Tuesday, December 23, 2014

800 Words: The New Tonality - A Playlist - Part 1

First, the contemporary composers, all two of them:

Osvaldo Golijov (1960-, Argentinian/Ashkenazi Yiddish Speaking Jew/Israeli/Bostonian Academic)

Tan Dun (1957-, Hunanian Chinese/Huangian Political Prisoner/New Yorker)

At this point in world history, there is only so much room for Europeans to dominate musical discourse, and the room for Americans will grow smaller with every passing generation. You can only abstract the folk music of Western Europe by so many degrees before the music begins to seem less like heightened expression and more like white noise. Atonal composers and their followers can claim that their music is the wave of the future as many times as they like - history already seems to have long since ruled against them. American composers influenced by jazz and rock and R&B gave classical music a long-needed surge of vitality, but the vitality of their music was always a weak brew compared to the real thing - which any music lover could access for the price of a meal. The future of classical music, perhaps of music itself, has to belong to East Asia and Latin America, places that are assimilating Western classical music with a speed and aplomb that often shames classical music’s places of origin. Both regions possess folk traditions that are still insufficiently appreciated, and their popular music will never conquer the world after the manner of America, because to many places, ‘pop music’ will always now stink of ‘Americanization’. But these countries have folk music that exists on completely different rules than their Northern/Western colleagues. Aside from a couple Scandinavians and Old Eastern Bloc composers, the only composers left who can possibly be models going forward are composers who capture the music of their parts of the world and put it into their music.

I know there are people who will read this beginning and be too flummoxed to continue. I might as well put Ennio Morricone and Mikis Theodorakis on this list if I’m going to put such light, ‘substanceless’, faux-pop composers on the list. I’m complaining about Americans using the same small group of harmonies, and yet Tan Dun and Golijov use only a slightly different group. But try to understand - the rock/pop/jazz/whatever influenced scores of Glass, Reich, and Adams will only get us so far. To my mind, all three of them are candidates for posterity (though less so in Glass’s case), and all three have written great scores. But unless their successors incorporate more complex harmonies, as both Adams and Reich have already done for twenty years, their music won’t go anywhere we’ve never been before. There are only so many ways to state C-major. Lack of harmonic progression can only work so many times before it ceases to be an interesting idea. Even Michael Daugherty, who can do everything they can and much more, could ultimately be a better candidate for posterity than all three of them.

The more I hear Tan Dun’s music, the more convinced I become that even with his inexplicably bad moments, he may be the one true giant working today. Few composers so talented risk crossing the line into kitsch so often, and few great composers have made anything as dull as The First Emperor, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. What is amazing about Tan Dun’s music is that in his faux-simplistic way, he incorporates every conceivable avant-garde technique within a deceptively simple framework. All the gains made in the Schoenbergian, Bartokian, Cageian, and Boulezian laboratories are to be found within his music, and yet it still manages to almost always place the ear within the most basic pentatonic foundations. His greatest works are almost invariably orchestral - he calls much of his work 'orchestral theater', but what they are nothing less than a reinvention of the orchestra - reinstating the awe and surprise into a concert that must have occurred when Berlioz and Wagner showed the world what the orchestra is capable of doing.

For those who complain that he dilutes the richness of Chinese culture with his gimmicky musical instruments and stereotypical harmonies into the musical equivalent of a Crispy Egg Roll, maybe you’re right. But such complainers don’t understand that you can only bridge the gap between cultures by meeting halfway between them. Neither Western nor Chinese classical music exist in his music as either would ever understand them. This, not high modernism, is music that will bring hundreds of millions of newbies into the concert hall. Perhaps, if such a thing is necessary, we’ll then get a modernism more ‘worthy’ of China. But Tan Dun will have made it possible.

I don’t claim my reaction to Osvaldo Golijov to be representative of anyone but myself. His musical language is so close to mine that he is one of the few composers writing in any language that feels like a dialect close to my own. Like in Tan Dun’s music, and like the music of so many Eastern European composers before them, his music seems powered by unconscious associations with the music of his forebearers. In his case, it feels like Astor Piazzola crossed with Yossele Rosenblatt. Like so many relatives of mine, Golijov’s family of Ashkenazi Jews found themselves escaping European pogroms by relocating to Argentina. No synopsis of Golijov gets through without talking about the interesting melange of exoticisms in his background. But what they neglect to mention is that only a first-class composer could have assimilated so many influences in a coherent whole.

Goljiov was always poo-poohed by certain musicians, and now more than ever because of the plagiarism accusation against him - an accusation which should probably also be leveled at least as seriously at Wagner, Stravinsky, Handel, Schubert, and Mahler. Like with Tan Dun, what they really distrust is the directness of his music. Nothing that apparently simple should have probity. And yet the simplicity enables his music to have a thousand-watt visceral theatricality which few if any musical dramatists since Berlioz or Verdi could equal - like so much of the best music, it has no ambition to disguise itself in a veil of reticence, and is none the worse for it. If Tan Dun is a pure musician whose theatrical experiments fall flat, then Golijov is his equivalent as a born musical dramatist. Golijov may seem rather simple at first glance, but nothing in Golijov’s music is simpler than anything in Verdi, and a lot of it is quite a bit more complex. La Pasion Segun San Marcos has one moment which juxtaposes a 15 against 4 drum beat - a technique straight out of Ligeti. And if you go back to Yiddishbuk, which he wrote as a young man, there are moments every bit as complex and avant-garde as anything by any other composer.

With Golijov’s mixture of Eastern European Jewry and the Spanish-speaking world, there is something about his music that feels as though it’s assimilated fifteen-hundred years of Jewish history within it. Beginning perhaps as far back as Meyerbeer - there is a separate canon of modern Jewish composers who seem to catalogue all the influences and incarnations of the Jewish tradition in music: along with many, many composers from various ‘popular traditions’, any list would have to include Mendelssohn, along with Mahler definitely, perhaps Zemlinsky, definitely Bloch, Gershwin, maybe Weill, certainly Bernstein and Reich, Moisei Vainberg would have to be on this list, I suppose Viktor Ullmann and Pavel Haas would have to act within it considering how they died, maybe Alfred Schnittke and Ligeti and Kurtag would be in it too, and Golijov is more important to this list than any composer since Bloch.  

But it’s not only the Jewishness of Golijov’s music that makes him so wonderful. It’s how that Jewishness is indicative of the world itself. Nobody should deny that the ‘Latinness’ of his Argentinian upbringing influenced his music still more - as it has every conceivable 'Spanish' rhythm and harmony within it. His Judaism, like the Judaism of so many people throughout history, is just a mask that makes him appear different - both a curse that prevents people from being full members of a society, and a passport that allows to access a wider world. Had a musician as talented as Golijov been just another Argentinian, he probably would have been just another popular musician - a talented writer of Tangos, but without a distinctive mark in his identity that separates him and makes composers truly individual. Like Tan Dun, he is a bridge figure to another culture. The world had great Latin American composers before Golijov, but none of them has truly connected the wider world to Latin American music. Golijov is still in his mid-50’s. There is still enormous time for him to succeed wildly where other greats have failed.

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