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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 5, No. 2

Why is it so difficult to appreciate contemporary music?

by Jacques Desjardins / October 1, 1999

Version française...

Music is the art of time. To appreciate a piece of music, one needs to sit down and listen to it from beginning to end. Therefore, one of the composer's challenges is to keep the listener's attention for the whole duration of the work. If he fails because the piece is filled with overlong passages, the listener will lose interest and lose track of the purpose of the music. Likewise, if the work is too short, the listener will be left unsatisfied, wondering about the composer's intention. The composer must guide the listener along the musical path without ever losing him along the way.

The perception of the unfolding of music through time depends upon two main factors: form and the compositional system. During the twentieth century, however, our preconceptions about these factors have been challenged by new generations of composers.

During its history, Western music has used a striking variety of formal models, some of which have lasted for centuries. The formal analysis of a musical work shows the succession through time of its main events. For example, the sonata form, in its most ideal classical version, is comprised of three main sections: an exposition of two themes, a development and a recapitulation. The success of a sonata depends on the efficiency with which the composer has linked these three sections together during the twelve or fifteen minutes of the movement's duration. The structure of the sonata has enjoyed success from Haydn to Mahler and has even been used by twentieth century composers.

In the twentieth century, however, the concept of form has broken up and headed into numerous directions. One finds modular scores allowing the musician to choose the order in which the sections are to be performed (Jeux vénitiens by Witold Lutoslawski, for example). Graphic scores suggest to the performer the general curve of his gestures without giving specific pitches (see, for example, certain scores for piano by Sylvano Bussotti). One also finds music written for instrumental ensembles of variable size, the duration of which may last from ten minutes to three hours, depending on the musicians or audience's mood (as in the Variations for any number of instruments by John Cage). Finally, the merging of cultures has encouraged the integration of world music into the language of western composers (as in Claude Vivier's Pulau Dewata).

Such a revolution of form has profoundly affected our listening habits and has disturbed our conception of musical time. Before the turn of this century, it took long years for formal models to develop and flourish; change occurred only through a gradual process. In the middle of this century, the neo-classical music of Bohulav Martinů and Aaron Copland coexisted with the serial experiments of Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen. It is quite understandable, under these circumstances, that music lovers, no matter how enlightened, would feel somewhat disoriented or, at the very least, uncomfortable.

A parallel can be drawn to compositional systems. From medieval times to the beginning of this century, a handful of writing systems enjoyed great success and generated music that still stirs us today. In contrast to the wide variety of formal models, western music has retained but very few writing systems during its long history. Before the emergence of the tonal system, the Western world had prayed and danced since the Middle Ages to music based on the church modes. The tonal language of Western music, which emerged at the turn of the seventeenth century (with some preliminary versions going back to at least a century earlier), reigned without real contention until the end of the first World War.

In contrast, within the last hundred years, new writing systems have emerged steadily at a incredibly fast rate. The composers of this century have shown great imagination in conceiving these new languages, with the commendable intention of redefining our relationship with sound structures. In the 1920s, Schönberg codified the rules of the tweve-tone system by stating that all the notes of a twelve-tone row had to be quoted once before they could be repeated at another register. The formulation of such a rule relied on no acoustical basis, but was the product of an artificial conception of the mind. We might argue that Schönberg perceived his work as the result of a movement toward the dissolution of tonality ‹announced by Wagner and continued by Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler ‹ but the actual break came from the conscious effort of codification of a new praxis. For the first time, it was as if the rules had to precede the creative process. In past times, music was performed before theorists, with their cartesian approaches, analyzed it (in their supposedly objective ways) and codified its mechanisms. Their research could sometimes generate brilliant theories, but none were flawless, and one could always find exceptions to the rules.

The twelve-tone revolution of the Second Viennese School produced the first system that tolerated no exception. Strikingly, the musics written with the system are "listenable" to the extent that they don't follow the principles supposed to govern them! For example, Alban Berg's Concerto for violin works because the basic row, built on thirds, allows the occasional allusion to certain tonal functions. In its simplest form, and in its most rigorous implementation, such as in the microscopic works of Webern, the system gives the listener all the desired amount of time to decode the composer's message and to appreciate the interaction of the tone rows between each other. On the other hand, I challenge any musician having completed his or her postdoctoral studies to spend the effort of listening from beginning to end some of the densest works of the American serial school of the sixties (led mainly by Milton Babbitt) and to reproduce the complete serial chart of the piece after the first listeningŠ So many rows are superimposed at every moment, that the ear is constantly exposed to the totality of the sound spectrum and is able to perceive in the end nothing more than a blur of sound.

The main consequence of the twelve-tone system is the elimination of all hierarchies between the notes of the row. If all the notes are equal, none of them may claim the title of pitch of reference (or "tonic," to use a term loaded with historical connotation). This absence of hierarchy keeps the listener from "the joy of modulation," to quote composer Darius Milhaud. The resolution of a note or of a chord progression implies a series of tensions and releases, governed by this hierarchy. But if we suppress all form of resolution, is the human ear able to follow the trajectory of a musical work ?

It is not my intention to discard altogether serialism and the formal experiments of a certain era. I have merely cited serialism as an example of a system which, in its most excessive uses, creates an insurmountable gap between its artificially conceived basis and its potential to be decoded by the human ear. Likewise, I have alluded to some of the most eccentric concepts of form (especially those which prevailed during the 1960s) to show that, in the end, one may not escape the tireless ticking of the clock: once the music is over, there remains only one's own subjective impression of the small portion of time spent between the first and the last note of the piece. In spite of the subtlety of the formal plan, it is in the end the composer's responsibility to keep the listener from falling into boredom! With these examples, I only wish to call out to the fertile imaginations out there who believe too often that they can conjure away basic acoustical principles in favor of compositional systems or formal plans. Ultimately, music is received by a listener, and to fill with obstacles his right to have access to a creative mind is to cast him out forever from appreciation of contemporary music.

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