Pianist Olli Mustonen and composer Mark Adamo are impressed with the wonders and innovations of 20th century music. But they say these pale before musical phenomena that defy time.
It's the centuries-old system of notation that Mustonen sees as the greatest innovation in music an innovation that allows "musicians today ... to follow the thoughts of, for example, Johann Sebastian Bach, as if those thoughts had been written down yesterday."
Adamo maintains it is the human presence that continues to be at the core of music's power, despite the increasing sophistication of reproduction and performance technologies.
Some might find these views surprising in light of recent history. Classical music has just come out of its most eventful and innovative century a century that saw more changes in style and technique and more new tools and instruments introduced than ever before.
With Puccini and Richard Strauss initially setting its tone, the century went on to witness the arrival of Igor Stravinsky and his epochal rhythms and dissonances; Arnold Schoenberg's 12-tone system; later, the "chance" experiments of John Cage; the electronic/philosophical forays of Karlheinz Stockhausen; and still later, the minimalism of Terry Riley, before ending with a revival of conservatism.
Technical innovations have included sound film and magnetic tape, the synthesizer, amplified instruments, digital recording and the delivery of music not only in person but on radio, television and the Internet and on the LP, VHS cartridge, CD and DVD. It has been suggested, and it may be true, that there are more professional composers alive and working today than in all past centuries. And they seem to be moving in dozens of different directions.
Importance Of The Basics
Yet Mustonen's and Adamo's views suggest that all these changes may be less meaningful than might be supposed, that they've all led us back to the basic human and technical building blocks of the art itself.
Which leads us to the question: What, at this pivotal point in its history, is the state of the art of classical music?
"I find it interesting that however significant all those mentioned important innovations in the 20th century have been, their impact still pales in comparison with the impact of an innovation made several centuries ago, namely our musical notation system," said Mustonen, a young native of Helsinki who has a growing discography as a pianist and composer. "For it is because of this simple, elegant and beautiful system, that musicians today are able to follow the thoughts of, for example, Johann Sebastian Bach, as if those thoughts had been written down yesterday."
"As far as I know, some people in the '60s thought that advancements in electronic music were going to make old-fashioned instruments redundant and uninteresting for modern composers. It doesn't seem to be happening. Some people thought that concerts would become obsolete and replaced by high-quality recordings. That has not happened either. In fact, I remember hearing a nice story about the great Finnish painter Akseli Gallén-Kallela, who, on a painting excursion in East Africa, received a visitor who had traveled for days just to inform Gallén-Kallela that there was no use painting any more, since color photography had just been invented! These stories illustrate the fact that when fascinating innovations are made, it is sometimes difficult to keep things in proportion.
"It is to be expected that comparable developments in the 21st century will cause turmoil within the business side of music life, but I believe that, without doubt, the essential values of classical music will continue to withstand the test of time. I am looking forward to the emerging century with a lot of interest and hope."
Besides his own works, Mustonen has recorded the music of Beethoven, Janacek, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and others. Orchestras that have engaged him as a soloist include the Chicago Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, London Philharmonic and Royal Concertgebouw. He has recorded for RCA and Deutsche Grammophon and now has an exclusive recording contract with Decca. His recordings have won several prizes, including the Edison and Gramophone Awards.
'We Hear More, But Do We Listen As Much?'
Like Mustonen, composer and playwright Adamo sees the innovations and evolution of the past century as accoutrements to more basic creative truths. In the latter's case, that comes down to the most basic building block of all: the human beings who do the creating.
"I wonder if the ubiquity of recording media hasn't transformed music from an art or an entertainment into a utility, much like central air conditioning and the Internet comfort, and/or distraction, on command," said Adamo, whose works include the opera "Little Women," "Alcott Portraits" for orchestra, "The Poet Speaks of Beauty, Cantate Domino," "Pied Beauty" for chorus and "Three Appalachian Folk Tunes" for soprano and chorus.
"The increased sophistication of transmission may have led to a primitivizing of attention," Adamo adds. "We hear more, but do we listen as much? All that convenience!
"Art isn't so convenient. It takes human action, human concentration, human presence no remote control exists to tame or sweeten the event. But performance art, requiring as it does the collaboration of both artists and audiences, may be able to embody for us more of what it is to be human than any electronic rendering of same, no matter how polished and available.
"As audiences become inured to a thousand glittering ways of filling the silent moments of the home-to-work commute, might they not seek out, ever the more passionately, the more difficult rewards of focused attention to a piece of live performance? It is in this hope that I and others continue to work."