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  The Recognition of the Composer Today - After Word  Bevillia at 16:09 on 05 February 2011

The Recognition of the Composer Today; After Word - Stephen Beville

The last thing I want to do is confine music-history to a museum! For that would pre-suppose the greatness of a composer and his work to be wholly in the sense of his innovation; that such music (now superseded) has no contemporary relevance. After all, Beethoven is not only great because of his technical and intellectual innovations, but is just as much as relevant today as in his own time. I suppose that is the philosophical yardstick by which all art must eventually succombe to; it's lasting value - or perhaps in the sense that its philosophical and intellectual value as not yet been sufficiently or widely comprehended?

However, the continuance of an artistic tradition also involves the development of that particular art's qualities and parameters in order to avoid stasis and regression. So whether the lyrics of popular music speak of universal values seems to me irrelevant to the manner or style by which those values are articulated and expressed musically. In other words, often such music borders on advertisment or propaganda with regard to a text. (This, incidentally is why I am drawn to the contrary approach of Luigi Nono - who dismantles a text, not only to express new shades of meaning, but, in order to heighten our musical/historical consciousness).

Beethoven's music is exceptional in that it voices an unmistakable truth (although perhaps in the Kantian rather than Hegelian sense) yet remained at the 'cutting edge' of innovation in its particular moment of history. And it is interesting that this tradition of innovation as been paralleled historically by a counter-movement with regard to mass-capitalism and consumerism. Perhaps we are now entering a time when the pioneering legacy that owed so much to Beethoven's example is in its twilight? Indeed, during the 20th century, Modernist music was developed to such a degree and became so specialised that Adorno accredited this philosophically as a resistance to such consumerism; a critique of market-oreintated society. However, I'm not sure that the composers that Adorno cites (from Schoenberg onwards) necessarily thought of it that way.

Evidently the division between serious and popular music in the 19th century was not as pronounced, not as radical as it is today. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that there were pieces by Haydn and Beethoven that were considered too riske for immediate public performance and were, as such, unveiled at private soirees. Hayden feared Beethoven's Piano Trio, Op 1, No 3 to be such a work (and perhaps this piece, over which they quarrelled, was 'instrumental' to their eventual parting of ways?). Another was Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, first performed as I understand, at Prince Lichnowsky's private apartments. The division between the public and the private is perhaps most tellingly seen in the spectacular career of Franz Liszt, who hesitated to perform his most advanced works (he never performed the B minor Sonata in public). I suppose the idea of writing for the 'future' was very much a Beethovenian one. However, such music (even the late Quartets) eventually found acceptance by the general public.

I wish music by Nono, Kurtag and Carter (or at least Britten and Messiaen) would return to that public sphere (the very centre of public life) that classical music once occupied - to be generally absorbed in the Hegelian sense thereby making further developments in our general artistic and social consciousness possible. This, so it seems to me, may only be acheived by musical (and philosophical) education - which should perhaps be introduced in our schools from the very first years. Despite the fractures and divisions, despite the pluralities of contemporary life, I still believe there to be a Western canon, at least in the expressive sense, from Beethoven - through Schoenberg - to Nono. (I consider Impressionism, Neo-Classicism, Minimalism, Post-Modernism to be interesting by-poducts of this tradition).

What I feel is that the mass-commercialism of so much modern pop and rock music has brought with it a numbing of senses - that 'tragedy of listening' that Nono refers to in Prometeo. At the risk of repeating myself, once the commercial dimension together with the lack of musical education entered the equation (as detailed in Chapter VI), there was no need for popular music to absorb or in any way relate to the advances of serious 'classical' music (hence my citing of a pre-Schoenbergian vacuum).

Still, I do not believe this to be simply a matter of absorption of other cultures and traditions. Each culture seems to have its own classical music and ever since the 19th century, European composers have looked both East and West to absorb new sounds and styles. (The influence of Indonesian Gamelan on the music of Boulez is only one of many examples). The problem is that the West is now beginning to ignore its own musical heritage - since there seems to be so little that connects it with the contemporary jargon and jingles of the market.

Of course the problem is not only confined to music, but all the arts to some degree (only perhaps music most acutely). Perhaps we really are experiencing a kind of 'year zero' phenomenon; a rejection of Western culture? but perhaps a defferent kind, and for very different reasons than the one Stockhausen envisaged.

I am aware of the shortcommings of taking a purely canonical approach to music history; as from age to age music does not necessarily proceed along a direct line or clearly defined path. Innovations from one period may seem to later ages of varying importance; the most ancient may sometimes appear to 'posterity' the most extraordinary and of greater interest than those of later times. There are numerous examples where 20th century composers (such as Nono), in search of greater originality, have looked increasingly back to earlier times preceeding both Classicism and Romanticism to musical techniques, for example, employed by Renaissance and Mediaeval composers of plainchant.

Similar conclusions may be deduced if we consider the evolution of tonality in music. During the early Classical period, a diatonically stable grounding was pre-supposed for an expansive structure, whereas musical Romanticism increasingly stressed chromaticism to breaking point. The latter, to my mind (at least in the rate of harmonic change) seems to have greater affinity with the tonally complex and chromatic language of Baroque times (as in the music of Handel and Bach). The establishment of diatonicism during the Classical age is only a plateau that found its perfect, complimentary structure in Sonata Form. Historically, the evolution of harmony may certainly not be measured only in the sense of increasing dissonance. One only has to observe certain moments in say, works by Ockeghem or Lassus to realise obvious similarities with the Modern movement. What we could say, especially about the 20th century, is that composers have looked further afield in both a temporal and spacial (geographical) sense, due to rapid advancements in technology and communication.

However, what I've been trying to emphasise in these essays is an aesthetic of the new and imaginative (in music). As Beethoven once remarked, 'art demands that we do not stand still'.

Stephen Beville, 2010.

  Re: The Recognition of the Composer Today - After Word  jgms at 13:10 on 13 June 2011

Hi Stephen! I believe the problem of today's composers is, as you said in your post, the great abyss between serious and popular music.

However, I believe that a composer should be aware of what happens in both circles, to appreciate the beauty of both worlds, see their contrasts and their meeting points, good examples of this way of thinking (and working) is John Zorn and to some extent it was Berio.

Another big problem is that many composers do not seem to use their ears at the time of writing, it seems that only theoretical complexity validate the music as "serious". Anything composed by ear (since music is an aural art) will be welcomed by at least one pair of ears.

A very good example of this in the previous paragraph is the "Quartet for the End Times" or "Visions of the Amen" by Messiaen, works extremely complex, especially the last, yet "accessible" because their power to 'touch' the ears of the listener.

In the field of popular music, a good example is The Mars Volta, their pieces are atonal, "noisy", very complex, but their energy makes them extremely popular...not to mention King Crimson, Gentle Giant, Henry Cow and other progressive groups of the seventies.

I hope I made my point, english is not my native language, so I apologize for any syntax error



  Re: The Recognition of the Composer Today - After Word  Analogmonks at 14:38 on 02 July 2011

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The musicians, Serge „bigtune‟ Lebedev and Constantine „kost_n_kost‟ Poznekov, met in 2006 at the record studio during the work on a single of Moscow hardcore band ##### (5diez).
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Bigtune, a son of a famous in jazz circles trombonist Vladimir Lebedev, occupied himself with music at the home studio, and very much enjoyed it, perfecting his skills of keyboard player and electronic musician. However, Serge had never released his compositions to a wide audience.
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  Re: The Recognition of the Composer Today - After Word  Amy60 at 07:51 on 20 January 2012

I completely agree about confining music history!


There are so many different ways that understanding the history of music is important! Music really transcends cultures and religions, and is important to everyone! I know at the sunday school in my church, they talk a lot about worship early on in the children's lives, and expose them to a lot of different styles of music. It really helps shape them in to being well-rounded individuals!