In With the Old...

Iannis Xenakis, composer of fresh choral sounds

In With the Old...

The future of the orchestra is in composers’ hands

In the last issue of this journal, Paul Hillier found the world of choral music in crisis. He argued that choral music currently finds itself sidelined inside the musical profession. Historically, he pointed out, the choir was to be found in all kinds of great works, with and without other instruments, while nowadays composers are more likely to regard choral music as a curious sub-genre. There is a deal of truth in this; and the cri de coeur that goes with it – asking composers to please help to change that – is also quite right. He also brings out the question of contemporary social relevance as the engine of truly relevant artistic expression: clearly the choir at one time existed within the church and therefore at the heart of society’s search for meaning; in today’s society it risks adopting a role more akin to a museum exhibit.

He is right to point out that composers are central to keeping alive this type of music-making. What this writer has noticed is that in countries with very strong choral traditions (notably the Nordic countries, among others) a lot of technically flashy and ‘fun’ new choral music is presented, which, heard one piece at a time, is diverting and encouraging to all. However, put a programme of these new pieces together and the artistic hollowness begins to weigh you down – about half-way through the second piece. Alternatively, one also hears new choral pieces that are extremely grave and religious, often in a minimal style: these can seem oddly self-regarding, and proselytising on the part of the composer, in the secular context in which they are most often heard. These issues might appear to stem from flight from the cultural clutter that the sound of the choir has picked up over a long and glorious history, but they really only stem from the composer’s own hang-ups and perceptions of that baggage. A really great composer will make the choral sound just as fresh as any other resource: examples from Ligeti, Xenakis and Aperghis surely evince this point. Yes, the choir cannot perform in the same league of virtuosity of pitch and rhythm as many instruments, but this merely makes effective writing harder, not impossible.

These problems extend to other standard forces: many current composers would find that the symphony orchestra brings comparable limitations and baggage. The main limitation is that you have sixty-plus people trying to co-ordinate a possibly complex style of material with just hours of rehearsal from start to finish. Many composers either refuse to write for orchestra or else adopt a simpler style than when writing for smaller forces. Conversely, there are composers who specialise exclusively in orchestral music, generally of a conservative cast. A majority of living composers get so few opportunities to write for orchestra that it more or less suits them to behave as if the orchestra is another museum-piece of no contemporary relevance. And so orchestral writing is, sadly, heading towards becoming another curiosity sub-genre. If one looks at the output of the average composer, it is completely dominated by works for medium to small non-standard chamber groupings, sometimes with electronics. But that is not to say that the average composer wants to see a decline in orchestral writing opportunities; it is the expense of running orchestras plus the public taste that dictates that there are few opportunities for new pieces. One might imagine that this would simply lead to a situation where the very best composers get the few pickings, and the repertoire would be renewed with a steady trickle of masterpieces. However, the evidence seems to point to a real decline. If one takes the issue of craftsmanship as an indicator, at any rate, the golden age of effective and imaginative use of orchestral colour seems to be in the past with Stravinsky, Mahler and Berg (among others). There are two obvious reasons for this: firstly, modern orchestras tend to be smaller, offering fewer colours in the palette, and secondly, composers get out of practice (or never truly get into it) from the infrequency with which they use this resource.

You can see where all this takes us, and many instrumental line-ups are fast going the same way. Concert-band music has been a sub-genre since its inception, while solo guitar music, percussion music, and organ music are three more that end up in that state from time to time depending on who is writing, curating, commissioning or performing. Piano repertoire is also skewed by a golden past: the industry surrounding the teaching and competitive assessing of pianists, which grows from the weight and richness of the nineteenth-century repertoire, has ultimately created a high wall between most pianists and composers. The pianists that composers actually work with are mostly specialists in new music or at any rate enlightened enough to see the oddness of the aforementioned industry, in which they will have worked at some stage in their past. They also tend to be the most technically advanced and artistically aware pianists around.

Some might say that the original and provocative composers have already left most standard groupings behind in the museum of professionally reproduced Western culture. They are striding ahead in a brave new world (more or less predicted by Varèse in the 1940s) where dedicated musician-refusniks and amateurs with machines continue to fruitfully hybridise the next generation of meaningful sounds. But that hot ghetto image is itself by now something of an exhibit in the same museum; and besides, apart from the computers, what new instruments have we got and where do you learn to play them? It’s not so easy to decouple from conservatory culture, and not so desirable, ultimately. Far better to protest loudly for the artistic re-awakening of that culture.

The solution to all this seems to be suggested in Paul Hillier’s article: it is up to all artists, whether singers, musicians or composers, to figure out what they are about in terms of artistic (and societal) purpose and vision. Composers especially need to find an anchor within themselves that allows them to strive, in Hillier’s words, ‘to shape the language of contemporary music’ with whatever set of forces becomes available to them. Unless they are happy merely to scribble graffiti on the museum wall….

Published on 1 August 2009

John McLachlan is a composer and member of Aosdána.

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