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The State of Modern Music
Today’s practitioners of what we once called “modern” music are finding themselves to be suddenly alone. A bewildering backlash is set against any music making that requires the disciplines and tools of research for its genesis. Stories now circulate that amplify and magnify this troublesome trend. It once was that one could not even approach a major music school in the US unless well prepared to bear the commandments and tenets of serialism. When one hears now of professors shamelessly studying scores of Respighi in order to extract the magic of their mass audience appeal, we know there’s a crisis. This crisis exists in the perceptions of even the most educated musicians. Composers today seem to be hiding from certain difficult truths regarding the creative process. They have abandoned their search for the tools that will help them create really striking and challenging listening experiences. I believe that is because they are confused about many notions in modern music making!
First, let’s examine the attitudes that are needed, but that have been abandoned, for the development of special disciplines in the creation of a lasting modern music. This music that we can and must create provides a crucible in which the magic within our souls is brewed, and it is this that frames the templates that guide our very evolution in creative thought. It is this generative process that had its flowering in the early 1950s. By the 1960s, many emerging musicians had become enamored of the wonders of the fresh and exciting new world of Stockhausen’s integral serialism that was then the rage. There seemed limitless excitement, then. It seemed there would be no bounds to the creative impulse; composers could do anything, or so it seemed. At the time, most composers hadn’t really examined serialism carefully for its inherent limitations. But it seemed so fresh. However, it soon became apparent that it was Stockhausen’s exciting musical approach that was fresh, and not so much the serialism itself, to which he was then married. It became clear, later, that the methods he used were born of two special considerations that ultimately transcend serial devices: crossing tempi and metrical patterns; and, especially, the concept that treats pitch and timbre as special cases of rhythm. (Stockhausen referred to the crossovers as “contacts”, and he even entitled one of his compositions that explored this realm Kontakte.) These gestures, it turns out, are really independent from serialism in that they can be explored from different approaches.
The most spectacular approach at that time was serialism, though, and not so much these (then-seeming) sidelights. It is this very approach — serialism — however, that after having seemingly opened so many new doors, germinated the very seeds of modern music’s own demise. The method is highly prone to mechanical divinations. Consequently, it makes composition easy, like following a recipe. In serial composition, the less thoughtful composer seemingly can divert his/her soul away from the compositional process. Inspiration can be buried, as method reigns supreme. The messy intricacies of note shaping, and the epiphanies one experiences from necessary partnership with one’s essences (inside the mind and the soul — in a sense, our familiars) can be discarded conveniently. All is rote. All is compartmentalized. For a long time this was the honored method, long hallowed by classroom teachers and young composers-to-be, alike, at least in the US. Soon, a sense of sterility emerged in the musical atmosphere; many composers started to examine what was taking place.
The replacement of sentimental romanticism with atonal music had been a crucial step in the extrication of music from a torpid cul-de-sac. A music that would closet itself in banal self-indulgence, such as what seemed to be occurring with romanticism, would decay. Here came a time for exploration. The new alternative –atonality — arrived. It was the fresh, if seemingly harsh, antidote. Arnold Schonberg had saved music, for the time being. However, shortly thereafter, Schonberg made a serious tactical faux pas. The ‘rescue’ was truncated by the introduction of a method by which the newly freed process could be subjected to control and order! I have to express some sympathy here for Schönberg, who felt adrift in the sea of freedom provided by the disconnexity of atonality. Large forms depend upon some sense of sequence. For him a method of ordering was needed. Was serialism a good answer? I’m not so certain it was. Its introduction provided a magnet that would attract all those who felt they needed explicit maps from which they could build patterns. By the time Stockhausen and Boulez arrived on the scene, serialism was touted as the cure for all musical problems, even for lack of inspiration!
Pause for a minute and think of two pieces of Schonberg that bring the problem to light: Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21 (1912 – pre-serial atonality) and the Suite, Op. 29 (1924 serial atonality). Pierrot… seems so vital, unchained, almost lunatic in its special frenzy, while the Suite sounds sterile, dry, forced. In the latter piece the excitement got lost. This is what serialism seems to have done to music. Yet the attention it received was all out of proportion to its generative power. Boulez once even proclaimed all other composition to be “useless”! If the ‘disease’ –serialism –was bad, one of its ‘cures’ –free chance –was worse. In a series of lectures in Darmstadt, Germany, in 1958, John Cage managed to prove that the outcome of music written by chance means differs very little from that written using serialism. However, chance seemed to leave the public bewildered and angry. Chance is chance. There is nothing on which to hold, nothing to guide the mind. Even powerful musical personalities, such as Cage’s, often have trouble reining in the raging dispersions and diffusions that chance scatters, seemingly aimlessly. But, again, many schools, notably in the US, detected a sensation in the making with the entry of free chance into the music scene, and indeterminacy became a new mantra for anyone interested in creating something, anything, so long as it was new.
I believe parenthetically that one can concede Cage some quarter that one might be reluctant to cede to others. Often chance has become a citadel of lack of discipline in music. Too often I’ve seen this outcome in university classes in the US that ‘teach ‘found (!)’ music. The rigor of discipline in music making should never be shunted away in search of a music that is ‘found’, rather than composed. However, in a most peculiar way, the power of Cage’s personality, and his surprising sense of rigor and discipline seem to rescue his ‘chance’ art, where other composers simply flounder in the sea of uncertainty.
Still, as a solution to the rigor mortis so cosmically bequeathed to music by serial controls, chance is a very poor stepsister. The Cageian composer who can make chance music talk to the soul is a rare bird indeed. What seemed missing to many was the perfume that makes music so wonderfully evocative. The ambiance that a Debussy could evoke, or the fright that a Schonberg could invoke (or provoke), seemed to evaporate with the modern technocratic or free-spirited ways of the new musicians. Iannis Xenakis jolted the music world with the potent solution in the guise of a ‘stochastic’ music. As Xenakis’ work would evolve later into excursions into connexity and disconnexity, providing a template for Julio Estrada’s Continuum, the path toward re-introducing power, beauty and fragrance into sound became clear. All this in a ‘modernist’ conceptual approach!
Once again, though, the US university milieu took over (mostly under the stifling influence of the serial methodologist, Milton Babbitt) to remind us that it’s not nice to make music by fashioning it through ‘borrowings’ from extra-musical disciplines. Throughout his book, Conversations with Xenakis, the author, Balint András Vargas, along with Xenakis, approaches the evolution of Xenakis’ work from extra-musical considerations. Physical concepts are brought to bear, such as noise propagating through a crowd, or hail showering upon metal rooftops. Some relate to terrible war memories of experiences suffered by Xenakis, culminating in a serious wound. To shape such powerful sounds, concepts akin to natural phenomena had to be marshaled. From the standpoint of the musical classroom, two things about Xenakis are most troubling: one is his relative lack of formal musical training; the other, or flip side, is his scientifically oriented schooling background. In ways no one else in musical history had ever done, Xenakis marshaled concepts that gave birth to a musical atmosphere that no one had ever anticipated could exist in a musical setting. One most prominent feature is a sound setting that emulates Brownian movement of a particle on a liquid surface. This profoundly physical concept needed high-powered mathematics to constrain the movements of the (analogous) sound ‘particles’ and make them faithful to the concept Xenakis had in mind. There is, as a result, a certain inexactitude, albeit a physical slipperiness, to the movement of the sound particles. Nice musical smoothness and transition give way to unpredictable evolution and transformation. This concept blows the skin off traditional concepts of musical pattern setting! Its iridescent shadows are unwelcome in the gray gloom of the American classroom.
In their haste to keep musical things musical, and to rectify certain unwanted trends, the official musical intelligentsia, (the press, the US university elite, professors, etc.) managed to find a way to substitute false heroes for the troubling Xenakis. Around the time of Xenakis’ entry into the musical scene, and his troubling promulgation of throbbing musical landscapes, attendant with sensational theories involving stochastic incarnations, a group of composers emerged who promised to deliver us from evil, with simple-minded solutions erected on shaky intuitional edifices. The so-called ‘cluster’ group of would-be musical sorcerers included Krzysztof Penderecki, Henryk Górecki and Gyorgy Ligeti. These new musical darlings, with their easy methodologies, gave us the first taste of the soon-to-emerge post-modernism that has posed as our ticket to the Promised Land for the last thirty years. It seemed that, just as music finally had a master of the caliber and importance of Bach, Schonberg, Bartok and Varese in the person of one Iannis Xenakis, history and musicology texts seemed not to be able to retreat quickly enough to embrace the new saviors, all the while conspiring against an all embracing creativity found fast, and well-embedded within the turmoil of the stochastic process.
Alas, Xenakis has been exiled from American history, as much as the powers have been able to do so! His competition, those in the intuitive cluster school, became the fixtures of the new musical landscape, because their art is so much easier than that of Xenakis. Ease of composing, of analyzing and of listening are the new bywords that signal success in the music world. Those who extol such virtues herald the arrival and flourishing of post-modernism and all its guises, be it neo-romantic, clustering or eclecticism. The proud cry these days, is “Now we can do about anything we wish.” Better, perhaps, to do nothing than to embrace such intellectual cowardice.
The promise of a return to musical fragrances that walk in harmony and synchronicity with intellectual potency was precious and vital. It should signal the next phase of evolution in the creative humanities. The challenge to write about this potential of a marriage of humanities was overwhelming. No adequate text seemed to exist. So I had to provide one. All that was lacking for a good book was a unifying theme.
Algorithms control the walk of the sounds. Algorithms are schemata that work the attributes of sound to enable them to unfold meaningfully. An algorithm is a step-function that can range from a simple diagram to stochastic or Boolean functions. Even serialism is an algorithm. While they are important, algorithms take second place in importance to the focus of music: its sound. This concentration is given a terminology by composer, Gerard Pape: sound-based composition. Isn’t all music sound based? It’s all sound, after all.
Well, yes, but not really. The point of the term is to highlight the emphasis of the approach being on the sound, rather than on the means used for its genesis. In sound-based composition, one concentrates on a sound, then conjures the way to create it. In serialism, ordering takes precedence over quality. The result often is vapid: empty sound. Directionless pointillism robs music of its vital role, the conjuring of imagery, in whatever guise. The other leading practitioner of sound-based composition is Dr. Julio Estrada. In his composition classes and seminars at UNAM (Universidad National Autonoma de México), he emphasizes the mental formation of an imaginary, sort of an idealized imagery. Then the composer/students are directed to formulate a conspirator sound essence that conveys something of the élan of this imaginary. Only then, once the construct of sound is concocted, is the method of sound shaping in the form of notation employed. Understanding of imagery and of fragrance precedes their specification. This is a sophisticated example of sound-based composition.
A curious, special case arose out of the arcane methods of Giacinto Scelsi, who made explicit what long had been lurking in the background. He posited a ‘3rd dimension’ to sound. He felt that the trouble with the serialists was in their reliance upon two dimensions in sound: the pitch and the duration. For Scelsi, timbre provides a depth, or 3rd dimension, explored only rarely until his groundbreaking work. He devised ways to call for unusual timbres, and evolutions of timbre that resulted in his focusing on the characteristics of, and the transformations between (within!), attributes of single tones. Indeed, his Quattro Pezzi are veritable studies in counterpoint within single tones!
This concept of sound-based composition provided the unifying seed around which a book could be built. It would be one that could salvage something of the first principles of the union of intellectual discipline and a vibrant sound context: that is, music with meaning, challenge, discipline, ambience and something that requires courage and commitment in its conception. Such would be a music that yields special, beautiful, powerful, alluring fruits, which, nonetheless, disclose their secrets only reluctantly, demanding skillful teasing out of their magic.
This epiphany revealed a road by which we could reestablish the Xenakian ideal of musical power attainable primarily through processes that have their basis in the physics and architecture of the world around us. Here was not only the answer, the antidote, if you will, to the rigidities of serialism, but also a cure for the sloppiness of unconstrained chance composition. Here was a way out of the impasse confronting composition in the 1960s. The question should be not what method to use to compose, for that leads only to blind alleys (serialism, chance or retreat), but why compose? What is in the musical universe that can open pathways not yet explored, pathways that reveal something that stir a soul? What is the best way to accomplish that?
If we abandon the search for unique roads and for challenge, we will become the first generation ever in music to proclaim that backwards movement is progress; that less is more. Yet the very apostles of post-modernism will have us believe just that! They hold that the public has rejected modernism; the public has held modernism to be bankrupt. Post-modernists will lure you into the trap that, because of its unmitigated complexity, serialism promised only its demise. “The only road into modernism is sterile complexity; we need to root this out, and return to simplicity. We won’t have a saleable product, otherwise.” This is the thinking that gave us minimalism, the nearest relative to ‘muzak’ one can conjure in art-music. One composer, a one-time avant-gardist, actually apologized for his former modernity, on stage, to the audience, before a performance of his latest post-modern work!
There is an inscription in the halls of a monastery in Toledo, Spain: “Caminantes, no hay caminos, hay que caminar” (pilgrims, there is no road, only the travel). This was a beacon for one of music history’s most courageous pilgrims – a fighter for freedom for the mind, for the body, and for the ear: Luigi Nono. His example could serve us all well. He exposed himself to grave danger as a fighter against oppression of all kinds, not least of all the musical kind. It takes courage to create. It isn’t supposed to be easy! Nothing worthwhile ever is. It would seem to me that Nono’s example serves as the antithesis to that of the previous composer.
I examine music history of the 20th century to find clues as to why certain composers generate more excitement than others. Is it possible that sound-based composition has flourished in an intuitive way from back into the 19th century? Has it been around a while, but just not codified explicitly as such? I feel that is so. To some extent the roots of this idea can be found in the so-called nationalism of such composers as Bartók and Janacek. Nationalism has gotten something of a bad rap due to folksy, cutesy concoctions usually redolent within its environments. But, upon reflection and examination, the more rigorous efforts in nationalistic composition yield tremendous fruits. Note especially Bartók’s highly original devices of twelve-tone tonality (e.g., axis positions and special chords). Less well known, but important as well, are the special folk vocal inflections resident in Janácek’s music. These special qualities spilled over from the vocal to the instrumental writing. So it appears that we can make a strong case for sound-based composition (composition focused on special sound qualities) being rooted in the music by the turn of the 20th century.
The process of creation is the focus; not the glorification of the superficial sounds that only mimic real music. The reinstatement of Xenakis’, Nono’s, Scelsi’s and Estrada’s ideals to preeminence was crucial. The recognition of these trends, in preference to those of the more facile and easily attractive ones espoused by Penderecki, Ligeti and others, had to be ensured. The easy lure of cluster music had to be resisted.
If we don’t make this distinction clear, all that follows is nonsense. Too many people apply modernism to anything that resided in the 20th century that contained a little dissonance. That is a common error. For others, modernism exists in any era – it simply is what’s happening at a given time, and is appropriate as a description for music in that era. This, too, is wrong for its reluctance to confront the creative process.
We mustn’t yield to these impulsive descriptions, for to do so renders the profound efforts of the 20th century meaningless. There is a unifying thread in music that qualifies it to be considered modern, or modernist, and it isn’t just a time frame. Modernism is an attitude. This attitude appears periodically in music history, but it is most effectively understood in the context of creativity, most pronouncedly found late in the 20th century. Modern music is the music composed that results from research into the attributes of sound, and into the ways we perceive sound. It usually involves experimentation; the experimentation yields special discoveries that bear fruit in the act of composition. This distinction is crucial; for even though much cluster music, and some neo-classical music, contains high dissonance, their focus is reactionary. The experimental work of Schonberg, Berg, Webern, Bartok, Varese, and that of some Stravinsky, is forward-looking, in that the music is not a solution unto itself: it provides a template for further work and exploration into that area. Even more so, the works of Cage, Xenakis, Scelsi, Nono and Estrada.
The composers chosen for discussion herein are the ones I consider to be the most exemplary models in the development of sound based composition. They are as follows:
-Janacek (nationalist inflection)
-Mahler (expressionism and tone-color melody)
-Malipiero (intuitive discourse)
-Hindemith (expressionism in a quasi-tonal context)
-Stravinsky (octatonic diatonicism)
-Bartok (axial tonality, arch form, golden section construction)
-Schonberg (expressionism, atonality, klangfarbenmelodie))
-Berg (‘tonal’ serialism)
-Webern (canonic forms in serialism, klangfarbenmelodie)
-Varese (noise, timbral/range hierarchies)
-Messiaen (modes of limited transposition, non-retrogradable rhythms, color chords)
-Boulez (special live electronics instruments)
-Stockhausen (pitch/rhythm dichotomy)
-Cage (indeterminacy, noise, live electronics)
-Xenakis (Ataxy, stochastic music, inside-outside time attributes, random walks, granularity, non-periodic scales)
-Nono (near inaudibility, mobile sound, special electronics)
-Lutoslawski (chain composition)
-Scelsi (the 3rd dimension in sound, counterpoint within a single tone)
-Estrada (The Continuum)
There is so much glitter in the world, and so much noise pollution that we are being rendered incapable of reflection and of creative thought. We become mortified at the thought of a little challenge. We are paralyzed when faced with the challenge of keeping our evolutionary legacy in focus. We cannot afford to trade away quality for mediocrity, just because mediocrity is easier and more enticing. This would not be an acceptable social outcome. To live we must thrive. To thrive we cannot rest.
Entertainment is a laudable pursuit in certain settings and times. It cannot be the force that drives our lives. If a composer desires to write entertaining music, that is all right. But that composer must be honest about his or her motives for doing so. Do not write entertainment and then try to con the public by claiming this is great music. It is best to be able to discover the key to the writing of a music that can fulfill a need for tomorrow. By understanding nature, the nature of sound and the human condition, we can write music capable of conveying something essential. That goes beyond entertainment. It fulfills music’s most crucial purpose: providing a teaching role. What better way to go through a learning process than to find oneself doing so while wrapped in a cocoon of beauty? Music can be our best teacher.
It is all right to find beauty in old sources. Even Respighi can be very charming, engaging. It is also just as good to listen to soothing, euphonious music as it is to write such music. But can’t we as composers do better than this? Why can’t we give something besides pleasure to tomorrow? Young composers today are at a crossroads. They can fulfill a vital mission by helping fulfill a tradition that carries on a cultural legacy. Today’s composers must begin to dream; and then compose.
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