“There is no difference between a symphony and song sung under a tree. It’s just good music. It’s only snobs and idiots who once have separated popular from classical.” (Percy A. Grainger)
“I am interested in how this wild beast lives in the jungle, not in the zoo.”
“The crisis of music is brought about by the crisis of society. In music it appears in practice as a crisis of compositional techniques. This again has contributed to a complete isolation of modern music from social life. The modern composer has become a parasite, which gets sponsored out of private interest and philanthropy of a few rich people.” (Hans Eisler)
“The freedom of the individual is the prerequisite for the freedom of everyone.”
It is time for new music to retire. Although accepted as contemporary music’s high art standard, at least when it comes to what is still being taught at universities and what is officially subsidized, it hasn’t contributed anything new to the artistic discourse since the 1990s. Still, new music considers itself to be the only musical avant-garde. But there is more going on in today’s multifaceted music scenes than pure commercial entertainment and Adorno’s fear of post-modern, arbitrary consumer’s wet-shopping-dream art. The formative backgrounds of composers today are multiple and so is their work. Many have a critical approach, reflect on our sluggish and reluctant-to-change society and move ahead into artistically uncharted territory.
This is not a pamphlet for arbitrary hipster-post-modernism in contemporary music—quite the opposite. It is a plea: a call for an individual, authentic, reflected, honest, daring, brave, refined, philosophical, multi-faceted practice for the 21st century, which does not give up on the great tradition of Western art music.
Contemporary Western art music, so-called new music, is in a crisis.
Since 20 years we constantly hear reoccurring complaints that the recent generation is not interested anymore in the avant-garde tradition of the 20th century—defined as exclusively the lineage going from expressionism and dodecaphony to serialism and post-serialism. But what does this actually mean? What or who is exactly in a crisis? How is “crisis” being defined?
The way I see it, new music is not in a crisis, it just has outlived itself. Musical styles have a life span. They are being born, rebel, grow up, reach their prime, decline and finally die. So did ars nova 700 years ago, so did new music (R.I.P.). New music is historically obsolete, outdated, and passed its prime. It was a historical period and style from roughly 1945-2000—a very important time for music but history.
New music lives on because it has found a comfortable armchair supporter in the last remainders of the intellectual “Bildungsbürgertum” (German: educated bourgeoisie/ middle class intellectuals). There is nothing daring anymore and nothing emancipatory radical in today’s new music, it is heavily mannerist and conservative. New music has not only lost its audience; it has lost its social, cultural and philosophical foundation in society and therefore its credentials.
The foundation of the classic-romantic music in the 18th and 19th century had been the critical and revolutionary bourgeoisie. It was their soundtrack and unifier to take over political power. But with the downfall of the bourgeoisie during the 20th century came also the downfall of their art. Most new music today is just an empty shell (aka in a crisis), actually fitting Adorno’s description and assessment of popular music better than the popular music he writes about: constant empty variations of approved techniques, mixed in with pseudo-intellectual complaints about the downfall of Western society and values.
Nevertheless, new music still thinks of itself as an avant-garde. It negates the disintegration, as we experience it at the moment, of the formerly avant-garde bourgeois class and their art and tries to slow the process. To save new music is a conservative undertaking. It is an attempt to preserve bourgeois art, which in return means to save ones own social privileges. Several times in history we have seen that the avant-garde, artistic and political, was not ready to move aside when its time had come—when the once new became the now old—and instead has become conservatives-in-avant-garde-skins.
It is a necessity in a historical process: art reflects its society, art develops with and/or in opposition to its society, art must change with its society. Or—as Jacques Attali argues in Noise (1977)—in the case of music, artistic developments often herald changes in society and occur before society is aware of its own upcoming social and political upheavals.
Attali talks about avant-garde in its original definition. Originating from the French military term, avant-garde describes the part of the troop that is scouting ahead behind enemy lines, has the first enemy contact and brings back important information for everyone else to advance. In an artistic frame of reference the enemy line is the line between now and the future, between conservative and progressive. Hence the avant-garde is operating in unknown territory, at the same time in and ahead of its society.
By definition, avant-garde art cannot stay within the boundaries of a theory that has been defined at a specific, historic moment in time without making relevant changes and additions. New music has been developed at and described a time and society that is past. Society and therefore art has changed. There has been a digital revolution and the millennials live in a different world than the post-war generation did.
Europe still clings to the cultural post-war ideals and upholds post-post serial music as the highest artistic achievement of our time. Serial music was a reaction to fascism from people who grew up under a manipulative dictate towards the arts. However, except for a few older composers, no composer living in Europe today grew up under fascism.
In the USA we see a different type of conservatism. Here, new music has been abandoned for an even earlier version of (pseudo-) romantic, crowd-pleasing material.
Both societies have one thing in common: they abandon their existing cultural avant-garde and exclude them from recognition, cultural and medial discourse and financial support.
The music of the 20th century has been about finding new material, new sounds and philosophical ways to describe the fast developing and incredible fast diversification of our societies. At the same time, and in line with industrialization, we witnessed a growing “mainstreamification” of big parts of society. New music always wanted to be pure—l’art pour l’art—staying away from mainstream and commercial pressure, which is very commendable and important for the arts and a society. But unfortunately this has been done at the expense of creating a near cult-like philosophy: everything is listened to and judged by one set of value and aesthetic standards. This is wrong.
The attempt to reduce everything to one set of values reflects the political situation in the Western democracies in the early 21st century. We are living in a time of looking back to “the glorious past”, a time of conservatism, authoritarian bully-politics and fear of the future and the unknown.
THE POST-MODERNIST DILEMMA
According to new music, or modernist thinking in general, post-modern art is responsible for undermining and destroying the progressive mandate of critical, reflective modernism. Post-modernism is deemed to be only about ornamentation, embellishment, references and beauty—surfaces, composing art out of arbitrary, mostly historic elements. For new music, the critical discourse that defines bourgeois-progressive music—which had started with classical music and had its first peak with Beethoven, for many the only pure and untainted defender of critical thinking and progressive exploration in music—is lost.
Yes, art should in an old fashioned way elevate and edify, but for a Beethoven listener at the time to “elevate and edify” didn’t mean to lean back in its couch, feel good and self-content. It meant to build a new society, a new humanist world together with a group of same-minded people, rejecting the old aristocratic forces. Beethoven’s music was the bourgeoisie’s unifying call-to-arms. It showed people their power, it gave them a moment of reflection, it uplifted them philosophically and gave them energy for the fight against the already dissolving, but still very powerful aristocracy. It created a “we-feeling.” Now the bourgeoisie is the new aristocracy, not wanting to realize its own end and fighting to stretch its reign for as long as possible with all weapons possible—even cultural dictatorship and fascism.
The question is: What is the central disagreement between modernism and post-modernism? The self-appointed, mostly academic, authorities claim that using a plurality of approaches and multiple genres and styles as material be not “ethical, moral, and critical”; post-modernism be a lost cause with no potential whatsoever for a progressive theory or critical artistic advancement.
An article of the German composer Walter Abendroth gives us a different, historical view on modern and postmodern development. Already in 1958 he not only criticized the dominance of new music, he also discussed different styles of music existing simultaneously. In Die Zeit, an important, critical German newspaper, he wrote an article titled: The Crisis of New Music
“… this only proves one thing: that the “direction” [aka dodecaphony and serialism], which since decades claims the title “New Music” exclusively for itself, doesn’t show a way of development, but stands constantly still and therefore is not a beginning, but an end, yes, constitutes an epilogue. Everybody knows that in reality, today, not only one type of new music exists—that means: music that at its essence could not have been written at any other time period—but several very different ones. Since several decades most of the living composers fight against this claim to totality by one certain musical style and its more or less organized dictatorship of their theoretical bystanders.”
(Translation from German to English by me.)
Although I do not completely agree with Abendroth (there were amazing developments in serial and post-serial music and wonderful pieces written), he has a point.
Abendroth claimed post-modern poly-stylistic as a practice in daily musical life already in the late 1950s. I like to extend this thought further back. If we look at the composers in the first half of the 20th century we see a huge variety of approaches: late-romantic (Richard Strauss), neo-romantic (Britten), neo-classical (Milhaud), neo-primitivism (Stravinsky), symphonic jazz (Gershwin), post-impressionism (Villa-Lobos), dodecaphony (Schönberg), futurism/noise (Russolo), multi-stylistic (Weill), American sound (Copeland), musique concrète (Schafer & Henry) and more—and these are just the composers in the “serious” art tradition, not even mentioning: operetta (Johann Strauss), musical (Rodgers), jazz (Ellington), and song (Cole Porter).
Maybe we have to re-think music history. Wasn’t actually all of the 20th century musically post-modern in practice? Was the 20th century as a whole post-modern, and what does that mean for the historic evaluation of modernism? For too long new music claimed for itself to be the only righteous continuation of the critical, intellectual, artistic-philosophical tradition in music. But new music, from expressionism to serialism to new complexity, constitutes just one line-although a very important one-of musical development in the 20th century.