Try explaining the rules of a new tonality to someone who grew up with American vernacular music - it’s nearly impossible, and probably not worth the effort. If you grew up with no feet in an alternative culture, there is no escape from the culture which birthed you. Everything which you do is either to embrace your tradition, or to rebel against it, and in either case, you’re beholden to it. If you grew up with American diatonicism as your daily bread, the same diatonicism which Western Europe dined on from Bach to Verdi, you might as well stay within it. Any culture that gave us Louis Armstrong, Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra, Otis Redding, Nina Simone, and so many others can stand proudly in a line with any other musical tradition. But with possible exceptions like Nina Simone or early Louis Armstrong, their extraordinariness is almost extra-musical. Take away the magnetism of their performance, and is there any raw material left?
Composition is what music is in the eternity before and after a performance. It is the quality that remains when there is no extraordinary performer to play ambassador for it. Many music lovers will pay $100 to hear a Beethoven sonata played by a pianist they’d never heard, because Beethoven, not the performer, is the main event. But who wants to pay $100 to hear a Johnny Cash song sung by a performer you’ve never heard? Even the best American popular music is not truly composed, it is at most arranged - often with great sophistication, but one can’t compare Ray Charles and Charles Ives, what they do is simply too different. But the music of performers like James Brown and Aretha Franklin is our great contribution to world music - bringing vernacular, or ‘folk’ music to the world stage - no longer to be enjoyed by a small community, but by millions of musical consumers. Our contribution to world music is that the art of music no longer requires composition to be recognized around the world as great. And as so much reward and effort goes into making this vernacular music of ours that our best compositional talents have little reason to work hard enough to equal the great past masters. The circumstances that made great compositions possible are virtually gone. The world of Napoleon and Bismarck is not our world, and the music of Beethoven and Wagner is simply not our music, so to create music the way they did is to create a second-hand imitation of what they already created. Just as few people would compare America’s cathedrals to the duomos and eglises of Europe, our composed music is, with a few extraordinary exceptions like Ives and Gershwin, a dim imitation of the original models. And so successful has our country been at exporting our models to the rest of the world that even Europe itself no longer knows how to develop its own musical traditions in meaningful ways.
And so the great art of music, like its analogue counterparts of previous eras, has gone underground in most Western Countries. Our greatest music is almost always more prized for for its electronically amplified lyrics than for its music, and has taken the place in our lives both of compositional music and of poetry. Our culture’s greatest plays are movies, our greatest art is photography and animation, and perhaps even our greatest novels are television shows.
Perhaps history works in such a way that the transition between epochs has to be rough, but it’s hard not to think that an entire way of being died somewhere between the trenches of World War I and the camps of World War II. Europe as it once existed, with all the energy it imparted to the world, has been virtually dead for a lifetime, and I can’t think of a composer born after World War II who is able to recapture the native energy of Western Europe. Everything there sounds either Americanized or in rebellion from Americanization.
In this postmodern age of no rules, rather than focus on composition as it’s always been conceived - the laying out for the ear of formal patterns of sound, every modern composer has a responsibility to redefine composition according to his or her own rules. As in modern art, composer’s conception has become more important than how well the music lives up to the conception. And like in art, it’s now more important to categorize composers by a particular system than it is to ask if this composer can take in an infinity of musical (or human) experience.
Eastern Europe is at least still in decline. There is a generation of older composers - Schnittke is dead, so is Berio and Ligeti, however inconsistently great those two could be, but at least we still have Penderecki, Kurtag, Shchedrin, Kancheli, and Rautavaara - who still think by that early 20th century rubric, find new harmonies and make our instruments sing new songs!
Harmony is no longer a concern for modern composers - and our lives are so saturated by rhythm that most every new composition we hear is either defined by rhythm, or defined by its absence. So often, we hear a revolting air of self-congratulation when a composer is described as being concerned with ‘timbre’, or ‘his music encourages contemplation.’ What that usually means is that the composer’s music is so boring that he can’t even bother to put up a rhythmic framework to orient the ear.
Schoenberg once described Stravinsky as music defined more by what it’s not than by what it is. What Schoenberg said holds true for the vast majority of twentieth century composers - particularly those influenced by Schoenberg. unable to square themselves with the reality of the modern world - which is that they are part of the world of rock music and fast food whether they want to be or not, and by avoiding that truth, they offer no substitute in their place.
And yet, does anybody really want to be known by history as hailing from the culture whose most lasting contributions are The Monkees and Chicken McNuggets?