Everything Old Is New Again

Isms” always work their way into discussions of contemporary music. Academicism, populism, serialism, minimalism, romanticism—if you wanted to take the time, you could probably add a few yourself. To a certain extent they are road maps for the uninitiated, but they have less value when you’re discussing a synthesis of old music and new. So much of this music defies categorization; how can we pigeon-hole Sir John Tavener? Where are we going to place Stefania de Kenessey and the “Derriere Guard” composers when the history of twenty-first-century music is written? What do we do with the contemporary Italian composer Giorgio Pacchioni?

One group of composers writes music that embraces tonality, and is generally presented in those timeless compositional forms that I mentioned in my introduction—sonatas, symphonies, concertos, and so on. This group includes Stefania de Kenessey and her colleagues. These are composers who, some say, are essentially writing as if the twentieth century never happened. It’s not that they are deliberately aping Bach, Haydn, and Beethoven, but they are certainly not getting cozy with Schoenberg and Carter.

There’s another circle of composers who have assimilated a number of seminal twentieth-century compositional techniques, but whose music doesn’t sound twentieth century at all. In this group I would include some of the compositions of Tavener, Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki.

De Kenessy, a student of Milton Babbitt and a faculty member at the New School for Social Research, is a prolific composer who writes vocal, chamber, and orchestral music. She has been honored by ASCAP and her music has been widely performed and recorded. Most significantly, de Kenessey is the animating spirit behind the “Derriere Guard,” an alliance of New York-based composers, artists, and poets who have reintroduced some—now here’s a controversial phrase—traditional qualities to the arts. The composers who have appeared on “Derriere Guard” programs throughout the country include Jake Heggie (recently named composer-in-residence for New York’s Eos Orchestra), Alva Henderson, and Gordon Getty. While there’s no generic style shared among this group, each of them have generally eschewed the academicism and elitism of earlier twentieth-century composers. Instead, their music is melodic and solidly tonal. Reactionary? Yes it is, but there’s no denying the aural seductiveness of de Kenessey and company’s harmonic and melodic gifts.

Are they really writing as if the twentieth century never happened? In truth, no. While de Kenessey’s music certainly looks back to older styles and traditions, and Heggie’s is downright romantic, it still draws from some decidedly twentieth-century musical forms, including rock, jazz, and cabaret songs. To an extent, they are simplifying music, kicking out the elitism of the academics and infusing their music with user-friendly devices.

While not part of the “Derriere Guard,” two other composers who deserve mention are Michael Dellaira and Giorgio Pacchioni. At first listen, Dellaira’s music is clearly twentieth century—there are characteristics of the minimalist school—but when you listen closer you notice that something else is happening. USA Stories, a 1998 choral work based on texts taken from John Dos PassosThe Big Money, is filled with effects that would not have been out of place in Renaissance or early Baroque music. One of the movements, “Rudolph Valentino: Adagio Dancer,“features layers of voices that overlap with the complexity of Renaissance polyphony. “The Wright Brothers: The Campers at Kitty Hawk”is a quicksilver romp that is not so far removed from the stile concitato (agitated style) that Claudio Monteverdi used in his madrigals.

If the “Derriere Guard” are reactionaries, then the founders of Menelik Music are conspiracy theorists. “The artistic descendents of Schoenberg, following his musical theories but not his liberality of mind, have successfully managed to control the production, performance, and distribution channels of modern, ‘serious’ music and have been able, through their vested-interest domination of the institutions of music, to set the critical agenda and censor out all competing aesthetics, principally the classical/romantic tonal tradition, in the period since the second world war,” says the mission statement posted on their Web site.

Pacchioni is one of the composers whose music can be heard at the Menelik Music site. Pacchioni studies Renaissance and Baroque counterpoint, performs on a number of period instruments, including recorder and transverse flute, bombarda, crumhorn, cornetto, viola da gamba, and lira da gamba. What makes Pacchioni particularly interesting is the skilful way he has taken the core of his studies and worked them into a valid style that is firmly locked into earlier musical forms. Some composers may write as if the twentieth century never happened; Pacchioni writes as if the nineteenth never happened.

Certainly, lurking on the edge of twentieth-century musical styles are the works of Tavener, Pärt, and Górecki. Buckets of ink have been spilled in attempts to label the style of these three composers. “Holy minimalism” is a phrase that’s been bandied about, but that covers only one aspect of their careers; many forget that each of these composers began as dedicated serialists. Suffice it to say that in sacred works, each of these composers looks back to, and expands upon, the modes and harmonies of Eastern Orthodox chant—very old music indeed. It shouldn’t surprise any listener that the music of both Tavener and Pärt has been performed by such premiere early music vocal ensembles as the Tallis Scholars, Taverner Choir, the Hilliard Ensemble, and Anonymous 4.

From Everything Old Is New Again
by Craig Zeichner
© 2001 NewMusicBox

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