Glass Houses

There’s plenty of blame to go around.

The decline of education in America, for one thing, and especially of liberal arts education at the university level, has left young musicians, and especially young composers, short of technical skills. Even before the decline began in the 1970s, the academic music scene was over-invested in serialism and other highly intellectual trends, often to the detriment of anything resembling beauty or human expressiveness.

And then dance music came along, with its incessant four-on-the-floor beat, its hypnotic repetition of simple riffs, its utter disdain for concise or compelling utterance. Even before dance music took off, the vitality of pop music was being undermined by the drum machine, which excelled at repeating simple one-measure patterns. Sampled drum loops were only a few years in the future.

The throw-away consumer culture hasn’t helped. Rather than buy and cherish something valuable, we’ve been trained by the merchant titans of corporate capitalism to buy things that are disposable. Buy it, use it once, and enjoy the fact that it’s brand new. Then, throw it away.

The shift from books to television has reduced our attention span to such tiny granules that many people are no longer able to put together a coherent series of thoughts. The momentary sensation of excitement, eternally renewed, is all that remains of our aptitude for perception.

Or maybe we ought to blame Philip Glass. Glass has been enormously successful, and his success has been based largely on the idea that if you repeat a banal idea often enough, people will come to believe you’re saying something profound.

For whatever reason, young composers — and I’m thinking here specifically of young (and not so young) composers who use synthesizers and other electronic instruments — seem to have lost sight of the idea that music, if it’s to be worth listening to, ought at least to attempt to say something.

We have been bequeathed, by the traditions of the past 300 years, a melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic language of stunning complexity and suppleness. It is a language in which Shakespeare, were he a composer rather than a poet, could have composed sonnets.

And yet those who are creating new music today don’t even try to speak the language. They babble like three-year-olds, at inordinate length but to no purpose.

Pretty sounds are not enough. Nor, I should point out for the benefit of those who like to wallow in atonal, arhythmic free improvisation, is unbridled spontaneity. Free improvisation is a naked admission of intellectual bankruptcy.

To be fair, the sound design tools have gotten so good that it’s always a temptation just to lay your hands down on the keyboard, hold a few notes, and let the sensations wash over you. Beethoven didn’t have that option, because the instruments at his disposal had only a few fixed, inflexible timbres. In order to keep audiences interested, he had to put the notes themselves together in fresh and compelling ways.

Music has (or ought to have) syntax. It has (or ought to have) semantics. Structured phrases. Formal coherence. A piece of music ought to convey something surprising and true through its thoughtful deployment of pitch and rhythm. From Monteverdi through Shostakovich, composers have understood this.

If you write (using the term “write” loosely) a piece of music that’s five minutes long, or ten minutes, and consists entirely of a droning repetition of a simple rhythm in 4/4 time, with no harmonic movement whatever and only occasional shifts of timbre to give listeners the impression that you haven’t fallen asleep at the switch, you’re not a composer. You’re a drooling nincompoop.

Fortunately for you, most of the people in the audience won’t be able to tell the difference.

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