Inside 20th-century music
A sigh of relief.
That is a fair-to-apt description of the climate in both the worlds of painting and music composition over the last dozen years or so. It's been a sigh of relief at the demise of the dictatorial influence of Abstract Expressionism in painting, and of Twelve-tone Serialism in music, the demise caused by the dawning awareness that not all true statements in either art had to come filtered through those particular styles.
And on the breath of that sigh, in music, all kinds of modes of expression have come to prominence and respect. Aleatoric (chance) music, more sophisticated electronic techniques (including computer composing), so-called neo-Romanticism, and Minimalism, along with other trains of musical philosophy, have been paid a lot of attention, all in a grand pluralistic grab bag, a kind of joyous anarchy celebrative of freedom of expression such as music has never seen before.
For the most part, all this tolerance has made for a healthy time, certainly a better one than the day when conforming was a do-or-die proposition. One element has developed from pluralism, however, that is causing a few people to look around and wonder a bit. We entered this anything-goes phase with the sense that, after a time, some new mode of common practice would synthesize, and we'd have our post-serial answer as to where music was headed. But, as has been said of the American culture today, what we, in our variety, have arrived at is not a melting pot but a salad bowl, and it looks as if it's here to stay.
Now, all this is quite confusing to onlookers, and one begins to wonder, in times of cornucopius confusion like this one, whether anyone is giving attention to the more lasting, enduring elements of the art - those things that remain true for art music at, and in, all times.
I'm talking, of course, about musical statements that are so personal, so direct and heartfelt, that they tend to defy serious classification and turn our thoughts away from questions of historical placement to more profitable levels of experiencing music.
In short, a sense of feeding and protecting is something humanity will probably always return to music for - each of us at some point. And when all our flash and chic and cleverness and erudition and monumentality and avant-gardism have been indulged, there will still have to be some music that gives a gentle glimpse of balm that fuels everything else.
The music of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich is a case in point. In the handful of pieces that form her output to date, we hear a voice that is as sympathetic to the human condition as it is individual.
Oh, it's possible to point to the origins of some of her musical affections and the compositional creeds from which she has come. Although Ellen Taaffe Zwilich is not a twelve-tone serialist herself, her music obviously grew out of the strict serialist approach to sound, out of the '50s-'60s international, atonal, aural ideal that pervaded music for so long.
But each new work by her steps further away from that approach, toward something that flirts with tonality, but, above all, exists as a frank, warm statement that is both enchanting and inviting. A very involved, intensely passionate quality is a healthy leftover from the more Viennese-serial-sounding works (such as the String Quartet of 1974), but there is always a wide line drawn between the sensitive and the merely sentimental or maudlin.
I am normally scrupulous about not getting involved in male-female distinctions in art, but I am willing to risk going out on a limb to say what I have to say. And that is, that Ellen Taaffe Zwilich's music has the very womanly , tender, nurturing qualities music seems to need so badly just now. (And, for that matter, what facet of humanity doesn't these days?) No, none of her music is the slightest bit like a cream puff - far from it. But a work like the Chamber Symphony (1979) is stunning in its poignance, in its dealing, positively , with the profound subject of death and renewal.
Passages (1981), a song cycle for soprano and chamber ensemble, also reveals a tender caring and an understanding that is maternal in the best sense. The Symphony No. 1, premiered just this year, shows even more growth in subtlety and the spinning of long, ardent lines out of very simple material.
In these musical times, everyone is enjoying the smorgasbord of individuality that occupies the creative front. But I often hope, as much as I love the variety too, that we can begin to move a little faster, and get on with what ought to be the business at hand - that is, the much more direct addressing of all the tones of the human experience, at levels accessible only to music.
It's easy, especially when looking for the heroic, to overlook the spots where these deeper feelings are being gently cherished, mothered, and, in a way, preserved - perhaps in survival to a more above ground day, but, in the case of the music of Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, with an affection and quiet strength that have the mark of genuine art.
* Recordings: three works, including Chamber Symphony, on Cambridge CRS 2834.