Here are some thoughts following the 3rd New Music Festival
sponsored by the Edmonton Composers' Concert Society

Reflections on Three Festivals:
A Personal View of the New Rococo

I think I know how old man Bach must have felt. You know the one: greatest composer of all time, that sort of thing. How he felt when he saw his children writing in a new style in which he himself had dabbled. This new Rococo stuff, what was it about? These young punks were taking it much too far, weren't they? All this ornamentation--surely it is excessive? What about the mainstream? What about the good, solid contrapuntal mainstream of modern music? What is all this grandstanding, this wild gesturing and gesticulating? And why are all these scales trailing off into nowhere? This is what he thought. Take it from me.

Gestures. Gesturing. These are the exact terms used by today's Rococo. Did C.P.E.'s and Couperin's melodies practically disappear under an incrustation of ornament (and when bereft of that ornamentation, are they not rather humdrum)? Well here we are kids, and melody has effectively disappeared, having been entirely replaced by mere ornament. You don't have to be a melodist any more to be called a composer, you just decorate. Splash about. A color here, a blob there. It doesn't make any sense. And yet, dammit, some of it works! It's like a heavily Baroque church--you can't possibly see the rafters, or where the parts of the building fit together. It could just be a flimsy shell, thickly barnacled with gold do-dads, the glue of the do- dads holding the thing together. A poor architect hiding his dearth of good ideas. And yet, and yet, the thing has a grandeur. You stand looking at it for hours, fascinated, trying to fathom how it stays together, why it works. If it doesn't work, you get out quickly and find a pleasant cafe.

There is a pleasant cafe near to the New Music Festival. It is called Earl's and I have retired there from time to time, marvelling at how some composer's incrustations have come together to form a grand Baroque whole, or else have crumbled and left me with the feeling of eggshell between the teeth.

I have always been most comfortable with music which presents some focus, some motif or idea or combination of ideas which can be followed and whose broad development can be perceived in one, or in a few, hearings. The intellect is satisfied and the emotions are engaged in the best of this music, and the whole is very satisfying. But how does one approach stuff which is based on random events or some arcane mathematical formulation? This kind of pattern is not apparent to the ear, it does not excite the emotions (unless one is a mathematician, I suppose, and should one need to be a mathematician to feel the power of music?) and the intellect is left to grapple with chaos.

Want an example of an eggshell-between-the-teeth composer? Berio. He seems to be popular, at least among academics, but I have never heard anyone exclaim at the feeling and power in his music. Usually he is included on concerts out of respect and deference, and this is death to any claim that his is real music. (Hey, I'm the editor. I don't have to be politically correct, and besides, I have been listening carefully to Berio lately, lest someone accuse me of writing about that which I do not know. My opinion is not changing, even though I much prefer to like than to dislike an artist). Luciano Berio's music was on the first Festival and I listened with due respect, and then I sought out Earl's.

Someone, on the other hand, who does somehow combine melody (even popular melody, for God's sake!) with the new decoration style is Frederick Rzewski, whose music was also on the first Festival. His piece, "People United Will Never Be Defeated", was a stunning tour de force for the piano, and it slipped magically between the worlds of pop and post-modern Rococo. I shall retain twin images of this piece: one aural, of this remarkable juxaposition of styles; and one visual, of the youthful appearance of Stephane Lemelin as he unleashes the full power of the modern piano.

Yes, I am getting old, a crotchety old man watching young ones come up and do new things at which he can only marvel for their originality or for their foolishness. I shall not attempt a list of what I have found original and what I have found foolish on the past three Festivals, except to say that the scale would tilt toward the latter. Co-producer or not, I maintain that much of what is written today is foolishness, just as much Rococo (the first Rococo) stuff is, and much Classical stuff, and much Romantic stuff, etc., etc. Academics writing simply for other Academics, people using effects like multiphonics just because they are there and not for any other expressive purpose, people posturing. Gesturing. Mindlessly. Sometimes.

But it is exciting to see all this occuring. It is alive and vital and growing. Nature tries all combinations and rejects the unfit, and so do composers. It's just that some composers keep trying to succeed with unfit ideas. But who knows which of them will grow and find himself or herself--even a Berio might write a good piece one day.

Art reflects its time. The first Rococo represented a determined effort to cover imperfection, to inspire awe and to warn us that God is afoot, wandering among the barnacles up there in the vault. Later art warned or soothed its audiences, of course, but the twentieth century has sounded a note, increasingly shrill, of pure warning. I hear it in our Festivals in the midst of chaotic sounds, and I see it in the visual arts often as artists do pointless things, like wrapping islands in plastic. What are they trying to tell us? I'm writing this so I get to tell you.

The music of the start of this century began to get dissonant and harsh as the mechanical instruments of destruction were being developed. 1914 was the first big playground for these new toys, and they just got better and better. By the fifties, genocide had entered the language and music was experiencing real randomness: after all, an explosion is a random gesture. But somewhere in most composers' work was still an element of melody, of that which was at least a little bit singable. Now that has gone. The end of the Cold War has not made the world safer, probably the opposite, and cold computers are now ordering our lives. This new Rococo is the voice of the computer, of random noise generation, of chaos theory. It is also a shriek of warning, a rebellion against contemplation of the rigid logic of the computer (which is nonetheless set against a deeper field of random events), of collisions of molecules, of strange attractors, all thoroughly inhuman stuff and incapable of comprehension. We have come to the realization that the universe is built upon chaos, and we cannot fathom it. It is like looking into the face of God and coming away from the experience a gibbering idiot.

So do these fresh new composers, these new sons and daughters of Bach, gibber? Of course they do, and well they might: they have good reason. And if someone has looked into his being sufficiently deeply to then commit himself to the art of composition, has he not looked more deeply than most people? And should we then be surprised when the great uncontemplative masses do not show up in huge numbers at our Festivals? I think not, but I still wait for the day when they have achieved at least my level of awareness, and start making the New Music Festival a paying proposition.

So we try to come to grips with chaos. Our scores become graphic, cryptic, even non-existent. Brent Violini-Pierce wrote a set of diagrams which the Hammerhead Consort interpreted on Festival 3. The pages sitting on the pianos were visible to the audience, and I heard some members of that audience marvelling (complaining?...I couldn't tell) that each time the page with the diamond shape came up, it sounded totally different. The members of the Consort were simply manifesting the chaos of their own inner beings, even though on the surface they seem normal enough, even disciplined. Unsingable. Unmelodic. In perfect keeping with our current vision of the universe.

Frank McCarty (Festival 2) did a verbal score for saxophone quartet to capture his chaos. The players did all sorts of obscene things to their instruments, tongue clucks, sucking kissy noises, and it was hilarious. I think I don't like Berio because he believes that what he does is somehow serious and meaningful. McCarty senses the farcical nature of existence and laughs uproariously; a good, solid existential response.

Bach inherited the idea that music built a vast edifice to the glory of something or other, but his kids found a universe that ran on clockwork. Sir Isaac had watched his apple and propounded ideas on propulsion and such, and these ideas were really taking hold. If their works are shorter in duration and appeal, perhaps it is because their springs run down more quickly. Mozart rediscovered the principles of order and symmetry and then the Romantics tore them all down as new ideas of the impersonal nature of things kept popping up: Mendeleev filling in the Periodic Chart, Mendel discovering that chemistry controls inheritance, and of course Darwin, who revealed that the churchly Primates were really just primates.

Decororation. Rococo. You can't build anything out of chaos unless you're God or something. All you can do is decorate it, try to hide it under layers of barnacles and hope it works on stage. What kind of music does Heisenberg's uncertainty principle dictate? The kind that is unpredictable, of course, the kind that is random and bordering on incomprehensible. Composition has never been easy, but now it is impossible, and, fools that we are, we still try.

What's next? We have just discovered the Top quark, a quirky little thing that exists inside protons and is 200 times heavier when released than when it is bottled up inside the proton. Music of paradox must follow a discovery like this. Two photons travelling in opposite directions perceive each other as moving at the speed of light, not double the speed of light, which is of course impossible. It is impossible to travel at double the speed of light, that is, and it is impossible that they do not perceive each other thus. Yes, music that brings together impossible opposites. I just heard on CBC a program that juxtaposed Scottish bagpipes with a Balinese Gamelan. I think that must almost qualify. It happened to be by Jim Hiscott, who was also on our Festival 3. His "Romantic Nights" was not sufficiently impossible, however, to qualify as real music of the future, since it only brought together a viola and percussionists. You'll have to try harder, Jim. Nice piece though.

So put on your thinking caps, children of the new Rococo, and write impossible music for me. Mine still uses chords and counterpoint and sometimes singable melody, so I'm the old- fashioned one, though I confess to have dabbled in your silly graphics and your pointless chaos. Keep it up, and sometimes you may come up with something good, whatever that means. But always try to have fun with it, OK? Don't take yourself seriously or you'll turn out like poor Berio.

Top of Page