Conservative modernism

Very nice article by Chris Fox in the Guardian this weekend – thanks Colin H for the pointer. Ostensibly it’s about Schoenberg, but the real value is in Fox’s cautionary remarks on the sort of mainstream modernism marketed around the globe as ‘cutting edge’, in place of the real thing:

In retrospect, the most striking feature of the postwar period was the way in which Schoenbergian modernism hardened into the dominant orthodoxy of new music. Adorno had argued that Schoenberg was the true musical heir of Beethoven and Brahms, and Adorno’s arguments persuaded generations of composers to adopt the techniques pioneered by Schoenberg. Not to do so was to risk being thought old-fashioned or worse: in The Philosophy of Modern Music, Adorno dismissed Britten and Shostakovich as “feeble” and “impotent”. From Tel Aviv to Toronto, Cambridge to Cape Town, post-Schoenbergian composition became the lingua franca of new music, studied in the academies, commissioned for concert halls and opera houses. Even those composers who chose not to adopt this way of musical speaking could turn its ubiquity to their advantage: composers of bad tonal music explained their lack of success as evidence of institutional prejudice; composers of interesting tonal music (mostly minimalists) could celebrate success achieved in the face of the same prejudice.

The result has been a peculiar form of quasi-modern music that still survives today. It has the superficial characteristics of Schoenberg’s version of modernism – angular melodies, uneasy harmonies, abrupt shifts of tone – but, lacking the expressive necessity that propelled Schoenberg towards his new musical language, it has none of the fervent urgency of the second string quartet. This paradoxical music, conservative modernism or modernist conservatism, has its merits. It is often very skilfully made and, for those who acquire the taste, it can seem very tasteful. It sounds like modern music and is assiduously promoted as modern music by much of the classical music industry. Its disadvantage is that, when heard alongside the modernist masterpieces of the first decades of the 20th century, it just sounds vapid and dull.

One hundred years after the premiere of the second string quartet, Schoenberg’s musical legacy is a somewhat mixed blessing. His own works, particularly those of the early atonal period, retain the disturbing, kaleidoscopic vision that so upset the Viennese public a century ago. But the subsequent institutionalisation of the techniques he developed in those decisive months has produced hour upon hour of greyness, convincing generations of listeners that new music is always dull and often difficult.

There are two ways of reading this passage: one, and probably the more common, is to see it as the latest in a line of manifestos for audience-friendly, non-difficult, non-dissonant music.

But, knowing what I know of Fox’s music and his writing, this doesn’t sit right with me. For a start, the equation of ‘non-dissonant’ with ‘non-difficult’/’audience-friendly’ simply isn’t tenable – as many examples of difficult consonant music and non-difficult dissonant music attest. A second reading sees this passage as a call for the promotion of music that is actually more challenging. Not necessarily atonal, but not necessarily tonal either – narrow technical definitions get us nowhere in matters of aesthetic appreciation and should not be used to divide good from bad in this way. What does divide the good from the bad, Fox argues in this alternative reading, is ‘expressive necessity’ over ‘superficial’ ‘quasi-modern[ism]’, ‘disturbing, kaleidoscopic vision’ over ‘hour upon hour of greyness’. Too much of the music that is put promoted by ensembles and institutions in order to fulfill a real or imagined obligation to present new music falls under the latter descriptions and it is, simply put, not good music. This is the stuff that orchestral subscribers and Proms goers and YouTube users and Sunday supplement readers think is contemporary music (because that’s what they’re told) and quite rightly decide that it is stuffy, uninspiring and not for them. The trick is to show them how wrong they are: the underpublicised new music ghetto is full of composers ten times more interesting than this. It won’t be for everyone – why should it be? – but it will mean a lot more to those who it does touch, and isn’t that worth more?


13 thoughts on “Conservative modernism

  1. I very much like your aside about “non-difficult dissonant” music. I think it’s hard for musicians who are accustomed to listening to atonal music to appreciate how it might sound to the uninitiated. So perhaps we try it out on our friends?

    I’ve had great success introducing non-musicians to certain works of Ligeti (just as an example), in which atonality doesn’t even seem to be an issue. What might be “challenging” is perhaps not the technique, but the aesthetic… so perhaps we as musicians should finally start discussing aesthetic without hiding behind technical matters?

    You opened up a world for me via this blog, Tim, by introducing me to Grisey, who I am now completely obsessed with… entirely because his aesthetic is so unique. His technique is rather traditional in many ways.

    And thank you for that, by the way.

  2. It seems the argument is for the verb instead of the noun. The spirit that shapes the music as opposed to the sounds as nouns that supposedly represent it. (This also is happening in the genres that have broken away from it mentioned below)

    The problem is many of the challenging directions long ago move away from modern and new music and just created their own genre or none at all. This was necessary to free themselves of the political oppression that so still lingers in those circles. It is no wonder that it remains stuck with the developments of the 70’s or resorts to overcooking those ideas down to mush.

  3. Dan – thank you, you’re very kind. Don’t forget Tristan Murail – starting out from a similar place to Grisey, but quite different in lots of ways (less obviously process driven for a start). This is a terrific CD:

    For my money, I think it’s hard to generalise too firmly about what turns listeners on or off about contemporary music: everyone is different (and so is all the music!). I’d prefer to see a bit more transparency and honesty in the way music is presented and let listeners make their own minds up.

    Kraig – I agree about verbs and nouns: music does more than it is.

  4. ‘Expressive necessity’ or ‘disturbing, kaleidoscopic vision’ are rather problematic terms, though, part of an aesthetic legacy of romanticism which – at least some would say – privileges a certain type of individualism (through particular ideals of the ‘expressive’) and also (in ways that have been shown to have some roots in Lutheran thought) values the dark or ‘disturbing’ almost as an end in itself. Certainly both of these aesthetic ideals have much going for them in certain contexts, I believe – the ‘expressive’ as against the dehumanised, impersonal, and the ‘disturbing’ as part of an attempt at a non-rose-tinted engagement with the exterior world – but on their own (divorced from wider issues of meaning) they become manneristic tropes, easily satisfied by some sort of neo-goth narcissistic posturing. And there’s something a bit banal and self-important about the idea of music’s ‘vision’.

  5. My boss and co-workers are gone today so I’m doing a Birtwistle retrospective (because I can turn up the stereo to 11), the big orchestral pieces: Triumph of Time, Gawain’s Journey, The Shadow of Night, Exody and the incredible Boulez recording of the still-astonishing Earth Dances. I know Birtwistle’s idiom so well, have heard those pieces so many times (many of those with the scores) that those pieces are as accessible to me as a Beatles tune, but I know my co-workers wouldn’t last 2 minutes with any of them.

    There’s a record label called Kairos that I’ve been checking out stuff from. It has your Grisey’s and Ferneyhough’s and Sciarrino’s and the usual New Music suspects, but I’ve been digging the new discoveries Matthias Pintscher and Joannes Maria Staud. Pintscher’s Funf Orchester Stucke has quickly become one of my favorite pieces of music and his other stuff is never less than interesting, though he’s a bit too much in to silences for my taste. Staud is a bit more inconsistent, but he has his moments.

    Again, my coworkers, who don’t mind me playing Beethoven symphonies or Chopin etudes, would flee in horror at Pintscher’s music, but to me, it’s just mainstream modernism, a niche of orchestral music that follows the line from Gruppen > La Marteu sans Maitre and on.

    I suppose to Tim’s “orchestral subscribers and Proms goers and YouTube users and Sunday supplement readers” the stuff I mentioned is that horrifying “modern music” but to me, there’s nothing grey or imposing or dull about it, it’s as common to me as the Brahms first symphony is to others.

  6. ‘Expressive necessity’ or ‘disturbing, kaleidoscopic vision’ are rather problematic terms … on their own (divorced from wider issues of meaning) they become manneristic tropes

    Ian – You’re absolutely right, but I take Fox to be saying that Schoenberg succeeds here, and that it is the meaningless mannerism of later composers that leads to his “hour upon hour of greyness”.

  7. The modernist crisis – the end of the 60s – was nearly half a century ago (usually heralded by Berio’s Sinfonia, but it could be anything). Modernism has been superseded – even those who compose in a modernist style must do it with reference to what has happened in between. (I suppose one could characterise Carter and Birtwistle as modernists – to name some big names).

    To me he seems a bit ignorant of what is going on now – imaginably this is why he doesn’t mention any of these current ‘vapid and dull’ composers.

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