Monday, January 17, 2011

Mr Magundi on atonal music

A friend pointed me to the new blog Mr Magundi Speaks His Mind, another part of the growing publishing empire of H. Albertus Boli. Dr Boli's Celebrated Magazine has long been one of my favourite things on the Internet, and the new blog is worth a visit. The setup is simple: the eponymous Mr Magundi is an opinionated, somewhat eccentric man who holds forth on a variety of subjects to those around him while waiting for the streetcar. Each entry, then, provides a thought-provoking and frequently witty angle on some unexpected subject, usually set off by a chance remark made by someone else at the streetcar stop. It reads like a cross between The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks and a book by G. K. Chesterton; if you like both of those things, you know where to go.

Predictably, however, I couldn't let Magundi's take on atonal music go by without comment - it is so brief and tightly packed that I can only quote it in its entirety:
“They always stick in one of those atonal things before the Beethoven,” said Mrs. Bowman, who had just been to a symphony concert. “I never did like that sort of thing, but I guess I’m just not very musical.”

“No one who loves music really loves twelve-tone music,” Mr. Magundi said. “There may be certain compositions that strike you as clever, and you may enjoy some of the interesting sounds emanating from the different sections of the orchestra; but you will never love it. This is not a defect of your musical education, but a compliment to your ear: it simply shows that you have the ability to distinguish what is music from what is not. The modern twelve-tone system is designed expressly to prevent music from happening—that is, what any sane listener would define as music. Nor will I listen to that hoary and false assertion that the great composers of the past were similarly derided in their time. They were not. Beethoven’s seventh symphony, at its first concert, could not be continued until the audience had forced the orchestra to repeat the second movement. Wagner was the center of an almost religious cult. Ravel saw popular dance bands playing his “Bolero” when the ink was hardly dry on the score. These were composers who appalled the conventional critics with their innovations; but their innovations were music, and ordinary people heard it and loved it, and loved it while it was still fresh. We have had a century to get used to atonal music, and all the great orchestras have been force-feeding it to us as the price we have to pay to hear Mozart or Mahler. Yet, during that long period, and with such a relentless campaign, not one composition in that style has made the slightest impression on the public at large. We must confess, therefore, that something more than fashion is at work here; and we may boldly state it as a law of nature that no sane and healthy person will ever really love atonal music.”
(Click here to view the post in its original format, with the comment thread.)

Magundi is, of course, completely right, but also completely wrong.

It can hardly be denied that twelve-tone music has made next to no impact on the general public; and while we can make any number of excuses for this (bad programming, poor performances, preconceived opinions on the part of audience members) it seems unlikely that works by Webern, Stockhausen, or Boulez will ever have mainstream appeal. And no-one is gladder than I to see the old Whig version of music history demolished: the narrative of music history is not an upward trajectory of stylistic progress, and especially not if by "progress" we mean an ever-increasing level of chromaticism and motivic saturation. The development of musical style has to be understood as a more complex process, responsive to a variety of social and political factors including the general intellectual climate of a particular time period. To say that "Beethoven was rejected in his day, just like Stockhausen" is worse than nonsense, because the difference between a composer's relationship to his audience in 1800s Vienna and 1960s Darmstadt is so enormous as to make such a comparison invidious.

I think our author is absolutely correct, too, in pointing out the absurdity of thoughtlessly sticking a newly commissioned piece on a program with Mozart or Mahler. I was immediately reminded of this concert, where the premiere of Xenakis's Keqrops shared space with Schubert's Rosamunde music. It's probably safe to say that these two works have nothing to say to each other; the sort of person who comes to an orchestral concert because they're playing Schubert would be unlikely to enjoy the Xenakis, and the sort of person who traverses the continent to hear Xenakis premieres (they do exist!) is probably not going to want to hear the Rosamunde pieces afterwards. A piece like Keqrops - intensely dramatic, violent and slighly traumatizing - should almost certainly end any program on which it appears, and should be preceded by works that provide a chance to prepare yourself for what is to come. Sandwiching a Xenakis piece in a protective cushion of standard-repertoire pieces is dishonest, bait-and-switch programming - it practically guarantees that not a single person in the audience (or, for that matter, onstage) will be happy with the musical result.

There are certain things here which suggest that Magundi has not been keeping up on recent musical developments. Twelve-tone music (not the same as atonal music, by the way) is now a style of the past; only a relatively few aging professors use the system at all, and none that I am aware of use it in the rigidly systematic way that we associate with the early works of Boulez. To talk about "the modern twelve-tone style" as though serialism were the dominant style of composition rather than a largely abandoned one, suggests a certain disconnect with the trends in contemporary composition. For similar reasons, I find the setup of the article implausible in the extreme; if serial works are rarely composed these days, they are even more rarely performed except for specialist groups in large cities and universities. That any orchestra in 2011 would put a midcentury avant-garde or serial work on a regular season program strains credulity. In my experience, when you question the Mrs Bowmans of this world, it usually turns out that the work she so objects to is something thoroughly innocuous, like Britten's Sea Interludes or a Bartok piano concerto - a work, in other words, that she might well be expected to enjoy given a chance to get used to the style.

The conclusion of Magundi's article, of course, is the most controversial. Will the average person ever genuinely enjoy twentieth-century modernism? Probably not. (This applies as much to Finnegans Wake as Keqrops). Will a "sane and healthy person" ever genuinely enjoy this repertoire? That's a different question entirely. If this were an academic conference, Magundi would be asked to define his terms, but asking a question like that about a 300-word blog post is missing the point. (Indeed, you could argue that by writing as much as I already have about it, I have clearly missed the point as well.) I'll try to answer the question elliptically, though: would a "sane and healthy" person judge a piece of music according to his impression of it, or according to arbitrary a priori categories? Your answer to this question will determine whether or not you agree with Mr Magundi.


Kevin said...

I feel that I don't agree with Mr. Magundi. Wait! I meant "think"!

Thoughtful post. Keep up the good work.

Augustine said...

Mr. Magundi is obviously another blind follower of the 'classical canon'. If it isn't what has been heralded as great, he will not open his mind to it.
I listen to and LOVE serial music by Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, etc., so when people make ignorant comments deriding me as insane or stupid because of my taste, I take offense.

Inspector Clouseau said...

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Oliphant Chuckerbutty said...

I think it’s possible to write compelling atonal and serial music. It’s just more difficult. When the music is nearly 100% dissonant the composer loses the potential for tension and release that traditional audiences understand. He or she needs to organise the music in other ways, and listeners need acclimatisation to this musical language.

I found this blog looking for information on Osbert Parsley, and have found another person who enjoys using interesting composer names as online IDs. I’m sure there’s an Oswald von Wolkenstein out there somewhere!

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