The Avoidance of Harmony

It’s no secret that contemporary composers tend to avoid standard musical traditions.  What composer wants to sound like some other composer, right?  There’s so much highly structured, traditional Western European repertoire out there already, it sometimes seems like everything’s “been done.”

So, what does that leave for today’s modern composers in search of a niche?  Is it time in the history of music to reinvent the wheel,  remodel the basic structure, or even replace the foundation?

The struggle to find a new architecture seems to go back as far as Prokofiev.  His sometimes playful aversion to tonic, opened a door that has never shut.

Richard Danielpour reaches somehwere between Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff with this piece
John Cage experimented with the “prepared piano” by adding objects to the strings that would change the sound 
played amplified cacti
and even notated silence as music

Philip Glass’ minimalist style seems to have survived the decades with monumental works like Einstein on the Beach, the beautiful Truman Sleeps
and Mad Rush

Though minimalism sometimes depends on repetition for character, it may seem a bit simple to some.  But, compared to more ambitious experimenters, Glass’ use of recognizable chords is less unsettling than those who would opt for dissonance as a tool:

Ellen Traaffe Zwilich

Joseph Scwantner

The search for something new, sometimes forces an almost apologetic explanation, as seen here:

Many fine contemporary composers have poured their hearts and souls into the search for new and exciting formulas and sounds.  Exploration is necessary. Pushing the envelope should be encouraged and rewarded.

But, what of more mainstream modern orchestralists like Samuel Jones:,
Eric Whitacre:,
and of course, John Williams ?
Please comment.

Is there anything left that hasn’t “been done,” or is it time to rewrite the rules of western music, and start fresh?  Should we tear down the world’s tallest structure because it was built on a strong foundation, with tried and true construction principles? Should we “throw out the baby with the bath water?”

Is harmony all that bad?  There’s little evidence that audiences are anxious to jump with both feet into a world of ambient dissonance, and atonal ambiguity. Different can be enlightening and exciting, but it is occasionally brilliant. Experimentation, whether in music or in science, needs to be encouraged, yet challenged.

So modern composers may be charged with the task of honing the current musical models, and working with the established laws of musical nature. There are many scientific, natural and physical relationships in music (i.e.: frequencies, timing, and tonality) that form the mere definition of “music.” And technology may be the key to exploring new instruments, sounds and sonorities, without toppling the beautiful structure that took hundreds of years to build.  

Before imploding this beautiful 100-storey building to experiment with new building materials, we should first stress-test the synthetic composites, and the glue that holds them together. Will it stand the same test of time that its Parthenon of predecessors have? Remember: Bach has been dead for 263-years, and he still gets airplay on the radio every day. Embrace Harmony!

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