Friday, December 17, 2004


There has recently been quite a bit of internet chatter and US media attention about a prodigious young composer, Jay Greenberg. I have only heard fragments of Greenberg's music, but enough to agree that his is a real talent, although one that -- from the viewpoint of new musical materials or techniques -- has not yet led in any earthshattering directions. I wish him well and expect that his imagination will soon lead him down more adventurous paths (and perhaps even paths well beyond Julliard).

I happen to have stumbled upon the work of a prodigy of a different sort, and one whose work, although not showing the technical gifts of Mr. Greenberg, immediately strikes the mind and ear with features that fundamentally challenge my understanding of the qualities that music might possess. This composer, Marco Melanson, an Acadian/French-Canadian of Bathurst, New Brunswick, is now in his mid 20s, mostly self-taught, and prolific. He identifies himself forthrightly as a classical composer, writes works in classical forms (sonatas, symphonies, serenades), and his inspiration is a unique mix of Viennese classical music (I stumbled onto his webpage when searching for midi files of Haydn Baryton trios; he has pages full of midified Baryton trios and Mozart piano sonatas) and pop music (French-Canadian chanteuses, and Boygroup pop, with a violent aversion to Eminem).

Melanson has organized his list of works into chronological periods, some of which are named after the pop musicians to whom he then gave allegiance. Many of his pieces are online in midi format. Most of the early pieces are monophonic, sometimes with a rudimentary accompaniment, with an initial essay at a bass line appearing only in his 70th composition, the Simardian Concerto No.2 in E flat ("Simardian" refers to Nathalie Simard, the pop singer who was Melanson's idol during his creative period extending from 1992 to 1996). Latter works demonstrate an increasing mastery of the classical idiom and a functional harmonic language, albeit with considerable room for the development of more contrapuntal features. Most of the pieces are identifiably tonal, but some work within constraints that Melanson himself identifies as "avant-garde", for example, using only black or white keys in a movement, or using wide chordal voicings that recall -- for Melanson -- John Cage.

A random listening to a selection of Melanson's earliest midi files and especially the huge number of improvised "Melansonatas" yielded some moments recalling children improvising patiently at the keyboard, others the music of Chris Newman (albeit more tightly organized), or of Howard Skempton (albeit less economical). His later works recalled the 100+ Sonatas of John White or the 1001 Sonatas for violin and piano by Boudewijn Buckinx (or, albeit in a more modest way, my own 32 Sonatas for solo keyboard). Melanson's pieces share a simple surface with all of these but -- and this is very much like White or Buckinx -- his relationship to traditional repertoire is not simple: at once one constantly hears real fragments of familiar music, but the fragmenting process itself is constantly disarming in ways that David Cope's "recombinant" algorithmic pieces for comparison, are not. The truncated version of the Ode to Joy melody appearing in the first movement of Melanson's Symphony No.4 in D "Jeremy Jordan Symphony", M3. 138, is one good example. Melanson's use of repetition is also striking, in that the appearance and frequency of repetitions is never predictable. Sampling his midi files chronologically shows a composer gradually acquiring all the elements of a musical tradition, with each element internalized and redefined in his own terms.

From the biographical remarks elsewhere in Melanson's webpages, one can learn about some of the personal circumstances that have led to his musical work, his working methods, and some of his proclivities and obsessions. The relationship between his overtly classical textures and his affections for pop music just plain puzzles me. (When Melanson writes about his dreams, idols, or obsessions, he use language that could have come straight out of the journals of Joseph Cornell). However, these aspects strike me as ultimately unimportant. He is not an avant-garde or experimental composer and his works bear none of the irony or distance found in works of White or Buckinx, but it is precisely in the naivete of his works that honest traces of the experimental spirit can be found. I believe that calling attention to his work is not a case of my liberal ethics gone too far. Melanson has a unique take on music, and his development as a composer is worth some attention.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have read with interest Daniel Wolf's comments about the young composer, Marco Melanson.

While I agree Mr. Melanson has a natural musical ability, he shouldn't be compared to Jay Greenberg. The two are light years apart.

I suggest Mr. Wolf revisit some of Greenberg's compositions and compare them to the level of work that was being produced by Mozart when he was twelve.

In my opinion, we're not talking about talent, we're talking about genius.