Wednesday, August 24, 2005
Voices in the Wilderness?
Since 1945 or so, vocal music was largely eschewed in academic compositional circles, as was much of lyric and tonal music in general. Yet despite the trend, much has been written, and survived as the pendulum invariably swings. Vocal music is becoming increasingly popular again, and there are good things to be found in all streams of musical thought. In fact, I would theorize that vocal music, even more than instrumental, is where much of the evolution of music actually takes place.
So Iím a bit surprised by the concerns about singers, their training, etc. My own ensemble, AguavŠ New Music Studio, more or less routinely performs music requiring operatic singing, jazz singing, rock singing, amplification, microtonal singing, electronic processing, and just about everything else in between. Weíve premiered operas, cantatas, masses, motets, and just about everything else, requiring all sorts of extended techniques. It makes us hard to catagorize, but our training is essentially classical. Several of our number have performed early music, played in jazz or rock bands, and other genres as well.
Yet we have been something of an anomaly: a vocal group interested in mostly, in fact exclusively, new music. We concentrate on music where the ink is still wet, or at least on paper only since the latter half or the 20th century. Iím exceptionally lucky to have a captive vocal/instrumental ďbandĒ to perform and record my own works at such a high level.
And I must say that our singers are special: monster technique coupled with great musicianship and intelligence, and a willingness to try something new. Oh yeah, it helps that about 50 to 80 percent of them (we change personnel and forces according to each project) have perfect pitch.
So, while I acknowledge that Iím exceptionally blessed, I disagree with those who lament that singers wonít do new music. Vocal music is more vibrant than itís been in the last 50 years, and there are all sorts of singers, choruses, and ensembles that are willing to perform new works that are well written.
And after glancing over a respected colleagueís blog, I must also disagree with those holding a deathwatch over classical music. Itís not dying, but it will certainly change. Culture is, by definition, about time frames and geography, about fragmentations and fusions, or clashes and marriages. Classical music wonít die, but it will incorporate other ideas, other styles, and other methods.
We (living) composers have a larger audience now, in terms of numbers, if not percentages, than ever before. There is support for our work. There are great performers and ensembles that specialize in or at least occasionally program new music. These are exciting and wonderful times for composers who arenít dead yet.
One final thought, and Iíll get off the soapbox: The old guard will do what it does best, and will pass away when their age and culture passes. It took me awhile to get it through my head that these old paradigms and infrastructures are not there to support my work: They are there to support their own and do what they do best. St. Paul Sunday and Performance Today rarely offer anything outside the common practice period. Most big romantic orchestras donít program unknown new works. Great romantic pianists donít step outside of the golden age of keyboard music.
Even Josh Bell, a great player and a great proponent of new music, knows his bread and butter consists of Tchaikovsky.
But the wise musician does not live by bread alone.