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It’s not always easy to appreciate modern concert music.
That’s especially true when it comes to the radical creations of artists like the French composer Pierre Boulez (pronounced Boo-LEZZ, 1925-2016) and the German musician Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007), two of the most influential avant-garde composers during our lifetimes.
The irony is that contemporary musical artists have more tools, more advanced technologies, and greater freedom to experiment than any generation in history. But a number of today’s composers are rolling out pieces that are almost impossible to comprehend, let alone enjoy.
That’s apparent in numbers like Derive 2, a chamber orchestra piece by Boulez.
In the video you’re about to see, the aging composer himself is directing. As the musicians arrive onstage, members of the audience are excited. We join them in anticipating the opening notes. After a wait of almost 90 seconds, the music begins – and we can be forgiven for thinking we’re listening to a middle school band warming up before their annual spring concert: Pierre Boulez. Dérive 2 directed by Boulez (48 m.) – YouTube.
This music is atonal. It doesn’t follow classical harmonic patterns. That’s another way of saying that if you hang in there for all 48 minutes you’re not going to hear a tune you can sing in the shower tomorrow morning.
Avant-garde music occasionally appears in the soundtracks of science fiction or outer space movies. That’s no accident. Boulez’s compositions sound as if they’re not of this world.
Boulez himself was dismissive of his critics. As far as he was concerned, traditional “concert music” was dead. His scores were intended to be savored by the musical elites who could appreciate his compositional genius. Each piece was created with extraordinary precision. Despite what our ears may tell us, not a single one of his notes is accidental or arbitrary. His works are essentially cerebral experiments intended for scholarly analysis.
Such pieces may be “brilliant.” But they certainly aren’t beautiful.
At least Boulez understood he was never going to reach the masses. When asked why so few of his compositions are ever played in public, he said, “Well, perhaps we did not take sufficiently into account how music is perceived by the listener.” As American composer Robert Greenberg puts it, that’s perhaps the understatement of all time.
Karlheinz Stockhausen fared somewhat better with the public. He even achieved a kind of rock star immortality when his face was chosen to appear on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. An enthusiastic fan of astrology, he was convinced he had been educated somewhere near Sirius, the brightest star in the summer sky – not your everyday autobiographical detail.
Stockhausen was a pioneer of electronic music. His first compositions, the likes of which had never been heard before, were exciting.
Then they became – and here we are compelled to use the most dreaded word in the realm of art – boring. Very few people listen to Stockhausen recordings these days in order to be inspired.
He proved his chops as an avant-garde composer, however, by creating a series of “performance pieces” that generated worldwide publicity. One of them is 1995’s Helicopter String Quartet, which requires four traditional musicians – two violinists, a violaist, and a cellist – to play their parts while flying in four different helicopters. The music is coordinated technologically. Here’s a two-minute segment of the 30-minute piece: Karlheinz Stockhausen “Helicopter String Quartet” – YouTube.
It was a fascinating idea. But the music itself is almost impossible to comprehend – “inflexible and horrid” in the words of one commentator. The Helicopter String Quartet suggests what it might be like to visit a beehive. Stockhausen believed he had discovered the compositional technique of “controlled chance,” a self-contradictory term that reveals the precarious nature of his convictions.
By the end of the 20th century, more than few rank-and-file music lovers were asking, “What happened?”
Wasn’t it possible for composers to create works that were more reminiscent of Mozart and the Killer B’s (Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms)?
Of course they could. But the world that had given birth to those legendary European artists was long gone. Spiritual certainty had eroded. Two world wars had destroyed hope and optimism. Darwinism had declared life to be a meaningless struggle. The Irish poet W.B. Yeats, writing in the 1920s, famously expressed an entire continent’s despair: “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold… The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Great artists reflect the spirit of their times. The radical composers who came on the scene after nations began to stockpile nuclear weapons for the purpose of annihilating each other were responding to a world gone mad.
Human ears and hearts haven’t changed, however. People are still drawn to harmony and beauty. And there is every reason to believe this will always be so.
Is this because we’re all under the spell of a genetic quirk that makes us yearn to hear uplifting melodies, chords that resolve and, as Paul McCartney might put it, “silly love songs”?
Or is this compelling evidence that the spiritual foundations that so many have rejected are, in fact, aligned – by virtue of creation – with what it actually means to be human?
We worship a good and beautiful God who beckons us to come before him with music:
Sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, praise his name;
proclaim his salvation day after day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous deeds among all peoples.
By God’s grace, may your heart soar today with a song of joy.
One that you can even sing in the shower.
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