The Problem of Modern Music

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“Only madmen invent entirely new languages,” wrote the Viennese-born British critic Hans Keller in a 1961 essay for The Musical Times bearing the same title that adorns this column. The comment puts me in mind of Walter Boudreau’s Concerto de l’asile, one of the more substantial Canadian contemporary pieces of recent years to reach a nonspecialist public, by which I mean OSM subscribers in the Maison symphonique, who heard the premiere in January 2013 with Alain Lefèvre at the piano and Ludovic Morlot on the podium. There were performances also last year by the National Arts Centre Orchestra under Alexander Shelley, which formed the basis of an Analekta recording.

The 40-minute work was linked conceptually to L’asile de la pureté, a play by Claude Gauvreau, 1925-71, an avant-garde poet who spent years institutionalized as a psychiatric patient. Armed with this biographical dispensation to go nuts, Boudreau produced a flamboyant and sprawling score that left no doubt of the turbulent mental state of the pianist/protagonist. Yet knowing that madness in the concert hall is useless if there is no method in it, Boudreau cast the concerto in three traditional movements, fast-slow-fast, with an equally traditional, though elongated, cadenza at the end of the first.

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Harmonic language, likewise splitting the difference, was essentially tonal but so laden with added notes that key and function were elusive. The impression at points was of rival scores, equally vehement, being performed at once. But Boudreau is smart. He knows such chaos must be contained, so a haunting waltz (which he had already composed for incidental music to a Gauvreau play) materialized not long into the final movement and lingered as a danse macabre that might have emerged from the pen of Saint-Saëns. By the 10-minute mark the nervous little tune was beset by atonal devils which were, in turn, banished by the tolling of tubular bells.

Well, then, is the Concerto de l’asile tonal, atonal, polytonal, absolute, programmatic, accessible, difficult, structured, wide-open, radical, conservative, populist, elitist, sane or crazy? Maybe all of these things at once, which is what makes it characteristically contemporary.

In 2019 there is no coherent set of rules for music to follow or expectations to meet. Think of “20th century music.” This expression, despite the vast variety of styles it encompasses, has moral weight and semantic content. “Twenty-first century music” has temporal significance only. All that can be said of 21st-century music is that it was composed after Dec. 31, 2000.

It is easy to applaud the situation as a manifestation of “diversity,” but the absence of norms makes it difficult to develop a coherent culture of music. We might not have enjoyed ourselves much as listeners in the serial and starkly atonal 1970s, but the style was what it was. Now it seems that anything can be good for any reason.

The old-fashioned notion of attributing merit to music according to aesthetic norms has been superseded to some extent by awarding merit according to occasion. Scores are written to celebrate anniversaries or satisfy political imperatives. How many of the 40 “Sesquies” commissioned by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra for the sesquicentennial of Canada will be given another performance?

Perhaps these brief fanfares were not intended to survive. And maybe we should not fret if a commission by an orchestra or string quartet gets one or two performances only. No other destiny was intended for such a piece. Only a few works overcome their status as one-time wonders and enter the repertoire. The music of Claude Vivier (1938-82) is holding its own. So are the best works of Krzysztof Penderecki (1933-), to choose a rather different figure. The Violin Concerto of Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) is now a standard, after decades of neglect as a hopelessly retrograde artifact. We can thank the new permissiveness for this. But most departed music is gone for good.

A case can be made that it has always been thus. What we accept as the standard repertoire is truly the tip of the tip of the iceberg. Louis Spohr (1784-1859) was once a rival of Beethoven. His opus numbers run to 154. Plug his name into the Bachtrack international search engine and you discover that a grand total of five performances are planned in 2019. Presumably there are some under the radar.

Even among recognized masters there are no-fly zones. The operas of Haydn and Schubert are ignored. Rusalka is the only opera by Dvořák, among 10, to make the grade. Samson et Dalila is the lone opera by Saint-Saëns, among 13. Fewer than half of Verdi’s 37 operas are significantly in the repertoire and Verdi is the only Italian composer of his time who is taken seriously today. (An occasional exception is made for Ponchielli, composer of La Gioconda.)

Audience reception plays an important but secondary role in this dynamic. Musicians perform works which they perceive to be effective and which they like themselves. The process of winnowing is constant. (This might be a good point at which to ask whether electronic music has pretty much been winnowed out of existence.)

Yet it is a reality also that bad pieces in their day earned accolades from fashion-conscious critics. In 2014, Become Ocean – a big, swirling bucket of orchestral sonority that barely qualifies as music – won a Pulitzer Prize for John Luther Adams, an American with a background as an environmentalist in Alaska. In 2015 it won a Grammy for best classical contemporary composition. These used to be important honours.

Composers with no sense of harmonic momentum can fuss with surface timbres and acquire (like Kaija Saariaho) renown as exponents of “spectralism.” Appeals to headlines and politics, abetted by high production values, will bring the appearance of success to turkeys like John Adams’s Nixon in China and David T. Little’s JFK. In neither of these opportunistic extravaganzas does the president give evidence of having any clothes.

All the same, there is a lot of music being created. The variety of styles might make the music scene difficult to monitor, but it could be argued that the wide-openness of 2019 allows a greater number of lasting pieces to be written and performed. Many of them are by Canadians, whether old pros like Christos Hatzis and Alexina Louie or relative newcomers like Jocelyn Morlock and Samy Moussa. They are in no way less worthy of attention than the easy-listening American minimalists or the hardball players of the European avant-garde.

The free-for-all might create problems for present-day analysts, but however outward styles vary, I like to think certain qualities are immutable. To return to Keller: “Good music is still saying something new in the clearest, shortest, most consistent way something which cannot be communicated outside music.”

Clear, short, consistent? The formula seems too restrictive for the era of the Concerto de l’asile. Perhaps we must turn to the fundamental thinking of Schopenhauer, who described music as “a copy of the will itself.” This direct reflection is what makes music so much more powerful than the other arts. “For these others speak only of the shadow, but music of the essence.”

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About Author

Arthur Kaptainis has been a classical music critic since 1986. His articles have appeared in Classical Voice North America and La Scena Musicale as well as Musical Toronto. Arthur holds an MA in musicology from the University of Toronto. From 2019-2021, Arthur was co-editor of La Scena Musicale.

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