by David Bruce
One of the more interesting things a member of the much-derided profession of music critic can attempt, is to draw together and summarize the various trends in new work that are emerging. With the first decade of the new millennium solidly behind us, now seems to be a time that critics on both sides of the Atlantic are doing just that. I'm thinking in particular of Guardian-writer Tom Service's Aberdeen lecture from October last year, re-published online here: http://www.sound-scotland.co.uk/site/2010/diary/10_23@1400_transcript.htm and Justin Davidsen's article in New York Magazine a couple of days ago on the 'new New York scene' http://nymag.com/arts/classicaldance/classical/reviews/new-composers-davidson-review-2011-3/
It's interesting that both offer quite negative appraisals of their respective new music scenes. Service attacks the climate of 'fear' in British contemporary music. He summarises two of the dominant trends as
1) 'new complexity' of the kind originated by Brian Ferneyhough, James Dillon, and Michael Finnissy
2) The 'decorative modernism' of Faber school composers like Oliver Knussen, Colin Matthews, George Benjamin, and Julian Anderson
Service describes the fear of tonal reference prevalent within the latter school, along with a " terror…of dislocation or rupture". For the former 'new complexity' school he perceives the fear to be one of ever appearing to be "part of any perceived mainstream, which means, in musical terms, refusing (so-called) conventional modes of expression tonal chords, repeated rhythms, anything that smacks of the superficially 'pleasant' – in favour of a blasted musical landscape of supposed violence, rupture, and dislocation."
Whatever one thinks of the music Service is criticising, it is the musty, cliquey worlds of contemporary performance which -rightly I think- most dishearten him. We all know the scene he describes in his opening paragraphs of the inward-looking contemporary concert, which serves no useful purpose to composer, public or musician - it is an anthropological oddity in the extreme.
Service looks to the younger generation for hope and inspiration - a generation free from fear, and open to the world both in terms of the music that inspires them and in their choice of venue. He mentions both Camberwell Composers Collective and Gabriel Prokofiev's Nonclassical nights as examples of this new direction in the UK, and interestingly, looks to New York's post-minimalist downtown scene for further reasons for optimism.
And yet it's this very New York scene which comes in for a heavy dose of home truths in the Justin Davidson article. The composers Davidson mentions - people like Missy Mazzoli, Judd Greenstein and Nico Muhly, all have many of the features Service admires- they are entrepreneurial in spirit, setting up their own groups, record-labels and more . They are also 'unafraid' in that, as a 'YouTube generation', they draw their influences from an eclectic range of sources. And yet, Davidson says, the group seems, "disoriented by its own open-mindedness" - and their music "somehow feels stifled by all that freedom."
I enjoyed the polemical positions both articles take - such strong statements of belief seem increasingly rare. In the age of the 'description-only review', we should cherish the fact that two critics have themselves abandoned their fears and spoken their minds. The two articles seem to address both the outward perception of our music and our own inward self-perception as composers. Both point out the problems of belonging to a school or scene - even though I'm sure every last one of the composers mentioned thinks of themselves as being outsiders/mavericks to their respective scenes (don't we all?). But both articles also point out the challenge of being a creative artist, and taken together, they offer us a useful mantra- be free from fear, but don't let that freedom turn you soft.
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