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WHAT IS "MUSIC?" (Part II - Losing the North Star: The Modernists

Updated: Jun 6, 2023


Music and the art of composing are "creating One out of Many" says Igor Stravinsky in six lectures he presented at Harvard in 1939-40, "The Poetics of Music". These essays are well worth serious consideration, and you can download and print a copy of a pdf for free if you google it and avoid the major distributors who sell it for around $30.

As I've also read in a number of musicology books and discussed with friends, if what characterizes "music" is principally organized sound -- then a number of compositions by modernists to which I have listened, perhaps in a rush to be "original" and "different," indicate that they have gotten themselves mired in “the Many” and in disorganization.

If these two views about music are right, then only by acknowledging the thread of musical tradition (the main element of which comes down to melody, according to Stravinsky) will sounds become appropriately organized into music. Many young composing modernists seem to hitch their creative stars to often unpleasant sounds not even as transportive as say, the natural (unorganized?) sounds of melting ice recorded by Jana Winderen or the harmonious, rhythmic, musical songs of my favorite Mockingbirds.

Some weeks ago in discussions with Bruce, my local composer-pianist friend, I began to unwind my questions and thoughts about the topic of "what is music?" I often learn about new composers, conductors, or compositions by following his suggestions, by reading the music page in the Arts section of the Sunday New York Times, or by reading a modern musical biography or musicology blog. Such it was when reading David Allen's New York Times May 14, 2023 review of Gustavo Dudamel, in "A Maestro Divined From the Vinyl." Dudamel had just been appointed music director of the New York Philharmonic (but doesn't seem to have much support from Allen).

I immediately went to YouTube to listen to some compositions Dudamel has conducted, including John Adams' "Must the Devil have All the Good Times" and "Sonimsky's Earbox," and a few early pieces by Andrew Norman such as "Play" which seemingly recreates midday traffic in Manhattan. I surveyed the comments after each piece and I learned about Gerard Grisey and listened to his 30-minute "Derives," an apparent imitation of an orchestra tuning up, then "Vortex Temporum" where he must have inspired -- or been inspired by -- the artist Edvard Munch's "Scream"?

Then I discovered that the Bay Area's Cal Performances summer 2023 program would feature our SF Symphony conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, presenting as a premier, Jens Ibsen's "Drowned in Light." According to a comment on YouTube, Ibsen is an opera singer who is currently pursuing his M.M. in Music Composition at the Mannes School of Music under Missy Mazzoli. In the name of expanding my musical exposure and education, I listened on YouTube, but could not continue all the way throughh because it was so anxiety-producing and disheartening.

For the most part (save for Norman's newest composition "Sustain") I don't relate to any of these pieces as "music." "Sustain" I like because it's haunting and mystical and fascinates me all the way through, although others find it eventually repetitive and boring. Some think it is electronic music, but it is not. It's well worth setting aside some quiet time to let the piece osmose into one's subsconscious to see if it fits or not. Thomas Ades's "Dante" ballet is marginally more like music to my ears even if totally frenetic, even psychotic and disturbing, and drives me quickly to turn it off. Perhaps it's a light-hearted nod to Liszt's "Totentanz?"

So are these pieces "music" and what is going on in their creation? Stravinsky says that "intellectual caprice and individual anarchy make the (modern) artist be isolated and appear as a monster. And to which the pop artist falls prey rather than move from tradition." I say it’s intellectual apathy and laziness courtesy of social media, coupled with humans‘ eternal preference for fascism ("let Big Daddy make the decision for me") that spiral into the types of chaotic, inexplicable, or purely “intellectual” non-melodic “music modernism”— all stuff that strikes me as “stuff," quickly boring, and in the end, quite spirit-killing.

But, who has most lost their North Star -- the composer, the music director, or the listener?

What a goodly number of these composers (should we even call them that?) foist upon the public is akin to spilling their personal guts on Facebook. Hope I’m not being too critical here…just thinking, observing, and adventuring some opinions and conclusions that in the end, are just mine.

And who are these commentator-listeners who wax poetic over these examples of modernism? They seem to have no clue about tradition and development of the long line of music and reasons therefore. Anything worth while has a long line, but we don't live in those times, do we? IT and social media obsession are partly to blame, right? These newbies want it "right now." They seem to grasp at any sound that comes to mind, without applying evaluation, discretion, intention, or tradition. As an aside, I was recently laid low by a serious article discussing “mommie obsession with social media.” Women go crazy, abandon babies, sink into IT never-never land, and gradually disappear from families save for their spiritually-decimated bodies. Soon there won’t be any mothers at all…I think this obsession is an emerging mental health diagnoses among young women likely already included in the psychiatric DSM (diagnostic and statistical manual). Why do these pieces exist? It's a bit like the advent of artificial intelligence: "Because I can." Who is to blame for all this noise being created? The composer? The instrumentalist? The music director? The audience who pays so unthinkingly to consume this drivel just for the thrill of something new? Are we really so damnably bored with what went before? And classical music is used in Los Angeles and some other cities to drive the homeless out of subway stations? (yes, it is!) Really?????

Many modern compositions and their fandom implicate a conspiracy of silence: no one says the emperor has no clothes. Commissions are let. Money is spent. Livings are made.

Maybe it’s all a cosmic circular conspiratorial composition joke? Maybe it's that some modern compositions are harbingers of western culture in decline?

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