Modern composition has a reputation for experimentation and ingenuity, but are composers these days really thinking outside of the box?

Written By

Randy Nordschow

You’re thinking to yourself: Egad, with a stupid title like that, he’s finally lost it. Relax, I “lost it” years ago. The cutesy title is only meant to illustrate something that is self-referential—badum-ching! Wait, is that a tumbleweed rolling by? Anyway, no matter how humorless you may find my using the web’s uniform resource locator as the title of this prose, my intention is to illustrate something that happens a lot in modern composition and not so much in HTML: creating links that only link to themselves. Repetitive actions and simple instructions are all fine and good for computer processors, but for humans it seems a bit unhealthy.

Yet I get the feeling that composers tend to employ these sorts of tendonitis-inducing strategies—i.e. creating work that only references itself—rather regularly. String Quartet No. 5, Symphony No. 1, Sonata No. 92. Yes, these pieces often also refer to the canonical tradition of western classical music, but what about the real world? I think most artists know the importance of being aware of their current cultural surroundings, but some seem reluctant to directly react or engage in dialogue via their work—and yes, some even live under that rock, or inside that cave people are always talking about. Shutting ourselves in simply isn’t the answer. And let’s not forget what several generations of incest does to a species. If you want music performed for Pierrot plus percussion to be socially relevant, or to simply survive for that matter, you better do something, and fast.

I’m not suggesting an “Impeach Bush” oratorio or anything like that—surely it’s already been written. For the composer truly looking to break new ground, I’d suggest a peek outside the new music box in which we often find ourselves. I know early attempts at crossover didn’t go so well—yes, I’m being very kind here, even the word, crossover, makes most of us cringe—but part of me really believes that this is going to be where it’s at. As polystylistic endeavors continue to gain momentum and younger composers begin to navigate more effortlessly between genre distinctions, maybe a fresh perspective will eventually emerge. Especially if we continue to stray even further from the path we so often look back to for inspiration and guidance. Yes, tradition is important, but not nearly as important as change.