Here’s what bothers me. I’ve just seen a television programme that held up the symphony and the symphonic form as the pinnacle of artistic achievement in music. It was called “monumental”. It was said that the symphony was to music what Shakespeare was to the English language. None of that bothered me. It’s arguably beyond dispute. What bothers me is that the last few decades have seen a massive explosion in musical instrument design. There are now more genuinely interesting and beautiful instrument timbres available than at any other time in the history of music, yet those with the skills to compose, according to the classical tradition, simply ignore those sounds. Why?
When Mozart was alive, he embraced the new sounds that newly designed instruments were capable of making. Indeed, they had to redesign the pianoforte just to cope with the heavy metal playing technique of Beethoven and his symphonies. Why aren’t there new and interesting works, in the symphonic form, being written for these delicate and unique new sounds? Why are they shunned?
OK, there is a perception that modern instruments are not worthy of virtuoso players, but that isn’t strictly true. Many electric guitars made today are every bit as playable as the finest violin. In the hands of the right player, they can evoke a wonderful range of tones, timbres and emotions. In electronic instruments, the sounds are less playable, arguably, but with each release of the popular sampling synthesisers or modelling synthesisers, another level of subtlety is achieved. The modern sound library, coupled with a weighted eighty eight key controller, is every bit as expressive as an acoustic piano, for example. So why are there no symphonies for sampler and synth?
Perhaps it’s the audience’s fault. Perhaps it’s snobbery. There is a marked divide between those that like Renaissance art and those that like modern abstraction, but I would argue that painters are far more willing to experiment with old and new materials and media, whatever their style. In contrast, classical composers turn a deaf ear toward electronic and electric instruments, it seems.
I liked this page from Yahoo Answers: http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20110607125423AA15cWu
It covers a lot of ground, but I think it’s clear, if you read it, that there is no really compelling reason why composers in the classical tradition cannot embrace modern sounds and instruments in their works. I guess film composers do, to a degree, but these are not works that are published, promoted and performed like symphonies. They are not considered to be quite as “high art” as the symphonic form.
I think that if I knew a little more about composition and arrangement, I would be tempted to try to write a symphony for electric and electronic instruments, which hopefully would have all the qualities that make symphonies performed with the acoustic instruments of the traditional orchestra such a delight to music lovers. It’s a nice dream, in any case.
I can think of nothing more delightful than listening to a powerful, passionate, evocative symphony, in a lovely concert hall, replete with the most diverse and new sounds imaginable. I’d do the same in a living room, just like classical music aficionados do. An iPod filled with electronic and electric pieces, of perhaps twenty to sixty minutes in duration, which had movements, light and shade, drama and pathos, joy and despair, would be a wonderful thing to drown out the troubles of the day and focus my mind on my work. As much as I enjoy the rhythms and power of rock, pop and electronica, there are some times when this form of music isn’t what I hunger for.
I wonder if there are any composers out there (I know quite a few composers) that might like to have a serious attempt at writing such a symphony. I sincerely hope so. I’m not sure I can study composition and become good enough at it in time to satisfy my own desires.