Sunday, December 15, 2013

Thoughts on Music and Politics

I've been reading a couple of collections of essays by Richard Taruskin lately. Honestly, there is probably no smarter and knowledgeable writer on music today. Just what you would expect from the author of the five volumes of the Oxford History of Western Music. When he writes for the mainstream media in a series of essays for the New York Times and other publications, he tries to write non-technically but also tries to stir up some controversy. He tends to act surprised sometimes at the heat of the responses, but I suspect that is a bit of a pose. The justification might be that as a musicologist he is just pointing out some oft-ignored truths.

One of these is the political and sociological dimension to music. This is always there, certainly, and after reading a few of Taruskin's essays you will likely be perpetually on guard. He depicts the view that music, classical music in particular, exists in some sort of ideal world far from the grubby world of society and politics, as a kind of sacred cow. It's not the only sacred cow he dismantles. A cousin is the related sacred cow of abstract, academic composition, where music is regarded as an esoteric sub-discipline of mathematics. In an essay titled "How Talented Composers Become Useless" originally in the New York Times on 10 March, 1996 and re-published in The Danger of Music and Other Anti-Utopian Essays, he points out that music that is a kind of mathematics sounds particularly absurd when the performer tries to imbue it with conventional expressivity: this music is not meant to be expressive, it is meant to be True. He goes on to assert that,
It is not reinforcement in their contempt of audiences, or protection from them, that young composers and performers need, but encouragement in the risky business of establishing a new symbiosis with them.
Two composers that he cites as being particularly good examples of the academic abstract school are Donald Martino and Charles Wuorinen. Let's listen to some samples. First, Pianississimo by Martino (with score) played by Eliza Garth.

You certainly have to admire the appalling amount of work it took to learn a score like that. Is there anything else to admire about it? In the thirteen months since it has been posted it has seen almost 1200 views.

Now something from Charles Wuorinen. Here is his Microsymphony from 1992. In the eleven months it has been up it has seen fewer than 500 views (perhaps I should say "listens").

Taruskin's point is that teaching young composers to write this sort of music makes them "useless". From an audience point of view that is probably true. The modernist project in music has essentially failed though, oddly enough, in the visual arts it seems to have succeeded. Why is that? But that aside, the modernist domination of the musical academy is passing away, though there are still pockets here and there. One of the problems that high modernism has these days is that it is very elitist, which is surpassingly unfashionable. Attempts to defend it by claiming that modernist composers are an oppressed victim group ring particularly hollow. Taruskin quotes one attempt at a defense: "Non-tonal compositions are queers in the concert hall." Not a very good analogy.

But harping on the political and sociological aspects of music can get rather tiresome, can it not? Most of the time don't we just want to listen to some music that delights us? That calms us and fires us up, that pulls us in and turns us around? It's not likely to be a political dimension that does this (though music written for political purposes might very well pull out all the expressive stops to achieve its aim). And besides, listening to older music, we are so isolated from the original social and political context that the music tends to attain a kind of aesthetic independence from its origins.

How important is it that this Violin Concerto in G major, composed when Mozart was 19 and in service to the Archbishop of Salzburg, might tend to affirm the splendors of aristocratic society? At this point, probably a lot less important than the enjoyment we derive from it! Here is Gidon Kremer with Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting the Vienna Philharmonic:


Shantanu said...

I quite liked the Microsymphony you have shared. Maybe modernism is just something we might see the worth of later? Or it could be that the composers are themselves a niche variety of people whose music is "esoteric" in a way. I am never sure about such things.

Bryan Townsend said...

There are some modernist pieces I really like too! My view is that there can be outstanding pieces in nearly every genre (and bad pieces too, of course). Stravinsky, Bartók and others have given us some wonderful music within the modernist aesthetic. But for a lot of others, modernism made it pretty difficult to write something that an audience could enjoy. And with some composers, one suspects that they didn't actually want many people to enjoy the music!