Should music strive to be clear? More specifically, do composers have a responsibility to make the logic and processes behind a piece of music accessible to the average listener, and, if so, to what extent?
In the aftermath of the Second World War, European composers—Stockhausen, Boulez, and Nono, among others—strived to rid their music of what seemed to them a tainted and violent past, discarding historical notions of music-making and beginning from a blank slate of self-contained, often highly mathematical (“serial”) systems. The resultant music was, as a general rule, angular and devoid of repetition, and to many listeners in the 60s and 70s, incomprehensible.
American practitioners of this European aesthetic of objectivity—composers today often referred to collectively as the “Uptown” school—came to dominate academia, where they advocated for a kind of music that stood aloof from the day-to-day ebbings of American politics and pop culture. As noted Uptown composer Milton Babbitt, a professor at Princeton and Juilliard, wrote in 1958, “the composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from this public world...the composer would be free to pursue a private life of professional achievement, as opposed to a public life of unprofessional compromise and exhibitionism.”
For certain American radicals, this European-influenced music felt inauthentic to their own cultural experience. Composers like Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and David Lang reacted to what they viewed as an elitist compositional ethos with unapologetically singular music, governed by transparent and easily perceptible patterns, sometimes to the point of excess. For composers of this persuasion, now often referred to as the “Downtown” school, novelty did not lie in the exclusion of outside musical idioms such as familiar scales and rhythms, but rather in the intensity of the listening experience itself.
For our first concert, Paths and Patterns, OSSIA has chosen works that together span this important American historical narrative —Vineet Shende’s Throw Down or Shut Up, György Kurtag’s Kafka-Fragmente (Part II), Missy Mazzoli’s Still Life with Avalanche, Jeffrey Mumford’s a garden of flourishing paths, Varun Rangaswamy’s Imageries of Consciousness (a brand new student commission), Nina C. Young’s Kolokol, and Lee Hyla’s Pre-pulse Suspended. These works also illustrate the persistence of certain enduring musical challenges: the same questions of purity, inclusivity and accessibility are at the forefront of much of today’s musical dialogue.
Several eventful decades have gone by since the concert venues of New York City were caught up in this uptown and downtown feud, and the dichotomy is almost purely historical by now—terms like Uptown and Downtown seem rather rigid amid today’s musical ecosystem. Many of the composers featured in Paths and Patterns are direct descendants, so to speak, of major figures of the uptown/downtown divide: Jeffrey Mumford was a student of the late Uptown composer Elliott Carter, who in turn looked towards European subsersives such as Gyorgy Kurtag, and Missy Mazzoli was a student of the Downtown composer David Lang—but it would be difficult to detect anything more than the vestiges of this historical Uptown/Downtown divide in their current work.
Others have done much to bridge the gap, including Vineet Shende and the late Lee Hyla, who have combined the harmonic complexity of Uptown music with the rhythmic impulse of rock, or, in the case of Nina C. Young, the sophisticated electronic music pioneered by Uptown composers with the driving energy of Downtown repetition.
The 2018-2019 OSSIA New Music season celebrates the artistic pluralism of contemporary music, while also contextualizing recent musical explorations by anchoring each concert around a significant area of contemporary musical discourse. This is at once a presentation of the sheer variety of directions from which composers approach a given discourse and an exploration of their shared creative dilemmas and interests. For example, OSSIA’s February concert presents a bird’s eye view of contemporary classical perspectives on microtonal music: that is, music that does not conform to the 12-note grid one finds on the piano keyboard. Although the whys and hows of each piece may be technically subtle, the desire to go beyond the rigid confines of the 12-note tuning system speaks to a more universal ambition to explore an expanded realm of sound.
In 1978, John Cage remarked that what had once been a river of creative tradition—a clear lineage from J.S. Bach to Gustav Mahler—had come to a point of “delta, maybe even beyond delta to an ocean.” Indeed, the diversity of today’s new music ecosystem defies easy categorization: composers today are working with sound in ways as diverse as the established confines of the symphonic hall, the uncharted intersections between music and performance art, and the interdisciplinary world of multimedia installations (even interactive websites) alike. A contemporary music concert is, more often than not, a jarring juxtaposition of disparate and even contradictory ideas of what music can and should be.
Experience it for yourself; join us October 1st at 7:30pm, in Kilbourn Hall at the Eastman School of Music, for Paths and Patterns.
Haotian Yu is a composer currently studying at The Eastman School of Music and a board member of OSSIA. Since its founding in 1997 by members of the now legendary Alarm Will Sound New Music Ensemble, OSSIA New Music has played a vital role at the Eastman School of Music in curating and presenting contemporary classical music. As an entirely student-led organization (supported generously by the Institute of Music Leadership), OSSIA is dedicated to engaging with students and Rochesterians at large: all repertoire is drawn from student and community proposals, and Eastman students of all degree levels join forces to realize two full-length evening concerts per semester.