From Xenakis to X-Factor

I’m going to attempt to tread carefully in today’s post, so as to minimize the hate mail.

A collection of words can have devastating, world changing power when we allow them to be perceived as “truth.” The fundamental level of social discourse in our time is that “it is true because I say it,” and the true power is in whose voice is heard the loudest, not in the merits of what it says.

I began this thread with Xenakis’ quote from 1955 because it belies what I think have become the two (incestuously connected) ideas about the recent history of music.

Authoritative voices (or at least the voices of authority) are re-writing the history of music, and have been since the beginning of the Thatcher/Reagan era. Let’s call it the “New History of 20th C.  Music.”

We read almost every day that after World War II, a new generation of serialist, modernist composers took over the world of music, imposing an aesthetic dogma that nearly killed music by giving us 40 years of music that nobody wanted to hear.

To this end, we are taught that this music is:

 1-       All the same

2-       Derived from mathematical formulas and without human or emotional invovlement or meaning 

3-       Written with a contempt for the listener

4-       Unwilling to accept the existence of other musicsWe are taught that there was an orthodoxy that attempted to control, reaching out with sinister ambition from the smoky corridors of Darmstadt to impose its dogma just as the old popes had used the inquisition to enforce their brand of a single truth. Boulez was the Borg- Resistance was Futile!

So- we are taught that Modernism in music was a historical aberration, a toxic force that alienated audiences and stifled creativity, and that now we finally have the freedom to write music that communicates more directly with our audiences.  

Now- before you start sending your hate mail, I’m not saying there were not composers and teachers who were controlling, aggressive and intolerant of dissent. I know many good composers who were unable to find work in the 60s because they were not writing music that conformed to the expectations of a serialist aesthetic.

However, I think it is important to separate personality from art- the history of 20th c. music has not benefited from too much focus on personality (Stockhausen was an self-obsessed asshole, so we don’t have to try to understand his music, people seem to say). Someone being a schmuck on a search committee is just that- they’re using the language of music to cover their tracks in what is simply old-fashioned institutional politics.

Unfortunately, the testimonials of those who may legitimately feel that their music was pushed to the side by the march of the High Modernists distracts us from an examination of the real danger of this critique.

The fact is that this critique (there was this modernist thing that took over, they screwed it up for everyone, so now we’ve got to put it right) is not an attack on modernism, but on all culture.

Xenakis’ quote shows that even within heart of the Modernist mafia, there was always dissent and discussion, but it only hints at the problem with the “New History of 20th. C. Music.” Of course, all four descriptions of modernist music it advances are, of course, demonstrably false, but more importantly and more dangerously, it completely mis-represents (ie- lies about) the history of music in that time.

Remember the years that Boulez and Stockhausen and their jackbooted minions controlled every university, foundation and arts council? Weren’t those also the years that Britten, Shostakovich, Schuman, Piston, Diamond, Walton, Milhaud, Kabalevsky, Bernstein, Copland and Tippett were all writing?

In fact, if one looks at a list of works composed and premiered in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, it is hard to imagine there had ever been so diverse a range of voices at any time in music history. All kinds of music were being written, and that music was getting performed, broadcast, recorded, written about and disseminated.

You see, the corollary to the “New History of 20th c. Music” is that we should write and perform music that people want to hear. If people don’t want to hear it, if it isn’t going to sell tickets or sell albums, we can’t afford to do it, and why should we do it? After all, they say, all that modern music drove our audience away.

Even the most cursory look at music history tells us that the opinions of listeners of the time, and whether “liked it” is the most useless tool for evaluating the worth of a composition.

The fact is, in 30 years, classical music has transformed itself from an art form to a commercial business. In doing so, paradoxically but predictably, its economic and social impact have been lessoned considerably. Performing arts organizations, which generally have the best of intentions and the loftiest of goals, stripped of subsidy and support now have to evaluate every project in commercial terms.

But, of course, no project we can ever undertake will be commercial enough. Where cultural organizations used to be primarily about the pursuit of excellence, we have now become competitors in the entertainment industry, measuring our success by the same metrics as a West End musical, the latest episode of X-Factor or Pop Idol, or a Britney Spears album. No wonder people like to say we’re failing.

The progenitors of the “New History of 20th C. Music” have sold us a lie. They tell us that classical music drove its audience away through an embrace of a modernist musical agenda. This is demonstrably false. The peak of the modernist movement in the 60’s and early 70’s was also the peak of classical music’s impact and influence on the larger culture- the glory days of everything from Karajan’s recording career with cycles of Beethoven and Bruckner, to Britten’s War Requiem (a piece that had a profound impact on the larger culture) to the evolution of the modern music festival.  

There was a time when scientific research was funded on the basis of merit of the proposal as pure research, now funding is tied to the demonstrable commercial value of the research. The age of pure research gave us unparalleled numbers of scientific discoveries with profound implications for human health, economic development and enhanced understanding of our world. The modern era of commercial research partnership has given us incremental improvements in existing technologies and not much more.

There was a time when universities, arts councils, foundations and governments would fund the creation and performance of music based on its merit. The historical record shows us that this system worked incredibly well- it allowed us to hear new works by Berio and Henze alongside Bruckner cycles from Jochum. It gave us decades of Copland and Sessions.

Just as poisonous as the “New History of 20th c. Music,” is the “Disgruntled Composers’ Retort,” to the “New History.” I think I’ve shown that the era in which we supported and encourage composers to explore ideas, styles, agendas and techniques of them solely on the basis of their quality and without concern for audience reaction was also the era in which the art form hit its high-water mark of influence, relevance and popularity.

The “Disgruntled Composers’ Retort” then builds on this observation and says that classical music has lost popularity because performing organizations don’t do enough new music. The “DCR” states that excessive conservatism is the problem, the “NHoTCM” states that progressiveness was the problem and that we have to restore conservative values to win back the audience.

Both are, frankly, bullsh*t.

In fact, the “DCR” is (whether those advocating it realize it or not) a tool of the commercialist agenda, because it accepts the metric of short-term popularity as a measure of the merit of an undertaking. While remembering the value of building relationships with the public and the importance of supporting living composers, an orchestra should not choose whether to do Beethoven or Ferneyhough based on which will ultimately make them more popular or relevant, but simply on the basis of which project is more artistically interesting to them. Hopefully it is not a choice between one or the other, but finding the right time and venue for both, if both are intrinsically interesting.

It may sound like a fantasy world, but there was a time that members of the political right and left, scarred by the upheavals of WW II and the Depression came to an enlightened consensus- education, the arts, human rights* and scientific research where all accepted to have intrinsic value, and were to be supported on a bi-partisan basis.

Now, the “NHoTCM” and the “DCR” are part of a larger body of propaganda that has dominated social and political discourse for 30 years- the doctrine of commercialism reigns supreme, and the idea of inherent value has been reduced to a quaint and naïve concept.  Repeating these same tired fallacies simply reinforces the cynical and depressing message we’ve heard for too long. In fact, respect for inherent value was the most powerful force for good in the 20th c. In the 35 years from WW II to the Thatcher/Reagan revolution we put men on the moon, cured countless diseases, built universities, created the era of information technology and made huge strides in civil rights. We’ve stripped our airwaves of culture, and transformed universities into job training centers, and our hospitals into extensions of the insurance industry. Everyone complains about anti-social behaviour, about a workforce that cant’ work and about a healthcare system that doesn’t heal, but our political class has been reluctant to challenge any of the tenants of the commercialist revolution that created the situation.

c. 2008 Kenneth Woods 

*Respect for human rights should be the obvious slam-dunk example of universal inherent and intrinsic value, but even those who argue against the legalization of torture fall into making the wrong argument. Saying that “if we torture, our soldiers and citizens may be tortured, and people will hate us that will cause future terrorists attacks” may be an accurate statement of fact, but it also reinforces the commercialist notion that no concept has inherent or intrinsic value, and that everything in life ought to be evaluated on a cost/bennefit basis. We’ve been told for 30 years that inherent value is an airy-fairy concept, and rather than dissecting and rebutting that bogus argument, we’ve fallen into trying to prove that things with intrinsic value also have extrinsic value. Of course they do, but that’s not the point!

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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.

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7 comments on “From Xenakis to X-Factor”

  1. Michael Monroe

    Hi Ken,

    Wow; there’s a lot here, and very passionately argued. It strikes me as short on detail and long on intuition, which is fine as far as it goes, but that makes it difficult to argue. Still, here are a few basic assumptions I’d disagree with.

    You say, “Even the most cursory look at music history tells us that the opinions of listeners of the time, and whether ‘liked it’ is the most useless tool for evaluating the worth of a composition.”

    I’d say that “useless” is WAY too strong. Sure, it’s easy to find all sorts of doubters who look bad in the light of history; that’s a far cry from saying composers oughtn’t care what people want to hear. There are delicate balances at play here, and I think it’s fair to suggest that, for some 20th-century composers, the balance got tipped too far away from communicating with the audience. I realized you’re probably talking about mass appeal more than appealing to sympathetic audiences, but I’d guess (or hope) that most of our best composers have cared deeply about people wanting to hear their work.

    I also think you overstate, or oversimplify, the point about technological improvements only being incremental in the recent past. First of all, to invoke Darwin, most improvements, even bold new ones, are the result of incremental advances. I’d say the explosion of computers and the development of the internet has been revolutionary; sure, computers had been around for awhile, but enormous advances have completely changed their impact. There are also extraordinary things going on with genetics, the implications of which are hard to anticipate and potentially fabulous – and maybe terrifying. By the way, it would be easy to point to lots of negative aspects of the mid-century technological boom you trumpet. Progress isn’t always progress, in art or society.

    Which leads to my last point which is to be very skeptical of these assumptions about how art and society-at-large interrelate. I’m not saying there aren’t connections, but rather that the connections are infinitely more complex than you suggest. Isn’t it easy to cherry-pick from history examples to support just about any aesthetic argument regarding the intersection of art and society? One think I like about Alex Ross’s book is the way it reveals the simple, un-grandiose human frailties of all these giants of music. Yes, many of the important composers have assumed they were making great statements, but their efforts are invariably marred by arrogance and clumsiness and ignorance, etc. Great music has been created at unlikely times and less-than-great music has been created with the most honest and admirable of aspirations. For example, whatever positive contributions to art you want to attribute to Boulez, it’s hard to deny how arrogant and even anti-social his behavior has been at times.

    I adore music and art, but in general I think we tend to overstate what it stands for. More and more I find myself in the camp of believing it stands for itself, which is enough. Still, I’d love to read more specifics about your concerns here. What particular composers/works do you believe to be cheated by the “New History,” and against what specific statements/opinions (aside from mine!) are you arguing?

  2. Kenneth Woods

    From Bernard Holland in the New York Times–

    “Unpleasant truths were another topic brought back forcefully by a concert at the Kitchen in September, by the fine young group Either/Or. Here was a program of 1960s arrogance and self-absorption, with people like Cornelius Cardew, Christian Wolff and Earle Brown as the main offenders. Listening to a collection of composers sharing inside jokes and private messages in music that reeked of contempt for the public made me get down on my knees and give thanks that an era so damaging to music was over. It didn’t drive an intelligent public away from classical music by itself, but it helped.”


  3. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Everyone-

    Well. the emails are already coming in, so I’ll try to clarify. This is the danger of being long-winded, (which I can accept that this post certainly is): you can get in the way of your own points.

    1- Michael reminds us that the listener matters. I agree, but the main measure of the listener’s response today is the number of people who respond to something and the profit generated by their interest, not the depth of a work’s impact on the individual listener.

    2- No, I’m not a conspiracy theorist. My point is not that their is a secret junta out to destroy the arts, but that we, as culture, have let a set of ideas take hold and stand unchallenged for the last generation that don’t really stand up to factual scrutiny. The world of “high” culture ought to be a place where we do dare to challenge assumptions. However, individual artists and arts organizations have to function in the market system to survive in the short term, which makes us all reluctant to ask ourselves if we ought to be challenging certain attitudes.

    3- Individual composers and shcools of composition are bound to have aesthetic agendas, which they may choose to advocate strongly, and the so-called High Modernists were as guilty of this as anyone (if in fact it is something you can be guilty of). As performers and critics, however, I don’t see any historic bennefit in trying to extinguish a school of thought or banish it simply because one doesn’t personally like it- and I see this attitude (the “New History” attitude” more and more. Likewise, the “burn the opera houses and ban Beethoven” attitude seems equally silly.

    Central to the New History is this idea that if we allow composers to write whatever they want, rather than respond to the market, music and the audience suffer. Practical experience tells us almost the opposite- write challenging, thorny music and you, the composer, may suffer, but your endeavors will be part of a healthy and diverse cultural ecosystem….

    It is perfectly fine for one to say “that’s not my bag, baby, ” about any style of music, but if you are going to evaluate it, you’ve got to set your own tastes aside. Copland hired Xenakis to teach at Tanglewood- it’s hard to imagine two composers with more different tastes, but Copland apparently could see the intrinsic quality in Xenakis’ music, rather than measuring it by its similarity to his own.

    Here’s another recent review (this time of Xenakis “Jalons”)* from Dominic Nudd at Classical Source-

    “Having expected to find the Stockhausen the most uncongenial work of the evening it was actually the final one that proved to be the most viscerally unpleasant. Iannis Xenakis studied engineering in his youth before he turned to music and applied to it mathematical and structural principles he learned in that subject after he had competed studying with Messiaen in 1953, analysing music in terms of probability and various theories. Jalons was commissioned to celebrate the tenth-anniversary, in 1986, of Ensemble Intercontemporain.
    There are six sections, the first characterised by sound-blocks punctuated by string glissandos, the latter becoming microscopic leading into the second section which arrives at a unison fortissimo tremolo. The third section uses dense rhythms moving in and out of phase. The sounds become gradually fragmented in the fourth section, the lowest instruments set against the highest, until the fifth begins with tiny fragments until the final section re-runs the textures of the opening.
    The effect was of sound aggressively pushed to the limits of unpleasantness. The instruments were used purely as arbitrary generators, often against the instruments themselves; the cello sounded like a scalded cat and the contrabass clarinet more like a strangulated duck. The composer might just as well have produced these sounds artificially. Although the aural signposts marking the transition from one section to the next were generally detectable, there was no obvious pattern or sequence and the total impact was like an unstructured soap-box rant.
    The Academy Manson Ensemble consists of students, undergraduate and post-graduate, from the Royal Academy of Music and they brought much intense virtuosity and equanimity. However the evening had a strong flavour music talking to itself.”

    What is wrong with music talking to itself?


    * I’ve accepted that I cannot make have this discussion without some examples of New History journalism, in spite of the fact that as a performer I do not wish to upset critics! Again, I am not inferring that these guys are bad writers or bad people- not at all, but maybe it is okay to suggest to our critical colleagues that some music is damaging to society or shouldn’t be tolerated at all is probably unfair and untrue.

  4. Kenneth Woods

    “the total impact was like an unstructured soap-box rant.”

    I like that. Is that what I’ve done here?

    I hope not.

    We’ll keep it light next time.


  5. Michael Monroe

    You ask, “What is wrong with music talking to itself?” I would answer, “Nothing,” and then ask, “What’s wrong with not wanting to listen to music talk to itself?”

    I know that Bernard Holland is a favorite punching bag of the classical blogosphere, and he probably deserves it, but I find it refreshing to have him be so honest about his reaction. Yes, it’s maybe a problem when he’s writing from such a authority position – honestly, I don’t think anyone should occupy such a post, because reactions to music are so subjective; it doesn’t make sense to put so much power in the words of a few select critics. Still, there’s no question that he’s voicing a very common frustration, and it’s not just a result of “New History” evangelists.

    One other point, and I promise to stop. You write, “They tell us that classical music drove its audience away through an embrace of a modernist musical agenda. This is demonstrably false. The peak of the modernist movement in the 60’s and early 70’s was also the peak of classical music’s impact and influence on the larger culture.” Do you really think the music of Boulez, Babbitt et al is what accounted for whatever peak classical music may have experienced? One could just as easily draw the opposite conclusion from the facts that you state.

    Still, I really respect your viewpoint, and I greatly admire the broadness of your interests. It’s clearly genuine and quite inspiring. Makes me want to give Xenakis another try.


  6. Pingback: Links for the week « The Rambler

  7. Kenneth Woods

    Michael’s latest comment is really interesting, and this bit-

    “Do you really think the music of Boulez, Babbitt et al is what accounted for whatever peak classical music may have experienced? One could just as easily draw the opposite conclusion from the facts that you state.”

    and this from the Rambler
    “Kenneth Woods speaks up for the serial hegemony”

    Give me a nice chance to try once again to clarify part of my thesis here.

    I do not think that High Modernist music accounted for the robust good health of the music world of the 50’s-70’s. What I do think is that a climate of diversity, enquirey, experimentation and open-mindedness supported with resources to carry out artistic work at the highest levels did have a lot to do with it. Ages of diversity and experimentation tend to be our golden ages- think of the first decade of the 20th c., with its astonishing explosion of styles. That couldn’t have happened without the resources to perform all that new music.

    So, rather than speaking up for a hegemony, I think I’m doing the opposite- speaking up for constructive co-existence. There ought to be room for a radical programme like moderism to be able to advocate its ideas without tipping over into runs-with-scissors chest thumping, but humans are frail and tempermental creatures. The extent to which some of the personalities associated with the Modernist music were unable to separate their zeal for an aesthetic program from a personal attacks on non-compliant artists is a social phenomenon, not an artistic one, and those times are past. Nobody says we shouldn’t play tonal works because Howard Hanson was homophobic, xenophobic and refused to hire any number of composers at Eastman that he suspected of being the “wrong kind of people.”

    If the remarkable coexistence of styles on the mid-20th c. might be compared to the turn of the same century, I would compare our current climate with that of the Rococo as described by Charles Rosen in the classical style. To some extent there has been a reaction against modernism, much as there was a reaction against the Baroque style after the death of JS Bach, but I sense that, much as I enjoy todays CPE Bachs, I’m waiting for Haydn to arrive.

    I read everything Bernard Holland writes and enjoy and appreciate his many insights- I would never make a critic a punching bag (what could be dumber). Still, I found that statement unfortunate- it implies that the music he is discussing should never have been written and should no longer be played because it is “damaging.” Music can be bad in the sense of boring, incompetently written, incoherent or amateurish, but it can’t be bad for us. Bad music only makes us appreciate the good stuff more. Silencing creative voices can be bad for us and bad for music.


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