Modernism (sigh)

I loved Josh Kosman’s piece on whiny modernist composers, linked from Artsjournal yesterday. Certainly there’s a problem here, and in fact a serious historical conundrum. Why hasn’t atonal modernist music by composers like Schoenberg and Charles Wuorinen caught on, even after a century (in Schoenberg’s case)? Why does the mainstream classical music audience hate it so much? 

Josh’s piece was brought on by a New York Times interview with Wuorinen, John Harbison, and James Levine (who conducts a lot of atonal modernist music). Harbison, I thought, dissented from a lot that the others said, but Levine and Wuorinen were notably hardcore, blaming the audience for not working hard enough to understand this repertoire.

This is silly. There’s a huge historical fact here. You can’t blame people as individuals for not liking the music you think they should like. Or at least you can’t blame them without understanding why they feel the way they do. This becomes quite a conundrum, I think, because abstract expressionist painters (whose style might be more or less analogous to atonal modernist music) have a much easier time with the public. People like their work. As I’ve mentioned many times in many contexts, there were lines around the block when MOMA had a Jackson Pollock show. So why doesn’t music work that way?

I don’t think we study this problem nearly seriously enough. I haven’t seen much attempt to explain it, even tentatively. All we do, as a rule, is blame each other. Some people blame the composers, for writing this horrible music. The composers and their advocates then blame presenters and performers, for not programming this work, and the audience, for not liking it. All this seems useless.

I can think of two tentative points to make. First is that music takes more commitment than visual arts. You can stroll through a gallery or a museum, look at what you like, and ignore the rest. If you don’t like Jackson Pollock, you won’t go to MOMA’s show. Whereas concert audiences have to take what’s thrown at them. If you hate Schoenberg, and your local orchestra programs his violin concerto, you’re sitting there for 20 minutes gritting your teeth.

Second, music depends on performance. If you go to see abstract painting, the painting sits there on the wall, looking exactly the way the painter wanted it to look. Not so with music. Your local orchestra may have butchered the Schoenberg violin concerto, which isn’t at all an easy piece. (And in fact I’ve heard really bad, ugly performances of atonal music that gave completely wrong ideas of what the pieces ought to sound like.) Orchestras have a particularly hard time, because it takes them a long time to get to know a score. When I did an audience feedback session with the Pittsburgh Symphony after a concert with Berio and Schoenberg pieces, members of the orchestra freely said that they were still feeling their way in those scores. And these were, by and large, good performances. But the audience may pick up on something tentative, that they’re not going to sense in Beethoven or Shostakovich.

Third, music may be more encompassing — and more emotional — than visual art. It surrounds us more; it gets into us. So it may be harder for us to open ourselves to music that seems horrible. It takes more out of us. It hurts us more to listen, than it would to look at an unfamiliar and, at first, unpleasant painting.

Fourth, the classical music audience may be notably conservative. I don’t quite know why that should be, but it seems to be true. People devoted to classical music may be, in some way, pre-selected. They tend to be people who aren’t very interested in new directions in art.

These ideas, even if they hold up to closer analysis than I’ve yet given them, would only scratch the surface. Why, for instance, should classical music attract a conservative audience? I don’t think we know that.

There’s one simple thing, though, that we might all keep in mind. Some art naturally finds a large audience; some art finds a small audience. You’re not going to get many book groups reading Finnegans Wake, for instance, or Samuel Beckett’s novels. That seems natural to most of us. I love Beckett’s novels, but I’d hardly urge them on most people I know.

So the same is surely true of classical music. Some pieces — some styles of music — don’t appeal very widely, no matter how fabulous they may be to those who understand them.

But then we run into two problems. First, the feeling (strongly helped along by Schoenberg) that modernist music is inevitable and important — that in fact it’s the only style appropriate for our age. That means we have to like it. Second, and much more simply, modernist composers continued to write for orchestras, which mean that some of their pieces demand large concert halls, and also large audiences (or else the orchestras can’t pay their bills).

But what if their work simply isn’t the kind of thing a large audience will ever like? That’s a dilemma we’re not going to get around by trying to pin blame on anybody.

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