Monday, 11 July 2011

Modernism in the Modern World

Arved Ashby’s edited volume of essays, The Pleasure of Modernist Music, was first published in 2004 and reissued in paperback towards the end of 2010. Here, Ashby discusses notions of a ‘cultural war’ in the light of some reactions to the book.

Although ideas for this book date back to the mid-1990s, it really only started coming together after 9/11. U.S. politics were starting to take on the bitter partisanship that now threatens the very cohesion and stability of the country, especially with the 2010 midterm elections. The "culture wars" first surfaced back in the 1990s: speaking at the 1992 Republican convention, Pat Buchanan informed the citizenry that a morally depraved Clinton presidency would be a tragic setback in the "religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war… critical to the kind of nation we will one day be."

Putting together the words "culture" and "war" had a certain self-conscious bombast back then, a certain pre-9/11 innocence: Buchanan was using the phrase to market his own political ambitions, for the most part. Twenty years later, however, these oppositions between progressiveness and conservatism have become so acrid and divisive that the "war" has come to involve guns as well as words. Tragically, national events seem to have less and less to do with culture and more and more to do with war. I often fear for the future of my country these days, but then it must be said that an angry, even sick conservatism — a militant resistance, at any price in blood or humanity, to the future and to the communalities that define culture —has reared its ugly head in so many places around the world.

The Pleasure of Modernist Music arrived early in this divisive history, when it was becoming clear that musical taste and reception — as part of these "culture wars" in North America and beyond — had more to do with politics than with aesthetics and needs of expression. Some would say, no doubt, that musical reception has always been a political matter. And to read Eduard Hanslick criticizing Liszt's symphonic poems in the 1860s is to see someone hearing a particular musical novelty through a thick cloud of pure ideology or, rather, someone refusing outright to hear that music because of ideology. Some would go further and say that aesthetics and listening are necessarily forms of ideology, are ideologies by definition. But if that's true, how can people of different backgrounds, tastes, and agendas agree on the value of certain musicians, composers, and works? How could Hanslick seem not to have even listened to Liszt — at least not to the Liszt we know and accept today? In other words, how could a person as smart as Hanslick have been so wrong? (That is presuming Hanslick's view of Liszt was obscured by ideology while our view today is less obscured — a fairly safe presumption, I would say.)

And let us remember that Hanslick talked about culture without mentioning war. He heartily berated Liszt, but didn't resort to a 21st-century style of critical privilege or strategic purging of those things that happened to offend him. He didn't say Liszt's music was in the ashbin of history, or that it should be burned, or even that it should be ignored. Nor did he couch his arguments in moral terms. By contrast, people of the past decade or two talk about "killing" or "burying" certain kinds of music, or of "letting nature takes its course" and pulling the plug on styles that are said to be "on artificial life support." Whence the homicidal, or at least vulgar Darwinist, rhetoric? I wouldn't say all kinds of music are equally worthwhile, and I can understand how the historical and aesthetic contexts surrounding some musics might inspire resistance or active animosity. But styles themselves are rather like human beings, tangled skeins of weakness and delight, strength and foible. They are breathing bodies — entities that might not insist on being heard, but want at least to abide, to be allowed to exist.

Heine famously said, "Where people burn books, they end up burning human beings." So, if it is hard to see what value or moral utility — or raw usefulness, even — there might be in burying or unplugging artworks, it is easy to see how "always remembering" might be in our best interests. Just as we shouldn't be any more eager to rid ourselves of artworks than of human beings, it also behooves us to keep the historical record as rich and complete as we can. We should avoid consigning those segments of culture we don't approve of to The Dustbin of History — lest we sound like the lobotomizing bureaucrats who operate the strategic "memory holes" in Orwell's 1984. While denying certain segments of history is a criminal offense in some countries, which is as it should be, in most North Atlantic venues it has become strangely fashionable to single out modernist cultures and dismiss and ignore them on history's behalf. This is a very odd thing — perhaps self-contradictory, and certainly hypocritical.

* * *

One lives and one learns. While The Pleasure of Modernist Music garnered rave reviews from modernists and non-modernists alike, others were quick to see naivety in its attempt to "rescue" modernist art from modernist discourse. If I held on to the idea that non-ideological hearings of music were possible, reviews of The Pleasure of Modernist Music showed just how implausible the idea of reading "around" or "past" ideology might be. One reviewer pointed to the hopeless futility of de-ideologizing art, and said the book "has dug [its] own grave" by "piling still more words on the problem" — in short, by propagandizing onanistically for de-propagandization. The book's contributors, instead of offering coffin nails, should have been smart enough to just shut up and let nature takes its course.

Fred Maus's essay "Sexual and Musical Categories" proved a particular hotpoint: I've always thought Fred's chapter one of the book's most shrewd and powerful, and indeed I now give the essay to all my undergraduates to read, but I have yet to see a welcoming response in print. Instead, Fred's piece set off diatribes from people who had clearly decided what it said before they read it. One eminent reader said the author was crying victimization, an accusation that betrays not only misreading, but complete ignorance of the queer theory that Fred clearly describes — a philosophy that has nothing to do with oppression, let alone redressing oppression, and everything to do with identity, making do, and finding any available way to carve out "a place of one's own" in the world. Other readers resolved that Fred was telling us how gay 20th-century composers were attracted to tonality rather than an atonal compositional language.

Regarding his chapter "'One Man's Signal Is Another Man's Noise,'" Andrew Mead was accused of hitching his wagon to recent trends in experiential discussion of post-tonal music, when what he did was describe his personal history with post-tonal music all the way back to boyhood. Several chapters were dismissed as apologia. The book was said to claim that serial music had never differed in its aims from any other kind of music, certainly not a claim advanced by my introduction, where I stated that "modernist music is the most conflicted that we have. More than any other kind of music, except maybe for rock 'n' roll, it offers each listener a unique, volatile, high-stakes dialectic of inseparable pleasure and pain, reward and risk." Amy Bauer and Jeremy Tambling invoked schizophrenia in their essays as a non-pathological parallel to this kind of conflicted aesthetic and artistic sensibility, and thereby pointed out the arationality of "rationalist" modernism, but they were interpreted as saying that modernist music and its practitioners are mentally ill. The list of astonishing misreadings goes on, some readers jerking their knees to the point of dislocation.

I would like to lay out some of the book's more important conclusions here, less out of didacticism or indignation with reviews than the conviction that a book is less a thing than a process, that it has a necessary pre-history and post-history. So if the post-history of The Pleasure of Modernist Music started with its readers and reviewers, it will continue here. I take the following statements to be indisputable, even self-evident enough that they hardly seem worth propounding in a book — so maybe there is a shred of truth to that review after all. As opposed to most accounts of modernist music, which begin — and often end — with the composer, why not begin here with the listener? Many claims of complexity in understanding modernist music are ill-conceived or simply beside the point, since people do not process musical "information" as if they were computers — how does one even go about defining musical "difficulty" or pointing out a musical-aesthetic disconnect?

Getting to know a new musical style is more like acquiring a literacy, and it's hard to see why a culture that prizes literacy and varieties of language should resist such acquaintance. As one corollary to this, the very notions of modernist music being edifying or otherwise good for you are obsolete, to put it mildly. The premises behind art appreciation are offshoots of modernist thinking, in fact — they propound the idea that hearing music is the necessary obverse of composing music, and that it needs to be heard the way it was composed. Such premises are more oriented to the notion of connecting with the composer's intention, of formatting our brains and sensibilities in order to process music on its creator's terms, as opposed to assimilating new styles and allowing our listening experiences to be self-transforming.

Modernist music is really more about immediate experience, less about knowledge and learning, than mainstream music of common practice. That often means, however, that the styles in question are awkward and disordered — as opposed to the more frequently touted, supposedly modernist qualities of complexity, organization, difficulty. And that awkwardness, that manner of resistance, represents the modernist critical gap between art and society that is not to be bridged or done away with, as "education" has tried to do, but allowed instead to condition the listener's experience. Such modernist gapped-ness has proved deeply evocative and provocative in film music, in fact. The theater is one place where the public, free from the onus of modernist discourse and "educated listening," has connected with modernist sounds, gestures, and even structures. Movies show the possibility, the inevitability even, of modernism's relevance once it has been separated from modernist ideology. The newness to what Schoenberg student and film composer Hanns Eisler called "the new musical resources" is in fact not an ideology, but an anti-ideology. As if to prove the point, modernist sounds and gestures proved very popular and influential in 1960s and 70s rock music, where said sounds and gestures were commonly called called "out there," "trippy," and "far out," descriptions that associated them with freedom, with out-ness rather than in-ness.

As for the much-discussed and -reviled notion of compositional techniques, two major composers among the book's contributors, the "postmodern" William Bolcom and the "modern" Pierre Boulez, both say that techniques like canon and 12-tone serialism are not so much instruments of conscious control as they are necessary tactics for liberating the possibilities of the unconscious. They serve to open up the creation to a higher number of possibilities, they take the creator into uncharted waters. As such, compositional techniques are described by Boulez as a simple extension of the act of writing music down: techniques that in and of themselves beneficially remove that which is written from its writer, that in a sense kill the author for the sake of enlivening the possibilities of authorship. The act of encoding an experience into script is the point where "disconnection occurs," according to Roland Barthes, the point where "the voice loses its origin, the author enters into his own death, [and] writing begins."


* * *

Happily, in addition to the uncomprehending reviews and the predictably positive reception from modernism enthusiasts, some students, composers, music-lovers — younger people, mostly — have told me directly that The Pleasure of Modernist Music was an exciting, transformative experience for them. This shows some success in realizing the original intent of the book, which was to encourage people to reconsider assumptions, certain aesthetic-historic-musical clich├ęs. It's an awful, tautological idea that those who disagree with you don't understand what you're trying to say, while those who do, do. But one always likes to imagine that if one's work stirs things up, said stir-up will not involve arguing over a book that one didn't write, but will lead to a productive debate over one's presumptions and bases.

And so I will end by joining a debate that no one has yet started: yes, The Pleasure of Modernist Music cultivates naivety, and the particular kind of idealistic naivety that it proposes can sometimes be a misleading, frustrating, and unproductive thing. (Martin Scherzinger felt liberated by the naivety that cover artist Yoshiaki Yoshinari showed in trying to reconcile the bleak abstract expressionist shapes of Motherwell with the pop-art colors of a Hockney or a Howard Hodgkin. Martin said he was thrilled by Yoshi's "smears of modern paint in post-truthful times!") But I don't think naivety can ever be dangerous in a homicidal sense — indeed, it seems the single mindset that could benefit the current climate of cynicism, myopia, and murderous greed. The "culture warriors" of current affairs could certainly use a healthy dose of it. And just as certainly, if The Pleasure of Modernist Music suffers from naivety, it is a naivety worth defending.

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