Annika Socolofsky and the value of discordance

New Jersey-based composer Annika Socolofsky (AN-ih-kuh SO-co-lawv-skee) posted something really funny on Twitter: that she’s considering creating an ‘anti-bio’ based on negative views she’s received, particularly those of a regular Daily Gazette reviewer who consistently refers to her music as “discordant” (which is hilarious in itself – I’ll get to that in a sec).

I hope Ms. Socolofsky follows through on this because 1) it would show her sense of humour 2) readers would find this fun 3) it would instigate curiosity about her music 4) it’d be an unusual thing to encounter on a composer’s website.

She also mentioned something else interesting: “Meanwhile, I’m not sure I know of any living composers who are more tonally-oriented and melody-driven than me. Such a weird beef to have…”

Of course, as per #3 above, all this made me very curious indeed.  I became determined to check out Ms. Socolofsky’s music and, fortunately, she has provided several SoundCloud links on her website.

But even before I got there, and as I was tweeting encouragement to go for the ‘anti-bio’ thing, I kept thinking, “this reviewer doesn’t seem to know much about the subject at hand.” Why? Because saying a new music composer is ‘discordant’ is kind of like referring to a comedian as ‘witty.’  In other words, that characteristic might not always be present in the art, but it sort of goes with the territory, in general.  I mean, has this reviewer even heard of Arnold Schoenberg or listened to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring? – stuff from a hundred years ago that marked pioneering forays into non-tonal, discordant music?

So, yes, it is a very “weird beef” for a critic to have!  Of course, there has been concerted, and more recent effort toward valuing tonality in new music, even a veering far away from discordance, as much of the minimalist movement has tended to do.  However, for many of today’s composers, playing with degrees of discordance is as essential as the age-old manipulation of consonance-versus-dissonance is, more generally – as fundamental as notions of repetition-versus-contrast.

What I’m mainly getting at is this: being “discordant” is not only NOT A BAD THING, it is necessary to express certain things artistically.  The critical question is: “how is discordance handled?”

I’m no Daily Gazette reviewer but, as far as I’m concerned – now after listening to several of her compositions – Ms. Socolofsky handles it brilliantly.  She is indeed “tonally-oriented” and “melody-driven”; she is also very colourful and evocative with a wide emotional palette. She’s not always going to hand you something that’s “pretty” but who would want that all the time? I love the way, for instance, she often blends singable melody (she is a singer as well, after all) within in an ebb-and-flow of sometimes strident and, on other other hand, more soothing textures.  She draws on many elements to shape her compositions but control of  consonance and discordance is a key facet of her artistry.

My favourites so far are “Hush” (for string orchestra + electronics) and “One wish, your honey lips” (for flute quartet), both having their share of colourful dissonance but also shining through with aching beauty at times (and the two often aren’t mutually exclusive). “Bulgarity” for saxophone quartet is a boisterous and virtuosic dance that will make you smile (and, for the record, thoroughly lacks in what certain Daily Gazette reviewers might remotely call “discordant”).