Modern Music Explained
During intermission after last night's San Francisco Symphony performance of À l'Île de Gorée, Xenakis' exciting but slightly daunting 1986 harpsichord concerto, I happened to overhear a white-haired subscriber just at the moment of what seemed to be a genuine revelation.
"Oh I see," she said to her friend — "it's weird. Like a Picasso."
Which not only sums it up, as far as I'm concerned, but throws the spotlight, for about the millionth time, on the central problem of 20th-century music. Why is Picasso a useful reference point for understanding Xenakis (or Schoenberg, or Bartók, or Stockhausen) rather than vice versa? Why is there such a vast gap in the rate of acceptance of novelty between music and the other arts (all of them, really)?
It could be a historical anomaly, since it's more obviously true of the 20th century than earlier periods. It could be a function of inherent differences in the art forms (e.g., musical performances unfolding in real time vs. paintings that can be taken in at a glance), although that dodges other questions. Maybe it's a matter of economic and societal influences, or maybe Picasso was a better painter than Schoenberg was a composer (whatever that might mean, exactly). Hell if I know.
What we need is a cultural version of Jared Diamond's magnificent Guns, Germs, and Steel, explaining how different art forms can start out in the same place and wind up so far apart. I bet it all goes back to crop domestication and food surpluses.