19 April 2018

Whither Goest Thou, 21st Century Music?


It was largely by coincidence that all three of the concerts I attended yesterday comprised mainly 21st century music.  Arch-traditionalist and died-in-the-wool conservative as I am, it is thrilling to know that the desire to compose new music is as strong as it has ever been.  Classical music is not a dying or even a diminishing art if the sheer volume of new music being produced is anything to go by.  Only by writing and performing new music will both the craft of composition and the craft of listening be sustained by the obligation continually to refresh and revalidate musical language.

Of course, the passage of history has ensured that the many thousands of unenticing works written in the past have disappeared from the public consciousness, but with the music of our time, there has been no filter of time to weed out the dross, and it is inevitable that much of the new music we hear today will, quite literally, be gone tomorrow. 

Beyond that, though, there is this to consider: Until the beginning of the 20th century and the technologies which allowed mass access to music, there simply was not the huge demand for new music that exists today.  A wholly new genre was evolved to help feed this new appetite – the genre of Pop music – but this has in no way diminished society’s need for Classical music; music crafted by creative minds, interpreted by trained minds and listened to by responsive minds.

But while I should (and do) rejoice that so much new music is being written that it can fill three very different concerts in a single day in just one small city (Singapore), I came away from the experience with a niggling sense of disquiet – verging on consternation - about the future of Classical music as a distinctive artistic genre.

The new music of our time seems to be pulling so far in contrary directions that there seems a very real danger that it will split entirely.  That in itself is not a bad thing; rather like the humble but vital earthworm which, when cut in two by a gardener’s spade, continues its existence as two separate creatures, so splitting classical music into two different genres might actually increase its usefulness to society.  Yet I seem to remember reading somewhere that the earthworm’s much-vaunted self-regeneration was a myth; that while one part did, indeed, continue after the division, the other simply shrivelled and died.  If that’s the case, how does our Classical music analogy hold up?

Yesterday’s concerts revealed a schism between areas of 21st century classical music creation which was so wide as to seem largely irreconcilable and possibly irreversible.  On the one hand there was a celebration of cerebral, music demonstrating technical skill at the expense of widespread appeal, and on the other music which went so far to allure the most unresponsive ears that it seemed to lose all sense of technical substance.  And in the middle, a third area in which music itself was entirely peripheral to the performance.  Individually, all three approaches had a value and achieved their aims successfully – I certainly enjoyed all three – but so different were they that I wonder how long they can continue to rub shoulders under the generic but increasingly dysfunctional label, “Classical Music”.

The first of the three concerts kick-started the “Sounding Now Festival” which promises to showcase composers living and working in south-east Asia. (https://soundingnow.blog/festival-2018/)  Somewhat incongruously, however, this concert opened with what appeared to be a left-over performance from the regular student-led Wednesday noon recitals at Yong Siew Toh Conservatory.  Hornists Mindy Chang and Alexander Ian Oon, with the gloriously incongruous but brilliant pianist, Nicholas Loh, performed Richard Bissill’s Time and Space. The work dates from 2001, so it did (just) fit into a programme devoted to 21st century music, but musically it was so detached from anything else in the programme it seemed to inhabit a wholly different genre.  As a performance this was not just outstanding, it was almost certainly the very finest performance by any of the student performers in the entire Wednesday series this academic year.  It would have drawn gasps of admiration from any audience, anywhere, and while it received the usual supportive noises from the student audience, it was obvious that even they, usually so pointedly immune from the charms or otherwise of performances presented to them by their peers, found this to be something out of the ordinary.  Bissill’s work was hardly a great masterpiece, but it had a quality which ensured it lingered in the memory long after the performance was over.  It was well-written, technically challenging, emotionally engaging, and attractive both superficially on the ear and more substantively on the intellect.  Of all the 21st century works I heard yesterday, this is the only one which could, conceivably, still be in the repertory 100 years from now. 

The student composers whose works were presented in the concert had the enormous good fortune to have their music performed by an absolutely cracking team of specialist new-music performers from Germany, “hand werk”.  (I do wonder with these groups who tour the world performing only new music, whether they go back to their hotels each evening, sit in comfort in armchairs drinking lager and watching television, or whether they stand naked on their heads on external window-ledges sipping vinegar through tiny straws?)  It is difficult to imagine that these new works could have been more sympathetically and competently presented, and the fact that each work’s distinctive character and latent quality was so clearly conveyed, is down to their stupendous skill as performers and interpreters. 

Each work required substantial stage re-organisation.  Perhaps conservatories should introduce classes on stage management and crewing which are as demanding as those on playing the piano or conducting an orchestra; new music seems to rely so much on stage management, that this aspect often assumes greater importance than the music itself.  To cover these long interruptions to the flow of music, the various student composers took to the stage to talk about their work.  Not every one had completely grasped the techniques of talking into a microphone (in some cases the banging on the end, the breathing into it and the heavy “testing 1-2-3” were as entertaining as the music itself), but all felt it appropriate to outline the circumstances and inspiration behind their compositions.

The world is tumbling into chaos.  The Cold War seems to have reignited. Arab-Israeli and Arab-Arab conflicts are raging with horrendous loss of life.  The Syrians seem determined to kill their own people by whatever means Assad chooses.  Boko Haram continues to kidnap, rape and murder school girls in Nigeria with apparent impunity. The ceasefire in Northern Ireland seems to be teetering on the brink of collapse.  The US and China seem to be heading for conflict.  A belligerent US administration seems intent on stirring up conflict with its neighbours in Mexico and Cuba.  And whatever the result of the Malaysian election, it seems certain, like Brexit in the UK, to tear communities apart in a proxy and (so far) bloodless civil war.  Surely there is enough in our world to give young composers a real focus for their creative outlet, be it anger, sorrow, religious conviction or deliberate indifference; after all, great art has always flourished at times of conflict.  Yet what did these student composers want to express in their music?  

It was almost as if, for them, music was unconnected with society; that music was a means of escapism rather than of confronting and coming to terms with realities.  One composer inhabited an imaginary world of dragons and fictional languages, another the strains and stresses of student life, and another found creative inspiration in the fact that his room at home was “moderately untidy”.  I blame Richard Strauss, who elevated the mundanity of domesticity to the level of creative art and thereby legitimised it for subsequent generations of composers.

There were some very good ideas here, and all of the composers had clearly grasped the essential skills of writing music.  Most of it I found absorbing, if occasionally slightly over-stretching its basic material, but there was one piece which I felt revealed a genuinely creative mind.  However, while its composer, Noah Diggs, had made highly effective use of performers moving, speaking and playing, and had posed arresting philosophical questions in what he had written, we have seen it all before.  He has constructed a persona which revolves around the “what-planet-am-I-on?” concept which, while both entertaining and intriguing, runs the risk of becoming almost a self-parody.  Here’s a potentially brilliant composer in danger of falling into creative sterility by resorting to the easy and familiar rather than continuing to challenge himself as well as his performers and their audience. 

As for the rest, one felt that the techniques of composing were the beginning and the ending of the process.  None of it smiled, none of it invoked anger, none of it induced tears.  Music should not necessarily do that, but it should, at least, resonate in some way with the society in which it was born and a humanity which exists beyond merely exercising the intellect.

The second concert comprised just a single performer, a single musical instrument, and a very large amount of electronic and computer gadgetry; so much, in fact, that the sheer logistics of setting it all up by an over-stretched stage crew delayed the concert’s start by half and hour.  It was billed as a viola recital, but it was in truth nothing of the sort.  It was a bi-media (sound and vision) installation in which the occasional sounds of the viola merged imperceptibly with a richly textured pre-recorded soundscape and a continually moving, largely abstract projected series of images.  This all made for an absorbing 45 minute show.  (So absorbing, in fact, that the handful of audience scattered around the darkened hall seemed intent on preserving it for posterity through the camera apps on their smartphones.  I was particularly taken by the lady in front of me who, determined to capture some sense of the completely dark hall, continually raised her phone to take a picture, only for the flash to come on, and for her quickly to cover the offending light with her hand.  She kept trying, but every time she looked at the phone to see how the last photo had come out, all it showed was a close up of the palm of her hand.)

The musical sounds – often immensely attractive ones – were layered to create an enticing soundscape which was effectively allied to the images so that it all coalesced into a conglomerate whole in which music and projected visuals lost their individual identities.  As an experience it would have been wonderful had not Mervin Wong committed two fateful blunders.  First, he explained that this was in no way a completed or even fully thought-through work, but something “in its very infant phase”.  Why should any audience feel it worth their while to sit through something which is not ready for public consumption?  Far better to describe it as “evolutionary” and imply that it is complete as it stands even if in the future it may change; that might even get us to come back to hear it a second time.  Second, he promised a “compendium of sounds extracted from the viola”.  The viola was often presented as a lyrical instrument, with long, sustained eloquently expressive lines, and once or twice it even did some pizzicato.  But there was no sense that this was exploring the instrument.  Had he told us that it was “utilizing the latent beauty of the viola”, nobody would have been disappointed – for it did precisely that, and to quite hypnotic effect. 

The third concert was a performance by a choral group who reforms itself after each of its bi-annual performances.  This year’s manifestation of the Chamber Choir was one of the best yet, the sound rich and the voices singularly well blended.  There were some very fine choral singers here, and their conductor, Chong Wai Lun, had clearly worked them up to a fine state of readiness over the years.  Despite being dressed in uniform black, it was interesting to note how much bare flesh was exposed.  Various lengths of dresses and skirts only emphasised the fact that the shortest skirts were extremely short indeed, while the tendency of some of the male singers to roll up their sleeves made it look at times like a party of grave-diggers about to pick up their shovels.  Nobody’s sleeves were rolled up tighter than Chong’s, which made it look as if he was more a gardener tending to his flower beds than a man coaxing fine music from his singers.  The gardener analogy is good one, though, and I was thinking at the time what kind of flowers he might have been nurturing with so much dedicated elbow-grease.  I came to the decision that these were tulips; big, bold, beautiful but unsubtle blooms.

That my mind was wandering down aimless garden paths was an inevitable consequence, not of the performance (which was very good) but of the music (which was dire).  The programme chosen offered no scope whatsoever for the choir to do anything other than sing notes in tune and pronounce words.  It was a programme which celebrated the vacuous; and as such was entirely typical of so much choral music written this century.  Choral composers have discovered that certain chords sound quite nice when sung by choirs, and build entire works around the continual repetition of those chords in unrelated juxtaposition.  One work, which stretched itself out for three complete movements, seemed to revolve around the same basic chords but not necessarily presented in the same order.  It was frightening to realise that this completely innocuous, superficial and bland music was inspired by Shakespeare.  What had poor Shakespeare done that our brave new world should have such people in it that they belittle his genius so?

The agonies did not stop there.  A work which told a story about a Chinese magic paint broach did just that, and did it so directly that one wondered why anybody had bothered to add any music to the mix.  What a shame that such fine singers were given such brainless stuff to sing.  It sounded nice – but the minute it was over I could not recall a single thing that had been sung.

What is a 21st century composer to do?  Should music be inaccessible to all except those who appreciate and understanding its technicalities, should it be peripheral to an entertainment which involves other media, or should it be so blatantly accessible to everyone that it loses all vestiges of artistic credibility.  If all three are legitimate paths, then I have little hope.  However, tacked on accidentally as he was, I can’t but think that Richard Bissill has the answer, and music could do a lot worse than follow his lead.

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