Forces of Nature

Mozart @ 5 years old

Forces of Nature

22 January 2019 / William Anderson / On the Beat

Kevin Volans spoke at a 2016 IAMIC conference–

“If You Need An Audience, We Don’t Need You”

“[Morton] Feldman believed, as many generations before him, and some after him, that art was not to be confused with entertainment. That music has its own evolving philosophy, its own internal intellectual processes and developments, that are not commensurable with the desires of an audience. Indeed, as the person responsible not just for his own work, but for the art of composition itself, the composer should at the very least aspire to a higher level of musical education and appreciation than the audience.” – excerpt from Volans’ IAMIC talk.

One small clarification. Audiences can learn to appreciate what the composer is doing. The innovative work can teach a new desire, while sating it. The minimalists give us excellent examples by carefully working one thing or very few things (processes or moves) at a time.

In the US we see wave after wave of young composers pouring out of our conservatories. Some are unstoppable forces of nature. We can say these are phenomenal, but that does not mean they are the best composers. We should also look for young composers who are doing something interesting & promising quietly in the shadows.

Musicians, ensembles and other organizations jump on the coattails of those unstoppable forces of nature, the phemoms. What we have as a result is a youth cult. Volans is pointing out the dangers of overheating this cult of the young. Sometimes these unstoppable forces of nature are also decent composers, and go on to become good middle-age composers. And then they are ignored because our shovellers of cultural snow (Murakami) are youth-obsessed.

Those who care–musicians, ensembles, gate keepers of all stripes, and concert-goers–need to be honest about the brutal challenge the composer faces in surviving youth.

In short, echoing Volans, those composers in their 40s who do something interesting & promising that is not a tired rehashing of what they did in their 20s deserve to be encouraged. The game changes as the composer moves into middle age. The middle-age composer assumes a new perspective. Composing becomes an entirely different job, and a more important one.

–Middle-age composers might become aware of paths, endlessly branching paths that have been beaten down in directions they have not yet explored, and learn to relate the musical universe that made them a phenomenon at 30 to a broader musical context, a broader conversation.

–Or they might develop much further in their own unique, particular manner.

–There are those who are told throughout their youth that they are doing it wrong, and later prove that verdict premature. They make good on their initial impulses.

–There is music that misses during the composer’s lifetime and beyond because it is aimed at a group of people who do not yet exist. Such music might survive and proliferate after the composer is gone because a few odd individuals who care recognize something they feel is powerful, portentous. The social constructionist meme where only a critical mass of listeners makes music count holds no water for these defenders of underdog composers.

The Derridean problem here is that the authority behind a defense of any value system is impossible to ground in an unassailable rational framework. Every new work is its own value system. Turn the brain off and let the body decide.Social construction frameworks are mind-numbingly, stultifyingly rational. Social construction is not immune from the Derridean attack. Social construction reduces the problem is to merely one facet of a multifaceted issue; it dazzles and distracts with its clarity with regard to merely one side of the question.

Musical goods are contingent. The grounds for a musical good are shifting, in a perpetual state of upheaval on one time scale or another, in the individual and in the collective. With every new work, a composer proposes a musical good or a counterpoint of musical goods.

“What actually is possible, however, is transformation. And the transformative effect that emanates from new works leads us to new perception, to a new feeling, new consciousness.” –Ingeborg Bachmann

–William Anderson