The State of Modern Music

Today’s practitioners of what we once called “modern” music are finding themselves to be suddenly alone. A bewildering backlash is set against any music making that requires the disciplines and tools of research for its genesis. Stories now circulate that amplify and magnify this troublesome trend. It once was that one could not even approach a major music school in the US unless well prepared to bear the commandments and tenets of serialism. When one hears now of professors shamelessly studying scores of Respighi in order to extract the magic of their mass audience appeal, we know there’s a crisis. This crisis exists in the perceptions of even the most educated musicians. Composers today seem to be hiding from certain difficult truths regarding the creative process. They have abandoned their search for the tools that will help them create really striking and challenging listening experiences. I believe that is because they are confused about many notions in modern music making!

First, let’s examine the attitudes that are needed, but that have been abandoned, for the development of special disciplines in the creation of a lasting modern music. This music that we can and must create provides a crucible in which the magic within our souls is brewed, and it is this that frames the templates that guide our very evolution in creative thought. It is this generative process that had its flowering in the early 1950s. By the 1960s, many emerging musicians had become enamored of the wonders of the fresh and exciting new world of Stockhausen’s integral serialism that was then the rage. There seemed limitless excitement, then. It seemed there would be no bounds to the creative impulse; composers could do anything, or so it seemed. At the time, most composers hadn’t really examined serialism carefully for its inherent limitations. But it seemed so fresh. However, it soon became apparent that it was Stockhausen’s exciting musical approach that was fresh, and not so much the serialism itself, to which he was then married. It became clear, later, that the methods he used were born of two special considerations that ultimately transcend serial devices: crossing tempi and metrical patterns; and, especially, the concept that treats pitch and timbre as special cases of rhythm. (Stockhausen referred to the crossovers as “contacts”, and he even entitled one of his compositions that explored this realm Kontakte.) These gestures, it turns out, are really independent from serialism in that they can be explored from different approaches.

The most spectacular approach at that time was serialism, though, and not so much these (then-seeming) sidelights. It is this very approach — serialism — however, that after having seemingly opened so many new doors, germinated the very seeds of modern music’s own demise. The method is highly prone to mechanical divinations. Consequently, it makes composition easy, like following a recipe. In serial composition, the less thoughtful composer seemingly can divert his/her soul away from the compositional process. Inspiration can be buried, as method reigns supreme. The messy intricacies of note shaping, and the epiphanies one experiences from necessary partnership with one’s essences (inside the mind and the soul — in a sense, our familiars) can be discarded conveniently. All is rote. All is compartmentalized. For a long time this was the honored method, long hallowed by classroom teachers and young composers-to-be, alike, at least in the US. Soon, a sense of sterility emerged in the musical atmosphere; many composers started to examine what was taking place.

The replacement of sentimental romanticism with atonal music had been a crucial step in the extrication of music from a torpid cul-de-sac. A music that would closet itself in banal self-indulgence, such as what seemed to be occurring with romanticism, would decay. Here came a time for exploration. The new alternative –atonality — arrived. It was the fresh, if seemingly harsh, antidote. Arnold Schonberg had saved music, for the time being. However, shortly thereafter, Schonberg made a serious tactical faux pas. The ‘rescue’ was truncated by the introduction of a method by which the newly freed process could be subjected to control and order! I have to express some sympathy here for Schönberg, who felt adrift in the sea of freedom provided by the disconnexity of atonality. Large forms depend upon some sense of sequence. For him a method of ordering was needed. Was serialism a good answer? I’m not so certain it was. Its introduction provided a magnet that would attract all those who felt they needed explicit maps from which they could build patterns. By the time Stockhausen and Boulez arrived on the scene, serialism was touted as the cure for all musical problems, even for lack of inspiration!

Pause for a minute and think of two pieces of Schonberg that bring the problem to light: Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21 (1912 – pre-serial atonality) and the Suite, Op. 29 (1924 serial atonality). Pierrot… seems so vital, unchained, almost lunatic in its special frenzy, while the Suite sounds sterile, dry, forced. In the latter piece the excitement got lost. This is what serialism seems to have done to music. Yet the attention it received was all out of proportion to its generative power. Boulez once even proclaimed all other composition to be “useless”! If the ‘disease’ –serialism –was bad, one of its ‘cures’ –free chance –was worse. In a series of lectures in Darmstadt, Germany, in 1958, John Cage managed to prove that the outcome of music written by chance means differs very little from that written using serialism. However, chance seemed to leave the public bewildered and angry. Chance is chance. There is nothing on which to hold, nothing to guide the mind. Even powerful musical personalities, such as Cage’s, often have trouble reining in the raging dispersions and diffusions that chance scatters, seemingly aimlessly. But, again, many schools, notably in the US, detected a sensation in the making with the entry of free chance into the music scene, and indeterminacy became a new mantra for anyone interested in creating something, anything, so long as it was new.

I believe parenthetically that one can concede Cage some quarter that one might be reluctant to cede to others. Often chance has become a citadel of lack of discipline in music. Too often I’ve seen this outcome in university classes in the US that ‘teach ‘found (!)’ music. The rigor of discipline in music making should never be shunted away in search of a music that is ‘found’, rather than composed. However, in a most peculiar way, the power of Cage’s personality, and his surprising sense of rigor and discipline seem to rescue his ‘chance’ art, where other composers simply flounder in the sea of uncertainty.

Still, as a solution to the rigor mortis so cosmically bequeathed to music by serial controls, chance is a very poor stepsister. The Cageian composer who can make chance music talk to the soul is a rare bird indeed. What seemed missing to many was the perfume that makes music so wonderfully evocative. The ambiance that a Debussy could evoke, or the fright that a Schonberg could invoke (or provoke), seemed to evaporate with the modern technocratic or free-spirited ways of the new musicians. Iannis Xenakis jolted the music world with the potent solution in the guise of a ‘stochastic’ music. As Xenakis’ work would evolve later into excursions into connexity and disconnexity, providing a template for Julio Estrada’s Continuum, the path toward re-introducing power, beauty and fragrance into sound became clear. All this in a ‘modernist’ conceptual approach!

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