At the beginning of last summer György Ligeti left us. What struck me most, after the inevitable sorrow for the loss of another great musical mind, was the almost complete lack of notice given to his death outside the narrow world of so-called contemporary music.
Throughout the history of music there have been composers wishing to give their art a cultural status comparable to literature, or philosophy. In more recent times composers as diverse as Luciano Berio and Pierre Boulez have made a considerable effort to raise the profile of musical thought, and bring it into the mainstream cultural debate.
There are inherent difficulties with these commendable attempts: intellectuals the world over are not, in general, well versed in music and compositional theory. This is obviously the result of a formative problem – music is not part of the standard education curriculum. More problems are posed by the special language – notation – that music uses, and its tenacious resistance to be apprehended and described by words alone. A good indicator of this situation is the negligible amount of citations and references to ‘contemporary music’ sources (the actual scores) and composers’ writings in essays on modern culture.
Lively, alert and informed people, interested in contemporary arts the world over, will know a lot about the latest movies, the latest books and essays, the latest exhibitions and even the latest plays, but very seldom they will know about or attend ‘contemporary music’ concerts. For them, music is a form of pleasure rather than an intellectual activity. In their experience the music space is already well stocked with the various declinations of pop, rock, jazz, world and urban music, or even with the museum of classical music.
In our eye-dominated world, where visual media condition to a large extent our perception of reality, music becomes naturally the soundtrack of our own existence – the constant background to other, more prepotent eye-driven events. This ancillary role is exactly what so-called contemporary music tries to fight against, advocating for music an autonomous status. In his 1995 article, Dei suoni e delle immagini (“Of Sounds and Images”), first read when the University of Siena awarded him the degree honoris causa, and later reworked as one of the Six Norton Lectures on Poetry ( Remembering the Future, Cambridge, Harvard University), Berio tries to defend the autonomy of the ear and its predominance on the eye.
It is telling that Berio identifies music theatre – opera – as the one area where music still has the power to be in control, generate the dramatic structure and influence all visual and narrative elements. Music theatre is inherently a ‘dirty’ playing field, where visual and musical elements merge and interact in unpredictable ways. As much as composers wish for music to be in control, planning carefully every element of the show, it will be almost impossible to avoid the predominance of the visual element. Berio’s wishful thinking is shattered against the hard facts of human perception and cultural conditioning. Moreover, opera is a team enterprise, where the composer is but one of the authors. Berio’s quarrels with directors and stage designers became proverbial, showing the difficulty of maintaining control – à la Wagner – over everything. Role specialisation in today’s theatre and the refinement of available technologies make it altogether impossible. It is also presumptuous to think that one person – the composer – can be at the same time the librettist, director and stage designer of his/her operas. Karlheinz Stockhausen’s own unsatisfactory results should rest my case.
But then, if even music theatre cannot be the vehicle of musical thought, what is left to us? Precious little, I’m afraid. We have to accept that the incomparable depth and richness found in contemporary musical thought is lost to the cultural debate, and belongs to the kind of esoteric endeavours that never go past the narrow confines of ‘contemporary music’ circles.