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No part of human culture is an island, which is why there’s such a close link between our era’s unshakeable faith in scientific progress and technological innovation.
It’s no surprise that today’s composers feel similarly compelled towards the new, the unexplored, the unusual.
In his recently published memoir, Unheard Of, Toronto composer John Beckwith mentions at least a half-dizen time how he tried to not repeat himself in a new work. It’s a mantra for most contemporary composers.
It’s also something I’ve heard many times from the musicians devoted to commissioning and performing new music.
But there are two prices to pay for this fetish for the new, I think: Superficiality on the part of the coposer, and alienation on the part of a potential audience.
To prove that point, I’d like to point to two of the most widely embraced of today’s composers, both basking in a bright and creative autumn: Arvo Pärt and John Cage. They were great innovators in their youth, then settled down in middle age to work over their favourite compositional ingredients over and over again.
It has given them an opportunity to realise how much musical variety can be gleaned from very few notes, and it has given their audiences an opportunity to catch up with, and learn to appreciate, their aesthetic.
This, of course, is anathema to anyone looking for the thrill of teetering on the bungee-cord precipice of the leading edge. Art is meant to shake up, to provoke, to open previously unknown paths.
We are, as a culture, obsessed with the new, but it takes on the shallowest scratch on the surface to discover that what we all seek is comfort and continuity — flowers, sunsets, barbequed ribs, cheesecake and a bit of Mozart.
So what does a composer do? Either give in and write film scores, or concert pieces at which serious critics will turn up their noses or bravely go where their instincts and sense of adventure lead them. It’s a crazy tightrope that, most days, is actually quite thrilling to walk.
All of this turmoil an turbulence is, interestingly enough, contained in Toronto composer Brian Current and librettist Anton Piatigorsky’s opera, Airline Icarus — our collective love and fear of flying captured in music.
Here it is, introduced by Current, then presented in an Itlian performance over three video clips: