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December 21, 2006

Book 2.0
Episode 16: Modernism, Analysed and Tamed

For earlier episodes, see my summary at the start of the last one. If you'd like to be notified (by e-mail) when new episodes appear, please subscribe to the book. Just type "subscribe to the book" in the subject line of the e-mail form that appears when you click here. And, if you would, tell me a little about yourself, and why the book interests you.

And now some highlights from the last episode:

Alfredo Casella, an Italian neoclassical composer, tells what happened when Stravinsky's Rite of Spring was first performed in concert:

I was sitting in a box with some friends as the performance was about to begin. The door opened, and with surprise I saw the venerable Saint-Saëns enter. He refused to sit in front of us and, hermetically wrapped in furs, curled himself up at the back of the box, looking for all the world like the patient who waits in the dentist's antechamber, to have a tooth pulled. The prelude began, and when Saint-Saëns heard the first note of that solo whose quality is so strange and primitive, he asked me, terrified: "What is that instrument?" When I answered calmly, "Master, it's a bassoon," he made the dry rebuttal in his nasal and unpleasant voice, "That's not true!" and went out banging the door, cursing those crazy modernists who succeeded even in making unrecognizable such a peaceful instrument...


In our time, [The Rite of Spring] has been domesticated. One sign of this was an exercise the members of an orchestra (not one of our country's largest, but not one of our smallest, either) did, in an attempt to find ways to introduce more people to [the piece]. Of course they weren't trying to get anyone to accept its modernity; they were simply trying to bring a new audience to all of classical music, and they used The Rite as their exercise, as easily as they might also have used Mozart. Suppose, they said, people made up their own rites of spring? Then they'd move one step closer to the piece. And what would those rites be? Well, let's see...people could press flowers in a scrapbook...

Forgotten, evidently, was the stark and shocking central point --the rite here is human sacrifice....This, of course, is yet another example of how classical masterworks lose their content. Because they're masterworks, we're expected to adore them as sacred objects. How could we do that if they shocked us?


But it's in New York in the 1920s that modernist noise came strongly into fashion. (Maybe elsewhere, too, but the New York explosion has been very well documented.) Not many people then would talk about dissonance -- notes piled up on top of each other, without regard for the normal sound of chords and melodies -- as simply a new form of harmony. It was savored for its own sake, and "modern music" (which was full of dissonance) was something trendy people knew about.

Composers started writing noisy music about machines, and it started showing up on New York concert programs. Honneger's Pacific 231 -- about a steam locomotive -- is the most famous, and showed up in New York in 1924 (played by the Boston Symphony), in 1927, in 1928 (conducted by Toscanini), and in 1929 (at the New York Philharmonic). The Cleveland Orchestra played The Foundry, a piece meant to sound like a steel mill going full blast, by the Russian Alexander Mosolov. There was even a recording of the work, probably made in the early 1930s...my parents had it, left over, maybe, from their Bohemian days in New York in the '20s and '30s. And, amazingly, you can hear it -- yes, this original old 78 rpm recording -- on the web, thanks to the fine Webrarian website, maintained in Britain. But I'll also give you a direct link to the record, which -- just as I remembered it, from my childhood -- is a feast of bracing noise.


But the king of noise in New York was George Antheil, a composer who titled his autobiography Bad Boy of Music, who'd written three machine-age piano sonatas -- The Airplane, Sonata Sauvage [Savage Sonata], and Death of Machines --and in 1927 brought his tumultuous Ballet Mécanique [Mechanical Ballet] to Carnegie Hall.

The piece was scored for three xylophones, some electric bells, three airplane propellers (two wood, one metal), a lot of percussion, four bass drums, a big gong, a siren, two pianos, and a player piano. For the Carnegie Hall performance, Carol Oja writes, "he expanded the scoring to six xylophones and ten pianos [!], reportedly also adding whistles, rattles, sewing machine motors, and two large pieces of tin."

But the performance had some problems:

The first few minutes...went off smoothly [the man who promoted the event later wrote], and the audience listened to it carefully. And then came the moment for the wind machine [he means the airplane propellers] to be turned on--and all hell, in a minor way, broke loose.

People clutched their programs, and women held onto their hats with both hands. [This is the promoter, once again.] Someone in the direct line of the wind tied a handkerchief to his cane and waved it wildly in the air in a sign of surrender.


In past episodes, I've talked about the delight -- even the glee, sometimes the barely suppressed violence, and sometimes the sense of something transcendent on the edge of happening -- that came with the rise of "modern music" in the first decades of the last century. Here's Schoenberg, for instance, the poster demon of musical modernism, the composer classical audiences so much now hate, a few years after he breathed the air of other planets in his second string quartet. (Those interplanetary words of course come from the poem he set to music in the quartet's final movement.)

...it is impossible for a person to have only one sensation at a time.

     One has thousands simultaneously. And these thousands can no more readily be added together than an apple and a pear. They go their own ways.

     And this variegation, this multifariousness, this illogicality which our senses demonstrate, the illogicality presented by their interactions, set forth by some mounting rush of blood, by some reaction of the senses or the nerves, this I should like to have in my music.

Or William Carlos Williams, the poet, reacting to George Antheil's very wild instrumental piece Ballet Méchanique, which had been premiered (complete with airplane propellers and sirens) at Carnegie Hall in 1927, with enormous hype (of the kind we might mistakenly think only happens today):

...as we came from [the performance] 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."

Or else, jumping forward a generation, to the years after World War II, the famous violence of Pierre Boulez, which I like to interpret as (at least in part) manic kid-like exuberance:

...any musician who has not experienced -- I do not say understood, but truly experienced -- the necessity of the dodecaphonic [12-tone] language is USELESS.

Or maybe even better from Boulez, this:

More and more, I imagine...we will have to take delirium and yes, organize it.

I propose unexpected, rigorous principles, of grim and terrible aspect, and just when everyone is expecting me to justify them, I pass on to the next principle.

Madmen, in many ways, all of them.

And now contrast all of that with something else, this time from Milton Babbitt, the leading academic modernist composer in post-World War II America. He's writing in 1961 (in a paper called "Set Structure as a Compositional Determinant") about Schoenberg's third string quartet, and I've chosen a passage more or less at random:

The, by now, most familiar property of this kind embodied in the set of the Fourth Quartet is that of hexachordal combinatoriality, or, more precisely, hexachordal inversional combinatoriality, as a result of which any one of the two disjunct hexachords of any of the, at most, 48 set forms can be associated with the order corresponding hexachord of one or more inversions of that set form transposed by an interval or intervals determined by the pitch class ordering of the pitch classes within the hexachord, so that each such pair of hexachords contains all twelve pitch classes. This is equivalent to stating that a set is so constructed that the content of one of its hexachords is an inversion of the pitch classes of its other hexachord, ordering considerations aside.

Or how about something else, from the magnum opus of one of America's leading music theorists, Allan Forte, a book (published in 1973) called The Structure of Atonal Music. Forte is discussing one of Schoenberg's early atonal piano pieces, music that moved so far from the chords and melodies and forms of the standard classical repertoire that people early in the last century puzzled over it with either wonder or despair:

Exampe 106 [he reproduces two measures of the piece, Schoenberg's Op. 11, number 2] shows 4-13 and 4-18, part of the R1 and Rp transitive quadruple. These sets occur as successive verticals within 6-27 [these hyphenated numbers refer to collections of notes, classified as "sets" of the kind encountered in mathematical set theory], and of course they belong to Kh(6-27). They also occur as melodic strands in the same context, as indicated in example 106. Although Rp is not strongly represented here, it is of interest to note that the melodic forms of 4-18 and 4-13 have similar interval successions and bips (134 and 135).

Clearly something new is going on. The ecstatic, uneasy music -- remember that Schoenberg also said that he felt like he was swimming in boiling water --has lost its ecstasy, and lost its uneasiness. It's now analyzed as if it were nothing but collections of notes.

And yes, I know that I've just fired off a cheap shot. I'm reminded of the congressmen (and newspaper writers) who sometimes get on their high horse about government funding of scientific research. All they have to do is quote the title of a funded paper -- "Pointwise Periodic Homeomorphisms" (I'm borrowing that from a Milton Babbitt article I'll talk about later) -- and foam at the mouth because they can't understand it. How could our tax dollars, yours and mine, go to fund such nonsense?

So let me say, for the record, that I have a perverse love of musical analysis, including the most technical kinds. I even took two courses from Forte when I was a graduate student in composition at the Yale School of Music, and I found that the set structures I could find (using his methods) eerily corresponded with things I'd been thinking when I wrote my own music. ("Here's a new section," I might think, as I composed, and lo! Forte-ean analysis showed some new sets coming forth. Whether this could work the other way -- whether I could deliberately look for new sets when I want a piece to go off in a new direction, assuming of course that I'm writing atonal music, would be another story. I doubt I could ever work that way.)

I'll also happily stipulate that we all have a right to study music in any way we like, and that not all modernist pieces -- in whatever style, tonal, atonal, 12-tone, minimal, you name it -- have to be violent, transcendent, or noisy. Or even expressive in any familiar way.

But still my two dry quotations show something real. And, in fact, something I experienced myself. When I studied composition from 1972 to 1974, as a graduate student at the Yale School of Music, we read articles like these. We didn't do analysis of this kind ourselves (unless we took Allan Forte's course), but we respected it tremendously. We were required to. I ended up with more than one book full of it, on my shelves.

To see how prevalent -- and prestigious -- it was, jump forward a few years from my time in graduate school, to 1982, when a book appeared by Paul Griffiths, a British specialist in atonal music, called Modern Music: The Avant Garde Since 1945. Nothing could have been more solidly mainstream (at least in contemporary classical music circles), nothing could have been more distinguished, more strongly hailed as an important, even crucial book.

I devoured it, because I wanted to learn the history it taught. And I could open it at random, and over and over find the kind of analysis I've quoted:

In each time layer the durations are obtained by multiplying the unit by a member of the Fibonacci series 1-2-3-5-8-13, and all four lines are drawn together in the pitch organization, which simply repeats one of [the composer's] favored all-interval, wedge-shaped series, A-B flat-A flat-B-G-F sharp-D-E-D sharp, without inversion, reversal or transposition. [On page 104, about Luigi Nono's Il canto sospeso]


The piece is based on "harmonic fields" containing one or more of the whole-tone intervals less than an octave (minor 2nd, major 3rd, tritone, minor 6th, minor 7th) together with one or more pitches forming intervals of a major 7th or a minor 9th with the pitches of the whole-tone intervals. [On page 93, about Henri Pousseur's Qunitette à la mémoire d'Anton Webern]

To be completely honest, as I look through the book now I also find many passages about the artistic meaning of some of the music Griffiths talks about:

[Berio's] Laborintus II (1965) still has a political substratum, in that Dante's Inferno is seen as a picture of capitalist society, but the work is much more an embroidery of musical and literary images around the continuing thread of a spoken text. The specific references, ranging from madrigalian euphony to jazz, are not made into dramatic symbols, as they might be in Henze, but set smoothly into a fluid stream. The subject is not so much the verbal content of the text as the labyrinth of connections to be drawn between words and music, and the narrator's speech...gives birth to a variegated musical tissue within which it may be amplified, transformed and often obscured.

But these analyses, sharply written as they are, fade into the background, probably because they're unconnected, each one taking off from a particular composer, or from a particular work by a particular composer, each one making a point that's not likely to be repeated, and even less likely to be embedded into any general take on what any of this avant-garde music might be about. The technical analyses, on the other hand, really do form a thread. This thread might not go anywhere -- no great conclusions are drawn -- but at least it's consistent. The analyses echo each other; they're talking about the same thing, which is the technique of musical composition; and so they emerge as the most memorable things in the book.

They also suggest a point of view that was reinforced on every side, back in those days, by the prevalence and prestige of technical analysis: That the most important thing about contemporary classical music was its language, or more precisely its compositional technique. That's an understandable thought, since one characteristic of postwar classical composing (and probably all classical composing in the 20th century) was the bewildering variety of musical styles that evolved. And so the quickest way to describe these styles was to name the techniques the composers of each style used.

But then surely the styles mean something; surely (as has happened throughout the history of music) music in these different avant-garde styles spoke to different people about different things. Griffiths's book (and I don't mean to pick on him, but his work is such a clear example of the problem here) obscures all that, and in fact never suggests that styles might have a meaning. And so the music becomes distant, formal, and -- even when there's something as blatant as an overt political message -- oddly abstract. The political message might be there, but what really matters in the piece is its language.

And so the noise of modern music was suppressed. Dissonance -- the machine-age clash (or scream-from-the-unconscious clash) of musical notes -- became just another kind of harmony, just another way of putting notes together, with no special meaning (no implications for thought, feeling, or society) of its own. Or as Carol Oja puts it in a paper about Dane Rudhyar (the composer/astrologer I talked about in my last episode, who thought dissonance was spiritual, a massed infusion of musical notes that carried the inner force of the universe):

After World War II the rise of academic musicology, music theory, and composition in American universities brought with it a high regard for parascientific modes of discussing music. Serialism and set theory rose up as the dominant means of producing and explaining compositions grounded in "post-tonal" idioms -- music that in the 1920s had simply been termed "dissonant." To the extent that music of the American ultra-moderns was studied at all, it was considered for its particular post-tonal language....As a result, memory faded of an era when a diversity of rationales for dissonance was being offered -- when it was by no means certain that the more logically conceived notion would triumph.

Also suppressed, if we think Paul Griffiths's book is representative, was any talk of the audience for any of this music. Modernist music, as it took shape after World War II and began to be written about, appeared to have no place in society. Nobody talked about its audience, or about a rather crucial subject, how the music was paid for. (You can see this in Richard Taruskin's monumental -- and monumentally opinionated -- Oxford History of Western Music. When he talks about past centuries, he's full of stories about how the music actually functioned in the culture of its time. But when he gets to postwar modernism, in his fifth volume, he drops all that, and starts talking almost exclusively about compositional technique.) Apparently -- if we believe what's written about it -- this must just somehow exists on its own, developing all-interval, wedge-shaped series in perfect purity, and certainly without any need to think about things like budgets and ticket sales. Susan McClary, the outspoken musicologist, one of the first to bring cultural theory and feminism to the study of classical music, once quoted one of Pierre Boulez's "I'm above it all" statements, and then pointedly asked what sort of fees he'd receive for doing what he did. (Certainly they'd be large.)

Susan does this in a savage and funny essay called, tellingly, Terminal Prestige, that being her phrase for the state this music has attained. (Remember my comments, in episode 14, about Stravinsky, who toward the end of his life was a world-famous celebrity, writing music that hardly anyone performed.) In it, she says:

[M]uch of the university curriculum is devoted to a usually futile attempt at instilling a very artificial demand for academic music in young musicians. We shame students for their incorrigible tastes in popular music and browbeat them with abstract analytical devices in hopes that they will be influenced by, say, stochasticism [one of the many modernist compositional techniques you'll find explained in Paul Griffiths's book] and will maintain the illusion that this kind of abstract experimentation informs the future of music.

And this is where we get to a kind of implicit -- and sometimes not so implicit -- brutality which seems to hover over...well, maybe not the music itself, but the part of the classical music world that produces it. The prestige of atonal modernist music can be crushing. When I was at Yale, nobody was expected to write in the most rigorous, most analysis-friendly styles (which would be 12-tone music -- I'll say more about this in the next episode -- and the serial practices that evolved from it, where even the loudness of musical notes is organized the way 12-tone music organizes pitches). But we were supposed to write atonal scores, and by and large we did. I remember my shock when I heard Benjamin Britten's opera Death in Venice at the Met, and discovered that new tonal music could be ravishing, probingly intelligent, and in all ways quite modern. At Yale, we weren't allowed to think that. Nobody would have written a piece in which a simple melody was possible.

Atonal composers controlled many grants, commissions to compose pieces for prestigious premieres, and also many faculty appointments at universities. They like to say, looking back on those years, defending themselves against attacks like mine (which have proceeded from many quarters in the last decade or so), that they really didn't have any influence, because their music was so rarely performed. And that's true, if you look at the programs of major classical music institutions. The Metropolitan Opera, for instance, wasn't about to do any new atonal works. But these people had a lot of power over the everyday lives of composers on the way up, and so, without really thinking why, many people fell in line. Of course, the music itself attracted many people on the inside of the composing world, so that made it easier to conform. But eruptions like minimalism took a long time to penetrate inside the official composers' world; the composers were too busy being orthodox, atonal, and complicated.

Critics have always been friendly to this music. A few hated it. But normally, confronted with a complex atonal piece by Boulez, or Elliott Carter, or Milton Babbitt, critics will be respectful. Clearly the music will have been constructed very carefully, with (very likely) some impressive and fascinating overall scheme (musicians playing different material at different speeds, for instance, in Carter's case). So it's safe to like the piece; there's no doubt that the music has substance (or at least can be said to have it). And it's not so safe not to like it -- maybe then people will think you're a rube, and can't understand what you're hearing.

And, as I've said, the music was forced on the classical music audience. Not every day, not every week, but often enough. Some people haven't believed me when I say this, largely because modernist pieces aren't performed all that often, in the larger scheme of things. But if you look at orchestras like the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, or the New York Philharmonic, you'll see a fair amount of it.

And nobody, planning those programs, stops to ask what the audience thinks. In part, this is because the people doing the planning already know what the answer would be. The audience doesn't like this music, and so precautions have to be taken. You can't play too much of it. You have to put a beloved masterwork on the program, along with the modernist piece, so people will want to come to the concert. And you can't put the modernist work last on the bill, because then people will leave right before it.

All these plans are fully conscious; hang around inside the orchestra business, and you'll hear people talking about how best to carry them out. And their meaning is clear: The audience doesn't like this music, so we have to find ways to make sure they come to the concert anyway, and that they have no way to avoid the new piece.

And then you can talk to the people in the audience, as I once did, thanks to an orchestra that hired me to facilitate a conversation. Members of the audience -- long-time subscribers, as it happened -- were asked to talk about a concert they'd just heard. A new piece had been premiered, and I asked the people sitting in a semicircle around me to say what they thought of it. I wasn't looking for trouble or revolt; this was just a way to start the conversation.

But the result surprised me. The people tolerated new modernist work, but they didn't like it. No, that should be stronger -- they didn't like it at all. They'd learned, they said, to like some pieces better than others (or maybe to dislike some pieces less than others). But they couldn't follow these pieces musically, and they couldn't follow them emotionally. They were very definite about this, and used precisely those words. They also remembered some of the music that had been inflicted on them in the past. One woman remembered, unhappily, a piece she'd heard more than 20 years before; I could identify the piece and the approximate year it was played because she described something unmistakable about it, and I'd been at one of the performances myself.

The members of the orchestra staff who heard this conversation were dumbstruck, I think. They had no idea their audience minded this music that much. For a generation, this orchestra had been forcing this loyal music-lovers to listen to music they hate -- and the people from the orchestra (who of course thought the music was very important) had no idea they'd been doing that.

In my next episode: How this all happened. How composers -- Milton Babbitt, Schoenberg -- justified their concentration on musical language. Or, rather, why they thought their new language made their music better. And also the failure of atonal modernism, measured by comparing it to modernism in other arts -- Pierre Boulez vs. James Joyce and Godard. (I know I've alluded to that before, but I'll have more details.)


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Posted by gsandow on December 21, 2006 9:32 PM


Wonderful observation: "The members of the orchestra staff who heard this conversation were dumbstruck, I think. They had no idea their audience minded this music that much." Isn't it fascinating that people can be surprised by something so obvious! I tend to feel that such moments of being surprised by the obvious are clues to where solutions lie. And isn't it helpful to see how little awareness orchestra staffs had of their customers' reactions? Certainly staff members are attentive to ticket sales and other indicators; how interesting that they don't pay much attention to individual listeners' engagement and responses to the music. This might even be another face of the way late 20th century thinking about music tended toward the abstract and numerical and away from the mess and color of human responses.

Posted by: John Steinmetz at December 22, 2006 12:49 PM

Here's a comment of a type I've seen a lot. It's aggravating, partly because it's general: "they couldn't follow these pieces musically, and they couldn't follow them emotionally." I'd like to say that I can follow these pieces perfectly well, musically and emotionally, but I don't know what pieces you're (they're) referring to.

Even when you mention a specific piece, described so well you recognized that you had attended the same concert, you couch everything generally. What was the piece? What was it about it that was so bad?

I don't understand. This kind of thing passes as current, but it's so unfair.

And this: "For a generation, this orchestra had been forcing th[ese] loyal music-lovers to listen to music they hate -- and the people from the orchestra (who of course thought the music was very important) had no idea they'd been doing that." For twenty years, they had no idea? I don't believe it. But let's take it as true. You talked to some people who didn't like the music. What about those of us who do? Are we chopped liver? We like to listen to music, too. And we'd like it if orchestras played MORE new music. But they don't. I can even let you off on this one: you probably couldn't find anyone who did like the music, because everyone who would have had long ago given up going to symphony concerts.

But I don't want this to degenerate into an us against them squabble. There's room for all of us, I'm sure. The important thing to realize about new music is this: if some people can like it, then other people can, too. If it's good music (the orchestra members thought it was) and people don't like it, then something will have to change with the people. If they can, the rewards will be immense.

I can't name the piece I talked about, because to do so would identify the orchestra I did this work with. As it happens, that piece was one of the high points of my own concertgoing life, when I heard this orchestra play it. Which leads me then to note that of course many people like new music. I'm one of those people; of course I know many others. In fact, the new music world was my main home for most of my years in as a classical music professional.

But the people in the mainstream classical audience -- the people who buy orchestra subscriptions -- mostly don't like new music. These were the people this orchestra asked me to talk to. They wanted to know how their core audience felt. And of course this orchestra also had some people in its audience who like new music, but their numbers were very small. I've been told by an insider about one study another large orchestra did of people in its audience who liked new music. Their numbers were almost laughably small. (I can't be any more specific, because I was told about this in confidence.)

Maybe these large orchestras could develop their new-music audience if they wanted to. But up to now they largely haven't done that, and continue to present new works to the people their main audience, who don't like hearing them. This seems like a mistake to me, artistically, commercially, and even from the simple point of view of human decency. It would be much better, on all counts, if these orchestras could find a new music audience, and play these pieces for people who really want to hear them.

Posted by: Michael Karman at April 13, 2007 12:29 AM


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