Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Music Tuesday: Spectralism and Other Gimmicks

Mike (of Mike and Chompy) came out for a visit a couple weeks back and mentioned his interest in going back to school for a music composition Ph.D. When asked what sort of musical fads were getting all of the youngsters excited these days, he described spectralism, which is a compositional style based on sonographic representations and mathematical analysis of sound spectra, where timbre is the most important element.

In order to become an overnight expert in spectralism, I used Google to find a page with three or four songs embedded, including Lichtbogen by Saariaho, and listened to them multiple times without judgement. What I found was that I still probably wouldn't do very well in a doctoral composition program because I can't commit to taking music like this seriously.

My musical language is happily stuck in the early twentieth century with a little bit of jazz mixed in, and unlike my professor who listened to Schoenberg as dinner music, I will never set the mood with a fine bottle of wine and Ligeti's Continuum. My main issue is that most contemporary gimmicks of composition are self-serving and don't speak to the general populace. Music needs to be a dialog to be successful, and music like this is more of a one-way prepared speech in a foreign language (unless you mix it together with visual elements).

Composers will argue that the listener's experience needs to be broadened to increase the acceptable range of weirdness, which is true, but that's really just raising the barrier of entry. Yes, I might enjoy your song a little bit after hearing four others like it and understanding the structure of the piece, but life is short and I have no reason to do so when other composers can connect with me directly using my current limitations. Composers should be challenging the listener without leaving them behind.

Really, the only purpose that contemporary academic music should serve is to broaden the musical palette of composers. Young composers should be forced to write in all manner of weird styles to get the mechanics right and build the biggest compositional toolbox possible. Then, they should use the tools sparingly in their work, and only when it serves a purpose. An entire piece written with spectralism is just as bad as writing a TV drama with a plot twist every four minutes, or one where every scene starts with "Forty Eight Hours Ago..."

Unfortunately, you end up with a positive feedback loop where academics spend more time listening to weird music and build up a heroin-tolerance to weirdness. Then, their students feel like they have to write weird music to be successful academically, and you end up with a whole pile of music that becomes increasingly irrelevant to mainstream listeners. And let's be honest: most performers are not going to want to play this weird music either. All of these hopeful composers will fail at composing in the real world because their music doesn't connect with performers OR listeners, and they'll end up teaching composition at a university, perpetuating the cycle.

tagged as deep thoughts, music | permalink | 3 comments


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