The State of Modern Music

The “modern” music industry is finding itself suddenly isolated by today’s musicians. Any music that involves the use of research tools and disciplines is met with a bewildering backlash. This troubling trend is being exacerbated by stories. Once, it was impossible to even enter a major American music school without being fully prepared to follow the principles of serialism. We know there is a crisis when we hear of professors who shamelessly study scores of Respighi to get the magic of their mass appeal. Even the most highly educated musicians can see this crisis. Today’s composers seem to be hiding some difficult truths about the creative process. They are abandoning their search for tools that will allow them to create truly memorable and challenging listening experiences. They are confused about so many things in modern music-making.

Let’s first look at the attitudes needed but not abandoned for the development special disciplines to create a lasting, modern music. The music we can and should create is the crucible in our souls’ magic. It is this that shapes the templates that will guide our creative thinking. This generative process was what first blossomed in the 1950s. Many emerging musicians were attracted to Stockhausen’s revolutionary integral serialism by the 1960s. The excitement seemed endless back then. There seemed to be no limit to the creative impulse. Composers could do whatever they wanted. Most composers didn’t know much about serialism at the time. It seemed so new. It soon became clear that Stockhausen’s innovative musical approach was what was new, not the serialism he was married to. Later, it became apparent that Stockhausen’s methods were based on two unique considerations that transcend serial devices. They involved crossing tempi and using metrical patterns, and especially the notion that pitch and timbre are special cases of rhythm. Stockhausen called the crossovers “contacts” and gave one of his compositions, Kontakte, a name that reflected this world. These gestures can be explored using different approaches, which is why serialism doesn’t apply to them.

Serialism was the most impressive approach of that time, not these (then-seemingly) sidelights. This very approach, serialism, has, however, after opening up so many doors, sown the seeds of modern music’s demise. This method is very susceptible to mechanical divinations. It makes composition simple, much like following a recipe. Serial composition is where the uninformed composer can distract his/her mind from the compositional process. Method is the best method. Inspiration can be hidden. It is possible to forget about the messy details of note-shaping and the epiphanies that one can experience from necessary partnership with one’s essences (inside mind and soul — in some sense, our familiars). All is routine. Everything is compartmentalized. This was for a long time the preferred method. It has been long cherished by both young composers and teachers, at least in the US. The musical environment soon became sterile and many composers began to investigate what was happening.

It was a key step in removing music from an impoverished cul-de–sac. Music that was engulfed in self-indulgence would eventually die. This was the time to explore. Atonality, the new alternative, arrived. It was the new, even if harsh, antidote. Arnold Schonberg had saved the music for the moment. Schonberg committed a serious tactical error shortly after. The rescue was cut short by the introduction of a way to order and control the process that had been liberated. I feel sorry for Schonberg who felt lost in the ocean of freedom offered by the disconnexity and atonality. A sense of order is essential for large forms. He needed a way to order. Is serialism the right answer? It wasn’t, I think. It was a magnet that attracted all those who needed maps to build patterns. Serialism was a popular solution to all musical problems by the time Stockhausen and Boulez appeared on the scene.

Take a moment to think about two Schonberg pieces that help you see the problem: Pierrot Lunaire Op. 21 (1912 – pre-serial aonality) and the Suite (Op. 29 (1924 serial atonality). Pierrot… seems unchained and almost lunatic in his special frenzy. The Suite, however, sounds sterile, dry and forced. The excitement was lost in the second piece. This is what serialism seems like to have done music. But the attention it received was insignificant compared to its generative power. Boulez even declared that all other compositions were “useless” once! The ‘disease,’ which is known as serialism, was bad. But the ‘cure’ of it –free chance — was worse. John Cage proved that music composed by chance is very different from music created using serialism in a series lectures held in Darmstadt in 1958. The public was left confused and angry by the outcome of chance. Chance is chance. There is nothing to hold onto, nothing to guide the thoughts. Even the most powerful musicians, like Cage, have difficulty controlling the chaos and diffusions caused by chance. However, schools across the US noticed a phenomenon with free chance entering the music scene. Indeterminacy became a mantra for anyone who wanted to create something new.

Parenthetically, I believe that one can give Cage some quarter that one may be unwilling to concede to others. Too often, chance has become a place of ineptness in music. This is what I have seen too often in American university classes that teach (!)’. music. Music should not be discarded because it is difficult to make music. Cage’s unique personality and remarkable sense of discipline and rigor seem to save his chance art from being lost in the seas of uncertainty.

Chance is still a poor stepsister as a solution for the rigor mortis cosmically left to music by serial controls. Rare indeed is the Cageian composer that can make chance music speak to the soul. Many people were missing the perfume that creates music so evocative. Many people felt that the Debussy perfume could create an ambiance, while Schonberg could provoke fright or invoke a sense of fear. However, this was all lost in the modern technocratic and free-spirited music scene. Iannis Xenakis brought a new energy to the music industry by offering a powerful solution under the guise’stochastic music’. As Xenakis’ later work evolved into excursions into connexity or disconnexity, Julio Estrada’s Continuum was able to use this template to reintroduce power, beauty, and fragrance into music. All this was possible with a modernist conceptual approach.

However, once again the US university scene took control (mostly under Milton Babbitt’s stifling influence). This reminded us that music is not made by borrowing from other musical disciplines. Balint Andras Vargas and Xenakis both approach the evolution of Xenakis’ work through Conversations with Xenakis. Physical concepts are used, such as hail falling upon metal roofs or noise propagating through crowds. Some are related to the terrible war memories and severe wounds suffered by Xenakis. Concepts akin to natural phenomena were needed to create powerful sounds. Two things are most concerning about Xenakis from the perspective of the musical classroom: the first is his relative lack in formal musical training and the second, his scientifically oriented schooling. Xenakis created musical environments that were unlike anything else in musical history. The most notable feature of the sound setting is its ability to mimic Brownian movement on a liquid surface. This extremely physical concept required high-powered mathematics to control the movements of the analogous sound ‘particles’, and keep them faithful to the concept Xenakis intended. As a result, there is a certain inexactitude to the movement, though a physical slipperiness. Smooth transitions and musical smoothness allow for unpredictable evolution and transformation. This concept is a radical departure from traditional musical pattern setting concepts. In the American classroom’s gray darkness, its iridescent shadows seem unwelcome.

The official musical intelligencesia (the media, US university elite, professors etc.) tried to fix certain unfavorable trends and keep musical things alive. Xenakis was a troubling figure, but there was a way to replace him with false heroes. Around the time of Xenakis’ entry into the music scene and his troubling proclamation of throbbing musical environments, attendant with sensational theories involving stochastic incarnations. A group of composers emerged, promising to deliver us from evil with simple-minded solutions erected upon shaky intuitional edifices. Krzysztof Pederecki, Henryk Gorecki, and Gyorgy Liligeti were part of the so-called “cluster” group of musical sorcerers. With their simple methods, these new musical darlings gave us our first taste of the soon to emerge post-modernism, which has been our ticket to the Promised Land for thirty years. Just as music had finally found a master of the importance of Bach, Schonberg and Varese with the arrival of Iannis Xenakis in music, history and musicology texts were unable to quickly embrace these new saviors. They also conspired against the all-embracing creativity that was fast and deeply embedded within the chaos of the stochastic process.

Alas, Xenakis was exiled from American History, as far as the powers have been able! Because their art is easier than Xenakis’, his competition, the members of the intuitive cluster school, became fixtures of the new musical environment. The new buzzwords for success in music are ease of composition, analysis and listening. These virtues are a sign of the emergence and flourishing post-modernism in all its forms, including clustering, eclecticism, neo-romanticism, and neo-romantic. These days, the proud cry is “Now we are able to do almost anything we want.” It is better to be silent than to accept such intellectual cowardice.

It was vital and precious to have the promise of musical fragrances that blend harmony, synchronicity, and intellectual potency. This should be the next step in evolution of the creative humanities. It was a daunting task to write about the potential for a marriage between humanities. There was no adequate text. I was forced to create one. A unifying theme was all that was needed for a great book.
Algorithms control how the sounds walk. Algorithms can be described as schemata that use the attributes of sound to allow them to unfold in a meaningful way. An algorithm can be described as a step-function. It can include simple diagrams to complex stochastic or Boolean operations. An algorithm can be used to solve serialism. Algorithms are important but second in importance is the music’s sound. Gerard Pape, composer, calls this sound-based composition. Isn’t all music sound-based? All music is sound after all.

Yes, it is true, but not necessarily. This term is meant to emphasize the importance of the approach to sound rather than the methods used to create it. Sound-based composition is where one focuses on the sound and then creates the means to make it. Serialism is a system where quality takes precedence over ordering. The end result is often dull and incoherent: empty sound. Music is deprived of its vital role as the conjuring imagery in any form by a lack of direction. Julio Estrada is the other major practitioner of sound-based composition. He emphasizes the formation of an imaginary through his composition classes at UNAM (Universidad National Autonoma de Mexico). The composer/students then have to create a conspirator sound essence, which conveys some of the excitement of this imagined. Once the sound construct is created, the notation method is used to shape the sound. The specification of images and fragrances requires an understanding of the imagery and smells. This is an example of sound-based composition.

Giacinto Sceli’s mysterious methods revealed a curious case that was unique. He made clear what had long been hidden in the background. He proposed a third dimension to sound. He believed that serialists were relying on only two dimensions of sound, the pitch and duration. Scelsi believes that timbre is a third dimension. This depth was not explored until his groundbreaking work. He created ways to call unusual timbres and evolved timbres that led him to focus on the qualities of and the transformations within timbre. Attributes of single tones. His Quattro Pezzi can be considered a study in counterpoint within single tone!

The unifying idea of sound-based composition was the basis for a book. It would have to be one that could preserve some of the first principles that combine intellectual discipline with a vibrant sound context. That is music that has meaning, challenge and discipline. It must also have courage and commit to its creation. This music would produce special, beautiful and powerful sounds that are alluring, but which require skillful manipulation to reveal their secrets.

The epiphany led to a path that would allow us to reestablish the Xenakian ideal musical power, which is possible primarily through processes that are based in the physics of the world. This was the solution, or antidote, to serialism’s rigidities. It also provided a remedy for the unconstrained chance composition. There was a way out from the stalemate of composition in the 1960s. It is not about which method you should use to compose. That would lead to blind alleys (serialism or chance, retreat), but rather why compose. Is there something in the musical universe that opens up new avenues, that can stir the soul? How can you do that best?

We will be the first generation in music to declare that backwards movement can be progress if we stop looking for new roads and accept challenges. But the postmodernist apostles will want us to believe that! They believe that the public has rejected modernism and declared modernism bankrupt. The post-modernists will convince you that serialism, with its unmitigated complexity and its death promise, is the only way to escape. “Sterile complexity is the only way to modernism; we must root it out and return to simplicity. A saleable product is impossible without it. This thinking is what gave rise to minimalism. It’s the closest thing to’muzak,’ art-music can conjure. A composer who was once an avant-gardist actually made an apology to his audience before performing his most recent post-modern work.

In the walls of Toledo’s monastery, Spain, is an inscribed that reads: “Caminantes no hay caminos hay que caminar” (pilgrims: there is no road, just travel). This was the beacon of one of the most brave pilgrims in music history – Luigi Nono, a fighter for freedom for mind, body and ear. His example can be a model for us all. As a fighter against oppression, he was in grave danger. To create it takes courage. It’s not supposed to be easy. Nothing worthwhile is ever easy. Nono’s example seems to be the antithesis of that of the previous composer.

To understand why some composers are more exciting than others, I look at music history from the 20th century. It is possible that sound-based composition flourished intuitively since the 19th century. Is it possible that sound-based composition has been around for a while but not explicitly codified as such? That is what I believe. This idea has its roots in Janacek and Bartok’s so-called nationalism. Because of its cutesy and sloppy concoctions, nationalism has been given a bad reputation. However, a deeper reflection and analysis will reveal that the most rigorous efforts to nationalistic composition produce incredible results. Bartok’s unique twelve-tone tone tonality devices (e.g., special chords and axis positions) are worth mentioning. Janacek’s music contains some unique folk vocal inflections that are less well-known but equally important. These unique qualities extended from the vocal to instrumental writing. It seems that sound-based composition, which is composed based on specific sound qualities, can be argued strongly for being rooted in music by the end of the 20th Century.

It is about the creation process, not glorifying superficial sounds that are only a copy of real music. It was essential to restore Xenakis’s, Nono’s and Scelsi’s ideals of preeminence. These trends had to be recognized, rather than the less complex and attractive ones advocated by Ligeti, Penderecki and others. Cluster music was not a good choice.

This distinction is essential. Too many people try to apply modernism on anything that was in the 20th Century that had a little dissonance. This is a common mistake. Others believe modernism is a state of affairs in any age. It is simply what is happening at that time and appropriate for music from that era. It is also wrong for refusing to face the creative process.

These impulsive descriptions are not to be trusted. It would render the great efforts of the 20th Century meaningless. Music has a common thread that makes it modern or modernist. It is not just a time period. Modernism can be described as an attitude. Although this attitude is a common theme in music history, it is best understood when it is viewed in the context creative work, which was most prominently discovered in the latter half of the 20th century. Modern music is music that has been created from research into sound and the perceptions of sound. It involves experimentation, which often yields unique discoveries that are used in composition. This is critical because, even though some cluster music and some neoclassical music contain high dissonance, they are primarily reactionary. Schonberg, Webern and Varese’s experimental music are forward-looking. The music is not an end in itself, but a guide for future exploration and further research. Cage, Xenakis and Scelsi, Nono, Estrada are even more important.

These composers are those I consider the best examples of sound-based composition. These are the examples:

-Janacek (nationalist inflection)
-Debussy (chord-coloration)
-Mahler: Expressionism and Tone-Color Melody
-Ravel (impressionism)
-Malipiero (intuitive discourse)
-Hindemith: Expressionism in a quasi-tonal setting
-Stravinsky (octatonic diatonicism)
-Bartok (axial tonality, arch form, golden section construction)
-Schonberg (expressionism, atonality, klangfarbenmelodie))
-Berg (‘tonal’ serialism)
-Webern (canonic forms in serialism, klangfarbenmelodie)
-Varese (noise, timbral/range hierarchies)
-Messiaen: Modes of limited transposition and non-retrogradable rhythms. Color chords.
-Boulez (special live electronics instruments)
-Stockhausen (pitch/rhythm dichotomy)
-Cage (indeterminacy, noise, live electronics)
-Xenakis: Ataxy, stochastic, outside-of-time attributes, random walks. Granularity. Non-periodic scales.
-Nono (near inaudibility, mobile sound, special electronics)
-Lutoslawski (chain composition)
-Scelsi: The 3rd Dimension in Sound, Counterpoint within a Single Tone
-Estrada (The Continuum)

We are becoming unable to reflect and create because there is so much glitter around the world. The thought of a small challenge makes us feel ashamed. When faced with the task of maintaining our evolutionary legacy, we feel paralysed. We can’t afford to sacrifice quality in favor of mediocrity just because it is more appealing. This is unacceptable socially. To live, we must thrive. To thrive, we must be active.

In certain situations and times, entertainment is a noble pursuit. Entertainment cannot be the driving force of our lives. It is fine for a composer to create entertaining music. However, the composer must be transparent about his or her motivations. You shouldn’t write entertainment only to make a fool of the public by saying it is great music. It is better to be able discover the keys to creating music that fulfills a future need. We can create music that conveys something important by understanding nature, sound, and human condition. This goes beyond entertainment. It serves music’s most important purpose: it is a teaching role. How better to learn than to do so in the company of beauty? Music can be our greatest teacher.

It’s okay to find beauty in old materials. Respighi is charming and engaging. It’s just as enjoyable to listen to soothing, euphonious musical music as to create it. Can composers not do more? We can give more than pleasure to tomorrow. Today’s young composers are at crossroads. They can help fulfill a cultural legacy and fulfill a vital mission. The composers of today must dream, then compose.


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