I got beat up by some of my valued readers when I said — in an earlier post — that Magnus Lindberg’s music “plunged me back into the Second Vienna School.” Or, more broadly, that Lindberg composes “in a style that, broadly speaking (and whatever may have been added to it since) was new around 1910.”
Nor did I help myself by mistakenly saying he’s Swedish. Finnish, rather.
And OK, I did admit I was exaggerating. But when I said that the Philharmonic — where Lindberg is now composer in residence — is thirty years behind in its approach to new music, I feel 100% vindicated by what Lindberg said at a Philharmonic concert last night.
Once again, the Philharmonic played Lindberg’s Expo, which they commissioned from him as a kind of musical celebration to kick off the new season — not to mention Alan Gilbert’s reign as the Philharmonic’s new music director — and premiered a couple of weeks ago at their opening gala. Last night I thought, as I thought at the opening, that the piece was weighed down by its debt to European modernism of all generations, so much so that it didn’t sound (to me) very celebratory.
Though certainly it’s well written, and there are terrific moments in it. But LIndberg also talked about the piece, and there I just rolled my eyes. Not that I mind a concert that starts with Gilbert and Lindberg coming out on stage together, to talk to the audience about the new work. The more of that the better, I say. Bravo to Gilbert for changing the rules. (And more about that in a later post.)
But what Lindberg said! Expo, God help us, has triads in it. Triads! And these, Lindberg said, were absolutely forbidden when he went to music school in the 1970s.(As they were at the Yale School of Music, when I studied composition there in the same era.) But now, at last, and evidently after much pondering, Lindberg feels he can write them, as long as he takes proper care to integrate them into his otherwise nontriadic compositional language.
I could say that his caveat — the care he needs to take with triads — sounds to me like the weight of his modernist background is bearing down hard on him.
But maybe I’m wrong, and anyway, that’s not what matters. Let’s think about triads. Lindberg, after maybe years of pondering, thinks he now dares to use them. But since his days in music school — and mine — more than a few composers beat him to it.
I’m not talking now of composers (Ned Rorem, Samuel Barber, Menotti, Bernstein, Carlisle Floyd, so many more) who’d always written triads, and never joined the modernist camp. I’m talking about composers with a genuine radical pedigree, who way back in the ’70s started clearing some new triadic paths.
George Rochberg, when I was in school, was a special inspiration, a former 12-tone composer who now wrote lush, tonal music (in his Third String Quartet, for instance), which sounded almost like Mahler. David Del Tredici blazed his own, somewhat similar (and certainly triadic) path.
Penderecki joined the new tonal camp some years later. And we’ve also had — writing triads, if not in every case full-fledged tonal scores — Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Golijov, Meredith Monk, Louis Andriessen, William Bolcom, John Corigliano, Gorecki, Schnittke. Arvo Pärt, such a long list. Plus names I’m surely blanking on. Charles Wuorinen, in his 12-tone fortress, has written triads. Reich, Glass, and Monk have been writing them for the entire length of Lindberg’s student and professional life.
More: when Lindberg and I were in music school, Britten and Shostakovich were writing triads. But at least where I was (the Yale School of Music) we never talked about them. It’s as if they were embarrassments. Great living composers who somehow wrote tonal music. Too good to dismiss, but embarrassing to praise. Better not to mention them. Now, of course, their music bothers very few people (Pierre Boulez, and who else?), and we accept them in the pantheon. Add them, then, to the composers using triads during Lindberg’s life in music.
Given all this, how can Lindberg come out on stage and talk about writing triads as if that’s something new? New for him, sure. And his history is just as valid as anyone else’s. But everyone else’s history doesn’t stop existing just because his own is different. He might more embracingly have said, “Look, when I was in music school, triads were forbidden. But since then, all kinds of composers started using them. I didn’t. Well, now I’ve started to, and here’s what I think about it.” What a breath of fresh air that would have been! No blame to him for not writing triads earlier. But at least he’d acknowledge the world he and the rest of us are living in.
By not doing that, he basically told us, “Hey, I’m living in a bubble.” And the Philharmonic, by choosing him as composer in residence, is living in that bubble, too, even if they’ve programmed Nico Muhly (who writes not just triads, but often a pop-music beat) on one of the upcoming concerts by their new contemporary music ensemble.
Maybe Lindberg feels that this triad thing is very American. Well, fine, and others have taken that view. But he’s in America now — and, even more, in New York, where a whole new generation of young composers is happily writing triads — and it’s simple courtesy to acknowledge what goes on here.
Besides, look again at my list of triad-using composers — Penderecki, Pärt, Schnittke, major European names. (Gorecki maybe not so much, because he wasn’t all that well known before the amazement of the Third Symphony, and he more or less dropped out of sight after his big success. Though he’d been using triads earlier. His Second Symphony, which no one seems to play, has, for me, a more triumphant use of triads than the Third.)
Or maybe Lindberg hates a lot of this non-modernist triadic stuff. Fine. That’s his right. But he could say so, in a considerate way, maybe like this: “Other composers, and I’m sure you know their names, have been using triads for decades. But I haven’t always found them convincing, because they seemed to move too far from the tradition I’m loyal to. I had to learn to use triads in my own way.” That, too, would have been lovely — honest, courteous, informative.
Bottom line — Lindberg should get out of his bubble. I’m not saying he’s a bad composer, or a bad guy. He strikes me as completely honest. And nobody, least of all me, should dare tell him what sort of music he should write.
But he just can’t come on stage and talk about new music as if — implicitly — his own modernist concerns are the only ones that really matter. Especially since the modernist composing community used to think and talk that way a lot. And in fact got the intellectual part of the classical music world talking as if the mainline of composition (after the 19th century) was atonal, running from Schoenberg to Boulez, and then to later modernists like Lindberg. Leaving out, of course, some of the most important composers of the time (Sibelius, Ravel, Puccini, Poulenc, Britten, Shostakovich, Steve Reich, so many more). As if these great names were mere outsides, not writing the music that really mattered.
We have to get out of this bubble. Not just Lindberg — and please, I’m beating up on him here not as a composer, but only as a musical figure, representing new classical music to the wider Philharmonic audience. So, yes, not just Lindberg, but the Philharmonic, too. Out of the bubble! On stage at Avery Fisher Hall last night, Lindberg, Alan Gilbert, and (because of them) the entire institution sounded nut just thirty years behind the times, but almost forty.
Enough of that. Time to wake up.