EP&M Online Essay: Contemporary Music




David Arditti is a composer of beautiful, tonal music in what he considers to be the true classical tradition. He is one of a group of young composers in Britain today who believe that the future of classical music lies in a return to traditional values of craftsmanship, clarity, consonance and the primacy of vocal melody.

He frequently acts as accompanist to singers and instrumentalists in concerts and recitals of his own and other music. He has conducted many choral and orchestral works, including the premieres of some of his own. He was for some time the regular conductor of the Chelsea Singers, a chamber group in London with a wide repertoire.

His compositions include songs and song-cycles, piano music, chamber music, orchestral works, choral music, including a Requiem and a Mass in C, and a film score. Performances have take place all over Britain and in the USA.

His works are published by Oriana Publications (Wales) and Topmusic (Switzerland).  [Please explore the composers's links, either here or on the Links page, as they offer rich new resources for EP&M and for anyone interested in contemporary music -- Ed.]

Website: http://www.darditti.com

In my last article for this site, I defined so far as possible what I meant by the New Tonal Movement in classical music, a close equivalent, I hold, of the New Formalist Movement in poetry. This time I will discuss the work of some of the composers whom I believe may turn out to be important, and who fit into my category.

One consideration to point out again is that the writing of tonal classical or romantic music never stopped through the twentieth century, despite the determined efforts of large parts of the serious music establishment and academia to suppress or marginalize it. And some composers have had careers long enough to have developed their style and attained a measure of popularity as serious tonal composers before the perceived triumph of atonality in the mid-twentieth century, to have continued working through that period, despite critical displeasure or distain, and to now be back in what may be becoming the mainstream, or at least, in this pluralist world, a mainstream, just by having stuck to their principles and having stood still. Two such, in the English-speaking world, are Malcolm Williamson, and Malcolm Arnold (celebrating 70th and 80th birthdays this year respectively).

Amongst slightly younger British composers, a few gained their own popularity by steering clear of blatant modernism and writing melodic music. Perhaps the best-known are John Taverner and John Rutter. The former was a hippy in the sixties and an experimenter with crossover , working with the Beatles at one stage, but he settled down later, writing exclusively religious, but not un-commercial, music, and became famous when he wrote a piece for the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. However, his leanings towards minimalism, and the crude notions of musical structure he shares with most of the modernists, put him outwith the main discussion in this article, which is concerned with composers who not only wish to use tonality and melody, but also the classical structures, as the key to producing music of the depth of that of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. Rutter, another very popular composer in some circles, especially amateur choral singers, is also hard to take seriously, because of the way in which his sheer technical facility or versatility leads to a superficial, unstable crossover style which is neither quite classical not pop, and which tends towards mawkish sentimentality in his sugarily-harmonised and orchestrated melodies. These composers so far mentioned are well-represented in commercial recordings, and so there is no need to provide links to any further information about them on the web.

Hence I come now to the young, new classicist generation of composers, who I will deal with in more detail, since they are not well-known. Most of these will be British and American, because few others have made themselves known to me, but this linguistic parochiality may not accurately reflect what is going on elsewhere, merely the inadequacy of my knowledge. In addition, the survey will be limited to those composers who have resources on the web that can be followed-up.

To start with, with an Italian, Georgio Pacchioni, who is a professor of recorder and a scholar of early and baroque music. He pursues a very clearly-defined furrow: that of re-discovering the techniques of baroque counterpoint and the fugue. But the music he actually produces is not pastiche, which is always a weak, second-rate artistic creation, but something with a new, modern vigour, achieved through the vigour of the classical rhythms and counterpoints. It is proof that a good composer, however archaic the technique he explores, can still generate something fresh for our time, because he is an original mind working within our time. As Ralph Vaughan Williams said half a century ago:

The duty of the composer is to find the mot juste. It does not matter if this word has been said a thousand times before as long as it is the right thing to say at that moment. If it is not the right thing to say, however unheard of it may be, it is of no artistic value. Music which is unoriginal is so, not simply because it has been said before, but because the composer has not taken the trouble to make sure that this was the right thing to say at the right moment.

Composers with integrity, such as Pacchioni, do not worry about the derivative label being applied to them by the modernists, because they understand the profound truth of this. Pacchioni s music can be explored at his informative and well-presented site, http://members.fortunecity.com/gpacch, though unfortunately his English translations leave something to be desired. Incidentally, to sample the music on many of the composer websites, it will be necessary to have RealAudio installed on your computer, freely downloadable from http://www.real.com.

In a somewhat similar vein to Pacchioni s music is that of the English composer Nicholas Wilton. He writes now exclusively Catholic liturgical music for voices, and so establishes a clear connection with the masters of the English renaissance: Byrd, Tallis, Weelkes etc. Where he writes for instruments as well, his music becomes more romantically-influenced, but within very clear bounds of scale and taste. Again, he is a composer refreshing old forms and traditional techniques by living and thinking inside them, and producing a result that sounds both timeless and modern. His pieces are short and beautifully-crafted; perhaps a slight lack of ambition of scale could be levelled as a criticism of this composer, but that is far better than the more common faults of young composers, which are over-length, rambling or bombast. Wilton knows exactly what he wants to achieve, and does so through brevity, elegance and economy. He understands structure, does not write a note too much, and has a fine melodic inspiration. There is harmonic beauty derived from a close following of the common-practice rules of the classical period, allied to a distinctive, personal voice and sensibility. Like Elgar, Wilton is a Catholic, to whom faith is highly mportant, and therefore in different senses both centrally within, and yet outside English cultural traditions, and this lends a certain poignancy to his work as it did to that of the early twentieth-century master, whose baton he seems, in some senses, to have taken up. The music available on his website is nicely performed, and a CD of his choral music can be bought which is well-worth having. The URL is http://www.catholicmusic.co.uk.

Continuing the English theme brings me to René Gruss, who has a sophisticated website at Http://www.newklassical.com. Gruss, in fact, is of Hungarian and Greek descent and was brought up in New Zealand. However, he has been perhaps the most active composer in recent years in Britain, through the web and other activities, in promoting the idea and image of a new, radical and young school of composition whose members really believe in the principles of absolute beauty in sound, challenging head-on the old-modernist dogma that if it sounds ugly it s just because you have not got used to it yet , and supporting the idea of the irreplacability of the classical forms of music as the means of expressing the highest emotions. Gruss s site extensively deals with his philosophical ideas, and there are a few samples of his music, for both piano and orcherstra, which can be heard. Gruss has been active in trying to build alliances between the arts , to get tonal composers to support those who are their equivalents in the visual arts, the anti-modernist artists who are painting or sculpting figuratively with accomplished technique, in contrast to the zero-talent only the idea is important, not the skill of the execution concept-art brigade. He has also been keen that the new tonal composers should build links with the New Formalist poets, with whom they clearly have much in common. Gruss s own music is perhaps less traditionally-oriented than that of the composers discussed so far, using generally simple harmony, but restless rhythmic impulses that owe maybe something to the minimalist composers. He is not one of them, however, because of his interest in harmonic progression in the classical sense as an organising and motivating force, and because he eschews electronic realisation of his works, putting a crucial value on the interpretative skill of the human performer in bringing music truly to life. This idea of the synergy and interdependence between composer and interpreter is one of his main concerns.

Two other English composers of lesser prominence and output whom I would like to mention are W. F. Hutchinson and John R. Gardner, both represented on http://www.darditti.dircon.co.uk/menelik.html. Both have written mainly songs and other small works, in what may be called the English romantic idiom, which derives from the early twentieth-century composers such as Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Finzi. Both have developed techniques and sensibilities that were totally out of fashion in the late twentieth century, and have produced music I believe to be of permanent value.

Amongst the Americans, there is a wide variety of approaches amongst those who aim to create what I and like-minded musicians sometimes refer to simply as beautiful music . This designation avoids discussion of the technical means by appealing to the aesthetic basic in layman s terms . Musicians or academics who are inclined to question what it is we mean by beauty are starting from a counter-intuitive, aesthetic-relativist point of view so far removed from our understanding that it is probably not worth starting a discussion with them. Ninety-nine or more percent of the educated public in the western world understands what it is we mean by beautiful classical music , and that is enough.

The American tonal composers tend to regard Alan Hovhaness, who died last year, as their principal modern inspirer. He, over the course of a very long and prolific career defied the critical and academic establishments to continue to write simple, clear, transparent, uncomplex, beautiful music, little caring how seriously he was taken by them or anyone else, and in the end became a revered and respected representative of his country s music. Personally, I find an easy surface beauty, but insufficient real interest or arresting content in most of his huge output of music, and he differs from the current generation of tonal composers who I am interested in publicising, in being more of an impressionist, or note-painter, that is, a composer who had little interest in the classical structures. He was a kind of soft-edged, anti-technological minimalist at the end of the aesthetic tradition of composers like Debussy and Satie, not part of a classical-revival school, though his music was determinedly tonal.

A composer who claims to have taken much from Hovhaness is the prolific New Englander James Signorile. His work is mostly classical in its harmonic sound, but melodically and contrapuntally extrovert and rhythmic, in a manner clearly deriving from American tradition, from popular, folk and popular religious music, and a line of composers going back through Copland and Barber to the influence of Dvorak s visit in the 1890s, and earlier American composers such as Souza and Billings. His music has been classified by a critic as romantic minimalism , but this does not seem to describe all of it, which is quite varied, sometimes seeming neo-baroque, and sometimes impressionistic. It can be explored on his site at http://www.twilightdreams.com. Some of the sound files here are actual recordings, and some of them are computer realisations of orchestrations, but very convincingly done.

Another prolific east-coaster is Richard Rendleman, whose music is not minimalist at all, but quite the reverse, lush, romantic, and large-scale. Several significant orchestral works have been recorded, and can be sampled at http://www.rendleman.com. This is music of feeling and high technical skill. His style again seems to have been strongly influenced by the Bohemian and Russian influences in American music. The type of broad canvasses he attempts require a strong and satisfactory formal foundation to prevent them from becoming merely picturesque or mood-music, particularly when the orchestration is so accomplished, and I am not convinced that he always achieves this: however, this is the part of the real composer craft that always takes the longest to attain and is the most hard-won, as can be seen by examining the oevres of all the great composers of the past. Rendleman certainly has most of the means, and is travelling in the right direction.

A mid-west composer in a more reserved, anglo-saxon vein is John Mitchell, who has written some charming songs setting mostly American poetry with a high degree of sensibility, humour and taste, which can be heard at http://www.abm-enterprises.net.

Drawing, he claims, inspiration for his music from the deserts of New Mexico, is an established conductor, choir-trainer and educator called Micheal Mauldin. A wide variety of music for instrumental combinations, orchestra, and choral forces can be heard on his site http://www.mmauldin.com, which also contains extensive writings on his philosophy. I felt the most successful pieces were those pieces for childrens voices, which exhibit a charming freshness and spontaneity within a romantic idiom.

Moving to the west coast, and in fact to Canada, we come across a young composer called Justin Zaza who has a sense of humour much evidenced in both text and music on his web site, http://www.aatonal.com. The music is quirky and unpretentious, dry and thin in texture and so un-romantic, doesn t attempt profundity, and is definitely entertaining. Classical harmony is enlivened by some idiosyncratically unconventional shifts, and much of the music could be danced to. Of how many modern composers oevres could that be said?

Finally, if Zaza's music appeals, many of the same characteristics of quirkiness and humour within a determinedly tonal classical technique can be heard in the work of another young Canadian, Thom Heppleston: http://thom.isCool.net. Again very classical in aesthetic, sound and structure, his music I still find slightly bitty , and I think this is another proof that the control and organisation of long formal spans is the greatest challenge for a young composer. Heppleston has plenty of time.

                                               David Arditti

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