Yesterday I got from my former student Koen Quintyn the pdfs of Wittgenstein’s ‘Tractatus’ together with a study by James Kenneth Wright concerning the links between the famous philosopher and Schoenberg’s circle. Both are not exactly an easy read, to say the least. But the sheer fact that Koen sent me these, while I still remember clearly the days when he definitely wasn’t interested at all in this particular ‘Circle’, made me very happy. Like we all have to do when we grow up, there’s no escaping the fact that ‘history’ is there all the time. Koen’s becoming for sure a composer of the 21st century, which means that he’s entitled to come to terms with the great musical upheavals of the first decades of the former century. But in another way than I still have to do too. My composition teachers ‘discovered’ Webern (think about Goeyvaerts and Goethals) and took strength of it to forge what’s nowadays called the heydays of post war modernism. I had to react against their solutions of the questions raised by the early modernists. Now, having almost become also someone of the past, the newest generation has to discard ‘my’ solutions’ of the questions of this admired post war generation. In that way, music remains a lively business.
All too often I already explained to people why I took this weird step to incorporate ‘again’ tonalisms in my music. But let me do it here once again. When we chose to use ‘confirmed’ musical material or to bring it into being in a new piece, we silently accept many of the imbedded gestures. Even Webern said that to his opinion, his music is as well like a walk in the mountains, as a novel in a sigh. A romantic novel even, if we consider the fact that each ending of his musical phrases is characterized with a very emotive ritenuto -a slowing down of the tempo. Boulez’s sonata is riddled with very ‘romantic’ notions, often unheard but definitely there in his mind when he wrote his sometimes very hard to play serial complexities. (Debussy has never been allowed to stray far away in his mind. Ravel neither). But Boulez, like many of this contemporaries wanted to ‘reinvent’ music. The modernists acknowledged the inevitability of a-tonality. (Said Boulez even quite recently: “everyone who’s still involved with tonality is losing his of her time”.(Grammophone). But they don’t seem to question the own ‘romantic’ leanings in their own music. One did: Cage. To name only one. But many of the European ‘avant-gardists’ detested their ‘American’ counterparts. If not immediately, then later (cfr. the writings of Cage and Feldman).
My solution was to accept this legacy of the past. Though never ‘defend’ it. Why should I? Because it’s still there is must have ‘defended’ itself quite successfully. But I try to bring it to a kind of border, a frontier. Not crossing this border means this material tends to sound ‘cliché’ (of course, this depends of the cultural paradigm of the concerned audience). Crossing this border means this same material might start to sound ‘experimental’. And immediately more OK for the connoisseurs. Because experImental means ‘new’, ‘unheard’, ‘fresh, ‘promising’, …Ready to be considered seriously by yet another wave of academic musicology ‘circles’. Nothing against it. But I had this small doubt about ‘experimentalism’.
Once you’ve crossed this border, you are in experiment country… Pitch becomes a less important parameter (and rightly so), leading to the new definitions of ‘beauty’ by the philosopher/composer Helmut Lachenmann (who’d be as harsh in his opinions about my music as Boulez, would he ever been confronted with it, what I strongly doubt will ever happen.)… You can wander around in this vast county, but it will remain a closely guarded region, and sadly enough, often not very attractive to many people.
‘What’, did I think around 1985/86 ‘if we drop musical material ON the border between these two unfriendly neighbors’? The border is a kind of no-mans land. Which means often uncharted territory. Which means it has the potential of turning out to be exactly what the ‘real’ avant gardists are often seeking. (see above mentioned characteristics). But ‘tainted’ indeed. But this ‘taintedness’ might become an interesting tool: each cliche is defined by its gestures which have been developed to bring out its characteristics in the best possible light. We all have memories not only of the clichés but also of the environment in which it is featured. Which might become a ‘texture’ in a new composition. Which can be confronted with other ‘textures’ coming from all other sides, experimental or sometimes even ‘conservative’. Once there is definition, possibilities are offered to ‘build’ a piece… or to refrain from building it.
But to end this little apology today, I just wanted to say, that for me Webern is as much in my mind as Koen’s fresh musings (some people might call them ‘immature’, though what’s wrong about ‘immature’, they might ripe in a very savory fruit for the coming generations, if not to be joyously contested…).
Soon my ‘Tumbleweed concerto’ will be performed; And I can assure you: everything what I wrote about in this little essay, can be perceived. I just hope there’s enough ear appeal in this piece. But I myself will listen to it with only one thing in my mind: how well come out the goals I set for myself in this piece. If these goals turn out to be quite pleasurable for more people than myself, I’ll be glad of course. But attaining more or less my goals is more important than public love. Seeing this written on the page, I’m maybe just a bit like Boulez: a go-fuck-yourself modernist, but one with a very bad taste in music 🙂