A cri de coeur reaches me from an orchestral librarian who has come to the end of his tether. I cannot divulge his name because orchestral librarians are supposed merely to exist, not to hold any opinions on music nor admit to any musical tastes, despite the fact that most orchestral librarians have more musical understanding and knowledge in their little fingers than most conductors have in their entire bodies. Be that as it may, this particular orchestral librarian fears for his sanity under the latest onslaught of contemporary music which his orchestra is being forced to perform in the next few weeks. “How unfortunate”, he writes, “that all this rubbish will be around for another 50 years if universities keep making students write in this manner and publishers pay them to be on their roster”. And what has prompted this desperate plea for moral support? A score which includes the instructions; “Keep repeating until cued by conductor, final result should be chaotic”. “Pitch bend, ad lib”.
Who can blame him for cracking under the pressure? Any sensitive and capable musician will surely sympathise and, despite being a passionate believer in the need for music to develop and move onwards, my sentiments are with him one hundred per cent. What’s gone wrong with composers that they have drifted so far away from their art?
It’s tempting to suggest that this fad for musical inaccessibility is allied to the teaching of composition as an academic study in universities; after all great composers in the past have learnt their art from eminent practitioners. Look at the list of university professors of composition and you see a list of names which, so far as most concert-goers are concerned, are utter nonentities, known, if at all, for their association with young composers rather than for the music they themselves have written (which, in most cases, is pretty well unperformable - and is usually shown to be so after just one public airing). But that’s a red herring.
The blame for the inaccessible, unperformable and wholly unattractive music being churned out by so many young composers rests, in my view, with a certain Gavrilo Princip. He it was who assassinated Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo on 28th June 1914 and thereby sparked the First World War. Of course I’m not suggesting for a moment that one day John Cage woke up and had his eureka moment - “Thank God the Archduke Ferdinand has been murdered. Now I can write 4 minutes 33 seconds!” – but that the shells which landed in the trenches of musical progress during the war exploded with such force and violence that they annihilated everything. The dust and debris from that explosion has yet to settle almost 100 years on.
The First World War dramatically changed society, and as music is a product of society, that dramatically changed too. Gone was the old order of things, the principles on which generations of composers had based their creative ideas. If kings, kingdoms and countries could be overturned, if mankind could be slaughtered in its millions, then what was to stop the same thing happening with music?
Up until the First World War music fell into pretty easily definable stylistic periods. We had the Baroque, the Classical, the Romantic. Such labels are distracting and often irrelevant, but they do recognise certain common features in the society and technology of the day which were reflected in the music. Thus, as society changed and technology evolved, so music changed and while this was a continual evolution, there came a time when the dominant characteristics of music swung in favour of the new. So, while in 1650 some composers were still writing music which conformed to the principles of earlier years, a majority had absorbed more of the new, and so we can say that it was around that year that Baroque gave way to Classical. That, in turn, gave way to Romantic during the 1820s as music reflecting the new became more common than that reflecting the old.
Around 1908 Schoenberg began to experiment with a consciously un-romantic approach to composition, and thus were sown the seeds of his 12-note system and of its later manifestation, serialism. But this was still very much the Romantic era – Mahler, for example, was still writing his gargantuan and unequivocally Romantic symphonies, and despite the outrage they caused at the time (and still do, I regret to say, among some older music teachers), Stravinsky’s great ballet scores are nothing other than extreme examples of late Romantic music – and it’s more than likely that Schoenberg’s experiments would have fizzled out totally had not the First World War turned everything on its head.
Although the 1914-1918 war marked the death-knell for musical Romanticism, it was such a violent death that all paths leading out of it were destroyed and had to be re-forged. Into this void stepped Schoenberg and his friends, giving some historical significance to a musical genre which has long since been shown to be both sterile and discredited; this path, as we learnt by the time of the Second World War, was a complete cul-de-sac.
It seemed for a while as if every composer took his own path. Rachmaninov and Richard Strauss led those who looked back to see if they could retrace their steps, Shostakovich and Bartók led those who decided to stay where they were walking round in circles, Varèse and Stockhausen led those who looked forward, while Stravinsky ran up and down quite a few paths never really finding one which suited him. Add to the mix the fact that the First World War brought into the frame countries from outside Europe, allowing American, Asian and even African composers to take to the world stage, and it is not difficult to see why music has taken so long to find a new common path.
However my frustrated orchestral librarian and the millions of other music lovers who despair at the state of modern music, should feel optimistic, for I think there is light at the end of the tunnel, that the path has been found and is being trod by an increasing number of young composers. Of course, some of the more loopy ones will still add anti-musical directions to their scores and strive to make their music so inaccessible that university professors will drool ecstatically over their students’ abilities to de-popularize the art, but I think the way is opening up, and it’s the one discovered in America by what we call the “Minimalists”; Riley, Adams, Reich et al.
I confess to being a huge fan of minimalism, but that in itself is a pretty pointless musical genre, creating effect over substance. It’s what it has led to that makes it exciting for me. The attraction of defined melodies and harmonies make it readily accessible (which is, surely, an important function in any art form) but, as taken forwards even beyond such established composers as Tavener and Pärt, it has developed an intellectual rigour and emotional depth which goes far beyond the mere attractive and into the realms of the stimulating, absorbing and mentally challenging, which are essentials in any higher art.
It may take 50 years for the composition students of today to grow up, but, at last, I think they might just do it, and the days of “place a vibrating mobile telephone on the piano strings and then slam down the piano lid while ululating” are numbered.