Apr. 3, 2019

Getting Started With Writing, Part XLI

(con't from Part XL)
Looking at it through the lens of the organ, anyone focused on composing organ music these days is writing for a medium whose core repertoire spans hundreds of years and is automatically entering into a dialogue with the past and having enduring works for models.
It's therefore natural for us to give some thought to what it might take for our own writing to become something that speaks to a broad variety of musicians and music lovers over a span of cultures, places, and even epochs -- something that might have a life beyond its original premiere and even possibly labored over, loved, interrogated, or admired by future generations.
The overwhelming majority of music being created today is made with an entirely different goal in mind, viz., to create a hit, catching fire with the broadest possible listening public at the moment, with no concern or regard for any kind of historical endurance.
The desire to write a piece that would enter the organ repertoire is particularly apposite, and contemporary works simply do not figure prominently in the organ repertoire; we see this, notwithstanding noteworthy contributions by such eminent composers of the last 50 years as diverse as Philip Glass, David Lang, Milton Babbit, Gyorgi Ligeti, and many others, and the tireless efforts of people like Carson Cooman who proselytize for contemporary organ music.
Nevertheless, if our own writing expresses a certain stylishness, substantive ideas, integrity with a seriousness of purpose, craft, and an inner propulsion that carries the listener forward from start to finish, including perhaps a little of the unexpected, it will be on the right side of history.
If within it we can find elements of intricacy, subtlety, and sophistication that balance simplicity, contrasting ideas which generate interest, and a form molded with the intention of creating a satisfying sense of a musical journey, then again, it will be on the right side of history.
History teaches that these are necessary conditions for a contemporary work to enter the standard organ repertoire.
It isn't for any composer to say whether their own music, or even their own performing, is "good" or not; that is for others to decide.
What can be said, is that if their work has most, if not all, of the above characteristics, then it's crafted on the same principles which have withstood the test of time for hundreds of years.
Bearing these things in mind, in order for succeeding generations of audiences to find a language of warmth and meaning in our music, in order for it to be embraced by posterity, each of us needs to take a fresh look at our scores from the listener's point of view and ask ourselves these same 6 questions:
1. Is its thematic material memorable and capable of elaboration? The listener seeks, whether consciously or subconsciously, to remember the thematic material and hear it developed in ways that bring out the most it has to offer.
2. Does it have a clear beat? The listener's mind seeks a clear beat -- something which, while it may be flexible and varied, has an inner propulsion and provides the music with a sense of drive.
3. Is it in a key (or mode)? The listener's mind seeks a tonal center, a primal place or region of musical space to which all the other tones bear some kind of fixed relationship, and it needs to be recognizable.
4. Is there cohesion in the harmonies? The listener's mind seeks connectedness, order, logic, and beauty in the way tones sound in combination and merge from one into the other.
5. Does it have form? The listener's mind seek to find a shape in the music, an architecture that provides a sense of a definite, unified, overall design or structure.
6. Above all, does it move? Let's face it: In exchange for trading his/her own time (and perhaps ticket money as well) to sit and listen to it, the listener expects a little something back, viz., music that's compelling, i.e., something which not only makes sense and reaches the heart but captivates and rivets the attention, stirs the emotions in places, and perhaps even thrills. Sometimes a large, important instrument in a reverberant space is also required, without which the music may lose a good deal of its intended effect.
There is no reason to expect that the listener's mind was any different in the past than it is in the present, as just described, or that it will be any different in the future.
This means that, FROM THE LISTENER'S STANDPOINT, any contemporary work for the organ having a vague theme and no clearly defined form or beat, a work that's riddled with rapidly shifting time signatures and tempos that are all over the rhythmic/melodic map, a work so saturated with chromaticism that there is no clearly defined key or mode, a work which sounds incoherent throughout and seems not to hold together -- no matter how inspired the composer may be, no matter how explainable the logic used in its construction may be, no matter how acceptable or admirable it may be to academia, no matter how well it may be welcomed into the concert repertoire of the latest generation of avant-garde performers, no matter if it was written with or can be played back online using industry-leading software or something less -- it simply will not be embraced by the general music-loving public in the same way.
NOTE: it's a safe bet that the greatest man of all (J.S. Bach) would not embrace it, either; according to his pupil Kirnberger, while he [Bach] always said that "everything must be possible" and "would never hear of anything being not feasible," this kind of new music was unknown to him -- and if this enormous man could be brought back today, he would find it incomprehensible; his sheer mastery of the techniques of composition have never been equalled (Beethoven might be considered his closest second), thus, it's also a safe bet to say that, with respect to musical matters, there are few even today who would dare to take issue him.
The truth is, new music may show considerable imagination and ability even when none of these same 6 questions can be answered in the affirmative; it may even evoke some powerful images and emotions among devotees of traditional methods of composing and succeed very well in gaining traction among the intelligentsia, viz., those academicians who form the artistic vanguard or elite forefront of today's organ playing world -- but, as far as its effect upon a general audience can be concerned, the fact of the matter is, it can be a slippery slope.
(con't in Part XLII)