08 Mar 2018


What composers must not do?


As a composer I have throughout my working life been aware of “taboos” [A social or religious custom prohibiting or restricting a particular practice…OED] relating to what composers must not do if they are going to be taken seriously.

 This is by no means a new situation: every age in music history has had its own “rules” concerning what is acceptable, i.e. would be deemed “good craftsmanship” and what is not.  When I taught 16th century counterpoint on a B.Mus. course I usually had to start by listing a number of things that were not done: e.g. no consecutive 5ths or 8ves, no notes tied to longer notes, no melodic diminished or augmented intervals etc., etc. The number of things that could be done seemed to be far smaller.

That rule about 5ths & 8ves was more or less obeyed right up to the end of the 19th century, although all the great composers broke it at times, but by 1900 or so it was being deliberately defied by the generation of composers born around 1860-80, as for example Puccini, Debussy, Ravel, Vaughan Williams and so on.  Indeed the use of these parallel intervals was so over done that they again became relegated to the list of unacceptable harmonic devices!

By the time I began to study composition [at the old Guildhall School of Music - first as an under- graduate with Buxton Orr and later with Patric Standford] a whole new set of taboos was in place:  Out was tonality, sing-able melody, consonant harmony, easily assimilated structures [assimilated by the listener that is]. In were the use of serial technique, disjointed melody, totally dissonant harmony, rhythms that were difficult to perform and structural methods that were not easily “heard”. Anything that audiences actually enjoyed was suspect.

Now the whole point about taboos is that they are essentially illogical. If they were not then they would not be needed.  Rather they tend to be reactionary in nature: the accepted norms in one period become the taboos in another, as for example that restriction on consecutives mentioned above. To the medieval ear they were perfectly normal and enjoyable- but no doubt over-used. But by the 16th century they were deemed to militate against the independent movement of voices and so were “forbidden”.


So, what of today’s taboos? As I write [2017] there do not seem to be many. Almost anything is accepted in today’s contemporary music that freely draws on stylistic references to every past idiom from the medieval up to 1960s-70s minimalism. If there is one very widespread idea- and most critical writing endorses it strongly-it is a condemnation against what I can only term “anonymity”. Today every composer must be original- even to the point of idiosyncrasy. The result of this is that old fashioned technical adroitness is so often discarded in favour of a desperate search for being different from anyone else. We begin to see this trend as far back as the 19th century with a divergence in style between composers such as Brahms and Wagner, Saint-Saens and Debussy, Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky etc. This search for individuality accelerated through the 20th century until today it often seems like the only thing that matters when the worth of a composer’s output is assessed. In recent times composers have been expected to have private and individual musical “languages”. Characteristic examples are: Messiaen, Varese, Stravinsky, Webern and Stockhausen among many others.  Of course composers do influence each other [and always have done so] but any sense of belonging to a wider stylistic “school” such as the 18th century Classical, the Stile moderno and Stile antico of the Baroque and Renaissance eras and the Ars Nova of the 14th century has not been encouraged- the focus mostly being on the unique personal voices of these and other figures.

My own humble position is that of phases in my work that can be seen as reactions against earlier trends. For example, from about 2009 or so, I began to make use of good old 12- tone serial technique. I just thought I’d give it a try, and first results were not satisfactory. But with perseverance  I began to be more adept at its use- albeit in my own way, using the series more as a springboard for ideas rather than strictly. However, probably as a reaction to all this, I have recently very much simplified my style. As a result of finding a lot of music that could not be regarded as contemporary, but not commercially popular either, and that made free use of tonal material, I realised that there were other ways of making viable and [hopefully] interesting music without a constant search for personal originality and without using any kind of “system” as a prop.

Another factor that has led to this process of simplification is the frequent inability of performers to give really good accounts of new works- either through technical limitations and/or limited time for rehearsals or just disinterestedness.  And even when first performances are good, subsequent performances seldom happen, most likely because there are always many other works waiting “in the wings” for an airing.

Hence my present desire to keep every aspect of a piece as simple and accessible as possible but still [I hope] making something of interest to performers and listeners.

MJR 08/17



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