Prickliness Versus Normalcy: The Debate

I’ve been remiss in responding to the replies to my blog entry on the alleged death and irrelevancy of modernism, with reference to the Eugenides-Lewis debate in Slate magazine – first because I was waiting to see if there would be more, then because I descended back into my composing fog. But today’s a writing day, and I had received an impressive missive from the redoubtable Matt Wellins, which I will answer as it goes along:

You bring up how Modernism is still very alive in composer circles, but I think
you’re ignoring how dead it is in every other aspect of popular culture these days.
Even the most transparent tripe (I think we’re in agreement about “Lost in
Translation”, for instance) is viewed as some kind of artistic renaissance.
I think some sort of prickliness is necessary, some sort of stamp that says “Not
for commercial consumption.”

Bravo, well said – as much as I love “pretty” music like Harold Budd and Daniel Lentz, there is a broadly felt need for some sort of prickliness in new music, isn’t there? if only to keep us from falling into the new age category. But how much prickliness, and why? To prove we’re “serious,” in some vestige of modernist self-estimation? To keep our music from being appropriated by music corporations? Are we in that much danger? Should we let the corporate threat dissuade us from the music we feel should be written, or should we cling to our autonomy? To keep people from sinking into the beauty that is “too much confused with something that lets the ears lie back in the easy chair”? To keep listening a thoughtful experience? Or, let’s turn it around: one might feel that if there is truth, structure, originality in a piece of music, there will also be prickliness as a side effect: but surely we’ve established through a million imitative, nondescript 12-tone pieces that prickliness will not automatically result in truth, structure, or originality, right? – though diehard modernists may continue to believe this. This question deserves further thought, but I hope we can agree that Adorno did not have the last word on the issue.

The first paragraph of the Eugenides quote strikes me as somehow oblivious, and
I’m surprised this doesn’t somehow frustrate you as well. We’re in a desperate,
broken time now too. Things are a bloody mess all over the world. And the fact that
this initial wave of modernist “grand experiments” didn’t exactly succeed
doesn’t necessarily undermine its importance. We are all still making grand experiments that reflect our desperate times. Our aesthetics, even if they’re postively-charged towards some utopian future, still require some destructive element, something to wipe away the saccharine trance of our current culture.

Well, OK, you’re right – Eugenides admits that maybe he’s just getting middle-aged, and so am I. Things are a bloody mess, and, as bad as I thought they were when I was your age, they’re worse now – it’s not just a perception of youth. And perhaps if I were 22, my response would be to want a completely different kind of art, something that would shake off all traces of the past, like the Darmstadt composers wanted after WW II. As it is, I grew up immersed in music that tried to destroy the past, and, reacting against 30 years of that, I see a lot of value now in some kind of reconstituted “normalcy” – but I suppose to be 22 now would be to see even the Darmstadt music as a kind of “normalcy.” Or perhaps it’s impossible to be 22 right now without feeling swamped by a corporate kind of musical normalcy. An inevitable difference in perspective.

Maybe what I’m a proponent of here is a “New Elitism” – one that is somewhat
more broad-minded than the past one, but not as all-inclusive and allegedly populist
as post-modernism claims to be. All of a sudden, something strikes me as very silly about comparing post-modern (populist-leaning, but ultimately self-aware music)
to modern music…. Who does it even matter to? [French electronic minimalist] Eliane Radigue is just as ridiculous to most listeners as Webern. My mom was ready to chop my head off for blasting [American minimalist] Arnold Dreyblatt in the house yesterday. I think the only post-modern music with true potential for subversion is music that we won’t notice or label as “post-modern.” Its galvanizing forces won’t be apparent to academic communities or even a number of new music circles. I think most of that crowd will too quickly dismiss it as pop music.

Hmmm…. The logic is growing subtle. Does this mean a kind of music, using pop conventions, whose subversive features are almost unnoticeable? Perhaps a music that… reconstitutes a certain air of normalcy? You know, I think, that the paper I delivered on Mikel Rouse’s music at a recent postmodernism conference was titled, “Mikel Rouse and the Simulation of Normalcy.” I do like the concept of a New Elitism, though I think I might pick a different word. Possibly a New Sense of Standards?, with the inherent realization that standards are always relative to style, intention, and function. (Though I hate the word “standards,” too.)

What I feel really defensive about, however, is the assumption that Modernism is innately alienating. I don’t think serialism was a complete waste of your time,
like you often joke about. You mention how seductive it is in the closing of your
entry, but you never really illustrate what that attraction is. As an occassional
Carterite and a former Zornite (there are still some works of his that I hold in
high regard, it’s just his work as of late…. but that’s another story), it’s hard
for me to ignore how beautiful ugly sounds can be!

Touché. I do harbor and express fondness for certain serialist works. I think that the Darmstadt serialists, by exploding every then-existing concept of musical normalcy, came up with extreme originality and beauty in the area of musical texture, and my own music continues to be influenced by serialist textures. But I also think that aside from Berio’s Sinfonia, Babbitt’s Philomel, maybe Zimmermann’s Requiem, and a couple of other pieces with textual elements, the entire body of serialist music produced nothing that will ever mean much to anyone beyond composers and new-musicians interested in its technical aspects. There will always be interest in serialist music – it’s always fascinating when people pour tremendous creative energy into something that doesn’t appear to mean anything. Write some apparent nonsense, and people will study it for centuries! – look at the endurance of Finnegans Wake. It’s fascinating that people once wrote music that tried to alienate people. But again, once you reach a certain age it becomes less fascinating, and one can start to feel a certain urgency for connecting with that which can be understood. I think.

I think maybe the dilemma expressed in My Dinner With Andre isn’t so
much about people being fatigued from their constant confrontation with the harsh and abrasive “real world”, but about the increasingly cliched form that people
use to express those sentiments. Plenty of post-modern composers believe they’re
illustrating and reflecting the “real world”, not all of them neccessarily
subscribe to the idea of posing pleasant possibilities. People become conditioned,
they form expectations. The fulfillment of expectations is the problem, not the
sounds themselves. I wouldn’t dare tell anyone I met on a casual basis that I was
an “avant-garde composer” of some sort. It’s not just because of the semantic
difficult in describing what I do, it’s because of the heavy baggage it holds. I
believe Brian Eno told an interviewer once that he told most people he was an accountant, unless he knew they had a lot of time to spend.

I see modernism as an innately progress-oriented approach. I agree with you that left-brain functionality has taken the forefront of the modernist thread in the
past 40 years, but I think you’re ignoring that at the root of it, it was about
invention, and became bland and monotonous with subsequent generations of uninspired composers. Putting Schoenberg and Boulez in the same boat isn’t fair. One invented tone rows, the other used them.

Postmodernism is scary to me because it seems to hold non-invention in such high esteem. There seems to be a defeatist attitude in subscribing to either the idea
that history is completely non-linear or the idea that history is completely apparent,
both things that I see creeping up in post-modern work (speaking of which, isn’t
Zorn a post-modernist in this regard, anyway?). This all boils down to rhetoric,
though. Composers define their own lineages, draw their own sounds, use their own
themes. I don’t think this is post-modern or modern. Maybe the only real defense
in this email is that “While only some people like ugly music, not all people
like pretty music.”

A music that held no interest in invention would indeed be scary. Having been educated in the Age of Theory, as I was educated before it, you seem to have a much more definite sense of a body of existing postmodern music (as opposed to merely postclassical) than I do. I’d be interested in seeing a list of music you consider postmodern, and I’d be happy to print it – an invitation open to others as well. And thanks for your thoughtful remarks, as usual.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Also, reader Matthew Hammond was appalled that I seemed to equate the theoretical modernism of composer Brian Ferneyhough with the anachronistic imperialism of Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al. I certainly didn’t mean to imply any moral equivalence. Ideas that might just be interesting or controversial or tiresome when expressed in music become oppressive and life-shattering when expressed in political action, and the practicing composer does not wield nearly as dangerous a power in the world as the reigning politician. Nor did I mean to single Ferneyhough out – any number of other names would have done as well. What I object to, and am perhaps particularly sensitive to, is the type of rigid male personality that has infinite faith in its own perceptions and opinions, and dismisses all opposing feedback as stupid and irrelevant. I once interviewed Ferneyhough, and never published the interview because as I was writing it up, the contempt he expressed for audiences made it impossible to present him as a sympathetic figure. There are composers just as willing to tell the world of music lovers “Go fuck yourself!” as our current vice-president is to politicians who question his actions. I don’t care for the type.

And I suppose I see the type of old-fashioned imperialism embodied by the Bush administration, correctly or not, as anachronistically analogous to the type of late modernism that attempts to alienate people and impose its own set of rules – the rigidity of old men who think they know what’s best, they’re the experts, and the rest of us should just shut up and follow docilely along. Hammond points out that by excluding such composers, I don’t come across as someone invested in stylistic pluralism. And that’s a paradox of pluralism, isn’t it? – that it requires including in your rainbow of viewpoints those who think that they’re right and everyone else is wrong.

Of course, there were two very different phases of modernism – the early, irrational, expressionist phase, and the later, lawgiving, dogmatic phase. But that’s an article for another day.

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