Monday, May 16, 2005

Modernism & the Classical Music Audience

This past week a colleague, who's primarily a literary scholar, and I were discussing the persistant aesthetic conservativism we encounter in many quarters around these parts (though usually not among students, who despite their training tend to devour things they haven't seen before, whether it's the fiction of Samuel Delany or the poetry of Sianne Ngai). We both expressed frustration with the recalcitrance towards change or openness that we've butted against, and have concurred that in addition, other factors such as racism and ethnocentrism (the inexcusable failure, in 2005, to select any non-white authors for a contemporary novel-writing course, for example), homophobia, class issues (only works about the middle and upper classes are chosen, etc.), are still too operative. In fact, some of the people we were discussing wanted to act as though entire whole traditions of Anglo-American writing, from Sterne through the post-Language school of authors, had never existed. Even modernism as a practice informing the present is a problem for them, though specific works by the canonical Modernists (Eliot, Joyce, Stevens, Moore, Woolf, Faulkner, Hemingway, etc.), especially the males, interestingly enough, are less so.

In thinking about our discussion, I recalled composer and critic Greg Sandow's very thoughtful and thought-provoking March entry on Arts Journal, titled "Modernism (Sigh)," which looked at the strong resistance among the mainstream American "classical music world" to what he calls "modernism" in Euro-American classical (or art) music. His specific point of reference was the ongoing negative response, among some American critics, audiences and many orchestras, to the 12-tone or dodecaphonic, and subsequent serial methods of composition of the Second (or New) Viennese School, comprising the composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951; pictured at right, in a self-portrait from 1911) and his pupils Alban Berg (1885-1935) and Anton von Webern (1883-1945), which made its first appearance in the post-World War I period. (Schoenberg had previously broken major ground first with densely harmonic pieces that pressed the tonal system to the breaking point, and followed these with a series of expressionistic, increasingly revolutionary works between 1905 and the outbreak of the war). I emphasize American, because a number of European orchestras do play these composers' and their successors' works; conductor and composer Pierre Boulez, whom I've previously written about, founded the Ensemble Contemporain in part to perform and record such music.

Though I'm not a musicologist, I believe you could also quite easily make the argument that, in addition to 12-tone composition, a number of other innovative developments, such as those pioneered prior to the Second Viennese school by Liszt, Wagner, Dvorak, Mahler and Scriabin, and contemporaneously with 12-note composition by Debussy, Bartók, Stravinsky, Ives, Satie, Varèse, Weill, Schulhoff, Villa-Lobos, as well as others within this Euro-American classical matrix, and certainly outside it, in musics traditions and genres that informed some of these innovations, such as ragtime, jazz, blues, and a range of other Western and non-Western musics and forms, and so on, also constitute versions or expressions of what we could label "modernism" or even "Modernism." Some of these "modernisms," particularly the ones falling into variations on traditional tonality, have entered the canon, but others linger on the periphery. None of them excites the passionate rage, though, among critics and, supposedly among the mainstream of concertgoers, of the Schoenberg school and its defenders.

What provoked Sandow's piece in particular--and he has written quite sympathetically, I think, on Schoenberg's music--was a San Francisco Chronicle commentary, "Modernist Music Masters Flail Their Batons at Evil Music Critics," by Josh Kosman, on a New York Times interview, titled "Schoenberg, Bach and Us," that reporter Daniel Wakin conducted with the acclaimed Metropolitan Opera and Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor James Levine, and two leading and highly lauded composers, John Harbison, and Charles Wuorinen. Wakin wanted the trio to chat about the state of contemporary music and their respective musical visions on the eve of a Levine/BSO performance at Carnegie Hall of new works by each composer. The interviewer framed the state of contemporary Euro-American classical music as still being riven by a division between tonal composers and serialists, which was certainly reductive (since such an ahistorical reading leaves out whole swathes of composers and reinscribes a dichotomy that was challenged decades ago) but if provocation was the aim, it did its job.

Levine, one of the major contemporary enthusiasts of the Second Viennese School and its offshoots, and Wuorinen, an avowed and uncompromising serialist, defended their purview in a dismissive, obscurantist fashion, in part blaming the audience for the failure of certain kinds of serialist and avant-garde composers and works to enter the standard repertoire, while also framing the composer-audience relation as quasi-sacerdotal. On the other hand, MIT professor Harbison, in my opinion, sort of muddled along. Though cast as a tonalist, he has used dissonant harmonies (cf. his opera The Great Gatsby, which I saw at the Met) and occasional serialism as well, so he could have emphasized the crossing of these two contrasting strands, which in any case first appear already in Berg's music from the 1920s (cf. his operas Wozzeck and Lulu).

Sandow, following Kosman's lead, compared popular acceptance and assimilation of modernist and even post-modernist developments in other artistic genres--and he cited the Abstract Expressionist painters--such as visual art, literature, dance, drama, film, and architecture to the classical musical audience's resistance to the work of Wuorinen and others championed by Levine, like innovative American composer Elliott Carter (who nears his 100th birthday). His reasons were:
  • " takes more commitment than visual arts." That is, you don't have to sit for hours in front of a Pollock painting, you can just zip into a gallery and race through it. But what kind of "commitment" does he mean? Temporal? Sensory? Cognitive? Adrian Piper says in one of her essays that she likes to stare for a long time at a visual work of art, as an experience in and of itself, as well as a means to understanding and interpreting it. And Piper, in a somewhat Deweyan turn, is right--to experience Pollock truly, you do have to do more than glance and run. Sandow's argument also doesn't take into account that nowadays you can now listen to snippets of Schoenberg's or anyone else's music in digital form, and "ignore the rest." In fact, because of the resistance of orchestras to playing a lot of this music, you now have few options for hearing much of it except in album or CD or purely digital form.
  • "Second, music depends on performance." This is an excellent point, though even in Schoenberg's day, performances and options for hearing his and his adepts works were just as scant and at times so awful that listeners had no chance of hearing what he had actually written. (When they did, they sometimes rioted.) It helped Mahler that he conducted some of own music and had excellent interpreters; Webern also was a talented conductor of his fellow composers. In any case, poor or shoddy performances or highly idiosyncratic ones may throw a listener off. Sandow states that the audience may pick up on "something tentative" in such manglings of some of the more difficult works (though one could also quip "How would they know the difference"?), especially if the orchestra is still in its learning stages. He thinks that an orchestra probably wouldn't do so with the works of Beethoven or Shostakovich, though the truth is that an incompetent orchestra can butcher anything, and this is 2005, not 1955. Orchestras, and musicians themselves, have had half a century to encounter such works--"modern" in such parlance refers to rather old artifacts now, and "new" and "contemporary" classical or art music is in some cases quite different. Do audiences regularly hear the major orchestras performing even the newest, highly tonal work that's out? Not on your life. When Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie first began pioneering in bebop, or Thelonious Monk began his pianistic experiments, or even later with John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler, such music struck many as difficult and strange, though now performers have a much better handle on what these geniuses were up to and can replicated it if they want to (though Wynton Marsalis doesn't touch the latter). A top pianist should be able to perform Schoenberg's Piano Concerto without a hitch, I would think; certainly there are very difficult scores, but 56 years after Schoenberg's death, is this score still that forbidding? I have heard it performed on CD by Brendel and Uchida, and both sparkled. Are they rarities and exceptions? Aren't there standard works that require more technical expertise? Can't musicians manage those? If so, I assume the same I would think would be true of Schoenberg and other experimentalists, though I am not that exactly cognization of how formal undergraduate and graduate musical performance education works, so I could be quite wrong.
  • "Third, music may be more encompassing -- and more emotional -- than visual art." Maybe this is true, and since I'm not a cognitive scientist, I admit my limits, but "encompassing" of what? One's spatiotemporal, cognitively ontological experience of the work? Empirically is this true? What about films or television, the latter of which at times generates brain wave functions that approach a trance-like or alternatively comatose state--isn't that about as encompassing as you can get? Aren't some classical compositions now frequently deployed as background music, achieving what Satie aspired to, musical "furniture"? Think about all the times you've heard not rock or pop or hiphop piped in a store, but Handel or Vivaldi. There must be emotional and affective responses, but are we "encompassed" any more than when a large painting hangs near or a TV movie is playing beside us as we're doing something else? On top of which, aren't some convenience stores actually playing the likes of Mozart to drive away loiterers? If Mozart is so, well, pleasant, how is this possible, except as a demonstration of the fallacy of universal appeal of certain types of music, and the issue of socialization. The thuglets and loiterers aren't reared hearing Mozart, Haydn, etc., but other kinds of music, and hearing this "beautiful" stuff blaring, in essence auditory bug spray, drives them away. Sandow underlines his point when he says it "hurts us more to listen" to certain works than to look at unfamiliar and potentially unpleasant paintings, but I'm not so sure--and in terms of cinema, well--people can really be unnerved, since film combines a number of other artistic genres, including music, into a continuously unfolding whole. The disorientation caused by a work like Repulsion or Eraserhead or Ichi the Killer, or the nausea-inducing dissonant music, swirling camera action, and blurred optics of the gay-bashing scene in Irreversible, like that film's horrifying 1o-minute brutal rape scene, outdo almost all unpleasant music I've heard, except perhaps some works of Milton Babbitt. But Mozart alone was enough for those kids. so....

  • "Fourth, the classical music audience may be notably conservative." I believe this is true, or perhaps it is true that the classical musical establishment, like most establishments, is conservative, and has more sway over a large number of its adherents. Sandow adds that they might be "preselected," and that "they tend to be people who aren't very interested in new directions in art," though I again am not so sure about this. Isn't this then an issue of socialization? If you're taught--with constant reinforcement--to enjoy certain kinds of art without experiencing other kinds, particularly in such a controlled environment as the classical musical world has become, aren't you more likely then to gravitate towards what is championed? With the destruction of public musical education, many people have fewer options for learning to read music or appreciate it, and no sense of the history of Euro-American music, let alone other American musical forms, except as they're popularly received and marketed. On top of this, the constant bashing of Schoenberg and the refusal by many orchestras even to regularly program numerous composers (take your pick), including a long list of 20th century tonalists, also must play a role. (Reggie H. tells me that the TV show The West Wing recently got in its licks, though inexplicably against one of his earliest, beautiful, tonal compositions, the Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), which is one of the few of his works in the repertoire.) Do these conservative audiences freak out when they hear William Grant Still? Roy Harris? Marc Blitzstein? Amy Beach? Walter Piston? Alan Hovhannes? Ralph Shapey? In fact, a number of these orchestras appear stuck in a pre-1900 mode, which is bizarre and one of the reasons many are in trouble. No other artforms have stopped a century ago, particularly in the United States (think again of the numerous developments in American film, dance, literature, architecture, etc.) and, in fact, neither has what we now label classical music, though you'd never know it if you studied subscription series.

  • Kosman and Sandow both posit that there may be cognitive auditory aspects to why this music hasn't "caught on," and perhaps they're correct. 12-note music challenges the auditory system's expectations--it is, in a sense, artificial or unnatural. But some of it parallels tonal music quite well, and then there is the case of works that mix the two and other kinds of tonal systems, or in which the tonal performance approximates 12-note composition, as in Berg's early and stunning String Quartet. But let's also keep in mind that in some cases jazz, rock, ambient and other genres of music have assimilated some elements of polytonal, polychromatic, and even expressionistic pantonal music successfully, drawing new listeners, so ideally, it should be possible for the classical music crowd also to adapt, unless it is that case that many simply don't want to go beyond the boundaries of what the establishment and they view as "classical."
    Kosman and Sandow also both point to Schoenberg's infamous argument that his discoveries (which, incidently, Joseph Matthias Hauer also settled on around the same time) represented the "future" of music. Actually, Schoenberg, who had an ego bigger than the Matterhorn, claimed that his 12-note method would secure the supremacy of German music for centuries! I think it's important to situate the man in his tumultuous time, a period of tremendous change, two world-shattering wars, and one of the worst regimes in the entire annals of humankind. We should also consider that he had Wagner as a fairly immediate model and Schopenhauer in part on the brain, and, though he did not hesitate to leave Berlin at the first sign of overt racism and anti-Semitism from Hitler's government, had earlier want to secure his place in a system that essentially--this word is key--wanted to erase him and others like him from its ranks. The strangeness and disorientation of his music always conveys this to me, which may be in part why I like so much of it--there is always something dreadful churning up behind it, even at its most beautiful, and in some cases this is the subject of the works itself, as in the Erwartung. Furthermore, American orchestras play Wagner without hesitation despite his grossly anti-Semitic statements; they don't hesitate to program Strauss, who toadied up to Hitler as well, nor Orff, who remained in Germany too; few people take these composers' actions or words as the ultimate measure of them (though until recently Wagner's music wasn't performed in Israel), so why should Schoenberg's far less disturbing commentary not be historicized and contextualized as well?
    Vision of Christ
    The hubris of his American successors is another issue, which needs to be decoupled from his work. Their careerism, their attempts to create music that was more systematic than aesthetically pleasing, their pronouncements about their and their adherents' importance, and the network they created, deserve criticism, but this group should also be historicized and contextualized as well. They weren't operating in a political or social vacuum either. But it seems that many in the classical music world are unwilling to forgive some of these people just yet, and automatically start the blame game at Schoenberg's door. Yet it's not just the serialists, as I said above. There are as many mainstream tonal composers, some of whom I listed above, as serialists, who are not performed, so the argument about conservatism goes beyond aesthetics and cognition to something deeper and broader, which I believe is a fear about breaking outside the narrowly established boundaries of what the establishment deems important. In one of the most diverse nations on earth, with a diverse musical culture, this repertoire is excessively German and Austrian, and heavily slanted upon the early 20th century-heading-backwards. There are other composers--and I've mentioned some like Still or Nathaniel Dett or Rufus Hailstork, who are rarely performed, in part I think because they're black, and thus get overlooked or also don't meet the expectations of "black" music. And what about the paucity of performances of works by women? Or what about the other American traditions--I'm thinking of George Antheil, or Cage, Feldman, Wolff, etc., or the minimalists and post-minimalists and microtonalists, and on and on, who are performed far less than Haydn or Mendelssohn, or younger composers like Michael Torke and Thomas Adès, who is highly praised in his native Britain. What about Tan Dun, Tania Leon, Paquito D'Rivera? Philip Glass's work is both demanding and popular, yet concert halls aren't playing his appealing Violin Concerto or his best symphonies every season. I think it's fear, and it is probably going to spell the end of the classical system as we have known it, which might not be a bad thing.

    Sandow does declare that perhaps some artists will only draw a coterie. This has always been the case. People who don't really know that much about art are drawn immediately to Norman Rockwell, René Magritte, Salvador Dalí, and Andy Warhol, who about as different as artists can be. Yet the fan bases of Elie Nadelman or Jane Freilicher or Bob Thompson, I would imagine, are much smaller. Look at Christo and Jeanne-Claude: they draw millions, while other artists, for a variety of reasons, simply don't gain a lot of adherents at all. There is nothing wrong with this, and such things change too. Artists who drew condemnation, scorn, and few spectators in past years are now celebrated. It may never happen for the Schoenberg crowd, but then again, who knows? I would imagine that his Erwartung, despite its specific subject matter, mirrors quite well the topsy-turvy emotions many people feel, both here and overseas, at some of what is going on all around them. All those shrieks and yelps, shifting notes, and the unhinged quality of the drama--it's a hell of a lot more appropriate than Mozart's Jupiter Symphony.
    Finally, I should add that once I went to a concert at Carnegie Hall with Byron M., a friend, composer and musician, to see a performance of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder, an extremely lush, late-Romantic work whose style the composer had already abandoned by the time it finally premiered in Vienna. Outside the concert hall, a guy was selling tickets--basically scalping them--for Schoenberg! I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, but I did. The hall was packed, as at every performance of Schoenberg's music I've ever attended, including the Met's revival of Moses und Aron, his tough, astonishing, unfinished opera. Obviously there is an audience for this music that so exercises the likes of the New York Times' critics, and many concert subscribers. If the orchestras knew what was better for them, they'd be trying to reach more of the possible audiences out there instead of catering to an increasingly aging, and diminishing one.

    An addendum: In the New Statesman, Joseph Horowitz has written an interesting though cursory article, "A Culture of Performance," on the history of American classical music. He lays its demise at the doorstep of marketing culture, writing,

    "These culture consumers were sold a bill of goods - that all great music was old and European - by the "music appreciation" movement, a commercial enterprise whose chief exponents included David Sarnoff of the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC). Notwithstanding the efforts of America's composers, of whom the most voluble was Aaron Copland, an avalanche of music appreciation bibles, recordings and broadcasts sidelined the quest for an indigenous musical voice earlier pursued by Ives, George Whitefield Chadwick (yet to be acknowledged as America's first symphonic nationalist) and (even earlier) Louis Moreau Gottschalk, with his saucy Caribbean delicacies."

    I'm not sure I buy all of this, but it is interesting. ("Caribbean delicacies"?) As far as an "indigenous musical voice," it's quite clear what that was...and is. Both Dvorak and Delius clearly saw its source: African America.

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