A 365-Day Project

"We Are All Mozart"

A project to create
new works and change
the perception of the
music of our time.

Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

previous   July 1, 2006   next

This morning brought several reactions to yesterday's commentary. One asked what would happen if this project did not come to fruition -- that is, if commissions dropped off to nothing well before the goal of 365 was reached. A good question, which calls for an answer ... but not today. Perhaps tomorrow.

Another reader asked whether my anger is so passionately released by my music.

To denonsequiturize: It's not anger. It's a fury against injustice, against the outrage (more of the French untenable insult than English outrage) of the Cabal of the Resentful exploiting a moment in history that has already left them long behind.

Much of my argument was in code, if you will. Some readers wondered about the commentary's background, and the references being made. They're not composers or musicians, and their listening has been largely confined to what is available: classical music as packaged by orchestras and public radio. So for the correspondents wondering how the anger interweaves systemically with the way we create music in the early 21st century, here are some thoughts. (For those of you who are composers and especially musicologists, please forgive the inelegance of single-pagedly summarizing a century of history and attitudes with such marvelously sweeping simpleminded biases.)

How It Happened

The history of new nonpop in the last century was extremely complicated and full of dissention as well as being driven by external forces unknown in pre-technological days. It was an inopportune conspiracy of events, and a struggle of styles, that sparked creativity and poisoned collegiality. Technology democratized audiences through mass production and marketing. Past court and church patronage audiences were interested in a legacy of greatness and the glory of God, but general audiences typically want more of what they enjoy. These are two very different motivations for the 'consumption' of art and music, the latter quite new to the realm of the arts and artists.

Recording and photography also invented the means for preservation and mass-produced replication of the present, a new concept of objectifying, slowing and stopping apparent creative time.

You can see where this is going. One can't stop artistic development itself. But by the interposition of an increasing temporal lag between creation and consumption, for the first time a chasm opens between artists and their audiences, a chasm split wider by external forces over which composers have little knowledge and no control. Novelty and commonplace become inverted in the arts. The novel becomes the exception -- yes, the new natural state of affairs for a mass audience being offered the first in a century's worth of assembly-line products. The challenge of art cannot be collimated with the expectations of mass audiences. The lines diverge.

Think of it this way: When we of the middle class go to a restaurant, we typically order what we had enjoyed there before or what is recommended by others who had enjoyed a previous dish. If we go and the menu is entirely different, we (and our friends) either leave or must try something new -- an experience good for food critics and epicureans, but not good for someone just looking for a consistent family meal and a social night out. And if the menu is different every time, we stop going there, choosing instead a restaurant where our expectations are better served.

To complicate matters, technological changes to the arts came into play at the very moment that the sociopolitical ferment surrounding World War I changed the overall artistic landscape. Picasso, Kandinsky, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Braque were all working at the same time, but so were Mahler and Puccini. The madness that soon overtook Europe inspired artistic experiment and despair -- and furthermore, that despair could be communicated over distances as never before. It almost completely rent the fabric of artistic history, and in merely half a generation.

In truth, the fabric couldn't be mended. No one could find the tools. So the next fifty years were spent trying to weave a new fabric. Argument abounded. Those with the most radical ideas typically gained the most attention and the greatest number of acolytes.

And soon came the interbellum period -- undeniably exciting and rich in all the arts. Imagine living in the era with the Bloomsbury Group, the new American composers such as Virgil Thompson and Aaron Copland, abstract art and Dadaism, Brecht and Weill, idealist socialism, and of course the era of remarkable filmmaking that changed completely our notion of linearity and storytelling.

But what were vital disagreements and enriching debate during that period grew into great bitterness during and especially after World War II. Society was turned upside down again. Artists came to America (such as Schoenberg, whose Survivor from Warsaw grips even the necrosones) while a younger generation (such as Stockhausen) retrenched in their home countries to restore a semblance of artistic honor to their ravaged culture.

And you can't forget science. Fascination with science and mathematics was not limited to the general public's imagination and the laboratory. Artists felt it too. Science was the Great Giver of Truth. And so the musical theories of Schoenberg found fertile ground. He believed that music could be lifted out of its old ways, that the oppressive aspects of tonality belonged to another time, and that all notes should be treated with equal respect. Very modern, very scientific. Those who followed expanded it to rhythms and other aspects of composition, all of which were serialized. Set theory, parametrics, and statistics all came into the composition process.

The dots on paper weren't the end of it. Along with this scientific interest in composition would come the development of new technologies (tape recorders and electronics) that could allow music to be composed and reordered and transformed and rendered either according to very strict principles or experimented with at the level of the sound itself, without writing notated 'code' for instruments at all. Both were innovative ways of imagining music. And again, very modern, very scientific. (I find it almost charming that music with notes on the page even came to be called 'atomic'.)

Universities welcomed experimental artists onto faculties, and the artists became teachers embedded in the non-experimental hierarchy. Students took up this approach -- or if they didn't, they met with disapproval for being conservative romantics unwilling to engage in self-discipline.

All the while, the audience wasn't participating. The nonpop audiences were out buying recordings of what they already knew and listening to the Texaco-sponsored Metropolitan Opera. Other composition was going on in film by the romantic-influenced Waxman and Steiner, and in the concert hall by the likes of Copland and Stravinsky in his chameleonic array of styles, as well as by those whom one might consider unreconstructed romantics, Rachmaninoff and even Sibelius. The rivalry between the serialists and the others was extreme, and often fraught with professional jealousy.

Players made their likes and dislikes very well known. An article by Lukas Foss from 1970 recounted a performance of his work by the Berlin Philharmonic. The orchestra deliberately played wrong notes and made very ugly sounds with their instruments, sabotaging the performance. He was enraged, but more than that, it revealed that audiences were treated to bad performances of new music and increasingly good performances of old music. Conductors like Monteux and Klemperer and Toscanini, champions of new music in their youth, became reactionary as they lost touch with their abilities and interest in the recent creativity. Conductors like Furtwängler (who was also a composer) rejected the musical changes around them.

By the 1960s, the split was bitter. Audiences got less and less new music, and more classical repertoire. And about that time was born a rebellion against modern music, led by music critics and disaffected students against the whole modernist school of Stockhausen, Xenakis, Boulez, Carter, and others that dominated two continents. A different rebellion was in progress with the Fluxus artists such as Dick Higgins, Nam June Paik, and Yoko Ono as well as the parallel avant-gardes of Pauline Oliveros, John Cage and others in the east and Harry Partch, Henry Cowell, and Lou Harrison in the west. Yet another rebellion was underway in New York by Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Charlemagne Palestine, the retrospectively named minimalists whose role was to bring tonality (in the guise of non-functional harmonies, rhythms, and drones) back into concert music. Electronic music had come in the back door from France, England, Germany and the U.S., carrying along with it both unique sounds and novel performance techniques. And that doesn't even take into account the influences from Indonesia, China and India that were making their way into both pop and nonpop, the latter pressed by John Cage and Lou Harrison.

Often characterized as an "updown-downtown" dispute, it was in fact a full-scale Balkan civil war of music by 1970 (when I was graduating from college). The serialists pressed harder and harder in the universities to hold their ground. The minimalists ignored them. Electronic music swept over all genres. Postmodernism was being born like a Frankenstein from the suffering body parts of nonpop.

That initial rebellion against modernism had come along, and was now an unrolling screed against all contemporary nonpop. It was a back-to-the-garden kind of movement that held a candle for the romantics, then idolized Bach (hence the renewal of interest in the Baroque in the 1960s) and finally found Mozart as their unassailable example of musical perfection. This rebellion turned into a crusade, first embracing and then spurning the New Romantics like David Del Tredici, and ultimately waiting out the era of broad experimentation. The movement attracted mostly hacks but also a few excellent composers as well whose hearts simply beat elsewhere (and for the most part who did not engage in the necrosonic politics). Sunday-afternoon composers found more interest in their inelegant but (here it comes at last!) accessible work.

There is always an artistic cycle of experiment, and the 20th century encompassed several overlapping cycles and more styles than had been conceived in the previous history of humankind's music. The anti-modernists waited around long enough for all the cycles to come together and many to lose their especially experimental and dogmatic edge. Along with conservative economics and politics, the time of compositional deep breathing came just as the fruits of a century's learning were ripening. Now (and this is what especially offends me), the lurkers and snipers act triumphant as if, because the panoply of new nonpop once again includes 19th century harmonies and orchestration, that new nonpop is about 19th century harmonies and orchestration -- and as if they actually had a role in this fruition. They have exploited an extra-compositional intervention between composer and mass audience in a sad and sickening way, devaluing and dismissing 75 years of composers and the results of their genius.

(What makes this hard to deal with on a practical level is that these folks have had a strong influence on the classical music production and presentation establishment and its numbers game, having inherited it from the same mass marketers that gave us 101 Strings and The Three Tenors -- all mechanically good productions in and of themselves, but a particularly dull facet of the musical gemstone. Their influence has always and consistently been destructive.)

No book has yet done justice to the musical history and significance of the 20th century from 1910 to 1990, and I expect to be long dead before one appears. The compressed summary above represents how my reactions -- my anger, if you will -- arise. I have faith in all styles of composition, not just one.

Thought Expansion

Yesterday, I ragged on Kyle Gann. We're friends and colleagues who have argued over this before, and I happily take his name in vain. Kyle's writing is a problem because as a journalist and musicologist he can make his very public case that the serialists were 'bad' and the postclassicists are 'good'. This exploits the revisionist history in progress so that readers of his columns may actually believe this intimidation was true -- that somehow all students were forced to learn the serial techniques. Well, heck yeah! And we were forced to learn 10th century monody, 12th century organum, that whole dismal mess of 14th to 17th century counterpoint, 18th century harmony, 19th century orchestration, 20th century theory and everything else that made up the realm of musical composition. He and I just happened to have been in school during the peak of the modernist, and especially the serialist, dominance. His reaction was very different from mine. He ultimately joined academia, and I stayed outside. Maybe that's why I loved serialism then, and now appreciate its quaintness. Who knew?

The first day lily appeared today. Summer and civilization have arrived.

The first day lily of the year
The first day lily of the year, blooming beside the house. Civilization again.

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