"I cannot conceive of music that expresses absolutely nothing." — Bela Bartok
The 20th century saw an unprecedented expansion of musical invention, the most notable of which were what I call the hidden and obscure arts of neo-medieval post-serialism derived from Webern and Varese. The great music of the 20th century is full of remarkable works that are sometimes frightening in their originality and daring. A new kind of beauty can be found in these works for the curious and persistent listener.
But what about the music of the future? If the 20th century raised questions about the relation of music to psyche, perception, number and social theories, will the music of the 21st century ask different questions? What about "New Music" in the 21st century?
When people ask me what kind of music I write, I say "New Music." I do not mean avant-garde, experimental, serial, neo-romantic, post-modern, minimal, maximal, etc. These are 20th century terms. No. I mean, "made recently." But we need more than simply "New" in a society dominated by marketing. My term for the new music of the 21st century is "New World Music."
At the beginning of the 20th century, Russian painter Kandinsky described three "mystical necessities" that define artwork of lasting value: The Personal, The Ephemeral, and The Eternal.
1. Every artist, as creator, must express what is peculiar to himself (element of personality).
2. Every artist as a child of his time, must express what is peculiar to his own time (elements of style ...)
3. Every artist, as servant of art, must express what is peculiar to art in general (element of the pure and eternally artistic which pervades every individual, every people, every age, and which is to be seen in the works of every artist, of every nation, and of every period, and which, being the principal elements of art, knows neither time nor space.)"
[from W. Kandinsky: "On the Spiritual in Art"]
I believe there is a well-spring of desire among the public to hear new music that takes these responsibilities seriously, that engages with society through its expression, that has immediate impact yet sustains a lasting impression due to its intrinsic value. In short, music that ignites the flame within because it is a gift to listeners, music without borders, "world music." Popular music fanatics receive this gift from their artists regularly since good popular music so easily communicates personality and style.
It is the artist's sensibility to the third "mystical necessity" that has the potential to secure his work as art of lasting value. Kandinsky's "art in general" is what I would call "World Art," knowing "neither time nor space." "World Music" means music that transcends boundaries and cultures, that synthesizes the musics of the world into a global expression. This already happens in much popular music, where the mixture of musical personalities and styles, from within and among different cultures, is increasingly common. Yet this merging generally eludes New Music today.
The 20th century was a century of experimentation and reaction. The scary first 15 years of the century brought us unprecedented musical invention in the works of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Webern, Varese, Ives and others, to which the rest of the century responded. The obscure hidden voice of the 20th century began with chromaticism, which begat atonality, which begat 12-tone music, which begat serial music, which (justifiably) spawned several reactionary movements of which three are the most visible: 1] towards improvisation and arbitrary musical organization (or none at all); 2] towards referential music, of which neo-romanticism was the first "ism"; and 3] towards music based on phenomenology, the study of sound organization ideas and sound itself and their effect on experience and consciousness. The third of these trends is a holistic path that embraces Kandinsky's three necessities, principally because it is based on sound perception and the psyche.
Most music of the world is organized with melody, harmony and rhythm. The New World Music I want to hear and to write will embrace the realty and potential of these powerful aspects of music and will also integrate those advances of the last century that best enhance and intensify cultural and musical experience. Audiences will listen for more than the traditional elements, to experience a music of many voices, rhythms, harmonies and textures, to experience the physical power of sound and the cultural power of events driven by sound. This will not be a secret society music. There may be hidden voices, mysteries, and obscurities within the music, but they will not obscure the music's power. Composers face a challenge: to give to the world the gift of music, the gift of culture - beyond the personal, beyond the ephemeral, toward the eternal.
Copyright © 1995 & 2008 John Oliver
Canadian composer John Oliver writes about music composition and performance and the artistic life. Topics include music and society, musical models, listening to sound, writing for instruments, new media, immersive music, live electronics, algorithmic music, computer as musical tool, playing fretless and other nylon-stringed guitars, and his own compositions and works-in-progress. And life.
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Sonic Mosaics is a book of interviews conducted by composer Paul Steenhuisen over a three-year period from 2001-2004. Over half of the interviews were commissioned by Toronto’s monthly, short-run music publication WholeNote on the occasion of a composer’s presence in the city for a premiere performance or CD release. Two were originally published in Musicworks magazine and the rest were conducted by Steenhuisen afterward to complete the book and attempt to represent more Canadian composers.
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…composers whose words inspire…
"I cannot conceive of music that expresses absolutely nothing." — Bela Bartok
“My freedom thus consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned to myself for each one of my undertakings. I shall go even further: my freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the claims that shackle the spirit.” — Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music
“Where words leave off, music begins.” ― Heinrich Heine
“The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.” ― Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart "Music is the silence between the notes." — Claude Debussy
“Without music to decorate it, time is just a bunch of boring production deadlines or dates by which bills must be paid.” ― Frank Zappa, Real Frank Zappa Book
“Too bad people can't always be playing music, maybe then there wouldn't be any more wars.” ― Margot Benary-Isbert, Rowan Farm
“For me there is something primitively soothing about this music, and it went straight to my nervous system, making me feel ten feet tall.” ― Eric Clapton
"Works of art make rules; rules do not make works of art." — Claude Debussy
“Without music, life would be a mistake.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols
"Art, and, above all, music, has a fundamental function, which is to catalyze the sublimation that it can bring about through all means of expression. It must aim through fixations which are landmarks, to draw [one] towards a total exaltation in which the individual mingles, losing his consciousness in a truth immediate, rare, enormous, and perfect. If a work of art succeeds in this undertaking even for a single moment, it attains its goal." — Iannis Xenakis
"The point is that even if music can arouse in us associations with the rich world of human feelings, in different people these associations will be different. Hence a simple conclusion: it is unimportant whether the composer writes his work under the influence of extra-musical impulses, whether it is related in his consciousness or subconsciousness to some cycle of events, or whether he himself plans to express something which could be said in words. All this belongs to the field of sources of musical inspiration, but for me it never becomes the ultimate goal. And that is why, just like so many other composers, I could not answer enquiry about the concrete meaning of my music. Just as I could not say what is the meaning of Debussy’s preludes or Bach’s partitas. But isn’t it part of the great attraction of music that what it says cannot be expressed in any other way?" — W. Lutoslawski
"It isn't false modesty when I say this, but although I am supposed to be a famous person it doesn't mean anything to me. I just sit at home and work." — Gyorgy Ligeti
COMPOSER JOHN OLIVER ON THE CLOSURE OF MUSIC PROGRAMS
An Open Letter to the Vancouver School Board and the Government of British Columbia,
May 5, 2010
On the subject of closing music programs and Programs of Choice in the Vancouver Public School System and province-wide.
I write to you today, on “Music Monday” May 3 (link to press release below), to argue against the closure of music programs and Programs of Choice in BC Schools. My name is John Oliver. I am a full-time freelance composer whose works have been commissioned by major Canadian musical institutions, including the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and Canadian Opera Company. My composition, “Five-ring Concerto,” was commissioned by Vancouver’s Turning Point Ensemble as part of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics Cultural Olympiad. As part of my collaboration with Turning Point Ensemble, I am working as an invited guest with young composers at a Metro Vancouver secondary school. This music program is so vibrant that there are over 20 young composers eager to learn from a professional composer. I am also the father of two daughters, aged 11 and 13, enrolled in French Immersion programs in the New Westminster school District and active in the school music programs.
I attended Lord Byng High School from 1973-77. At that time, the Byng Band did not have a string section, but it was a respected band program. When I was growing up, there were no band programs in elementary schools at all, but most high schools had music programs with concert band at the core. Because I had demonstrated music talent early, my family paid for private guitar and clarinet lessons while I was in elementary school, though we had to pinch pennies to do so. It wasn’t until I entered the high school band program that I was able to explore other instruments, such as flute, the various saxophones, bass clarinet and percussion.
In grade twelve I designed a special “directed-study” course, investigating music notation history from the earliest examples of music being written down to the most avant-garde and contemporary music notation. I was able to do this because during grades ten and eleven I had taken part in a satellite program for gifted, self-motivated students at Byng called “Self.” This self-directed studies program encompassed English, History, and Physical Education. Students were required to design their own course of study in these subjects, picking their own activities and topics for study and essay-writing. We also produced our own theatre productions and planned educational trips.
I owe a great deal to the program offerings at my high school. I became a composer because of the breadth and depth of experience I gained within the Vancouver public school system Programs of Choice.
If the Vancouver School Board decides to close the band and other Programs of Choice, they will do irreparable harm. They will deprive our children of a hopeful, bright, interesting, and engaging school experience. They may save some money this year and next, but we will all pay for it in the end, including the cost of servicing the social ills that come with bored youth.
I believe that the BC government must stop funding private schools and put the savings into the public education system. Why should scarce public dollars fund private schools? Why should the wealthy be able to benefit from the mixture of public and private funding that will allow their private school to afford to offer a music program, while kids in public schools have their music program taken away from them?
New Westminster, BC
Music Monday Press Release:
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