Putting Modernism Behind

Alert reader Gavin Borchert ran across some comments in Slate that he found relevant to the concept of postclassical music, and I agree. The subject was James Joyce as a founder of modernism, and the forum was a collegial debate between novelists Jim Lewis and Jeffrey Eugenides. (I’d missed it, though I’ve been reading Slate regularly lately – their Reagan legacy coverage was refreshingly non-delusional.) Lewis says:

What I’m slowly learning is that vanguardism isn’t the only form of ambition. There are others, and always have been – lyric, epic, and so on. The very idea of an avant-garde was made possible by a sense that history was relatively uniform and discrete: the sort of thing one could compass, harness, lead. But the patterns of the past are much too complicated, now; there are too many of them, and they’re too varied. Again, this is fine by me: The more the merrier, and maybe “do what thou wilt” shall be the whole of the law, after all.

And Eugenides responds:

…I’m struck by your idea that we can get along fine without an avant-garde. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it put quite so bluntly before. Joyce was writing Ulysses in the aftermath of World War I, when Europe and the European dream of progress and Utopian rationalism lay in ruins. I can imagine, in such a desperate, broken time, wanting to read books that were in no way like the books that had come before, books that, by the sheer destructive force of their aesthetics, spoke to the real destruction of war and, at the same time, began to show a way ahead by virtue of their grand experiments.

This isn’t how I feel right now. There’s a lot of noise in my head, coming from all directions, the radio, the television, the computer, the street. You could write a book that echoes this cacophony, but that might serve only to amplify it. What I want in a book is a refuge from the noise and confusion, plus a reminder that another human being is on the other end of the exchange, someone who isn’t peddling me false consciousness but is bringing, or at least attempting to bring, things into light. Maybe this is just creeping middle age, but it’s the way I’m tending these days.

This last paragraph echoes something that had a deep impact on me in 1981: Andre Gregory’s argument from My Dinner with Andre. (The internet is making me fat, you know. I could have eased out of my recliner and walked upstairs to look for that date on the DVD copy of the movie in my bedroom, but it was easier to keep my fat butt in the chair and click on the International Movie Database.) Andre argues that art that tries to shock people by showing them how violent and diseased the world is (let’s equate this with modernism, or the avant-garde, for the moment) is no longer effective because people already know that’s what the world is like, and it just confirms their worst suspicions and sends them back to sleep and denial. What people need instead, he theorizes, is an art that outlines alternatives, that offers hope and a saner, more beautiful image of what the world could be. This was not the beginning of my disaffection with modernism; in 1975, under the influences of Reich, Riley, and Glass, I had suddenly converted from writing the most dissonant, anxious music I knew how to make to basing a piece entirely on the C-major scale and an unvarying tempo. (Hey, Republicans: does that make me a flip-flopper? Should I have “stayed the course”?) But the many strings that connected me to modernism – theoretical, emotional, technical – were being cut one by one, and My Dinner with Andre snipped several of them.

Zip ahead to the 1990s, and you find me writing an article in the Voice called “No More Heros,” in which I argued – much like Lewis above – that modernism’s unidirectional increase of shock and complexity was a macho paradigm that couldn’t sustain itself forever. That there are still uncharted musical universes left to explore strikes me as unquestionable. But there is only so far you can meaningfully go in terms of left-brain analytical complexity, greater dissonance, more rarefied abstraction, and by pursuing only that one direction as if it were some god-given historical mandate, the Carterites, the Ferneyhoughites, and even the Zornites had left the musical needs of the human race behind. Music, as Lewis says, can also be lyric, epic – and I would also add poetic, meditative, sensitizing, physical, participatory, communal.

What I envy about this dialogue in Slate is the apparent ease with which literary people can remark on modernism’s irrelevance these days. Raise such an idea in composer circles, and a militant (if perhaps lessening) crowd will rise up to protest that we are still smack in the middle of a modernist era, with no end in sight. My parenthetical joke about “staying the course” was kidding on the square: I feel that there is a psychological link between composer Brian Ferneyhough and his “New Complexity” disciples thinking that macho increases in abstraction and complexity can go on forever, and Cheney and Rumsfeld thinking that America’s military expansion and domination of the earth’s resources can go on forever. Both are driven by a massive fear of vulnerability, and a “manful” determination to stick with the principle that has worked thus far until domination is complete. Modernism was a deadly seductive ideology – I should know, I spent 14 years slowly and painfully severing myself from it. The literary people are ahead of us, and I look forward to a music world in which we can all discuss modernism as a limited worldview from the historical past that we too have learned to transcend.