The State of Modern Music

Today's practitioners of what we once called "modern" music are finding themselves to be suddenly alone. A bewildering backlash is set against any music making that requires the disciplines and tools of research for its genesis. Stories now circulate that amplify and magnify this troublesome trend. It once was that one could not even approach a major music school in the US unless well prepared to bear the commandments and tenets of serialism. When one hears now of professors shamelessly studying scores of Respighi in order to extract the magic of their mass audience appeal, we know there's a crisis. This crisis exists in the perceptions of even the most educated musicians. Composers today seem to be hiding from certain difficult truths regarding the creative process. They have abandoned their search for the tools that will help them create really striking and challenging listening experiences. I believe that is because they are confused about many notions in modern music making!

The most spectacular approach at that time was serialism, though, and not so much these (then-seeming) sidelights. It is this very approach -- serialism -- however, that after having seemingly opened so many new doors, germinated the very seeds of modern music's own demise. The method is highly prone to mechanical divinations. Consequently, it makes composition easy, like following a recipe. In serial composition, the less thoughtful composer seemingly can divert his/her soul away from the compositional process. Inspiration can be buried, as method reigns supreme. 

The replacement of sentimental romanticism with atonal music had been a crucial step in the extrication of music from a torpid cul-de-sac. A music that would closet itself in banal self-indulgence, such as what seemed to be occurring with romanticism, would decay. Here came a time for exploration. The new alternative --atonality -- arrived. It was the fresh, if seemingly harsh, antidote. Arnold Schonberg had saved music, for the time being. However, shortly thereafter, Schonberg made a serious tactical faux pas. 

Pause for a minute and think of two pieces of Schonberg that bring the problem to light: Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21 (1912 - pre-serial atonality) and the Suite, Op. 29 (1924 serial atonality). Pierrot... seems so vital, unchained, almost lunatic in its special frenzy, while the Suite sounds sterile, dry, forced. In the latter piece the excitement got lost. This is what serialism seems to have done to music. Yet the attention it received was all out of proportion to its generative power. Boulez once even proclaimed all other composition to be "useless"! If the 'disease' --serialism --was bad, one of its 'cures' --free chance --was worse. In a series of lectures in Darmstadt, Germany, in 1958, John Cage managed to prove that the outcome of music written by chance means differs very little from that written using serialism. However, chance seemed to leave the public bewildered and angry. Chance is chance. There is nothing on which to hold, nothing to guide the mind. Even powerful musical personalities, such as Cage's, often have trouble reining in the raging dispersions and diffusions that chance scatters, seemingly aimlessly. But, again, many schools, notably in the US, detected a sensation in the making with the entry of free chance into the music scene, and indeterminacy became a new mantra for anyone interested in creating something, anything, so long as it was new.

I believe parenthetically that one can concede Cage some quarter that one might be reluctant to cede to others. Often chance has become a citadel of lack of discipline in music. Too often I've seen this outcome in university classes in the US that 'teach 'found (!)' music. The rigor of discipline in music making should never be shunted away in search of a music that is 'found', rather than composed. However, in a most peculiar way, the power of Cage's personality, and his surprising sense of rigor and discipline seem to rescue his 'chance' art, where other composers simply flounder in the sea of uncertainty.

Still, as a solution to the rigor mortis so cosmically bequeathed to music by serial controls, chance is a very poor stepsister. The Cageian composer who can make chance music talk to the soul is a rare bird indeed. What seemed missing to many was the perfume that makes music so wonderfully evocative. The ambiance that a Debussy could evoke, or the fright that a Schonberg could invoke (or provoke), seemed to evaporate with the modern technocratic or free-spirited ways of the new musicians. Iannis Xenakis jolted the music world with the potent solution in the guise of a 'stochastic' music. As Xenakis' work would evolve later into excursions into connexity and disconnexity, providing a template for Julio Estrada's Continuum, the path toward re-introducing power, beauty and fragrance into sound became clear. All this in a 'modernist' conceptual approach!

Once again, though, the US university milieu took over (mostly under the stifling influence of the serial methodologist, Milton Babbitt) to remind us that it's not nice to make music by fashioning it through 'borrowings' from extra-musical disciplines. Throughout his book, Conversations with Xenakis, the author, Balint András Vargas, along with Xenakis, approaches the evolution of Xenakis' work from extra-musical considerations. Physical concepts are brought to bear, such as noise propagating through a crowd, or hail showering upon metal rooftops. Some relate to terrible war memories of experiences suffered by Xenakis, culminating in a serious wound. To shape such powerful sounds, concepts akin to natural phenomena had to be marshaled. From the standpoint of the musical classroom, two things about Xenakis are most troubling: one is his relative lack of formal musical training; the other, or flip side, is his scientifically oriented schooling background. In ways no one else in musical history had ever done, Xenakis marshaled concepts that gave birth to a musical atmosphere that no one had ever anticipated could exist in a musical setting. One most prominent feature is a sound setting that emulates Brownian movement of a particle on a liquid surface.

In their haste to keep musical things musical, and to rectify certain unwanted trends, the official musical intelligentsia, (the press, the US university elite, professors, etc.) managed to find a way to substitute false heroes for the troubling Xenakis. Around the time of Xenakis' entry into the musical scene, and his troubling promulgation of throbbing musical landscapes, attendant with sensational theories involving stochastic incarnations, a group of composers emerged who promised to deliver us from evil, with simple-minded solutions erected on shaky intuitional edifices. The so-called 'cluster' group of would-be musical sorcerers included Krzysztof Penderecki, Henryk Górecki and Gyorgy Ligeti. These new musical darlings, with their easy methodologies, gave us the first taste of the soon-to-emerge post-modernism that has posed as our ticket to the Promised Land for the last thirty years. It seemed that, just as music finally had a master of the caliber and importance of Bach, Schonberg, Bartok and Varese in the person of one Iannis Xenakis, history and musicology texts seemed not to be able to retreat quickly enough to embrace the new saviors, all the while conspiring against an all embracing creativity found fast, and well-embedded within the turmoil of the stochastic process.

Alas, Xenakis has been exiled from American history, as much as the powers have been able to do so! His competition, those in the intuitive cluster school, became the fixtures of the new musical landscape, because their art is so much easier than that of Xenakis. Ease of composing, of analyzing and of listening are the new bywords that signal success in the music world. Those who extol such virtues herald the arrival and flourishing of post-modernism and all its guises, be it neo-romantic, clustering or eclecticism. The proud cry these days, is "Now we can do about anything we wish." Better, perhaps, to do nothing than to embrace such intellectual cowardice.