Friday, January 11, 2013

Music, the Mundane and the Progressive

One of my commentors, Nathan Shirley, remarked on this post (how music is not the soundtrack to your life) that "Music, like any art is the polar opposite of the mundane." This got me thinking. Mundane has two meanings:

  1. Lacking interest or excitement; dull.
  2. Of this earthly world rather than a heavenly or spiritual one.
I wonder which he intended? Could have been both, of course. Music as an art, as opposed to a commercial commodity, should not lack interest, should not be dull. But music also seems to have a quality that takes you out of the ordinary world, the mundane in the second sense. The thing is that the history of music in the 20th century shows composers striving to be not mundane by being 'progressive' in a special sense.

Usually this is talked about in a technical sense: the composers of the "music of the future" rejected the methods of the music of the past. This wasn't just a trend in music, of course, as the Italian futurists demonstrate. Their ideological position was that all music of the past, that is music up until their moment in history, was mundane. They hated any and all musical traditions, calling them mediocre and conservative. Though none of the music of these early Futurists has become part of the repertoire, they were a big influence on later composers. The tools that they emphasized were percussion instruments, especially unusual ones, and the use of machines. This led directly to the music of Edgar Varése, Igor Stravinsky and John Cage among many, many others. As the Futurist movement began in 1909 and continued through the First World War, it set the tone for a great deal of musical progressivism in the 20th century. Ironically, viewed from this angle the music of the Second Viennese School was actually an extension of the musical conservatism of the past! When Arnold Schoenberg developed his serial method of composing atonal music in the 1920s, it was actually an attempt to preserve some musical traditions (the use of pitched notes in a contrapuntal context) against the excessive radicalism of the Italians.

After several decades of experimental, percussive, atonal progressivism in music, exhaustion set in and composers started going in the opposite direction. By the 1960s, one of the most radical things you could do was write a piece in C major, so Terry Riley did just that with his "In C" the very first minimal composition. Even Shostakovich could write something with a minimal flavour. His last string quartet, dating from 1974, begins with an adagio that seems almost frozen in time. He told the quartet players to play it so that flies would drop out of the air and people in the audience die of boredom. This is, of course, a sample of Shostakovich's sense of humor, but the movement is minimal indeed.

Let's listen to one of the few pieces that are part of the Futurist tradition and has a place in the repertoire: George Anteil's Ballet Mécanique:

And now that movement from the 15th String Quartet of Shostakovich:

If you have listened to both pieces all the way through, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Which is more 'mundane'?
  • Which is more 'progressive'?
  • Which takes you out of the ordinary world?
  • Which is the better composition?


RG said...

The first one sounds like a scolding. The second one sounds like a conversation.

Bryan Townsend said...

You know, that's quite a good characterization. String quartets have often been described as a kind of conversation.

Nathan Shirley said...

I suppose I was using 'mundane' as almost an opposite for 'profound'.

There isn't much that I would find more dull than sitting through a concert of serial music. The shock of much 'modern' music wears off quickly, and when it does we are often left with something very mundane, uninspired.

Most people wouldn't think of Bach's music as being progressive, radical, etc. But mundane it is not! You can read that second definition literally or metaphorically, but either way Bach's music was not of this world. Of course I'm preaching to the choir here!

Bryan Townsend said...

Reading Taruskin's discussion of Bach in volume 2 of the Oxford History of Western Music changed some of my thinking on Bach. He emphasizes the strange, the radical, the intense aspects of Bach, which were many!

Bach was not a progressive, but he was, in some ways, a radical. That we have difficulty making that distinction is a by-product of the ideology of progressivism in 20th century music.