Saturday, February 1, 2014

Modernism in Music

We've briefly discussed modernism and of course we've talked about Kafka, a modernist author, at length.  Once again, as with previous movements modernism has parallels in music, and the term is in fact used to describe several 20th-century composers (including, among those I've mentioned in previous posts, Mahler, Debussy, and Prokofiev).  It's generally marked by a lack of traditional tonality and meter, so some music theorists refer to modernism as the end of classical music, and those that have a broader definition of "classical" mark it as the end of the "common practice era", which lasted between about 1600 and 1900.  Modernism in a musical context is a confusingly nebulous term; even relatively conservative composers like Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), who is often considered a Romantic (still!) are sometimes labelled modernists.  The things that definitely mark a piece or composer as modernist are the absence of traditional tonality or meter, unusual notation or instrumentation, or lack of traditional musical form (4'33").

The effects of modernism on music are very controversial among musicians; some think that it is an important set of innovations, but others (like me) think that in general it is just are reversal of what music is supposed to be--rather than clearly presenting some meaning or thought, it deliberately obfuscates them behind layers of gimmicks and untraditional techniques, disguising an essential lack of inspiration or compositional skill.

The composer most closely associated with modernism is probably Arnold Schoenberg.  He came up with a "12-tone scale" in which every tone is treated equally, as opposed to traditional 7-tone scales which eliminate 5 tones.  Here is a recording of his Variations for Orchestra:


I can't stand this kind of music.  To me, his twelve-tone scale can only express extremes of anxiety and fear; it seems like his music is defined entirely by its limits and can't convey any subtleties or beauty.  I think that the reason Schoenberg is famous is maybe the same reason people read Finnegan's Wake--you get academic cred for claiming to see meaning in something that is, in fact, completely and intentionally devoid of it.  I think Schoenberg admitted to a measure of this; he wrote "If it is art, it is not for all, and if it is for all, it is not art"--not only is this classist, but he is essentially saying that music people can enjoy is not worthwhile.  I think that this exemplifies his reversal of the traditional criteria for good music.  It is definitely new, but I don't think that makes it good.

1 comment:

Joseph D'Amico said...

That piece sounds like something you might hear in a horror movie right before someone gets stabbed to death in the woods. I don't know nearly as much about music as you do, but as a general rule, I really don't like any form of art which has the sole purpose of being completely different from all other forms of art. Cubism, for instance, I could never really understand; I can get why some people might find it appealing, but I don't at all. Don't even get me started on Finnegan's Wake, though. If I tried to get away with making up my own language on an English paper or something, I'd look like an idiot, but Joyce somehow passed his work off as a masterpiece.