The Changing Curriculum: Contemporary Music—Areas, Objectives, and Pitfalls of Presentation in the Undergraduate Curriculum

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Without offering any new ways of curricular design, I would like to speak first about composition itself on the undergraduate level and then merge that aspect of education with the more appreciative aspects of a student's relationship to contemporary musical literature.

I speak out of two types of teaching experience, one the small liberal arts college, the other, a large college of music within a large city university, and it is the latter with which my principal concern now lies and in which my professional life as a composer is most clearly transmitted to students.

The teaching of composition, I believe, is only valuable when it has to do with enlivening and moving a person's attention toward his or her central character and being. If there is any substance there, technique can be developed. If there is not much substance, techniques become a road to pedantry; a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of technique for substance; structure for meaning.

Two or three characteristics of music can guide the student in a quest for techniques: linear continuity, or linearity of thought in the realm of idea relationships; sound drama through the theatrical juxtaposition of sound timbres and textural values; and thirdly, what might be called the sound object, or the sound structure to be perceived with detachment as an objective phenomenon. The latter two are often and easily misunderstood as being similar while the dissimilarity is admittedly subtle, I think, but definitive.

Materials of contemporary expression have evolved in a number of ways. I have always been concerned as a teacher with two in particular: figurational pattern and timbral juxtaposition. These are teachable working procedures on the elementary level and are never absent in some degree from anyone's work. Harmonic texture of the past has given birth to figurational pattern, first within the static harmonic blocks of Stravinsky's early work as well as within late 19th and early 20th century Germanic expressionism and the pitch ordering operations of serialization, aside from strictly pointillist or klangfarbenton occurrences. In a freer sense, figurational pattern can serve to create textural value apart from defined harmonic system. Secondly, timbral values, including registral and dynamic level, are utilized in themselves, often apart from real figurational design, for sound theater, i.e., dramatic juxtapositions, for theatrical effect, of sound characterizations against a backdrop of silence, aleatoric processes often at work. Rhythm in this case is only significant in defining the characterization and in the theatrical timing of the events relative to each other. In any real sense, this realm of material and handling must be essentially theater, though in some recognition of the sense that all music is, in one dimension of its makeup, theater, no matter in what time nor by whom.

Purely melodic expression can only be achieved in areas of thought not constrained by harmonic history. Relatively speaking, our Western melodic history is short-lived and, with mechanical devices for sound production, i.e., the emergence of instruments, particularly the keyboard instruments, gives way to figurational pattern, notwithstanding the gallant efforts of Heinrich Schenker to define what rather elementary melodic substance has managed to survive Western musical art to our present time.

Obviously, that modest substance is all we have, melodically speaking, without major alteration of our collective psyche, and having enjoyed the considerable advantages of that constraining force in music, the intellectual and rational premise of harmonic ordering of pitch, and with good indication of continuing to enjoy those advantages in various and more complex ways in the future, a student's attention needs to be focused clearly on these problems, since they are the servants of his inner needs, much as we would like to disavow such realities about ourselves as rational beings. Modality, or any form of scale relationship of pitches not constrained by contrapuntal usage and harmonically determined texture, is the essential aspect of melodic expression. Harmonic texture as the essential aspect of expression turns instead to figurational pattern. Beginning with figurational pattern at the outset of compositional study provides a firm basis of technique and helps make clear the distinction between what is melodic and what is not; between what is essentially linear and what is timbral-textural juxtaposition in stasis.

In presenting contemporary music, more on the appreciative level, in the academic situation, the primary emphasis, I believe, must be on radicalization of thought. No art has ever existed, nor does any exist today, nor will any art, I believe, ever exist which does not convey meaning, and in that meaning define those people who made it. I am coming to the firm belief after many years of association with and involvement in every possible procedure for "explaining" contemporary music to people, from classroom work to composers' forums, to elaborate written organs of information on new music, that the problem is not lack of understanding, but the fact that ever since the early decades of the 20th century people have understood only too well everything that is important to understand about 20th century music and very obviously have not wanted what that music so obviously and effectively told them. They have resisted radicalization. The mistaken attempt to try to substitute the formalist aesthetic as a mode of explanation in trying to slip the message of contemporary music in under cover has produced no fond associations for most people with that music, and, I believe, never will. It is a shield for many of us to hide behind. The hope for a rebirth of the elegant dispassion of a privileged class can be little more than an 18th century backlog in our time. We have the background of a great era of democratized culture in middle Europe from about 1820 to 1914, requiring not really a popular art but a reinforcement of an elaborate bourgeois life, potentially good and comfortable for all who could advance themselves in its order. The message of Stravinsky and Stockhausen is radicalization, but it has not overcome as yet the still existent hope of bourgeois life; nor have the attitudes of contempt or detachment on the part of artists—composers—in presenting their position artistically done so. The truly popular arts do not disguise their message of radicalization since they rarely if ever affect a shield of formalism or borrowed assumptions of privileged taste or elegant dispassion. The contemporary arts are brought into being on impulses of a lost and actually unsavory 18th century mode of aristocratic life. They have necessarily been given function in a cultural repository of bourgeois life, while their real concern is radicalization.

To a great extent, the first assumption of the academic profession in the study of music would seem to be the privileged 18th century attitudes of detached and dispassionate observation of an almost absolute beauty contained in structure. The composer in the academic environment has even succumbed. Such are the pitfalls.

Contemporary music is studied in three ways, or in three areas of operation these days: performance, classroom work in appreciative study of the literature via either analysis, history, or both, and experience in the electronic medium, involving either studio or computer synthesis, or both. Contemporary needs can not be satisfied in any real sense unless the nature of the statement is made clear, and that means that the radicalization implicit in the statement of contemporary musical art must be brought to the first line of awareness in the student, the formalist aesthetic standing secondary. In other words, the time has come for students to be made aware of a process of judgment as well as the realm of objectivity; of values and satisfactions as well as tolerance and dispassion. How can this be done without the immediately obvious pitfalls of self-indulgence and irresponsible prejudice? Not easily, if at all, but something is better than nothing.

Of the three areas of contact with contemporary musical art, performance is probably the most crucial for the student. First of all, he gets so little of it. Ensemble performance, directed toward contemporary music only, needs now to be a part of every undergraduate curriculum every semester, just as orchestral, choral, and repertoire ensemble are part of every performance curriculum. This has been the case at Temple University's College of Music for the past five years, with scheduled public performance every semester. These are not professional level, since the performers are undergraduates, but the performance level is quite high in that context. Contemporary music often seems to require unattainable technical proficiency, when in fact much of what is required is a sense of radicalization, particularly in musical terms. When a student is directed to envision all possible expressive operations of the instrument involved, including voice, technical problems automatically become less formidable.

Classroom study is possibly the wider ranging of the three areas of contact with new music. Two crucial considerations beyond the formalist aesthetic are unavoidable in any relevant discussions of even contemporary music:

One is the involvement in a time, place, and person environment for the work studied; a motivational basis, or what I have called, in an early article of 1963 in The Music Review, a contemporaneity. This hardly applies to the latest Stockhausen on a surface level, but on the other hand, the interpenetration of Eastern and Western culture is a distinct aspect of contemporaneity for a large part of contemporary musical thought. The discrepancy between Westernized aleatoric process and the extensive improvisatory traditions of Eastern music is one example of the necessity of motivational contemporaneity. Improvisation in one setting has entirely different motivational and connotative ramifications from another situation. Tradition is reemphasized by it in Eastern music; in Western thinking, it amounts to radicalization. If contemporaneity is not well defined, this amounts to a misunderstanding. I doubt that jazz or rock has even yet been understood on this level and in this context, to the best of my knowledge.

A second consideration amounts to an effort toward creativity of idea in communication between people, whoever they may be, though in this case I refer to the student-teacher relationship. Developing a creativity of idea in a student is a vast service toward a better end than that of total objectivity, and creativity of idea to great extent, I believe, rests on a reality of environment, a contemporaneity, in the examination of musical artifacts. For example, what is the radicalization in Bartok? The tone plan, A--C--C-A, of Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta is convincing evidence of the unique serialism described by the Hungarian theorist, Erno Lendvai, as Bartok's real working method, along with almost every other note of the piece, and this is the formalist aspect of any study. As such it offers little in terms of idea, except in itself in its relationship to conditions in Hungary at the time and to aspects of folk source in Bartok's musical thought. But beyond that, a possibly wider ranging idea might be that this particular work represents, or displays, a sharp demarcation between the lyric voice inherent in the stringed instrument tradition of expressive statement and linearity of thought, and the stasis of timbral values more peculiar to percussion with indefinite pitch. This demarcation is not always of the same sharpness throughout the score. Third movement areas of stasis occur with celeste, harp, piano, and timpani (letters B and D) as backdrop for lyric climax. The backdrop here is not entirely percussive. It has pitch order of a static nature. The real stasis of percussion timbre in non-definite pitch instruments opens a whole realm of thought in which to experience and consider this work, and to great extent refocuses expressive concepts from linear pitch continuity to rhythmic movement, very probably non-directional in nature. This idea of the stasis of timbral values accounts for a great amount of expressive statement since the 40's—George Crumb, Pousseur, and many others. What is the nature of timbral experience in itself? What is the nature of rhythmic expression in and by itself, isolated from the linearity of pitch ordering common to Western tonality?

As for the student, he has been subjected to more than a development of skill. He has been invested with a sense of the relevancy of music as a communicative medium. He may even exert judgment. He might say, "I am as yet uncomfortable with stasis." "I find no further impact for me in overly complex, destination-ordered pitch movement," or "I, as yet, do not understand the pertinence of stasis in Eastern life, but this may help." At Temple, we are presently developing inter-disciplinary seminars for the liberal arts college on this basis, because the prevalence of the idea in these considerations over the technology of dissection almost demands ramifications of the idea from other disciplines.

Finally, we may approach the electronic medium in terms of its significant exploitation of timbral-textural stasis. Studio work is essential, of course, but what is more essential is the establishment of the reference point for electronic music rather than to allow its technology to provide the shield separating its essence of communication from an audience. Electronic music arose primarily out of artistic concern with timbre and textural values, economically produced, and in that sense is involved with the aesthetic quality of stasis more than with the aspect of linear thought—a non-continuity in which timbral-textural events hang in a time-space as object to be observed, an aesthetic much different from that surrounding linearity.

Of course, pitch ordering is common enough to electronic realizations, but aside from the fact that much pitch ordering for any form of serialized music often requires extremes of performing skills and therefore electronic realizations may succeed more easily and quickly than instrumental or vocal performance, this musical problem has less to do with the impulse toward electronic production, I believe, than does timbral-textural juxtapositions. If such an idea is developed in the study of electronic composition, much will be gained in approaching the present literature of the medium as well as its working procedures.

Both the idea realm and the overall expressive content of electronically produced music are not yet categorical, as are the same qualities of music in the more conventional instrumental-vocal media, since so much of that repertoire functions expressively and in terms of idea through the well-categorized harmonic-melodic mode of musical thought. While most practitioners in the electronic medium distinctly eschew the development of formula in this sense, it is unlikely that expressive value can ever be communicated without such elements in the syntax of the medium; yet this disinclination is its very realm of radicalization. I find the discussion of these conditions and qualities in the electronic works now available on disc recordings, much more valuable in the study of the medium than the technology of the medium, though obviously the latter is a strong priority. Hopefully, work in the electronic medium will not suffer the fate of various other technology, i.e., the popular view presently of technological media as nothing more than themselves. Personally, all technological media are simply more complex windows on the world than I may have been previously aware of, but they are all most definitely intermediaries. Whether television or electronic sound synthesis, they are nothing in themselves, but rather potentially vital if my ideas may require that kind and quality of transmission or implementation.

Contemporary music is not an exploratory process. Everything we do, but everything, counts. It is our own contemporaneity. History should and does have its contemporaneity; ours is everything we do, our very present life. There is research only in matters of technology; never in artistic expression.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 13/11/2018

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