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Thread: Narratives of twentieth century music

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    Default Narratives of twentieth century music

    With apologies to everyone who, like myself, is irritated by a thread being posted on different boards, I paste here the thread I just started on another board. (I am so ashamed.)

    There are several narratives of twentieth century music, none of them quite complete, but maybe no narrative is ever quite that.

    The commonest, and the one implied in most posts about modern/avant garde/atonal/contemporary music, goes something like this:

    Sometime early in the century, Schoenberg made a radical break with the past, turning his back on tonality and all that implied and ushering in an age of academic dissonance and atonality, which alienated audiences everywhere.

    While serialism had a stranglehold on new music in the fifties and sixties, by the last couple of decades of the century, composers had rejected the intentionally ugly and inaccessible sounds of atonality for more audience friendly music. Tonality returned and by the twenty-first century, young composers were pluralists, using patterns and techniques from every era without dogmatism.

    A more detailed version of that might mention the populism of the thirties and forties, the minimalism of the sixties and beyond and would emphasize the contributions of non-serial composers like Shostakovich and Pettersson. The bulk of commentary would be heavily weighted toward the early years of the century, Debussy, Mahler, Sibelius, Stravinsky and the like.

    Even more well-known and popular is the narrative that starts the century with rag-time and moves into various kinds of jazz and Hollywood (easy listening) musics before 1950 and moving into rock and roll and then a bewildering variety of pop and c & w and hip-hop and metal and prog rock and the like by century's end.

    Neither of these narratives has anything to say about experimental or electroacoustic musics, though the words "experimental" and "electronic" have been co-opted by the popular music world, without any reference to their original designations. To get a narrative about those things, one has to look at a university textbook. Though the bulk of detail will still be about the early decades of the century, books for music classes will mention musique concrete and electronic music and possibly even synthesizer music and will also mention a few things about experimental music, though there might be some confusion even there about indeterminacy and aleatory. (They're not synonyms.)

    The second narrative needn't occupy our time very much, I don't think. Not on this forum, anyway, though a more complete narrative of art music would certainly include the people in rock, jazz, and classical traditions who had common interests and produced similar sounding results, people who often as not knew each other and worked together as well. A more complete narrative would talk about the phenomenon of collaboration, for that matter, which by century's end had become standard behavior for a wide range of new music musicians.

    A more complete narrative, what's more, would cover more of the century's prominent opposing pairs than tonality/atonality, which for many musicians was stale by 1939.

    Starting with 1939, a more complete narrative would include noise/music, intention/non-intention, simplicity/complexity, electroacoustic/electronic, acousmatic/soundscape, through-composed/improvisation (live electronics).

    The relative values of both composers and trends would change, too. Dodecaphony and, later, serialism were very important, but they were never ever the only thing, even at Darmstadt (where Cage and Tudor visited in the fifties). Things like Fluxus would be known and perhaps even be seen as closer to the center of things than some fringe activity that never really caught on. Dhomont and Ferrari and Radigue and Marclay would be much better known as well, as well known and as revered as Ligeti and Xenakis and Berio are now.

    Online conversations would no longer be dominated by ancient controversies (like the tonal/atonal one) and might even be able to eschew simple generalizations like the one about the dominance of serialism in the fifties and sixties. (Britten, Shostakovich, Vaughn-Williams, Jolivet, Barber, Dutilleux, Part, and Harris were all writing in the fifties and sixties, too, among other equally non-serial composers.)

    Hey! It could happen!!

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    Quote Originally Posted by some guy View Post
    Online conversations would no longer be dominated by ancient controversies (like the tonal/atonal one) and might even be able to eschew simple generalizations like the one about the dominance of serialism in the fifties and sixties. (Britten, Shostakovich, Vaughn-Williams, Jolivet, Barber, Dutilleux, Part, and Harris were all writing in the fifties and sixties, too, among other equally non-serial composers.)
    Interesting post, I agreed with some things, not others. You obviously put quite a bit of effort in it. I read it all.

    With the first part in the above quote, the atonal/tonal thing doesn't mean anything to me. It's a false dichotomy. Many of those on online forums. The other day I asked a friend, does he like Bach, Beethoven or Brahms the most. He literally said "I don't have to choose, I like them all." It's the same thing with the atonal/tonal issue, it's really not an issue in real life, not where I am, anyway.

    As for the second part. It's not that there were nothing else happening except serialist in the 1950's & '60's. That would be totally wrong. The issue was that a number of theorists then rubbished tonal or melodic music - creating yet another false dichotomy. The things we all know here. Eg. Adorno saying Sibelius was horrible. Boulez saying composers not using the techniques he valued (incl. serialism) being "useless." I also think Boulez said Shostakovich was bad Mahler rehash or something like that. ARnold Whittall making spurious value judgements presenting them as fact - eg. him saying Bartok's first three quartets were better than the last three. The ideology behind that is that in the last three, Bartok returned to more traditional counterpoint and melody, structure, etc. Also the BBC giving modern tonal composers like Malcolm ARnold the cold shoulder at that time. Benjamin Britten reputedly had enough of the politics of London's music scene, his opinion of these serialist idolators would not have been good, and he set up his own festival at Aldeburgh, which I think is in Suffolk. You had to get away from the dogma and all the cliques.

    This is the issue. There were modern tonal composers around then. So too, there were guys like Carter, or Stravinsky in his later works, who applied serialist techniques, but flexibly and not to the rigid or strict rules. Eg. they had time for serialism, but not "total" serialism, controlling too many elements of their artistic expression. & of course, guys like Xenakis or Partch who saw it as totally irrelevant to their needs. There was diversity then, but it was not acknowledged by the scholarly elite, or a good deal of them. They were stuck in their cliques.

    In Australia, elements of this survived until the 1990's. Richard Mills, a modern tonal composer, composed a moving tribute to his friend and colleague, the conductor Stuart Challender, who died of AIDS in the early 1990's. Maestro Challender did a lot for music in this country, including new music. But in response to Mills' piece called Tenebrae, a lament for his friend who he saw just before he died, the serialist/atonalist dinosaurs attacked the music for having melody and emotion.

    Now thankfully, this kind of rubbish is all gone. These people, if they did it now, would be called dinosaurs (which they were). Incidentally, Maestro Challender would have had none of that (spinning in his grave?), he bought things like Elliott Carter's music for the first time to this country and performed new music by our own composers. He was not a dogmatist, the best conductors have no time for that bullsh*t.

    Basically, it's not about dogma not being there now, everyone has their own ideology. It's just that now, good writers on music expose themselves, expose their own ideologies. Of course some don't, but I don't respect them, I don't care what they say. Writers on music like adopted Australian (he's originally from the UK) Andrew Ford - a composer and broadcaster to boot - give value and options to the listener. He wouldn't say something like Bartok's first three quartets are better than his last three. That's up to the listener to decide. A good writer on music will respect the intelligence of the listener and give them options, not dogmatic judgements.

    So again, it's that music is of more value, more relevance, than ideology - which if taken too far, eclipses the music at hand and turns easily into rigid dogmas which are hard to break. &, those high priests of the 1950's/60's, like any high priest taking high moral ground, the highbrows, did and do NOTHING to further the causes they espouse. Quite the contrary, they turn people off big time. They were called the "new fascists" by some.

    Maybe that's going too far, but the likes of Adorno and Whittall were fine writers on music, but pity their own ideology should be taken with a huge grain of salt. A writer on music should aim at bringing people into the fold of contemporary classical, not alienating a large part of the middle ground of the audience (or potential audience). Nobody should feel guity of listening to Sibelius or Shostakovich for being melodic but still modern. Composers are free to use and value what techniques they want. Negating these freedoms is a superficial assessment of the music or the listeners or composers at best...
    Last edited by Sid James; Jan-03-2012 at 07:45. Reason: changed added bits...more stuff...

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