A friend of mine is a composer. He writes modern "classical" music, that is, music played by orchestras. He is quite talented. The problem is I don't really understand the music he is writing. His music is broadly similar to other modern classical pieces I've heard, which seems to do away with many of the long-standing traditions of music, such as a melody.
When I listen to his music, some of which is very odd-sounding (to me) but much of which is very beautiful, I get a feeling of missing something. The music sounds like the soundtrack to a movie or ballet, only I can't see the film or the dancers. While listening to the music I feel like it's meant to accompany something, but I can't see what that something is.
It's hard to describe but here is a concrete example of the difference between his music and pieces that are (I feel) more stand-alone. Consider the opening theme to Star Wars. It starts loud, has a rolling sound, and carries you along with its melody. You can hum it. I don't think it's particularly nuanced or sophisticated but it conveys drama and excitement, and then the movie starts, which you are eager to see because the music has built up your anticipation. Later on you will hear a sad song about life on Tatooine, and Luke's family's death, and it is sad. But you won't remember it afterwards because it is meant to underscore the feelings that the story tells. My friend's music has a similar feel to me. I feel emotion, I feel that there is a story unfolding, but I can't tell what it is and afterwards I can't recall the music.
I was thinking of how this relates to paintings. A painting is meant to convey a message, or multiple messages, but the message is not explicit; the viewer must find the message for himself. But the most famous paintings are usually also not abstract; they graphically depict a scene, or a person, or something identifiable. In the last few decades abstract art has become more popular, but many people don't "get" it. Is my friend composing the musical equivalent to abstract painting? Perhaps.
When I went to a concert where his music was played along with some other composers' pieces, I remember feeling that I just didn't understand what I had heard, and I wondered if maybe the emperor wasn't wearing any clothes. Having heard my friend's most recent piece I can say that he IS wearing clothes, but I'm not sure what kind they are.
For a limited time, you can hear my friend's arctic symphony on CBC Radio 2. Listen to the Arctic Symphony for yourself and see.