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The "Movement" in Contemporary Art Music: Opinions and Questions

by Steve Layton (9-11 January 02)

  When does a style or ideal from the last fifty years (or more) become "old-fashioned"? How? Are there "original" ideas to be discovered by today's composers? What are both the perceived and real importance of that originality today?

  Currently, art musicians who consider their work "cutting-edge", while supposedly being at the front of some perceived boundary, musically can only use the same languages that have already been introduced thirty, even forty or more years ago. For some time now, even the most supposedly "forward" composers and musicians can offer nothing substantially new from a purely musical standpoint. Despite claims to the contrary, what is usually offered is actually some new action, procedure, or technology to make some new sound, or perhaps some change to the social ritual of the performance itself. The purely musical materials, structures, forms, and procedures can't escape some already-existing example. More importantly, there is no really new version of the musical language itself; this was something that seemed vitally important to composers of the last few generations, and something that I feel still holds an enormous influence over many (if not most) of today's composers.

  If we were to decide tomorrow to become, say, "baroque", the opinion likely to be felt by most others (and perhaps even the composer himself!) would be that, as brilliantly conceived and executed as the piece may be, there could be little or nothing in the way of originality, and so value, for today's audience. The feeling is that the "movement" is dead; that somewhere along the line the ideal had said all it could say, was supplanted by or grew into another movement, etc... A boundary is passed which makes the idea of returning seem practically impossible. This progression seems rather like a tree with a few large limbs and many branches; the "flow" is unidirectional and, like leaves, the "Now" of our creative selves exists somewhere out along the edge of one specific end.

  In art music, many of the more recent and "cutting-edge" ideas and influences that replaced ideals of previous times have themselves quickly (and perhaps surprisingly) become passť to both the larger audience and many of the composers working today. While this could be seen as a simple continuation of the forces that have always been at work, I feel that something very different has happened. These newer ideals were cut short, not through any newer discovery or innovation, but rather precisely through an increasing base of musicians who return to even earlier ideals (even the ideals that come out of the popular music traditions for the most part share their most salient characteristic elements with earlier "traditional" art music). For some time, the idea was of something New replacing the "old New"; now the "old New" can be made unimportant by simply "the old Old".

  Yet the curious thing is that at the same time they have become "old-fashioned" (whether traditionally or "in reverse"), artists and works from as long as fifty years ago have trouble going out of date!. How can a work become both so dated and so fresh at the same moment? Styles that seem to have had the sweeping originality, power, and authority to be able to create fully long-lived, widespread, vital and entire movements instead seem to have quickly begun oscillating, filling up with elements of other styles both past and current. Indeed, "current" becomes ever more confused as more and more of the past "leaks forward". What I'm writing about here isn't necessarily the idea of Post-Modernism. The returns don't have to be "active" or purposeful; indeed, what I mean is that "returning" now becomes unavoidable; yet all this while certain fundamental new languages and ideals have barely begun to be digested.

  Composers traditionally have found themselves by reacting to "movements", current and past, close and far. From the early youth, through their time as a student, and as an independent artist, choices present themselves on the basis of what is presented to each of them, and in relation to the cultural and social pressures each of those influences exerts on the "Now" at any moment. Over the last two hundred years especially, the forces responded and reacted to became less and less part of a small group of dominant and well-defined ideals, and with time have become so diffuse that there's become less significance to any reaction, in any direction. While the mind-set may still exist, culture has stopped responding with the kind of clear forces that gave the artist a measure of his place.

  So, what is or can be the reaction to such a state of affairs?...

1 - What has happened has happened, what will be will be. To create with an acknowledgement and embrace of what has come before; that any piece created will be different in the same way that any current in a stream of water will be different, and yet as inevitably much a part of "historical" music as that current is of the water. To acknowledge that some things happened, other things still happen; yet removed from, or unimportant to, what the artist is creating. There's an awareness of the work as always part of some much greater whole.

2 - Again, What has happened has happened, what will be will be; but to work in some kind of assumed "innocence" of both what was and what is (I say "assumed" because I believe that there is no way to avoid biases created by our reactions to outside influences). So, to work under influences without taking any regard of how, why, and when they influence the artist's own work. There's an awareness of the work, period.

3 - That there is still some sort of "forward edge", that the artist is on that edge, and that all else must therefore be "behind" them. The stuff "on the edge" can come from a number of like-minded artists, each adopting a similar set of assumptions. This approach borrows something from either of the first two, regarding the how they do or don't acknowledge what has happened and is happening outside of their own work, but there's a more antagonistic mind-set, an awareness of the work as something very much "of itself", and it becomes important to see it as being outside of other traditions.

  All of these approaches rely on creating a kind of "fiction", made by either suppressing or elaborating elements of the past and the present musical fabric. Not only is nothing nothing necessarily wrong in such fictions, they seem absolutely fundamental; people do the same in all kinds of other facets of their response to living in the world. What is interesting to me is the treatment of the truth of the fiction in their approach. From such an ability to suppress or elaborate can literally come the reinventionof both history and the present for that artist (or audience).

  Can any of these approaches hurt the artist? The audience? Not necessarily; the approach outlined in my "#3" has actually been quite the most common for some time, holding a kind of "place of power" over both musical ideologies and institutions. But controlling ideologies, like so much else, can never be be truly objective; and like any game (and all art and music are very much "games" or play, no matter how soul-shaking) what is important is how much one achieves within a certain set of rules. Any rules are possible; but you could be playing away from where the general interest is, and what you do will only become important to others only in as much as the rules themselves change to meet your own.

  Music is always a process of making something new; every piece, performance, or even re-listening can't help but create some new experience in some new context. Most times and cultures in the history of man in this world have valued the kind of approach in the arts, that more truly approximates the idea of "craft". It's a bit like a well-played game (though I'd remind the reader that there need be nothing trivial about some games); the creator, performer, and audience look for the acts that both fulfill the rules perfectly, and yet often press right up to the edge of those very rules in some previously known or unknown way. Very rarely, there may even be some action that goes beyond the rules themselves in such a way as to make the action become "right", suddenly shifting some part of the boundary.

  It is this last aspect that I think came to dominate Western artistic thought over the last two hundred years or so, right up to our own moment. And, as the twentieth century progressed it became ever more the mind-set that the value of an artist or his work wasn't so much in how he played any common game, but rather that they must invent entirely new games. And so they have; the most highly valued new works became the ones that wrote entirely new rules. The result of, course, of any variation becoming fair game is that quite quickly virtually every variation appears on the scene as a legitimate version of a Work of Art. An almost infinite number of "standards" are created and coexist in the same moment.

  Is this a failing? Far from it; it's simply the state of things as they are, and as they can only be. Like a Pandora's Box (only neutral rather than evil), once an idea or ideal is "opened" there's no going back and closing the lid. Are then all of these ideals equally valuable? Certainly, though just as certainly not in each moment in a particular culture; different ideals will wax and wane as cultural interests fluctuate. Yet an ideal not valued because of such a state of affairs is only sleeping, never dead. What must die though, is the belief that the artist can and indeed must "push forward" to some new territory in order to have worth. The "pushing" that comes with good and great art is still vitally important, as always; it is only the idea of what direction they're pushing in that needs to be reexamined. Not to change it; it already is changed! What needs to change is for Western artists to release themselves from a certain linear vision of both progress and worth that simply doesn't exist anymore.

  There is a view of our universe that imagines it bounded yet infinite. I think that the universe of Art is such a construct. Art is only one of many spheres of human activity. Some spheres almost never touch, while others share substantial parts of their own sphere with some other; yet each has something purely its own, and there is never complete identity between any two. While each is bounded, the mind can pass beyond those boundaries in any moment. The cultural pressure to keep "pressing forward" has led many to move through that boundary in art and music, yet without the recognition that they're in a different place; the justification being that the element added "becomes art". It is a falsification of experience, a fiction, made essentially because of that same cultural and societal pressure I mentioned previously. It is sustained only by the mind and will of the artist and their audience, but not in the work itself.

  Why am I writing this? As some kind of reactionary justification for my own approach to composition? Not really, except inasmuch as it focuses some part of my own particular "fiction". I'm a composer and musician, and I create. I use whatever tools the history of the world has made available to me to make my music, and I use them with all of the skill, art and craft that I know. This small essay isn't a complaint about the current state of art and music; simply a record of some observations and questions that seem significant to me in this time we all live and create in. Nothing needs to "change", and most certainly doesn't need me to try and "change" it; because it has already changed. Something happened about thirty years ago; that boundary that holds the particular "infinite" that is Music was fully touched, and our world became a different place. Variations will be endlessly made; some beautiful, some held as treasures by many. The new will always live, but always within and through another that has already been.