Composing Beauty

Is beauty the new avant-garde? Vincent Meelberg thinks it might be

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.

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so the odd time (2007-2009), bars 1-9 (0:00-0:37 in the recording above)

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.

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so the odd time (2007-2009), bars 41-51 (2:09-2:40 in the recording above)

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:

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so the odd time (2007-2009), bars 81-96 (4:09-5:00 in the recording above)

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.

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so the odd time (2007-2009), bars 215-222 (11:10-11:46 in the recording above)

References

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

There are 16 comments

  1. bassoon

    You seem to forget that composers such as Copland, Bernstein, and the entire third stream, including Alec Wilder and other well-known composers existed and composed what you call “beautifully,” which I think is a thinly-veiled word for diatonicism.

    What do you make of the Russian socialist realists like Shostakovich and Gubaidulina, among others? Is their music somehow illegitimate as beautiful music because they had artistic restrictions imposed on them? Does this discredit their beauty?

    I’d also like to question what you seem to define as beauty, and why you think your definition seems to be the definition “of the people,” so to speak, and why you seem to think that music must be beautiful in the first place? Why is “ugly” music (as ugly must be the opposite of beautiful) necessarily academic music, when only a small minority of composers in universities were writing serially?

    Further, why not build intuition into your musical system so that it allows you to make beautiful choices and still be self-consistent? I’m confused as to why you try to discuss beauty in music at all, especially considering your closing paragraph is essentially a wishy-washy declaration that beauty is relative and therefore anything goes in art if it looks right at the time. Why bother discussing beauty at all if you’re just going to concede that it’s only beautiful to you?

  2. Vincent Meelberg

    Thanks for your comments, bassoon. Let me try to address your comments. I didn’t forget about the composers you mentioned, but at least in Europe (where I’m based) many of them are regarded as inferior to composers such as Boulez and Stockhausen (at least by theorists). Also, my point of departure was music aesthetics as formulated by Adorno and his many followers. The fact that notions of beauty is problematic is stressed by Dutch composers such as Ter Veldhuis and John Borstlap, who complain that their work is not eligible for subsidies in the Netherlands because of the fact that they compose so-called “welluidende muziek” (music that is pleasing to the ears).

    As regards the definition of beauty: I didn’t give one, certainly not one that would be accepted “by the people” (whoever that may be). I used the term to address a phenomenon that was prevalent in contemporary music circles, but – as I also indicated in my essay – is slowly changing: That musical intuition should be subjected to intellect and rationality. And this change could be considered a metamodern turn.

  3. antonio

    interesting article, but I don’t think it’s clear what “Musical composition implies looking for singular musical truths” really means. Because if I think of a perfect definition of “musical truth” I instantly think of a combination of notes that in a way or another produces something that is… beautiful.

  4. Joshua B. Mailman

    The quartet is pretty and engaging due to its rhythmic vitality and consistent pitch (harmonic/melodic) language primarily. It’s true that it doesn’t seem to push any particular boundaries or challenge the listener’s ability to find new kinds of coherence. Yet it never panders with oversimplicity or rhetorical bloat. Rather it’s stimulating and refreshing to listen to.

    In regard to the essay, I would say that, although you say you don’t use a system, the harmonies and melodies are very consistently based on diatonic pitch-class sets, especially emphasizing perfect 4ths and 5ths. Although a musician could internalize these as licks, riffs, scales, chords, etc. and improvise spontaneously with them, the knowledgeable listener does feel this is not the most free kind of improvisation, as it is so conditioned by prior decisions as to pitch language. So while you say you don’t use a “system,” neither do I feel the quartet strives to be spontaneous to the greatest degree. Instead it sets out a somewhat restricted vocabulary of beautiful sonorities–yes they are acoustically beautiful–and then playfully romps with it. Not a bad thing at all.

  5. Vincent Meelberg

    Thanks for your comments, Antonio and Joshua! As regards the relation between beauty and truth: That is indeed a tricky one, but in my essay I adopted Adorno’s view on artistic truth, which is not necessarily related to beauty.

    And Josh: guilty as charged. Even in my more “intuitive” moments I might consciously or unconsciously resort to systems. And you correctly noticed that the emphasis on 4ths and 5ths are a major theme in this piece. Indeed, I did not try to be spontaneous to the greatest degree, as you so eloquently put it, but at the same time I allowed myself the freedom to deviate from whichever system I was consciously or unconsciously using while composing. Another interesting question is whether such a thing as free or completely spontaneous composing (or improvising for that matter) actually exists, but perhaps I will address that issue in another essay sometime.

    Again, many thanks for reading and listening!

    1. Jack Steinberg

      “Another interesting question is whether such a thing as free or completely spontaneous composing (or improvising for that matter) actually exists, but perhaps I will address that issue in another essay sometime.”

      As Boulez quite rightly says, freedom comes from discipline. Improvisation and spontaneity are illusions. One resorts to what one already knows. If you want true freedom, true exploration, you have to go further and push yourself to new grounds. You do that by thinking and exploring musical material. Not by bashing out licks you already know.

  6. Philippe

    This article strikes me as being anachronistic. As someone interested in modern classical music, I thought these arguments had ended a while ago. Why are people still obsessing over whether they are ‘allowed’ to do what Boulez et al. think they should do?

    1. Philippe

      or rather, why are they obsessing over whether they are ‘allowed’ to do something other than what Boulez et al. think they should do?

  7. Philippe

    Vincent, it sounds like your piece was made with a computer program. If so, which program is it? The string sound is very realistic..

  8. Vincent Meelberg

    I wished it were anachronistic, but at least in some academic circles this kind of normative/prescriptive thinking is still very much alive.

    The performace is indeed a mockup I made in Logic Pro, using the Kontakt sampler an the Xsample chamber ensemble sample library. The Altiverb convolution reverb plugin also played an important role in creating this mockup.

  9. Vincent Meelberg

    Thank you for the link! I just love Frank Scheffer’s music documentaries. I had the pleasure of interviewing him a few years ago, and we discussed the current state of music and culture in the Netherlands and elsewhere, about which we were both rather pessimistic. We did share a love and fascination for Frank Zappa and the contemporary musical avant garde, though, but also noticed that the works of these composers are performed far too infrequently on today’s concert stages.

  10. Jack Steinberg

    I don’t get your post.

    Composers like Boulez and Stockhausen were amongst the first to talk about the problems of strict systems. They knew those problems quite well because they composed in that way during the 50s. Already in the 60s and 70s they were loosening things up. Postmodernity was already a loosening of modernity. I was expecting something on metamodernism which I thought was something new after postmodernity, but I got something that resembles the questioning Boulez and friends were having 50 years ago.

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