An Ugly Future

Even though I read Belinda Reynolds’s writings on NewMusicBox with interest every week, I’m usually so wrapped up in fretting about the university music scene that I forget to fret about pre-college music education. I paid a visit this morning to a group of high school students in a county-wide magnet music program—the very program, it so happens, from which I graduated in 2001. (If 2001 sounds recent to you, by the way, I’d advise you to go meet some people who are as old now as you were in 2001. Be ready to feel old.) Before fielding a few questions about studying music in college and graduate school, I gave a brief spiel about my activities as a composer and played a recent piece.

The students’ music literature curriculum extends through the 1970s or thereabouts. All of the kids I met today were intelligent and perceptive young musicians, no two ways about it, but most weren’t prepared for the disjointed, microtonal, inexplicably referential weirdness I chose to represent my musical endeavors. By and large, I didn’t find their reactions surprising, but one question popped up several times that I hadn’t anticipated: They wanted to know whether tonality or atonality will be the future of new music.

I assume that they meant, metonymically, to ask whether pretty music or ugly music is in. My gut reaction, which I moderated in the interest of even-handedness, was that ugly music is where it’s at: Game over. I pointed out that film scores are full of atonal music and that more than a few hip-hop samples could be considered so as well. Ultimately, though, the question of tonality versus atonality is a hundred-year-old question, and not many composers I know—regardless of what kind of music they write—worry too much about it either way. I certainly don’t. Besides, much virtual ink has already been spilled on these pages to the effect that harmonic organization is only a small (and shrinking) part of how most of us hear music now. The presence or absence of a steady pulse, for example, is easily as significant as the presence or absence of a tonic among today’s listeners, to say nothing of formal symmetry, pleasing timbres, consistency of loudness, etc.

Of course, I didn’t articulate this too clearly to the high schoolers I addressed today. I probably said something about how pretty Le Marteau is, and how you should check out this one guy, Feldman. I’m grateful, though, to have been given the chance to speak to such a group about what I do: It’s good, every so often, to be confronted with the things you take for granted.

14 thoughts on “An Ugly Future

  1. David

    “If 2001 sounds recent to you, by the way, I’d advise you to go meet some people who are as old now as you were in 2001. Be ready to feel old.”

    To someone who turned 50 in 2001 that’s a pretty funny comment. Six years in my fifties has gone by so much more quickly than 6 years did in my twenties. And people don’t really change much after a certain point.

    Tonality is lots more pleasing now too.

    Good luck

    David The Old

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  2. mryan

    Camps are doomed! ;-)
    I think a safe thing to tell young people would be that the musical world is quickly being forced to get over ‘camps of thought,’ that they are going to have to define what music means to them instead of letting someone else tell them what’s the next hot trend. This requires personal thought, meditation, seeking; some will not be willing to invest themselves personally in this way, that is unfortunate for them. A musician must understand the basic tools used for making music in the past, but the sooner a musician becomes his own explorer, the sooner that musician can get down to making good music. – M. Ryan Taylor

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  3. JKG

    Atonal is not necessarily ugly…
    and tonal is not necessarily beautiful. Non-communicative is ugly. Game over? Maybe for you and others sold out to some sort of artistic elitism just to justify some pathetic professor’s ridiculous notions of beauty imposed upon the world (via you and others they taught, I moght add). Since when is hip-hop a serious musical tradition? You do not worry about the question because you cannot afford to care about the answer; plus, if it were true too much ink had been spilled about the matter, then why are you adding to it, with no small degree of condescending glibness, I might add? Probably the reason you didn’t articulate all this to begin with is because there is too much high-brow irrationality to your initial argument. Atonal and serial techniques are fine for a very few expressions, yet tonality continues to be the expression of choice amongst virtually ALL the world’s cultures – except, of course, the “elite” non-talented. Tell your professors you want your money back.

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  4. MCmiel

    I believe that now, more than any other time in the history of the world, the music world is growing in all directions. Sure, there are dissonant composers, and sure there are tonal composers, and one style may be dominant, but more important than which will dominate the coming years is that both are being written. Now is a time where ALL styles, more than ever before, are viable.
    I feel particularly strongly about this right now because I just came back from a concert where MANY different styles of music were next to each other. I think that, with the culture what it is, and the attention span of the listener decreasing, it is important to program a variety of styles. Why listen to Ades and other people who write like him, when you could listen to Ades, people who write like him, Golijov, Adams, Wolfe, Rouse, and Kernis. Talk about a conglomeration of different styles.
    I think that tonality is an issue that should be resolved on a personal level. Write atonally when the material calls for it. Let each composer battle his own self with that question rather than determine what is in style. The last thing that anyone wants to happen is to have someone as talented as Beethoven quit music because he was forced to write in one style he didn’t like.

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  5. pgblu

    Define ‘serious’
    Hip-hop is serious or it’s not… depends how you define serious. Seems to me, JKG, that you define serious in terms of whether music performed in prestigious concert halls for white people.

    A serious art form is one in which there are criteria for good and bad work, in which expressivity depends on a continual refinement and investigation of one’s means. Hip-hop has this, and it’s highly influential and meaningful for a large part of our culture, to boot. Under THESE terms, it’s far more “serious” than concert music by dead composers or by composers no one listens to (such as you or me).

    Besides, if you read Colin’s post carefully, he was using hip-hop as an example next to film music of pop-cultural realms in which atonal snippets have been incorporated. This has independent of the serious/non-serious divide, which only you have the requisite level of insensitivity to bring up.

    OK, done with JKG… Since we’re on that point, though, Colin, I do find the argument a little tendentious. When a particular musical snippet is sampled or referenced by pop culture, that means it has become a signifier. Just because that snippet happens to not obey traditional expectations of harmonic syntax, doesn’t mean you can make such a large conceptual leap as to then conclude that atonality itself has become a cultural signifier, or is itself on the way toward becoming a more legitimate musical ‘language’. Inherent in the very definition of atonality (if the word is to be meaningful at all), is that one cannot speak of it ‘as a whole’ in the first place. Atonality defines itself negatively, not positively; and its definition is continuously evolving. It used to mean ‘no triads and no functional progressions or implications.’ Now, thanks to a broadened notion of tonality, one can make perfectly tonal-sounding music without employing triads or progressions at all! That is because of folks like Debussy and Stravinsky expanding the palate of possible significations.

    So, a flexible (and less verbose) definition would have to be ‘resisting signification’. In other words, atonality is a way to encourage us to hear ‘the sound itself’ rather than hear its ‘meaning’. This is the contribution of the field of ‘new music’ to our ever-broadening understanding of world. Take it or leave it.

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  6. JKG

    Thanks, pgblu…
    You make good sense on the hiphop issue – a lot more sense than Colin makes regarding atonality being the style of the future. If serial and mannerist writing “signifies” the era between 1930-1980, then it makes perfect sense there is not only a backwash of interest in that type of writing up to the present day (which explains why some professors even bother teaching those methods). Hiphop is essentially a dance music as opposed to a sit-down, concert-listening style, and I agree with you there are standards. You make an interesting point I’ve long made about “serious” music over the past seventy years, and that is the simple fact many popular styles such as hiphop are more “serious” than much recent “classical” attempts. We can thank the non-talented, elitist mannerist snobs for all this confusion – after all, they LIKE ugly music. Isn’t almost all hiphop tonal by nature?

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  7. Colin Holter

    Yes, pgblu, I agree that atonality as an aesthetic phenomenon can’t be genuinely manifest in a four-second loop. However, I think it’s safe to say that dissonance, which is maybe the word I should have been using all along, is omnipresent in today’s popular music. In short, nobody should be scandalized by tritones and sevenths in the twenty-first century. I’d also point out that the students to whom I spoke used the word “atonality” – which might imply that they consider it synonymous with “dissonant.”

    You make good sense on the hiphop issue – a lot more sense than Colin makes regarding atonality being the style of the future.

    Atonality is not a style. You either didn’t read or didn’t understand what pgblu wrote. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume the former.

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  8. pgblu

    twist
    They’re right, JKG: basically every word I used that was more than three syllables you managed to misunderstand so it fits your own notion of how the world ought to be. Anyway, you can rant all you want, and it’s sometimes remotely entertaining, even when it’s irrelevant to the thread, but do not misuse my words to bludgeon other people. I am not agreeing with any of the points you have made, insofar as they were comprehensible to me.

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  9. JKG

    Inconprehensible me…
    ah, there’s the rub – the same problems some of us relating to each other’s music, we also have when communicating with one another ABOUT music. So allow me to be a bit plainer, ya’ll. Hiphop, interestingly enough, at the very least communicates to a wide audience that generally enjoys moving to the beat; will the music of the future have a beat? Of course. And how about dissonance – of course there must be dissonance, but that by no means equates that culture (popular or otherwise) will receive harmonies of the netherrealms as synonymous with meanings that are understood. Now, if the point is merely to contrive a largely meaningless music, that has certainly been accomplished – most poignantly by those who insist ugly is beautiful and vice versa. While hiphop is not particularly my style of choice, its a LOT more meaningful and interesting to me than much so-called “serious” (and I mean sad, sad serious) efforts. No wonder most folks don’t give classical music the time of day – and bully for them!

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  10. siconesis

    What?
    Who the hell are any of us to assume what the future of music will be? It’s just plain silly, but even worse when it’s reduced to tonal or atonal. C’mon, please!

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  11. lala

    the definition of talents
    is what style in the future important? you sure know how to communicate with most people even they have no taste, you will find a way to change yourself in order to please them.

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  12. JKG

    …found an interesting article about the California Summer Music 2007,
    and its programs. One program is devoted to contemporary accademic
    composers and their music.

    A journalist-reviewer of the program says:

    “That the works heard on this occasion were neither iconoclastic, or
    so shockingly avant garde that they caused serious disturbances of the
    peace, surprised no one, for composers today have turned their backs
    on the musical neo-Dadaism of the last half of the twentieth century
    and are producing today much more friendly music.

    Audiences have shown little affection for post Webern and Schoenberg
    atonality, Sprechstimme, advanced serial techniques, musique concrete,
    alleotoric music, minimalism, synthesizers, or the ultimate Dadaistic
    nonsense of such composers as Nam Jun Paik, whose 1965 “Action Music”
    included on stage upright pianos being smashed, eggs broken, objects
    being painted with black paint, hair and clothes being cut with
    scissors, and cellist Charlotte Moorman wearing a cellophane sheath
    (and little else) immersing herself in a drum filled with water to
    emerge and play her Swan Song.

    I believe we can safely say that composers today regard these antics
    as foolish as they were amusing, but on the other hand, they feel free
    to utilize any techniques and styles of the past if desired. What
    today’s composers are trying to do is basically to engage the
    attention of listeners and to stir their emotions. By this standard
    what we heard last night was very satisfying indeed.”

    Reply

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