I’ve read plenty of this sort of stuff before (I’ve even written some of it myself), and didn’t find much that was new or different. So I turned to the comments that readers had written in response, hoping to find something more interesting.
But there was one comment that especially caught my eye. A respondant writes: “The problem is modern classical music – which is mostly atonal crap, worse than the emperor's clothes. I tried, God knows I tried, but I could not bring myself to remotely like this ‘music.’”
I don’t know how old this man is, or what concerts he’s attended lately. But he seems convinced that the strange, angular and disjunct music of the prominent 20th-century modernists – Karlheinz Stockhausen, György Ligeti, Milton Babbit, etc. – is the “official” contemporary music of our time.
But wait a minute – the three composers I named above are all dead. Yes, there are some older modernists still at large, such as Pierre Boulez. And yes, there are also some younger composers who stand committed to the modernist ethos. But the generation that caused all the ruckus in the post-WWII decades is now quickly fading into the sunset. (I, for one, wish them bon voyage.)
And there are plenty of contemporary composers today who could hardly be called atonal: John Adams, Steve Reich, Arvo Pärt, Osvaldo Golijov, Giya Kancheli, and many others. Yet despite these recent trends, some people still rage on about the evils of “modern music,” as though time were stuck in the 1970s.
It’s not hard to find more of this kind of thinking: all you have to do is Google the words “hate-modern-music.” Here are some examples I found.
“Why does contemporary classical music spurn melody?” begins a 2011 article in the Christian Science Monitor, by Michael Fedo. It continues: “Proponents of modern symphonic music cast unhappy audiences as unenlightened. But for most listeners, music elicits emotional rather than intellectual responses. Certainly, classical music should should challenge and evoke. It just shouldn't sound like bus crashes.”
The last time I heard a piece by John Tavener, it was pure melody, from end to end. Bus crashes were conspicuously absent.
And here’s something from an article in London’s Telegraph, written in 2010: “Modern classical music is so widely disliked by audiences because the human brain struggles to find patterns it needs to understand the compositions as music.”
Huh? There are many pieces by Philip Glass that are nothing but patterns.
But clearly, when these writers speak of “modern classical music,” they’re speaking of modernism – especially “high” modernism. Either they don’t know much about what has come after modernism, or they have been taught (brainwashed?) to believe that post-modern developments somehow don’t count.
The high modernists failed to build an audience-base for their music large enough to call small. (“Tiny” and “miniscule” would be better words to use.) But they scored a brilliant public relations coup, successfully convincing the world that their music – love it or hate it – was the real thing. Confident that history was on their side, their message was loud and clear: they were writing an authentic new music that had to sound the way it did. Yet in so doing, their chief cultural impact was to alienate a generation of concert-goers – so thoroughly that, in the year 2014, contemporary composers still labour under a cloud of suspicion (whether they are modernists or not).
It seems to me that post-modern composers haven’t really tried to do much about this situation. They don’t appear to have the will or ability to grab the world by the lapels and declare, “Times have changed – and it is we who are writing the contemporary music of our era!”
Why hasn’t this happened? I don’t know – but until it does, post-modern composers will have to contend with a world hostile to them, for entirely out-dated and prejudicial reasons.
© Colin Eatock 2014