Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!
It’s “interesting” but is it "good"*?
Something one often hears in the field of contemporary classical composition (and other art forms, I’m sure) is the label “interesting”. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been at concerts of contemporary classical music and afterwards heard the audience talking about how “interesting” such-and-such a piece was, always avoiding making an actual judgement call on whether they thought the piece was good or bad, or even whether or not they liked it. Generally speaking, I find with pieces of music of this type that appreciation of the music is dependant upon having read a programme note, or having had the composer explain his or her concept of the piece or process of composition. I often wonder if the audience members would have found the piece “interesting” if they had only been able to listen to it, and not know anything else about the piece other than what it sounds like. I often suspect that the answer would be no.
For a number of years, the trajectory of contemporary classical music has tended towards music composed by process – music generated by algorithms or programmes; music generated by chance; music generated on the spot according to pre-defined rules which the performer must follow. These processes are often very interesting, and often produce a very interesting sonic effect, but is it good music? Occasionally, an extra-musical element is thrust upon the audience to varying effect: concerts in complete darkness, or blindfolded, or where the performers are seated among the audience. Sometimes I wonder if perhaps some of this type of music would be better labelled theatre, or even philosophy, as the reason given is usually that the performers/composers are confronting or challenging the audience’s pre-conceived notions of what a performance is. This is all well and good, and is often done to great effect (as in Kirkos ensemble’s recent Blackout series) but I think that what composers, performers and audience members alike must continually ask themselves and each other is “concept aside, is the music good?”
In other cases, the audience and performers is presented with modern programmatic music. Very often, this is music that is compelling to the audience, enjoyable to perform, by all generally accepted conventions “good”. However, when the programmatic element is revealed, the piece is raised to another level altogether, wherein musical moments which were previously simply compelling take on a clarity and brilliance. I was lucky enough in 2014 to perform in such a work. As part of the Cork Choral Festival, Chamber Choir Ireland had commissioned a work from David Fennessy, the result of which was Letter to Michael for 16 voices. It’s a dense, intense work, full of semitone glissandi and overlapping layers of sound. We were all enjoying the rehearsal process, and then David came in and told us what his inspiration for the piece was:
“A few years ago I came across an extraordinary image by a woman named Emma Hauck (1878-1920). It was of a page of text written so densely in pencil that it was almost completely black and more or less illegible. Hauck was a patient in the psychiatric hospital of the University of Heidleberg and in the summer of 1909 wrote many similar pages in the form of letters to her husband Michael, begging him to come and collect her. The text consists simply of the phrase ‘Herzenschatzi Komm’ (Sweetheart come) written over and over again, many hundreds of times or simply ‘Komm’ (Come). It seems the letters were never sent and her pleas were left unheard.”**
With this programme note in our minds, the reason behind the texture of the piece suddenly became clear, and our performance of it necessarily gained an understanding and ability to communicate to the audience. This was an already good piece that only became better with explanation. There are countless other examples throughout music history of pieces of music that stand on their own two feet, but with the addition of a programme note are elevated to another level of engagement altogether.
Often, however, one comes across the opposite – pieces of music wherein an audience or ensemble without such a programme note would be left floundering in an obscure mess of abstract notes. Music that they may describe as “interesting”, but would hesitate to describe as “good”. Upon receiving the necessary wisdom from the composer, the piece will usually become “more interesting”, but rarely seems to become “more good”.
In many cases, I find that the concept is simply a veil to conceal an inherent weakness at the core of the composition itself. Composers who have failed to write compelling, engaging music have to hide their art behind a curtain and, like the Wizard of Oz, would be revealed to be severely lacking if only the audience had Toto to run in and pull back the curtain.
I suppose that this all leads to one really crucial question: is “interest” enough for a piece of music to be “good”? Should a piece of music be able to stand on its own two feet without extra-musical input, or is it OK for music to need to be propped up by something external? For me, the answer is no.
*I have purposefully not gone into the minefield of what actually could be considered “good” music, and whether it’s a subjective or an objective label.
**Taken from the Chamber Choir Ireland website.