I came across this article today, by Alex Ross: “Why do we hate modern classical music?” In it, Ross describes the seemingly always-new problem of audiences’ reception to new music:
For decades, critics, historians and even neuroscientists have been pondering the question of why so-called modern music seems to perplex the average listener. After all, adventurous artists in other fields have met with a very different reception. The highest-priced painting in history is Jackson Pollock’s swirlingly abstract No 5, 1948, which sold in 2006 for $140m. Tycoons and emirs covet avant garde architects. James Joyce’s Ulysses inspires worldwide drinking parties every 16 June.
And he’s right. Classical musicians have been scratching our heads at this paradox ever since it became ultra-fashionable to adore abstract expressionism.
The article itself didn’t really do it for me, because it’s a song we’ve heard for a long time, just Alex Ross’s cover. What got me thinking was one of the comments:
…BTW the music of the 1950s Darmstadt generation isn’t “modern” any more. It’s of it’s [sic] time.
“Of its time.” The phrase has stuck with me all afternoon. Even another commenter used the same phrase…y’know, before lapsing into some racist argument about Chinese composers studying in Paris (Whattya want, folks? It’s a comment section. On the Internet.).
I really do think that “of its time” is the best description for the mid-century “modern” music in question. Now, as a composer, I feel that I’m supposed to be advocating for this specific music, and reminding people that it’s important, and that it has meaning, but since you won’t put in the effort, you won’t be able to grasp what that meaning is. Just like, I’m sure, racist commenter’s family has to keep reminding themselves that even though he might let something crazy slip out of his mouth around the Thanksgiving dinner table, we have to tell cousin Bob’s new girlfriend that racist commenter is really a nice guy, you just have to keep listening to him until you stop being offended by what he has to say!
When I was young, I really didn’t like mid-century music. Of course, what few composer colleagues I had assured me that the reason I didn’t like it was because I was some uncultured hick from New Hampshire. But then I went to college, studied it, and listened to a lot of this music, and gained an appreciation for it, but the truth is, I never really liked it, nor have I ever grown to like it. There are parts of it, techniques of it, orchestration ideas of the mid-century that I really like, but the actual musical products themselves simply don’t do it for me. I guess I’m just a big pussy, right? (I’m sure Ives would revoke my “man card” for this! Whatever, it’s not like I was using it for anything…)
According to composers of the previous generation, the fact that I can not like this music is evidence of their victory in an ideological war with their forbears: “Back in my day,” they say, “we weren’t allowed to not like modernism. You had to love it, or the composer gestapo would come and take you away in the night!”
Not being wicked into this music still has repercussions today, despite the Great Postmodern Leveling of Taste. Like any “difficult” music, there are people out there who use it as a badge of honor, which is a stupid thing for music to be. Just because you like something that not a lot of people like, it doesn’t prove that you have superior taste, or make you smarter or better cultured than anyone else. That Postmodernism thing works both ways, remember? Treating modernist music like a club or an enclave reduces the meaning of music down to some meme on 4chan, and its admirers just some sad kids looking to be in on something, like drama club or marching band.
The other thing that gets me is that I find that a lot of “new music” specialists/performers really aren’t interested in new music, so much as they are interested in modernist music. Classical music has moved in 1000000000000 different directions since the middle of the Twentieth Century, yet some people won’t look at a piece unless it’s got the requisite alternate notation or number of alternate techniques. And there’s nothing wrong with this at all! I just wish that the performers that want to play only this kind of material would call a spade a spade. Just like early music specialists, let’s call those who want to devote themselves to this music twentieth-century music specialists. Save the new part for people who are really working on something new.
I’m not advocating some kind of backward slide into the romantic (which is the slippery slope argument for most modernist music enthusiasts, for those who haven’t had that conversation yet). If anything, I’m advocating for that age-old musical trend of synthesis. We live in a moment of unparalleled access to every bit of music in history. I don’t see why we aren’t using all of it. You would think that, now that new music has become old, we’d stop caring about that.
This modernist thing is just one hyperbolic stereotype amongst a sea of hyperbolic stereotypes. You can argue (very convincingly) that even the reactionary movements to modernist music have become played out. Personally, I kinda feel that minimalism/post-minimalism has hit that territory. You could even say that about the rock’n roll composers of the 1980s/90s. Maybe we’re in a unique position in history, where we have to wait for the next big thing to hit. Or maybe, we’re in a different unique place in history where we’re so painfully aware of what’s going on that everything seems worn and done. I’m curious, and mostly optimistic about whatever’s coming down the pipeline, though.