When I took Concordia professor Kevin Austin’s 20th-century music course in 1994, he told us that Richard Wagner’s music of shifting tonal centres made the idea of a key obsolete. Wagner’s innovation inevitably led to atonal music and the notion that each of the 12 tones in a musical scale could be treated equally. Generations of composers afterward have been trying to find the next great thing in music composition. In 1921, Arnold Schoenberg conceived the 12-tone technique, which led to serialism, stochastic music, random music, etc. It seemed each class revealed a new method of composition which tried to advance on the last. But does newer always mean better?
Coming from the world of mathematical and scientific research, I saw the parallels. Like mathematics, music became part of research of an academic institution searching for a better method of composing, perhaps a unifying theory of music, research for research’s sake. Today’s composers have followed this curriculum.
But mathematics and science have always been about solving life’s problems. In 1637, when the French mathematician Pierre de Fermat wrote in the margins of his copy of Arithmetica: “I have discovered a truly marvelous proof of this, which this margin is too narrow to contain,” it mobilized generations of mathematicians to finally solve “Fermat’s Last Theorem” in 1995. Over those 358 years, this problem inspired many great theories and methods which are used to solve this and other problems. What problems are today’s composers trying to solve?
Music has the unique attribute that it stimulates our hearing (medicine for the human soul). A piece of music is meant to be heard. It seems to me a composer’s primary aim should be to create the next great musical masterpiece. The adage that you know a masterpiece when you see it also applies to music with the listening test. Missing in the last 100 years of music composition is the listener/audience.
Years ago, one of my journalist colleagues asked a prominent Canadian composer about melody. Her answer, “We’ve gone beyond that,” underlies the mindset amongst today’s composers. I always thought that great composers (like Beethoven and Mozart) heard the music in their heads before putting it down on paper. So why do we need “newer” methods of composing?
Great composers of the past have always been motivated by economics. Bach composed for the church, Salieri and Haydn and others for the court, Handel the first entrepreneur to sell tickets, Mozart for the court and commissions. In the 19th Century, composers derived income from sheet music.
Today, aside from film composition, there seems to be no incentive to appeal to the public. Teaching positions at colleges and universities are well paid. Composition competitions and arts council grants are judged by other composers perpetuating this “culture of innovation.” Most “new” compositions are played once and paid once. No wonder the number one question in contemporary (research) music circles is “where is the audience?”
This February/March issue is a special on Contemporary Music timed to coincide with the biennial MNM festival. Our editorial committee applied the listen test to choose composer Samy Moussa for the cover. Our arts magazine focuses on Film featuring Philippe Lesage and his film Genèse. Education is represented by our 22nd Summer Education Guide.