A piece of music resembles in some respects a photograph album, displaying under changing circumstances the life of its basic idea – its basic motive.

(Arnold Schoenberg, Fundamentals of Musical Composition)

Here are some questions thrown at me by my young friend Melissa:

I think that many composers try to compose music that specifically and intentionally sounds “modern”. I wonder why they choose to do so. Isn’t it better to write music without trying to make it sound modern? What happened to purity of music and composition? Are they trying to copy the famous modern composers? Is it because they are incapable of finding their own distinctive style? Their music would be considered more “important” or “serious” because it sounds modern?

There could be many reasons but none of them seem convincing …

What would be the use of trying to sound like the old masters? Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, etc., have already done their work far better than most could ever emulate. Therefore the only options for serious musicians are to strike out in new directions or to find another set of musical tools: Oriental or other Asian scales, African-influenced polyrhythms, asymmetric rhythms such as you find in Bulgaria, and so on. (I have yet to hear a composer successfully combine Native American and classical idioms, although I have heard of one in the early 20th century, not one I had ever heard of before.) Such music may offend a few new music diehards but it will secure future audiences who love not mere novelty, but music that is different than others have done, music that breaks old moulds and creates new ones.

I think it was Lutoslawski who said “I try to write the music that I’d like to hear”. For the most part, that’s what composers are doing.

Of course, if you’re a composer in the 21st century, you have a huge range of potential influences which will inflect your musical preferences and style. It’s hardly surprising if some of them are “modern” in nature. Some of them also aren’t, even for “modern” composers: I find it impossible to conceive of Carter finding his late style without Mozart and Haydn – they’re such a massive influence on it.

Speaking as a composer I can only say that I don’t try to make my music sound like anything other than what I want it to sound like. I don’t know any composers who would say otherwise.

The music a composer writes is simply the sum of all the music he’s ever listened to and enjoyed, hopefully with enough original ideas thrown in to give the resulting mix a distinctive stamp. So if I happen to enjoy modern music, I’m going to have to practice a lot of self-censorship to keep it out of the music I write.

I would add that even the music I don’t enjoy makes a contribution. This would make a good compositional exercise, and I can think of a few composers who ought to try it: take some piece of music that you don’t like. It doesn’t even have to be a modern piece, maybe Wagner or Schubert for instance. It just has to be something that you know a lot of musicians greatly admire but you don’t. Try to copy that music and change whatever it is about that music that you don’t like; make it so that some essential part of it is still there, but altered in such a way that it suits your temperament, altered in such a way that you can call it your own.

For instance, recently I found myself composing something with the spare textures of post-Webern serialism. Well, I hate post-Webern serialism, but somehow what I was writing called for that sound, so the task was to see how to achieve it and still own up to it as my music. I was pleased that the resulting music sounded so much like what I think of as “me” even though a listener will definitely say “R.A.D. you’ve been taking your Webern pills again”.

Miles Davis once said the only reason to write new music was to that you were dissatisfied with what currently exists. There is no possible artistic reason to write music today in the style of Mendelssohn or Brahms or Schoenberg. We already have Mendelssohn, Brahms & Schoenberg. A composer today has to meaningfully address the question of what it means to write new music in this tradition in 2010. The answer is not to throw out the last 100 years of composition (and “atonal” music is now that old). Composers must both acknowledge the tradition they inherit and not be bound by it. This is an increasingly difficult task for each generation of composers, as they have to digest and adapt to all that has come before them.

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