A very interesting article by Alex Temple on NewMusicBox.org (and the vigorous discussion that follows it) deals with the questions surrounding “borrowed” musical materials. The point is made pretty early on that all musical materials are borrowed, particularly at this late date. Whether you’re writing European modernist music or neotonal music, or just plain tonal music, or borrowing from a non-European musical culture, or pop music, someone else used those vocabularies first. The frenzied quest for the creation of a completely personal idiom seems to have been largely abandoned, and no wonder—it’s like looking for undiscovered territory in Manhattan. There actually are a couple of spots in Central Park from which you can’t see buildings, at least in the summer when the trees have leaves, but there are still gum wrappers on the ground. Someone has been there first. It’s the combination of influences and materials that makes the individual voice these days.
This article was fresh in my mind when I went this afternoon to a concert by Max Lifschitz’s highly esteemed group North/South Consonance. It included a couple of tonal works by young composers. The vocabularies used were extremely familiar, and, frankly, the pieces were not very interesting. The first on the concert was by a composer for whom the use of tonal materials was apparently a major departure, and it reminded me forcibly of the type of piano pieces I used to write when I was in high school; the same chord progressions, the same innately repetitive and overly repeated theme. The second sounded like an excerpt from a film score—I’m sure someone more versed in film music than I could have pinpointed the influences. (The two other pieces on the concert, both more dissonant and by older composers, were much more successful.)
Neither of the tonal pieces made use of the full textural palette of the instrumental forces playing them. Neither of them had much in the way of surprise. It made me wonder if the use of too-familiar materials makes it more difficult to engage the audience, in that the balance between recognition and surprise so central to the experience of music is skewed as soon as the piece starts. Of course, we’re engaged by familiar materials when we hear a piece of 18th- or 19th-century music we haven’t heard before, so perhaps there are questions of authenticity in play here as well. But it’s as though these composers, having decided to write music in tonal vocabularies, thought that that would take care of making their pieces fun to listen to. Unfortunately, if you’re going to write tonal music, you need to find some other way to surprise your audience other than with your harmonic materials.
I’m not attempting to be prescriptivist here; I draw from familiar tonal vocabularies a lot. Seventeen Windows, my suite of short piano pieces (available, ahem, on CD or for download from Albany Records), does it often quite consciously; Window XI is marked “Rock and Roll!” as the tempo marking, and the opening rhythm was stolen from a Queen song. Windows V and XV are both based on my memories of playing Chopin as a kid. Window XIV is a tribute to big band jazz. My piece for string orchestra and soprano, Deep Woods: The Unicorn Sings to Memory (on a text by Peter S. Beagle), is as tonal as it gets.
While I’m a big fan of the crumbling of the hegemony of dissonance and “difficult” idioms in concert music, I think it may even be harder to write a good, interesting, memorable 21st-century tonal piece than it is to write a dissonant one. If nothing else, there are far more cliches to steer clear of.