Composition in the 21st Century: Another View

October 1, 2001

As a follow-up to my two previous articles regarding the future of new music in the 21st century, I would like now to share thoughts from a different perspective. As mentioned before, the composer of the second half of the 20th century, and specifically in the late 1950s, was plagued with pressure from the composition establishment to compose only certain types of music in regards to style and methods. The 12-tone system was a must for a composer who wished to be seriously considered, and the elements of repetition, folk resources, and tonal considerations were arbitrarily excluded from serious music. This, of course, eventually created a rebellion, which was manifested in various ways by the so-called ÒismsÓ such as minimalism. This rebellious search for new paths resulted in the over-use of extended techniques, such as special effects and non-traditional sounds of the instruments and voices, to a point where many works were nothing more than exhibitions of new sounds that made no musical sense. This whole tendency was over-indulged, by academia in particular, to a point where the audience was completely excluded from the process. Lately, another trend prevails, which comes from the opposite direction. The super-intellectualism of the serial heritage and the extended techniques of the immediate past are being replaced by the populism of the entertainment industry, which goes hand in hand with the ubiquitous availability of computer resources.

Academia's enthusiasm for these "isms" is always short-lived. I have frequently heard the phrase "...there is a new way of composing..." from my colleagues. The commercial success of this movement, as manifested by its active use by the media of television, radio, etc., has created second thoughts in the minds of administrators of symphony orchestras, community series, and even opera houses. The overwhelming need for abundant ticket sales has prompted the idea of music making using pops, jazz, and rock elements as a major draw for the public. This business attitude is that "if the audience comes to the pops concerts it will eventually come to the classical concerts as well." Of course, the reality is that the opposite happened. The audience of the classical concerts was diverted to the pops concerts because they offered easier listening. This left the concert halls half empty when Beethoven, Mozart, Bart—k, Stravinsky, and the like gathered for a musical conversation. The whole situation has had an impact on the vulnerable young composer, who wants and needs some kind of appreciation. In order to gain this appreciation, the above mentioned elements of so-called "light" or "popular" music have entered the composer's mind as a very important source of inspiration. Of course, BeŽla Bart—ok and other great composers used folk music, but in a very personal way filtered through their own distinctive compositional styles. Nowadays this is not good enough, commercially speaking: The elements of folk music, rock, zydeco, etc., should be immediately recognizable so that a mere orchestration of known tunes and rhythms promises immediate success. I have had two experiences regarding these matters that I would like to share.

An association in my native city of Ioannina, (Epirus) Greece, commissioned me to write an opera on the life of Olympias, the mother of Alexander the Great. Olympias was born in Epirus and thus the idea was heralded with a great deal of enthusiasm by all of the participants involved, until the administrators sent me numerous suggestions on how I should compose the work such as " should not have any dissonance..." "'...not polyphonic..." "use of Epirus Greek folk tunes..." "...very simple..." "...pops-like..." "...that everybody will understand and enjoy..."  I replied outlining my views on the subject a month ago and have received no further communication.

The other story is that last April, the Louisiana Sinfonietta, which I direct, presented a concert of music written by composers connected to Louisiana by birth, education, or residency. Two days later, the entertainment writer of the local newspaper gave a free lesson to all of our local serious composers on how they should compose using literal references to zydeco, blues, Cajun music, pops, and so forth. We were advised that to be considered as having any connection with Louisiana we had better use these sources as inspiration, otherwise our music has no place in the music scene of today, especially in our state.

Amid all of the above factors and trends, I cannot help but wonder where the personal voice of the composer is. What about his or her life, background, thoughts, individuality? Is it imperative that the influences on the composer's music come solely from either today's commercial activities and materialistic society or the standard intellectual tendencies of the late 1950s? Is it not best for the composer to be left alone, free of pressures of the times; free to express his or her own personality, to use his individual language and way of thinking?

All the great composers of the past have infused their music with their own distinctive voices. The audiences have felt their greatness and have responded to their call. These individual voices created numerous directions in music, not the reverse.

Let us allow our contemporary composers the valuable right to freedom of personal expression, disregarding the various pressures mentioned above. When and if this happens, the 2lst century will be able to anticipate a rich and challenging production of serious music in the future.


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