is the Montreal
Gazette classical music
critic. This article was first published on Nov. 23, 2002 and is reprinted
with the permission of the newspaper.
* * * * * * * * *
contemporary music? It is a standard question that needs to be asked,
and answered, from time to time. The problem early in the 21st century
resides in reconciling the two most viable responses: everywhere and
of hard listening has produced little evidence of a shared culture,
let alone a common trajectory. Recently, the Molinari String Quartet
performed four world premieres - the top finishers in a competition
for under-40s established by this Montreal ensemble - that might have
come from four different worlds.
program began with In Memoria de Siergej Prokofiev, by Alberto Colla
of Italy, a frank tribute to the Russian master forged in a mid-century
style, with a Largo perhaps more reminiscent of Shostakovich in its
gloom. Then came Island, by the Canadian Wolf Edwards.
the name of this piece (and its author) conjure up northern wilds,
I reprint a sentence from his program notes: "Sound mediates
frequently between conventional pitch, variable noise and quartertone
scales." There was nothing remotely referential or tonal in this
bone yard of held notes and dissonant flurries.
up, Kleine Fluchten (Little Hideaways), by Moritz Eggert of Germany.
Lighter and more frivolous, this supposed exercise in spontaneity
entered the ear and left the mind without establishing any consistent
we heard the first-prize winning String Quartet ("Romantic")
of Russia's Vsevolod Chmoulevitch. There was not enough melody here
to justify the nickname, but there was enough consanguinity with Western
art music in its densely expressive semitonal style to make a meaningful
fact that only one work (of a reported 222 submissions) had what sounded
like value is not particularly disturbing. This ratio is probably
close to the on that has prevailed even in periods of great musical
is disorienting is the smorgasbord of opposites - past and future,
tonal and atonal, control and freedom - that these and other contemporary
works collectively represent.
not so in the good old 20th century. Atonality was obviously a challenge
to the established musical discourse, but it was what it was. The
same could be said of other reactions to romanticism, such as the
neo-classical coolness of Stravinsky and the neo-baroque workmanship
of Hindesmith. Those trends defined as they attracted converts.
the iron-hearted firstborn of atonality, dominated the academy in
the 1950s and 1960s. Those decades are widely lamented as the years
that killed concert music, but at least had a coherent identity.
anti-art iconoclasm that flourished at the time - represented most
famously by that great stuntman John Cage - might have seemed opposed
to the atonal status quo, but in fact propped it up by making it seem
the only forum for serious musical achievement. Serialism might even
be credited with forming the bleak backdrop against which the traditionalists
Britten and Shostakovich produced their exceptional and lasting successes.
was a reaction to all this orthodoxy, about 20 years ago, in the form
of minimalism. Its exponents made music that was as stultifyingly
primitive as atonal scores had been unintelligibly complex. Listeners
soon discovered that the cure was worse than the disease. Still, there
was a common language to accept or reject a type of music that - for
better or worse - sounded very much like itself.
is there now? Everything and nothing. In June 2000, the Music Society
of Quebec produced a Symphony of the Millennium at St. Joseph's Oratory
in Montreal. It tried to be everything and ended up being nothing.
is there any solace in national schools, which have largely disintegrated.
The Nouvel Ensemble Moderne has been a good barometer of the confusion
that has reigned in its 13 years of existence. Five years ago it presented
a festival of Scandinavian music in which not one piece sounded Scandinavian.
Which begs the question: Will any picture of the state of contemporary
music result? We can always hope, in vain.