Polish Music Journal
Vol. 6, No. 1, Summer 2003. ISSN 1521 - 6039




Contemporary Music—Yes or No

Roman Ryterband [1]



Ryterband on the cover of The Baton, Spring 1963.
USC Polish Music Center. See its larger image.

There has always been "contemporary music." It might affect like truism, yet it is far from a platitude. Many believe that contemporary music is only that of the present time. However, all the music of the past was once "contemporary" and it has to fight out a struggle for acceptance as long as it was evolving innovations. It was a war for survival, and the fight was always victorious.

With the increasing importance and domineering role of technique and science, general over-abundance of material goods and rising standard of physical life in the western world, a certain decrease in intensity of reactions to musical innovations is marking mankind of our era. Changes are too numerous and too frequent. The times of the Gluck-Piccini clashes and turbulences around Richard Wagner's revolution are over. The blasts given to the tradition by Arnold Schoenberg (serialism) and by Igor Stravinsky (primitivism) were taken by the surrounding world calmer than they really should deserve by virtuoe of their importance; the radious of their reprecussions did not reach beyong ballet and painting, leaving aside reflections upon human society and politics. The battle for self-prservation wenton through the past five decades of political crises, wars and aesthetical metamorphoses with considerable vehemence indeed, but it confined itself to the orbit of musicians—obviously, in the epoch of growing specialization.



Reaction to the Past

In our muscial world the reaction to the traditionalism ushered in a most unique and radical revision of the until then ruling norms; we abandoned tonality and formed "melodies" deriving from a 12-tone row, apply to them consciously all means of expressionistic distortions, no new forms emerged and they willhardly do so in time of our hypertrophic liberalism. A fight started and we ought to say that—after a span of a half-century since the inception of the new philosophy—this fight is again victorious. Victorious despite that unfortunate but rather normal mixture of indifference, ignorance, animosity and orthodox obscurantism on the side of many, surely resulting from the natural conflict of several generations overlapping each other within the same period of any century.

The new music exists; a new musical language is here; we must register and dodify it. But there is every reason to rebel. A resurrected Beethoven would be more intensely shocked listening to some of today's musical products than Hucbald (840-930, organum) listening e.g. to Beethoven's overwhelming last movement of the Ninth, with its orchestral and choral cosmos and unheard-of soloistic cantilenas, a par excellence revolutionary work in its own right.

The Changes

he reasons of reserve, if not aversion, toward the new music lie in the entirely different nature of the changes crystallized in course of the music history up to the beginning of our century (Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, 1913; Schoenberg's serial device, 1923), and those of that time. These fundamental innovations have been followed by innumerable chain reactions, with no sign of stopping. Bartok, Berg, Krenek, Milhaud, Prokofiev, Honegger, Villa-Lobos, Webern and Hindemith (himself a theorist) built a solid bridge to the generation of the younger avant-garde, who consider the above-mentioned as passé, andw ho mre and more under the pressure of the omnipotent science, succumbed to dry mechanics, electroncis, unpitched sounds and haphazard solutions ("indeterminate music"—American Cage, Polish Zak).

It is worth noting that conservative Europe ejected a large number of fiery protagonists of the music-by-chance idiom (Stockhausen, Boulez, Otte, Paik, Cerha, Xenakis, Bussotti, Kotonski, Cardew, among others) and the "aleatory doctrine" is seriously revered at several European festivals, particularly in Germany, where a reasonably good contemporary work has less chance of being presented than an almost fraudulent piece of so-called music, which simply by its daring originality gains attention (a phenomenon to be met in exhibitions of today's painting and sculpture). The meaningful saying among musicains es muss klingen (it ought to sound) becomes travesty as teh score acoustically certainly sounds, it does not do so musically; as a matter of fact it happens that for long stretches it does not sound at all (minute-long rests), alluding tot he "space-music" of tomorrow. THe times are forgotten when compsoers expressed something; it woudl be sheer inslut to many a composer of today if we searched in his abstarct creation expression of feelings and moods. An "indeterminacy" fabric aims often at surprising the audience, the players and . . . the composer himself and is regarded as fuga dalla realtá (excape from reality—Italian Berio).

Approval—Negation

This branch of our new music has already beendenounced by many critics suspecting at least misguidance. However, a good amount of written pages by contemporary composers not necessarily devoted to the music-by-chance device is as totally a-personal and washed out of any human impulse or drive (except to be noticed), the dominant features of life.

Yet we do not dare to ultimately appraise the present situation; our historical perspective is too short. The critics, thw world of tomorrow, will put forth the verdict. We must admit the existence of all these ultra-liberal streams in music of our times, streams changing their bed in ten-, five-, even two-year cycles, for what was en vogue yesterday can be out-moded today. What was decisive in creative music in the past will be also in the future: the individual taste and honesty, the genius of the tonemaster, his innate intuition leading to artistic results often in controversy to the actual likes of the world which embraces him. THere were many musicians who wrote music in the days of all the big ones (big ones to us), but who except the historians talks today about Kullak, Seffani, Richter, Ries, Zoellner, Zumsteed, Bossi, and dozens of others, all quite respected in thier generation?

We today are deprived of the right to judge and the privilege to know who will be accepted by the coming generations. WE can presume, we are allowed to do so, but the final judgment is beyongd our competence.


The Status of Today's Composer

Recognizing that the stand of the contemporary composer amidst keen competition (more people, better and more accessible musical education) is far from simple, that the masses are relatively indifferent, and that music is an integral part of culture, the government or the mumicipality in certain countries, industry and private philantropic foundations or even idnividual benefactors in others (particularly in ours) encourage creating new music. Also, occasionally certain symphonic orchestras or opera companies commission new works, some publishing houses lend attention to restricted forms of composition, and some recording firms take a risk in recording new music. It is certainly unfortunate that the thousands of our American radio stations do not present a forum of exposure for substantial live music-making with consideration give to newer works. When a work is performed, the composers' associations try to secure the author royalties; although it is impossible to keep track of all live or mechanical performeances, the ASCAP of our country is doing a remarkable job and deserves recognition.

While established living American composers such as Harris, Sessions, Copland, Gianini, Barber, Piston, Creston ,Porter, Menni, Schuman and a few others can be found on the regular symphonic concert or festival programs quite frequently, the younger ones find it harder to become recognized, or even heard. The many music schools affiliated with our universities provide a fruitful ground for experimenting and progress ("Electronic Suite" by Prof. Lejaren A. Hiller Ji., given its premiere this year at University of Illinois, calling for full equipment of a tape-recorder and itas lall possible accessories used at random, "Three Noh Masks" by Kyoshiga Koyama, with . . . nine shoe horns in the score, presented recently by the ORchestra of Northwestern University), and, last but not least, composers' own organizations create an outlet for new talent. Among them the International Society for Contemporary Music seems to be the most important (formed in 1922 in Salzburg), with chapters founded all over the world. These operate to foster the composition and performance of modern and controversial music, with the Chicago Chapter as the most vigorous American group in the past few years.

Audiences' Open Mind—Condition Sine Qua Non

To pioneer is a mission. the contemporary composer, whether his music is pleasant to everybody's ear or not, is fulfilling this mission of cutting the path for evolution. "Dying is the privilege of the weary. The present day composers refuse to die," are statements in the International Composers' GUild charter, set down in 1921 by its then president Edgard Varese.

The biggest tribute we can pay a composer is to listen to his music. Let us do it frequently. By doing so we will "understand" modern music better, we will get accustomed to it—our children already are—we will possibly like it, and we will be at any rate more in the position to distinhuish good from bad and to discern and appreciate the beautiful.




NOTES

[1].
Reprinted from The Baton of Phi Beta (spring 1963): 4-5, 19-20. The author is identified as "Phi Beta ARtist Patron" and the following note precedes the text: "Roman Ryterband, B.A. LL.M., M.M., composer, conductor, pianist and educator, authors the first in a series of articles on various aspects of the wtin-arts of Phi Beta to appear semi-annually in the Baton. Mr. Ryterband is outstanding in the field of contmporary musica and holds board membership in the Chicago Artists' Association, the Chicago Chapter of the International Society for Contemporary Music and is on the faculty at the Chicago Conservatory College. Flutent in six languages Mr. Ryterband has done extensive research particularly in the field of folk music of different nations. He received his education at the State Academy of Music in Lodz and the Universities of Warsaw and Berne and has concertized througout the musical centers of Europe, Africa and America."

Phi Beta Fraternity is, according to their web site (www.phibeta.com), "a professional co-ed fraternity for persons in the creative and performing arts. It offers its members widened horizons of artistic expression and development. Phi Beta encourages high professional standards, scholarship and the use of its members' talents in service." The Fraternity was founded as a student club at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL on May 5, 1912 and became a national organization in 1917. [Back]

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Copyright 2003 by the Polish Music Journal.
Editors: Maja Trochimczyk and Linda Schubert.
Editorial Assistance: Krysta Close.
Publisher: Polish Music Center, Summer 2003.
Design: Maja Trochimczyk & Marcin Depinski.
Comments and inquiries by e-mail: polmusic@email.usc.edu