Thursday, August 15, 2013

Definition of Modernism / Modernist in Concert Music

There's some discussion on David Bratman's recent SFCV Cabrillo review of the term "modernist," after David called Magnus Lindberg a modernist. I dunno, I can't make that fit, largely because I think of modernists as composers who use rigorous formal compositional organizing techniques, or something like that. Serialists, and non-serialists such as Carter, are who I think of as modernists, or at least "high modernists," when it comes to, say, Boulez, Babbitt, Carter, etc. Lindberg certainly isn't in that camp.

Please discuss; all comments welcome.


Tom DePlonty said...

"Modernism" brings to mind the visual arts in the early-20th century. The application of the word to music has always seemed awkward to me, at best - it's vague to begin with, doubly so when what is "not modern" is left unspecified.

But I would sooner think of Stravinsky as being a "modernist" than your rigorous pre-composers. And by the time we get to Lindberg we're way past it, whatever it was.

Joshua Kosman said...

I think modernism is best thought of not as a stylistic category, and certainly not a chronological one (which is the only way I can think of to make sense of David Bratman's assertion that Strauss is a modernist "by definition"), but as an aesthetic philosophy. It's the view that treats artistic (musical) history as a one-way street, in which creation must always move forward, and anything that seems to hark back to earlier styles is suspect or dismissable. The "been there, done that" sneer that greeted the arrival of Glass and Reich is the epitome of the modernist world view.

By this account, Wagner and Liszt, with their "Music of the Future," are proto-modernists, or modernists avant la lettre; Schoenberg is the founding father; Boulez and Stockhausen at the height of their postwar arrogance represent the moment of peak decadence; and Carter and those fellas are just happily pursuing a little modernist cottage industry.

Stravinsky is, or rather was, modern, in a blandly chronological sense; but you can't really compose Pulcinella and be a modernist. The "-ist" in "modernist" is pretty analogous to the ones in "Islamist" and "Christianist"; it denotes a view about hegemony.

David Bratman said...

Here's my original comment, before other replies, that I couldn't post before:

Modernism comes in multiple forms; "high modernism" (distinguished by that adjective) is just one, although one of its salient characteristics is a refusal to admit the existence of any others. I can't believe in a definition of modernism that excludes, say, Richard Strauss, though he doesn't fit your description. In the current context, I see the fundamental divide as between postmodernists, who accept, or at least start from the premises of, a compositional ethos that hardly existed, a few eccentrics aside, before 1960 (and of which stasis is just the most prominent, though not the only or even an essential, element), and modernists, who are those who sail on in one of the traditions of the earlier 20C modernists, as if that revolution never happened - the same way that, in an earlier time, Rachmaninoff was a Romantic who sailed on in the tradition of the 19C Romantics as if the revolutions of the 1890-1920 period never happened.

David Bratman said...

Tom DePlonty: I'd say that the music world had the same argument over numerous other terms borrowed from the visual arts, including "minimalism" (a term which most of the relevant composers don't like), "Impressionism" (a term Debussy didn't like), and even "Baroque" (and I'm guessing that's a term J.S. Bach wouldn't have liked). I think we just have to live with the terminology. You're fighting a rearguard action more hopeless than anything I'm doing, if you try to deprecate "modernism" as a musical term.

David Bratman said...

I entirely agree with Joshua Kosman that musical categories of this kind are fundamentally aesthetic philosophies, though they then express themselves stylistically. I certainly don't think of them as chronological. The composer of Salome and Elektra brought the aesthetics of modernism to his work.

Similarly, though he claims that a composer who could write Pulcinella can't be a modernist, I'd say that a composer who could write Le Sacre or Agon couldn't be anything else. (Actually, revamping older music was an ordinary modernist procedure - it was hardly a Romantic one - practiced by Schoenberg and Webern among others. And what Stravinsky did with his source material in Pulcinella seems perfectly modernist.)

Joshua Kosman said...

David, I would respectfully suggest that you've got things precisely backwards, because you're overlooking the (apologies for the buzzword) hegemonic element inherent in modernism as a philosophy. Anyone can write Elektra or Agon; the modernist view is that you must.

Or to put it another way, modernism is defined by what it excludes rather than what it includes. So my argument is exactly the flip of yours: not that anyone who could write Elektra or Agon can only be considered a modernist, but that no one who could compose Ariadne or the Four Last Songs, or The Rake's Progress or the Violin Concerto (if those are better examples than Pulcinella), could be considered one.

Incidentally: One of my many beefs with modernism and modernists is the tendency to conflate "innovative" or "inventive" or "revolutionary" with "modernist." That won't do at all. I don't think you're doing that, exactly, but you're sure tiptoeing around it :)

David Bratman said...

Joshua: No, I entirely disagree. I already referred, in my first comment, to that hegemonic element in what Lisa called "high modernism," but it only fits that subcategory. The hegemonic view was originally the serialists' (and even Schoenberg didn't really believe it, despite some of his rhetoric) and didn't become widespread until after WW2 when Boulez started spreading it around. Do you mean to exclude all non-serialist pre-WW2 music from modernism?

Blimey, the Stravinsky Violin Concerto sounds perfectly modernist to me. I don't know what else you'd call it.

You're right to notice an implied conflation of "innovative" et al with "modernism." You have that beef with the modernists because that is what they actually believe. The aesthetic philosophy that marked the birth of modernism in 1890-1920 was, not hegemony, but épater la bourgeoisie. Others had shocked the bourgeois before, but nobody (maybe Wagner, but only to an extent) had held it up as an inherent virtue in itself. The modernists did.

Tom DePlonty said...

Joshua - by the "hegemonic" definition, were there really any modernists until after World War II? I struggle with that. And I'm reluctant to use a word that puts the Second Viennese composers and the post-war serialists in the same bag. I'm just not sure that aesthetically they really have much to do with one another. (But that just might go back to my disliking the word on the grounds of its extreme vagueness.)

Anonymous said...


When, exactly, did new music start to be a problem? In the 20th century, of course, with the rise of modernism. "Modern music" -- they even had to have a special term for it -- didn't sound like anything that came before. It typically was noisy, reflecting not passion, nor the depths of religious awe, nor the beauties of nature, but instead the sounds and scenes of modern life, like cities, machinery, and increasingly ugly wars. It opened new views of cultures distant from our own. And it criticized the music audience. "Your taste is terrible!" it seemed to say (especially when its composers spoke these thoughts
out loud). "You like romantic, sentimental junk!"

It's no surprise, then, that many people hated modern music when it was new. But why have so many of us gone on hating it?

Hardly anybody still hates modern art; think of that big New York museum, and the lines around the block for Jackson Pollock. But modern music -- despite the welcome success of Bartok and a few
Stravinsky works; things do sometimes change, even in classical concerts -- still seems tricky.

For almost a century now, the mainstream audience has gotten just a little tense whenever new music looms. "Watch out for that! Its dissonant and ugly! Its not what we come to concerts for." We ought to grant that there's some truth in that. Some modernist music seems really strange. Twelve-tone music, for example, inevitably comes off as abstract, creepy, and little mechanical. What was Schoenberg doing, putting all the notes in arbitrary rows? The serial music that came after him (with rhythms and even degrees of loudness arranged in abstract patterns) inevitably, for just the same reasons, seems even worse.

We also ought to understand that the good people who love classical music -- who listen to it on the radio, buy CDs, and go to concerts -- aren't, not even remotely, the right audience for truly high-art modernism. And they wouldn't be, even if new music were as easily accepted as new novels or new plays. Those regional theaters aren't do
ing modernist plays by Samuel Beckett; they're mostly staging plays by modern realists, like August Wilson.

And if theaters -- in spaces that typically seat less than a thousand people -- don't do high-art modernism, why should orchestras, playing in much larger halls, expect a sympathetic audience for Elliott Carter?

It just won't happen.

But still there are mysteries. The people in our audience really are conservative. Music doesn't have to be high-art modernist to bother them. They're uneasy, far too often, if they don't think a piece is beautiful -- and the standards of beauty they apply are from another age. That doesn't happen much in other arts. We have gritty plays and movies; gritty novels; gritty pop songs by the thousand (including rap, metal, and techno tracks far more edgy than just about anything by any classical composer). Jackson Pollock's splatters can draw large and eager crowds, but their musical equivalent -- or at least their equivalent in classical music -- has to tiptoe in the concert hall.

Classical music has become a refuge, or so it seems, for aesthetic conservatives; studies show that people like it, by and large, because it's moving or inspiring, not because it ma
kes them think, takes them to new places, or offers any kind of chal
lenge or surprise.

Is that because music -- as one musicologist I know suggests -- evokes more emotion than any other art? But if that's true, why do jazz fans so deeply love Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk, all of them 1950s modernists? Why does Radiohead, a modernist band, sell so many records?

Why do people dance to screeching techno tracks?


Lisa Hirsch said...

Hi, Nicholas!

I believe that a look at "A Lexicon of Musical Invective" might change your might on the idea that new music only became a problem in the 20th century.

Also, you're speaking in generalizations. Please name specific works and composers if you're going to claim "modern music" (or maybe modernist music) is noisy, doesn't reflect passion, etc. It's very hard to respond without knowing which music you're discussing.

For example, you say that "Twelve-tone music inevitably comes off as abstract, creepy, and [a] little mechanical." That is your view. It is not mine. I don't find Wozzeck or any of the Carter quartets (for example) creepy or a little mechanical. Yes, there's some abstraction in Carter (and Berg!) but there are also beautiful sonorities and brilliant rhythms.

As for new music....that term seems to cover everything from Bartok and Stravinsky to Philip Glass, and audiences don't actually cringe and run off from all composers of the last century.

Carter's music has gotten some mighty applause in Carnegie Hall and Boston Symphony Hall in the last few years. I wouldn't count high modernism out just yet.

Daniel Wolf said...

While I'm far from ready to risk making a definition of modernism, I believe mine would begin with a conscious relationship to music history rather than from a technical definition. Quite a bit of music that has less rigorous organizational aspects is also music that belongs unquestionably to a modernist project.

That said, Lindberg certainly uses rigorous pre-compositional planning for both his forms and materials and, often, rather sophisticated algorithms for the deployment of those materials, so I'd say he fits your definition fairly well.

Henry Holland said...

Why do people dance to screeching techno tracks?

Drugs. Seriously. I'm a huge fan of the psy trance and Goa Trance styles of EDM and the combination of a kickin' track by Astral Projection or Hallucinogen or Armin van Buuren (among many) + a good light show + good psychedelics can be pure bliss.

As for why classical/orchestral audiences are so conservative, I give up. Fine, Boulez and Birtwistle and Pintscher and Nono and so on aren't for everyone, but guess what? It's easy to never hear a note of their music, either on the radio, on records or in the concert hall. They certainly aren't played on any classical radio station I'm familiar with, and if orchestras like the LAP or SFO program them, it's typical "Oh god, let's get our commitment to New Music out of the way so we can play Brahms" short pieces.

To be blunt, I think orchestral music survives *in spite* of its audience.

Henry Holland said...

Can we stop this meme that only "Modernists" use strict rules for their compositions? I certainly remember spending more than a few hours as a first year composition student going nuts because I had to check off a list of rules to make sure I didn't get my work returned covered with red pencil marks: proper leading voices, no doubling of fifths, bass in the correct position etc.

I only took composition classes to improve my pop songwriting, but what is Bach but a series of (mostly) strict rules and techniques? One could easily write a pleasing fugue just following The Rules, but there's this silly idea that Bach and Mozart and Beethoven and so on just had music gifted to them by God, they were merely vessels, whereas Boulez etc. are cold, unfeeling technicians.

John Marcher said...

This is quite an interesting discussion. While I intuitively agree with Josh’s definition that Modernism can be more accurately defined by what is excluded rather than what is included, to say Strauss wasn’t a Modernist because of Ariadne, Four Last Songs, or The Rake’s Progress seems quite wrong to me- akin to saying Joyce isn’t a Modernist because of Dubliners. The Strauss who composed Elektra and Salome most certainly is a Modernist. How to reconcile that he chose to follow them with Rosenkavalier is something I find pretty fascinating, and view that particular opera as a quiet conversation between Strauss the Romantic and Strauss the Modernist (frankly, I’m pleased both exist). I’d also point out Schoenberg could do Romantic quite convincingly when the mood struck him.

Modernism is an interpretation of form, and as such it acknowledges the past while discarding or breaking its rules. However, mastery of form is essential before one can successfully break it- Strauss and Schoenberg are perfect examples of this in music, as are Picasso, Manet, Woolf, Faulkner and Joyce in their own milieus . My definition/interpretation excludes Wagner and Liszt as unwilling to break something, and excludes Glass and Stockhausen for their unwillingness to acknowledge the past, which makes them decidedly Postmodern (like the majority of interesting art created after WWII).

Steve Hicken said...

I would agree with Daniel that Lindbergh's music partakes, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the piece, of the attitudes and/or techniques of Modernism.

I'm glad to see Daniel here, because any discussion of Modernism inevitably includes a healthy (actually unhealthy) dose of style wars rhetoric, and I'm always reminded of Daniel's statement that the style wars were won, years ago, by Midwestern-trained composers of band music.

I would not try to define Modernism, as such, but there are a few animating ideas behind it that might be useful to keep in mind. First is the idea of always making it new--this sometimes leads, of course, to originality for the sake of originality, but that's only a negative when the work has nothing else going for it.

Of more substance: 1) Modernism replaces the continuity of 19th century thought with discontinuity. The clearest example of this on the macro level is the grammar of film, with its cross-cutting and montage techniques. On a micro level, film is discontinuous because the there are only 24 frames per second, and continuous reality is made of an infinite number of "frames" per second. 2) Modernism moves through probability, as opposed to the determinism that was the mode of discourse in earlier eras. This leads to a greater number of events that can occur next to or after others, as opposed to a deterministic universe.

This is, of course, and extremely generalized idea.

John Marcher said...

Lisa pointed out an error in my previous comment- I meant to write Rosenkavalier in place of Rake in the list of non-Modernist Strauss works. Regarding Stravinsky, I just can't comfortably label him as a Modernist, though their influence is certainly present in his work -often quite successfully. But that's what I hear- influence.

Steve Hicken said...

People are Moderns; works are Modernist.

Colin Eatock said...

Yes, modernism has philosophical underpinnings.

But modernism in music also has clear stylistic features.

Here are some of the features of modernist style.

- Dissonance
- Tonality is ambiguous, confused or effaced entirely
- Major and minor chords are avoided or forbidden
- No accompaniment figuration allowed
- Rhythms are obscure, complex or irregular
- Heterogenous textures
- The more “extended techniques” the better
- No repetition: works are through-composed

Lisa Hirsch said...

Forbidden / not allowed? They forgot to show me these rules when I was in school.

Steve Hicken said...

Most composers make their own rules for themselves; often on a piece-by-piece basis.. I can't think of any work to which the list Mr. Eatock applies in toto.

Tom DePlonty said...

I like the list, because it's fun to try to come up with counterexamples. Here's mine: Birtwistle's Punch and Judy contains gobs of repetition.

Steve Hicken said...

Very good point, Tom.

bgn said...

Here's what I don't get. In literary circles, we refer to all kinds of writers as modernists--James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Bertolt Brecht, Wallace Stevens, even Langston Hughes. Yet in musical circles, the tendency more and more is to restrict the definition to the Second Viennese School and its disciples. What is the difference between literature and music in that respect?

Henry Holland said...

- Dissonance

You mean like the 9 note chord in the first movement of the Mahler 10th? Scriabin would also like a word with you.

- Tonality is ambiguous, confused or effaced entirely

Define tonality. There's plenty of Schreker, Scriabin and Korngold that I could point out that fits those criteria and I doubt anyone thinks Korngold is a "modernist".

- Major and minor chords are avoided or forbidden

If you look at the Wozzeck score, it's often M, m, aug & dim chords stacked on top of each other. There's also the famous sequence of C major chords when Wozzeck gives Marie the money he's earned.

- No accompaniment figuration allowed

I'm sure Pierre Boulez would have been surprised to hear that when he wrote his glorious Repons.

- Rhythms are obscure, complex or irregular

Not everything has to be bel canto rum-ti-tum, you know. Again, layering of rhythms was done before Boulez and Stockhausen were born.

- Heterogenous textures

Baroque opera sounds hetegenous to me, mileage varies.

- The more “extended techniques” the better

The poor bassoon player in Le Sacre du Printemps!

- No repetition: works are through-composed

There's plenty of repetition in Moses und Aron.

Jeff Dunn said...

Modernism is a difficult concept to pin down, because there are so many 20th-century trends that are incorporated to a greater or lesser degree in pieces labeled so. It's rather like naming igneous rock types, where scientists today have settled on percentage of mineral content in the face of the huge range of naturally-occurring combinations of elements.

Everyone interested in this topic should read Leon Botstein's article on the subject in the New Grove before deciding which strand--or period as well--of Modernism to complain about or defend. Here's a short bit:

"Normative expectations regarding beauty in sound and timbre and meaning in musical expression were confronted, especially in matters of orchestration, the use of instruments and the voice vis-à-vis the techniques of post-Wagnerian composition. The link between music and narration particularly came under scrutiny. Modernity demanded the shattering of expectations, conventions, categories, boundaries and limits as well as empirical experimentation (following the example of science) and the confident exploration of the new. This would inspire the continuing search during the century for new systems of pitch organization as alternatives to tonality, and for new instruments."

To me, the real subject of musical discussion should be: How do we feel when we listen to X or Y and what do we like or dislike about it. I find it so sad that people are incredulous that anyone could be moved by Carter because they themselves are not. We are far more aware of racism today than the fact that two people can perceive music in radically different ways based on social experience, knowledge, and genetics.

I'd like to refer to one earlier comment, that we don't have as much trouble appreciating modern art today as some do modern music. I would submit that the development of photography created a lesser need to seek out realism in art. We cannot properly imagine the thrill of seeing paintings in the era before photography. Remarkably, the development of recorded music is not very analogous, though it may have turned some away from live concerts. Few go to watch painters paint, but many like to watch musicians. It's also interesting that the ability to listen to high modernist pieces via recordings over and over again has had only limited success in increasing the segment of the listening population that loves the style.

Henry Holland said...

It's also interesting that the ability to listen to high modernist pieces via recordings over and over again has had only limited success in increasing the segment of the listening population that loves the style

It's pretty simple, isn't it? Listening to Le Marteu sans Maitre isn't for everyone, by its very nature it's for a limited audience, just as death-metal and hardcore punk bands are. And that's OK! Post-tonal music is never going to be popular with people that think music died with Verdi and Brahms, and again, that's OK!

I just wish that people like me who do love their Boulez and Pintscher and Birtwistle would be catered to.

First off, don't program a, say, Mozart violin concerto amidst an otherwise all post-tonal program. It's jarring and it's pandering.

Secondly, accept the fact that you're going to get 1,000 people for one concert, not fill Disney Hall 4 times like you would with The Dude conducting Tchaikovsky.

Tom DePlonty said...

Just a spoon, full, of Mozart
makes the Fernyhough! go down!
the Fernyhough! go down!