in: News & Features

March 27, 2011

Notions of Contemporary Music and Authenticity

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Part II of an interview with Joshua Fineberg

In anticipation of Sound Icon’s landmark concert this past Saturday, March 26, I interviewed Joshua Fineberg, a leading expert on spectral music and Associate Professor of Composition at Boston University. In Part II, we discuss the splintered state of contemporary music, the “glory days” of the past, and notions of authenticity and regional identity.

DD: This may be a very obvious statement, but the world of contemporary music today feels so absurdly factional.

JF: Though less than it was twenty years ago, I must say. When I was in conservatory the animosity was unbelievable. We wouldn’t talk to each other! I think now, due to the fact that we all feel menaced by the declining place of concert music in the culture, there is a certain understanding that we have to work together. We’re not going to stab each other while the ship is sinking.

Is concert music really less prominent now?

Sure. It’s really less. I can use some examples. The historical aberration may be the ‘50s. You had television and radio exploding, yet there wasn’t enough content created for it. So you had plays, operas and symphonies on radio and television. If you think, in the ‘50s all the TV networks had orchestras! There is no comparison. Toscanini was a pop star! Stravinsky got an hour of prime time TV for The Flood! I’m sorry — Elliott Carter, Pierre Boulez, I don’t care who — there is not a composer alive who could get an hour of prime-time TV to put on an oratorio. It’s unthinkable. And back then there were only three networks! You might get it on cable. …

Ok, but even in that time, isn’t the Stravinsky case an aberration? It seems like the composers that got airtime were more populist-oriented composers like Bernstein, whose music and whose personality were so accessible.

But think of a Broadway composer like Sondheim. Can he get an hour on network TV?

Sondheim got Sweeney Todd made into a hit movie with Johnny Depp!

I think there are people who can command space in the culture, but it is all less than it was.

I guess what I’m questioning is whether people who are taking an approach to new music that is inventive, or stems from a modernist approach that is sort of …

Research-oriented. …

Yes. I’m wondering whether these composers are less accepted now than in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s? It seems to me that what we’re labeling “new music” has always been marginalized.

I think that’s true. It’s always been marginalized. There may have been, at particular places and times, like in Darmstadt in the ‘50s, islands where inside of that island, it seemed that music was dominant.

But that’s still there, Darmstadt and other new music festivals.

Well, it’s different and it’s less important, culturally, than it was. But I think overall you’re right. It was always marginalized. Whenever I hear the neo-Romantic critique —“Oh, the serialists used to dominate everything!”— historically it’s just not true. It never happened. It’s not like Milton Babbitt’s students had jobs in every school in the country. They dominated three or four places, maybe, and those were probably the three or four places that other people wanted to be, so it seemed like it was the whole world, but it was never more than a tiny segment.

And I don’t think Schoenberg ever felt celebrated.

It’s kind of the sad reality of composers. You have composers who are very successful but they always feel marginalized, no matter how successful they are, because our world is such a small world compared to the larger culture. Beethoven’s music in his lifetime was only heard by about one percent of the European population. It was tiny, very inaccessible. Boulez has probably been heard by as large a percentage of the European population. It just doesn’t feel that way because everything else is so much more broadly disseminated.

It also seems to me that new music ensembles are popping up everywhere these days. Even though these concerts aren’t necessarily well attended, it’s pretty easy to see new music in Boston or New York.

Yes, but if you live in other places that would be less true. But that’s always been true as well. It’s not like we talk about the “Second Innsbruck School.” It never produced a lot of composers. They’re from Vienna! Or at least we remember them that way because wherever they happen to be born, artists in collaborative mediums tend to be drawn to cultural hubs, where there are performers and patrons and audiences.

When you bring up Darmstadt, Vienna and Innsbruck, it reminds me of another issue. Historically we’ve drawn relationships between aesthetics and national or regional identities. Do you think regional and national distinctions in compositional styles are in any way valid or relevant in today’s compositional world, especially given the impact that spectral composers and other recent composers like Scelsi or Sciarrino, for example, are having in the States?

I’ve never bought the national thing. To a certain extent, as a composer, you are what you eat. There’s this idea that if you don’t grow up playing in rock bands and incorporating jazz in your music, somehow you’re not American. Growing up in America you can hear anything. You can grow up in America hearing only music from Mali and traditional African music. Maybe you live in a neighborhood where you perform in a Mali marimba ensemble. Does that make you less American than someone who grew up playing jazz? If you grew up with a deep love of Debussy and Ravel, does that somehow make you less American? If you grew up in France playing jazz, deeply in love with American music and American pop, are you somehow then not French? I don’t know what any of that stuff means. There’s this cliché of American music, that if it doesn’t incorporate elements of vernacular music, it’s not American.

There’s also this sort of false dichotomy that people talk about in contemporary music when they call something “European” in orientation. I guess this means it’s neither post-minimalist nor in the tradition of Carter or Davidovsky, which I suppose is some general category of Northeastern, American non-tonal music that privileges counterpoint, voice leading, some kind of motivic design…

It doesn’t make sense. It’s based on a few people. To me, all of it’s a fiction. Who defined cowboy music? A gay, Jewish guy from Brooklyn. None of it makes any sense. Fundamentally, these issues come down to people marketing themselves. It’s tough being a composer. If they need to do this to market themselves, that’s fine. But it’s no more real than “A BMW is the ultimate driving machine.” It’s a slogan. Or a diner across the street actually has “The world’s best coffee.” How would one know? I think that’s what these things come down to. You can get money for “American music” so you’re going to define American music. To me, the only definition that would make any sense is music made by Americans might be American music, if you want to call it that.

But then, my music is every bit as American as Steven Mackey’s, and just because I don’t use electric guitars doesn’t make my music somehow less American in my mind.

I agree, but somehow there is still this feeling when you hear, say, something that might be very influenced by modernist ideals like Lee Hyla, who also is influenced, or makes use of tropes of so-called “Americanism” in some his music —complexly, but clearly you hear it and it’s an essential part of the fabric — that’s still going to resonate for a large percentage of people as sounding “American.” This is probably a fruitless road to go down, but regardless of how strange and ill-thought out, it seems like a perception that one will encounter, and a way that a fair amount of people still talk about contemporary music.

I mean, it doesn’t make sense to me, but ultimately, when people talk about my music as being very Europhile or Francophile, fundamentally I’m not going to be insulted because so much of the music I love is European. There’s American music I love too, but ultimately we live in a world where you have access to everything.

The only thing that I care about in a composer is: are they writing the music that they need to be writing? Whether that music is “American” or not, I don’t really care. My question is: is it personal or not? I would much rather hear a piece that has problems but is really personal than one that is very professional but fulfills the clichés of whatever genre, yet has nothing that three other people couldn’t have done.

I had this teacher once, whom I didn’t work with very much; but I had shown him my music at a summer workshop, music that had won a lot of prizes. He said the piece seemed well put together, but from what he knew of me, it didn’t seem like I had written it. That really stuck with me.

Ultimately, I think what it is about isn’t any of these labels or any –isms. It’s finding the music that you need to write, fundamentally for the way you hear, you think, and you breathe. You have to find the music only you can write, and figure out what tools you need to make it.

Part I of this interview may be read here.

David Dominique is a PhD candidate in Music Composition and theory at Brandeis University.

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