Would you describe yourself as a neo-romantic? Why (not)? Beth Anderson

Would you describe yourself as a neo-romantic? Why (not)? Beth Anderson

Beth Anderson
Photo by Elliotte Rusty Harold

Lots of composers never left tonality. Minimalism could be seen as the antidote to serialism or as the reinvention/return of tonality. Certainly Terry Riley‘s In C has a powerful tonality. Cage used to say that all music was tonal since it was made of tones, but he wasn’t defining it as the “arrangement of all the tones and chords of a composition in relation to a tonic.”

Melody is a whole other thing. All kinds of modern music “-isms” had “structure with respect to the arrangement of single notes in succession.” Melody didn’t disappear but it was overwhelmed by composers’ interest in timbre and process for a while.

Classical music as a whole does seem to be allowing for all possibilities, even tonality and melody, in the traditional definitions.

I used to call my work “romantic minimalism” but as it became more lyrical I changed the description to “new romantic” music, which is just another way of saying “neo-romantic“. But the creation of beauty is more important than whether the music is neo-romantic.

Here’s something I’ve previously written on the subject…


To make something beautiful is revolutionary (not low class, not easy, not a sign of low intelligence). The idea that beauty is revolution is a revelation to me. I once believed that the concept of the music was more important than the sound, that the politics of the notation was more important than the time limits of the rehearsals and therefore, more important than the sound of the performance… that the numerological equivalents for the instruments were the determining factor for instrumentation… that pitch must be explicit and rhythm improvised… that if the composer says it is so, two string players and two lighting technicians can be a string quartet… that any composition must be consistent throughout and that internal change in the piece showed lack of compositional concentration… that more than three chords in one piece meant confusion or commercial music or both… and on and on. It is a very liberating feeling to come back to my childhood definition of composition, i.e., writing down inspirations. I’ve rediscovered the part of my brain that can’t decode anything, that can’t add, that can’t work from a verbalized concept, that doesn’t care about stylish notation, that makes melodies that have pitch and rhythm, that doesn’t know anything about zen eternity and gets bored and changes, that isn’t worried about being commercial or avant-garde or serial or any other little category. Beauty is enough.

And of course, it’s a problem too. At different times in my life I have looked out and decided that Grieg‘s music was the most beautiful…that Schoenberg‘s music was the most beautiful…that Cage’s music was the most beautiful…that Oliveros‘s music was the most beautiful. Now I feel as if my own music is the most beautiful, and the feeling is one of having jumped off the cliff with my wings on. I don’t know if they are going to work, but it’s too late now. This deciding about the “most beautiful” is necessary and I think composers make decisions like this all the time. How else could they choose a style to work in and stick with it for fifty years?

Beauty means perfect to me, but it also has an additional meaning having to do with being pleasurable, rather than painful. Beauty is hard to make. The making is painful, and involves a certain amount of craft, and a relaxation of the part of the brain that says, “Don’t write that. X wrote those four notes in 1542 or 1979 or 1825 or whatever period you are worried about being influenced by.” You have to say yes to what comes out. You can scoot it around a bit, but the basic material that jumps out of you is you. If you say, “That sounds like a raisin commercial,” you are telling yourself you are trashy. You are allowing others to tell you what real art is.

Real music soars above class society. Musical careers have a lot to do with class and money, but they don’t influence society’s acceptance of the music, after the stuff has been broadcast to the people. Composers are people who create music—not concepts, not machines, not posters, not parties. It takes just as much (maybe more) intelligence to invent a synthesizer or to make a crowd-pleasing poster for your concert, as it does to make beautiful music. But doing those other activities does not make you a composer, though they may add to your career or savings account. Being a composer of playable music still does not guarantee beauty. That’s a problem you have to solve for yourself.

Beauty got a bad name some time after the First World War. Musical craft (ear training, orchestration, the real reasons for voice leading, etc.) was hardly even taught in the 1960s and ’70s, probably because of the revolt against a tradition that could allow the war in Vietnam to happen. Beauty seemed a low value in relation to life itself. But life goes on and ugliness and lack of skills and nihilism are no excuse. The destruction of the world would not improve social conditions, and making painful, ugly music will not redistribute the wealth.

Beauty is a revolution of the spirit. The euphony of the animating principle of humanity has the revolutionary power of healing, expanding, and revitalizing. Life is worth living and beauty is worth making and, in relation to current attitudes, these ancient ideas are radical. They are capable of making certain people swoon. If you think beauty is counter-revolutionary, ask yourself if you think mutilation improves the state of mind of the depressed.

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