Saturday, 24 November 2012

Contemporary Orchestral Music - Appealing to the 'Dark side' of Human nature?

As I sat through a concert at the University of Nottingham's Djanogly Recital Hall yesterday afternoon, I could not help but wonder what the music was trying to achieve. I am not commenting on the overall compositions and performances (for the compositions were performed well), but on how the pieces speak to the audience or whether they have set out to communicate something to the audience at all.

This concert featured Antony Clare and Sarah Watts (otherwise known as Scaw Duo), playing five pieces of contemporary music for Bass Clarinet and Piano. In the first four pieces (compositions by Theo Loevendie, Alexander Kolassa, Angela Elizabeth Slater and George Nicholson) there was immense technical ability needed for both parts. The Piano and Bass Clarinet spoke on their own terms for the most part, but sometimes managed to give us a sense of togetherness. There were complex rhythms, extreme range exploration, cluster chords, atonality, knocking on the piano, plucking of strings on the Piano and multiphonics on the Bass Clarinet... the pieces basically included a lot of modern aspects, sometimes including hints of tonality (or 'happy' chords, if you like), conventional structures and textures. With the experimentation of modern technique and systems, these pieces included almost as much aggression as you would perhaps see from a wild tiger in its natural habitat.

Listening to these pieces, live, is the source of my current thinking that the likes of atonalism and free composition in many contemporary compositions appeal to the 'Dark side' of human nature, revealing raw, intense emotions within both the composer and listener. Is there any 'happiness' in modern compositions anymore, or are compositions merely ways of experimenting and exploring the extremes of instrumental ranges, compositional elements and technical abilities? Are we to take these compositions as autonomous and simply appreciate the composer's enthusiasm for trying 'new' things, or should we connect with the intense, aggressive emotions that often arise? This of course leads to the question of programmatic vs. abstract music in a modernist world of music-makers...

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