Thursday, September 25, 2008

Survival strategies for the average composer (3)

Great things are afoot at Defeatist Towers, but it's important not to let real life get in the way of procrastination, so here is the third in what remains for the moment a regular series.

3. It's not your fault... but you still have to deal with it.

Bobbins's comment on strategy no.2 raises some points that regularly come up if you're in the business of what we are pleased to call Contemporary Music, and just like a drunk in the pub, no matter how friendly the initial approach, when they appear you know in your heart that things are bound to turn nasty eventually.

But, like the lairy pisshead waiting outside the pub at 11 o'clock to deck you for looking at his pint or spilling his bird, there's no avoiding it, so we may as well pile in. There is, ahem, a debate continuing about what's happened in SCCM* since the turn of the last century, whether it's a valid development, whether it has any future or will ever attract a large audience, whether classical music is dead**, and whether the perpetrators should be dragged outside and given a damn good kicking by hoards of indignant Classic FM listeners.

Arnold Schoenberg, knocking up a few volleys in between alienating the masses

Now there are many arguments and counter-arguments here: Who abandoned whom first, composers or audiences (answer: audiences, as it happens, during the 19th century), whether it's allowable to write music not based on the tonal system (answer: of course it's "allowed", I'll write whatever the hell I like, thank you very much), and so on and so forth. As with the drunk man we met in the pub at the start of this post, an awful lot of this fractiousness is down to some misunderstandings, but that doesn't make the outcome any less violent. Except that it's down to a lot of misunderstandings that happened years ago, long before you and I were around.

The practical upshot of this is that as soon as you're outed as a composer, and just after the inevitable question is asked "Do you write modern music?", you'll be expected to be on the defensive about what your interrogator perceives as a century of atrocities that were perpetrated out of personal malice for them.*** The honest answer is that a) it was like that when you got here, b) yes, there is a lot of bad modern music about, but there's a lot of bad old music as well, it's just that we've had time to forget about that, c) not all modern music sounds the same, d) there's nothing inherently wrong, as it happens, in writing music with a limited audience, e) Hey, Schoenberg's really not that bad, have a listen to this great Hilary Hahn CD of the Violin Concerto! and f) actually this whole argument is at least 20 years out of date anyway, if you took the trouble to pay any attention to current trends. Unfortunately, such arguments will fall on deaf ears. Sorry, but as far as the world's concerned, everything's ruined, and it's all your fault, you composing bastard.

*SCCM: So-Called Classical Music.

Classical music actually died in about 1827, of course.

*** I remember an occasion as a boy when a piece I wrote for a school music competition making limited use of serial techniques was denounced by my housemaster (yes, it was that kind of school) as "a sick joke". I argued back in a very cogent fashion, explaining the history of Schoenbergian technique and the long establishment and academic respectability of such methods, and was I think very restrained in that I never once used the phrase "you narrow-minded wanker". Or even anything worse.


bobbins said...

Oops, I touched a nerve there, I think! While I might be a narrow-minded wanker, I certainly didn't mean to align myself with the Einaudi-loving hoardes of CFM divs :-)

I just don't get Schoenberg & co, but I *do* keep trying (well, from time to time, anyhow). I keep wondering what it is that I can't hear that so many can...

Having pored over the scores of Five Orchestra Pieces, Pierrot Lunaire, and Erwartung in quite painful detail I can certainly *see* the attraction of Schoenberg's method - the trouble is I still can't *hear* it. I'll have to give this violin concerto a go. Anyhow, I'm not going to hang around outside the pub, it's too cold and I'll miss my bus :-)

petemaskreplica said...

Goodness, I wouldn't say you were a narrow minded wanker - au contraire... to be able to say you've tried something and don't get it is a perfectly reasonable thing to say. It's the folks who jump in saying something to the effect of "all this modern music's rubbish, innit?" without any thought that get my goat. Especially when they start talking about tonality being "natural", which is as big a load of tosh as you're likely to hear. But I shall forebear, because there's a whole post (or more) in that argument, and I'm not so full of ideas that I can afford to chuck one like that away in the comments. :)

And seriously, you ought to get hold of a copy of that Hilary Hahn recording, it's a wonderful demonstration of how Schoenberg can sound when you play it as music. A rose with thorns, sure, but a rose nevertheless.

bobbins said...

I'll give it a go, I'm intrigued...!