Modernism Pt I

Note-
This is the first of a projected two part series on modernism in music. Today’s piece is essentially about the argument against modernism, the next one is the argument for modernism.
Stay tuned! KW


Recently, the British composer Harrison Birtwistle made the news when he stood to collect the classical prize at the Novello Awards (Story).I have to say, I read the article cheering for the great man, especially when he said- “I’ve never heard so many clichés in a single day.And why is all your music so effing loud?” I have to say I think it’s long past time that proper MUSICIANS, classical or not, stop playing nice with celebrity wigglers (read “pop stars”) just because they make their living lip-synching their way through digitally manufactured non-music. No one would have argued more strongly than I that genuine musical geniuses like Jimi Hendrix or Queen deserved to be taken seriously by classical musicians and critics, but those days are gone. We live in the era of corporate plasto-music, music that has never been played on instruments or sung by people. It’s music driven by focus groups and manufactured on computers using extracts stolen from the work of previous generations through sampling and vocal performances that are either entirely spoken, or which are tuned and edited note-by-note in the editing suite. We’ve traded “rock musicians” and “singers” for “pop stars,” a form of life whose very title has no link to music, performing, communication, creativity or talent.So, well done, Harrison!Nevertheless, as the day went along, I found myself coming back to the word “cliché.” Maybe, on some level, I found myself thinking about how we’re doing in the classical word at avoiding the cliché.

Recently, the British composer Harrison Birtwistle made the news when he stood to collect the classical prize at the Novello Awards ).I have to say, I read the article cheering for the great man, especially when he said- “I’ve never heard so many clichés in a single day.And why is all your music so effing loud?” I have to say I think it’s long past time that proper MUSICIANS, classical or not, stop playing nice with celebrity wigglers (read “pop stars”) just because they make their living lip-synching their way through digitally manufactured non-music. No one would have argued more strongly than I that genuine musical geniuses like Jimi Hendrix or Queen deserved to be taken seriously by classical musicians and critics, but those days are gone. We live in the era of corporate plasto-music, music that has never been played on instruments or sung by people. It’s music driven by focus groups and manufactured on computers using extracts stolen from the work of previous generations through sampling and vocal performances that are either entirely spoken, or which are tuned and edited note-by-note in the editing suite. We’ve traded “rock musicians” and “singers” for “pop stars,” a form of life whose very title has no link to music, performing, communication, creativity or talent.So, well done, Harrison!Nevertheless, as the day went along, I found myself coming back to the word “cliché.” Maybe, on some level, I found myself thinking about how we’re doing in the classical word at avoiding the cliché.Certainly, the only genre more easily identified than the pop song is the high-modernist sound word?  In Britain, some call this music “plinky-plonky,” or “squeeky gate” in the US “bleep-blop.” These terms tell you a great deal about the listening skills of those that use them, but they also might tell us something about the aesthetic sophistication of modernist music.
There are very good reasons why music of the modernist movement is prone to the cliché. The origins of post World War II modernist music of course lie in the New Vienna School of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, and also on the Avante-Garde movements of the 20s and 30s. These movements essentially advocated two aesthetic goals-

  • The expansion of theoretical possibilities and aesthetic horizons
  • The movement away from the stylistic expectations of previous generations, particularly those of the late-Romantics

When we speak of Schoenberg, we often speak of the “liberation of dissonance.” It should be remembered that dissonance has always been a part of music, no one wrote more dissonant music than Mozart. However, in previous generations, the expectation was that dissonance must resolve. So, in the age of the “liberation of dissonance,” we can now allow dissonance simply to exist, not as a path to resolution, but as a viable aesthetic state of its own.
Schoenberg’s early atonal music is usually described as “freely atonal,” in that he is combing the two qualities outlined above without creating any new technical structure to replace tonal function, which was the reason that in early music dissonance had to resolve.

Eventually, Schoenberg became convinced that, in the absence of the tonal system, a new system for developing musical ideas in time was needed, hence the famous “Method of Composing Using all 12 Tones.”

Schoenberg felt that to avoid the clichés of the previous generations, it was necessary to avoid any hint of tonal function, hence the emphasis on the sequential use of all 12 tones before repetition of a tone. Although sequences (tone rows) can be created which create recognizable tonal sonorities, including all the triads, Schoenberg also felt that it was best to avoid those sonorities as they were the clichés of a previous era. Therefore, in both vertical and horizontal musical organization (that is, harmonic and melodic structure), the music of this revolution from it’s earliest days focused on only a handful of the possible intervals, the tritone, the second and the seventh. Thirds, sixths, fourths, fifths and octaves were to be avoided.

Of his students, Webern was the strictest and most innovative in applying these ideas, and it was in his music that the compelling relationships between this method of composition and mathematics first began to make itself felt. To many, Webern is the true founder of ‘plinky-plonky.” In the next generation, composers of the Darmstadt school took this approach to the next level, integrating the serial approach to all aspects of musical construction. Rhythms, dynamics and articulations were all serialized.

Some contemporary writers have recently called this movement a great historical detour, but I can’t help but see in this approach a tremendously interesting  movement towards creation of art that is profoundly unified and organic. To me, serialism is the perfect approach for the age of DNA- it reflects this understanding of life as a process of replication and evolutionary development.

So, why do people call it “bleep-blop” music?

Let’s go back to the liberation of dissonance. Schoenberg taught us all that a major seventh or a tritone don’t have to resolve anywhere. What then of consonance?  In liberating dissonance, have we imprisoned consonance?

Music of the tonal era is developed largely through creating patterns of tension and release, and those patterns are largely determined by harmony. Tension is created by dissonant sonorities, then released by consonant ones. Composers use dynamics, orchestration, color and texture to reinforce the states of tension or release, but it is harmony that generates the tension and provides the release. These patterns, like fractals, exist at every structural level of the music, from note to note, bar to bar and phrase to phrase, but also in the larger harmonic structure of whole works. The whole idea of sonata form is not that we’re in a key, but that we’re trying to get back to a key- that’s where the tension is. Mahler’s progressive tonality took this even farther- in many of his works the tension of harmonic searching goes through the entire work because it is not until the end of the piece that we understand what key we’re seeking.

If tonal music is organized through tension and release, and tension and release are generated through harmony, then how is modernist music organized?

I would suggest that in serial music “tension and release” are replaced by “intensity and relaxation,” on the micro level, and that harmonic development and planning are replaced by organic development of ideas, or motives, over time at the macro level. Motivic development is not something new- no one gave more thought to the development of musical ideas over time than Beethoven, Brahms or Mahler. Serial music is the logical extension of this approach.

I think one question for future generations of composers and theorists to think about is whether “intensity and relaxation” are an adequate replacement for “tension and release.” Let’s think about the tools a serial composer can use to create intensity or relaxation-

  • Changes in dynamic leve 
  • Changes in textural density
  • Changes in contrapuntal complexity
  • Changes in color
  • Changes in rhythmic content and tempo

Interestingly enough, these are all tools used in tonal music to highlight tension and release. However, tension and release are created by

  • Distance from a harmonic home point or center
  • Preponderance of dissonant or consonant intervallic content

With the liberation of dissonance, or, more accurately, the suppression of consonance,  composers have lost those tools, and had to replace them with tools that would previously have been used to reinforce them. Tools of variance that were once of secondary importance are now of primary importance. There is a danger here that something has been lost- certainly being able to juxtapose consonance and dissonance is a very powerful tool, and one that high-modernist music doesn’t allow for.

On the macro level, music in this idiom is built around the organic development of ideas through manipulation of the series. The implications of the core musical ideas are extracted, enlarged, developed and modified overtime. The shape of the piece is in part determined by the implications of its material.

However, again, one can make the case that something is lost. In tonal music there is sense of  fractality present in the ways in which the patterns of  tension and release replicate themselves on the micro and macro levels. In serial music, there seems to be an emphasis on intensity as a constructive tool at the micro level, and on developmental procedure at the macro level. Again, there is a danger that we have given up a powerful tool, the integration of relationships between harmonic stability and instability at all levels on the piece without fully replicating it.

Perhaps this is one reason that composers have found it very difficult to sustain long structures using the modernist aesthetic? Perhaps it is also one reason that the modernist aesthetic is easily parodied? In developing new theoretical constructs, composers have perhaps lost track of others.

Remember the two core goals of the early modernist movement-

  • The expansion of theoretical possibilities and aesthetic horizons
  • The movement away from the stylistic expectations of previous generations, particularly those of the late-Romantics

Perhaps in trying to achieve the second goal, we’ve actually made it impossible to achieve the first, because no matter how many new possibilities we open up, we can’t replace those we’ve given up.

In fact, this may be one of the core qualities of all 20th century music. Look at jazz- In the mid century jazz evolved with amazing speed, developing new possibilities harmonically, stylistically, instrumentally and so on. The evolution of improvisation as an art form between 1940 and 1970 is almost too staggering to comprehend!

What has jazz done since then?

In all the rapid development of jazz in the mid-century, certain elements of musical construction lagged behind. First of these is form. While other musics have developed a nearly infinite range of forms, jazz has stayed close to the basic structure of head-improve-head throughout its development. Certainly there are notable exceptions (Miles Davis’ “Nefertiti” comes to mind), but when one considers what happened harmonically in jazz between 1965 and 1995, it is not possible to make the argument that formal construction evolved at anything like a parallel rate. As a result, the evolution of jazz since 1970 has slowed, and we have a stereotype of modern jazz that has become an easily reduced cultural reference point, just like “plinky-plonky.”

Maybe the 21st century will be the age when composers are able to solve some of these problems. If the question of the 20th century was how to create music that opened up new possibilities and avoided the clichés of the old world, maybe the question of the 21st is how to create music that integrates the whole range of musical materials while avoiding not only the clichés of the 19th century, but also those of the 20th?

The 20th century was the age of the genre and of the binary opposition. We assign something a genre, then define it by it’s opposite. Our cultural and political dialogue is dominated by arguments between liberal and reactionary points of view, between right and left, US and Europe, North and South, Western World and Muslim World. In the performing world we have old-school Beethoven (Furtwangler) and new-school Beethoven (Norrington). In composition we have the language of suppressed consonance in music of the 50s-70s (Boulez) or the language of suppressed dissonance in much of the contemporary music of today, especially that of the minimalist school. The question of the 20th century has always been which school was right- liberal or conservative, dissonant or consonant, lean and mean or big and bold. Perhaps the question of the 21st century is how to integrate, how to reconcile, how to reinvigorate our divergent approaches, and how to create a more sophisticated approach to our art and our lives.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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