There are a few things I have questioned for a number of years, paradigms of thought that seem to be contradictory, but which I believe can and should be resolved. Following are three areas I would like to explore.
1) Classical composers, generally, have stopped being performers and performers have stopped being composers or improvisers. One of my teachers at Juilliard declared that it was impossible to be simultaneously successful as a composer and a performer. Once, while playing a Mozart violin concerto in a lesson, I decided to improvise the cadenza (as Mozart would have done). I was immediately stopped and reprimanded. Upon explaining my rationale, I was told to never do it again.
Many contemporary classical composers, on the other hand, have become so theoretical in their work that the audience has stopped believing they could produce anything of redeeming quality. Instead, distrusting listeners turn to works written at least a century ago. Classical composers seem to enjoy this lack of cultural relevance, believing that every great composer throughout history has been misunderstood in one way or another, even going so far as to cite the article by Milton Babbitt “Who Cares If You Listen?” Separating themselves from live performance has led to an 'ivory tower' mentality.
In the beginning of Western art music, however, this was not the case. All composers performed on at least one instrument, and improvised profusely. I believe that it’s time for classical composers to become relevant to their audience and for performers to become more than mindless machines of other people’s creativity. Both of the above criticisms show a divergence from a genuine connection to the audience, as well as to the music itself.
My goal here is not to assert that an individual relinquish specialization in certain areas of personal strength, but rather to encourage a 're-marriage' of the composer with the performer, to close the gap between these two disciplines, allowing the performer greater freedom of spontaneous creativity while encouraging the composer to leave the protected walls of isolationism, meeting a human audience face to face in the relevance of live performance.
2) Along these same lines, there has come to be a great divide between classical music and contemporary pop styles. For a modern classical composer to engage in the process of using popular contemporary styles (say, for example, Rock or Rap) in his classical work, he would be considered a traitor to his carefully guarded heritage of strict Western art music disciplines.
While, on the other hand, those in the world of contemporary pop styles most often are uninterested in developing technique that would greatly help them navigate through the fast-paced changes that occur in popular cultural tastes. Living in an era of “one-hit-wonders” and “throw-away songs” that will be forgotten in less than a year, these contemporary artisans would greatly benefit from the time-tested disciplines of creativity that have spanned the centuries through what classical music has to offer.
So both camps are missing out. The modern classical composer should take the historic example of Bach, who took contemporary cultural expressions and built monoliths of greatness with the culturally common resources at hand. He used the dance music and popular ‘praise choruses’ of his day. What materials would he use if he were alive now?
George Gershwin succedded in bringing jazz to another level of excellence, having been thoroughly immersed in both disciplines. Phillip Glass’ work is a more recent example in the search for a common meeting ground between current styles and past disciplines.
The examples, however, are too few and far between. It seems that a majority of creators find it more comfortable to live on one extreme or the other: the ‘aristocracy’ of the modern classical composer, or the ‘hedonism’ of the modern day song-stylist.
I believe it’s time for classical composers to become relevant and for pop artists to become truly excellent.
3) Some of the greatest works of Western art music have risen from the geographical region of Germany. Although the Renaissance saw some great creativity it seems that J.S. Bach became the initiator of something completely new having synthesized the work of those who came before him, coalescing it in such a way that his work became the foundation upon which many other great composers would stand. Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Stravinsky, Bartok…it all started with Bach.
Bach, as well as his immediate successors, created music in and around Germany, just after Martin Luther had brought to light an understanding of basic Christian principles, which were subsequently widely dispersed through the miracle of the printing press. It was in this environment that the Great Western Art Music was birthed and fostered. Every town in these regions had at its center a towering church steeple. The principles taught by the Catholic Church, through imagery and liturgy, along with the theological fundamentalism brought about by Luther and the Gutenberg Bible caused the music of this era to literally be swimming in Christianity. Bach, the music minister, Handel the widely popular creator of the Messiah, Haydn with his display of “Creation”, the list goes on…Mozart, Beethoven. How many classical composers have written masses and requiems?
Did all of them live saintly lives? Besides Bach, not really, but by today’s standards, I’m sure they would have seemed prudish. What I’m saying is that Classical music is Christian at its core, or at least highly Christian-influenced, yet in contemporary classical music academia, this truth has been disdained among many as irrelevant.
How is it that some of the greatest works of music were given to us in the very fabric of burgeoning Christianity? I believe it’s time for Classical music to wake up to its spiritual roots, the very inspiration in which it was birthed. Truth be told, Bach may have done more to serve the Christian faith through his historically-echoing work than the widest-known evangelical leaders to have ever lived.
At the same time, however, the contemporary Church hasn’t seen artistic excellence to speak of, since the days of Bach. Unfortunately, it has taken a culturally reactive approach to music and art, simply following secular culture’s lead, instead of being proactive. Even those who consider themselves on the forefront of musical relevance in the Church are noticeably a generation behind what has been produced secularly.
I believe it’s time for the contemporary Church to unashamedly create new historically relevant art. But how can a future be created without a firm grasp of the past?
Another mistake that the contemporary Church has made is to disregard the rich heritage of classical resources and examples, only to toss it out for a faded image of the latest secular pop styles. The Church’s artistic motto is, “The message is sacred, but the method is not.” So it theologically cements the idea of mirroring the contemporary culture (albeit, a generation too late) as an acceptable practice. What I wonder is how far the contemporary Church will continue to follow secular art down the street of nihilism, all in the name of relevance. At some point the Church’s art should reflect the message of Christianity, and not just depend on the doctrine to do it. At some point, the Church’s art should raise a standard of excellence that surpasses the general decadence of secularism. At some point in time, the Church should realize that the inspiration (the same inspiration) that set Bach up as a catalyst for generational excellence, is still available today.
I believe that the greatest Message and the greatest Music and art should find themselves reunited in trend-setting excellence and relevance for today’s audience. It will only happen when the Church wakes up to its rich artistic heritage and realizes that the creativity from within will far surpass that which is copied from secular nihilism.