Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 2, No. 1, 2003

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by Arthur Kaptainis

Arthur Kaptainis 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.

* * * * * * * * * *

Whither 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 nowhere.

A decade 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.

The 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.

Lest 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.

Next 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 rhetoric.

Finally 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 impression.

The 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 productivity.

What is disorienting is the smorgasbord of opposites - past and future, tonal and atonal, control and freedom - that these and other contemporary works collectively represent.

It was 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.

Serialism, 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.

The 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.

There 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.

What 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.

Nor 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.

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Copyright 2002 Robert J. Lewis