Noisy episode

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.

If you want to know when future episodes of the book arrive, please subscribe. Just type “subscribe to the book” in the e-mail form that’ll appear when you click the link, and, if you would, tell me a little about yourself. My subscribers are a varied and engaging group; I’ve made friends with several, or at least had warm and informative e-mail exchanges, simply because people told me who they are, and why the book interests them.

Subscribers also get extra stuff in e-mails from me — anecdotes, ideas, debates, and maybe a more personal sense of who I am.

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.”

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. says

    Difficult modernist music has been forced on an audience that doesn’t want to hear it

    I keep hearing that, but I don’t understand how it could have happened this way. No symphony orchestra in the cities I’ve lived in has tried to make modernist repertoire a significant part of its concerts–sure, the CSO might have had Boulez’s “Notations” open a few concerts, but they only last a couple of minutes long and are among his least difficult works. All modern music is consigned to special concerts where only those who are already interested in it are likely to come.

    And this isn’t, I should imagine, a recent thing, either. After all, the Darmstadt generation had most of its works premiered at special festivals for new-music cognoscenti. The only way Boulez could get Webern heard was through the Domaine Musical concerts he set up himself. New music in the U.S. is stocked at only large stores in bigger cities, and the staff usually let it languish in neglect.

    So, how has modernism been forced on anyone?

    I led a conversation with members of the audience after a concert by one of America’s most famous orchestras. The people in the conversation with long-time subscribers. Nobody from the orchestra had ever asked them what they thought. This orchestra does a fair amount of modernist new music, and the people from the audience just hated it. Their anger, simmering for all these years, but never before expressed, was just amazing to encounter.

    This is just one of many examples I could cite. You’d look at this orchestras’s programming, Christopher, and you might well say, “Well, what’s the problem? They don’t do all that much modernist new music.” But however much it might seem to you, it was far too much for their audience.

    You mentioned the Chicago Symphony. Their audience hated the new music that Barenboim programmed. After Barenboim left, the orchestra played less of it, and subscribers wrote letters, expressing their gratitude.

    Talk to people in the classical music audience, and ask them what they think of new music. Many, if not most of them, grit their teeth in advance, expecting what to them is a horrible experience. Some people, I’ll grant you, think something as innocent as the Barber Violin Concerto is horribly dissonant. (I’ve run into that, firsthand.) But many others are happy to accept new music that’s written in some musical language that they find they can understand. (Which does NOT mean that it has to be simple or tuneful!)

  2. says

    I don’t think a piece of barely-modernist music here or there in a season filled overwhelmingly with traditional repertoire can possibly be seen as “forcing” the music on anyone. Even if you have a subscription, there’s no obligation to attend every concert.

    In any event, please do name this orchestra, since I’d fly there to attend their concerts. Really, I mean that. Ever since I discovered modern-classical music, I’ve been waiting desperately to be a regular concert goer. But of the cities I’ve lived in since, Madrid, Chicago, Cluj-Napoca, and Helsinki, there’s maybe two concerts in a six-month period that have anything modernist.

    Well, go argue with the people in the audience who DID feel the music was forced on them. Remember that they might want to hear other pieces on the program with the modernist work they hate. Remember that they might not be able to go another night. In fact, try to have some sympathy for people who think differently from you! Even if you think the audience is entirely wrong for thinking what they think, they think it. And they’re not going to change. So if you run an orchestra, you can either speak to them, and try to find some accomodation, or tell them to go pluck themselves. That latter option, it seems to me, is the one you’re picking.

    I can’t tell you which orchestra I talked about in the last comment. I was working with them as a consultant when I led that conversation, and my work with my clients has to be confidential.

    If you want to hear new music, modernist and otherwise, move to New York. There’s a lot of it there. London, too. You’re silly to live in the cities you chose. You’re just not going to get the concerts you want. (See, now I’m treating you the way you treated those poor people in the audience.)