May. 11, 2021

Contemporary Composition

The standard organ repertoire has crystallized over a time span of many hundreds of years, is considered to be the largest and oldest body of repertoire of any musical instrument, and, thanks to the ongoing work of an explosion of contemporary composers, its destiny is to expand even larger.
Anyone considering writing music these days, whether for Organ or otherwise, is contemplating entrance into an already heavily crowded field of composers.
There is so much in the standard organ repertoire wonderfully written by major composers of former ages -- music that still remains to be studied, interrogated, and admired -- that it automatically competes with any new music for the limited time and attention of today's music-consumer.
Contemporary composers therefore should not be surprised or discouraged that their best work is receiving no attention even when they try to promote it -- it not only has to compete in an ocean awash with the music of other living composers but also against the avalanche of masterpieces from prior ages.
The finest composers this world has every produced all traveled this same road -- their lifetimes are replete with long periods of time when their own creations, which in some cases ranked among the greatest accomplishments of the human mind, could not garner the slightest interest while they were alive.
It could even be, as was the case with J.S. Bach, that a contemporary composer's entire creative output could be forgotten for the better part of an entire century following his/her death.
All creative artists can expect to experience apathy and indifference toward, if not outright rejection of, their work [See blog, The Book].
The composer could be a reincarnated son of J.S. Bach living in this century under a different name; people are simply not interested in having a look at the work of any unknown classical contemporary composer; it wouldn't matter if it was a piece that could pass in quality of workmanship for a newly unearthed and previously unknown work of a young J.S. Bach or perhaps one of his pupils -- once people find out it's contemporary writing the assumption always seems to be that there's no point in looking at it, that it's already in oblivion and will stay there.
This bias against new music is difficult to explain.
Some college-trained composers of classical contemporary music were taught by their professors in school, in effect, to work from a place far outside the box, i.e. to closely adhere to the same modernist paradigm/ideology which they and the rest of the music faculty were advocating, that pushing the bounds of normality, ignoring every rule, breaking down the fences of tonality, and even at times working "noise" into the score (such as hammers, drills, doors slamming shut, etc.) with the belief that "music" is contained in all objects -- that all of this was permissible in the pursuit of the highest form of musical expression.
While the public may snicker at such antics the trouble with it is, from a place far outside the box there's no reality there, no rules there to bend or break like an artist, no patterns within which bold moves may be integrated, nothing to interact with, nothing to work against -- no means of production in the ordinary sense [See blog, Thinking Outside The Box] -- it's an escape beyond the rarified upper atmosphere of the edges of the box into a region where there's nothing but a vacuum, a place where tones float around with no relationship to each other and fail to gravitate around a home key, a place where they randomly collide to create a "melodic line in name only" which cannot breathe and does not sing, a place from where no lasting work of art is ever likely to emerge.
Some might even argue that "the box" symbolic of common practice manner has any relevance at all to the modern composer.
What never seems to deviate however is that the human mind and ear find innately aesthetic and pleasing those tone associations which exist in simple harmonic ratios, i.e. in accordance with the natural harmonic series; the outgrowth of this has been 1) the concept of tonality, i.e. a key center with all other neighboring tones bearing a fixed relationship to it, and 2) a system of chordal harmony based upon the superimposition of thirds.
If we assume the composer of a classical contemporary work is trying to convey to the listener a message or an emotion through a post-modern atonal idiom, that composer is using a language which goes against the listener's natural instincts for order and logic and what satisfies the ear, as least as far as human beings are able to recognize it.
NOTE: We are speaking here of the way the human mind, everyone's mind, seeks order and logic in the association of natural tones and not against any composer or professor, living or dead, no matter what language they preferred to teach or use for the expression of musical ideas; composers, like organists, are all wired differently, and they should feel free and unencumbered to express their musical thoughts using whatever language they feel best lends itself to that task.
While this manner of composing is considered by some to be definitely of our time, the fact of the matter is, the listener's mind, the way it works, simply doesn't recognize this kind of music as cogent, concise, contrapuntally savvy, or listener-friendly compared with jazz, blues, pop, folk, country, bluegrass, or any other tonal music to which most people in Western society are exposed from the cradle; put very simply, listeners just can't figure it out, and non-musicians, if asked, often admit to not liking any classical contemporary music because of it; but additionally, and more importantly, it's mortifying and most unfair to the composer to find some critics short on self-respect going so far as to call any music written this way as unbearable, irrelevant rubbish and don't mind telling others so.
It's interesting that these same small and unfortunate persons never mention in their diatribes any masterpiece of music ever written by a critic.
As for atonal writing, there are some who feel that it seems to have run its course for the most part and, if not already dead, is a corpse that's barely twitching -- but there's still a fair amount of tonal organ music being written by living composers which, due to its discernible formal structure, the quality of its thematic material, the bold and original moves it makes, its rapid and weighty development, and how it stands up under usage, is worth some attention and is likely to have a life beyond its original premiere.