Sunday, May 24, 2009

Better than good

As I write this, I'm on Spotify listening to some music by the British composer Nicholas Maw, who died recently, a bit of news I only came across yesterday. I never met him, and only knew him by a few of his pieces, and yet I am inexplicably saddened by his passing. Maybe it's that he was the same age as my father, and hadn't struck me as being old or infirm, not least because his vigorous music never seemed to lose its energy and drive as he aged. Perhaps it's out a sense of solidarity with an expatriate composer who apparently had some initial difficulty making his way in his home country. More, though, it's out of a sense that he never quite received the respect he deserved, especially toward the end of his life. Many of the obituaries mention an onset of dementia, not helped by depression in the wake of the critical drubbing of his opera Sophie's Choice, which I have yet to see. Whatever the merits of his work, it's sad to hear of a penetrating creative mind like that wasting away.

Make no mistake, it doesn't seem that he was treated unfairly during his career, or maliciously sidelined in favor of composers writing in a more fashionable aesthetic. He was granted, and took notable advantage of opportunities that most composers would love but likely never come close to. He got high-profile gigs writing for major musicians, and had champions. It just seemed that the critical reaction to his music never appaeared to lose a snide edge, as if it were completely acceptable to respect his craft, but poo-poo his musical language. I find this tends to happen to composers who hew more closely to traditional practices. It's much easier to compare a more mainstream-sounding piece to the centuries of canonical works it resembles than it is to dissect the work of a more sui generis artist, one with a less palpable connection to the canon of their discipline. With music like Maw's, that dared to go up against the weight of tradition explicitly, it always seems much easier to declare a piece overlong, sentimental, retro, or simply a flop.

Maw's music is indeed well-crafted, dramatic, logically constructed, brilliantly orchestrated stuff that generally stays close to the linear drive of the fin-de-si├Ęcle music it most closely resembles. In my limited experience with his work, it was always satisfying, rewarding listening, with no holes or obvious compositional flaws. It's good music. But it's not just good. It's surprising. And that's the highest compliment I can pay any music. Even in Maw's most conservative-sounding pieces, you can hear a composer straining against the boundaries of his technique, always mining his material for hidden corners of expressive meaning. It's abstract, but never impersonal or rhetorically generic in the way that a lot of contemporary heart-on-sleeve music can sound, and I always got the impression that, whatever the dimensions of the piece, formal decisions never came easily for him. His pieces take surprising turns, carrying one off in unexpected directions that nonetheless make the journey more interesting, kind of like taking time on a long road trip to take the slower, but infinitely more scenic route down a particularly lovely bit of coastline. Such moments in Maw tend to be genuinely touching, deeply moving, not in that saccharine, sentimental neo-Romantic way, but proceeding from a place of dramatic and emotional honesty, a kind of rigorously prepared artlessness, that enabled him to get away with it. Indeed, there was nothing "neo" about Maw's music, if by that prefix we mean the revival of an idea whose time is gone. He was the real deal, a man practicing a tradition that never died. Many of the obits also reflect this.

It all speaks of a composer willing to take risks, to always write at the outer limit of his technique and dramatic concept, and it's the trait that I find makes interesting most of the music I really value. Creating big, logical forms is a great thing, and admirable thing, but the willingness to defy logic, to suspend the working out of a large-scale idea for a dramatic side trip – a single chord, a fragment of melody that seemingly doesn't belong, a tiny, gentle interlude – that may technically weaken the structure, but nonetheless adds untold dimensions of emotional weight to a piece, strengthening its argument. Although Maw tends to be mentioned in the same breath as Bruckner, I find his outlook to be more of a piece with Mahler, a similarly risk-taking composer. Both tended to grapple with big ideas, sometimes at the risk of formal cohesion, but if you can deliver an argument with sufficient expressive weight, it makes more superficially integrated, organic music seem ascetic in comparison. As I recently told a student who asked me about some of his music, I'll always respect well-made, tightly woven music – even to the point of jealousy – but music that assumes a great degree of structural and expressive risk is the stuff I love.

I've been reluctant in the past to take on so-called "big ideas" in compositional debate, mostly because I like to do my thing and be let alone, and generally only come out swinging when some camp or other tries to deny my right to do that, or the possibility that an opposing aesthetic may actually have something to contribute. My deepest aesthetic convictions are private and instinctive to the point where I find it difficult to articulate them, hence my blogging silence lately. But in one of the recent articles on Maw, I found a big idea I'm happy to sign on to:

"What I want to do is sing the great song of our existence on this planet[...]" "It's a ludicrous ambition, but it's one of the few that are worth trying."

Rest well, Mr Maw. I and others will do our best to carry that torch.