Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Dogma vanishes in burst of color

Anthony Tommasini’s essay in The New York Times on the disappearance of "dogma" – or settled and peer-enforced parameters of acceptable forms and techniques of composition – in contemporary art-music . . .

. . . acknowledges a trend that has been under way worldwide for at least 30 years. This trend developed alongside the emergence of nontraditional performing troupes, the introduction of instruments not previously heard in classical music, the growing recognition of composers from non-Western cultures (notably China), and the renewed influence of folk and vernacular musics on art composition.

The compositional dogmas – in a nutshell, "thou shalt compose using serial technique, and avoid or deeply sublimate sensuality and sentiment" – that took hold in Western European and North American art-music following World War II never prevailed in the rest of the world.

Serialism was officially proscribed as "decadent" in the old Soviet bloc, so in its 1950s and ’60s heyday its techniques were pursued by few composers, mainly in Poland and Hungary, who employed serial procedures more subjectively and expressively than Westerners. By the time it ceased being a career-killer in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet states in the 1980s, serialism was no longer dogma but one option on an extensive menu of compositional techniques.

Western music generally was driven underground during Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China, and is still attacked and suppressed by fundamentalist-Islamic and other anti-Western regimes. To such culture warriors, distinctions between Tchaikovsky and Boulez (or Coltrane or Lennon or Lloyd Webber) are meaningless.

Ideology aside, Western concepts of tonality, harmony and how they should be organized in composition are alien to the musics of any number of non-Western cultures. Musicians in Mali and Mongolia, India and Indonesia, rarely get worked up, pro or con, about serialism, minimalism or any other -ism of Western music.

In Euro-American music, meanwhile, much of the new energy in composition has come from musicians who, while classically trained, work in musical genres and performance configurations that weren’t in their conservatory curricula. By now, several generations of composers have sidestepped Western doctrinal disputes by adopting non-Western sounds and techniques. Others have (re)introduced folk and popular rhythms, chord progressions and expressive devices to concert and theater music. Multimedia presentation, especially dance and video, has made art-music more accessible – or, at least, provided more points of potential access – to audiences.

In this environment, as Tommasini’s essay is headlined, "anything goes." Some things, however, go better than others.

Tone color, especially, sounds to be a prevailing issue, if not a preoccupation, for most of the contemporary composers whose music is widely heard. The introduction of non-Western and/or non-classical strings and winds, the increased prominence of resonant percussion instruments and the incorporation of electronic sounds have widened the color palette of music vastly. Composers, naturally, are exploiting all those new colors and combinations.

This more colorful music may be abstract-expressionist – the visual-art form to which Schoenberg and disciples, and then the serialists, are commonly likened; but it’s just as likely that a composer will use color for atmospheric and illustrative purposes. Pieces that sound indebted to Debussy may be more numerous than those that owe Webern. (The former, interestingly, seem to cluster around the poles of classical-music programming, experimental and multimedia troupes and symphony orchestras.)

New and different colors, producing new and different sonorities, manipulated rhythmically, dynamically and spatially – as well as visually in multimedia works – sound to me to be where it’s at across a very broad spectrum of contemporary music.

Color-sensitive composition may be considered a school or tradition. Witold Lutoslawski, the mid- and late-20th century Polish master, traced a thread from "Debussy-early Stravinsky-Bartók-Varèse" to his own work, in which "the priority of the ear and sensitivity" are paramount. (The quotes are from a 1987 interview with Richard Dufallo, published in Duffalo’s book "Trackings." [Oxford, 1989])

Musical structure, at least as developed in European music of the 18th and 19th centuries, is much less noticeable – maybe not even relevant – in such color-driven music. The formal design of a piece may be elemental, or may incorporate improvisation or even random sound; but the result may be subtle, complex, engrossing, as rewarding the fifth time you hear it as the first – all the qualities we like to recognize as "serious" in music.

Lutoslawski’s "Debussy tradition" extends to contemporary compositions in which color sensitivity and exploitation are emphasized. This isn’t dogma and probably never will be (it’s hard to ride herd on an expanding universe); it’s better perceived as a shared concern, or maybe as a shared addiction to an aural light show that grows more varied and gets more enticing by the minute.