Sunday, December 30, 2007

Modernist feeding frenzy

One of the best parameters I've come across for the success of a great work of art is that it fills a human need that you never knew you had. No-one wakes up in the morning and decides that what they really need to listen to is a nine-minute fugue on a labyrinthine subject full of tritones, but this is exactly how the B minor Mass begins, and now that I know the work I can't imagine my life without it. Likewise, I think of that moment in the first movement of Walton's Symphony No. 1, that inexorable B-flat major train ride, where the motion of the music grinds to a total halt and the orchestra screams out a series of wrenching dissonances. On a first listen to the symphony, this moment is shocking and unexpected, but on later listens you realize that this is the inevitable culmination of everything that came before. These dissonances are not arbitrary, but written into the melodic contour of the themes of the symphony, and passing through them makes Walton's final blaze of major-key glory that much more exciting.

Unfortunately, this means that writing about art, and particularly modernist art, tends to be a game of trying to sell people a product they think they don't want. However many fanciful adjectives I use, I can't make you HEAR Walton's "wrenching dissonances"; I can only hope that my description makes you want to go out and listen to the symphony. These issues are uppermost in my mind right now because I've read two recent books in the past month which discuss modernism in the arts, finding one of them wonderful and enlightening and the other significantly flawed.

The wonderful and enlightening one, of course, is The Rest is Noise by New Yorker music critic Alex Ross, and nothing I can possibly say can add or detract from the well-earned praise this book has received in all quarters. The flawed one is Peter Gay's Modernism: The Lure of Heresy, a survey of the modernist movement in all of the arts, from painting to literature to film. The ultimate difference, I think, is that Ross sets out to create a survey of twentieth-century music for non-specialists, with his role as advocate for an underappreciated repertoire; Gay sets out to explicate modernism for people who already know something about it, bringing out common concerns and underlying similarities. This means that Ross can jump wherever in the twentieth century he chooses and talk about any composer whose work he enjoys, while Gay is stuck trying to draw patterns and ends up leaving out, or slightly misrepresenting, artists who don't fit the thesis of his book. This creates unanticipated problems for Gay's narrative. Arguing that modernism is characterized by two characteristics, the desire to push the boundaries of the accepted (the "lure of heresy") and the exploration of subjective mental states, he has an easy time fitting in the French Impressionists and German Expressionists, but has difficulty encompassing philosophies like Stravinsky's Neoclassicism. This finally comes to a head when he discusses the choreography of Stravinsky's choreographer George Balanchine, attacked in his time for the machinelike precision and lack of human feeling in his ballets. Gay wriggles out of this apparent contradiction by saying that although his art did not apparently "explore subjective mental states", those who knew Balanchine testify to his genuine emotional warmth. No doubt, but this doesn't solve the problem, and from the slightly embarrassed quality of Gay's writing I think he knows it. Really, the essential flaw is Gay's attempt to characterize an entire, complex artistic movement with two points, which is the sort of thing you expect in a first-year university survey course. Ross's less structured, but ultimately more nuanced narrative seems to me to serve the artists better.

Another key difference is that Noise is simply much better proofread. As an incurable stickler for detail, I rarely read a book about twentieth-century composers without finding dubious assertions or misrepresentations of fact; in Ross's book, the most I can do is quibble with his statements about early use of birdsong in the music of Messiaen. Modernism, on the other hand, contains many mistakes of one kind or another, ranging from spelling errors (switching Monet and Manet) to irritating statements which show a lack of fact-checking (Gay writes that Pierrot lunaire did not quickly enter the repertoire of symphony orchestras, which seems sad until you realize that it is not an orchestral work) to full-out misreadings of key texts (Gay quotes Babbitt's essay "Who Cares if You Listen?" and interprets it as a composer's lament against lack of audience appreciation for modern music; in reality, of course, the essay's thesis is that composers should ignore the audience and write for each other). Finally, I simply cannot accept the book's treatment of T. S. Eliot's religious conversion. Gay obviously dislikes the Christian basis of Eliot's late works, and seems to tacitly blame the poet's acknowledged anti-Semitism on these beliefs, which I find unfair, but I am more bothered by the fact that Gay constantly refers to "High Anglicanism" with both words in capital letters. There is no such entity as the High Anglican Church: the differences between High Anglicans and other Anglicans have to do with liturgical practices and with the perceived relationship of the Church to Rome, and leave room for a variety of theological stances. To place the phrase in Capital Letters makes Anglo-Catholicism sound like some sort of homogeneous cult rather than a liturgical position within the Anglican Communion. Gay frequently bandies around semi-technical terms like "High Anglicanism" or, in the music chapter, "tonality", without explaining exactly what they mean, and in this case I am afraid he does so for the unworthy end of ascribing Eliot's more unsavoury character traits to a nebulous, poorly defined group.

I've been hard on Gay's book, and the one-sidedness of my critique is unfair; the task of explaining and cataloguing modernist art in all genres is a massive one, and I know of no other book that even attempts this task for a general audience. "Modernism" is close to the target, but it's far enough from the ideal that some brilliant polymath writer of the future may well come up with book that better accomplishes the same task. After all, few readers can match Gay's knowledge of the arts; I could keep up with him in literature and music, follow with some difficulty in painting and film, and found myself in totally unknown territory in sculpture, architecture, and dance. I probably learned less from Ross's book in this objective sense; I already knew about all of the composers, and many of the works, that he discussed, but enjoyed his fresh insights and evocative writing.

What have we learned today?

1) Writing about art is hard.
2) Always check your facts.
3) Don't be too anxious to fit your facts into an overly rigid framework.


SadOatcakes said...

I too have been reading about modernism, albeit from a very different perspective.

I've been reading some of Francis Schaeffer's theological works (due to a personal epistemological crisis of sorts) and he's rather a bit down on modernism, from a theological standpoint. I don't know if you're familiar with the dude; what I am reading is called The God Who Is There (1968) and deals (so far) with what Schaeffer calls "the line of despair," that is, the dividing line between the world where romanticism and rationalism were relevant, and the world where they were (are) not.

Schaeffer traces the line of despair as it emerges first in the realm of philosophy, then in visual art, and then in music & the general culture. I was expecting it to be more "Modernist music is BAD" but it's not: rather, it's more like "this is the philosophical movement out of which modernist music emerges, and these are the conclusions we can draw about that philosophy as it is expressed through music." (The conclusions being, more or less, that that modernist philosophy leads to despair either because one cannot consistently live according to such a philosophy, or because one does).

The bits dealing with modernist music are rather incidental to the whole, but I've appreciated even the basic grounding. I don't know much about it otherwise; I'm more of a fan of, say, the Tudor era through to the Romantics. Mostly.

I'm not sure about the spiritual conclusions Schaeffer draws -- largely because while things he says ring true, his scholarship seems sort of sloppy and that's giving me issues. He tends to gloss over a lot of things and to draw sweeping conclusions, such that I'm always going "Wait! Stop! Explain!" It's hard to reconcile the feeling that he's right with the feeling that even if he is right, he's going about everything the wrong way.

I dunno.

I forget what the point of all this was. So, um, blah de blah, modernism!

Osbert Parsley said...

Thanks for this, Christine - the Schaeffer sounds really interesting and I'll have to look it up. The main problem that occurs to me, however, is that I find it hard to imagine how one philosophical movement can encompass all of modernism. There were a number of major modernist writers who were practicing Christians (T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden come to mind), and they didn't find that the aesthetic ideals of modernist poetry were at all opposed to their faith. The idea of modernism as a movement of atheists with radical left-wing political views is commonly held, but it's problematic. (Incidentally, this is one of the points that Peter Gay does a really good job of getting across, despite everything else I've said about his book.)

If you know T. S. Eliot's work, The Waste Land is all "Modern life is full of woe! How will we fill the gaping holes in our lives?". Then Four Quartets is, like, "Well, you need God, obviously. Duh." They're both clearly modernist works, but their philosophical underpinnings are very different.

BTW I suspect you know a lot of modernist music without quite realizing that's what it is. Vaughan Williams and Holst were pretty tame as twentieth-century composers go, but they were definitely trailblazers in their day. Same problem with Debussy; his music is now so listenable that people forget how modern it was at the time. The modernist poster children, however, are Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg. If you don't know it, find a recording of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" and turn it up really loud - great headbanging music.

SadOatcakes said...

You played Rite of Spring for us all in Cooke's class, remember? I don't know why... but I remember that you did, and then you were all "Twelve tones! Twelve tones! Aggle aggle aggle!" (I paraphrase).

As to Schaeffer, I don't think that it's so much that every modernist thing ever comes from existentialist thought -- more that many things do, and that some modernist trends are a result of following that philosophy (what Schaeffer calls "modern mysticism") to its conclusion, through art.

He takes up about a chapter discussing John Cage as an example of this -- who, believing that art is "born of chance and indeterminacy," composed his pieces through tossing coins at charts, employed two conductors at once, and even built a mechanical conductor whose movements could be followed but not predicted. Cage believed that "the truth about the universe is a totally chance situation."

The irony, Schaeffer points out, is that Cage was also a dedicated mycologist, and knew a tremendous lot about which mushrooms were which, that he mightn't die while picking them. He is forced into dichotomy, because he cannot apply his life-philosophy to picking mushrooms in the park.

Therein the despair: either (as Jackson Pollock) you exhaust the bounds of chance and then have to kill yourself, or, (as John Cage) you are forced into a position where you adhere to the idea of chance but cannot live it.

Hmm... that makes more sense when you've read the rest of it, I suspect.

In other news, I had no idea that V.Will. was all modernist and such. His stuff is so... sningable? Nice? Something. Although, I do have a bit of a gripe with his choral music, that being that there is entirely too much of it. I had to catalogue & re-shelve our (Hart House's) entire choral collection over the summer. We've got something like four shelf-rows of just Vaughan Williams. It's maddening.

Osbert Parsley said...

I did play "Rite of Spring", I remember - but it was in Gray's class, not Cooke's class. And the piece is not twelve-tone; I went on to discuss twelve-tone music later in the presentation because Stravinsky went on, in his old age, to compose twelve-tone music. Anyway, if all you've heard of the piece is the three-minute excerpt I played in class, you really ought to go out and listen to the whole thing. Now. Run!

I appreciate the clarification on the Schaeffer book and his position now makes sense; problem is, though, that if you take the use of chance as a primary characteristic of modernism, you're stuck with a very small cross-section of art to discuss. Cage's indeterminacy is clearly a modernist trend, but so is Milton Babbitt's integral serialism, which is more carefully designed and prescribed than almost any other music in history. Even some of Cage's own music is extremely methodically constructed; I'm thinking of the player piano pieces which, to perform them, require you to put different objects (erasers, screw, bolts etc.) in between the strings - all according to the prescriptions of a large chart in the score. So I'm not sure if his argument really applies to a large cross-section of modernist art. But I haven't read the book, so maybe I'm misrepresenting.

RVW is, I think, a Modernist In Disguise - the surface "prettiness" hides a great deal of complexity and an unusual approach to harmony. This is a rare problem - a fair proportion of twentieth-century composers sound very harsh on a superficial level but turn out, once you get to know them, to be Romantics. I will probably eventually write a post on this.