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Thread: What does “modern” mean?

  1. #31
    Senior Member Woodduck's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by millionrainbows View Post
    I'm just making general statements. That's why I used the term "basically." I stand behind that statement. This demand for all-encompassing definitions is just a debate technique, and I'm not interested in that. I'm simply stating some general facts about modernism and modern musical thought.

    Among the many ways of modern musical thinking, here are a few concepts: The use of tritones, dividing the octave at the tritone, use of small intervals such as major and minor 3rds and seconds as root stations, rather than 4ths and fifths, abandonment of scale function in chords, creation of "artificial" harmonic functions using exotic or 'artificial' scales, interval projection to create scales, etc.

    But if there's anything the slightest bit incomplete or unsatisfying in my replies, Woodduck, please don't hesitate to amplify it to the Nth degree.
    See? I just knew you knew more than you were pretending to.

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  3. #32
    Senior Member Weird Heather's Avatar
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    Warning - long post ahead.

    "Modern" is an extremely difficult and vague term. Part of the problem is that it has different meanings depending on the context and on who is discussing it. To the lay person, it generally refers to a time period close to and encompassing the present day. However, within the academic community, the definition is somewhat less vague, as anyone who has had formal education in the arts and humanities (especially regarding the period from the late 1800s to the present day) will be aware. Although I don't have formal music education beyond a couple music appreciation classes and some beginner-level viola lessons, I have studied literature, and my specialization is the modern and postmodern periods. I have observed a number of parallels between literature and music; perhaps a little discussion from the standpoint of literature can help to illuminate the issue, or perhaps more likely, confuse it further and cause pointless arguments to break out.

    In literature (at least within the English/American academic tradition), modernism usually refers to the period between the late 1800s and approximately World War II when, as with music, literary conventions that had been established during the 18th and 19th Centuries were called into question, challenged, and torn apart in various ways. This should sound familiar - precisely the same thing happened with music. Additionally, popular literature gradually became divorced from the more difficult avant-garde and academic styles, a trend that continues to this day. Again, this should sound familiar. In literature, as in music, there was no single modernist movement; there was a great deal of variety in style and in the conventions writers chose to question. Some tore words, sentences, and grammar apart (i.e. Gertrude Stein), while others explored new possibilities in modes of narration, such as stream of consciousness (i.e. Virginia Woolf). As with the music, much of this writing can be difficult and inaccessible, while some of it is easy to read and interpret despite its break with the past.

    Some of the initial stirrings of modernism in literature have direct contact with the world of music. Debussy's "Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune" has been mentioned in this thread as one of these early stirrings of modernism. When I took an introductory class on modernism, one of the first things we read in the class was "L'après-midi d'un faune" by Stéphane Mallarmé, the poem which inspired Debussy's music. (Anyone who likes Debussy's music should read this poem; the original French version and English translations should be easy enough to find online.) As with the music, the poem is seen in the academic community as one of the early stirrings of modernism.

    After World War II, things really start to get strange. There seems to be a change in direction, but unfortunately the word "modern" has already been associated with a particular time period that has come to a close and is receding into the past. The term "postmodern" has come into wide use for this period, which continues to the present day. I have never liked that word, but I have a hard time coming up with an alternative. Some people use "contemporary" but that risks the same problem that messed up the word "modern." What happens when things change again? Is the next period going to be called "postcontemporary" or "postpostmodern?" The terminology could become as absurd as some of the works of art that it describes.

    Again, the postmodern period in literature seems to show parallels to trends in music. In literature, fragmentation of styles has continued, and pretty much anything goes as long as the right people (i.e. influential professors and editors of academic journals) find it interesting. Deconstruction is a big influence. Also, there are literary parallels to conceptual art such as John Cage's 4'33". Synthesis of different styles and different forms of media is also quite prevalent. A work of literature no longer necessarily has to reside in a printed book, and literature can be merged with other forms of art. I suppose my explorations of this crazy world explain why I find works like Stockhausen's Helicopter Quartet to be a completely reasonable form of artistic expression, and the idea of 4'33" makes perfect sense to me. I think we see a similar fragmentation in music, with numerous styles and influences all competing, coexisting, merging, and diverging. Every composer is an individual, and the notion of a single set of rules and conventions governing music has become obsolete.

    And meanwhile, popular authors continue writing happily within the 18th/19th Century conventions, with at most modest influence from modernist and postmodern trends, and their works outsell the weird stuff by considerable numbers. I suppose music is a rough parallel too - popular music remains firmly ensconced in the tonal system and appeals to a wide audience, while postmodern classical music is a small niche. I love the craziness and variety of the modern and postmodern periods in both literature and music, but I can certainly understand why some of this material appeals to limited audiences.

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  5. #33
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    Modern in the context of classical, means exciting rather than dry and boring, as old classical is pop music in every way

  6. #34
    Senior Member Woodduck's Avatar
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    Distinguishing "modern" from "postmodern" is problematic. I think it's mainly a matter of ideology. Modernists generally believed in a cause, socially significant and transcending their individual efforts; hence their intense consciousness of being "modern." Postmodernists don't believe in causes, except the cause of discrediting all causes. I suspect that lately they've given up even that.
    Last edited by Woodduck; Jun-14-2018 at 05:03.

  7. #35
    Senior Member St Matthew's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Woodduck View Post
    Distinguishing "modern" from "postmodern" is problematic. I think it's mainly a matter of ideology. Modernists generally believed in a cause, socially significant and transcending their individual efforts; hence their intense consciousness of being "modern." Postmodernists don't believe in causes, except the cause of discrediting all causes. I suspect that lately they've given up even that.
    Don't get post-modern politics confused with art, music in particular. Though this is often the case with visual art (galleries in particular, which seem to be a monetary system), I have never been able to see it as the case with 'post-modern' music.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Weird Heather View Post
    popular music remains firmly ensconced in the tonal system and appeals to a wide audience, while postmodern classical music is a small niche. I love the craziness and variety of the modern and postmodern periods in both literature and music, but I can certainly understand why some of this material appeals to limited audiences.
    I agree with everything you have written in your long post but I'd like to focus on the differences in the two fields (literature and music).
    You can see it in this forum, you can see it in real life, a classical music listener will feel entitled to ridicule modern music, in most cases those same persons when it comes to literature even if in their whole life will never read/appreciate a page written by Proust/Wolff/Faulkner they will never dare to ridicule modern literature. This cultural fracture is even more evident in painting, being modern doesn't preclude Van Gogh from being a pop star, maybe the greatest pop star in painting.
    So if we look at the general public acceptance of modernism in music, literature and painting we have in order:
    - an arrogant and guiltless rejection of modernism
    - a humble genuflection in front of its academically sanctioned status
    - an enthusiastic acceptance of the new language
    so in the end we could say that modern music is the music which the layman feels entitled to ridicule, modern literature is the one that the layman will never disrespect, modern painting is a cupboard full of mugs "reproducing" works by Van Gogh and Picasso
    the way I see it, what is modern in music can be readily identified looking at the general public reaction to it, what could be really interesting is to investigate the reasons that bring the general public to having different reactions toward modernism in the three art fields discussed above.
    Last edited by Madiel; Jun-14-2018 at 09:42.

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  10. #37
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    Quote Originally Posted by Madiel View Post
    I agree with everything you have written in your long post but I'd like to focus on the differences in the two fields (literature and music).
    You can see it in this forum, you can see it in real life, a classical music listener will feel entitled to ridicule modern music, in most cases those same persons when it comes to literature even if in their whole life will never read/appreciate a page written by Proust/Wolff/Faulkner they will never dare to ridicule modern literature. This cultural fracture is even more evident in painting, being modern doesn't preclude Van Gogh from being a pop star, maybe the greatest pop star in painting.
    So if we look at the general public acceptance of modernism in music, literature and painting we have in order:
    - an arrogant and guiltless rejection of modernism
    - a humble genuflection in front of its academically sanctioned status
    - an enthusiastic acceptance of the new language
    so in the end we could say that modern music is the music which the layman feels entitled to ridicule, modern literature is the one that the layman will never disrespect, modern painting is a cupboard full of mugs "reproducing" works by Van Gogh and Picasso
    the way I see it, what is modern in music can be readily identified looking at the general public reaction to it, what could be really interesting is to investigate the reasons that bring the general public to having different reactions toward modernism in the three art fields discussed above.
    This is insightful, but there are still people who look at Picasso and say something like, "My 6-year-old nephew can do that."
    Liberty for wolves is death to the lambs.

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    Quote Originally Posted by science View Post
    This is insightful, but there are still people who look at Picasso and say something like, "My 6-year-old nephew can do that."
    no doubt about that, nonetheless the numbers tell a story of popular success.

  12. #39
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    Quote Originally Posted by Madiel View Post
    no doubt about that, nonetheless the numbers tell a story of popular success.
    Popular to a point. I think the lowest class you're considering is one that has heard of Proust and Picasso. I know people who will die without ever having heard or read the name Proust or having seen a work by Picasso. There probably should be a 2D analysis of this, like a table, with a column for visual art, one for literature, one for music, and then rows for (in roughly North American terms) the cultural elite, the middle brow, and the low-brow.

    visual art literature music
    cultural elite loves modernism loves modernism loves modernism
    middle brow loves modernism dares not question modernism hates most modernism
    low brow laughs at modernism never heard of modernism laughs at modernism
    Liberty for wolves is death to the lambs.

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  14. #40
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    Modern was a term used for 20th century music composed near the advent of the Second Viennese School. There were plenty of late romantic composers still writing music then -- Richard Strauss, Sibelius, Shostakovich, Elgar and Vaughan Williams among them -- and the "modern" tag was meant to differentiate from tradition.

    It is sometimes said the first "modern" compositions were Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (1919) and Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire (premiered 1912.)

    This period was followed starting about the 1950s by electronic and a series of post-(fill in the blank) forms and later by minimalism. So "modern" classical music is roughly the period 1910-50 or so.
    Last edited by larold; Jun-14-2018 at 15:44.

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    Senior Member Woodduck's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by St Matthew View Post
    Don't get post-modern politics confused with art, music in particular. Though this is often the case with visual art (galleries in particular, which seem to be a monetary system), I have never been able to see it as the case with 'post-modern' music.
    Modernist composers (Debussy, Schoenberg, Busoni, Satie, Stravinsky, Varese, Boulez, Stockhausen, Babbitt, Cage, etc.) were highly opinionated, acutely conscious of where music had been and where it was going or ought to go, and dedicated to newness. This was at least equally true of visual artists up to about the 1960s, when serialism was de rigeur at the music academies and abstraction was the destiny to which painting aspired. After that it became apparent that art wasn't going anywhere in particular and that there was no reason why it should, and nobody now takes seriously the idea of "a new art for a new era."

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    Quote Originally Posted by KenOC View Post
    Listening on the radio to Irving Fine’s Partita for wind quintet on the weekly two-hour program called "Modern Times.". This is evidently considered a “modern” work, written in 1948.

    Let’s see…that’s 70 years ago. 70 years before Beethoven’s birth, Bach hadn’t yet written his first significant work. How can something 70 years old today be considered “modern”? And a lot of Schoenberg, etc., is older than that!

    Please tell me, what does “modern” mean?
    Ah, the definition fetish here at TC continues. My approach (as taught to me by one of my early teachers) is, since such definitions are inevitably arbitrary to a significant degree, start with specific time periods. Thus: Baroque = 1675-1750; Classical=1750-1825; Romantic=1825-1900; Modern=1900-1975; Contemporary=1975- . Then, look for the significant common characteristics of most Western music written during those periods. You don't need to worry if you find some music with Romantic period characteristics written during the Modern period or vice versa. The terms can be used flexibly, not necessarily referring to the specific but arbitrary time period but rather to music with some or most, but not necessarily all, of the essential defining characteristics of most music written during that period. That way, the terms can be used as helpful shorthand rather than rigid and confining straitjackets.
    One minor flaw with this approach is that "Contemporary" should really mean music written by composers who are still living, i.e., who are our contemporaries. So the 1975 - period could be called "Post-Modern".

    Edit: I love Irving Fine's Partita. A great piece to listen to or play.

    Quote Originally Posted by millionrainbows View Post
    Among the many ways of modern musical thinking, here are a few concepts: The use of tritones, dividing the octave at the tritone, use of small intervals such as major and minor 3rds and seconds as root stations, rather than 4ths and fifths, abandonment of scale function in chords, creation of "artificial" harmonic functions using exotic or 'artificial' scales, interval projection to create scales, etc.
    Nicely put as usual, Millionrainbows. On could say that one common characteristic of the Modern period is an expansion of concepts of harmony beyond the traditional triad and tonality beyond the traditional diatonic scale, without necessarily abandoning traditional harmony and tonality entirely. But I would say that there are many other characteristics of the Modern period beyond expanding the concepts of harmony and tonality. Rhythm, instrumentation, timbre and macro-structure are all areas that saw distinctive innovations.
    Last edited by fluteman; Jun-14-2018 at 16:38.

  17. #43
    Senior Member ArsMusica's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by fluteman View Post
    Ah, the definition fetish here at TC continues. My approach (as taught to me by one of my early teachers) is, since such definitions are inevitably arbitrary to a significant degree, start with specific time periods. Thus: Baroque = 1675-1750; Classical=1750-1825; Romantic=1825-1900; Modern=1900-1975; Contemporary=1975- . Then, look for the significant common characteristics of most Western music written during those periods. You don't need to worry if you find some music with Romantic period characteristics written during the Modern period or vice versa. The terms can be used flexibly, not necessarily referring to the specific but arbitrary time period but rather to music with some or most, but not necessarily all, of the essential defining characteristics of most music written during that period. That way, the terms can be used as helpful shorthand rather than rigid and confining straitjackets.
    One minor flaw with this approach is that "Contemporary" should really mean music written by composers who are still living, i.e., who are our contemporaries. So the 1975 - period could be called "Post-Modern".

    Edit: I love Irving Fine's Partita. A great piece to listen to or play.
    The Baroque era start date is 1600.

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    Quote Originally Posted by ArsMusica View Post
    The Baroque era start date is 1600.
    OK. Then we could call 1675-1750 the High Baroque period, and 1600-1675 the Flat Baroque And Living In A Dumpster period. Though that may be a poor analogy.

    Quote Originally Posted by Madiel View Post
    - an arrogant and guiltless rejection of modernism.
    Although many people today may not realize how much they have accepted modern and post-modern music. John Williams made extensive use of The Sacrificial Dance from Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring in his music for Jaws; Part's Spiegel im Spiegel has been used in many movies, including Pixar's Ice Age Collision Course; Toru Takemitsu wrote a lot of music for movies, as has Philip Glass, in addition to music for TV and even video games.
    Last edited by fluteman; Jun-14-2018 at 20:41.

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