Music: New Choices for the 21st Century
composer of classical music, I would like to share my thoughts
about the current state of classical music.
art of classical music music composition is still under a
shadow of ugliness created by various 20th century
ideologies of compositional methods and the dogged admiration
for experiments gone wrong.
John Cage, Pierre Boulez, Arnold
Schönberg, and the others -- not one of these
composers sang the last dying note.
Not one of them gave us a useful means for the creation
of music. The new methods of composition --12-tone, aleatory,
minimalism, post-minimalism -- do not provide the wide
emotional possibilities of expression, which were available in
the older Classical and Romantic
as a concept, and as an experience of listeners, must return
to the writing desk of composers, and to our concert halls.
Beauty can be discussed, and valued, and defined in
myriad ways. Our
customers, the ever-patient, music-loving symphony-season
subscribers, know Beauty when they hear it.
Beauty encompasses a wide range of aesthetic choices.
Few concertgoers would mistake Beethoven
for Haydn, Haydn for Debussy,
or Debussy for Scriabin,
or Scriabin for Copland, or Copland for Stravinsky.
The audience is open to a wide range of possibilities.
The only real requirement is a musical language and a
form that can be apprehended within the duration of the piece
(a feat much easier said than done, for composers in
any century.) The audience should not rely on concert brochures to tell
them, in words, what they should be able to appreciate with
their own ears.
know Beauty when it enters their imaginations -- when they
allow themselves to write notes on paper, without letting
their intellects get in the way.
believe this was the failing of many 20th century
composers -- they let compositional methods over-ride their
innate sense of beauty, proportion, melody, form, harmony, and
rhythm. All the
individual elements of musical composition were passed through
a sieve of ideology -- allowing precious little beauty into
the final draft of the music -- and long-winded explanations
were developed to justify the resulting noise.
professors of composition were hired because of their ability
to describe, in words, the complicated theories they invented.
Beauty has possibly not been discussed seriously among
professional composers since the 1930’s.
It is much easier to discuss compositional methods, or
electronics, or acoustics properties, than to discuss Beauty.
Since the time of Schönberg, most discussions of
Beauty were considered irrelevant, or hopelessly Romantic and
Beauty has no specific meaning to anyone, discussion of the
subject can wander in many directions.
The author hopes composers, with wide differences in
compositional style, will begin to assess their work in
relation to Beauty, to think privately and honestly about the
implications of Beauty, and begin to discuss Beauty with other
composers, and with music critics and conductors. When Beauty
can be talked about, and regarded as an essential element of
music composition, the art of composition will regain a
meaningful place in the hearts of audiences.
present, I feel most new compositions have no lasting effect
on listeners. If
a piece is performed more than once, the audience tolerates it
-- but feels nothing. Nothing
is accomplished. Any
discussion of Beauty needs to go beyond compositional methods.
Beauty as perceived by an alert concert-goer may be
contrasted to Beauty as perceived by the composer.
The intention of the composer may have little relation
the end result in the ears of an audience.
I have read articles by Schönberg that describe his
musical intentions, perhaps his sincere artistic goals.
But, those goals did not result in music which
audiences request to hear again and again, as they do the
music of Beethoven.
prevailing theory in the 20th century was that this
disparity was caused by the audience’s lack of
few harsh critics declared the cause was the composer’s lack
of talent. Neither
explanation seems accurate.
Schönberg’s genius is easily recognizable in early
works such as Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured night).
Audiences are no less sophisticated than they have ever
been. It is
important to remember, the original audiences for Haydn and
Mozart were bored royalty.
By comparison, we have ideal audiences – who sit
quietly and usually do not fall asleep.
The explanation of the disparity between intention and
results can only be found in the self-perception of the
honest is the composer in assessing Beauty in his work?
Does the composer care about the symphony-season
subscribers, or is the most important audience the music
critics, or the dean of the school of music where he wants a
job, or other composers?
Which audience is the most important?
Whose opinion matters most?
Does the composer hope some enlightened future audience
will appreciate works that current audiences ignore?
How do music producers -- the decision-makers who
program new works, influence the substance of a composer’s
work? The artistic choices any composer makes rely, to some
degree, on which audience the composer hopes to reach.
The audience may change from work to work. I feel it is important for composers to think clearly about
whom the audience is. Couperin
wrote to please the tastes of The Sun King, Bach needed his
organ gigs, Scriabin….who knows?!
Beth Anderson Harold puts it this way: "[Sometimes, the
music] is not focused in the heart of the composer….But,
composers have written to influence the king, or get the job
playing organ at the big church, and the outcome has been
a practical level---I believe composers need to please the
audiences of our time as much as Haydn needed to please his
royal benefactors. Thankfully, few of us need to compose
toe-tapping march music for Stalin, as Shostakovich did (his
life depended on it.) I
do not think the composers of the 20th century
avant-garde concerned themselves with the economic facts:
Symphony subscribers keep the lights turned-on in Symphony
future of orchestral music cannot rely forever on the works of
the past. I believe we need to write music that is within certain
parameters of harmony, melody, and rhythm (meaning, perhaps: a
lot of chords built on triads, using dissonance sparingly.)
The parameters are very wide, and loosely based on the
audience's past experience.
Several weeks ago I made a list of the 100 most
requested classical works from radio-station listener-response
polls. For the
most part, listeners all choose the same pieces.
To me, this indicates there is a common language in
these works -- which reaches everyone.
New works can expand on that common language and
remain within the
parameters of what audiences might enjoy.
I have not reached any final conclusion about which
parameters of harmony, melody, rhythm, or form need to be
retained, and which can be tossed.
My sense is something must be retained, for a new work
to be understood and enjoyed by an audience.
discussing Beauty, distinctions need to be made between,
popular appeal, current fads, and enduring value. John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, and other film composers
deserve admiration for their highly skilled craftsmanship. John Williams, in particular invents melodies that hundreds
of thousands of people enjoy and recognize.
This kind of accomplishment is worthy of respect, but
is not as valuable as the accomplishment of Bach or Mozart.
John Williams himself would be this first to
acknowledge this fact.
appeal is not a primary element of Beauty.
Sometimes a work of Art has that instant appeal,
sometimes it does not. The
current “-ism,” in fashion with critics, or in academia,
is also an inaccurate means to judge Beauty.
Talking with composers over 70 years of age---I realize
how quickly fads fade, even in Classical Music.
Our elders have witnessed four or five major
“artistic revolutions” come and go during the last 70
years. The best
of these composers followed their own innate instinct, and
defined Beauty in their own way -- completely apart from the
I have attached quotes from composers and music critics,
regarding Beauty and the history of musical fads of the 20th
century. We, the
currently active composers, have a responsibility to
ourselves, and to our audiences to think carefully about what
we create, and why we create.
I am not a “modern composer” in the strictest sense of
the term, because my music, far from being “revolution,”
is “evolution.” I
have never attempted to overthrow the accepted rules of
harmony and composition.
On the contrary, I have always drawn liberally from
the masters for my inspiration. (I have never ceased
studying Mozart!)...Great music, I have always felt, must
come from the heart.
Any music created by technique and brains alone is
not worth the paper it is written on.
Music, I feel, must always be emotional first, and
intellectual second. That is why, in composing, I have never been tempted by the
radical style of the young and very interesting composers.
And so, although as experiments there may be
something to say in defense of all this music, it is, in my
opinion, an artistic failure.
Then, besides being cerebral, ‘modern music’ is
for the most part, very ugly.
And music, I insist, must in spite of everything be
Ravel, composer c.
"As to beauty in
music, I try very hard to inject elements of it in every work.
Music for me is not cerebral. Rather, it is visceral and I
agonize over every note. Without beauty, music is empty."
Lees, composer 2003 (letter to author)__________________________________________________
composer writing for a larger hall loses a good deal of the
freedom afforded by the smaller one.
Melodies, in order to be understood, must be written so
that the physical and mental distance between the performers
and the listeners cannot distort them. In rhythm, metrical
structures will push themselves into the foreground, due to
their greater intelligibility.
Thus rhythmic patterns which, in order to be grasped
intelligently, require a keen analytic mind on the part of the
listener, ought to be avoided.
Rapidly moving harmonies or harmonies of too great a
complexity are not advisable, for the same reason.
It is striking to see how sensitive our classical
masters were in this respect. The technique of their symphonic
works is essentially different from that of their chamber
music, although the basic material is identical.”
Hindemith, composer 1949
Hindemith noticed, and greatly admired, the sensitivity
of Haydn, Beethoven, and other old master composers, regarding
the acoustic properties of large and small performance halls.
Some contemporary composers---with all the science of
acoustics, and sound engineering at their fingertips---manage to
ignore basic properties of sound.
Melodies and harmonies get meddled in a large space---
music must be written to accommodate that physical fact.]
music soars above class society.
Musical careers have a lot to do with class and money,
but they don’t influence society’s acceptance of the
music. ...[Regarding self-promotion] ...It takes just as much
intelligence to invent a synthesizer, or to make a
crowd-pleasing poster for your concert, as it does to make
beautiful music. But
doing those other activities does not make you a composer,
though they may add to your career, or your savings account.
Being a composer of playable music still does not
guarantee beauty. That’s
a problem you have to solve for yourself.
got a bad name some time after the First World War.
Musical craft (ear training, orchestration, the real
reasons for voice leading, etc.) was hardly taught in the
1960’s and ‘70’s, probably because of the revolt against
a tradition that could allow the war in Vietnam to happen.
Beauty seemed low in value in relation to life itself.
But life goes on, and ugliness, and lack of skills, and
nihilism are no excuse...”
Anderson Harold, composer 1980
a study of 20th century music, I arrived at the reluctant
conclusion that Boulez, above all others, was responsible for
breaking the pact between creator and consumer. ...From the
moment he burst onto the Paris scene in 1945 with an
anti-Stravinsky demonstration, Boulez was noted for the
violence of his gestures.
[For Boulez,] all music composed before1900 was mere
maintained that it was a composer’s duty to pursue the
“music of the future” without regard to contemporary
by the icy purity of Anton Webern’s serialist method of
composition, he decided that mathematical science held the key
to musical progress.
that his star is falling, you can see the damage he caused.
Many composers are emerging from undeserved neglect.
Major 20th century figures--Hindemith, Martinu, Weill,
Barber--are back on the concert menu. Andrzej Panufnik,
effectively banned for nine years on the BBC [due to Boulez],
experienced a revival before his death last year.
Britten and Shostakovich now represent centrality,
Boulez and Stockhausen, the periphery.”
Lebrecht, music critic 1992
One strong personality affected the programming of new
music in England and France.
Boulez, as Music Director for the BBC, decided who would
be heard, and who would not.
Times change. ]
is an art. it is
a very special and very sacred art.
Being as aware of this as I am, it is disturbing to me
to realize the position that music holds in the world
today.....How painful it is for me, when I talk with young
people today who are convinced that minimalism is something to
be taken seriously, or that John Cage’s music is actually
worth listening to. John
Cage’s music is all about philosophy, not about inspiration
realizing that there was always an expectation for stylistic
improvement, to further art music along, and that older styles
were considered archaic for no concrete reason, I realized
that during the 1980’s, this ‘improvement’ had become a
style known as minimalism.
believe it is time to abandon this concept of stylistic
improvement as a criteria for which a piece of music is
accepted or not. It
is a false sense of improvement that continually gives birth
to avant guard, and other superficial and degenerate artisitic
movements that imply a rejection of the past. ‘
Robertson, composer 2000
Compare Don Robertson’s view of John Cage’s music, with John
Cage’s own words---an excerpt from a letter written to Charles
Berry in 1982.]
rediscovered the traditional purposes for making music
a) to imitate nature in her manner of operation, and b)
to sober and quiet the mind thus making it susceptible to
divine influences. Thus
I was freed from self-expression.
Music became a discipline, a way of life.
I have noticed very few people are interested in New
Music. I was 50
years old before there was any supportive acceptance of my
work. I am now
much older but my work remains controversial as your feelings
Cage, composer 1982
correspondence with John Cage, confirmed my belief that he was
more a philosopher and a writer, than a composer.
He was a brilliant and gentle man.
music was not intended to be meaningful, or moving, or listened
to with any seriousness.
Young composers who admire his music, risk deluding
themselves, believing there is musical and/or spiritual
value--where there is nothing at all.
This was John Cage’s whole point---we create our own
perception of value. That
philosophy does not often translate into beautiful or lasting
music. I do believe Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for prepared
piano, and some of his percussion music express his goal, “to
quiet and sober the mind.”
interesting fact: At
the Arnold Schönberg Archive at UCLA, librarians have gathered
papers, manuscripts, voice-recordings, lectures, etc...and
enshrined everything down to the smallest cocktail napkin.
this respect, John Cage was correct.
We create our own perception of value.
In business school, Marketing Directors learn the term
“ Customer Perceived Value.” Attractive packaging, and the
careful use of words, makes all the difference.
Call a bottlecap a Work of Art, and put it in a Museum.
Seattle Washington, 2003
About the author, Charles Berry
My first memories of Classical Music come from when I was
seven or eight years old, laying near the family stereo,
listening to Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, and the complete
Symphonies of Beethoven with Arturo Toscanni and the NBC
Symphony Orchestra, and the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, with
Jasha Heifetz, Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
I was in awe. I
heard none of the details of composition that I hear now.
I was in awe of the beauty, the power, and the dignity of
the music. These
were examples of Great Art.
This did not need to be explained to me.
I felt it. I
felt the same way when I saw works by Michaelango, and drawings
by Leonardo da Vinci. These were examples of the greatness humans can
and musicians became my heroes.
showed no particular talent as a musician.
In fact, in 3rd grade, in a fit of frustration, I tore up
my piano lessonbook. I
wrote my teacher a short note:
“You tried. I
quit.” Just the
same, I sang in choirs throughout grade school, junior high, and
high school, and played cello for five years. In high school, my instrument became the guitar.
I wanted to be a folksinger, like Bob Dylan.
twenties, I found myself at the University of California,
studying music history, and music composition with a quiet
British composer, named Peter Racine Fricker.
I had heard an Lp record of his First Symphony.
When I met him for the first time, I said:
“Thank you for writing that Symphony.”
(Until that moment, I never thought I would be able to
say anything to anyone who had composed a Symphony.)
For his part, Mr. Fricker smiled.
No one had every thanked him like that. As if he had done
me a personal favor.
Mr. Fricker wanted to teach me the intricate details of
serialist music, and teach me to discipline my wandering musical
imagination. I was
not a good student. I
was full of enthusiasm with a very short attention span.
My most memorable study at the University, was finding
the original hand-written manuscript for Bernard Hermann’s
music to the movie Psycho.
The score to the shower scene was written in red
1982, in San Diego, I met Paul Creston.
I studied composition with him for one year.
Sitting in his living room, I tried to be calm, when he
played tapes of his orchestral music--live recordings with
Eugene Ormandy, George Szell, and Arturo Toscanni. (He knew the
men who had been my childhood heroes.)
Paul Creston did not talk much about his career,
preferring to focus on immediate problems---teaching me about
form and orchestration, and his own methods for harmonic and
melodic construction. Much
later, after his death, I discovered how lucky I was to learn
from him. During
the 1950’s and early 1960’s he was the most performed
American Symphonic composer--as well-known to audiences as
Copland, Barber, and Menotti.
His career was eclipsed by a younger generation.
My favorite story from Paul Creston,
occurred at a composer’s conference in New York.
Paul Creston, Carl Ruggles, and Edgar Varese went out to
lunch together. Creston
and Ruggles ordered sandwiches.
Varese ordered a complete, and expensive dinner.
After eating, Varese disappeared to the Men’s Room, and
never came back--leaving the big bill to Creston and Ruggles.
For a time,
I hosted a Classical radio program on KBOO, community radio, in
Portland, Oregon. I
called-up famous composers, and interviewed them over the phone.
I edited the interviews, added excerpts of their music,
and broadcast the half-hour programs, which included George
Crumb, John Cage, Benjamin Lees, Karel Husa, Ned Rorem, George
Rochberg, and William Schuman.
(Now, I was getting to know my heroes, talking with
Schuman sang melodic excerpts from his Symphonies, over the
Crumb’s cuckoo clock chimed in the background.
I heard traffic noise through the open window of John
Cage’s New York apartment window. Ned Rorem went on about his sex life, as always.
Later, in Santa Cruz, California, I got to know the
Hungarian cellist and composer, George Barati.
He was also a longtime conductor for the Honolulu
Symphony. He told
me how, in his younger days, he played in a Sunday afternoon
string quartet, with Albert Einstein--during his years at
Princeton University. He also knew Bartok and Kodaly, and sang in a choir
conducted by Rachmaninov.
He told me of visits with Stravinsky and Schönberg.
1990’s I presented performances of my music in San Francisco
with George Barati, Lou Harrison, and an electronic composer,
Charles Amirkanian. During
this time, I also met Alan Hovhaness on several occasions.
He told me how he lost the manuscript to an entire
symphony when a mugger grabbed his briefcase.
Hovhaness stuck a thumb out in his suitcoat pocket,
saying he had a gun and was not afraid to use it.
The thief ran off with the symphony in the briefcase.
Though he searched for the music in nearby dumpsters,
Hovhaness never found that symphony.
These experiences form a panorama in my mind
of 20th century American Classical music.
I believe each of the composers I have known, was doing
his best to add a unique voice to the culture of the world.
Big egos--yes, some of them were not shy.
But in the end---humble or not, each was aspiring toward
an indefinable Beauty. Each hoped he might, at some moment, create a work of Great
Art----like those works I experienced as a child, listening to
Beethoven. Each of these men also had heroes, and aspired to add
his imagination to the collective achievement of humanity.
Regardless of how I view their accomplishments,
regardless of the enduring value, or lack of value in their
music----I am forced to admire the determination that caused
these men to dedicate their lives to Music.
I am grateful to each of them.