“It is impossible to say just what I mean!”
—T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
There are too many strands in the post-WWII Western art music tradition to track, and certainly no way to make a supportable claim that any one predominates over the others, much less indicates a leading direction into the future. Big new music events, like the annual TIME:SPANS festival (presented by the Earle Brown Music Foundation Charitable Trust) here in New York City, and the biennial Ostrava Days in the Czech city of Ostrava, can give only a sampling of what composers are thinking and musicians are exploring. This past August, TIME:SPANS combined last year’s postponed programming with a new 2021 schedule and presented 11 concerts. That number of evenings dedicated to music from the first or second Viennese Schools would be definitive, but near a quarter way into the 21st century, a listener is barely getting a partial survey of what’s happening on the contemporary scene.
Still, there’s enough music of the last 40–50 years to identify an important division in, and the curious state of, composing in the English-speaking world. The curiosity is the ongoing phenomenon of styles and ideas being recycled in a manner and at a pace much more familiar from the world of popular music, something that is, right now, very much ahistorical in the 500-plus-year tradition of this music. This reinforces that clarity of the way new music often sorts itself into two main categories, that of music about something and music about nothing. Music about something has a program behind it, anything from a narrative to an emotional state to a philosophical argument, and the sounds are meant to impress this upon the listener. Music about nothing is music that fits sounds together in time, building an abstract structure of sensations. What it might mean is up to the listener.
This division goes back to the split between Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Their differences over harmony and tonality obscure that the fundamental dichotomy between the two was not about theory or abstract principles but about taste: Schoenberg was deep in the German Romantic tradition, and his atonality strived, still, to communicate concrete, quasi-literary ideas, while Stravinsky famously said music was, “by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood.”
Neither way is inherently right or wrong, better than the other, composers must find and, most importantly, recognize that which works best for them. John Cage’s breakthrough into systematizing the means to remove expression from composing and performance began as what he, a former student of Schoenberg’s, felt was his need to communicate a “psychological mood” to listeners through his vocal work, Four Walls (1944). Realizing that no one was getting what he was trying to tell them, he found a new path.
TIME:SPANS put the juxtaposition between expression and abstraction in clear focus. This was not a question of style, but of content, of the purpose behind the notes. The most abstract-sounding work across all the concerts was Zosha Di Castri’s Tachitopo, played by Yarn/Wire on August 24. The title came from a brand of early typewriter, and Di Castri was clear in her program note that the piece was about the status of young women in Western socio-economic patriarchy. The stylistic abstraction of the music was perhaps not intentional—the piece was a confused, disorganized scatter of unrelated music statements that clearly didn’t mean to be a narrative idea, but also didn’t amount to a mosaic, or even an impression of randomness or chaos to create a meaningful effect. The final gesture, the ensemble’s two percussionists pushing the two pianists, who were tapping away at toy typewriters, around on carts, cemented the impression of a piece that was insulting, that from a position of assumed authority and enlightenment condescended to the listener to accept its puerile theatrics and lazy structure as meaningful and important. Di Castri made it impossible to see what she meant, or even if she meant anything at all.
Another highly abstract work, Tyshawn Sorey’s For George Lewis, turned out to not only be the single most satisfying experience of the festival but also intensely expressive, all from following the Stravinskyian path of fitting notes together in time. With Sorey, that path is more specifically the one that Morton Feldman blazed. Sorey has been the finest exemplar of Feldman’s values, which often come across as quiet, long duration, and repetition, but start with the idea of discrete musical ideas, written out with exactitude, that shift and blend across time with a microscopic quickness and a macroscopic slowness. Like Feldman’s great, mature period, For George Lewis was like an array of lily pads, slowly rearranging themselves on the surface of a gentle pond, before an extended coda introduced a conventionally formed, and lovely, musical phrase. The sonic gorgeousness of the piece, played by Alarm Will Sound on August 29 to close the festival, and the way it just sounded in space without proclaiming an intention, rather than marking linear time with rhythms and discernible bar lines and set phrase lengths and insinuating a particular emotional response, was deeply expressive. As an offering in honor of George Lewis, the music revealed Sorey’s values and state of mind.
The festival unfolded this way, with concerts of music that was meant to be about specific things, and those with music that was about nothing, but about which the listener felt all sorts of things (Stravinsky was being typically coy, tacitly admitting that notes and sounds coming together could be perceived to be about a great many things). The best experiences all shared a common sense that the composers were being both clear and, more importantly, sincere about their purpose, that they not only meant what they said but did their absolute best to say it the way they meant it.
The string quartet JACK played two different concerts with music from both sides of the expressive divide, and one was able to hear exactly what the composers meant. Amy Williams’s Urquintett, with soprano Tony Arnold, and Jason Eckardt’s Passage were honest and worked on their own terms, and pieces from inti-figgis vizueta, Brittany J. Green, and Olivia Shortt were almost ballad-like in their relationship to narrative and psychological ideas. It was not possible to hear the reflection of “the multiple temporalities experienced … by displaced, erased, and structurally excluded peoples” in vizueta’s mayu (the great river), and Eduardo Aguilar’s HYPER in no way lived up to the massive hype of his program note, but it was clear they meant what they said, the gap in these pieces being between how they reached the listener.
Passage was one of the high points of the festival, as were Catherine Lamb’s parallaxis forma, played by Talea Ensemble, and Andrew Macintosh’s Little Jimmy, performed by Yarn/Wire on the concert of August 24. These pieces were all very different—Eckardt used intense, challenging, abrading sonics and lighting to enhance certain musical effects; Lamb places long notes and timbres against each other, waiting to see what marvels were produced; Macintosh set the sonic stage with field recordings of Mt. Islip and filled it with granitic and lyrical musical statements—but they all worked in a way that both outlined and ignored the different categories of expressive and abstract music. Eckardt’s was specifically programmatic, meant to express some impression of torture via sensory deprivation and overstimulation, as well as the sensation of resolving those experiences, but his language eschews any kind of monophony or familiar drama. He produces sensations that are gripping and driven by a clear moral sense. The sound is abstract but the feeling that something urgent is going on is clear. He starts in expression but resolves in abstraction.
Lamb and Macintosh came from the opposite direction and met Eckardt in the same place. Their music is about assembling sounds in time, but their world is the one that Stravinsky created, not Cage. Each composer has some internal idea of the value of certain sounds, an inclination towards music that they find most beautiful and affecting, and they put together works that share those values with the listener. Their music was indeed full of substantial beauty, but mainly it was full of the substance of their artistic selves. Composers have to learn how to put their ideas on paper in such a way that musicians can pick up those scores and play them and they sound the way the composer imagined. Beyond that, they have to know themselves and the world around them enough to discern if the sound they imagine is the one they mean, if they are being sincere about themselves to the audience, if they mean what it is they want to say. It may be a story, it may be a sound, but contemporary art music is a place where composers can always tell the truth, and it will work as long as they say what they mean.