The Emergence of an International Musical Style -- Illusion or Reality

Opening Statement by Hubert S. Howe, Jr.

When I was asked to prepare a response to the question of whether an international musical style could be said to be emerging at this time, my first question was whether there could be any musical style that could be said to be emerging at this time. What would have been the response of the members of this panel if, instead of internationalism, the question had been whether national styles were emerging? or romanticism? or individualism? or even tonality for that matter?

When average people look at the contemporary music scene, they see mainly a morass. Some newspaper accounts speak of style as if it is the most important aspect of music. We hear that serialism was up, now it's down. Minimalism was important for a while, and now maybe it is less so. My question is, so what?

The process of regarding music in terms of its style is more an issue of looking for common elements between groups of works rather than for the intrinsic merits of individual pieces. As such, it suffers the fatal flaw that, even though the properties alleged to exist in certain works may indeed be true, they may not be the most important aspects of those works. Whether a piece embodies a national or international style may not necessarily even be relevant to the issues that the composers themselves think are the most important.

I do not, however, want to appear to be against the idea of an international style, because composers of our time, and of all times, respond to the same needs. There are many parallels between the modern industrial societies that gave rise to the music we are considering here today, and composers respond to the same issues in similar and different ways. Almost all contemporary music is complex, difficult, and dissonant. Composers can choose to forget the past, or to react against it, or to present the same old tunes in new surroundings, or to present the same old tunes as mutilated parodies of their former selves. If we find composers in different countries doing these same things, is this internationalism?

In line with my previous line of reasoning, however, the impression that contemporary music is complex and dissonant is surely just a first, superficial reaction. There are many types of complexity and dissonance, and an understanding of these works will involve sorting out different ways that dissonance can be treated in different compositions.

Another important condition for a sense of internationalism to emerge is the free flow of musical performances, recordings and broadcasts throughout the world, so that composers in different countries can learn what their colleagues around the world are doing. I believe that the perception of so-called "common practice", a term that is often used to describe the current times as abnormal, was due to the absence of recordings and broadcasting in the past, and to the fact that music could only be heard in live performance. "Common practice" occurred in regions that were circumscribed by the limits of the travels of the performers.

It is difficult for music critics and the public to acknowledge the stylistic complexity of today's music, which I believe is most accurately described by saying that we now have both the past and the present happening simultaneously. Rachmaninoff, a composer who is often unfortunately ignored in most books on 20th century music, was perhaps a more successful 19th century composer than most composers who lived in the 19th century. But he was a contemporary of Schoenberg. Both Schoenberg and Rachmaninoff had successful careers in different countries. Does anyone here believe that their music was international in style, or that internationalism is even important in understanding their music?

The easy accessibility of music from other parts of the world is not something that we can take for granted; in fact, the accessibility of any music that is not backed by the large commercial music establishment, even that of serious or "classical" music, is often difficult. There is a fairly free flow between the countries of Western Europe, North America, Japan, Australia, and the industrialized world. Before 1991, there was much less available to and from the countries behind the iron curtain, and there is still considerable difficulty in learning about the music of the non-industrialized world. We must still remember that, in our daily lives, we hear almost no contemporary music, and most of our experience takes place at conferences such as this.

In closing, I want to say that part of the attractiveness of this subject for a panel like this is that people in the United States tend to be insensitive to nationalism in music, because our own country does not have the same kind of identity as the countries of the old world. Our country was founded by immigrants from all parts of the world, a fact that we are increasingly reminded of by the academic debate about multiculturalism, and our cultural life includes a little bit of everything. Should a new musical work be considered a new Polish composition? or Japanese composition? or just a new work? Is the question of whether the work has an international style simply a way of ignoring, or denigrating, its other qualities?

My own view is that style is something that should be asked only about one composer at a time.