The Modern Problematic of Composition
This is a small essay written to try to explain and deal with issues concerning composition today, and perhaps help composers find themselves in such a complicated musical world, where things are not always understood or explained or simply even known. It is not meant to be a scientific-oriented paper but just as a commentary I feel sometimes is much needed. -SSC
Today it is very hard to properly define what composing music or composition in general really is. The search for a personal style as well as dealing with fundamental problems that all composers deal with is today a very difficult thing to properly face, in part because of all the options open to composers. Now in the 21st century, with Debussy and Schoenberg almost a century ago, it's in a sense ironic that we still talk of them as "modern," and certainly the "new music" movement of the 60s, the Serialism of the 50s and such other phenomena are too long behind us.
Time is not the only consideration, but also what has been understood and learned from all the experiments and directions explored. From electronic music, once thought to replace musicians due to the increasingly difficult task of performing Serial music, ended up not only providing inspiration for non-electronic music, but much insight into the nature of what a tone is, to atonality, and such other things. The 20th century showed us just how many things are involved in making a single note, and scientific insight into the nature of sound and why instruments produce the tone-colors they do.
In retrospective, one can not say that such concepts were not explored before. Aleatory music, for example, can be traced back as far as Mozart, with his "Musikalisches Würfelspiel" piece, to things like the baroque concept of Aria Da Capo, and improvisatory elements, which later play a significant role in modern music (John Cage's "Variations" pieces, and many others.)
The impulse to better understand what is music and explore the possibilities of sound itself has been an ever-present topic. However, in the 20th century, it has to be noted that what triggered the sudden explosion in interest for this subject was the end of many traditions, not because they were necessarily opposed, but because music is not necessarily one thing or another, so to speak.
Schoenberg arrived at the conclusion that Atonality is a natural progression from the traditional functional harmony strictly because of functional harmonic principles. Passing notes that lasted as long as root notes in chords, chromatic motion between the voices, all of this while using the same principles as Schumann, Beethoven or Mozart, even to some degree Bach, was done in such a short time and to such an extreme that while it was possible to analyze it in functional harmony, the listener only heard dissonance. To the listener, there was no discernible cadence, no harmonic center, no "Tonica" to speak of.
Despite that in theory, in the score, it was all there.
Debussy, Stravinsky, and such other composers arrived at different conclusions for different reasons, many of which are controversial and often discussed. But, what can be said is that the way to the so called "modern music" and the avant-garde, is not a result of random probing and experimenting.
It is the natural (and progressive) realization that, when it comes down to it, music is at its core, plain sound. That no matter what one dresses it as, underneath all context and attached meaning, all there is is a passing vibration that we hear. That the meaning, the context, can all be manipulated as musical elements.
Much like Erik Satie included a Typewriter as a musical element in his piece "Parade," a certain stylistic concept was developed with pioneers such as Edgar Varese, Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry. Though there are conflicts about its origin, Musique concrète can be said to have been an attempt to look for new sources of sound, drawing them from things not traditionally associated with music, such as fire sirens and all sorts of every-day things.
In the 50s, with the further development of electronics, composers were able to create sound artificially, where every single parameter was controlled by the composer. Before, one depended on a instrument, built to produce a certain sound, of a certain quality. That is to say, the way it was made defined many parameters in the sound it produced. This was no longer the case, when every single aspect of sound was now under total control and under observation at the same time.
Things such as the harmonics of an instrument, the way it produces the sound itself, and such other things were factors often taken for granted. However it was then crucial to understand them, as one started with nothing when composing in the electronic realm. Understanding that a Clarinet has different harmonics depending on which note it plays, that they are not even and equally audible. That some instruments such as the glockenspiel are almost entirely based on the harmonics each note produce as they sound much louder than the original tone itself, became vital, if not essential.
But what does Schoenberg, Varese, Stockhausen, Debussy, Mozart, all have in common? It is the search to solve inherent so-called problematics in music.
The first of those being the impossibility to make instant reality of what one hears in one's head during the process of composition. The second, being that music is something that is entirely abstract in concept. It is a fundamental problem that the composer's craft is unlike that of a painter, for example, in that the composer's art is not something that can be touched, and it can't be physically held or contained. Once it is over, it is as if it had never existed.
The ancient Greeks sustained that music was an "action" or "practice", and as such it was not something to be written down. Many, many years passed until the concept of trying to "write down" music became an idea, and many more until what we have today with scores and the like became practical and necessary.
But even so, without the cultural context, without each single parameter defined, a score can have no "correct" interpretation, like a written language with no known pronunciation. However, unlike language, the score can be interpreted anew, and perhaps new music is created due to the variations in the parameters that were lost. When Glenn Gould played Bach's Goldberg Variations on piano, one can hardly say that he was doing so in a sense of historical-reconstruction.
What happened in the 20th century, is that as the "base vocabulary" set by tradition and history, with things like how scores are written and even tone-organization-systems became increasingly inadequate, as the sounds themselves started to escape what the notation was meant to notate and what said systems were meant to organize. Like examples from the "Second Viennese School" where each and every single parameter that was possible to control through a written score was written down, and Stockhausen's famous pieces for piano which are an extreme challenge to perform, there is a trend through the 20th century to become very exact and precise in what sounds one wants, which elements one uses, and what should be played or otherwise come into reality.
There were obviously reactions, such as the well-known piece by Penderecki "Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima" being a reaction to the extreme control of musical parameters during the late phase of Serialist music. Penderecki's piece based itself on things that are almost of an improvisatory nature, yet at the same time the use of these elements is also precisely written with symbols that mean from "play the highest note possible" to writing each note that the instruments must play during the manipulation of clusters.
The discussion between what is tonal and what is atonal ceased to be a real issue when the question expanded to include just exactly what is music altogether. There is certainly something to be said about tone-systems, such as traditional functional harmony, 12-tone technique (and its offspring serialism.) Such systems help organize creative ideas or help create them, yet in turn there is the downfall of believing that a system can solve all the problems. An example is, of course, Schoenberg's famous 12-tone Technique meant to provide means to write completely atonal pieces, in a way that ensures that atonality is achieved as opposed to free atonality, which meant a strictly intuitive work. Alban Berg and Anton Webern both students of Schoenberg, both worked with this system but extended it in directions entirely different from Schoenberg himself.
Alban Berg's famous Violin Concerto, one of his last compositions, is a good example that the 12-tone Technique can be used to achieve functional-harmony sounding effects, chords and such, which was never intended originally.
It is necessary to point out, that what remains at the core of all this musical evolution and change is simply the need to translate ideas into the real world, into audible sound, into music.
Why do I call it an evolution? Because we have learned in this passing century to stop taking things for granted, musically, and get our proverbial hands dirty. Not only in the realm of the actual production of sound itself, but in all sorts of contexts, philosophical and practical. The most valuable weapon a composer can have, in my opinion, is a clear vision of what they want, and how they want to achieve it. The will to realize musical ideas in practice, and how to deal with problems related to both the composition process and overcome limitations is something invaluable to the composer.
This is something that can be seen in the 20th century. From the precision and direction of Stockhausen and Messiaen to the search for answers, questionings and experiments by Cage, and the search for new sources of sound by Varese, Satie, Henry, Berio, etc. These attempts at bringing us closer to what composition means, what music is and what is involved in creating it can hardly be ignored, and should not be ignored.
My advice is to reflect what has been learned during the course of music history, and thus be consequent. Today there is little reason to be ignorant about all of what has been experimented, of all that was done. It is not a matter of taste, and it is not a matter of simplifying modern systems and ideas into exercises and staying in the realm of theory, it's a matter of really taking the time to understand what has happened and listen, above all, to the music.
One must separate what is recreation of style, from what is really internal and personal. It is a mistake to think that because we can hear Liszt or Debussy's work we can properly imagine and feel what people at the time felt. There are millions of things involved in establishing the context, and once that time is passed, like the meaning of an old score, so is the original meaning of the piece, its context and perhaps even its intention.
In the best of cases, information can be found and a more accurate historical recreation can be made, but even then that inherent feeling, the Zeitgeist, is gone.
With this in mind, it should be clear that such stylistic parameters and elements must be used from a personal perspective and from an understanding that THAT which is used is not a mere result of "what comes out" but a voluntary and deliberate process, where the will of the composer is what decides what writes the music, not his time nor his society, or his influences.
It is, however, impossible to escape such things completely, but an attempt must be made for the sake of bringing the composer's expression to the highest level possible, as close as it can be to what they really feel, and who they really are and what they really want.