I've heard it a hundred times. People wonder where classical music went, and a cynic tells them "that kind of music" is dead, killed by serialism. Tonal, non-serial music, we are told, is too naïve, or perhaps too beautiful, to have survived modernism (read: World War I).
Somewhere, in one of the darkest corners of the right end of the blogosophere, I ran into Richard T. Hill. (I think it was in a tract someone wrote about how black metal is a conservative revolution in music.) He is an eclectic musician.
Your idea of eclectic may be one of those ska musicians who does a little reggae on the side, or a modern jazz guy who does a little swing, or a doom metal head who dabbles in death metal too. Richard T. Hill plays a guitar in a band and composes formal music for strings, winds, and piano. It's no gimmick, either; this is no Guns and Roses backed by the London Snoot-Harmonic. This is the real mccoy - melody, harmony, classical timbres, and form.
For this post, I'll review his String Quartet No. 1: Iberia. Other reviews will follow.
Hill's treatment of melody is classic. By that I mean it recalls exactly what I want to hear when I am listening to classical music - a melody that is not too sweet but not abstruse. If you can imagine your bubblegum pop song tasting like bubblegum, and your university-approved pantonal serial thingumbob tasting like the pages of your nine-grade algebra book, Hill's melodies taste like a filet mignon in a Béarnaise sauce. (This is what happens when you read music reviews by people who have no education in the subject - you get food analogies.)
The handling of mood is also classic and kept me coming back. For some reason, when the mood becomes sad toward the end of the first section, it is always a little bit of a surprise, which engages me toward the piece as a whole rather than leaving me just coolly noting "That's a nice melody." Unchanging mood is a huge turnoff and why I can't get into minimalism or serialism (if the mood changes it is in way that is too abstruse for me). I feel like the same mood leads off the last section and then transforms.
The harmonies are not as easy to digest. They show hints of modernism, a little dissonance here and there. The effect is to lighten the piece somehow, not to make it comical, but to show that Hill isn't trying to imitate old-fashioned harmonic rules.
Hill's use of pizzicato (he devotes one of the piece's four sections to it), is quite ambitious. In my experience it is unusual for such extended use of this technique, which is used sparingly most of the time it is encountered. The pizzicato conversation between Hill's strings continues, carrying the listener through the piece's least emotional ideas.
Then of course we are treated to a tango which is the only revisitation of the original melody which was obvious to me. It is classical music as it should be - a voluptuous melody is established and superseded until the music becomes unrecognizable. The composers teases us with beautiful timbres in unfamiliar melodies which refuse to repeat what we so want to hear again - for a time. When the sweetness returns we want to cheer, if only it were that kind of music.
Invent beauty. Declare it boldly. Develop it in several directions - don't be afraid to get cerebral. Then bring back the simple beauty. This form seems to have been forgotten by the hyperformalist composers of the academy. Why even bother to write a nice melody if you're going to throw it away? But of course "nice melody" is not the kind of thing people get MFAs in any more.
Emotionally, Iberia reminds me of The Gathering's "In Motion" more than anything else - a pair of ambient / goth / metal songs that have nothing in common with Hill's composition in terms of instrumentation, rhythm, or any of that. Why? Because Anneke's voice is one the boldest statements of feminine beauty in music I've ever heard. The violin in Hill's quartet is a glimpse of the same kind of beauty.