Another episode

Another new episode of my improvised, in-progress book — on the future of classical music — is online.

In the last few episodes, I’ve been discussing classical music’s past, both what it was in the 18th century (when it wasn’t classical music yet, and therefore didn’t have any aura of sanctity), and how it started in the 19th century to turn into what it is now. The present episode is the second in a series that looks at the effects of modernism. In my last episode, I showed how vital new music could be — how closely connected to the audience — even in the 1890s, when the percentage of new works on concert programs had badly declined. (Declined, that is, from what it had been in the 18th century, when it was nearly 100%, and throughout the 19th century.) Now I’m going to talk about what happened when modernism hit, and new works started seeming unfamiliar and uncomfortable. You’ll see that I defend modernism very strongly, but I also use some strong language to describe the bad effects of this, which — at their worst — were that uncomfortable new music was forced on an unwilling audience, and also (something I’ll discuss much more fully in future episodes) that modernism in music got to be quite different, far stiffer and more opaque, than modernism in the other arts. James Joyce, for instance — surely the leading modernist in literature — could write Finnegans Wake, which makes up its own version of the English language, and can be incomprehensible to many people. But the book is full of joyful takes on everyday life, references to drinking, popular songs, opera arias, smells, tastes, sex. And now look at two composers who both say they owe a lot to Joyce, Pierre Boulez and Elliott Carter. Do we ever hear snatches of popular songs in their works? Forget it! They’ve entirely divorced themselves from everyday life, something Joyce never, ever did.

Subscribers to the book will get some extras, as always. (Look for them next Wednesday or Thursday.) Anecdotes, extra thoughts, whatever comes my way. Subscribers also get notified immediately when new episodes appear. To subscribe, click here, and in the subject line of the e-mail form that’ll appear, please write “subscribe to the book.” Or anything you like, really, except “subscribe book,” because that’s the language that appears when spammers harvest the e-mail address online, and send spam subscriptions. I’d also be grateful if you’d write a brief message, telling me who you are and why you’re interested in the book. I find this enormously helpful, and I’ve also made some friends. You’ll see that I answer you, though maybe not immediately.

One further note. My friend Jorge Martin, a fine composer, wrote an important comment to this new episode, pointing out that when I say “modernisim,” I really mean atonal modernism, an important distinction. Everyone should read what Jorge has to say.

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  1. says

    Boulez says in the liner notes to either “Repons” or “Pli Selon Pli” in the DG 20/21 series that he often starts a piece thinking of popular melodies.

    In the notes to “Pli selon pli,” he says: “When I want to relax I always think of a very simple melodic line, one which is certainly not dodecaphonic. This may surprise you, but I’ve often found the obligation to use all twelve tones to be unbearable, because the result is so predictable. In this melody [he’s talking about the first of the three “Improvisations sur Mallarmé” that lie at the center of the work] there are repetitions, polarities are formed which interest me. The first version of “Improvisation I” essentially revolves around this phenomenon. For its articulation [in a later, revised version] I went back to sketches for my “Notations,’ which I’ve interpolated between these melodic segments. The form is thus elucidated by means of a self-quotation.”

    In other words (at least as I read what Boulez says): (a) When he talks about a “simple melody,” it’s certainly not a popular tune, but rather one that simply isn’t 12-tone. (b) As an example of a simple melody, he apparently cites the start of the “Iimprovisation I,” which is extraordinarily lovely (it might be my favorite Boulez moment; the other might be the entrance of the tam-tam at the end of “Le marteau sans maitre”). But it’s also atonal, and certainly not like any popular tune any of us have ever heard. (c) To elaborate the piece in which this melody occurs, Boulez quotes from another, fully atonal, non-melodic work of his, thus doing something that’s about as far from Joyce as possible, or at least from the Joyce who quotes fragments of genuine popular tunes (and other bits of popular culture) throughout both “Ulysses” and “Finnegans Wake.”

  2. says


    I think you do your project a grave disservice by saying that a failure to quote popular song in music ipso facto represents a disconnect form everyday life.

    Musical quotation is a very different beast from literary quotation. In music, or so it seems to me, the piece actually becomes the piece quoted for the length of the quotation, whereas quotes in literary works have a different effect, that of allusion.

    I can’t speak in detail about Boulez, except to say that the music I know does have an astonishing sensuous beauty, but I find Carter’s music to be very much in touch with everyday life in that he has abstracted modern urban life and offered an artistic re-presentation of that life in sound. Offering up to people information they already have (popular tunes) and calling it communication seems to me to be a fairly low-level ambition for art.

    I don’t mean this as a condemnation of music that includes direct reference to popular music. I just think that that is only one way to do it, and maybe not the most interesting way.

    Steve, thanks for this. And it’s well worth thinking about. But I do think my point was more complex than this. I didn’t say anyone absolutely has to quote popular music, or else be condemned for staying aloof from everyday life. I’m saying that literary modernism — Joyce in particular — has a colloquial side that modernist classical music mostly hasn’t had. This goes (as maybe I should have said) much further than quoting popular songs. Joyce is full of allusions, references, and outright celebration of all kinds of everyday things. That was at the core of his work.

    I like the distinction you draw between quotations in literature and music. And yet I think it’s possible to wedge musical quotations in a larger context so that they don’t take over the piece. Look at Berio in “Sinfonia” (or “Coro,” for that matter, where the quotations come from world music). Or Shostakovich whose quotes are manifold, and usually much more sublte than the famous Rossini quote (and, less famously, but just as foregrounded, the Wagner quote) in the Fifteenth Symphony.”

    In fact, I’d hold Berio up as a modernist model here. In music, several things can be going on at once (as they always are in “Finnegans Wake”). So you can sneak in a quote from a song somewhere in your texture, without disturbing your overall progress, and certainly without the quote taking over your music, even for a moment.