Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Death of Modernism

I'm glad to have the previous post out of the way - there's nothing I less enjoy writing than an introduction, especially when I have more important matters on my mind. Luckily, a combination of extreme brevity and shamelessly plagiarizing dead poets got me through in less than a week.

The latest news in the classical music community is the death of Karlheinz Stockhausen, one of the pioneering avant-garde composers of the last century. I confess to being mostly ignorant of Stockhausen's music - the only works I'm familiar with are the electronic piece Gesang der Junglinge, the early Kreutzspiel, and the inevitable Stimmung. However, it strikes me that the death of such an important composer is most relevant as a symbolic event. When one of the most visible, pioneering avant-garde composers of the century passes away, it's clear that the era of music-making he represents is definitively over.

As an enthusiastic, almost rabid proponent of twentieth-century music, this is slightly saddening. Stockhausen is dead! All our modernist dreams are over! Pack up your bags and go home! On the other hand, this is heartening. If Stockhausen is dead, that means that Stockhausen is no longer a Dreadful Modern Composer, but an Honoured Dead Composer. And if you want your music to be accepted by the concertgoing public, it pays to be an honoured dead composer. They're safer, less likely to surprise you with unexpected sounds.

In fact, the end of the era of High Modernism may be the best thing that ever happened to it. We now have the perspective of hindsight, and our evaluations of the music are influenced neither by the academic tastemakers proclaiming the death of tonality nor by the older musicians who label the entire movement as deliberate charlatanism. And as we look back on this music, it becomes more and more apparent just how traditional it really was.

Stockhausen never wrote for organ - a surprising fact considering that he wrote for almost every other instrument - but the conflict between modernist and conservative musical tendencies exists in the organ world as well. Because organists are notoriously conservative, really modern music (by the standards of, say, Pierre Boulez or Brian Ferneyhough) is almost never heard in organ recitals, choral concerts, or church music programmes. I have been told numerous times that twentieth-century music is "inaccessible" - a word I hate - and won't go over well with an audience or congregation of non-musicians. Or will it?

An anecdote. As a church organist, I regularly receive comments on the music I play, or that the choir sings, in the service. Certain people comment on the program regularly - the presiding priest, members of the choir, and certain members of the congregation who take a particular interest in music. One Sunday last year during the administration of communion, I played the second movement of Olivier Messiaen's Meditations sur la Mystere de la Sainte Trinite. A conservative work for its time, but clearly written in a twentieth-century idiom, and I saw members of the choir make faces - they know how much I enjoy Messiaen, but don't approve. After the service, I fully expected criticism from some of the more conservative members of the parish.

But it didn't come. Instead, a man I'd never talked to before approached me and told me how much he enjoyed the communion music. He said that some of the sounds were unusual, but he liked hearing some different colours from the organ beyond the ones he usually gets to hear. He didn't know anything about music, he told me, but he thought my piece brought out the mysterious aspects of the service.

That made my day. And it confirmed something I've suspected for a long time: modern music is only shocking to people accustomed to tonal music of the 19th century and earlier. It's only offensive to people who have a modicum of classical music education. People with no classical music background have no reason to be frightened of the strange sounds; they hear worse in movie soundtracks. I noticed a similar phenomenon when, in high school, I had occasion to observe the reactions of a number of students and some staff members to hearing a recording of the R. Murray Schafer flute concerto. One of the staff members was horrified and claimed the music would give her nightmares. The music students were divided; some liked it, others thought it was too dissonant. The non-music students thought it sounded kind of cool.

1 comment:

SadOatcakes said...

Ha ha ha ha ha oh Chantal.