I’m going to write again about new music and orchestras, because — in the present state of these discussions — it’s easy for me to be misunderstood. This isn’t my fault, or the fault of the people who misunderstand me. It’s more, I think, because the discussion is very new, and the context I mean to put it in is (naturally!) more familiar to me than to others.
So no blame to anyone here. I’ll try to explain why (at least as I see it) I’m not simply voicing a personal preference when I say that orchestras should do much more alt-classical new music, and why I’m also not saying (when I note that this music has a large actual and potential audience) that popularity should be the guide to what orchestras program.
The overall problem, I think, is that the situation of new music in the classical music world is very odd — and, maybe, more than odd. Unnatural, distorted, and unhealthy, especially when we compare it to the role new work plays in other arts. But at the same time, this situation is so familiar to many of us that we don’t easily see through it, or beyond it. I was that way myself, for many years, and I couldn’t say how, exactly, I began seeing things from another perspective.
Which, I’ll hasten to say, everyone is free to disagree with. But I’ll observe that, generally, from outside the classical music world, classical music and the various ways it functions don’t look much like the way they look inside our world. And that we can learn a lot from taking both perspectives seriously.
So — new classical music. We think of it, often, as an honorable, important, even crucial enterprise, something we have to foster, especially since it has only an uneasy home at most mainstream classical performances. And we might also feel — understandably — that new music can be compared to new work in other arts.
But in that last thought, I think that we’re not quite right. To show why, let me show some snapshots from its history.
Modernist music and modernism in the other arts. Atonal music developed around the same time as abstract painting, and in fact two great pioneers in both fields — Schoenberg in music, Kandinsky in painting — were close friends and artistic allies. Modernist composers have also made connections to literary modernism, Boulez, for instance, in his prominent settings of Mallarmé (who we might call an abstract poet, because in his poems he doesn’t name tangible objects or situations).
And Elliott Carter has taken inspiration from Joyce, from the fleeting play of consciousness in both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.
But there’s a big difference between Carter and Joyce, and in fact between Joyce and just about any modernist composer you can name. Joyce, no matter how radical his writing might be — and Finnegans Wake is surely as impenetrable for most readers as Carter’s music is for most listeners, if not more so — is always grounded in everyday culture. It’s not enough to say that his books are filled with references to popular songs, advertisements, bars, food, sex, and the ordinary things of life. These things are the soil they grow from. They’re suffused with everyday things.
Which doesn’t happen in Carter, or Boulez, or even in someone looser and more playful like Berio. You won’t find these composers quoting popular songs. Carter may love the floating, darting stream of consciousness in Joyce, but at least in his music, he gives no sign that his consciousness darts to the places Joyce’s fleeting thoughts go to. Which restricts the cultural resonance of his music (same for many other modernist composers), and may help explain why this music hasn’t caught on even with artists and intellectuals, let alone with a more general audience. (And in fact that’s the biggest problem with modernist new music, that it doesn’t have an audience among non-music people who have a deep love of contemporary art, or who are artists themselves.)
Modernist music in Paris, c. 1960. This is an important, even cherished time for people who support modernist classical music, because it’s the time when Boulez was catching fire. But who, exactly, did he catch fire with? This isn’t a question we often ask about this kind of music, maybe because — and I’m not being cynical here, just (I hope) factual — it hasn’t had much audience, and the so the whole subject of an audience might be better avoided. The music is presumed to have intrinsic value, and the audience can come later.
But Boulez, in Paris, c. 1960, didn’t have much audience, as far as I know. He had a small group of glittering supporters, whom he carefully cultivated (especially those with money). And clearly his cultivation worked. He developed a major reputation as a composer, and later, as we know, got the French government to stake him to an entire new music institution, IRCAM.
He also, back in those days, was at least briefly involved in an intellectual controversy over serialism, whose linguistic claims — claims that serial procedures could be looked on as a language — were derided by Claude Levi-Strauss.
But the modernist energy in Paris at that time came from film, from Truffaut and Godard. This is what artistic and intellectual people paid attention to, and were inspired by. I won’t make claims to my own artistic or intellectual status, but the same was true of me at that time, and in the years just afterward. From the fall of 1961 on, I was at college, and art films — which I’d started going to in high school — became a serious part of my life.
Boulez actually visited my school (and I even met him), but his music was nowhere on my horizon, even though I cared more about music than anything else, and ignored my coursework for it. Art films, though — Antonioni and Fellini as well as Truffaut and Godard — touched me very deeply. They resonated with who I thought I was, and what I thought the world was. Or rather they both reflected my ideas on these things, and taught me new ones. This was the art that, to draw on Joyce’s famous phrase from Portrait of an Artist, seemed to be forging the uncreated conscience of whatever I thought my race was.
And when I look back at that era now, it seems transparently obvious that these films — and my favorite now is Godard — were the most crucial art of their time, and certainly far more central than music. They created a revolution in film, and were part of a developing revolution in consciousness. Their influence was gigantic. They created — as Mark Harris documents in his indispensable book (indispensable to anyone who wants to understand how our culture got where it is now) Pictures at a Revolution — a revolution in Hollywood, and if we now have art-house films and can expect to see even major studio films that can be taken seriously intellectually and artistically, it’s because of these films which mattered so much more to the culture at large than Boulez (I fear) ever will.
Boulez likes to talk about the need for a new musical language, to express new emotions. (This is part of his reason for thinking tonal music written in our time can be nothing more than nostalgic.) But he never, to my knowledge, says what those new emotions are. Or showed us in any way (again as far as I know) how his music could guide us through new conditions of life, or even reflect those conditions.
Godard, in film after film, named what the new emotions (and new thoughts, and new life situations) of that time were, and explored them in depth. Another reason why those films — which are often difficult for many people to take (look at the abstract, and in many ways unyielding formalistic dance of La Chinoise, for instance) — were widely watched, in spite of their difficulty. And why they had an importance, in the development of the culture of their time, that Boulez could never claim.
Do you see where I’m going with this? Modernist composition (and, as it gained influence, just about all
of the most prestigious new classical music) somehow got divorced from the culture of its time, even from the advanced artistic culture that was going on in other fields. Or in other words it got left behind. In effect, it built itself a walled community, and the classical music world has suffered from this ever since.
More in my next post. (What I’m writing here builds on what I said in my post about alt-classical composers at the Chicago Symphony and elaborates on a response I posted to a thoughtful comment someone in the Chicago Symphony made.)Related