Monday, June 17, 2002

What's Wrong?

Is there something wrong with people being good to other people? Oh, I know, that sounds far too much like Oprah and the "random act of kindness", but really, all I want to know is if there is some genetic predisposition within us that enables us to betray each other with ease — as if it is the easiest thing in the world to do.

As we are bombarded with news reports I seem to see a pattern emerge, and it all seems to be a variation on a simple theme: people all over the world taking every chance they can to hurt their neighbours. It seems to have become the modern "blood sport" to see just how much you can get away with before the law catches up with you — and if you are caught the game then becomes to find the best defense that deflects all responsibility away from the person who committed the violent act so that nobody every has to be personally accountable for anything.

It is so terribly sad.


There is something attractive to me about the idea of total randomness — of something moving along on its own without being constrained by a pre-ordained set of rules or a specific criteria established to control its eventual outcome.

For some people this is, perhaps, a frightening concept: the abandoning of control. Or it could, if taken to the extremes, represent a total disintegration of all law as we know it and, in turn, allow for the beginnings of a totally chaotic, or even anarchistic type of government. But I am really just talking about a method of composition: not some great metaphysical dilemma encompassing every aspect of the social order.

My idea of randomness, or perhaps chaos, relates to the way it has influenced composers dating as far back as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart who rolled a set of dice in order to generate melodic material for his music. We wouldn't think of Mozart as a composer of aleatoric music in the same sense way as John Cage or other composers of the twentieth century, but the tradition and technique extends back for centuries.

A composer who wants to experiment with random elements in their music has countless tools available to them, from computer programs which will, literally, compose music given a set of specific parameters, through to the use of fractal algorithms, to more "traditional" means, such as using sets of dice to determine the pitch of the notes and even the rhythms in the music. The level that a composition can be given over to the chaos is really only limited to the particular abilities of the composer, or the limitations of their imagination.

Whatever method a composer decides to use, the quest for an "aleatoric style" leaves a composer with a daunting challenge: do they face the paragon of musical chaos, John Cage, or do they seek to find their own voice amongst the erratic happenings, and in so doing hope to create a piece that has some enduring value — something worthy of being revisited time and time again.

Supporting the Modern Composer

There is a certain desperation amongst modern composers, I believe, in that the audiences to whom new music is being directed have become jaded by the availability of acoustic perfection as found through studio recordings. Everyone has access to their favourite music — so there is no longer an urgency for people to go to concerts: music will still be there tomorrow. At one point the concert hall was practically the only place where a person could go to hear a performance of large-scale works, but now the sound of the symphony can be heard coming from any personal stereo — and new music gets relegated to obscurity.

A person going to a concert faced with a programme of unfamiliar music must ask themselves "why should I subject myself to this new music?" Why indeed — the reason is simple: Because it is alive. We easily forget that Mozart and Beethoven were modern in their day, not all of the music that is embraced today came into the world so peacefully. Some of the most loved works of Tchaikovsky were condemned by the critics: but the performers persisted and the audiences learned that there was something in the music worth hearing.

We cannot allow "new music" to be so easily condemned: the only way that we will see the continuation of the art is to understand that artistic progress comes through continued experimentation, and artistic growth comes through allowing artists to develop their abilities in a supportive atmosphere. Creative work cannot be done in a vacuum, and no matter how many people hear the performance of a new composition it is vitally important to support the production of new music concerts, giving composers venues for their ideas and allowing audiences to hear what the future is producing.