At a concert by the Theatre of Voices Friday night, I loved a Berio piece, A-Ronne. Twitters, muttering, all kinds of entertaining vocal sounds, and also some compelling singing, all structured in a way that captivated me. But when I said I liked the piece, at intermission, two composers (one quite well known) objected. To them the piece felt suffocating. I knew why, of course. They’d studied composition in the 1970s, when modernism ruled in academia, and when — as I know from my own composition studies then — you had to like and write atonal music, and in fact acknowledge it as the only serious idiom a composer could write in. You couldn’t like Britten or Shostakovich. Those composers were quietly forbidden: too tonal.
After the concert, someone else asked me how Berio could have been so terrifying — and still could be — since A-Ronne (and many other works by him) are fun, are full of sounds that aren’t atonal, and by now sound (at least to people who didn’t study composition in the ’70s) quite charmingly dated.
The answer is simple. There was an implicit list, all but codified in writing, of acceptable composers. Berio ranked high on it. And so for anyone who found this compositional aesthetic — this enforced ideology — suffocating, Berio loomed (and apparently still looms) as yet another strangler. Forget that he taught Steve Reich, who surely didn’t find him so. This wasn’t about Berio, as he might have been in person. It was about the crowd he ran with, and the uses that his music could be put to.
Somehow that never bothered me. I thought Berio was fun, and also a master of composing; I still do. Maybe I escaped the suffocation because I simply started writing freer music, no doubt to faculty consternation at the music school I went to. Yet still I did it.
But I sympathize with the composers who hated A-Ronne. (A-Ronne — didn’t he play for the Yankees? Sorry, couldn’t help it.) One of these composers stiffened noticeably when I said I liked the piece. His objection was visceral, and genuine.
So in his defense I’ll note that Berio was formidably intellectual, that his form of intellectuality (shared also by Boulez and Babbitt, not to mention others) loomed as yet another strangulation, and that the program note he wrote for A-Ronne — an anti-masterpiece of Mandarin impossibility — was enough to give any composition student from the ’70s a fit of nightmares. If you thought you had to swallow that to love the music (and I’m not sure we weren’t taught we had to), then of course many people couldn’t go there.
And in Berio’s modernism, delightful as it now sounds to me — and not just delightful; irreverent, too — you run into a brick wall of limitation.Berio can twitter and burp all he likes, but the connections that he thinks he’s making to the world outside classical music are all to highbrow theorizing, cultural, linguistic, and literary. You’d never catch him echoing a snatched memory of popular culture (unless you count folk songs, which I don’t, because they’re theorized, in Berio’s world, as authentic, while pop culture, supposedly, is commercial and corrupt).
So that’s the boundary. He can giggle all he wants, and also cough and hum and murmur, putting sounds in free association with each other. But if I’d written a piece like this, and my free association took me to a fragment of Led Zeppelin, eyebrows would have been raised. Likewise, when Elliott Carter says that he’s inspired (as, for instance, in his piano piece Night Fantasies) by the slither of unconscious thoughts in Joyce’s writing, what he’ll never do, as thoughts skitter in his music, is let them skitter toward popular culture (by, for instance, echoing a popular song), as Joyce does on just about every page.
That’s an odd, restrictive limit, typical of modernist music, but not of other modernist art. And it helps explains why modernist music has never had the appeal of modernist literature or painting.