Sunday, January 09, 2005

Facing down the Either/Or question.

The third way. Posted by Hello

The members of the Paul Bailey Ensemble have been introducing themselves via Bailey's blog by answering a series of questions. A couple of them got me thinking:

Both of these questions pose two composers as a binary litmus test of one's sensibilities. One pair from the early 20th century and one pair from the late 20th century. Two pairs of composer that every current composer, for better or worse, cannot avoid orienting their own works relative to. And yet it seems unfair to pick one over the other in each case.

The first is: Schoenberg or Stravinsky. At one point these imposing figures really did seem to represent two opposing paths for new music. It's interesting that each performer who has posted so far has favored Stravinsky. Superficially it's a parallel to the question of head versus heart with Schoenberg's 12-tone methodology standing in for intellectual rigor while Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" calls up "primitivism" and more visceral forces. The comparison along those lines falls apart as each began to resemble the other late in their careers.

The second is: Reich or Glass. A completely different dichotomy altogether. It's interesting to me that each performer thus far has favored Reich (with several disclaimers and caveats). It seems infinitely unfair to reduce the late 20th century to a single pair of New York minimalists. And yet they are perhaps the most "famous" of late twentieth century composers with Reich receiving a Grammy for his Different Trains and Glass scoring major Hollywood films.

So how would I answer these questions? I'd have to cheat. In each case and each era there's always been a third way that addresses the strengths and weaknesses of the original pair. If asked "Schoenberg or Stravinsky" I would have to say I feel closer to Bela Bartok. If asked "Reich or Glass" I would have to say Terry Riley.

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