Saturday, March 13, 2010

On recovering modern music

I was incredibly excited to hear of Robert Reilly's book Surprised by Beauty, billing itself as a "listener's guide to the recovery of modern music." (Hat-tip to All Manner of Thing.) Reilly provides brief articles on dozens of twentieth-century composers who are frequently overlooked by standard historical texts, including some long-standing favourites of mine (Rubbra! Malipiero! Holmboe!) and even a few entirely unfamiliar names (Tveitt? Saeverud?). This, of course, is precisely the sort of thing I'm interested in; obscure twentieth-century composers are my bread and butter. What's more, Reilly's emphasis on tonal twentieth-century music is precisely in line with my own ongoing project to overturn the historiography of Unrelenting Musical Progress. Yet Reilly is also known for his polemics against atonality and the musical avant-garde, which I find rather annoying. Xenakis and Boulez are extremely rare fixtures on concert programmes these days, and panning their works simply because they're atonal accomplishes nothing other than confirming concertgoers in their instinctive dislike of music they've never heard. It was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, then, that I picked up Surprised by Beauty (a used copy; the book is already out of print) and began to read.

The bottom line first: this is a very fine book. If you have any interest in tonal twentieth-century music - Shostakovich, Nielsen, or Sibelius, for example - and want to discover more music in a similar vein, this is essential reading. It will introduce you to composers you've never heard of, and describe their works so enticingly that you'll be running to the record store immediately for music by Lajtha, Vainberg, and Sallinen. (You won't find it there, of course, but it's the thought that counts.) Add to this generally superb writing and some fascinating interviews with George Rochberg, Gian Carlo Menotti, and Robert Craft, among others, and this is an essential read. Look for it in a library if you can't find a reasonably-priced copy.

That much out of the way, let's discuss what I didn't like about it. It will come as no surprise that my complaints are of two kinds: picky, pedantic corrections, and grand, sweeping philosophical disagreements. Let's get started, shall we?

First the picky details. Someone, presumably Reilly's editor, has managed to misspell the names of the following composers: Ernest Farrar, Herbert Howells, Lennox Berkeley, Arthur Honegger, and César Franck. This is not earth-shakingly important, but it's odd, given that the book is dedicated to informing people about obscure composers, who almost by definition have oddly-spelled names. I'm quite sure Reilly knows better than this, and I wish his editor had left well enough alone.

Reilly also does grave injustice to Michael Tippett, a favourite composer of mine. According to Reilly, Tippett was once a promising young composer, but then his musical talent dissolved into decadence and squalor as a result of reading too much Jung. This dubious factoid is repeated twice in the book, most infuriatingly in the article on William Mathias. (Reilly is trying to promote the non-Jung-reading Mathias at Tippett's expense. This won't work, mostly because Mathias is a mediocre epigone of Tippett.) I can understand Reilly's dislike of Tippett's later works, which I only learned to like after repeated listening, but to blame Tippett's style change on Jung gets things backwards, as Tippett's earlier works show far clearer Jungian influence than the late ones.

But there are broader issues here, issues about the nature and meaning of musical modernity. Reilly, you see, is more or less emphatically opposed to all forms of atonal or serial music. Of all the composers in the book, only Frank Martin is associated with serial writing, and his application of serialism is highly idiosyncratic and essentially tonal. Such former radicals as Rautavaara and Rochberg are fêted for abandoning serialism. The modernists Boulez, Dallapiccola and especially Schoenberg haunt the pages of Surprised by Beauty; they are Reilly's main enemies, who he blames for having forced inhuman, ugly musical creations upon the public, and for suppressing the works of worthier, tonal composers. In abandoning the tonal system, moreover, with its traditional connections to metaphysical order, they have created music that graphically depicts the death of God. The spiritual and moral rootlessness of the twentieth century is reflected in the aridity of its art music.

This, of course, is more than a matter of aesthetic preference; it's part and parcel of a longstanding intellectual critique of modernity. By dethroning God as the source of beauty, truth, and goodness, the argument runs, modernist thinkers have left no objective standard for reality other than the contingent desires of human beings. And because humans are considered to have no essential nature other than what they define for themselves, this philosophy is ultimately nihilistic: it allows no basis for human decision-making other than arbitrary acts of will. The increasing violence and decadence of Western culture are therefore merely the logical results of an essentially incoherent, nihilistic philosophy of life. One associates this line of thought primarily with Christian social critics, but the same essential point about liberal modernity has been made by such anti-religious thinkers as John Gray and Slavoj Zizek.

If the argument above is even remotely plausible, it can be applied to the arts as easily as to politics. In the absence of a metaphysical concept of beauty, there's no reason other than personal preference to use consonant intervals and key areas. Why can't dissonances be considered just as pleasant as consonances? It's no accident that Schoenberg expressed his atonal aesthetic in the language of revolutionary politics ("the emancipation of the dissonance"). If we are to reject the nihilism of modernity, Reilly might say, we should start by rejecting its musical analogue, atonality. The achievement of twentieth-century tonal composers was to step back from the brink - to realize the problem and go back to the safety of traditional harmonic and formal structures.

This argument makes sense on the surface. Unfortunately, it's too simplistic.

The problem with rejecting modernity is that it's such a comprehensive, complex thing. To find a time uncontaminated by modernist thought, you have to go at least as far back as the early 1300s (before Ockham and Scotus), if not earlier. This isn't practical; we can't eliminate all traces of the last 700 years from our minds and start again. When we read Aquinas, we do so in the light of centuries of later philosophy; when we sing plainchant, we experience it as a retreat from the noise and bustle of the everyday world. These activities may eventually seem completely natural to us, but they never fully lose their historicist character.

The problem is even greater for the composer. No creative artist can create from nothing; each composer builds on the achievements of the past. At the same time, the influences of the past are absorbed, transmuted, and reacted against; this process drives the patterns of stylistic change in music. Without influence, you have nothing to create with, but if you're nothing more than your influences, you're hardly a composer at all. What's more, every artist requires colleagues of his own generation for the exchange of ideas, occasional arguments, and petty rivalries. With a very few exceptions (Emily Dickinson comes to mind), the artist needs to be in contact with other artists.

This is where Reilly's narrative becomes problematic. The composers in his book are celebrated as daring mavericks for rejecting serialism and "returning" to tonality. But if they're mavericks, why are there so many of them? And why are they concentrated in particular geographic areas? And why do they all seem to know each other and discuss each other's work with interest? And why does their music sound different from the highly-strung chromaticism of the late nineteenth-century, which would presumably be the tonal language to which a twentieth-century composer would "return"? The answer to all of these questions is that the composers in the book are not mavericks or loners, nor are they mere reactionaries; they're part of an alternative tradition in twentieth-century music, one that offers an language different from either serialism or conventional tonal harmony. None of the composers in the book "turned back from the brink" - they just took a different fork in the path.

But the problem goes deeper than this, I'm afraid. If the problem with atonal music is metaphysical (ie: it's a manifestation of nihilistic modern hubris) rather than aesthetic (ie: it doesn't sound nice), then why do nineteenth-century composers get a free pass? Beethoven, Wagner and Debussy, in their various ways, have the same self-important attitude, the same contempt for received ideas, and the same inflated estimation of their individual creativity that we see in Schoenberg. What's the difference between them, other than that Schoenberg illustrates a later phase in the modern disease? That they built on tradition? So did Schoenberg. That their music is deeply emotional? So is Xenakis.

If we really wanted to reject all traces of modernity in our music, we would have to reject all polyphony. In literature, we would have to reject the novel; in painting, we would have to reject perspective; in politics, we would have to reject democracy. If democracy, novels, and polyphony are good things, it's because there is something good in human nature that produced them. Indeed, it's precisely because human nature rebels against nihilism that creators transmute it into art, and express something that transcends the philosophy that created it. If we were really nihilists, if we really saw no point to life other than the fulfillment of our arbitrary desires, there would be no reason to create art, or to do anything in particular. But beauty insists on springing up in the most unexpected places, and reminds us of a metaphysical reality our society denies. This is why I see no contradiction in saying that atonal works can be beautiful, and why I think Reilly's facile equation of musical dissonance with moral evil is untenable. Listen to the music for yourself and make up your own mind - you're allowed to like Schoenberg, or to dislike him, but for heaven's sake, don't let your opinion of any music be predetermined by metaphysical principles.

10 comments:

Andrew W. said...

This is a really great piece, Osbert.

cnb said...

Sorry that it has taken me so long to get to this post, Osbert. I've had little time at the computer of late.

Modernity may be pervasive, but that hardly means that it is above criticism. As you yourself say, it is a complex thing, and it might be quite possible to reject some strand of it -- one of the "forks in the path", such as the serialist one -- without thereby involving oneself in self-contradiction. I guess your comments strike me as strangely defeatist, as though we're required to like something just because it happened.

As I understand him, Reilly is not advocating a "retreat" to pre-modern music. Many of the composers he discusses were (and are) writing in harmonic idioms that are fairly characterized as "modern". Perhaps it really is true that the music written since the Enlightenment is a manifestation of godless secularism, and that the difference between Mozart and Xenakis is just the degree of the rot, but I don't think it's that simple. I can hear the difference.

Perhaps I've not understood you well. In any case, I am glad that you enjoyed the book overall, and I agree with you that it is a very enjoyable read. I didn't pick up on those misspelled names.

Osbert Parsley said...

Thanks for your comments, Craig. The broader issue here is what we can actually do about modernity if we say we don't like it. My position, following George Grant, is that a head-on assault is usually counterproductive and that our best bet is a subversive, ironic engagement. If modernity is in fact incoherent, it will undermine itself and we'll come through to something else (composers like Messiaen seem to me to suggest one plausible way forward out of modernism, as do many of the composers in Reilly's book). I've written a bit more about this here.

It's certainly true that many of the composers Reilly mentions write in a unique style that can hardly be described as reactionary. At the same time, there's a tendency in the book to treat the abandonment of serialism as though it were a step back from the brink," even though most of the composers described never wrote serially to begin with. This interpretation is explicitly endorsed in the interviews with Rautavaara, Rochberg and especially Carl Rütti, who says that John Cage took modernism as far as it could go, and there was nowhere else to go but backwards. I'm not convinced that this serves tonal twentieth-century composers particularly well, and it's particularly unfair to composers like Dallapiccola or Messiaen, who wrote at one point or another in the most advanced modern idiom without ever abandoning an understanding of the needs of the listener.

In any case: these are not easy questions. I also suspect that I may be oversensitive to criticism of twentieth-century high modernism, which despite its flaws produced some of my favourite music!

cburrell said...

That is the second or third time that George Grant has been given a positive endorsement in my hearing, so he is going onto my reading list. (Any suggestions?)

Perhaps engagement with modernity is preferable to disengagement, but personally I do not chastise those who choose the latter. If I were a composer I would likely disengage, seeking my inspiration in pre-modern music, both because that is the music that I like best, and because I find engagement with concentrated forms of modernism spiritually unhealthy. I might very well describe my rejection as "pulling back from the brink". That seems a rather good description, actually!

Having said that, I agree that there is another way, for those able to tread it. Messiaen, as you say, found a way to do it, and the results are wonderful to contemplate.

Osbert Parsley said...

The best Grant book to start with is probably Lament for a Nation, which is still highly relevant to Canadian concerns despite being rather topical (he wrote it in the aftermath of the 1963 federal election). After that, English-Speaking Justice, and particularly Technology and Empire, are very good. All of his books are short.

I think you're right, by the way, that "engagement" with modernity is not for everyone - if you're not a canary, you should probably stay out of the coal mine! Still, the message should be there when people are ready to hear it.

cnb said...

Thanks for the recommendations.

(By the way, both "cnb" and "cburrell" are me. But I think you figured that out.)

Osbert Parsley said...

Figured it out, thanks!

BTW it just occurred to me - you're also the cnb on LibraryThing, right? It certainly is a small world. . .

cnb said...

Yes, that is me. I gather that you are also a member? What is your username? I must say that I am a big fan of LibraryThing.

Are you aware of any similar services for cataloging music?

Osbert Parsley said...

LibraryThing is wonderful - I'm "hauptwerk" over there. As I currently have books scattered across two different cities, the site is incredibly useful!

One occasionally sees sheet music on LibraryThing - I haven't attempted it, because I already have a cataloguing system of my own and because it would be too much trouble (print music books don't have an ISBN). A good sheet music catalogue site would need a lot more features (since different editions and printings of the same work are often substantially different).

Unless you mean recorded music? I'm not aware that there's anything like LibraryThing for recordings. I'm an obsessive-compulsive iTunes tagger, which helps me keep track of things somewhat (by composer, instrumentation, and date).

Karl Henning said...

Another fine post, thanks!

(Count me in as all over Malipiero and Holmboe, too.)

Cheers,
~Karl