I got into a lively argument with my girlfriend the other night about the validity of the “topic” in contemporary music—in other words, whether material with conventionalized extramusical connotation has or should have a place today. (What can I say? We’re two peas in a pod.) The second question, whether the invocation of topoi in new music is nothing more than an intellectually lazy shorthand, is one we could debate at great length and probably with no shortage of rancor. But the first question, whether musical topics are still in evidence among contemporary works, is hardly a question at all, as a piece I heard last night demonstrated quite clearly.
Now’s the time to offer a hat tip to Tim Rutherford-Johnson of The Rambler; if not for his post on last night’s Michel van der Aa portrait concert, part of the Philharmonia’s Music of Today series, I wouldn’t have had any idea it was even going on, and I would have missed out on some very cool music. The program’s two pieces by van der Aa—Just before for piano and electronics and the remarkable Mask for chamber ensemble and electronics—were swarming with topics. Although I certainly wouldn’t accuse van der Aa of “intellectually lazy shorthand,” some of the specters he raised were more haunting than others. The piano piece made use of several pretty boilerplate pianisms—frenetic high-register typewriter barrage (the “hysteria” topic, maybe) and slow dissonant contrapuntal quarter-notes (the “wandering” topic)—that I’ve heard in more than a few works for that instrument. The chamber piece indulged in a few similarly pro forma passages, notably spiky pseudo-counterpoint in the clarinet and strings.
I suspect, however, that van der Aa is at some level aware of his material’s topical implications, because their subversion is what makes his music really shine. Both pieces came alive when the composer acknowledged that the conventionalized textures were just that and tore their fabric with startlingly diatonic, static redactions—suddenly the spiky pseudo-counterpoint is overtaken by an oppressively calming organ-like chord from the laptop and a muffled metronome, for instance. Van der Aa takes you to the outpatient lounge, whether you want to go or not, and what seemed like a concert hall is revealed to be a sort of cultural psychiatric ward. Moments like these, when the pieces seemed to be medicating themselves, were quite magical and more than slightly frightening. That’s a good thing.