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Tonal music as the New Avant-Garde

Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, made an interesting statement about the development of musical language in his review (Deep Song, September 1) of Osvaldo Golijov's new opera Ainadamar, premiered at Tanglewood this summer. In the last paragraph of the article, he wrote about the contrasting receptions the audience gave to Golijov's work and to Robert Zuidam's Rage d'Amours, which relied on "hoary devices of twentieth-century technique":

The trouble with having two premieres side by side is that the evening inevitably became something of a popularity contest. Zuidam received respectful applause; Golijov won a shouting, stomping ovation. No doubt a few old-school Tanglewood cerebralists went away complaining that Golijov had pandered to the audience. If so, they were pandering to their teaching assistants. The composer is triumphing not because he uses an accessible language—anyone can string together superficially pleasing chords—but because he speaks it with dire conviction. His sincerity is avant-garde.
This is nothing new, of course. Charges of pandering to the audience have been directed against many composers who returned to some form of more traditional musical language, often coupled with accusations of commercialism. As if how much money Philip Glass makes has anything to do with whether his music is interesting. However, to say that Golijov's "accessible language" has nothing to do with his success is also not sincere. I have been teaching atonal music to students for several years, and no matter how much I force them to learn about how and why some composers created the sounds they did, some students (and their parents) are just never going to like them. This also has something to do with the number of performances received by works of John Corigliano versus those of Andrew Lloyd Webber. If music history (and Nicolas Slonimsky, in particular) has taught us anything it is that popular acclaim and historical relevance certainly do not always coincide.


Anonymous said...

I agree with Mr. Downey about Tonal Music being the new Avant Garde in music. The avant-garde is always on the cutting edge because it explores the realms of which we know nothing. Of the avant-garde trends over the last 80 we now know what they do and where they go and how competent or incompetent the practitioners of those musics were.

Today, almost no one knows how to write great tonal music. That skill appears to have disappeared at the end of the 19th century along with a whole set of aesthetic attitudes needed to make it happen. So the exploration into these realms of unknowing must take place. Merely writing accessible tonal music is not good enough. We need to recover how to write GREAT music again because the stuff has eluded us for the better part of the last century.

That is job of the avant-garde. If current avant-garde practitioners fail in this an merely come up with more drivel of which there is so much written throughout music history, then it is not really avant-garde, is it?

By this definition, what passed for avant-garde over the last century was not avant-garde at all. Rather it was merely more new stuff that may be regarded as historically irrelevant.

As such, its main importance has been to spark a more intense search for great music written by composers from the past. And, of course, with that search an important search for answers to the question about what Great is in music and art...answers which we are still looking for.

Anonymous said...

Actually, what we really have right now is an institutional entrenchment of atonal music (or now perhaps non-tonal would be the more accurate term) that has lasted almost 100 years. Every once in awhile, someone breaks through the institutional barriers and sparks audience enthusiasm with an accessible work. Nobody can say with confidence that there isn't a lot of great tonal music being written. It is suppressed, so it is not heard. As to historical relevance, the institutional entrenchment of non-tonal music is so strong that it distorts reality. It is unlike that the institutionally chosen composers of non-tonal music are more historically relevant than more popular works by composers such as Andrew Lloyd Webber, etc. Only new ways of distributing and marketing music can possibly break the strangelhold that the system has had on music for almost a century.