Monday, November 14, 2005

Are they hedging it or is it honest conviction?

FREQUENTLY, and in good bourgeois company, among civilians largely unaquainted with the hows, whys and wherefors of the new, contemporary and experimental scenes, I am often pressed on the question of "why exactly?" I should not rather be composing like some long deceased colleague (preferentially these days Mozart or Brahms). I have taken of late to responding that I think that I do indeed compose like that colleague -- in that I take the material at hand and push it to some extreme of artful manipulation and cunning -- but that my music and the music of said dead colleague simply do not sound alike. That answer satisfies some, challenges others, and presumably disappears into background noise for most. Like most composers of experimental music, I suppose that growing used to such a response is a healthy mechanism.

But there are composers out there for whom composing with similitude to old masters remains a focus. Take, for example, Noam Elkies, also professor of mathematics at Harvard. He composes tonal music, closely following classical models, never getting too adventurous with pitches but sometimes throwing in a little rhythmic trick or two. It's the very model of amateur (in the best sense) music making: it comes directly from the habit of someone who plays music, and composing allows one to play a bit with the conventions of the repertoire one loves. Elkies seems to get some serious performances of his work, and they seem to be received with the appropriate spirit of -- as no one other than John Cage put it -- conviviality.

I just noticed an online community gathering composers who identify their work as "tonal"

The Delian Society (a membership list is here)

and another community where the common denominator is "consonant".

New Consonant Music

Now, my familiarity with both communities and their member composers is limited to a few hours of surfing, I do have a strong impression that the membership and their compositional output is both heterodox in the extreme and they shouldn't be dismissed outright. While there does seem to be a handful of genuine tonal archaicists or new consonant anachronists, and not a few of these striking my as simply -- as opposed to interestingly -- naive, there is also a good number of sophisticated musicians from classical, non-western, popular and even contemporary music backgrounds. While a couple of these may simply be trying to hedge the market through the appeal of an attractive surface, many of these composers seem to find "tonal" or "new consonant" as useful descriptions for work that is smartly historicist, often ironic, and even downright experimental in approach.

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