21 November 2009

Surveying The Landscape For The Third Time

The Adam Mickiewicz Institute's culture.pl website has a nice biography of Lutoslawski. The final paragraph is an excellent jumping off point for something I've wanted to write about for the last week or so:

Despite all the differences between the works from the various periods of his career, and the fact that he was constantly developing his musical language, Witold Lutoslawski remains in our times a rare example of a composer who has a distinctly defined, very individual style in his compositions. He never belonged to any "school" of composition, he did not succumb to trends and fashions, did not uphold traditions and did not participate in any avantgarde revolutions. He was however both avantgarde, and traditional. Among the aesthetic crossroads of the second half of the twentieth century, he found his own path that he pursued with determination, led by his unfailing artistic sense. His music is a model of the ideal balance between form and content, intellect and emotion. His perfection has secured for Lutoslawski a permanent place among the greatest composers of the twentieth century.

Nationalistic cheerleading aside, if there's any truth at all to this paragraph, then everything suddenly makes perfect sense. Lutoslawski didn't have a "thing," a calling card, a zinger, and therefore he toils in relative obscurity in comparison to Messiaen and his Catholocism, Coltrane and his black nationalism, and so on and so forth. Without a "useful term of abuse" with which to describe his work, it merely falls through the cracks.

This leads us back to the earlier discussion of the internet and the trends I said I perceive emerging from it. For what it's worth, I can't envision myself as an exponent of any of them, whether that be the burgeoning ones or the sputtering ones, the populist ones or the ivory tower ones, uptown or downtown, tonal or atonal. I've previously written about this (rather concisely) here. It seems awfully clear that the blogs and websites which capture the most attention, the most traffic, the most comments, and the most links without exception have a "thing." I occasionally even get e-mails from site ranking companies informing me that my blog has attained this or that rank in the category of "Classical Music Blogs" despite the fact that the content here is disproportionately skewed towards jazz and philosophy rather than classical music. In one case, it was painfully obvious that the reviewer had read only the blog heading and none of the content. It's hardly a revelation to me at this point that stylistic boxes rule the day, yet that doesn't make it any easier to figure out where (or if) I fit into the landscape, nor to forgive fragmented minds their clumsiness.

Actually, I wouldn't necessarily think to label Lutoslawski's music beyond category. The later works are clearly "atonal" as opposed to tonal, and in the figurative sense, "uptown" as opposed to "downtown." You can make those terms fit, but they also invoke connotations that aren't close to relevant. The SPCO recently featured his music on a concert entitled "Echoes of Eastern Europe," and indeed, the other pieces on the program (by Ligeti and Kurtag) fit like a stylistic glove (for the record, this was also one of the 3 best concerts I've ever been to in my life). It made sense as a label, and as a mere geographic truth as opposed to a stylistic box, it was rather innocuous. Problem is it's not nearly as hip as "postminimalism" or "radical music." Those are calling cards while Eastern Europe is, well, Eastern Europe. It belongs to too many people and appeals to too few to be co-opted by a New Music clique. "Yeah, I'm really into Eastern European pan-sympho-toric sound art." Not going to happen.

Of course, it is just as fashionable to make one's self out to be above categorization as it is to acquire or invent your own hipper-than-thou category. My problem is not that I abhor or defy labels (I don't), and even less that I tend to meld styles in my work (I sometimes do, but not often), but that I'm inclined to work concurrently in a few clearly disparate styles at once. Perhaps that's a sign of creative immaturity, or just a "restless mind." For what its worth, I do identify marginally with several well-established styles, but none of them are cool right now, and some of them are decidedly uncool, most especially among practitioners of the other styles. That's what's really tough: working concurrently with groups of people who abhor each other's work. Whoever called music "the social art" should have called it "the art of socializing." But you knew that.

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