Siren Sounds Waltz

A lovely piece with a charming preface. In her introduction, talented Alma Deutscher shares how she has been cautioned against writing beautiful music because “in the 21st century, music should reflect the ugliness of the modern world.” Instead, she decided to take some ugly sounds and to turn them beautiful, through music.

Pros and cons “beautiful music” in 21st century? Anyone?

The question of the role and nature of contemporary music is an old question branching wide and far. The suggested binary ugly but true to its times music vs music that makes the ugly times beautiful, intruduces two sides of this question as a dichotomy, but these two sides don’t even partake in the same discourse. The former one emerges from the notion of musical meaning as socially constructed, negotiated through homology-based approaches on the premise that music reflects patterns in society through its own material and according to its own laws; it reflects the Adornian idea that the music work could be understood through the “mimetic conjecture”: through its capacity to reflects “contradictions and tendencies” in society. The second part of the dichotomy – that music (should be used to) make things beautiful is much older: from Plato’s times music has been suspected in misuse of power – thinkers were convinced that music has the ability not only to reflect and represent but more importantly to build and create moral character – and as such, it should be controlled by the State which is to allow only (positive, healing, beneficial, life-affirming) beautiful music.

Reflection or Creation. Big questions. Instead of digging in, we could follow two other lines of the argument. It is true that the postmodern composers from the 90s and the beginning of 2000s managed to tire everyone with eclectics, wit and cleverness, with ironic multyfaceted works. More and more composers nowadays reach toward the expressive tools of an informed neoromantism, it seems Alma is one of them. Like metamodern composer Vincent Meelberg, they ask “What if I want to compose something that is simply beautiful? Am I allowed?” There is a fear that should you do that you will be stigmatized as superficial, sentimental, or worse – cheap! To avoid that many shy away from melodic, consonant, even tonal music and close themselves in the structures of some compositional system. Dutch composer Jacob Ter Velthuis (“the Andy Warhol of new music”) admits that it was only when he turned 50 that he dared to write the music he always wanted to compose, to stand against the superuse of the dissonant in the past 40-50 years. Now, he “peppers” his music “with sugar”.

On the other hand, there is a historical tension and tangible expectation that art music has a mission, that if you are not able to offer anything original, novel, in a word, meaningful – whatever that means – then you will never become a great composer (the question of course is, should you strive to become a ‘great composer’ and if so, why?). Alma’s Waltz is charming and lovely. To me most interesting is its first part, with the sirens and before the ‘real’ waltz. The valse music is ‘just’ a pretty music, like thousands of other valses and little tunes from 19th centuries – it may have made from the ugly sounds a beautiful music, but has not it in the process robbed the sirens from their individuality, squeezing the scary and dangerous into the impossible lightness of being-a-waltz? What does this music say to me in 21st century? Heal the world, make it a better place? with grenadine and old lace?

And so it is a thin line to walk – between the desire to write melodic, ‘beautiful’ music and at the same time to find your own voice, to leave your own mark in the great tradition of art music. Alma Deutscher is not afraid of ‘beautiful music’, and that is good! I am curious where she goes and how she is to evolve from here.

Balzac was
obviously a great writer, but what interest is there in creating novels today like Balzac created
them? Moreover, that practice sullies Balzac’s novels, and that’s how it is in everything.

Gilles Deleuze

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