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What exactly does the term mean and what does it mean when applied to music? Which composers would be considered postmodern?

Where does the distinction lie between modernism and postmodernism? Is this in any way related to modern and contemporary? Where does modern end and contemporary begin? What does contemporary mean anyway? Is contemporary the same as postmodern?

And finally, is postmodern/contemporary related more to the style the composer is working in or to the time period the composer comes from? Would a composer of today still be classified as modern/contemporary even if they write in a very conservative style?

I have no intention of answering any of these questions. Now that is postmodernism.

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.

Karol Szymanowski’s early orientalism made his name – but his return to the music of his native Poland was an equal epiphany for him, writes Jim Samson in the Guardian:

There is much of interest and beauty in the later music. But the composer himself seemed aware of how much had been lost. He once remarked, in an oblique reference to the First Violin Concerto, whose inspiration was the poem May Night by Tadeusz Mycin´ski: “Our national music is not the stiffened ghost of the polonaise or mazurka … It is rather the solitary, joyful, carefree song of the nightingale in a fragrant May night in Poland.”

(Read the full article)

Szymanowski more or less went through the typical three periods in his music. His earliest period was greatly influenced by Richard Strauss and Max Reger, and his middle period added the influences of Claude Debussy, and Oriental idioms. The third and final period of Polish nationalism and modernism produced perhaps his finest works: both of his violin concerti, his two string quartets, his ballet Harnasie and his marvellous Stabat Mater. My favourite is his Symphony No. 4 “Symphonie Concertante” for piano and orchestra, which really gets the pulse going. The finale seems to be a foot-stompin’ cross between a mazurka and a bacchanale. Definitely music to turn the amplifiers up to eleven.

In September 1934, Szymanowski bitterly complained in a letter to his friend, Polish pianist Jan Smeterlin: “Polish officialdom (the Government) repeatedly refuses to recognize me. They do so only when I am needed for propaganda purposes, as it is impossible even for them to deny that among creative artists (not virtuosi) I alone (and not solely amongst composers but in other fields as well) have already acquired some reputation abroad. This is another story, which I will tell you another time. The fact is that they care nothing for me here, and that I could die without anyone lifting a finger. My funeral will be another story. I am convinced it will be splendid. People here love the funeral processions of great men. I see no reason why I should be silent about the scandalous conditions to which I am subjected. You can tell the world about it. I have tried everything I can and there seems to be no response.”

Szymanowski was right. Arthur Rubinstein wrote in his autobiography My Many Years: “When he was no more, the authorities trumpeted pompously the loss of their great son. They prepared a Warsaw funeral with an unheard-of mass of publicity. A hundred thousand people were massed to watch the funeral. A special train transported his body, accompanied by ministers and the family, to Cracow for the grand burial at the church at Skalla, where only the greatest of the nation were allowed to lie. They put on the catafalque the insignia of the Grand Cross of the Polish Restituta, the nation’s highest honour. What a bitter irony! For years they had made my dear Karol suffer through their meanness and now they were willing to spend a fortune on this big show.”

Szymanowski Focus, curated by Piotr Anderszewski, is at the Wigmore Hall, London on 5 and 7 May.

Black Dogs Defined

This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved and hated, like another: my life was as the vapour and is not; but this I saw and knew; this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.

(John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies)

Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not.

(Alan Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning)

This is my letter to the world, that never wrote to me.

(Emily Dickinson, This is my letter to the world)

Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!

(Edna St. Vincent Millay, Second Fig)

R.A.D. Stainforth

I was born before The Beatles’ first LP and brought up in the reeking slums of Jericho. I am in love with a woman called Hazel and in love with her daughter, also called Hazel, both of whom I met at Alcoholics Anonymous.

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