Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Kyle Gann vents about the homonogenity of student music in academia and about how a loss of ideological concern and a los of "isms" seems to have partly led us to this point (if I read him rightly).

http://www.artsjournal.com/postclassic/2015/12/what-weve-come-to.html

Yesterday I attended a concert of music by student composers. None of the pieces were atonal. None were minimalist. None were postminimalist. None were spectralist. None were written according to any kind of system. All except one had big romantic gestures. Chords crashed down in the piano. If there was a cello, which there usually was, it came barreling up off the C-string into its highest register and then played harmonics. Everything was big, impassioned, virtuoso gestures. And before, during, and after the concert the faculty ran around congratulating themselves on how wonderfully diverse in style the students were.

I asked my savviest colleague what he thought the students were most influenced by. “Hollywood,” he replied.

A few updates later the clarification of which Hollywood was provided.  Not the rowdy kitsch of Korngold or Hermann or even Castelnuovo-Tedesco (though 2 things: 1) he ghostwrote a lot so we may never know how much he wrote for films and 2) C-T's influence may live on in a composer's whose work is famously attached to a tentpole franchise movie called Star Wars).  Nope, Hans Zimmer.  There's composers I like less for film than Zimmer (I was going to avoid the new Fantastic Four film just because I'd read Glass helped compose the soundtrack and I saythat as someone who grudgingly concedes Glass has written some okay film music. 

a few additional excerpts:
...
When the students write the way the faculty teach them to, the faculty tend to be satisfied with the range of stylistic diversity ...

...

Fidelity to any kind of -ism or movement is seem as an anachronism anyway. Once you declare all ideology invalid, what metric is left but success? I think the students are very aware what kind of young composers are getting a lot of attention lately, and it’s generally the ones whose music makes a lot of noise and allows for expressive virtuosity.

and then ...

UPDATE 2: Heavens, more than 1100 hits and so many responses!, to what I thought was a spur-of-the-moment throwaway post. While I have everyone’s attention let me underline one point, and not my main one; my main one was well stated by Stefan Hetzel in the comments, that even student works should have something individual about them that mattered strongly to the composer. The 1980s, with its fight amongst serialism, minimalism, and neoromanticism, is conceived by young composers today as having been a living hell. Today, when one is so bold as to mention postminimalism or any -ism except spectralism (because it’s European), everyone yells “Boo! Hiss!” and forces you to admit that no such distinctions are valid, music is only music, and we’re all individual, like snowflakes. Yet the existence of musical movements did chart out a realm of musical diversity, and drew contrasts between different philosophies of how music could or should operate. Take all that away, tell students that there are no differing philosophies, no schools of thought, and what is there left for them to do, except do their competitive utmost to become, by age thirty, the number-one purveyor of virtuosically emotive gestures, since that is the behavior rewarded by new-music performers and music critics? I realize that I am in a tiny, microscopic minority on this issue, and that there are likely no younger composers at all who agree with me. But I find the prevailing anti–ism, anti-movement consensus anti-intellectual and anti-art. I am a dinosaur, overdue for my extinction, no doubt, but at least you can’t accuse of me of groupthink. And we are seeing the erasure of all philosophical barriers result, I think, in an increasingly stultifying homogeneity – at just the time in which diversity is ideologically prized as being the highest good.

An interesting expansion that could emerge from this is that there is, ultimately, no such thing as music that is truly "beyond category". Ellington formulating the witty phrase in reaction to writers who kept wanting to pigeon-hole his work in a way that he felt both limited and misconstrued the nature of what he was doing  had its time and place, but it's not a formulation that works if we attempt to abstract it into some kidn of universal repudation of category.

Bein gthe dour Calvinist that I am, I can rephrase this--did Jews and Gentiles stop being Jews and Gentiles when Paul wrote epistles to churches that had both kinds of groups?  Nope.  Paul wrote to some early Christian communities that were having some struggles accepting and living with the kind of diversity that existed in their communities.  Paulw rote epistles to address how, through Christian doctrine and understanding Christ, this diversity could be lived with and certain ethical problems in the communities solved. 

It's interesting that Gann described how the student works were unified by a kind of aspirational virtuosic emotionalism.  How in spite of living in a time and place that ideologically prizes diversity and variety above all else that everything has begun to sound homogenous  ...

so was Dwight MacDonald right when he wrote his polemic in "Masscult and Midcult"?  Was he right to worry that the rise of the middlebrow realm of entertainment would damage both folk art and high art?  MacDonald's assertion was that if we looked at some of the groups that most drastically influenced the arts they tended to be dotted by small and factious groups in geographically small areas. There was a lot of strife and competition and artists and writers and painters in these contexts egged each other on in adversarial or cooperative relationships to create stuff that ended up in the Western canon.  The tension between vibrant individual iterations of art and a communal tradition never goes away.  We have more opportunity for individual voices to be heard but if pop songs are any hint there can be a whole lot of people whose deepest feelings and thoughts can be expressed in the same rotating arrangement of four chords.

I-V-vi-IV and so on.

In an era in which nobody is eager to express loyalty to an "ism", Gann has been proposing that those isms so many of us don't want have been the engine of artistic activity.  Well, maybe, and there might be something to the worry that once we aspire to a music that is "beyond category" as an ideological formuation this would not stop a lot of music from all sounding the same. 

And from the link in update 2 ...

http://www.artsjournal.com/postclassic/2006/01/rules_of_the_word_game.html

...

 
The really sad thing is, I think, that the kneejerk adamant resistance to new movements indicates a loss of faith that new perceptions are possible. “I refuse to participate in your culture of word games,” means “I no longer want to build this culture up, I’m ready to start tearing it down.” Impressionism happened because a bunch of people realized about the same time that realistic art didn’t do justice to the way we really perceive color. Totalism happened because a bunch of people realized that, within minimalism’s stripped-down context, it was possible for people to perform and keep in their heads several tempos at once. A person convinced that there will be no more movements is a person for whom the history of culture is basically over, a person who believes that everything possible has already been perceived, and that there are no new avenues left open to us. We whine about the sanctity of the individual, but art grows by leaps and bounds when groups of people start to have collective realizations. 18th-century music sprang out of a 30-year slump in 1781 when Mozart and Haydn started copying and combining each other’s ideas – neither of them had been able to do it alone. Wagner’s music burst into flames when he discovered Liszt’s harmonic innovations. Modern art changed forever when the Abstract Expressionists started meeting every night at the Cedar Bar. Occasionally one person creates a compelling new language on his own, but it’s extremely rare. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our music, and consciousness of those things is not likely to dawn on only one person at a time. Artists need each other, and the anti-ism diehards want to imprison them each in solitary confinement. A sense of creative community, so crucial to the development of an art, is devalued by the ideology that pooh-poohs purported movements.

If there's a homogeneity in student music that reflects what teachers teach then is the prudent thing to do these days to not get near the academy? 

1 comment:

chris e said...

Isn't this always the way though; generally whenever music (or literature or art) teaching is scaled up at a particular facility, the result is always homogeneity. A combination of social pressures, and the cluster effect of students taught in a particular way all seeking out the same set of institutions.

You'll occasionally get the obvious star - but really if you want to hear good student music in such places, listen to the people who weren't there (often because they were on the verge of being thrown out).