Friday, January 18, 2008

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.


At 1/18/2008 2:25 PM, Blogger rchrd said...

I always figured it was more a physiological problem .. it's easier to see than it is to hear.

Most people orient themselves to the world visually.
Music is an orthogonal art.

And at some recent concerts I've been at, it seems that most people were there to see and to be seen, rather than listen.

At 1/18/2008 2:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Certainly this is how most people nowadays react to the opera. They listen with their eyes. Almost all discussion, even by professional critics, is about the set, the staging, lighting, the "acting", the attractiveness of the singers - at best a couple of adjectives about the voices, which historically were always the raison d'etre of the art form - and still are for many.

At 1/18/2008 3:02 PM, Blogger Lisa Hirsch said...

I'm struck that people are still saying Picasso is weird. It's 2008, for crying out loud.

At 1/18/2008 3:09 PM, Blogger Charles Céleste Hutchins said...

Sticking Xenakis between Bach and Schubert is really not giving the audience much context. I think that could be leading to confusion.

Also, there are worse comparisons to make than Picasso.

At 1/18/2008 3:12 PM, Blogger Joshua Kosman said...

Lisa, I sort of took the comment to mean, "Well, it's no weirder than Picasso." In other words, "I already have a familiar mental framework for dealing with art that lacks {realistically painted faces/pretty tunes}. Once I relocate new music into that framework it becomes much more comprehensible."

At 1/18/2008 3:41 PM, Blogger Joshua Kosman said...

Les: I see from your comment chez SF Mike — with whose review I heartily concur, by the way — that I haven't made myself sufficiently clear. I have no problem with this woman's comment; on the contrary, I think it's charming and admirable and true.

All I meant was that it reminds us yet again to ponder what I consider the great mystery (better word than "problem," I guess) of 20th c. culture, to wit, Why are there so many people who find modern (or modernist) art, literature, dance, theater, architecture, etc., easier to grasp than music?

As for context, I'm not sure I get your point. Unless you're at an all-contempo concert, the program is going to be mixed. That's just unavoidable.

At 1/20/2008 12:48 AM, Blogger anzu said...

Aaron Copland compared modern music to Picasso roughly sixty years ago.
In particular, my favorite parts are the last 4 paragraphs, in which he says that music was never meant to be a pillow or couch (radio stations, take note!), and that it's absurd that we expect all other art forms to be intellectually stimulating, but not so music.

At 1/20/2008 10:42 AM, Blogger Osbert Parsley said...

This is a topic I find absolutely fascinating, and I agree that the reasons are probably physiological. Other arts exist as discrete works to be observed (paintings, sculpture, actors or dancers on a stage). Music consists of vibrations in the air which enter our bodies. The sensation is much more tactile, much more palpable, than any other art form. So if you don't like the Jackson Pollock painting, you can close your eyes or look away, but if you don't like the Webern piece, you're stuck with it until it's done.

R. Murray Schafer, whose book on The Soundscape I just read, is good on this. To the point I've just made, he adds the fact that we're constantly surrounded by "white noise" in the form of electrical circuitry, humming fans, traffic noise, Muzak etc. which makes it very difficult to give music the attention it requires.

At 1/25/2008 8:14 AM, Blogger Lisa Hirsch said...

About the context issue: I've been to some concerts where one contemporary piece is tossed in with something 18th or 19th century, and most of the time the works don't speak to each other or illuminate each other. I'm not saying it's not possible to created a mixed program that works well, but SFS doesn't do a good job of it. That last program of Alan Gilbert's, for example: Ades Chamber Symphony, Beethoven Triple concerto, Mozart 41st.

I'd much rather hear an all-contemporary concert than something like that, which didn't particularly play to Gilbert's strengths. I understand that there are lots of other concerns - when soloists are available, the guest conductor's requests, etc.

At 1/26/2008 12:12 AM, Blogger rchrd said...

Could you imagine an SFS concert made up entirely of Xenakis, Stockhausen, and Maderna (say .. I intentially left out Boulez)?

What joy to some that would be! What an absolute horror to others, including the folks watching the SFS box office.

The choice of program is as much a marketing decision as it is a musical one, unfortunately.

Jamming Xenakis between Bach and Schubert is totally bizarre, as if implying that Iannis's work is "just as good as" Johann and Franz's work, when actually they are worlds apart and defy comparison.

The box office someone will come to hear the Schubert or the Bach and be amused by the Xenakis, just the way we go to hear the Webern sandwiched between the Mendelsohn and Elgar.

Oddly enough, back in the day of the first orchestra concerts, all the music was contemporary. What a revolutionary idea!

At 1/27/2008 4:22 PM, Blogger Lisa Hirsch said...

I would buy tickets to that theoretical Xenakis, Stockhausen, etc. concert!

There've been plenty of blogosphere ruminations about why 20th c. music is obscure to people who are eager to read the latest literary novels, see the latest art or theater, etc. See Greg Sandow, for example, though there you also have to wade through a lot of debatable commentary about the supposed death of classical music. I keep asking people to define what that would be, with no success.

At 1/29/2008 10:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Why is Picasso a useful reference point for understanding Xenakis (or Schoenberg, or Bartók, or Stockhausen) rather than vice versa?"

This is a really interesting question, and I don't have much of an answer. Maybe it's time to flip things round, and start walking round art galleries saying things like "Oh, I get it - it's like Feldman" (actually, internally I do this sometimes).

At 2/08/2008 7:09 PM, Blogger diminished said...

One thought: impressionistic art such as Monet, and impressionistic music such as Ravel and Debussy, for me, contain a definite similarity in relation to color and emotional response. Would I see a Monet painting in my mind when I hear La Mer if I didn't know who Monet was? Not sure. I have at times thought of 20th century music as abstract art. The reason is because it is similar in the way that the familiar structure has been obliterated. Or so it seems. Where do you draw the line in defense of abstract art as still maintaining a high level of technique. 20th century music as well. The more aimlessly complex, the less you can expect the ear to retain anything memorable.

20th century music for me contains a vast variety of flavors, i.e. Lutoslawski vs. John Cage. In Cage I could easily see abstract forms and shapes in my mind. And with Lutoslawski, I see more difinitive shapes and feel a bit closer to human suffering and joy.

Something that has always been fascinating for me in regards to film music is to play directly against what the obvious music choice would be. A sweet little melody played softly on a piano might be relaxing at home over some wine, but play that over a rape or murder scene and suddenly it become more sinister sounding than the obvious screetching strings would have been.

I think there is a very interesting relation between how the minds eye interprets heard music.


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