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Much Adés About Nothing: Madness in Modernity

Any musician involved in performing contemporary music will be able to relate to this: a certain bone of contention between the manner in which music is notated and the musicians whose job it is to interpret, or indeed decypher, these scores. Much Adés About Nothing: Madness in Modernity - written by Anthony Leigh Dunstan but in the voice of someone other than himself. 

As a professional cellist of various renowned orchestras such as the BSOOh (Bilson Symphony Orchestra of Ohio), the LOLH (Lincoln Orchestra of Lincoln Heights), and the Southern Shore Shire Symphony Orchestra – SSSSO, I take issue with the archaic culture rife in newly penned “music” of today and I'd like to share my sobering commentary during a BSOOh session rehearsingThomas Adés'Polaris, aka: looking to the North Star for Some Direction.


I took my seat at the rehearsal to peruse the scores for the up-coming season: Mahler, Mahler, Mahler, Mozart, Adés, Mahler... wait who?! I immediately took the “score” to the conductor with my tentative query “Is it... modern?” (Excerpt below).


Exhibit A

Bars 225-233 a mathematical contortion test in a field of uneven sized wet droppings – almost as though a Greek architect had written it.



He suspected so. We both glared at each other with restrained terror. He too was unaware of this ghostly-being “Thomas Adés” but apparently he was told the “composer” in question was the nephew of our Associate Autistic Improvising Supervisor and in spite of being a 'wild card' submission among centuries of countless compositional mastery, he managed to clamber his way onto our music stands. Baffled yet open-minded I returned to my seat. Upon opening the first page I was horrified: a montage of squiggles and fractions the likes of which I had never seen. I turned to my cohort and asked “What fresh hell is this? Is this for real?” to which he replied “All too real. But you haven't seen the 3rdviolin part yet.”


Exhibit B


A crude joke to play on a third world desk.


Whispers scattered about the room: “A fledgling composer detected” - “rhythmic dissonance is the scarlet mark of a [newbie]...” - “It's not music if you start by drawing shapes and graphics. That's drawing!” - “I'm just going to play the top stave” - “Either a mad genius composer, or a vindictive and immature sadist. I can't tell the difference.” Another colleague remarked “hey, at least it's not alientoric.” He was referring to a composition by a meek post-war Polish composer we jokingly dubbed Lutoslaw-dicrous. The only fond memories I had of playing that piece was the fun we'd make of it. To me it seemed apt it was catagorised as 'alientoric' music. We all collectively attempted to fathom the hours of debilitating sub-dividing ahead: 1-and-2-and-3-ee-and-a-4-and-a-5-and 1-ee-and-a-2-ee-ee-and-a-a...


And this is what new fandango modern music has come to: egocentric flights of madness on the part of composers, who at best are putting players up to a practical joke, and at worst are frustrated and unfulfilled performers. We the experts are left with the under-paid under-appreciated task of realising this faintly musical drivel.


As a professional musician, this is a problem I am all-too familiar with. IBS (The Institute of Beautiful Sound) is renowned for their role in producing derisive and renegade composers utterly contradicting their name and ethos. I recall asking a composition student way back in my IBS days whether these types of rhythms were things that he heard in his mind and then translated into notation, or if they were an intellectual exercise. Unfortunately I don't remember the answer. Another composition student who was also caught writing hate-music like this explained that he was attempting to obliterate any sense of pulse in the music. Needless to say, he succeeded and was lucky that we didn't eliminate his pulse in the process.


There has to be a better way, I thought. I am aware of some institutional administrators at one such prominent music school, the Conservatory of Musical Artefacts, who are dedicated to weeding out these additive-rhythm hoodlums and preventing innocent music-lovers from having their professional career hijacked.


“It's a conservatory. We deal in conservation and preservation of archaeological and historical musical artefacts dating between 15thto the 19thcentury and ranging from materials such asMonteverdi'sL'Ariannato Richard Wagner'sRing Cycle. As you can assume from our last example, we do dabble in post-19thcentury works but that's largely because a few composers from the 19thcentury passed over into the 20thcentury, possibly by accident.” And when these culprits are caught redhanded, what do they say? “But it sounded great on a synthesiser, and the computer had no trouble reading it!” or “I thought it would be as easy as a click of a button” or “OK so I was stoned when I wrote this for composition class. But in my defence, I NEVER FOUND ANYONE WHO COULD PLAY IT”.


So what is this “music”? Bogus, is what it is. Even audience members have observed the increase in derision. Some years ago I was walking to my car after a concert where we had just played under the conductor Alsop, on which there was a gnarly modern piece the audience had to wade through to get to a Tchaikovsky symphony. Two elderly women stopped me, and said: "we loved the Tchaikovsky. We almost didn't come because we don't like the modern pieces. But we came because we figured that hey, Marin Alsop is a new music specialist, surely she will only present to us the good modern pieces and leave aside the awful ones”. Well, that obviously didn't happen! Which solidifies my point – there are no good modern pieces.


So what is to be done? I think the best result any music-lover can hope for is to avoid it. I've spent my life avoiding these ill-conceived aural assaults as a benefit to young composers who might find themselves drawn to the dark side. If they can learn that no one will play their music if it sounds like a screw-driver fell into an emphysemic blender, then perhaps they'll be prompted to write some actual music. Apart from sparing our friends and family the anguish by advising they 'leave for approximately 14 minutes after the Mahler (the third piece of Mahler's), there's not much else we can do.


Then our percussionist piped up from the back of the hall with a possible answer: “When performing, and indeed writing for orchestra, I follow the LCD approach (lowest common denominator) outlined in Arthur Weisberg's very helpful book,Performing Twentieth-Century Music: A Handbook for Conductors and Instrumentalists.(Yale University Press 1993) It is the 7 against 9 that takes this out of the realm of the ordinary (by contemporary standards). Therefore, I turn to Rafael Reina'sApplying Karnatic Rhythmical Techniques to Western Musicto solve this problem. The book tries to "show what has gone wrong pedagogically in our learning, performance and creation in western contemporary music and how the karnatic rhythmical system may be the tool we need to think and feel rhythm from a completely different angle, and turn a, say, 15:16 into a children's game!"(Rafael Reina: Composer and writer of Applying Karnatic Rhythmical Techniques to Western Music.)In the tambourine world (which I inhabit) we often see stuff like this."…Although he meant well, none of us were actually sure he knew where he was. He's been known to black out. In any case, I've included his comment here for the purposes of complete transparency.


Finally, our trusty conductor took to the podium, and before raising his baton, and, with an avuncular tone, he said 'One thing to remember: this is not music. It's a map of how to get a music-like result. And as always, "a map is not the territory it represents."' We all breathed a collective and well-rehearsed sigh of relief. We all knew, there was hope for the future.


iThomas Ades (1971) was 39 at the timePolariswas written. He studied first as a percussionist. He later excelled in piano (still performing today) then very early recognised as a composer as well as a conductor. He wrotePolaris(the piece in question) in 2010 after his 2 critically acclaimed operas ('95 and '03) and was preceded by 9 commissioned orchestral works while also writing his string quartet (2010) possibly inspired by T.S. Eliot's 'Four Quartets'.iiNote from the author: these are not entirely my own thoughts or ideas. In fact this article was inspired by an online discussion about said piece. Various comments have been sourced directly from a discussion of a public forum and many are included without editorial embellishment.


Anthony Leigh Dunstan


Discover the music of Thomas Adés on primephonic: