What if I want to compose something that is simply beautiful? Am I allowed to do this, or will this act result in my being regarded as a composer who simply wants to please the listener, instead of one that articulates and tries to solve particular problems, musical or otherwise, through his or her music? Will people frown upon me and my music, perhaps doubt my sincere intentions, and conclude that neither me nor my music can be taken seriously?
Since the end of World War II, a serious composer is considered someone who composes according to a system, and each note that is written down in the score needs to be justified by that system. Serialism, where musical parameters are divided into series of values that are manipulated according to strict rules set by the composer, and aleatoricism, where change operations determine the compositional process, are two examples of such systems. These systems ensure that the composer is able to explain why the music is composed the way it is. There is no room for doubt; all compositional decisions are justified, determined even, by the system.
The beginning of so the odd time for string quartet, which I composed between 2007 and 2009, was created by using such a system. The pitches were derived from a tone row consisting of six tones, and I intended to use these pitches as the main musical material for this piece.
Using a systematic approach to composition is very alluring. Not only does it enable me to explain why I took the musical decisions that I did, but it is also very exciting to hear the musical outcomes of the application of such systems. As it is not always possible to predict how this application will sound, the musical results sometimes are as surprising to the composer as it is to the listeners.
All this comes at a price, however. The strict adherence to a system kills spontaneity. If, at a certain point, I feel that the music should take a particular direction, and that direction does not comply with what the system prescribes, I have no choice but to disregard my intuition and follow the system. Alternatively, I could decide to disregard the system and follow my intuition. The consequence, however, would be that I could no longer use the system as a justification of my compositional choices.
This is precisely what I did during the creation of so the odd time. The phrase in bars 48-49 (2:31-2:33 in the recording on SoundCloud: https://soundcloud.com/vincent-meelberg/so-the-odd-time), for instance, is a clear departure of the system I was using up until that moment. I needed a phrase that could function as a closure, but the system I was using could not provide me with a suitable candidate. I did mentally “hear” how I wanted the phrase to sound, and ultimately I decided to go with my intuition instead, and to disregard the system.
Apart from the restrictions compositional systems impose on composers, the strict use of these systems might result in the alienation of listeners as well. Michel Foucault observes that “[i]t is often said that contemporary music has drifted off track; that it has had a strange fate; that it has attained a degree of complexity which makes it inaccessible; that its techniques have set it on paths which are leading it further and further away” (1985: 6). The use of compositional systems favour logic and justification over the music result of the application of these systems. The arguments as to why certain pitches, durations, and timbres are selected might seem clear when explained in words, the music that is the result of these decisions often is not. As Foucault argues: “[C]ontemporary music, by trying to make each of its elements a unique event, makes any grasp or recognition by the listener difficult.” (10)
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Striving for alienation or complexity in music might be necessary in order to further musical development, to redefine musical boundaries. In this sense contemporary music, Foucault suggests, is not a music that tries to be familiar; “[…] it is fashioned to preserve its cutting edge. One may repeat it, but it does not repeat itself. In this sense, one cannot come back to it as an object. It always pops up at frontiers” (11). This is a truly modernist stance, fully in line with Theodor Adorno’s view on music: Musical composition implies looking for singular musical truths (Bannister 2013).
Beauty has no place in these musical searches. On the contrary: Musical beauty needs to be distrusted, for it might tempt composers into making musical decisions that do not follow the musical system, but musical taste instead. Musical beauty is a lie that lures composer away from finding musical truths. According to Peter Bannister, beauty is regarded as offensive “[…] to the extent that it is at best an irrelevance, at worst an obstacle to reaching the philosopher’s [and composer’s] ‘final destination’” (2013: 688), i.e. the discovery of truths.
In recent years, however, this situation seems to be changing. Increasingly, composers are writing music that may sound pleasing, even beautiful, to the average listener’s ear. The art of composition, Josiah Fisk asserts, “[…] had been languishing for decades in the ivory tower, stifled by complexity and intellectualism. Now it has been freed, its emotions have been rekindled, and it has been restored to the ordinary folk who are its rightful owners” (1994: 408). Composers no longer feel that they need to restrict their musical choices by following a strict musical system. Instead, intuition may codetermine the compositional process as well.
This may seem as a rather trivial development, but it is not. It took a lot of guts for composers to allow intuition and emotion into the act of composition. During an interview in the Dutch newspaper Trouw, published on February 28, 2001, the Dutch composer Jacob ter Veldhuis explained that only now he has found the courage to write the kind of music he always wanted to compose. His music is “[…] a statement against an inflated urge for dissonance in music that has existed during the last forty years. I deliberately exceed permissible limits in contemporary art music. Recently I came up with an apt expression for this: I pepper my music with sugar” (Jacob ter Veldhuis in Trouw, 28 February 2001; my translation).
His oratorio Paradiso (2001) (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F1FIRcDCXF0) is a case in point. In this piece Ter Veldhuis uses consonance and tonality, elements that were traditionally frowned upon by contemporary composers and critics, and present them as the main musical material of the composition, and unapologetically so. He presents sonic beauty without any postmodern irony. Ter Veldhuis seems genuinely sincere in his desire to create beautiful music.
Yet, when listening to Paradiso one cannot help but get the impression that the music has ironic qualities. The explicitness with which the music tries to express beauty makes it ironic in another, metamodern sense, an irony that Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker characterise as being “[…] intrinsically bound to desire, whereas postmodern irony is inherently tied to apathy” (2010: 10).
This is the issue with musical beauty in contemporary music: Beauty will never be appreciated purely for beauty’s sake. I may be sincere in my attempts to compose something that is simply beautiful, but I will always be fully aware that that my sincerity will be distrusted. Moreover, beauty is subjective. Take for instance the following phrase in so the odd time:
To my ears, this phrase is highly emotional and beautiful. It reminds me of a kind of a “drunken” waltz, composed of very simple melodic material, and created without making use of any system whatsoever. The question is, however, if any other listener would interpret this phrase in a similar manner. Also, what kind of conclusion would he/she draw after listening to this phrase? That it was some kind of (postmodern) ironic commentary on waltzes? As a sincere attempt to create a beautiful, emotional phrase? Or as a failed attempt to do so? I will never know how listeners will interpret this phrase, but I cannot but continue to create music that I think is beautiful and profound, even though I know that these attempts may be fallible. so the odd time ends with a phrase that refers back to the “systematic” beginning of this piece. Not because the music is again subjected to the same system I initially used, nor as some kind of ironic comment on the use of musical systems, but simply because I thought, or rather: my intuition told me, that it sounded beautiful at that moment. It is up to you to decide if it sounds beautiful to you, too, and what to think of this beauty.
Bannister, Peter. 2013. “The Offence of Beauty in Modern Western Art Music.” Religions 4: 687-700.
Fisk, Josiah. 1994. “The New Simplicity: The Music of Górecki, Tavener, and Pärt. The Hudson Review 47: 394-412.
Foucault, Michel, Pierre Boulez, and John Rahn. 1985. “Contemporary Music and the Public.” Perspectives of New Music 24: 6-12.
Vermeulen, Timotheus, and Robin van den Akker. 2010. “Notes on Metamodernism.” Journal of Aesthetics & Culture 2, http://www.aestheticsandculture.net/index.php/jac/article/view/5677