Both Ends Across the Middle


With the strange exception of the symphonies of Anton Bruckner, I’ve never been very passionate about romantic music. Maybe I’m repressing the deepest romantic yearnings of my soul. Maybe I’m intimidated by the masterworks of 19th century Europe. Or maybe it’s because I grew up in the 1950s and ’60s when the music of that earlier era provided the soundtracks for so many Saturday morning cartoon shows.

Whatever the reason, the music that speaks most directly to me has always been older and newer. And it’s always seemed to me that new music and early music are a lot alike.

Meredith Monk and Hildegard von Bingen, Steve Reich and Perotin, Eve Beglarian and Guillaume de Machaut, Peter Garland and Arcangelo Corelli, Julia Wolfe and Josquin des Prés. Although separated by the centuries, these and many composers old and new have more in common with one another than they do with Brahms, Beethoven or Tchaikovsky.

Both new music and early music abound with sounds that don’t often occur in classical or romantic music: vibrato-less voices and strings, uninflected dynamics, isorhythms and multiple tempos, drones, modal harmonies, non-tempered tunings.

But what lies at the heart of these sounds? What animates the music and motivates its creation?

In the 19th century, Western music was swept away by cult of the composer, the solitary hero whose trials and triumphs provided the plot for extended musical narratives and dramas. But in the larger context of history, romanticism was an anomaly. It seems to me that much Western music before and since contemplates something more transpersonal, some deeper mysteries inherent in the sounds of voices, instruments and time.

A central part of the romantic ethos was the mystique of the masterwork. By 19th century standards, new music and early music don’t often measure up. But those standards no longer apply, at least not in the same way.

A few years ago, a reviewer of one of my CDs took me to task for aspiring to create a masterpiece. Guilty as charged. Like Morton Feldman, I still believe in the solitary masterpiece. But in our time, as in the centuries before the classical/romantic era, the music is the master, not the composer.

What do you think? What is it about ancient music that speaks to us today? And what are the timeless elements in the music of today?