A couple of insights gleaned from recent teaching:
– In my 20th-century orchestral repertoire class I happened to start teaching the minimalists on the same day I finished up the style-mixing postmodernists, like Bolcom, Rochberg, Del Tredici, Jonathan Kramer. And it occurred to me what they have in common. Both groups place the locus of innovation (I can still write fluent academese when I need to, though the Voice trained me out of it and I have no desire to start up again) – both rely for a sense of newness on the amount and variety of information in their pieces, contrasting it with the general information rate and stylistic variety range of the typical classical piece. The minimalists pare down the information to give you less than classical listeners would expect. The postmodernists ramp up the information variety so that you’ve got Mozart quotes, country and western licks, Romantic clichés, jazz all bubbling around in the same mix. There remain, of course, many composers for whom the information rate of classical music is still an abiding paradigm, but the minimalists and postmodernists likewise rebelled against the general rhetoric of classical music – one group by narrowing the focus, the other by widening it. Diametrically opposed as the two reactions are, I sense a certain kinship there, a tiredness with the repetitiveness of the classical music experience.
– Wagner’s spinning of Tristan und Isolde out of a dramatically small group of materials – the Tristan chord, deceptive cadences, and French sixths morphing into dominant sevenths that never conclusively resolve – of course led the way to atonality, a divorce from the universal syntax of the common practice period, and 12-tone music’s tendency to derive every element from a single row. More than that, though, I think it destroyed an overall faith in a commonly shared, objective musical language and created – indeed, privileged – a paradigm by which the composer creates his or her own universe for each work. This, seems to me, is what separates the New Tonality from the old. I write a lot of tonal music, but I never plunge into the whole syntax of V-I cadences, circle-of-fifths progressions, and all that stuff one learns in school: for each piece I choose what elements, some familiar and some piquant, that will constitute my language for that work. One can certainly say this for postminimalism in general, and I imagine for other New Tonal music as well. Wagner’s stripping his Tristan music of so many of tonal music’s usual signifiers was (forgive me for putting it this way) a proto-postminimalist gesture, or perhaps we should just say minimalist: a virtuoso determination to draw as much length and variety as possible from an artificially circumscribed set of chords and voice-leadings.
In this sense I feel as a composer that I still inhabit a post-Tristan world more than I do, say, a post-Rite of Spring world. The expansion and increased systematization of materials ushered in by Le Sacre strikes me (when composing) as a little musty and superceded by this point. But Tristan seems like a forever-locked door, beyond which one could never again return to a non-contextual common language whose references could be drawn from a vocabulary not created within the piece itself.