I pride myself on having big ears, on listening to everything I can and trying to find the beauty in it. I’ve learned to enjoy some aspect of just about every kind of music. Every kind except one: high modernist twentieth century classical music. I just can not deal with it, at all. But I’m in music school now, and am having to confront modernism, listen to it, write about it, and produce it. So I’m trying to figure out whether I’m missing something, or whether the whole musical academic elite is out of its collective mind. Spoiler alert: I lean toward the latter.
The title of this post refers to an infamous essay by Milton Babbitt. He says that modern classical will never have an audience beyond its practitioners, and that it shouldn’t even bother to try.
I am concerned with stating an attitude towards the indisputable facts of the status and condition of the composer of what we will, for the moment, designate as “serious,” “advanced,” contemporary music.
I do not like the terms “serious” and “advanced” when self-applied by classical composers.
The general public is largely unaware of and uninterested in [the contemporary composer’s] music. The majority of performers shun it and resent it. Consequently, the music is little performed, and then primarily at poorly attended concerts before an audience consisting in the main of fellow ‘professionals’. At best, the music would appear to be for, of, and by specialists.
My question is this. Are we all missing out on something important because we’re unwilling to do the work? Or are we rightly shunning the music because it’s unbearable?
One of the classes I’m taking at NYU this summer is Advanced Computer Music Composition. The text is Electric Sound by Joel Chadabe (be warned that it’s fabulously expensive — hurray for the library.) The book perfectly captures everything I find exasperating about high modernist snobbery. This supposedly comprehensive history of electronic music barely ever mentions the electric guitar. It never uses the word “hip-hop.” Aside from a fleeting mention of Herbie Hancock, there are no black musicians in the book at all. I don’t think Chadabe is necessarily racist, and it’s fine if he doesn’t want to write about pop or jazz or rock or funk or techno or house or hip-hop. But to not even acknowledge the existence of such broad swaths of the musical landscape is perverse.
I understand why Chadabe is championing the avant-garde. I don’t have to enjoy something to learn from it. Early in the book, Chadabe invokes Einstein’s theory of relativity as an example of how the twentieth century undermined our notions of common sense. Few musicians were reading Einstein’s papers directly, but even a cursory acquaintance with relativity (or quantum mechanics or much other twentieth century science) deals a heavy blow to your intuitions about seemingly basic facts of the world. Chadabe relates the revolution in physics to the modernists’ liberation of music from all constraints: tonality, rhythm, and most especially, the requirement that sounds be “musical.” He’s particularly enthusiastic about the use of found sounds in music, citing examples ranging from the innocuous (a recording of nightingales singing) to the openly audience-hostile (an onstage airplane engine.)
The modernists correctly predicted that music would come to embrace a broad variety of unearthly noises and timbres. I imagine that Stockhausen would have been delighted to learn that gunshots and cash register sounds would be the basis for the chorus of a well-known pop song. However, he’d be disappointed by the pedestrian four-four beat, simple chord progression, and chant-like structure. The electronic music that most people enjoy needs to be extremely minimalist in its melodic and harmonic content to free up enough of the listener’s attentional bandwidth to process all of the complex and strange timbres.
Practitioners of modern forms like musique concrète don’t seem overly concerned with the cognitive limitations of their listeners. François Bayle made the claim that musique concrète wasn’t supposed to be “a music of provocation.” It’s hard to take that claim seriously. It was full of new and startling sonic textures, and it generally made no reference whatsoever to existing musical structures or forms. A lot of it doesn’t fit within my definition of “music” at all. For Bayle and his compatriots, though, the mere fact of putting sounds in order was form enough to qualify them as music:
Musique concrète sounds have meanings for us, as photographs and films have meanings. They show life as we experience it, as we live it in the everyday world.
This is completely wrong. Photos imbue meaning on their subjects through framing. They exclude much more than they include. Films attain meaning not by showing real things, but through narrative techniques, especially editing. Simply recording and playing back sounds does not, in my opinion, constitute music-making. Music is a way to communicate or evoke a feeling-state. Structural methods like repetition and variation give the sounds meaning. Musical form engages our attention and open us up emotionally. Without form, the main emotion the music evokes is confusion.
This is not to say that all high modernist music is unstructured. The serialists are fanatics for structure. But without access to all kinds of extramusical information, serialism is perfectly impenetrable, even to a well-trained listener like myself. If the listener can’t possibly figure out what the system is, why bother having a system at all? Why not just choose notes, durations and so on out of a hat? That’s what John Cage ended up doing, and the result wasn’t any more (or less) unbearable.
Maybe the serialists get on my nerves so badly because of their outspoken hostility. Pierre Boulez is the worst:
[A]ny musician who has not experienced — I do not say understand, but, in all exactness, experienced — the necessity for serialism is useless.
The emphasis is his. No wonder serialism wasn’t a big hit with the musical community, much less the public. But the modernists’ obnoxiousness can’t be the only reason for my intense dislike. Miles Davis hated everybody too, and his music agrees with me fine. Conversely, I like Morton Subotnick very much personally, but I can’t deal with a lot of his music.
For class, we were assigned to listen to Stockhausen’s “Gesang der Jünglinge.”
The piece uses fascinating timbres derived entirely from the voice of a single boy soprano combined with bubbling synthesized tones. It has a nice sonic unity. However, the lack of repetition or any intelligible form makes this is a highly unpleasant listening experience for me. The individual segments are cool, and I could easily imagine getting them to sound terrific by repeating them in groups of four over a beat. As it stands, though, the dream logic ordering of the sounds and the unpredictable jagged dynamic shifts mostly make me feel anxious and alienated.
We were also assigned to listen to Edgard Varèse’s “Poème Electronique,” created for Xenakis’ and Le Corbusier’s pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair.
Varèse composed the piece as part of an immersive multimedia experience inside the pavilion. The music played from 425 loudspeakers, following specific “sound routes” around the space, accompanied by dissociated projected imagery and colored lights. The effect must have been overwhelming. “Poème Electronique” makes the Stockhausen piece sound like a relaxing jazz ballad by comparison. Once again, there’s no apparent structure, just one random sound after another. There isn’t even the timbral unity of the Stockhausen piece; it comes across like a sound effects library on iTunes shuffle.
I’ll freely confess to not being able to make it to the end of “Poème Electronique” in any of my listens. It fills me with dread bordering on anger, and I feel more than enough of those emotions in the rest of my life to want to inflict them on myself voluntarily. The first commenter on the YouTube version I listened to echoes my sentiments exactly:
I don’t know if I’m just stupid, but this made me feel like I need to be in someone else’s mind to give any kind of opinion about it.
Do Varèse fans enjoy the feeling of disjointed madness? Is there some subtle beauty hidden here that eludes me? Or is my hostile reaction the desired one? Another YouTube commenter joked that after listening to the piece, he expected to have the phone ring and a voice tell him he’d be dead in seven days. It’s no wonder to me that high modernist abstraction is alive and well in horror movie soundtracks.
I’m not opposed to challenging the listener. I like weird music. For instance, I love “Cliffs” by Aphex Twin.
Why can I deal with this and not with Stockhausen? For one thing, “Cliffs” is very repetitive. For another, there’s a straightforward and familiar chord progression. The track is well within the limits of my processing power, so I can grapple with the weird microtonal synth voices without feeling totally disoriented.
Dissonance, strangeness and complexity don’t necessarily put me off, even in stiff doses. I like plenty of challenging jazz, and I have a near-religious reverence for John Coltrane’s far-out stuff. But that said, when it comes to actual enjoyment, I stick to the music he plays over one-note pedals.
I love “India” because no matter how freaky it gets, there’s always that droning G to anchor you harmonically. Also, while Elvin Jones’ drumming is restless and challenging, there’s a nice steady pulse implied at all times, further bracing you against the craziness.
I’m also not opposed to open hostility in music. I like the Wu-Tang Clan, and those guys are plenty hostile. But they balance out the aggression with funk, humor, direct social commentary, pop cultural references and lots of repetition.
My professor has suggested that the pieces he’s assigned have plenty of form and order to them, and that I just haven’t listened deeply enough to understand them. Maybe that’s true. I don’t always like everything immediately, and there are some of my favorite musicians who I positively hated at first, Coltrane and the Wu-Tang Clan included. On the other hand, there’s some difficult music that I’ve been able to grasp immediately, without any special training or inside knowledge. I discovered Cecil Taylor while flipping channels on TV (can you believe someone put Cecil Taylor on TV?) and it was love at first hearing. Cecil’s music can be tough going, but in the right frame of mind, his joyous energy is infectious.
My problem with modern classical certainly isn’t lack of exposure. When I was growing up, my parents were devoted listeners to Morning Pro Musica. Each show started early in the morning with common-practice era classical, and then towards midday, began moving through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. I heard quite a bit of modernist stuff before the folks got irritated enough to go turn off the radio.
I like weird harmonies, but mostly when applied to pop and folk forms. I like microtones, but mostly when used in the blues. I like complex rhythms, but mostly if there’s a steady pulse tying them together. I like found sounds and weird timbres, but mostly when everything else is familiar. I don’t like having all the musical balls in the air at once, and I’m not unusual in that way. I don’t think there’s anyone out there who “gets” Stockhausen the way we “get” familiar songs. I’m pretty sure no one enjoys Varèse the way we enjoy Michael Jackson.
But people do claim to “get” and “enjoy” modern classical. What’s the nature of the enjoyment? Do people enjoy feeling overwhelmed and disoriented? Or is it the pleasure of being jolted awake, like jumping into a cold lake? Or do modern classical fans not believe that music is to be enjoyed, just to be endured and educated by? If you can enlighten me in the comments, please do.
Update: a modern classical fan responds.