Thursday, June 11, 2015


I am always conscious of two dangers in talking about music and aesthetics in the early 21st century. You might call them the Scylla and Charybdis of music blogging. On the one hand we have the rocky shoal of the politicizing of music and on the other the whirlpool dragging us down into the isolation of music in a hermetically-sealed chamber away from messy politics. I try to steer a middle course by noticing politics from time to time when it seems relevant and looking at music as it is in itself the rest of the time.

One issue that I have brought up from time to time is the ideology of modernism in music which condemned all those composers, like Shostakovich and others, who continued to write tonal and melodic music despite the proclamations of the avant-garde that this was now "music of the past" and therefore bad. I have described this as kind of a Deuteronomy of music history: Schoenberg begat Berg and Webern and they begat Boulez and Stockhausen and also of their tribe were Cage and Bartók. To my mind, aesthetic quality is not determined by ideological purity.

I just ran across an item at Slipped Disc titled in Norman Lebrecht's usual over-heated style as "French rage: Michel Legrand accuses Pierre Boulez of ‘acting like a Fascist’." The comment section is a kind of MRI scan of the various opinions on this question. I was rather surprised, though I shouldn't have been, that there are so many commentators with whom I would, roughly, agree.

Legrand's claim is that:
‘For 40 years Boulez and his ‘family’ have closed all possibilities for all other composers to be performed. He decided that the musical past would be wiped out and we would start from scratch. He shut the door to all other composers. Composers like me could not have made a living because we had no access to the concert hall.’
Here is a sample comment:
What you say is true and perceptive; however, in the USA there are still large pockets of powerful and intolerant ‘orthodoxy’ who control much of the funding for new music. Some of these pockets are accidental, caused by locals coincidentally banding together. But too many are of course in the hands of various influential academics, musicologists, or commentators who still subscribe to a totalitarianism, perhaps mildly modified by a grudging acknowledgement of John Adams and others, but a totalitarianism still ‘armed’ by a general rejection of anything with a relationship to traditional melody, a pulse, and general tonality.
This is the general political problem of our time in a nutshell: there is a class in our society that takes on a leadership role based largely on career opportunism and credentials and seeks to control discussion and funding of those things they consider important. They don't want to have a free and open discussion, because they don't want their basic assumptions revealed, let alone questioned.

In music, I believe I have summarized these basic assumptions in a number of places, but they include the view that the music of the past is dead and irrelevant and the music of today and the future must be structured in entirely new ways. It is not to be either the personal expression of the composer or an appeal to the tastes of the audience. It is instead to be an exploration of novelty in various ways.

As a matter of fact, I think that this ideological movement, which I usually call "modernism" or "high modernism" has failed. Performances of this kind of music are dwindling as other competing models come to the fore such as the new consonance, minimalism, process music and a lot of other similar music that does not benefit from a handy catchphrase.

I notice that one sign of the failure of the modernists is that they no longer seem to control the purse strings of the major competitions. Philip Glass was just given the Glenn Gould prize and John Luther Adams was given the Pulitzer Prize in Music last year. These are both composers who customarily use consonance and a regular pulse.

So, since all too many people are agreeing with me, I need to reconsider and refine my position! Is it not the case that, while the modernists were over-complex and contemptuous of their audience, the new consonance composers are perhaps too bland and pander to the audience?


Ken F. said...

I've thought that this avant-fascist ideology peaked around 1970 and has been in decline since then (good riddance!). There's the story of the composer, writing for a grant, writes one page of terribly difficult serial music a la Stockhausen Klavierstueck 1, then writes 20 pages of diatonic music. We still have the "Beethoven wrote that symphony because he had E.D." school of feminist pseudo-musicology, but I think the atmosphere is a lot more diverse, open, and relaxed than it was when I was in school. BTW I am listening to Ornette Coleman now (Skies of America), and his music doesn't really sound so avant garde any more - sort of the distance from Beethoven (Parker) to Wagner (Coleman); and compared to Steve Coleman (no relation to Ornette), Ornette is rather tame - Steve Coleman writing twelve-tone jazz in multiple meters.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think that, while the first important minimalist and consonant pieces started appearing around 1970, the orthodoxy still reigned in music schools for much longer--largely because the composition teachers were all educated under the precepts of high modernism. In fact, I suspect that there are some schools where this is still the case.

"E.D."? I'm sure I should know what that is an abbreviation for...?

I used to like Don Ellis for his rhythmically complex jazz.

Unknown said...

Hello world!

High modernism sounds bad, therefore it is bad.


Bryan Townsend said...

With a few reservations, of course, music does tend to be how it sounds.

Unknown said...

Hello Bryan,

I think music is exclusively its sound. Which do you think those reservations are?

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Gabriel,

Music is sound (and silence) of course, but a lot of the time the sound signifies, points to, suggests, expresses or evokes something other than just sound. I once quoted Aaron Copland who said: "The whole problem can be stated quite simply by asking, 'Is there a meaning to music?' My answer would be, 'Yes.' And 'Can you state in so many words what the meaning is?' My answer to that would be, 'No.' " To give a couple of very obvious examples, La Marseillaise is about a lot more than just the sound of it. But instrumental music can also suggest non-musical moods or images. Many pieces by Debussy, for example. Even so-called abstract instrumental music can act in this way such as the "Pathétique" sonata by Beethoven.