Thursday, 17 December 2009

What is a [classical] Composer?


  1. re: 'orchestral music' - a more useful term that i read in a music review section somewhere - irritatingly can't remember where - was simply 'scored music'. which seems to capture all that is necessary really, in that it's difficult to imagine a classical music that isn't prescriptive. even when players are asked to improvise, or in pieces of the utmost aleatoricism, there is a score telling them to do so. i mean, christ, Cage had to TELL the performers NOT to play!

    but yeah, good piece. it is so tedious that 'classical music' these days has to be either 'relaxing', 'spiritually enlightening', or synched to moving images. fucking classic fm and its silky fucking voiced "relaxing classics at 7" can fuck off. that they can play an advert billing the station as a haven for destressing and then follow it with the 1812 overture (a piece of music with more violence than a crazy titch single) as i have heard them do, is one of the most outrageous displays of wilful misrepresentation i have ever heard. i've worked with them too but i don't want to say anything in case i get in trouble with the rest of the oxbridge alumni middle-management choral society. on that note, i went to the launch of the pope's new album recently. that was depressing. check THIS out for a start. he'll be forcing witchetty grubs down the papal gullet with barbara windsor in an australian jungle this time next year, mark my words.

    on a brighter note, did you ever see that episode of faking it on channel 4 where the cellist had to learn to dj house and trance? i remember it for being pitched quite sensitively at the classical/populist divide, showcasing the distrust from both sides of the camp but ultimately proving to be quite a touching damascene conversion. especially the bit where she came up on the e.

  2. aha, but 'orchestral music' needn't necessarily be scored music! Free Improv could count as orchestral music depending on the instruments, but where are the symphony orchestras who improvise or play from memory? Imagine if there was a whole tradition and not a handful of experiments.

    And vice versa, scored music needn't of course be orchestral or classical music.

    I didn't see that episode of Faking It, but I really really want to now you've described it. I did see an episode of Faking It where a three-chord punk rocker was made into a conductor, I remember it being pretty good.

    All this pope stuff feels like nineties chillout gregorian chant all over again, but with more of an evangelical aim. The flip side is Marcel Peres and his trusty band of Ensemble Organum, I know it's not plainchant but he does that too, get a load of this: that's what I'm talking about, that's just a fraction of the sort of boldness that re-performers of scores should feel entitled too (but here it's rationalised as historically informed performance of course).

  3. once again, i have been totally entertained and thoroughly absorbed with your words and angles.
    Well done.
    Free form orchestras running amok without score or conductors?...bring it on!!!

  4. I love your analyses of the photos! You had me laughing.

  5. A few comments...

    'the emancipation of possibility' as opposed to schoenberg's 'dissonce' and carter's 'discourse'...i think the 60s already tried that. It seems to me that, rather than eradicating the boundaries between scenes and genres (or taboos?) as was apparently the case in the 60s, our 'ipod generation' (yuk), apparently open to all things, seems obsessed with segregating and classifying music more than ever, as the goldie classic reveals. Social or extra-musical(?) context seems more important than the musical work/sound, although i feel that has always been and always will be the case in the medias eyes (unfortunately?). I know you say they are the same thing, but i think practically they are two (or multiple) things that maybe should be balanced. I personally would argue that the less the personality behind the work is concentrated on the better.

    When you say that 'also liberating would be the related notion that anything we do is music, but many contemporary classical composers don’t yet seem ready to embrace such an emancipation'. I would say that any music (or creative act) relies on a discourse between the static or fixed and the variable or flux. Anything that only has one or the other fails in the same way that total chaos and total order fail: they both tend toward the same imperceptible boredom. If anything is possible then nobody cares what IS possible (?). If anything is music then nothing is music (oh dear)...i think practically (as opposed to theoretically) beauty in anything sounds good...and is a notion that probably exists already.

    You are also a little harsh on the contemp classical scene..Max and the like are by no way representative in my opinion...(of the younger composers anyway). I would also say that pretty much all 'scenes' or 'genres' suffer from 'naturalised assumption' (that is usually counter-productive?). Just because the canon is longer doesn't mean it causes more damage.

    However it does annoy me when people try to superficially 'revive' the arguably 'dead' or fossilised, like 'classical music'...or 'jazz'...but maybe thats just me being reactionary.

    I feel that we are at a point when there could be more, or a renewed sense of social freedom in creating music, the music itself however will still succeed and fail on the same basic perceptive principles however, as the physical boundaries of our ears and minds remain constant (or perhaps not..hmm).

    Your ideal of rich diverse and accessible seems a bit too close to the slogans emanating from every business/media person/arts council/politician in the world...i like the mystery bit though.

    Sorry for being a bit negative...i may have contradicted myself a few times but im generally undecided about most things anyway (which is good?).

    Keep it up.

    p.s also sorry there are a lot of "" , as i know a lot of the terms i use are quivering in academic debate themselves...

  6. Hey salix, sorry I haven’t responded to your comments on the Burial post btw, I generally agreed with them and where I didn’t I’d have just been repeating what I’d already written or explaining in more detail in a later post. Here again, you’ve raised some issues that I’ll cover in the next post, so I’m not gonna respond in full.

    I’m aware that the rhetoric of emancipation is not at all new, it’s one of the keywords of aesthetic and political progressive discourse in the last century of course. The irony is that much contemporary classical music is implicitly (or feels itself to be) modernist in its goals, and yet has become quite fixed and unimaginative, and is in need of new kinds of emancipation from the ‘naturalised assumptions’ to which it’s chained – such as the score, the instruments, the performance setting, etc.

    One of those assumptions, and one you raise, is that music is primarily sound, or that music is much better when it’s primarily sound. I guess we disagree on that – I hate to see music reduced to sound when it’s manifestly a socio-cultural event: people doing things in the real world for cultural reasons (not that the specifics of the sonics don’t matter, of course). I hope people will admit that and take advantage of that, I encourage it. The ‘non-sonic’ context is as much a part of the aesthetic experience as the sound, it’s what lights the sound up. To try and reduce that element to almost nothing, as much contemporary classical music does (wearing black etc), is arguably to go against the very nature of music, and I think that’s a shame and one of the reasons the genre has only limited success. Read Christopher Small’s book ‘Musicking’ to see how broad a range of activities music really is.

    Yes, all scenes are by definition subject to certain agreed parameters, we should be grateful for them. In this case, though, I believe that 1) these parameters are pretty stringent for contemporary classical music given the breadth of that scene’s power, history and possibility, and 2) the contemporary classical establishment is represented in many respects as the highest embodiment of / claim to enormously broad terms like ‘music’, ‘composers’ and ‘composition’ (hence me putting the word ‘classical’ in square brackets), in a way that other scenes (psytrance, Mexican Dixie, doomcore, etc) don’t, and has more power than it perhaps deserves in that respect. In many if not most universities, you’d be sneered at if you submitted a psytrance mix to the examiners as part of a degree labelled ‘music’, as mixing, let alone psytrance, is not ‘proper music’ i.e. classical / orchestral music.

    (btw, ‘scenes’ are precisely the sorts of things I’m talking about when I go on about non-sonic context…)

    I accept that the contemporary classical music scene is a lot broader and more diverse than it looks like I’m giving it credit for, but if you zoom out and look at everything that music can be, it can seem rather limited. I know Maxwell Davies isn’t representative, him and the Boulez generation are already halfway out the door and that there’s a certain degree of change and emancipation going on these days, Anna Meredith being one example.

    Cheers for your thoughts, if you have any detailed reactions to my next post when it arrives you can always email me.

  7. I think an incredibly brief comment is perhaps the best way to respond to one of your posts - no time for a cup of tea here!

    So, anyway; I'm surprised that you make no mention of a very significant aspect of 'classical music culture'; the Classic FM, aspirational, pop-classical world. Whether (like me) you find it sickening or not, it points to a less stark clash of cultures than the structure you outline here...

  8. Hey Murphy, that's a good point. I guess the current world of classical music exists between two general poles, the academic, Milton Babbitt end and the Classic FM, record-sales-orientated end. As they appeared on TV, Morley was slightly more towards the academic end of the spectrum than Goldie, perhaps. I have to say I'm more familiar with the academic end. I wasn't aiming for a general survey of the problems of 'classical music culture', though, but a critique of [classical] music, that is, how the greatest examples of music and the word 'composer' is always already 'classical', which comes with certain limiting assumptions.

    Pop-classical composers are largely seen as less 'serious', I'd say, as composers of [classical] music, and there are similarities and differences in them with the sort of things I describe above. Pop-classical composers like Einaudi, Rutter, the classical Paul McCartney, Karl Jenkins are outside of the whole 'science of music' ideology, probably because they sell their music to the middle-aged middle class as 'relaxing classical music' and not to an intellectual, artistic or academic community. Similarly, the 'music as abstract, meaningless form' paradigm doesn't really apply for an audience who lap up descriptive, programmatic and emotional music and who are very likely to adore Hollywood film music (which makes up a massive section of Classic FM's airtime) along with it.

    But then those composers and their audiences still subscribe to the Romantic myths of the composer figure and his [sic] genius powers of individual invention and expression, demanding respect and sonic precision, as it's kudos. I've put a photo of Einaudi up, above.

    As for Il Divo, Vanessa Mae, and the boy/girl bands who merely have different instruments and accents to their pop counterparts - fun, wallet-opening mass entertainment - whether you find it sickening or not, I'm not sure it's doing that much to constrain the imaginations of the musically creative as the aesthetics I described in this post. They're not worshipped by musical priests, while Harry, Max, etc are.