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John Cage: Not playing "4.33" 

Modernity in music is a multi-faceted and complex phenomenon. The much-used "modernism" is also a catch-all definition which leaves questions still hanging in the air. It is, like socialism or spirituality, a word that can easily be hijacked by partisan voices that then claim ownership of it and thereafter imbue it with their own narrow, specific, pointed, sectarian and self-justifying aura. It has to be said that a particular kind of modernism, specific to certain places, times, ideologies and forceful personalities, has been sublimated into a paradigmatic position in our own time. 

A European modernism, with its roots in the Second Viennese School and developed by a small group of post-war composers in certain European towns and cities, has been given a special place in official understandings of the development of modern music. A message has gone out that composers, and indeed the musical public, should regard this sanctioned path as, not just the way forward, but the way things are and ought to be. State broadcasters, many sharing the aesthetic and political perspective of the composers themselves and their followers, give the oxygen of life, publicity and dissemination to this view of the musical present and future.

This has been especially the case in Germany and France, which are much more controlled by a centralised and top-down view of what high culture should be. A central, pivotal figure in this development is Pierre Boulez, composer, conductor and radically scathing polemicist, at least in his younger days. An Alpha male par excellence in the musical world, a powerful, driven figure, always manoeuvring politically and pushing boundaries imaginatively, he has never hidden his determination to put his biases into operation. It has been suggested that his influence on legions of third-rate imitators over the last few generations has been pernicious. Mediocre acolytes have been bedazzled by the master's encyclopaedic panoply of colouristic subtleties and rhythmic intricacies — so much so, that a lot of modern music is obsessed, fetishistically, with surface detail to the detriment, perhaps, of core profundities. 

Nevertheless, Boulez's influence on musical culture as a composer and a conductor has been powerful and meticulously plotted. His choice of repertoire is large and interesting, covering Berlioz, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Bartók, Schoenberg and Messiaen. Others are constantly and steadily added — Wagner, Mahler and some major contemporary figures such as Berio and Ligeti. But the omissions from this list are also fascinating and revealing. There is no Brahms and hardly any Schumann. He compares the latter unfavourably (justifiably so, perhaps) to Mendelssohn as showing "little invention and even little skill". Explaining his priorities, Boulez says: "There are composers who possess this gift of instrumental invention and others who, more or less, lack it...If you compare the symphonies of Brahms with the operas of Wagner solely from the viewpoint of is not bowled over by his [Brahms's] instrumental imagination."

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Michael Vincent Waller
June 9th, 2010
8:06 PM
You wrote a very compelling survey of the colliding aesthetic forces in 20th century sound. I would suspect there is one huge gap in your analysis: Spectralism! Which is in fact very religious music!! La Monte Young, Giacinto Scelsi, Gerard Grisey, Iannis Xenakis, Gyorgy Ligeti, James Tenney, Horatiu Radulescu, Kaija Saairaho, Iancu Dumitrescu. Even Stockhausen's STIMMUNG, and proto-spectralists Ravel, Cowell, Varese, Messiaen. I highly agree that "spirtualism" (and spectralism) was the driving trajectory of high art in the new world.

Daniel Lacey
January 31st, 2010
11:01 PM
The idea of modernity in music itself is a troubling one. When I have asked many 'musical modernists' in arguments how they would describe their music, they would say something along the lines of "It's modern, very modern, it's right on the cutting edge". Although this may be the case, the problem is that they are defining themselves by what is expected in their era, and not on an honest and sincere personal musicality. The problem that I see with most composers today is the problem with composers at the birth of Western Classical Music; they are restricted by what is expected. Although this modern music sounds completely free (listen to Boulez) in its chaos, it is the expectation of chaos which blinkers the artistic vision of composers and prevents them from creating anything that could be beautiful. Why did we start composing music, or creating art in the first place? The most ancient of reasons is that the art should praise God. However, sadly in this modern and secular society, the subject of religion is not popular enough to have such art taken seriously. Friedrich Nietzsche exclaimed "God is dead", and the majority of society went along with what he said. In the Romantic era of music, too, composers and artists were seperating themselves from God and religion, focusing more on 'the inner self'. The difference with the Modern and the Romantic eras, however, is that Romantic artists were creating for the same reason as their predecessors. Praising God was no doubt fuelled by genuine and deep-set emotions, showing the true voice of the soul. Romantic composers followed the same philosophy on music, and as such their music has a relevance in society. Even the strangest and most eccentric composer could show his soul as comparable to any other human being, because such art is truly human art. In most music of our era, the so-called 'revolutionaries' are missing the point of art. The are hopelessly clinging to this idea that there is something better in the future, and that we must continue to explore and experiment to find a modern relevance. Well, we've been searching for about 110 years now, and modern classical music has been becoming more and more obscure with the general public. This poses a question; why have we not found a light at the end of the tunnel? The problem is that we dug a tunnel in the first place. From Renaissance, to Baroque, to Classical to Romantic, the transitions have always been smooth, as the composers haven't been trying to force musical change; they just enjoy what is current and true. There isn't an obvious solution to the problems we face with music in our day and age. Pierre Boulez, who is now 85, will not have the courage to admit after all of this time that he has wasted his life with musical nonsense (this is, of course, considering that he every realises this). As such, the sheep who hang on his every word will also continue in their belief that we must focus on the cutting-edge. If there is an uncertain musician, it is only understandable that they may be influenced by such certain spoken words as "Any musician who has not experienced — I do not say understood, but truly experienced — the necessity of dodecaphonic music is USELESS. For his whole work is irrelevant to the needs of his epoch". We can only hope that composers such as myself stick to our beliefs that music is not something which should be created by an arsenal of techniques, but by pure emotion, and rings with the relevance of our fellow men and women. I know that I will do my part to protect music until my dying die. Please wish me luck.

December 14th, 2009
2:12 PM
i only like debussy and mendelsohn from the list.

November 24th, 2009
12:11 PM
CF - You don't recognise it because of your bias and blinkeredness. This article is fair and objective; it is not a kneejerk anti-modern music polemic. If anything, it's the opposite. I'm not surprised it isn't going down well with the usual 'maoist' types who usually expound on these matters! Has the worm finally turned?

Christopher Fox
November 18th, 2009
1:11 PM
I simply don't recognise the musical world described in this article which does no more than recycle complaints which first appeared during the William Glock era at the BBC.

Tony Fell
November 3rd, 2009
3:11 PM
The comment from the lion's den rather puzzled me. I didn't hear any disagreeable banging or grinding discords in the premieres of Ryan Wigglesworth, Ben Foskett, Anna Meredith,Unsuk Chin, Augusta Read Thomas or (least of all) Michael Nyman. God forbid that the sensitive inhabitants of the lion's den should be forced to listen to Gesualdo or Stravinsky.

Daniel Lionsden
November 2nd, 2009
11:11 AM
I have to agree with Mr Hughes and I am one of those starving composers he mentions. The postwar generation have succeeded in their aim of destroying the traditions of western music but have nothing to put in its place except musical gibberish. I agree also that the deliberately obscure and confrontational musical language of modernism is the new(ish) academicism, yet unrecognised as such by its deeply conservative (in the true sense) proponents, who still delude themselves that it is in any way dynamic or futuristic. The true radicals are those who attempt to reconcile music history with their own artistic vision, but these people will be ignored by the establishment for a long time yet. Even here, the conservatories are churning out composers who think that banging and grinding discords is what music is all about. You just have to hear virtually any BBC Proms new commission.

Laurence Hughes
October 30th, 2009
9:10 PM
A most valiant and generous-spirited article. However, I fear that the damage done by Boulez and his ilk is far deeper than you suppose, and has ensured that, with the exception of one or two names (plus some new music of the 'Classic FM' school), contemporary music is now a no-go area for the vast majority of music-lovers in Britain and elsewhere. And the fact is that about 95% or so of living classical composers in Britain are academics, and produce what is essentially academic music, whilst teaching their students to do the same thing. There are indeed some composers who don't subscribe to this tradition, but they are mostly languishing in obscurity and poverty. Meanwhile 'music' to the overwhelming mass of the populace nowadays simply means 'pop music' and nothing else.

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