' diary about the composer Pelham Humphry but it is too rude for this forum.

  Re: The trouble with contemporary classical music..  Jim Tribble at 21:52 on 01 December 2008

Hi all, this has been my bone of contention for a long time. I write exploring tonal music, bringing in certain serial and modernist techniques where applicable. I feel that the (for me) obvious triangle of Composer, Performer and Listener has for the sake of intellectualism and modernism been broken since about the 1900. Allowing for the subsequent rise in 'popular' music (jazz styles, pop, etc). This is not a problem but a symptom of the intellectual hold over classical music.

I have nothing wrong with exploring music to its limits but in itself this is limiting. With as a previous colleague pointed out the style of a particular composer once 'found' is then endlessly repeated and held up with no obvious development. As happens a lot in art. But unlike the art scene there seems to be no place or genre or acceptance except among the film and advert industry (and a few other exception Nyman etc) for composers to be accepted by the establishment for writing and exploring earlier or tonal styles and making them more contemporary.

In art there has always been a place for the conventional portrait or landscape artist and as such these artists are not looked down on by the art establishment. Why cant this be done in the classical music world.

A previous colleague also commented that it was easier to criticise and mark abstract or constructive work than objective work, Bartok etc. I think that it is not a question of teaching someone to compose in Bartok's style but to show some of the systems mathmatical and harmonic that he used and then explore the possibilities of how that would apply to your own approach to music. As for marking that is a separate issue but I would do by agreement rather than the current craze for qualitative assessment. Let the people decide!


  Re: The trouble with contemporary classical music..  MartinY at 09:43 on 02 December 2008

Can I just echo Jim's comments about qualitative assessment. I worked in an institution where all courses had to be modular and there had to be a very precise marking scheme for the assessment, which was submitted to the curriculum committee. It could be sent back if there wasn't a formal rule to explain how every mark was obtained. (25% for having a pulse was not acceptable.)

This scheme has all kinds of alleged advantages, (pick and mix curricula, efficient use of teaching time, objectivity etc.) but it could also drive staff halfway round the bend. I do not know what the answer is.

Another comment about styles. The reason for adopting a sort of mid 20th century style was largely driven by aesthetic reasons as I thought such a combination of notes could express the philosophy of what I was thinking, (which I want to express in notes rather than talk about). There were also practical reasons concerning my perception of the players who would play the stuff when the parts finally appeared.

I put out the story about pastiche music to give an example of the futility of much pastiche. (Some commercial pastiche is neccessary work though. I do not know if this sort of work classes as CCM! but do any people remember how marvellous the fake lute song in the Two Ronnies where they are in bed playing the lute was. This was written / concocted by a top early music group.) I do not know whether I would be capable of doing that sort of commercial work against the clock, but surely music for contemporary films and TV counts as CCM.

  Re: The trouble with contemporary classical music..  BillyJardine at 11:20 on 02 December 2008

Sorry David I don’t know Nicholas!

I agree that the term “Contemporary Classical” is out there but that doesn’t mean it is right to use it. The thing about New Notes etc. is that they are scared to use a term that might make them look pretentious or elitist. Seeing as a lot of their stuff is crossover orientated they are trying to get all kinds of musicians into the “Classical” sphere so they use generic terms like that.

The title of your discussion is “The trouble with contemporary music” so I feel that what I have said previously is relevant and didn’t need to be in a different stream because one of the problems with contemporary music is that it’s called Classical! So yes splitting hairs is necessary. I do feel new music is too broader label…if we should make labels.

Take it easy dude

  Re: The trouble with contemporary classical music..  MartinY at 16:09 on 03 December 2008

I did not finish saying everything I had to about David's questions, so despite some of you being sick of reading me here goes......

"DH" 4 The above has also alienated audiences who would like to engage with CCM but are unable to find accessible music in concert programming.

"MY" In Huddersfield (Yorkshire) there is successful contemporary music festival which runs for a week and does get good audiences. I know some of the regular audience who do engage with the music once a year. They never want to actually "play" any music though, even though most are very able musicians, which shows the division between audiences and players which I
keep going on about. The festival has outreach things where children make their own instruments and bang percussion etc. so something is being done about this issue. The rest of the year I imagine the audiences for CCM are largely students forced to go as part of their course. (I have been to several residental courses where attendance at the concerts is mandatory (What!). I do not go any more if there is this sort of nonsense.) Also I have noticed some CCM residential courses tend to be very fond of rules..... If I should try this in one of the early music schools I am involved with .... "Viol players must play Jenkins for a minimum of 25% of their time, all participants must sing in at least one Burgundian Chanson during the week." I know what I would be told to do.

It is not only non playing audiences who have become alienated. I am told and have read that players, (who have to play the music for money), are often alienated by the volume of the music. I have never actually experienced anything which was painfully loud outside amplified music so I do not speak from experience. (I would never consider going anywhere where the music was amplified, guitar concertos and clavichord excepted.) I do know however that there are health and safety issues about the standard repertoire which regularly exceeds what would be legal in a factory workplace. Older piccolo players are often found to have lost high frequency hearing in only their right ear. (I have not heard of a legal case involving music volume and occupational health but I am sure someone somewhere will have sued.)

There are sometimes quasi-religious aspects to programme notes and newspaper articles which must be very off-putting to non-believers in the God of CCM.

"DH" 5 A lot of composers are giving up as a result of the above

"MY" A lot of people drop out of being active as either audiences, players or composers for all kinds of reasons. Many go into other genres of music, typically early music, world music or folk music so they are still musically active. This might not be a bad thing. For many years I thought early music was the true avant-garde. It was where everything good seemed to be happening and was not so much in the grip of self serving elites and it seemed CCM had completely lost its way. Though I do not hold such an extreme view I still feel a little like that. If I can say the awful word "crossover" also. Who is to say crossover is all bad. CCM is probably going to be stuck in its ghetto fighting for space, money and influence with all these other things and their hybrids. Many funding bodies require the applicant to find matching funding so the "punters" out there are needed. All genres will survive but some will prosper and some will be a steady downward squeeze, just like the housing market.

  Re: The trouble with contemporary classical music..  Jim Tribble at 22:48 on 04 December 2008

Just to take David's point a stage further, if music was truly new an audience could not relate to it. (This is where I get shot down in flames) Back in the 80's when I was at college one of the lectures of music psychology told of an experiment. I have never verified this so it may be here say.

An audience of Classical Indian music lovers, who had not listened to any western music, so where wholly conditioned to the rigours of listening to Classical Indian music. Where asked to listen to a concert of Western music, Mozart (I am guessing as to the content) Beethoven etc, They did not enjoy it or relate to it. They did not have the cultural references necessary to understand the point of Cadences and Sonata form repetitions. It was totally alien to the way in which Classical Indian Music was structured.

I have been to several Classical Indian Concerts and although enjoyed the experience still felt left out when the experienced audience clapped at significant points in the improvisation or sat up and took note when the rhythmic and melodic structures started through another cycle.

My long winded point is that music has to relate and be part of the culture and music of the past (I include the recent past here as well). I have been listening to Radio 3's Messiaen music at lunchtimes, it is obvious how he tied new musical ideas and sources with rhythmic, structural and orchestrated links with the music from the past. This is what makes his music great and a lasting influence because it enriches and adds to the main body of music and is not against it.

It seems to me that to admit that you like writing and exploring tonal music is some how seen by the general establishment as diminishing and putting down your own work.

Which is a shame. (There is no Pastiche because it is all a reworking of the past)


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