This is for Justin, though the way this blog moves, I feel I'm answering
something from three years ago, not three days.
Thanks, Justin for your thought about hermetic music -- that
the big idea about music in the 1950s was that
music was supposed to be about music. As much as avant-garde film lost itself in
the narcotic charms of this camera angle or that excruciating silence, it still
couldn't help being about the same things that have always concerned consumers
of art: emotions, money, sex, power, self-regard. And no matter how much writers
delighted themselves with the abstract ring, the rhythm - okay, the musicality -
of language, they were still, at bottom telling stories and describing the world
But by then composers, even the best composers -
especially the best composers - had wandered so deep into the forests of
technique, sound, structure and effect that the music they wrote was completely
hermetic. I don't mean that it was incomprehensible, only that it was purely
I think, Justin, that you've nailed
something very important here. I might quibble that what you say is true of
"composers," implying all or most or the most important of them, because the
'50s were full of people writing in perfectly non-hermetic styles. Talk to Ned
Rorem, or Carlisle Floyd, or Barber, or Menotti, or Leonard Bernstein about
writing music "purely about itself."
And then there was Cage, whose music was transcendently about
something other than itself. But I do take your point -- a lot of the most
notable, new, and above all prestigious music of that time appeared to be
largely about itself.
But why was that? And why did people back then -- and us now --
accept this development as something valid, important, good, or even reasonable?
Especially when, as you note, it didn't happen in the other arts.
Three quick observations:
1. No composer ever cared more about hermetic -- though really a
better word would be "formalist" -- compositional devices than Bach. And yet his
music isn't hermetic. He wrote lots of it for everyday use (in church,
especially). And, maybe even more important, a lot of it (like much Baroque
music, if not most of it) takes off from popular dance rhythms of its time,
which means that, in ways we can barely imagine now, the very sound of it
connected with everyday life.
2. The musical developments you talk about were part of a more global
Big Idea, one that moved through many arts. In literature, the New Criticism was
dominant, treating literary works as, in effect, simply words on paper, texts
that could be studied on their own without reference to anything outside them.
In visual art, there was Clement Greenberg's influential dictum that paintings
were, essentially, nothing but paint on canvas. And yet neither painting nor
literature got hermetic. The abstract expressionists, who were living examples
of Greenberg's point (if not the inspiration for it), were adventurous, far more
accessible than modernist music, and, eventually, quite popular.
3. There was another Big Idea sweeping through the arts in the '50s,
in many ways the opposite of anything hermetic or formalist, though in painting
it could overlap with formalism. It was the idea of improvisation -- Jackson
Pollock dripping and spattering paint without premeditation, very much as a
physical act; Jack Kerouac writing On the Road in just three weeks,
typing it on a roll of paper, so he wouldn't have to stop to change pages. Not
to mention jazz, which was exploding with bebop, and can serve as a link between
Kerouac and Pollock, since it served as a constant soundtrack for both of them.
But where was this in music? It certainly never entered the mainstream, unless
you want to count Gunther Schuller's "third stream" music, which was supposed
somehow to unite classical and jazz, and never went anywhere. Maybe the most
important musical figure who might exemplify this Idea was Cage, though he went
about it in quite a different, less explosive, far less personally expressive
way (which sort of robs it of its point, at least from the Beat or Pollock point
of view). And Cage certainly never rocketed to fame with a rave review in
The New York Times, as Kerouac did.
So why did classical music become so much more formalist than other
arts, and why did it resist this improvisatory wind? Of course, music,
taken as a whole, didn't resist. There was jazz, and also rock & roll.
(It's fascinating how many of the seminal '50s rock classics were improvised, or
at least arose very suddenly, jumping to attention in the middle of recording
sessions originally devoted to something else -- Little Richard's "Tutti
Frutti," Elvis's "That's All Right," Chuck Berry's "Maybelline." Even the
Penguins' "Earth Angel," not revolutionary, however wonderful it might be as a
doowop song was in one way a surprise, because the version released on record
was originally meant just as a demo. It took a smart record guy to realize that
it was perfect as it stood.)
This is the crucial question, one that, if we'd answer it, would help
us understand why we got where we are today.
A couple of caveats, by the way. Justin, when you say that movies and
literature just somehow can't resist telling stories, I'm not sure what that
tells me. Isn't this the very question we're asking -- why some kinds of music
became so strongly formalist, when other arts didn't? I'm not sure it helps to
say that the other arts, gosh darn it, just can't help relating to the outside
world. Besides, you might underestimate just how hermetic filmmakers like
Antonioni and Godard seemed in their time. L'avventura was memorably
derided, when it was first released, by the Times's movie critic of the
time, Bosley Crowther. He couldn't see much sense or coherence in it at all.
(Then, when the film world proclaimed L'avventura a masterpiece -- I
remember one list of great films that ranked it second, right after Citizen
Kane -- Crowther lost his nerve and, as I seem to remember, never trusted
his judgment of the avant-garde again. I hope I remember this right! It happened
a long time ago, but I remember making fun of Crowther's turnaround with my best
friend in high school.)
And as for Philip Glass's music not being about anything -- well, I'm
not sure how the real stuff of music is ever really about anything. But that
doesn't stop it from making connections with the outside world, and Philip's
music made those connections bigtime when it first appeared. Many people
remarked, for instance, on what seemed then like the obvious connection between
minimalism and rock. Thus it didn't seem surprising that Glass's music got
popular; it seemed to echo in the zeitgeist, if that's not a badly mixed
metaphor. Plus it resonated with minimal art, which was then ('70s, early '80s)
a central trend.
But in a much more basic way, something about Philip's music seemed
to pick up something in the air. Many people sensed that. John Rockwell
described how that felt, and did it really memorably, in his book All
American Music. I myself couldn't reread that chapter, or remember living
through the things it describes, and say that Philip's music is only about
itself. It sure didn't seem so then.