How new is new is the modern composer's never-ending dilemma -- but is it the right question?
The University of Toronto Faculty of Music holds an annual, week-long New Music Festival that began yesterday. Also over the weekend, New York Times music critic Antony Tommasini produced his Top 10 classical composers list, and composer-professor Missy Mazzoli weighed in on NPR's Deceptive Cadence blog on the newness dilemma many of today's composers wrestle with every day.
Although Tommasini was ostensibly writing about the distant past, he was looking for the timeless: "...what came through in the comments from readers and, I hope, my articles and videos is that for most of us these composers are not monumental idols but living, compelling presences. Just as we organize our lives by keeping those we love in a network of support, we do something similar with the composers we rely on."
Mazzoli, a composer who tries to straddle the spiky divide between art music and something more populist, is trying to make the case for Tommasini's "compelling presence," rather than a self-conciousness about making serious art, about pushing boundaries for the sake of pushing boundaries:
Most of my students, and many of the composers I met through my work with the MATA Festival [a three-day young-composers' fest hosted by New York City's Poisson Rouge in May], still struggle needlessly with the idea that their music will not be taken seriously as "classical" music if it does not include some of the surface tropes of early 20th century academic sound. If it does not include a Latin text, some feathered beaming and a metric modulation, it's not certified "classical music."
I'm sure that these twin issues are on the mind of anyone involved in any new-music enterprise. As a critic, I carry them around with me, too. I have to admit that I've gone from a position of wanting to slam my head against a brick wall (in the 1980s) to feeling hopeful about new music -- because the focus is back on creating and making music, not on making a statement or following a particular school of thought.
Although the lines are not as neatly drawn as I make them out to be here, I've met so many younger composers and their performer friends for whom the pleasure is in the act of creation itself, not in following some sort of code or overcoming serious technical challenges (I've spoken to several older composers and their performer friends for whom overcoming the seemingly impossible -- not making music -- was the source of greatest satisfaction).
There is room for challenge as well as comfort in the art music aesthetic -- so the real issue, I think, is sincerity. The question is not, am I writing something that will meet strict criteria for originality and seriousness, but do I sincerely and deeply believe in the notes I'm arranging on these staves.
This sincerity is at the heart of every composer on Tommsini's list, and is what sustains our "network of support."
Here is a satisfying example of music that manages to be new and timeless at the same time: Devil's Dictionary, by Canadian composer Gary Kulesha, performed by the Mexico City Wind Quintet. It not daring new music, but it is impeccably structured (for those with a rigorous mindset) and contains much lyrical beauty (for those looking for a melodic arc or two). Plus, there is plenty of challenge for the interpreters, without pushing the boundaries of their instruments: