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!