Saturday, February 2, 2008

The Agony of Modern Music

What kind of books do I turn to for pleasure reading in my spare time? Why, wrong-headed polemics on musical subjects from several decades ago, of course! (Music Ho, anyone?)

Supposedly incredibly controversial in 1955, Pleasants's book plasters its manifesto on the back jacket. "Modern music is not modern and is rarely music. It represents an attempt to perpetuate a European musical tradition whose technical resources are exhausted, and which no longer has any cultural validity. . . New music which cannot excite the enthusiastic participation of the lay listener has no claim to his sympathy and indulgence. . . The evolution of Western music continues in American popular music, which has found the way back to the basic musical elements of melody and rhythm, exploited in an original manner congenial to the society of which it is the spontaneous musical expression."

Gack. How tiresome. And yet you hear poorly developed versions of the same arguments from the sort of concertgoers who are determined to dislike all twentieth-century concert music on principle, and from modern pundits who should know better. And so the book is of more than historical interest.

The basic problem with Pleasants's criticism becomes apparent in the first chapter. To wit: his ears are on backwards. To describe Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf and Ravel's Bolero as "fleetingly attractive novelties" is so totally wrong-headed that this is the only possible explanation. If someone had helped him to adjust them correctly before he wrote the book, we could have been spared years of fruitless argument. But it's too late, and we're stuck with it. Darn.

Here, basically, is the problem. Pleasants doesn't like twentieth-century concert music himself. That'll happen. But he projects his own lack of aesthetic sympathy onto faceless audience members, who he quotes as saying things like "I can't say I liked the new symphony, but then I don't understand modern music". As a performer, I can provide innumerable examples of twentieth-century works that excited genuine interest and enjoyment in lay audiences, dating from the beginning of my career as a church musician to the all-Messiaen concert I attended last night. And so Pleasants's idea of the state of modern music, a group of cognoscenti forcing bad music upon an audience that hates it but is too afraid to say so, is the reverse of reality. Audiences will accept all but the most extreme of modern musical constructions given a suitable frame of reference and a congenial environment; the ones holding them back from doing so are the performers, concert promoters, and other members of the "cognoscenti" who are too afraid to program modern music at all. Often, their musical education prevents them from fully appreciating the music themselves; their classical training makes them see all music through a lens of common-practice harmony and makes it impossible for them to accept music which differs from their textbook harmonic and formal narratives. It's the musicians that joke about the inaccessibility of modern music, not the public: the musicians have lost the ability to hear with lay people's ears and are really joking about the music's technical difficulty, and the public has never heard the music.

I actually intended this to be a short post. Whoops! I did break it up with a picture, though. I'm learning.


SadOatcakes said...

Hey, look, a French Horn! I used to play that thing!

I miss it. Maybe next time I randomly run into your mother on the street (not literally) she might have her instrument and perhaps I can play a scale for old times' sake (literally). If I can still buzz, anyway.

SadOatcakes said...

PS: Who are you calling a "Music ho," whippersnapper?

Osbert Parsley said...

The story behind that title is hilarious. It's from a banquet scene in Antony and Cleopatra: everyone yells "The music, ho!", whereupon someone named Mardian the Eunuch enters (?) and Cleopatra says "Let it alone; let's to billiards." The author uses Cleopatra's indifference as an example of the average person's disregard for music, or something, or something.

BTW I suspect your embouchure will be in better shape than you think. I picked up a trombone sometime last year and found I can still make a sound after not touching an instrument in years. Which is interesting, since the muscles you use for buzzing have no other purpose. The brain is a remarkable thing.

vermeer said...

Certainly, much fine "serious" music has been written since 1900; Pleasants would concur. But since especially 1930, the vast majority of such music has been assaultive rot. Please don't burden us futher with the argument that "Gee, after all, Beethoven's music was also rejected." Indeed, it was...and then within a decade it was warmly embraced. Assaultive rot written in the 1940's is still regarded as...well, as assaultive rot. This is one music teacher who believes that the late twentieth century in serious music history will be characterized as "The Age of the Emperor's New Clothes." As with much contemporary art, we've become pathetically self-delusional.

Osbert Parsley said...

No, no, no. I cannot accept that a person with any familiarity with music post-1930 would describe the "vast majority" as "assaultive rot". I certainly admit that a great deal of terrible, pretentious atonal garbage was written in this century, just as a great deal of terrible, tonal garbage was written in previous centuries, but to generalize from this to condemn the entire 80-year period since then is to do an enormous disservice to the talented composers who worked during the period. More and more music of the late 20th century is proving to have lasting audience appeal, because it is now being performed extremely well and presented in a congenial and thoughtful manner, rather than performed badly and presented in a forbidding and academic way. The ephemeral works of the period, as with any other era, are quickly fading from memory.

But then, you're not really arguing with me - you're arguing with a straw man who offers silly and insulting arguments about how "Beethoven's music was also rejected," which are conspicuously absent in this post and, I hope, on this blog.

vermeer said...

Yes, there was also a lot of terrible TONAL garbage written in the 19th century. But tonal garbage is not assaultive...merely lifeless and inane. Atonality is abusive (with very rare exceptions). And as I said, we have had quality music composed since 1930. But it is heartbreaking to consider how precious little of it there is.

Osbert Parsley said...

Quite the opposite, actually. In my experience, bad atonal music is typically as "inane" as any other bad music - it's bad because the composer doesn't know how to articulate a clearly constructed form, and so the whole piece is just mush.

I'm sorry, but anyone who says that there is "previous little" good concert music after 1930 simply isn't familiar with the repertoire, which is more extensive and diverse than that of any other period in music history. There is nothing more to say on the subject.

Laraine said...

I would describe Bolero as a monotonous horrible din!

Barry said...

This is one of the most enjoyable books I have ever read. As the old saying goes.The truth often hurts. Written in an easy 'laymans' style it explains a lot of what is wrong with the modern world of 'symphonic' music. So , where have all the really good composers gone? Why , they are out there earning a living composing film scores.