I’ve never been able to appreciate classical music from the Modern Period, which extends more or less from the 1890s to today. This basically includes the music of atonal or minimalist composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, John Cage, Steve Reich, Phillip Glass, and others. If you’re unfamiliar with some of these composers, that might be because most symphonies ignore them. They are box office poison, you see. People in large numbers simply will not pay good money to watch entire programs dedicated to this kind of music.
Okay. So why?
Well, I know why. I have very strong hunches telling me why. So let me set aside my lack of presumption and give in to my hunches’ temptation just for a moment. These hunches tell me that people don’t want to listen to modern classical because modern classical for the most part is bad music. Objectively, demonstrably bad music.
So where do I get off saying this? I’m not a musician or composer. Neither am I a music scholar. I know some basic music theory, but that’s about it. Who am I to challenge people who have dedicated their entire lives to this kind of music? Who am I to condemn people like Schoenberg and Cage and Glass? These are world famous men with manifest talent and creativity who have built permanent reputations for themselves in the field of music, while I just have this little blog. So who exactly am I? Well, like you I imagine, I am a member of the paying audience. I have shelled out nearly $20,000 on music in my lifetime so far. So that counts for something. I also love music, which I also imagine most of you do too, if you’ve gotten this far in the post.
What I do have going for me most, however, is arrogance. Not the Muhammad Ali kind of arrogance, mind you. The arrogance I’m describing carries with it equal parts innocence and ignorance. Arrogance can be bad, of course, and it is commonly viewed to be. But like greed it can also be good. I once knew a minor league baseball player who pitched against a league all-star in one of his first games in Double-A ball. “I was 21,” he told me. “Didn’t know who he was. Didn’t give a shit. And I struck him out.” But later, after he learned exactly how good this all-star really was, he was never able to duplicate his success against him. Some would call this beginner’s luck. I call it arrogance born from ignorance and innocence, which may or may not be the same thing.
There is, of course, the heavier side of this weighted coin. When my father was in high school, he thought he was quite the chess player, beating all his friends and family. When he joined the chess club his freshman year in college however, an older kid called him a fish before he even played a single move. My dad, truculent cuss that he was, challenged the kid to a game on the spot and promised to clean his clock. The kid not only agreed, but insisted he would win inside of 12 moves and without sight of the board. The only stipulation was that whoever lost a piece for no compensation had to resign. My dad was busted by move 10. So much for arrogance.
(Full disclosure: when he told me this story, my dad could not remember the name of the whiz kid who beat him. But it was known in the chess club that this kid had once played a young Bobby Fischer to a draw.)
So, the lines are drawn. Me against the Modernists. Am I like that minor league pitcher? Or does unsubstantiated arrogance run in my family. I’ll let you decide.
In the meantime, I’ll reiterate my position: Modern classical, for the most part, is bad music.
There is, of course, a small number of people out there who can tolerate this kind of music. Perhaps their ears are wired differently than others. Perhaps they take pleasure from defying expectations and challenging traditions. Or maybe they just enjoy listening to clever things being done with musical tones. I’m sure these groups overlap some, but the net result is that you have very few people in the world who will bother with modern classical music because these reasons are not the reasons why most people listen to music. Most people who love music listen to it for the emotional release. It thrills them, you see. Or it devastates them. A friend of mine once told me that the music of Howlin’ Wolf made the hair on the back of his neck stand on edge. The second movement of Bach’s violin Concerto in A Minor (BWV 1041) has a similar effect on me. And the final movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony almost always leaves me breathless. These are reactions you can’t learn or cultivate. I’ve had them as a child, as I am sure Evgeny Kissin did when he was humming Bach as a toddler. Music is the only thing that can make an adult ride the rushing waves of unspoken, unvisualized, unnamed emotion, just like a child. And it does this for what it is, not for what it isn’t.
Modern classical music (at least the kind championed by Schoenberg) often lacks a tonality, or the need to resolve harmonic sequences within the context of a particular key. This resolution and this tonality help give music its emotional pull. David Goldman in his article “Why We Can’t Hear Wagner’s Music” for the magazine First Things, provides a great example with the song “Over the Rainbow”:
In Western music, the â€œleading tone,â€ the seventh-scale step (the â€œsiâ€ in solfÃ¨ge), leads upward to the tonic by a half step. This upward resolution (typically in an inner voice) occurs in every full cadence. So basic is the seventh-to-eighth-step resolution in tonal music that any alteration of it has a musical meaning. Some striking examples are found in the appendix to Oswald Jonasâ€™ Introduction to the Theory of Heinrich Schenker. When, for example, we hear the tonic eighth step descend to the seventh instead, we sense a move away from home. This has become a stock musical device to evoke nostalgia and was first employed, to my knowledge, in Franz Schubertâ€™s 1826 song â€œIn Springâ€ (Im FrÃ¼hling). Every American has heard this device countless times, in â€œOver the Rainbow,â€ â€œPuff the Magic Dragon,â€ and other popular songs. In â€œOver the Rainbowâ€ the word â€œsomewhereâ€ is sung on the tonic and descends a half step to the seventh on the words â€œover the rainbow.â€ In the accompanying bass, the tonic chord shifts to the chord on the third-scale step, a minor chord that anchors, as it were, the poignant seventh and holds it back from rising naturally back to the tonic.
Another example is a song that I wrote, called (ahem) “Untitled in C Minor, Opus 1”. It’s all of 7 notes long. Here it is on the scale:
And here it is for you:
I mean, sure, it’s a little creepy, but it makes sense because, among other reasons, it A) obeys the rules of tonality established in the choice of key, and B) ends where it starts. It goes home, so to speak.
The atonal music of Schoenberg and his ilk often defies these rules and thus frustrates our expectations of conflict and resolution. It also puts us at sea emotionally. This is why most people find atonal music so strange and forbidding and, frankly, all over the place. Have a listen and judge for yourself (and if you can get through all 9 minutes of this, you’re a better man than I):
Scholars are not sure exactly when composers began to experiment with atonality, but they more or less agree that it started in the 1890s. Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” (1893) was certainly one of the first pieces that incorporated atonality. Before that we had the “Common Practice Period” (1600-1900) during which the tonal system was paramount in music. During this time, composers, building on the works of their predecessors, kept pushing the boundaries of the tonal system further and further. Franz Liszt did so in order to accommodate his prodigious talent, and Richard Wagner in order to pursue his idea of “The Artwork of the Future”. It was no coincidence that Wagner was the composer the Modernists most looked up to, rather than Romantic mainstays like Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, and Johannes Brahms (Schoenberg’s “Brahms the Progressive” essay notwithstanding).
The common arguments that focus on the necessity and positive aesthetics of the Modernists make two essential points: 1) By the 1890s Western composers had mined the depths of the tonal system for all it was worth. In order to express themselves in creative and vital ways composers were forced to go beyond the tonal system. 2) We feel the emotional pull of harmonic sequences because we are brought up to do so, not because the emotional pull is objectively there. Thus, atonality was inevitable and necessary, and we didn’t lose much by abandoning the tonal system anyway.
Point 1: A half hour of browsing The NPR Listener’s Encyclopedia of Classical Music will refute the first part of this point pretty easily. Here is a short list of composers of genius who abided by the tonal system to good effect during and after the 1890s: AntonÃn DvoÅ™Ã¡k, Edward Elgar, Richard Strauss, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Aaron Copland, and Dmitry Shostakovich. Brahms as an old man composed noteworthy works in the 1890s as well. Further, it should be noted that not all composers welcomed the changes brought about by Schoenberg. Rachmaninoff resisted the Moderns at every turn, calling a wrong note a wrong note, even if it is played by a modernist. Copland went so far as to advise young composers to ignore Schoenberg. And Richard Strauss once stated in writing that “it would be better for him [Schoenberg] to be shoveling snow than scrawling on music paper.” Modern classical music sparked tremendous controversy to say the least, leading to riots and fistfights during concerts, and to considerable discord among the artists themselves. It seems only the Modernists saw Modern Classical as necessary.
To tackle the second half of this argument, I’ll have to delve into the highly subjective field of aesthetics and state unequivocally that art is never, first and foremost, a form of self-expression. Art is the creation of that which is aesthetically good, or beautiful. And what that is we let the artists determine and us decide.
Not a very helpful definition, is it? Perhaps. But it does indicate what art is not, first and foremost. Art is not first and foremost something practical. Sure, there may be aesthetic elements in automobile design. But if your well-designed car doesn’t run, well, who cares about aesthetics at that point? Sure, art can be practical. This could be a travesty, like burning a Rembrandt for firewood. Or it could be a good thing, like using Mozart for crime control.
Art can also be a form of self-expression. Why not? But if that becomes the point or the reason of art, then there is nothing stopping someone from smashing a windshield with a baseball bat and calling it art. You can “express yourself” perfectly fine with a Louisville Slugger. Or how about murdering 6 million people and bringing war to the world and calling it art?
Are you feeling the slippery slope yet?
Defining art as first and foremost a form of self-expression requires that art first and foremost satisfy the personal needs of the artist himself. After all, there is something inside that artist that the artist needs to get out. The artistic process becomes a great catharsis as if the artist were acting in some real-life drama of his own design. The artist or the act of making art becomes more important than the art itself. Of course, the needs of the audience, both those alive and not yet alive, don’t factor in unless the audience pays homage to the artist first.
Put bluntly, this seems like a raw deal for the audience.
Firstly, we all have different needs. So who’s to say that what satisfies Artist A will please Audience Member B? Secondly, it opens the door for indulgence and corruption on the part of the artist. And once you open that door, it’s very hard to close, and potential audience members look for other things to spend their money on. Either way, calling art a form of self-expression is a sure-fire way to kill it.
Going back to my definition of art, the artist (or in this case composer) must focus on making art that all of humanity will find beautiful in some way or another. Like many impossible goals, this is worthy of pursuit because it leads to Humankind at its best. Note that the personal needs and wants of the artist has nothing to do with the outcome. If there is any need at all, it is the same need that a farmer faces when he sees an untilled field. In fact, this is exactly what an artist’s attitude should be when approaching art. Sure, the farmer benefits from a bumper crop, but so do all the people who pay a fair price to eat the food they grow. The “need” for a bumper crop goes way beyond the personal needs of the farmer. Instead, it points to a need that is universal to humanity.
So in the case of Schoenberg and his ilk, if they grow a crop of biologically interesting but bitter vegetables, well, you can’t expect audiences to buy what they’re selling. Essentially, their product is not meant for consumption (mass or otherwise). It is meant for giving the composer the satisfaction of a new outlet for their creativity and nothing more.
This is why I find this argument unpersuasive. It shows contempt for the audience. When it considers the audience at all, it presumes that its members should put the time into learning obscure aspects of music theory if they want to keep up with the artist. It forgets the fact that audience members have lives.
Aaron Copland once asked the younger generation of composers: “Whom are you writing your music for?….It is obvious that those young people who just a few years ago were writing pieces filled with the Weltschmerz of a Schoenberg now realize that they were merely picturing their own discontent.”
Tune in for Part 2 sometime in December 2010.