I am happy to have been appointed as the music editor for the Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Review. In the coming months, I will post bi-weekly music of a variety of styles, as well as writings about music, in the hope of illustrating the great diversity that can be found in Western music derived from the classical tradition in the early 21st Century. While this music tends to be termed “Contemporary Classical,” or “New Music,” “Contemporary Music” and even (still) “Avant – Garde,” all of these monikers prove to be problematic. At best, these terms are inaccurate (take, for instance, the oxymoronic nature of Contemporary Classical) and at worst, off-putting and elitist. Even the phrase that I used to describe what I will be presenting in the journal (“Western music derived from the classical tradition in the early 21st Century”) is, admittedly, not only cumbersome but also exclusionary to a large degree. Terms like these immediately place a value on the work that serves only to separate it from other genres namely pop, jazz, rock, and even the equally problematic field of sound-art. While this may seem only to be an issue of naming, it can help to explain the unique predicament of contemporary composers and the performers who make these works audible.
The predicament of naming is a relatively new problem that could only have occurred during a time of stylistic surplus. The second half of the 20th Century was an incredibly self-conscious era, especially in the United States, where the debate between the serial avant-garde and other emerging genres became so heated that the divisions that were created allowed for little productive discourse about what the music was actually doing. As John Cage once mentioned in the 1960s, we can characterize much of the 20th Century as being preoccupied with dividing up the acquisitions of Schoenberg and Stravinsky. This preoccupation became manifest with a concern for musical structure on the one hand and intuitive composition on the other. In either case, the need to self-identify as a certain “type” of composer often superseded aesthetic identity. Still, this ideological rigidity also symbolizes the breakdown of the Modernist ideal that privileged the new and forward looking, and signals, in some ways, the death of the Avant-Garde.
This breakdown can be heard quite readily in the music of George Rochberg (1918-2005). A quick comparison of his “Duo Concertante” from 1955 and the third movement of his sixth string quartet composed in 1978:
Rochberg – “Duo Concertante”
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Rochberg – “String Quartet No. 6, Movement III”
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The first example illustrates Rochberg’s early interest in tightly structured atonality while the other shows his break from this aesthetic. The fact that he chose to base the 6th Quartet on something as tired and overplayed as Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” (now heard everywhere from television commercials to New Age recordings) is an acknowledgment, of sorts, that the classical avant-garde had run its course. Likewise, Sofia Gubaidulina’s violin concerto “Offertorium” (1980) is an acknowledgment of the trajectory of western music. Based on the theme from J.S. Bach’s “Musical Offering,” she contrasts dense, highly dissonant textures with melodies that emerge and then quickly recede into the background almost as if they are being concealed by their own sonic history.
Gubaidulina – “Offertorium”
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We now live in a time where composers reap the benefits of the breakdown of the avant-garde. The arguments are often no longer about technique or the merits of consonance versus dissonance but about sound itself. There is great stylistic diversity among composers who have been finding their voices between the last decade of the 20th Century and the first decade of the 21st. The concern now is not necessarily about finding a new technique in order to produce a new sound but a focus on the sound itself. And perhaps more importantly, we openly acknowledge the great diversity of the music we grew up with as well as our place in the history of Western classical music.
Joseph Di Ponio is a composer of acoustic and electronic music currently living in New York City. In general, his work is concerned with issues being and temporality, and is influenced greatly by contemporary thought on the phenomenology of time and being. Joseph received his Ph.D. In music composition and theory from Stony Brook University (SUNY) with a secondary area in art and philosophy.
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