book review

Contemporary Composers on Contemporary Music

Expanded edition
E. Schwartz and B. Childs
Da Capo, 1998, 484 pages

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Contemporary Composers on Contemporary Music

Expanded edition
E. Schwartz and B. Childs

Reviewed by

C lassical music and its successor, contemporary or "modern" music, which has its roots solidly in Europe, have been among the most important and enduring achievements of Western culture. The average person in the street, however, considers listening to modern music with about the same sense of dread as getting a root canal.

One reason for this may be the perception of contemporary music as emotionally inexpressive. The serial and post-serial forms in particular seem to the naive listener more appropriate for expressing frustration and anger than anything else, and indeed, the reaction of many beginning listeners is to echo these same emotions, and to go immediately back to their dentist and demand bilateral injections of novocaine for their ears.

It's not true, of course; modern music simply expresses different ideas. But there's no doubt that the widespread alienation of the average listener has adversely affected modern music. Its current state is much like the music itself: discordant, fragmented, and hard to understand. While 18th- and 19th-century music conjures up images of horse-drawn carriages bouncing along a woodsy road and bunnies hopping in the woods (with an occasional dissonant note caused by an unfortunate bunny straying into the path of a horse-drawn carriage), listening to 20th-century music is more like struggling across a battlefield, with planes shrieking overhead, bombs exploding all around, and people (usually, but not always, the singer) screaming in horror. It takes more effort to get through it, and imposes a great deal more stress on the listener.

When they try to speak out, modern composers have as often as not made their situation worse. A single ill-advised political remark several years ago by composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, for example, almost overshadowed his entire life's work. As for their thoughts about music, probably the 20th-century composer most well known for writing articulately about music was Arnold Schoenberg, the composer who invented the twelve-tone system (which became 'serial music'). Schönberg's views are well understood. But what do the rest of them think?

This book is a collection of short essays and fragments of essays and interviews from various published sources, by famous early- and mid-20th century composers, including Busoni, Stravinsky, Ligeti, Elliott Carter, Alban Berg, and others. Apparently because of copyright problems, the list is incomplete, and greats like Boulez, Schönberg, and George Crumb, and many others who have yet to achieve fame, are not represented. The articles have little in common; the emphasis in most of them is not on technical, musical, or philosophical aspects of music, but topics like the role of the composer in society or the value of the twelve-tone system. Others, like the article by Stockhausen, are banal and seem to have been included merely because of his celebrity value. Some of the essays are articulate, while others reflect a more instinctual and even poetic approach to life. Each article has some value, however, as it gives a general idea about the personality of the composer, in his or her own words.

Because the articles have so little in common with each other, either stylistically or philosophically, there's no coherent point of view to discuss. But in a way, that too represents the range of twentieth-century music.

It has long been recognized that the human ear is designed to identify and enjoy tones that are simple fractions of each other. Combinations that used to be called "dissonant" are those that generate low-frequency subharmonics that are intrinsically annoying (or stimulating, depending on your point of view). Moreover, the brain is pre-programmed to be interested in sounds that have a logical relationship to each other and to acoustic phenomena in the real world. When music denies this reality, it ceases to be interesting to the brain. The brain simply considers it to be "noise."

Yet the brain also craves novelty. Because of this, post-serialism continues to be pushed forward by the conviction that the old tonal forms have been exhausted, and that a return to tonality would be a step into a smaller musical world. With only eight notes in the diatonic scale, only 262,144 different six-note motifs are possible; by 1900, it must have been felt that most of these had been written and patented, so to speak, by the earlier greats.

Expecting music to follow the same style as the visual arts, however, would be a mistake. Describing one's music terms of illumination and color, as Ligeti does in an interview reprinted in this book, is quite different from adopting the compositional style of abstract expressionism. Abstract expressionism may be a viable visual art form, but it hasn't gone over well in music. Music is a language, closer to literature than it is to painting. As wonderful as serial music is, most of the 'tunes' written in the abstract style are likewise very difficult to remember. Part of this is no doubt the brain's internal self-defense mechanism against unpleasant stimuli. But Busoni's exhortation to "free music from acoustic and esthetic dogmas," in my opinion, misses a critical point. Such a language liberated from its roots would always feel unnatural and brittle, like the 12-tone row, and it would lack the depth of meaning of even the simplest natural language. Some of the composers in this book defend the 12-tone system, while others criticize it.

Despite the musical brilliance of these composers, most of these essays, while interesting and even sometimes witty, reveal few insights about how or why they produce their music or about its role in society. In retrospect, we could probably not expect otherwise, because it is, after all, an art form. It seems that creativity is as magical and unexplainable to the giants of modern music as to the rest of us.

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May 13, 2007; updated June 30, 2007