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Composer Sets New Tone in Move From Modernism

July 3, 2008

By Mark Kanny, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Jul. 3–Not all contemporary composers aspire to write “beautiful things,” but Paul Moravec does. For much of the 20th century, many composers were suspicious of the call for beautiful music because they though it was pandering to the audience and limiting to their self-expression.

Moravec is one of the “new tonalists,” following a path away from 12-tone or atonal music. It has brought him great success, including the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for music.

The second week of Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble — Theatre of Music concerts will be capped by performances of Moravec’s “The Time Gallery” on Friday and Saturday night at City Theatre, South Side. The program also includes “Arches” by Kevin Puts, “Etudes” by Ryan Francis and “Arrows” by David Heuser.

Moravec, 50, was born in Buffalo and educated at Harvard and Columbia universities. He lives with his wife in New York City and is professor and chair of music at Adelphi University in Garden City on Long Island.

He wrote “The Time Gallery” in 2001 after seeing an exhibit of time-keeping machines at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England. The four movements of his piece are “Bells,”"Time Machine,”"Pulse: The Feeling of What Happens” and “Overtime: Memory Sings.”

The English exhibit inspired the composer “to write a piece about time, because that’s the natural medium of music. Composers and musicians shape time in the way a sculptor might shape clay or marble. Time is the natural medium of music and memory the mediator. … What the composer does is play on the listener’s memory to make sense. Without memory, it’s impossible to make sense in music. It’s essentially an abstract (medium),” he explains.

Moravec goes so far as to say that the programmatic aspect of “The Time Gallery’s” second movement — “a history of timekeeping devices from 1300 to the 20th century” — is not essential. “One could listen to this entire piece not even knowing the title or any of the associations I bring to the piece. There are no words to it. I think of extra-musical associations as enhancement.”

The move away from modernism in the music started gaining strength in the mid-’70s, most radically by the minimalists. The thing Moravec says he never understood about modernism is “the fetish it attached to technique,” specifically use of the ‘right’ technique.” For him, 20th-century iconic modernists such as Arnold Schoenberg, who invented 12-tone music, “added a whole bunch of tools to our toolbox we can use as we need.”

Moravec says, “One of the problems of modernism was the exclusivity of it, the intolerance toward the use of certain techniques that were not allowed. For me, music, artistic expression, is about freedom. Why limit yourself? (Breaking modernism’s limits) is a healthy development in the age we now live in, which, for lack of a better word, we call post-modernism.”

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