Notes From a Composer

by Stefania de Kenessey

To Say that I am a composer of contemporary classical music is to admit that, like the snail darter or the northern spotted owl, I belong to an endangered species.

The Music of the Past
Nowadays, classical music means, almost by definition, music of the past. Our concert halls function like museums, preserving masterpieces of the last three centuries—Bach and Handel, Mozart and Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner. The names of these prodigiously talented, dead white European males form a familiar and unchanging litany; of the music written since 1900, we hear very little, if any. Indeed, the most exciting innovation in repertoire has come from the least likely source: from historically correct,” authentic” performances in which modern instruments are replaced by replicas of their forerunners, injecting new life into old pieces.

Genuinely new music appears infrequently and under only two circumstances: when the conductor or star performer is personally dedicated to furthering the cause of contemporary music and/or when corporate or governmental agencies have given their financial support to new music, often by establishing composer residencies. There seems to be no popular, public demand for new music, and a glance at any concert program reveals that the twentieth-century pieces is safely tucked away between the opening work and the main attraction—which comes only after intermission.

What is Music?
Given this state of affairs, one might very well ask: why write new music at all?

For me, the answer is (at least partly) simple. Even as a child, I was haunted by the beautiful, mysterious, unfamiliar music I used to hear in my head. As soon as I realized that these ghostly possibilities could be captured and made real, I knew that I would become a composer: the excitement, the pleasure, the emotional and intellectual challenge made the task irresistible. Inevitably, the youthful urge to write music grew into an obsession, a compulsion—the work of a lifetime.

The musical imagination, the capacity to hear sounds as yet unheard, is notoriously difficult to describe with any specificity. To me, the creative spirit sometimes seems to be no more than an empty vessel into which silent music is being poured by an unseen hand; and no less a master than Beethoven, when asked for the sources of his ideas, replied simply: “They come to me unsummoned.”

Music is, of course, radically different from the other arts and, perhaps for that reason alone, seemingly the most mysterious. Dependent on performance, it is ephemeral, vanishing into silence with the playing of the last note. Unlike painting, it is not a physical object that can be held or owned; unlike poetry or other literature, its representation in the notated score is but a mute reminder of past and future possibilities. Yet it can linger in the memory with disturbing persistence, over conversation, dinner, even a good book. Indeed, the listening experience can have such a powerful impact on our moods and thoughts that Plato felt obliged to ban almost all music from his republic.

Is Music Math?
In the attempt to understand music as an art form, much has been made of its connection to mathematics. But anyone who has entrusted a composer with dividing up a restaurant bill knows that numerical agility is by no means a talent shared by all the musically gifted. Beethoven began his morning ritual by laboriously counting beans of coffee, one by one, and declared that he was “really a poor businessman and arithmetician.”

Nonetheless, music—like mathematics—is an abstract, nonverbal form of thought that uses its own symbols and makes no overt reference to the outside world. It is precisely this quality of abstraction that has made music so attractive to artists in the twentieth century: Kandinsky and Klee, Joyce and Eliot (among many others) admired music for its purity, seeing it as form divorced from substance, structure unencumbered by meaning. In an age that sought to redefine painting in terms of color and shape alone, and that questioned the communicative capacity of language, music became the medium to emulate.

But modern music—unlike modern painting, architecture, or literature—has never gained acceptance with the general public for a complicated set of reasons. From the listener’s point of view, the central problem is relatively simple: most twentieth-century pieces sound harsh and ugly. Early on, Arnold Schoenberg articulated the new aesthetic more formally as “the emancipation of the dissonance:” whereas music of the past was predominantly pleasing in its harmonies, contemporary pieces would give equal weight to discordant sonorities.

What, Then, Is It?
From there, it was but a short step to Igor Stravinsky’s assessment.

I consider that music, by its very nature, is essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc….Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence. If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality….The phenomenon of music is given to us with the sole purpose of establishing an order in things, including particularly the coordination between man and time. To be put into practice, its indispensable and single requirement is construction.

In other words, music in the twentieth century was seen by its greatest practitioners as nothing more than an intellectual construct, an edifice of ordered sound.

The shift of perspective is readily seen in dictionary definitions of music. The first edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary, published in 1911, describes music as the “art of combining sounds with a view to beauty of form and expression of emotion,” whereas the 1974 Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary proclaims that music is “the science or art of ordering tones or sounds in succession, in combination and in temporal relationships to produce a composition having unity and continuity.” Note that “science” now precedes “art,” that “beauty of form” yields to “unity,” that “expresio of emotion” is supplanted by “continuity.”

The Failure of Modern Music
Measured in terms of popular appeal, this modern conception of music has failed. For the better part of the century, composers have argued that it was only a matter of time until listeners grew accustomed to a newly dissonant musical language and learned to appreciate the inherent value of complex sound structures; they have seen themselves as part of the avant garde, relentlessly expanding the frontiers of artistic activity. New that almost seventy-five years have passed, however, this argument no longer satisfies. Audiences, it is true, are no longer enraged by contemporary music. Worse, they are indifferent to it. And members of what was once the “avant garde” are securely ensconced in tenured faculty appointments and on the boards of grant-giving agencies.

Undoubtedly, all this has only sharpened the problematic distinction between “classical” and “popular” modern music. The former tends to be fiercely intellectual, dissonant, appreciated by a small circle of cognoscenti; the latter remains unabashedly emotional, consonant, targeted at a mass audience—and the rift between the two has grown increasingly wide.

As the century now draws to a close, modern classical music finds itself in turmoil. Since it is no longer reasonable to hope that the concert-going public will learn to love it, composers are understandably concerned about their future. The younger generation, in particular, has lost its faith in established procedures and is busy experimenting with alternative approaches.

Three Kinds of Modern Music
Their search for a new musical aesthetic may seem eclectic, even confusing. Nonetheless, at least three independent “schools” of postmodernism can be discerned:

One of these is minimalism, which builds from the repettion and layering of small melodic or rhythmic units. Growing out of the counterculture of the 1960s and influenced by Eastern music and philosophy, it is also referred to as “process” or “phase” music.

A second school is Neo-Romanticism, which returns with a vengeance to the overripe, luxuriantly emotional world of late nineteenth-century music.

The third, for lack of a better term, is the “pastiche” style, currently the most successful of the three. This approach deliberately draws on a full array of musical idioms, incorporating everything from blues to Beethoven and Bartók within large-scale works.

All of these, of course, coexist with the older, more established methods of composition such as the twelve-tone system of Schoenberg and the aleatoric (random) processes of John Cage.

The contest among these styles seems almost like a babel of languages, and the simple question “What next?” becomes anything but simple to answer.

My own reply, personal and therefore idiosyncratic, is to write music that at first glance might seem outrageously old-fashioned. Like much music of the past, it features lyrical tunes, pleasing harmonies, and recognizable forms. On closer examination, however, it offers some striking departures from traditional musical practices. Specifically, it is embedded in a modal melodic and harmonic language that is derived from an old collection of sources, including medieval and Renaissance polyphony, Eastern European folk song, and American popular music. It uses these modalities not for “exotic” color but as a functional musical grammar akin to conventional classical tonality, giving familiar sounds an unexpected twist.

My music thus offers a synthesis of the old and the new, the homegrown and the foreign. Inspired by the achievements of the European classical repertoire, it aims for the hearts and minds of contemporary American audiences; although it is built with sufficient complexity to encourage repeated listening it nonetheless aims to be readily comprehensible and enjoyable.

Saving the Endangered Species
To put it in more philosophical terms, I reject the modern conception of music—but without simply returning to the past. I try to negotiate a middle course between overheated Romanticism of the nineteenth century and the scientific positivism of our own. In my opinion, neither viewpoint suffices. The former stresses the expressive potential of music, and the latter celebrates its intellectual capacity, but the magical capacity of music resides in its ability to arouse both feeling and though, in equal measure.

The twentieth century may have reached the end of one road, but it also stands at the beginning of a new one. In spite of all the current confusion about which direction to take, this is an era of enormous opportunity, a chance to learn from the past and chart a new course for the future. The possibilities are both daunting and exciting. With a little protection and care, the classical composer may yet thrive, like his or her endangered cousins in the animal kingdom.