Loonacied! Marterdyed!! Madwakemiherculossed!!! Judascessed!!!! Pairaskivvymenassed!!!!! Luredogged!!!!!!
There, from Finnegans Wake, is the motto of my latest book episode, the latest improvised installment of my online book on the future of classical music. If this episode were positioned in the style of a computer folder, it might be book/how classical music is today/how classical music got that way/the effects of modernism. As faithful readers know, I’m not happy with the effects modernist music has had on classical music, even though I like the music itself. The problems are, roughly speaking, two: difficult modernist music has been forced on an audience that doesn’t want to hear it; and modernist music became far more abstract and far more removed from everyday colloquial life than modernist painting, literature, or film.
But in this episode, I’m not worrying about all that. I’m celebrating the sheer exuberance and noise of early modernism, with special reference to the 1920s, when “modern music” was a fad — even a high-society fad — in New York.
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I’ll end with what I think is the highlight of my latest episode. It’s something William Carlos Williams wrote in 1947, after he heard one of the most dramatic, superhyped, and noisy pieces of modern music, George Antheil’s Ballet méchanique– featuring sirens and airplane propellers — at its disorganized Carnegie Hall premiere:
Here is Carnegie Hall. You have heard something [in the past] of the great Beethoven and it has been charming, masterful in its power over the mind. We have been alleviated, strengthened against life — the enemy — by it. We go out of Carnegie into the subway, and we can for a moment withstand the assault of that noise, failingly! as the strength of the music dies. Such has been its strength to enclose us that we may even feel its benediction a week long.
But as we came from Antheli’s “Ballet Méchanique” a woman of our party, herself a musician, made this remark: “The subway seems sweet after that.” “Good, I replied and went on to consider what evidences there were in myself in explanation of her remark. And this is what I noted. I felt that noise, the unrelated noise of life such as this in the subway had not been battened out as would have been the case with Beethoven still warm in the mind but it had actually been mastered, subjugated. Antheil had taken this hated thing life and rigged himself into power over it by his music. The offense had not been held, cooled, varnished over but annihilated and life itself made thereby triumphant. This is an important difference .By hearing Antheil’s music, seemingly so much noise, when I actually came up on noise in reality, I found that “I had gone up over it.”