21st century pieces – musical or what?

The fact that I do not really know what to call this article speaks to my confusion regarding 21st music for the classical guitar. Some call the subject of my wondering modern, others contemporary, and yet others 21st century. The only way I can explain myself is to give some examples.

Manuel Ponce wrote Sonata III, Carlos Seixas composed Sonata No 23, and Antonio Lauro gave us Vals Venezolano No 3, and I can appreciate the musicality in all three. They are not what I would choose to listen to often and I do not have the technical skills to play them, but I can relate to them at some levels. However, Joao Luiz’s Xie and Toru Takemitzu’s Equinox just confuse, Jar, and leave me feeling as though I have endured rather than enjoyed.

Here is an example of the kind of 21st classical guitar music that I just don’t ‘get’ – have a listen:

Steven H. Somers plays his own composition, ‘21st Century Suite’.

Now I don’t know much about Steven Somers and his music might not properly represent the genre, so I have selected an example from the work of the great Leo Brouwer. Here is his Sonata V – Ars Combinatoria I – vivace played by Andrey Lebedev

My confusion deepens when I compare this to his Un Dia de Noviembre, which I like a lot and am currently learning to play.

Here it is played by Tatyana Ryzhkova.

Leo Brouwer composed prolifically and has a huge international reputation, so what’s with his Sonata V, and other works like Sonata Fandangos y Boleros and Sonata del Pescador? My confusion deepens.

From what I can tell, the pieces I have problems with are technically challenging and encompass a range of ornamentations, stretches, speed bursts and so on, but they seem disjointed, lacking in any discernible rhythm, over-filled with discords, and generally unpleasing to the ear. What am I missing? Ok, so I am a 70-year-old intermediate level guitarist without any formal music school education, but isn’t music supposed to be pleasing to the ear, evocative, and … well perhaps here is my problem, my definition of ‘music’.

As a younger man, I had the same sort of problem with much modern art. Critics raved about what appeared to me to be a slapdash mess of forms and colours, but my impression was that a 6-year-old child could have done as well. I can’t say the same for the kind of classical guitar music that befuddles me because I can see that they would be extremely hard to play. I can understand, therefore, why some performers would use such pieces to display their skills, but do they enjoy playing them, and do people enjoy listening to them?

I am hoping that someone will explain to me the value of such music because even in my old age I am keen to learn. I have searched the internet for some credible critique but have so far found nothing that makes sense to me. Perhaps I am missing something that will change the way I process music or perhaps much 21st Century classical guitar music is just a big con… like much that passes for art, wisdom, and value these days.


2 Replies to “21st century pieces – musical or what?”

  1. Mr. Peppler,

    Your blog expresses an opinion shared by many who find their ground of meaning outside music. That is not to say you are wrong. Many aestheticians have wrestled with the same issues you bring up in your own way. I believe you are just limiting your possibilities of appreciation.

    You seem to say meaning comes in prettiness. You gain no meaning from the “erudite” pieces you mentioned. However meaning comes in many forms. “Prettiness” – basically traditional harmony and homophonic texture (melody/accompaniment) is but one meaningful category. OTOH, some of Phillip Glass’s and other “minimalists” work are “pretty” in that sense you describe but have relative little meaning because of the paucity of formal integrity and artistry. Wind pudding and air sauce.

    What you refer to as 21st century music – and the composers you mention – is actually rooted in the 20th century tradition (traditions or artistic periods do not necessarily end when others emerge). Much of it requires education to appreciate and, admittedly, some pieces are just failures regardless of one’s education. The tradition of permutative music that arose in the 20th century often contains no tendrils to anything human and thus remain sterling academic icons without a human audience. And as we know, it takes a receptor to make sound – or college student loans, as is often the case.

    The idea of “taste” originally arose in the 18th century. “Taste” was not considered, in the words of the aesthetician, Roger Scruton, “simply refined choosiness.” Taste was akin to character. We were responsible for the development of our own taste. I know of no one who has dedicated oneself to the listening experience who has not grown and developed expanded sensibilities. Certainly that expansion is limited by our intelligence, commitment to the art, and our actual life-span.

    All art after WWI, fell into an avante garde free fall. Unlike the visual art domain which eschewed illustrative skill, music composition has always been based upon skill – even (or especially) the academic aleatory movement. But the composers often misread the audience and meaningful music was lost to popular music. So academic music turned into a “glass bead game,” to use an image of Hesse. And that is what I think your complaint is.

    I happen to think one of the best guitar composers today – and a real 21st century composer is Angelo Gilardino. And he can be difficult to listen to. However, one must not approach his music like a sweet desert. If you search for melody, and only melody satisfies, you will find little beauty in his textures. That will disappoint. One approaches it with an appreciation of ideas, motives, intriguing rhythms, beautiful counterpoint (at times), startling orchestral timbres (in his orchestral writing) and the manipulation of form. His writing often eschews the “pretty” for the austere. There is meaning in that and it can be a deep kind of beauty.

    Arvo Part is another 21st century composer who delivers extraordinary satisfaction and beauty in his sacred music. Again, it focuses on the austere rather than the pretty. It doesn’t wish to comb your hair and rub your back, but rather to open the door to the heavens – much needed in our secular world.

    The 20th century brought much chaos and irrelevance to the artistic world, but it also brought a true freedom of expression of which 21st century composers are now taking advantage.

    The cultivation of ones sensibilities is a function of exposure, investigation, varied and flexible ideas of Beauty. It is actually an exciting time for the possibilities in music. And your attitude has its place in the panoply of receptors, but it is not the only one, as I’m sure you would agree. But I applaud you for saying out loud what many are afraid to say.

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