Sunday, April 29, 2012

Violin Phase Torture

The other day in my music theory class full of graduate students, we got to talk about Steve Reich, one of my main music role models. We've studied a lot of other composers this semester: Schoenberg, Beg, Webern, Carter, Dallapiccola, and I was looking forward to hearing about some theoretical interpretations of minimalism, music written since around the 1970's with repeating patterns that often change over time or have more conceptual frameworks. The teacher asked the class what this piece, Violin Phase, reminded them of.

To me, it's music to my ears. Steve Reich's 'Music for 18 Musicians' was the first piece I ever heard when I walked into my undergraduate advisor's office for the first time. It changed my life, I could safely say. I love the concept of Violin Phase, usually for four violins (or a number of pre-recorded violin tracks); I love Reich's use of diatonicism; I think the subtle tempo changes that lead to intricate overlapping rhythms and hidden 'ghost' melodies that pop out unexpectedly is pretty genius. (Though side fact: I finally got to meet Steve Reich and tell him my life-changing story involving his music, but he only seemed meh about it. Such is life, when you're so over the work you wrote 35 years ago, and people are still talking about how great it is.)

But instead, the loudest voices in class said that Violin Phase was, literally, torture. They could only listen to the first couple minutes of the piece (it's only about ten minutes), and they had to shut it off. Of course, they couldn't articulate why they felt the music was torturous. I'm assuming it's because the repetitive patterns were too chaotic for their ears; they didn't like the simple use of patterns which can become monotonous for some. To me, it's paced beautifully, you sometimes don't know something is changing until it's changed, and then you wonder, how did we get here?

Why such fervent responses though to this piece, seemingly unexpected and conservative? And why strangely, not the same kind of anger directed toward more traditionally 'thorny' and theoretical music like Elliot Carter or Milton Babbitt, who we discussed in classes prior without a lot of dissent? I left class disappointed in my colleagues.

I have come to appreciate my open-mindedness when it comes to listening to new music, but I think I might be in the minority. I am in full support of all that is new, interesting, and often eccentric. I at least want to judge it on its own terms, not compare it to Beethoven. Learning about new(ish) music helps me write my own pieces, and helps me interpret works of the past in new ways. Of course I have my own preferences to what I like to listen to and don't; I love historically valued music too. What I don't understand is that there are still lots of people I'd consider the young pplz that think that the only classical music worth listening to comes from the 18th and 19th centuries, and MAYBE the 20th century, if you let in Debussy and some Stravinsky (but don't go too crazy). If these people don't land a rare job in an orchestra, I don't know how they're going to wrap their brains around a hybrid career that I think will be necessary in this day in age. Nowadays you might have to have a different performing career than just the one established in the 1900s and passed down through weird, underfunded, greying institutions. Why not join a slightly more hip crowd and give new a chance?

My boyfriend noted that music people still talk about the twentieth century being 'contemporary music'. The start of the twentieth century was now one hundred and twelve years ago. I think there were giant ferns growing then, and dinosaurs, I'm pretty sure. I'd rather think about the recent past, the living composers, and all the exciting potential for what comes next.

The next post: likely less ranting, and more comics.

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