obsessed with consuming?
Those of us fortunate enough to possess a reasonable degree of social perception know that the society we live in is obsessed with consuming, that people will quite happily part with their money and consume almost anything, however useless, if it’s marketed well enough. I myself once felt seriously tempted by a heated ice-cream scoop (batteries not included) which appeared in an Innovations catalogue, billed as a vital labour-saving device for the modern kitchen. The world had no need of such an absurd implement, of course. The only reason that it was made was to make money for the company that made it. That’s commerce for you.
But the same thing is happening in the world of new music. New pieces are being created simply because someone, somewhere is willing to pay for them. They might be attractive on the outside (the ice-cream scoop was designed to be easy on the eye), and they certainly affect a seductive user-friendliness (“operation is simplicity itself...”). But they open no new vistas, say nothing deeper than the shallow, ask no questions, risk causing no offence. They are entertainment, pieces of frippery, though often the craftsmanship they display is of itself brilliant. It’s no coincidence that many such pieces are composed for American orchestras, which depend largely on the support of rich, conservative individual patrons, but which also need to be perceived as promoting new music. It’s also an increasing phenomenon here.
Nothing wrong with a good old-fashioned piece of sizzling entertainment,
you might say, and intrinsically you would be right. Does every piece
of contemporary music have to be deep and meaningful? Of course not. The
danger comes in the masquerading, when something of little import is presented
in a context which suggests that it is in fact something substantial,
with something original to say for itself. Works of immense outward ambition
whose composers, sometimes blessed with huge reputations, throw hastily
together, believing that making a sonic effect - often a sonic effect
that has a suspiciously large element in common with the work of greater,
older masters - is enough.
Prestigious commissions bring in money, and we all have to make that.
In the absence of a national pension scheme that would allow our creative
artists to create without the burden of having to worry about how to put
the bread on the table, it is difficult to make the case that composers
should feel duty bound to risk the sackcloth and ashes option, composing
only when they have something to say. The rest of us know that being professional
means being at least mildly avaricious, and as lazy as we can manage.
But it happens that I do know one or two composers who will not write
a single unnecessary or hasty note, and who, if they have no piece to
write, will simply not write it. They may be generally less prolific than
our superficial superstars, but funnily enough everything they do write
seems somehow worthwhile. They don’t care about what the critics
might think either (though they are ready to learn from the rare perceptive
comment), because their vocation is a true one, and matters more than
approbation or ambition. They are saints.
The monthly listings magazine new
notes is essential reading for composers, performers, and everyone
interested in what's new in new music. In its printed version new notes
reaches over 5,000 contemporary music enthusiasts in the UK and around