A New Music Vocabulary, or Mandatory Originality

So, I came across another article about ‘Shaking Up the World of Classical Music’. Actually, that’s the title of the article. It’s a well-meaning piece from a life-coach about preparing young composers for life out there in the big bad world. The author, Astrid Baumgardner makes a list of what’s necessary in order to “Shake up the World of Classical Music”.

Item Six is:

  • Composers who are committed to creating a new music vocabulary.

Le sigh… In my opinion, one of the main reasons the classical music world – or more specifically the contemporary music world – is insufficiently ‘shaken up’ is that “creating a new music vocabulary” has become mandatory for composers. Why on earth should every composer be required to invent a new musical language? What does this serve to do, aside from alienate audiences and make composers overly self-conscious?

I’ve been to a lot of new music concerts and I’ve participated in more student composer readings than I can remember. I can safely say there is no deficit of composers who are striving (or struggling) to write music in an unique voice. Composers who can effectively communicate their expression to an audience are a distinct rarity though.

This Promethean ideal as a default is a quaint relic of the 20th century and we should leave it the hell there. To cite an overused but-still-apt comparison, composers prior to the 20th century didn’t feel required to create radically new music vocabularies and many of them made very original music. I’m anything but a traditionalist but frankly I’m sick of hearing radically original music that isn’t very good. I’d rather hear composers work within a preexisting style, creating music that ends up being a more thorough – and unique in the long run – artistic expression.

Ok, if you’re a composer and your main interest lies in originality then go for it. But the burden of communicating that new language rests with you. Not all composers are radical sonic innovators though, and not all composers should be expected to be. They should be expected to create unique expressions, whether it’s in an existing vocabulary or a new one.

I don’t exactly know how this ‘mandatory originality’ idea is being perpetuated, whether it’s from composition teachers, grant panels, articles like this… I dunno, but it needs to die. Write the kind of music you want to hear. If it ends up sounding too unoriginal for your comfort, then work on making it a bit more you. If your starting point is an attempt to make a wholly-original piece that’s going to shake the foundations of the classical music world, chances are it’s going to fall short.

A composer’s goal should be creating a captivating experience for the listener, no more no less.

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “A New Music Vocabulary, or Mandatory Originality

  1. Spot on.

    A few addenda

    - If we created a new English vocabulary every time we spoke, no one would ever understand anything anyone else said. If we must use this “vocabulary” analogy, then we should also understand how it fails when applied elsewhere.

    - what needs shaking, exactly? I feel like we spent most of the 20th Century shaking, and are now in the era of Post-Shaking.

    • mattmarks

      I understood her use of “shaking up” to mean ‘breathing life’ into the classical music world. Oddly, those are both metaphors related to resuscitation… Not a good sign. Next up is ‘slamming a fist onto the chest’ of the classical music world.

      The language/vocabulary analogy is so interesting because it makes clear that the composer is creating something that the audience is, by definition, unable to understand yet it places no responsibility on the composer to make any sort of effort in communicating through said language.

      • Yeah, I know what she means. It’s just SUCH a played out and quaint idea, that someone’s going to “shake up” something in concert music.

        Someone needs to write Markov-chain/procedural software for new music writing. Here are the seed phrases:

        - shake up
        - turning heads
        - bad boy
        - important new work
        - strikingly original
        - genre-busting

        and of course….wait for it….

        - alt-classical

  2. 100% agree with this.

    Music is a language & we use it to say things, tell stories, communicate feelings. Precedents set by innovators and everything that has gone before are all tools and devices that can be used to express in an evolving language…. but self-consciously creating new vocabulary at every turn in a cheap effort to be original just seems so self-defeating to the whole dang enterprise.

    Is it because 20th century musicology has been so precious about “the new”? and afraid to call-out some original music as being just plain bad music…? … and perhaps some people slightly enjoying the elitist feeling they get by professing to enjoy and even understand “difficult” music (or more likely, grant panels and everyone else afraid they’ll be rumbled for not knowing what the fuck is going on, thinking “that’s suitably unpleasant and weird to listen to… therefore it must be modernist and cutting edge. Let’s give them some money”).

    The postmodern condition seems to be about doing ANYTHING so long as it communicates something. If it fails on that mission, then it’s useless air.

    • mattmarks

      or more likely, grant panels and everyone else afraid they’ll be rumbled for not knowing what the fuck is going on, thinking “that’s suitably unpleasant and weird to listen to… therefore it must be modernist and cutting edge. Let’s give them some money”

      From insiders’ stories I have heard of grant panels, this is exactly what goes on.

  3. ted

    i feel what you guys are saying. especially about how it is reasonable to expect composers to create unique expressions. definitely.

    however!

    1. i don’t think there’s anything wrong with striving (or struggling) to write music in an original voice. just that it’s a really hard thing to do well.

    2. even though “a new music vocabulary” is a problematic metaphor, i still like hearing new sounds, new combinations of sounds, new experiments in form and structure, new ways to make sounds out of old instruments, and new instruments. invention and communication don’t have to work against each other.

    3. sometimes composers use difficulty as a crutch, or a shield for shitty ideas – and they should be confronted or ignored! – but not all difficult music is bad, some of it is really beautiful. and people who like difficult music aren’t all elitists. also, what’s difficult for some comes easy for others. also, i’ve learned a lot of great things from difficult music. also, i can think of just as many simple or “well executed” pieces that are devoid of interesting ideas.

    4. in terms of grant panels, i dunno…. i think it totally depends who sits on them. sometimes they seem to be full of people who are doing exactly the opposite of what you’re saying – rewarding successful composers with big names who have proven themselves to be sellable – or whose work they are already familiar with – over more experimental composers, or younger composers, or composers they don’t know.

    5. what “radically original music that isn’t very good” have you heard? … maybe we’re thinking of the word original in a different ways. i mean, i think i’m with you, in that i’ve heard a lot of boring music i would call non-communicative, of which i would guess that maybe the composer is trying too hard to be different – but i definitely wouldn’t call that stuff radically original. the fact that you can group all these pieces together seems to indicate they aren’t very original at all, just common in their suckiness.

    fondly yours,
    ted

    • mattmarks

      Hey Ted, thanks for your comment! I think striving for uniqueness is a large part of making music or art, but I think too often it’s touted as the most important part, which for some composers it may be, but it doesn’t have to be.

      In response to your (good) points:

      1. There’s nothing wrong with striving to find an original voice, unless that effort is inhibiting you from creating art that isn’t weighed down by self-consciousness, which is a very common problem IMO.

      2. Love me some cool and interesting sounds, but personally I’d rather hear someone’s creative ideas come to life. This sometimes happens in pieces that focus on creating new and interesting sounds, but in my experience this is pretty rare. When it happens it’s totally awesome. Far too often though it’s simply a sound being created and examined, which is totally cool, but more along the lines of sound art than music.

      3. Do you mean “difficult” as in difficult to listen-to or appreciate, or like technically difficult? I’m going to assume the former. I view music as a type of communication, at least the type of music that is played in public is. With more challenging or “difficult” music I believe there should be a concerted effort by both the composer and the listener to facilitate this communication. If either party fails to step up to the plate, then the performance (whatever that may entail) has failed. I think with much pop music the burden is placed entirely on the composer, so they end up sacrificing quality for mass appeal. I think in many modernist and experimental works the burden is placed entirely on the listener, which often results in responses that are almost completely subjective. Both of these approaches can result in really awesome music, but usually they result in music that makes me want to put a bullet through my brain.

      4. Yeah, I think there are several problems grant panels, re: biases one way or another. I happened to hear an anecdote about exactly the type of situation Leah described though.

      5. A good example is a lot of the electro-acoustic stuff I hear. Sure, running the meows of an epileptic kitten through an ornate MAX patch (to use a completely made-up example, but not far off from some stuff I’ve heard) is a “radically original” idea, but unless you do something interesting with it, it’s boring and lame.

      I might be coming off sort of curmudgeonly, especially since I really love new interesting and unique music. But I worry that too many composers sacrifice their talent by trying to constantly revolutionize music, rather than focusing on writing good music and letting their individuality evolve naturally. I’d rather hear a successful ‘good’ piece than a failed ‘great’ piece any day.

  4. david

    “I think with much pop music the burden is placed entirely on the composer, so they end up sacrificing quality for mass appeal. I think in many modernist and experimental works the burden is placed entirely on the listener, which often results in responses that are almost completely subjective.”

    Interesting point Matt!

    I also think that this obsession with “new language” is connected to our culture of extreme individualism. Everyone wants to do something different and be special, so no one is working together to make one kind of thing amazing. As a result, new music can be a little surface level in terms of depth or conception. But it can also be great! Just depends.

  5. Check out my write up about my Super Marimba project:

    If I had to describe this music, what would I say? I’d say it is often very “pretty” in the conventional sense, but just as often shockingly noisy. I like drones and harmonic stasis, but I also like to tell stories. The solo pieces tend to be firmly rooted in the American minimalist tradition, especially Terry Riley. In a world where every piece seems to be coming from a different musical perspective, a true tower of Babel (babble?) with no common-practice language, I find comfort in building upon the work of previous generations. Although my work is completely different in outlook and style than his, I agree with Charles Wuorinen that an environment of perpetual musical revolution is unsustainable. Minimalism was a meaningful fresh start because it reintroduced the notion of ritual into the concert experience, and ritual is a profoundly important part of the human experience, and challenging rituals are something that is lacking in our times.

    Matt Marks, you and Charles Wuorinen have much in common!!!

    • mattmarks

      Ha! Me and Chuckie Dubs. I dig the idea that “an environment of perpetual musical revolution is unsustainable” though. Upheaval has become mundane and banal. Perhaps worse, it now seems petty; the drive to revolutionize has become predominantly a self-aggrandizing force. Whoever can make the newest, strangest, most “out” music wins. It’s very capitalist in that respect, which is why it’s unsurprising that Americans in particular seem to get off on it.

      Out of curiosity, what do you mean by “stories” in your own work?

  6. You’re not going to stay on my iPod long if you’re not being authentically yourself. Too much contemporary art music is aspergers at best. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but maybe it’s marginal. Boulez should grow up and stop throwing tanties at 85. Show us yourself, be vulnerable, make some melody. Sufjan shows us the way.

    • mattmarks

      I agree, though I might suggest you not use “aspergers” as a derogatory term, as many of us (myself included) have loved ones who identify as such. I understand you were just being descriptive though. Thanks for the comment. :)

  7. reading this post and comments, I am struck by how much middle ground is missing from common discussions about music. On one hand, pop music is working within a variable similar to DNA between siblings: 99.98% of materials are identical, the 0.02 make the difference between success and failure. In concert music, the aims and results are reversed. To attend a concert where both Reich and Lachenmann are played, one needs to be equipped with some serious bipolar tendencies (as we’re using mental conditions wantonly.)

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