Alex Ross and His Useless Advocacy of Modernist Music

On Sunday November 28th , the Guardian published a piece by Alex Ross titled,  “Why Do We Hate Modern Classical Music?”

First of all, the title of the article by Mr. Ross is misplaced — people don’t “hate” modern classical music, they are just indifferent to so much of it. It’s very frustrating to see him, like so many others before him, criticize listeners for not liking the “right” music. The implication that anyone who rejects a dissonant modernist musical work is necessarily under the… Notion of classical music as a reliable conduit for consoling beauty – a kind of spa treatment for tired souls … is simplistic and insulting. Surely, there are many smart, engaged listeners looking for a deep experience — and who just can’t enjoy endless, disorienting dissonance or hyper-complex rhythms. And the idea that most prefer tonality because it’s all we are fed from the cradle is laughable. Show me a music anywhere, anytime in the world that does or did not have some kind of tonal center and pitch prioritization, other than a tiny sliver of the western classical tradition, and I promise to listen to the complete works of Boulez in one sitting.

Many generations of audiences have been hectored and bullied to like atonality. After all that, a few love it it, a lot more don’t. Philip Ball and other neurobiologists are persuasive on why.

Writes Mr. Ball:

There is also a physiological dissonance created by tones played so close together that the acoustic waves interfere with one another. So at least some of the ugliness of atonal music is produced by physics, not the bourgeois prejudice excoriated by Boulez and Stockhausen. One can hardly blame audiences for suspecting that what is left is musically rather sparse…

But it’s not just about extreme dissonance. Basically it comes down to the fact that it’s difficult for most humans to take pleasure in music that frequently lacks clearly demarcated formal shapes. Most people honestly can’t perceive the substance or depth in much of it. And we need to stop blaming them for their ‘insufficient long-range attention’.

So Ross is wrong to claim that… Classical music as a reliable conduit for consoling beauty must fall away.

This is as senseless as arguing that appreciation of gorgeous sunsets must fall away.

This article could have been written 10, 20, 30 or 40 years ago. In fact, it was; many, many times. Nicolas Slonimsky,  bless his elfish little soul, devoted A Lexicon of Musical Invective to the assertion that great music was never appreciated in its time, perhaps as a rebuttal to those who disdained modern music. It’s true that many composers’ greatest works suffered terrible criticism before ultimate acceptance. However, to take just one example here in America, I think it’s clear by now that despite their historic importance as part of Carter’s oeuvre, his string quartets are no more accepted today than they were 50 years ago with his first. Or how about “Pierrot Lunaire”? Despite its historic importance in Schoenberg’s work, it is no more accepted today than it was almost 100 years ago.

Also, that one can occasionally fill concert halls (especially in the UK) in large urban areas for something modern tells me nothing, other than you can find a few hundred people who like just about anything in big cities. I think those in the UK should be careful of patting themselves on the back too much over their supposed greater willingness to embrace challenging new music. What is the evidence?

I heard a discussion on Radio 3 a few years ago, when Barenboim and others were declaring that audiences had to learn to listen to new music in a new way. Seems to me that an art form that requires its audience to change is on very thin ice — you can despise those bourgeois New Yorkers as much as you like, but ultimately if you’re composing pieces that people don’t want to hear, you can’t blame them for not wanting to hear it. And how long can this state of affairs continue?

Not liking certain music is simply not done in polite circles. But why? I have rarely seen an enthusiastic commentary on modern classical music that wouldn’t provide a stone-faced eulogy of the sort …Doesn’t this exhaust pipe sound divine and whoever disagrees is a reactionary. Have you ever heard Alex Ross or other enthusiast actually say something like: I love Stockhausen, but can’t stand Xenakis because I think his music is just vapid noise? But surely, not all of modern classical music is good? Surely, they can’t like it all? I would be equally suspicious of people who like all the canonical composers to the same degree.

I think the better question is: Why it’s so goddamned important for people to embrace modernist music? First it was …Give the public fifty years.  Well, fifty plus have come and gone, and they still don’t like it. Now it’s… Oh, let’s give seminars and pre-concert talks, just a few more and they’ll get it.

Is it entirely impossible that much of this music is not really all that great? Think of all the late 19th century salon artists that went into the dustbin of history. Is it possible that much modern classical music took a detour that didn’t pan out all that well? If you have a sensitive ear and some patience, I’m sure you can hear some pattern in Xenakis or Cage or whoever. As for Boulez, Stockhausen etc… they have aged horribly. Their music is incredibly of its time. Their institutionalization of the avant garde also does more harm than good for creativity and yet the classical institution seems hell bent on not only still calling them modern, but on insisting that this is how classical music is supposed to sound. No art with such a limited palette can hope to be popular. People like Milton Babbbit used to see this unpopularity as an endorsement of the new music’s complexity and intellectual superiority, as if were string theory or particle physics. But Ross sees it as a failure on the part of the audience to educate itself.

Excuse me Mr. Ross, but isn’t the ability to write genuinely distinctive tonal music that makes original use of melody, rhythm, and harmony bloody hard? If I were a composer who quickly realized I wasn’t really up to it, I’d be very relieved to find some kind of “organizing principle or theory” that actually made a virtue of my shortcomings.

As for Ross’s analogy between the relative acceptance of modern painting and architecture versus the relative lack of acceptance of modern classical music, he’s ignoring at least one key distinction  —  works of physical art are typically one of a kind, purchasable objects. Pollock’s “Autumn Rhythm,” for example, may or may not be as graspable or attractive to a mass audience as an Andrew Wyeth or a Norman Rockwell; but there is only one “Autumn Rhythm,” and once it becomes valued by an actual or would-be elite (or both), it’s game over in terms of monetary value; the sky’s the limit. But for a host of obvious reasons, no work of music is an object in any similar way; there is no equivalent to the equation between the potential value and singularity of object that characterizes the physical arts – nor do I see how there could be one – to that of music, especially in an age where sound can be infinitely reproduced.

It almost seems as if the cultural elite would rather forever drive away the small remaining audience for classical music than admit that a lot of the modern stuff isn’t very good…. Death before dishonor. The audience dislikes most of it and the institution’s answer is….Tough kiddo.

The initiatives Ross mentions are no more than further attempts to stuff contemporary music (or rather a certain facet of it) into people’s faces. But it has been going on for years, and it hasn’t worked.

Ross also overlooks a crucial point, which is that, now perhaps more than ever, classical music does not consist of one overarching style to which all aspire. In fact, there are many different types of modern music, some of which are popular, some aren’t. John Adams plays to packed houses wherever he can be persuaded to go, unlike poor old Birtwhistle, Wuorinen, or even Carter. And yet the powers that be – certainly in the UK – have tried for years to push the serialist and post-Webernist line, as if the hostility it aroused in audiences validated the street-cred of its adherents –Mr and Mrs concert-goer from Frodsham don’t like it, so that just shows how superior I am.

But one thing is for sure; however much people acknowledge the force of dissonance or hyper-complexity, everyone’s a sucker for a good melody, or at least a good chord progression. Even Schoenberg never forgot that.

Finally, when Ross gets to would-be remedies, we have this gem:

On a recent trip to MoMA, I was struck by a poster at the entrance: Belong to something brilliant, electrifying, radical, curious, sharp, moving . . . unruly, visionary, dramatic, current, provocative, bold …..

Oh yes of course, that’s the ticket! Yes, more posters, more arch-hucksterism, more etc. Seems to fundamentally contradict Ross’ previous:

No more spa treatment for tired souls, approach.

He’s saying, Trade in your taste for ‘consoling beauty’ –  you’ll feel better if you belong to something brilliant, electrifying, radical, curious, sharp, moving, etc.

Right  –  Belong to. Hmm, I see…

Why not just cut to the clothing and perfume ads? Ross’ thinking and remedies here strike me as those of a PR. man.

People who are drawn compulsively, fervently to any music should recall as best they can how that happened, what we “heard” in what we heard and why it touched us. Yes, the “exposure to” factor is crucial, but we are/were exposed to a great many things and do not respond solely or merely for that reason. It may not be that our answers to that question remain the best or only answers, but they will have the virtue of being tied to and having been tested by actual experience.

As an aside: I have never understood the impulse to participate in the “shock and awe” aspect of new music, and I find the whole process of “cultivating” the “right” people revolting. I can’t stand it in any corner of the musical world. Unfortunately Ross is far too provincial for my taste, and he is far too impressed with the “right people.” His word is not gospel. It isn’t even close. He’s just someone who talks a big game and is able to put sentences and paragraphs together for an audience of people who want to have a musical “guru” to follow.

In closing, I listen to music because I want to be moved, torn, shattered by its emotional power. No other art form in gives me that cathartic charge. Unfortunately, with a few honorable exceptions, most recent classical music inspires either boredom or rage in me. Should one have to work so hard to appreciate it? Does much of it even merit that much attention? As I’ve stated there are honorable exceptions but they seem the exception rather than the rule.