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Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Guest Blog: David Braid on Reconstructing Harmony



Composer / guitarist David Braid writes about 'Post-post-modernism' - the (re)construction of harmony following the institutionalisation of both Modernism and Post-modernism

I believe it can be safely said that Modernism in all its forms ('high', 'experimental-out there', 'atonal', dissonant, 'difficult', et al) is now fully institutionalised.


It is taught - with considerable vigour - at all the major music colleges; despite other styles being allowed to a degree (they were barely tolerated at all when I was at the RCM) they are unquestionably still considered to be less, or even not, important.

Well over 100 years have passed since Schoenberg's first atonal works, the 2nd Quartet, Five Orchestral Pieces, et al. and yet somehow the idea persists that this aesthetic is still modern or new in some way.

This can also be said of Post-modernism, the ironic use of styles from previous eras, or other cultures, or both, as a reaction against Modernism. Considering that this arose much later, in the early 70s, it is surprising how quick it has run its course and followed Modernism into being institutionalised (and taught as such) already.

Why is this so? It is because the rebel always becomes the establishment (or even the dictator) - it is Animal Farm all over again. The early atonal composers were pure in intention, they were trying to avoid the populist and aim for something higher. This then became the way to write which had, of course, disastrous consequences for those who felt otherwise; consider the late Boulez and his blocking of Rubbra, Simpson, William Lloyd Webber, and any others who he disagreed with.

However, not to throw the baby out with the bathwater - there are obviously great works written within the Modernist aesthetic, such as the majority of the output of Ligeti, Lutosławski, Messiaen, Nørgård for example, it is despite, not because of - atonality that they made such great works; the style is entirely secondary, if even important at all. What is important is that these composers were from a period when Modernism was still new and developing and still meant something.

Looking again at Post-modernism - another factor in its rapid decline is the fundamental problem of polystylism - the lack of unity in the work owing to the disparity of the quoted material/styles.

Charles Ives managed to circumvent this, by finding what was common between the various materials and working them together with real compositional technique - this is not the case with the more recent practitioners - who appear to be more out to amuse than anything.

However, Ives was not a Post-modernist - not only because he was born 90 years before it existed (which actually makes him a 'pre-modernist') but rather in the true sense that he was not ironic in intention, but rather 'universalist' instead; his polystylism was a result of his humanism, religion and philosophical outlook. In a similar way that one can attribute Beethoven's use of folk/marching band music to his humanism/universalism for example.

Another possible factor in the rapid passing of the fad that was Post-modernism is that people were perhaps already suspicious of the lie that Modernism turned into and no longer trusted any more sloganeering.

So now, in March 2016, where are we really in new serious music? The mainstream is still very much in the clutches of the modernist ethos - a quick survey of the most well-known composers represented by the major publishers/BBC Proms commissions will show that, as will the empty concert halls whenever a premiere is announced - the public are not stupid - they no longer trust composers - and I do not blame them in the slightest.

It is easy to sell the idea that something is new and if it sounds nothing like 'normal' classical music it is simple for publishers' PR departments to make such a claim. However, they have and continue to, shoot themselves in the foot.

If they think that composers such as Ferneyhough (who I incidentally quite like when I am in the mood - but I am a composer and so do not count as real audience) are ever going to be loved, appreciated and repeatedly listened to by the general public they are very much mistaken - the public still hate Webern - after all this time!

So, selling the idea = easy, but the music itself? No chance- not anymore!

The usual argument of - "Oh but Beethoven was misunderstood in his time" is entirely incorrect - 40,000 people attended Beethoven's funeral! His music was loved - loved - by the public, despite the advances he made on the classical style - he never crossed the line into open experiment nor contempt for the audience, something unfortunately, that is common amongst many living composers I am sorry to say.

I would argue that those current groups looking at the alternatives to this attitude, those that, like the earlier rebels who stood their ground against the legacy of the Second Viennese School: Piazzolla, Rodrigo, Shostakovich, Goltz, et al, are now gaining considerable ground, especially with the public.

I am not talking about amateurs who write full-on tonal works in the style of Brahms, or the slowed-down pop music that is Górecki's output, but rather a serious and varied group of very highly-skilled genuine composers that have rediscovered and already extended, consonance, aspects of tonality, voice-leading, thematic development, etc. into new areas, resulting in a beautiful but NEW aesthetic.

Who are these composers? You will find them, hear them in concerts, on the radio, to paraphrase Jaws 2 - it is safe to go back into the concert hall!

This activity (not a 'movement' which is why it is important) - it is not ironic, it is not a reaction, it is nothing less than a reconstruction of music itself, therefore it is not Post-modernism, it is way, way, beyond that - so I will call it 'Post-post-modernism' - I choose such a ridiculous name purposely - so that it will not catch on - why? Because the era of 'isms' is as dead as atonality.

This new direction is - I strongly believe - the future: a new engagement with audiences, a future of rich, colourful, meaningful harmony (in contrast to the tedious grey of atonal dissonance that lacks any tension and therefore emotive power) and the reclaiming of the central ground of our culture by serious music - alongside the other great arts of cinema, literature, the visual/plastic arts and theatre.

I am so grateful to be living during this period - a time that can become nothing less than an actual renaissance in composition.

I would like to thank Carl Humphries for planting the initial seed of this idea.

David's CD Chamber and Instrumental Music is now available at Toccata Classics, and on iTunes.

2 comments:

John said...

Thoughtful and welcome article, but
".... [Beethoven] never crossed the line into open experiment." ?
He seems to me extraordinarily experimental - possibly because he was working within such an established language. If there are no pricks, you can't be felt to be kicking against them and the act of doing so is an expressive rhetoric in itself.
Keep kicking! - As you point out, the 'new' grammar and syntax have not submerged the old so that form of expression is still there.

Charles Lines said...

'The style is secondary': this is a very important point. I think we have got to the stage now where the quality of a composer's work can shine through any style he or she chooses to adopt and adapt. I am not so sure 'isms' are dead. People, especially critics but more or less everybody, love to label things, take sides and judge. Which maybe is not such bad thing if it adds a bit of zest to 'classical music(crap term)'concert halls populated by older audiences. Thanks for your article David.