Well into the second decade of the 21st century, we’re still struggling with processing, classifying and making sense of a century’s worth of art music; a tumultuous century in every regard, that came and went very fast not only for audiences and patrons, but also for scholars, performers and even the composers of what we affectionately call “new music.”
Maybe “not-yet-processed music” is a better term for this body of work, overwhelming in size and scope, that swept the music world in two large tidal waves — the first one around the turn of the 20th century, the second one in the late 1950’s — both followed by multiple aftershocks of action and reaction, not without polemics and vile.
Audiences have had a hard time keeping up, and some stopped listening. “Go ahead,” some composers said, “who cares?” Others tried to get listeners back by changing their tune, incorporating folk elements, turning to the past for inspiration, even flirting with pop music.
Little by little we’ve come to a time of stylistic coexistence and freedom to mix, match and change, with or without assimilating; an era of anything goes. I find this kind of buffet-style aesthetic quite conducive to a multitude of interesting new voices, an unprecedented cross-pollination of styles and influences, and a very healthy way of taking a breath from all the different camps and schools that dominated the 20th century.
This state of ecumenical stylistic truce can be a great chance for audiences to catch up and reconnect with a 100-something years of unfamiliar music. And despite, or maybe because of, the lack of promotion and exposure of art music, compared to popular music, there is a sort of contemporary music renaissance quite evident today.
This creates the opportunity for the uninitiated listener to dive in, and for the initiated one to deepen his appreciation of what is re-establishing itself as the classical music of our times, with the perspective of some cultural and chronological distance and an open mind.
The Spoleto Festival has been committed to contemporary music since its inception, and continues to offer a high quotient of well-programmed, well-performed premieres, widely varied in aesthetic direction, from the palatable to the challenging. This year, there’s a focus on centennials, running along a strain of Asian folk, with a dose of minimalism and mainstream influences thrown into the mix.
Next year marks the centennial anniversaries of Pierrot Lunaire by Schoenberg, and the birth of American iconoclast John Cage (who coincidentally studied with Schoenberg at UCLA). Pierrot Lunaire is a piece that will always sound exotic to audiences, what with the commedia dell’arte moonstruck clown character, and the sprechtstimme vocal part, but it does possess a strange magnetism that captures the spirit of decadent Berlin, and it sets the scene for the lean, chamber music style that would follow.
John Cage is admired more for his philosophical ideas, incorporating silence and chance elements, than for his actual music, but he was a quite crafty composer. The three “Number Pieces” presented in the Orchestra Uncaged concert deal with open forms and layering of orchestral strands, one of his many ways of deconstructing sound. It will be interesting to listen to these late-period Cage experimentations paired with the orchestral attempts of Jonny Greenwood (of Radiohead), which combine influences from Penderecki and Messiaen with electronically generated soundscapes.
The most ambitious and risky programming endeavors are associated with operatic works. Spoleto has played a key role in keeping contemporary opera alive in the U.S., more so than much larger institutions, and over the years it has brought important new works of quite diverse stylistic sources (from Rihm’s Proserpina to Saariaho’s Émilie from the last few years) in original, imaginative productions.
This year’s offerings by Philip Glass and Guo Wenjong seem to go down the more conservative — one might even say populist — road, but I guess it was due time to do so.
Philip Glass is by no means a composer’s composer, having chosen to create a career path associated with multimedia and collaborations with mainstream artists. He has managed to connect with a wide audience and, in the process, has completed multiple dramatic works, among them 23 operas and several film scores and dance projects.
There’s no doubt that his stock hypnotic rhythms and repetitive arpeggiated triads work well with images, moving or not, by allowing the listener’s mind to create its own streams of open-ended audio-visual phrases of flowing material. Kepler is basically a character portrait of the German mathematician, astronomer, and astrologer (similar in dramatic conception, though not musical treatment, to last year’s Émilie).
One can expect Glass’ familiar musical gestures and soundworld, and it’ll be in the symbiosis of visual and dramatic elements where one should look for a statement in Kepler.
Rumors have it that we’re in for a visual treat thanks to filmmaker Atom Egoyan’s direction of Guo Wenjing’s Feng Yi Ting. Wenjing belongs to the Chinese Central Conservatory class of 1978, which produced now-famous composers Chen Yi, Zhou Long and Tan Dun. He’s the only one from the group that did not leave China. He has attracted a lot of attention from the West since the 1990s, mostly for his operatic works inspired by native folk material in both the narrative and the music.
The composer is very interested in timbre as an important element of storytelling, and therefore holds on to both the Chinese language and native instruments, even when his works are performed before Western audiences. The score to Feng Yi Ting is, as expected, quite sparse and exotic, with modal melodic phrasing and pulsating passages dominating the texture; and here, too, I suspect the impact of the work lies in how the elements come together.
Framing these large works are several others in the festival that offer the listener meaningful context in developing an ear for new music. John Kennedy’s Music in Time series features other works by Guo Wenjing (another Spoleto tradition: to present additional music by one of the opera composers), as well as a concert of works by Japanese composers, and yet another featuring a bowed piano ensemble (a concept owing a lot to Cage).
Elsewhere in the festival, established works by Messiaen, Stravinsky, Debussy, Poulenc, Krenek, Fauré, and Feldman, and new ones by Golijov, Hooshyan Khayam, James MacMillan, Jon Deak and Ian Clarke, will provide additional glimpses into the many facets of the music of today.
This is living, ever-evolving art, available for the listener to sample and explore, and hopefully by the end of the festival, to develop a personal taste for his next trip around the buffet table.