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From: Chad Wozniak, USA

I think the problem with the so-called 'modernist' schools of composition, and the reason they have never appealed to what was from the 1500's to the mid-20th century the core audience for serious art music, is not that they forsook tonality, but rather that they eschewed in their work all that is recognized and understood, both intellectually and viscerally, as musical content by that core audience. Charles Ives, for example, was able to write convincing and appealing music without a clear tonal center. At the same time, one has the minimalists, who almost without exception write very consonant and tonal material, yet are similarly lacking in the melody, harmonic progression and organic form that are the fundamentals of music as known to that core audience. It is the lack of musical content and simple appeal in so-called modernist styles (and I include minimalism in these, for the reason just given) that has caused the rupture between new music and its natural audience.

This emptiness and lack of appeal to audiences has only been underscored by the open contempt expressed by 'modernists' like Babbitt ('Who Cares If You Listen?'), Boulez (all of the art of the past must be destroyed) and Wuorinen (if you don't like serialism, it's because you're too stupid or too lazy to learn to appreciate it). My take on audiences' distaste for 'modernism' is that the listening public rejects this material not because they do not understand it, but because they do understand it and recognize its utter lack of musical content or artistic worth. Audiences can see all too clearly and easily that calculation is not inspiration. Audiences are a lot smarter than 'modernist' elitists will ever admit, and they can always see when the emperor has no clothes -- and the more so when the emperor positively struts his nakedness, as the 'modernists' seem so prone to do.

Dissonance is not the problem with the material purveyed by the serialists and aleatorists, nor is the lack of a tonal center. Audiences have no problem with improv jazz, for example, even though it can be every bit as dissonant and lacking in a tonal center as any 'moderenist' material. Music need not always have a tonal center to be music, but it must have melody, harmonic progression and organic form. Merely being consonant and tonal is not enough, as the vapidity of minimalism shows. Also, however, it is clear that atonal music is most effective when it is posited, either explicitly or at least implicitly, as a foil to tonality. Charles Ives understood this the most explicitly of any composer, and for this reason alone he should be counted as the greatest composer of the 20th century.

By contrast, Schoenberg, Cage and their disciples do not, in my opinion, deserve even the title of 'composer'. At best, they were and are mere dabblers in acoustical experimentation. At worst, they may well be ultimately responsible for expunging serious art music from the consciousness of the public at large. Schoenberg, more than any other individual, is responsible for the life-threatening illness of art music today. Cage is the second most guilty of threatening the life of the art of music; and the minimalists' exercises in faith healing, as it were, have, if anything, only made the patient even worse.

As to the purported limitations of tonality, it would seem that despite those limitations the overwhelming bulk of great art music somehow has been produced within its confines. It is also becoming apparent in the work of those more recent composers who have resisted abandoning tonality -- and this would include Charles Ives, who never forswore it (as witness, the third movement of his 4th Symphony, which may well be otherwise the most truly original piece of music ever written) -- that there is still a great deal of room, indeed infinite room, in it for more orginal, fresh and appealing music.

As for modernism? It's no accident that so much 12-tone material and aleatory material sounds alike and cannot be told apart by listeners (as was amply demonstrated in an experiment with graduate music students). I submit that even if 12-tone had had musical merit, anyone after Schoenberg who took it up would be unoriginal. Whereas, no such stigma could ever attach to a naturally evolved system like tonality, attributable to no one individual (and certainly not to a crackpot egomaniac like Schoenberg).

A particularly noteworthy point is that, in his haste to write his name on the pages of music history, Schoenberg essentially gave up on exploring the possibilities of 20th-century harmony and dissonant styles before he had even scratched the surface of their possibilities. It has become painfully obvious that in inventing the 12-tone system, Schoenberg's objective was not to make music, but to make his own reputation.

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Copyright © 10 September 2005 Alistair Hinton & Chad Wozniak, UK&USA


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