Cool Sounds
(This text first
appeared on the nu:nord blog.)

After returning from Graz last year, where I attended Impuls, I found myself troubled. I had just heard young composers from all over the world, and they all seemed to be doing exactly the same thing, at least superficially – and that thing was not altogether different from what I was doing. As I thought about this problem, I realized the stakes weren’t limited to personal ones, i.e. threatening my “beautiful and unique snowflake”-ness (as it’s put in
Fight Club). What’s actually at stake is we composers losing the ability to use certain things we’ve developed little fetishes for in our music, as well as creating obstacles to the enjoyment of some of the music that made us lust after them in the first place.

Of course, composers from all over doing similar things is not in and of itself bad. It could signal a new era in art music, the construction of a new paradigm to rival the depth and complexity of the one we’ve “freed” ourselves from. A new golden age. What troubles me, then, isn’t that many composers appear to be arriving, after a century of fragmentation, on some similar concerns, but that these concerns appear wholly
superficial, and seemingly destined for quick obsolescence. This admittedly speculative, and subjective, reading has been reinforced by conversations with many composers over a long period of time. My generation seems to think just using a few cool sounds somehow completes our task, which is to say there is a danger that the beauty of our music becomes limited to the beauty already inherent in the sounds we use, some of which is even negated in the process.

A case to prepare the ground: In
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, after the introductory flute solo, Debussy writes a harp glissando as the orchestra enters. I’m sure at the time this was a nice, fresh effect, and probably a very good idea. However, because it’s an easy thing to throw in, it quickly became cliché, not least thanks to the flashback/dream sequence television trope which emerged a few decades later. The result of all this is that we can no longer use the effect (without irony), and that some of the source – the Debussy, for example – has had an obstacle placed in its enjoyment (and not in a good way), requiring historical perspective and somewhat detached listening to resolve. It surely happens that an ordinary listener thinks, “Well, that was sure a cheesy effect”, even when listening to Debussy or Ravel – as I did the first time I heard the piece, a reaction that prevented me from seeing it as the great work it is.

There are of course numerous other examples, including what I fear I witnessed in Graz happening to the broad class of sounds introduced by Lachenmann and his “softer side” and student, Sciarrino, among others. Lachenmann came by his techniques honestly, which is to say they were necessary to the music he wanted to write, and integral to its meaning, both musically and extramusically. What I see my generation doing is turning these subversive interrogations into the act of playing an instrument into pretty colors on a palette (a trend admittedly already started by Sciarrino himself), to be selected on a whim because they sound cool. I notice my generation spending an awful lot of time individually assembling large catalogues of sounds – by way of voracious, cursory score study, youtube binges, and bugging performers with “can you?” questions – toward the apparent goal of what is essentially just a big bag of tricks, to be loosed from the sleeves when need be. To me, the primacy of this activity helps to suggest the widespread superficiality I am getting at.

(As with the Debussy,
Mouvement is a well-made piece of music, and as such, is resistant to corrosion by cliché, but not immune.)

So, we composers have a dilemma of sorts. How do we use the sounds we have come to rely on without contributing to their obsolescence or decline into cliché, and therein also retroactively problematize the music that introduced them to us? In a way, we have a responsibility not unlike doctors who prescribe antibiotics, who must use them sparingly to prevent “superbugs”.

The full answer is no doubt complex, but I think it must involve this:
be less superficial. I would make this simple appeal to all my fellow composers (and try to keep it in mind myself). Almost everything we have to say about good music does not apply directly to its sound, but to the organizations, dynamics, and metaphors it articulates – so why are we so obsessed with collecting sound effects?

This is not to say cool sounds aren’t useful, even in works with high artistic integrity. They can, for example, serve as an enticement, like an attractive host visible through the doorway of a restaurant, beckoning passersby to come in. However (under this analogy), pretty soon the diners will turn their attention to the food, the quality of which relates little to the attractiveness of the host, and more to the skill of the chef. It is that skill that puts connoisseurs at the tables night after night, ordering wine and participating in sparkling conversation. The problem with a cliché, then, is that it drives people away before they taste the food (like sighting a rat scurrying out of the kitchen). They turn people off and shut their listening down. And it creates an easy excuse to dismiss a piece outright.

Of course, all this doesn’t apply only to Lachenmannesque sounds. It is, and always has been, a danger inherent in every choice we make, whatever our stylistic preferences. Do we go for the easy move, splash on an effect or color, to compensate for the lack of something deeper – or do we turn our attention to constructing that deeper thing? (Robin Maconie, paraphrasing Stravinsky: “One never thinks of Beethoven as a superb orchestrator because the quality of invention transcends mere craftsmanship.”) Indeed, if extended techniques and colorful effects are crutches, the composer who walks the longest without leaning back on them gets the farthest.


In the end, good music can be written using any sounds (or, in special circumstances, non-sounds) – the problem I have tried to identify with respect to Lachenmannesque sounds is essentially the problem with clichés in general – that they stop people from listening, and thus from appreciating the larger-scale meaning of the music. And I’ve tried to illustrate another, less obvious problem, the problem of things becoming cliché
after they are written, and the corrosive effect that has on the music. I don’t think it’s too strong to say that we have a responsibility to those composers who came before us to avoid problematizing their music retroactively – the way TV composers did to aspects Debussy and Ravel – and perhaps a similar responsibility to each other.

All these comments place a lot on the shoulders of composers, so the last thing I’d like to do here is place some responsibility on the listener as well. Just as we as composers should avoid cultivating clichés, we as listeners should attempt to listen past them, in spite of them, because perhaps the real meaning of the work is not cliché – perhaps it is at that larger-scale level (the level of greatest poetry, it seems to me) that the composer is saying something unique and important. My appeal to “be less superficial”, then, goes out equally to listeners and composers alike, and can be challenging in either role.