Strategies For and Against Sophistication

We moved to a house whose owner had been absent a couple of years. The trees and bushes are so overgrown with parasitic vines that their growth is being stunted. I’ve pulled down hundreds of feet of vines, releasing the trees underneath to uncurl and grow toward the sky again.

New music is similarly overgrown with vines: the school-taught classical assumptions about what constitutes musical sophistication.

Composer A sent me a new score to an orchestra work. She wanted to submit it for an award for which Composer B is on the panel, and asked my opinion because I’m friends with Composer B. It’s a terrific piece – I’ve heard it – but I looked at her score, with its endlessly repeating rhythmic patterns, its pages and pages with no new dynamic markings, its postminimalist absence of detailed notational nuance. I know that the more classically-oriented Composer B is going to take one glance and dismiss it as “unsophisticated.”

I had a brilliant composition student several years ago, the first student who ever took my Analysis of 20th-century Music course as a freshman. He did very well in it, too. His big influences, besides post-rock, were late Beethoven and Sibelius, both of which he had studied in some depth. He wrote what I thought was a subtle, innovative orchestra work that, without being loud or rock-oriented, recast orchestral texture according to some pop paradigms.

The performance of his piece was cancelled because it contained “too many whole notes,” and looked unsophisticated. I imperiled my own impending tenure by insisting on its reinstatement, which I achieved, but an investigation was threatened to see whether my composition students should be taken away from me, because I clearly wasn’t competent to teach them sophisticated techniques. To this day I remain the second-class composition teacher.

Later I had another composition student who wrote an orchestra piece entirely on the C major scale, no sharps or flats. I once wrote an ensemble piece on the C major scale myself, and John Luther Adams has several lovely orchestra pieces using only the C major scale, one of them 70 minutes long and recorded on New World. I see no problem with this. But I let her finish the piece the way she wanted it, and then I said, “Will you do me a favor?” “What?” “Transpose the piece up a half-step.” A couple of clicks in the notation software, and the piece was now in D-flat major. This time the performance passed without incident, the realization that there were no subsequent accidentals having come rather late in the game. I knew if a student of mine had turned in a piece using only the “white” pitches, there would have been another investigation.

Now I’ve got a student with a very nice piano piece, cluster-filled and sort of Henry Cowell-reminiscent. She absolutely resists putting dynamic markings. A lot of young composers today don’t like dynamic markings: they listen to music on the car stereo, they admire pop music that’s been dynamically compressed, and the idea of using dynamic contrasts and crescendos to shape a piece strikes them as precious, classical, insipidly Romantic. But she knows what to do to get past the classical people: she’ll put in a bunch of mp and mf dynamics, and after the performance she’ll take them right out again.

The classical people suffocate music with a raging network of stupid, anti-intellectual, false beliefs:

Only chromatic music can be sophisticated.

Sophistication in music always manifests itself on a detailed, gestural level.

A plethora of notational nuance equals sophistication; absence of notational nuance equals lack of musical knowledge.

What audiences want in their music is sophistication.

For my money, Erik Satie is the most sophisticated composer of the early 20th century. You analyze his music in close detail, he often broke every known rule of harmonic progression and voice-leading too consistently to have been by accident. This entails, of course, that he knew the rules perfectly well, and by so doing, he helped Debussy and Stravinsky stem the overwhelming tide of organicist Wagnerianism. Yet Satie is precisely the historical figure whom the classical types most dismiss as unsophisticated. Among other things, his scores were the most blankly notated of their day, often without even barlines.

Last night our school chorus performed Orff’s Carmina Burana. A very simplistic piece, harmonically. Lots of C major scale. Rhythmically, it struck me once again as far more sophisticated than anything Schoenberg ever wrote. The audience ate it up.