Friday, April 12, 2013

800 Words: Why I Haven't Composed - The Really Douchey Version

I am, officially, creatively blocked. I haven’t written a blogpost on a serious idea in three weeks, I haven’t been able to write music that exists beyond a marginal idea, and I haven’t been able to create more than the barest outline of ideas that exist well beyond where my creative weight can punch.

Let’s face it, the blog is the ideal outlet for me. Nobody in the world is better at instant gratification than I (take that how you will...). Nobody works better at the spontaneous combustion which comes from piggybacking an idea for a few hours which goes from idea to published piece. The end result may be sloppy, the end result may be intellectually ill-formed, but at least it’s interesting - or at least I think it is. But the problem is that I think I’m repeating myself. I have a couple basic ideas - usually related to the decline of this or that and finding an inappropriate way to shoehorn Hitler into it, that I feel like I’m repeating endlessly in these posts. So I’ve been trying to find ‘artistic salvation’ elsewhere, and thus far done a piss poor job of it.

Last night, in my inimitably manic fashion, I told some string players in a band I play with that I would have a string quartet written for them in three weeks - a statement I regretted making even as I said it... I then sat at my computer until 3AM, trying to create a germ for a piece of music that I wasn’t embarrassed to set down on paper - scrapping idea after idea after idea. The end result was, of course, pathetically inadequate. I simply know too much music not to see how lacking I am in comparison to the music I want to write. Once upon a time, I may have had the nerve in me to be a good composer, but even with that degree in musical composition, I am no composer, and whatever self-confidence that takes is something in which I utterly lack.

The reason I want to compose is simple - I think I’ve listened to too much music in my life. I’m saturated with it, and more and more I’m beginning to hear what pieces of music lack rather than appreciate what the music has. It’s probably the worst reason in the world to write music, but I have a sure idea of what I want music to sound like that corresponds, at least abstractly, to what I hear in my inner ear. And, for reasons that are both obvious and not, a colossal lack of ability to get that music down on the page.

It’s no secret that to my ears, music has gone wrong. Not as colossally wrong as it might have, but wrong nevertheless. I often think of that line from Bing Crosby when he declared that ‘Popular music... is one of the few things in this country that’s made giant strides in reverse.’ Lots of people (not least me) argue endlessly about when the Golden Age of Music and/or Culture was, and how the music world has been but a shadow of itself since Cobain’s suicide, or since the the advent of the CD, or since The Beatles broke up, or since the RIAA became the ‘dictator’ of the industry. I won’t pretend I’m above such closed-minded grouchiness, for as you know, I can out-snob you all on command.

I’m an even bigger stick in the mud than nearly any of you reading this. My simple truth, a truth I insist upon for no one but myself, is that the Golden Age of Music, and of Culture generally, ended around 1914 when Gavrilo Princip killed Archduke Franz-Ferdinand - and thus began a 75-year conflict on the world’s most developed continent which marked somewhere around 100 million Europeans to a grave before their time. The twentieth century as it should have happened was over nearly before it began. How many great composers, how many great musicians, how many great writers and painters and filmmakers and dancers and actors and photographers and producers and scientists and philosophers and inventors and statesmen and economists were among them of whose contribution we’ll never hear because we’ve been deprived of what they can contribute? How many extraordinary children and grandchildren of these hundred million were never born?

There were many other centuries of death before the Twentieth Century, but surely the Twentieth Century must be remembered as the most shocking. The decades before World War I are still the apex of civilization as it’s ever been experienced. From 1348, the year of the Black Death, until 1914, a civilization sprang up upon Europe which grew organically as a yogurt culture, and no war or revolution was large enough to derail its growth. Make no mistake, it was a civilization for the few and the aristocratic, but for those few noblemen with the education to take part in it, it must have been something resembling heaven itself. Great art, great literature, and great music proliferated nearly everywhere it was written, and over a period of nearly 600 years, it evolved to the point that it could give voice to the most complicated thoughts and emotions on the planet. To speak only of music, it had finally freed itself from the cliches of formula and form  - no longer did everything have to be done according to the rules of dry musical terms counterpoint and development - it could simply be pure expression. And because of that, the music of this era was not simply the most intelligent music ever written, it was music which could capture within it an entire popular culture. And it was at the very apex of this civilization that these civilized people killed all the very things they prize.

The reason it happened isn’t as complicated as all that. The privileged few could enjoy the fruits of this flower, but 99% of the world population couldn’t. Many of the poor were rightly pissed off about their suffering, and many of the rich felt guilty about enjoying themselves. Eventually, all great things turn to dust, and along comes people like the Nazis and the Communists who promise that you can destroy everything build and something greater in its place.

We may yet build something better in its place, but the 20th century totalitarians ensured that it won’t be a smooth transition. The age we live in is hardly a truly democratic age, but it’s far more democratic than anything which came before.  in which you needn’t have dozens of years of training in order to create something of lasting value. It is a fantastic, and very important development for the world. But it also means we must relearn everything we once knew.

War bifurcated the educated among us. The millions of immigrants lucky enough to get out of Europe between the 1830’s and the 1930’s were the fertilizer from which America grew from a provincial hinterland into Dictator of World Culture. But it was not until America got piles of Nazi-persecuted intellectuals eminent enough to be welcomed outside their own countries that America truly became the country we know today. These were the intellectuals who instructed generations of Americans in the cultural secrets of Europe so that our culture might build a greater culture of its own - some of them even made their significant contributions to American culture. Without the mass influx of intellectuals fleeing World War II, we’d have no Lubitsch and Billy Wilder, no Balanchine or Marlene Dietrich, no Gropius or Mies, no Mondrian or Max Ernst, no Max Steiner or Erich Korngold. But those European teachers couldn’t teach us enough. Eventually, the carefully prepared pop arrangement was replaced by the garage band, and the literate film script was replaced by a series of verbal cliches to accompany stunning visual effects.

Intellect and emotion came to be divided by a wall that grew ever taller and thicker, the realization occurring to preciously few people that the two experiences serve to intensify one another.  Europe became in thrall to modernism - creating a world of constantly expanding theory and dogma to which its art is ever in thrall and its loyalists exhibit cultish devotion - its very lack of ability to be understood is proof of its depth, and all expression which exhibit signs of a healthy emotional life are the ultimate proof of vapidity. Classical music was always a harmonic language above all else, but modernist composers became obsessed by it - and drove out any semblance of traditional tonal harmony in favor of unremitting dissonance. During Schoenberg’s lifetime, tonal harmony became ever more inventive, ever more progressively used. The harmonic possibilities which composers could utilize for its expression became almost infinite, and yet few viewed it as more than a simple intellectual exercise, and only a few jazz musicians and nearly no great rock musicians incorporated the coolest chords of Bartok, Debussy, Stravinsky, Ravel, Messiean, Prokofiev, Hindemith, and Martinu. By the time of Schoenberg’s death in 1951, he’d clearly won his war on tonality. Composers who stuck to tonality were coerced into explaining why, and not a few of them converted to creating music that was clearly an inferior product to the tonal music they’d written just a few years before. The modernists have created some toweringly great work, but in nowhere near the droves of it by which the 19th century composers created.

Whereas Europe became obsessed by harmony, America seemed to be unaware of it. Meanwhile, American music always took glee in showing up the pretentions of Europe, and if the European musical tradition was obsessively preserved, then American seemed to reveal a new trend every few months that would destroy any memory of what came before. Memory was what drove Modernism obsessively, but the amnesia of the Modern Age was the engine which made Modernists feel that need.

The result is a music in which you feel the need to create in one side or the other - and the graveyards of music are filled with laughable attempts to create a ‘middle ground’ between the two. That’s not to say that there hasn’t been all kinds of great music written in the twentieth century, but it’s simply not as great as it was a hundred years ago. Debussy, Stravinsky and Bartok all wrote great music, and but their music is so much drier than the music which great composers wrote a mere generation before. Shostakovich and Britten tried to reunite intellect and emotion, but it was too late - the larger world was caught up in popular music, and those two composers were still writing for an audience who lived in the 19th century. Some of today’s greatest composers - Adams, Reich, Ades - are making gestures to reuniting the classical and the popular, but it rarely sounds like more than a token novelty. In the ‘popular’ tradition, even the most sophisticated musical thinkers - Ellington... Mingus... Brubeck... John Lewis... Brian Wilson... Zappa... Eno... Bjork... Sufjan Stevens...? - create musical techniques that are like a child’s science fair experiment when you put them next to the most accomplished of the classical avant garde (Schnittke, Berio, Ligeti, Messiaen, Kurtag...). I can listen to jazz, rock, R&B, even occasionally house music and (very occasionally) rap, for many perfectly good reasons - it can move me emotionally, it can make me laugh, and it’s almost inevitably fun. But I find it very difficult to find music in ‘our’ tradition which stimulates me intellectually.

The music of our time is a house that seems hopelessly divided to extremes as everything else has in these unfortunate past hundred years, and just as I’m stuck in that hopelessly all-inclusive political middle between socialism and conservatism, the music I want to write is in that Death Valley of a Vital Center. There were many works written in our century that took that plunge into the sweet middle spot - both classical and popular, intellectual and emotional, bridging the old world with our new one - a state which so many composers for so many centuries seemed to do as second nature. But this attempt so seldomly done that you can name virtually all the successful ones. In music, we’ve abandoned harmony in favor of rhythm, those who haven’t abandoned the diminished chord in favor of atonal ones, and everybody seems to have abandoned old instrumental combinations in favor of wholly new mixes and matches. There are many signs that the old divides are falling, but it seems all too late for many generations that all these instrumental combinations can easily exist side by side. Will it be too late for me too?

Playlist of the Lost Hybrid Classical/Popular Old/New World that never was:

A. What We Can Be Relieved We Still Have

Kurt Weill - The Threepenny Opera

Carl Orff - Carmina Burana (under extreme protest...but Orff is an example of fusing popular with classical, and kept composing in the same idiom until the end of his career. So I can't ignore him, even if I hate, hate, hate x1000 Carmina Burana)

B. If only we’d listened... (some were killed, some were silenced, some were compelled to change their style before it reached its promised glory, some simply gave up and put the pen down, but all of them had moments from which composers today with more nerve than I can begin to build an arsenal.)

...this is the sort of music I want to write, not in their style, but in their aims. In a contemporary manner that would put the music I write in the context of the music we hear all around us rather than the music they heard in 1925. It is the tradition we need to revive, and when it is, we'll know that classical music has come back to full health. 

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