Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Us and Them

Modernist music has had a tough time recently on BBC television. In the space of just a few days, John Adams, Eric Whitacre and Howard Goodall were all given primetime slots to present their condescending dismissals of the Second Viennese School. Bizarrely, the narrow-minded prejudices conveyed by each were presented as if they were meaningful and useful ways of understanding this period of musical history. What could the BBC’s motivations possibly be? Some belated penance for the perceived excesses of William Glock perhaps? I’m hardly the first in the blogoshere to have taken issue with this programming, and both Tristan Jakob-Hoff and Gavin Plumley have taken the Beeb to task on the matter.
Gavin Plumley quotes Goodall as saying “This academic rebellion was later labelled serialism or atonality and it produced decades of scholarly hot air, books, debates and seminars and, in its purest strictest form, not one piece of music that a normal person could understand or enjoy in 100 years.” After pointing out that this short statement contains at least two factual errors, Plumley goes on to point out that Goodall is intent on endorsing a “them and us” mentality when it comes to the advocates of serialism and/or atonality, the two concepts conflated by Goodall and neither adequately defined.
Clearly, advocates of Modernist music need to take issue with this “us and them” dichotomy, yet the mindset is difficult to shake off. Given its relatively small audience, it is easy to assume that Modernist music appeals only to a certain sector of society. We may not openly endorse Goodall’s view that serialism (to narrow it down a little) appeals only to those who take a scholarly approach to music, or that a broader intellectual framework supports Modernist music than is required by any other style, yet the promotion of these works, and often lack thereof, suggests that even advocates share these assumptions.
I’m as guilty as anybody else in this respect (though I’m trying to change my ways). Last September, I was amused to read the comments under a piece by Tom Service about the lack of a classical contender among the Mercury Prize finalists. Most were pretty hostile to contemporary classical music. Here’s a sample: “...Classical music is dead and anyone writing in it now is just holding up a corpse waving round it's [sic.] rotted arms and legs, hoping we won't notice the smell.” Entertained by the vehemence and casual aggression of many of these comments, I began quoting them on Twitter, explaining that I found it “interesting to read what the outside world thinks of contemporary classical music...” I was taken to task, quite rightly, by @carlrosman about my assumptions and motivations. He pointed out the risk of talking about an ‘outside world’, a concept that is easily fetishised and unintentionally consolidated. Carl was kind enough to suggest that my assumptions were only symptoms of a broader trend, and the result of an inferiority complex permeating the whole classical music culture.
If we succumb to this thinking, then Modernist classical music is twice damned. Classical music is itself a minority concern, and liable to align itself with specific social and cultural contexts when on the defensive. Modernist music, so this assumption goes, is exclusive in its appeal to a subset that forms a small proportion of this already small group.
When all these assumptions are written down they start looking very silly, especially when we consider the number of organisations that are able to promote Modernist music based on other paradigms. Look, for example, at the success the London Sinfonietta has had in promoting the acoustic music of Stockhausen, Nono and Xenakis to audiences from the broader electronic music world, for whom these names have a different, yet no less important significance.
Although not quite as defamatory as Howard Goodall, the BBC’s recent series The Sound and the Fury has also been peddling the idea that Modernist music only appeals, indeed can only appeal, to a small and strictly defined audience. Worse still, the programme assumes that its own audience is made up exclusively of the other group, the ‘normal’ people. Tristan Jakob-Hoff is right that the programme is attempting to cordon off ‘difficult’ music and to apologise for its existence. The assumption seems to be that ‘normal’ people like tonal music, so the best way to engage them with the music of the 20th century is to show that tonal music has been written continuously throughout that period. As a result, Stravinsky and Minimalism take centre stage. But they too get misrepresented in the process, with the irony of Stravinsky’s tonal references brushed over, and the non-functional (in a tonal sense) nature of the diatonic language of much Minimalist music presented as if it were a return to some 18th-century ideal of melody and harmony.
It doesn’t have to be like this. There is no harm in acknowledging that styles of music often have natural constituencies, and even that tribal instincts often influence the music we champion. The danger comes in making assumptions about the kinds of people who don’t like a certain kind of music. For some reason, the BBC has been doing this a lot recently, repeatedly assuring its audiences that Modernist music is not for them.
And perhaps it isn’t for many of them, but generalising at this level has the effect of completely obliterating whatever possible audience Modernist music even could have. So when we read or hear views hostile to Modernist music, it is important to remember that they are not necessarily the opinions of the public at large. You can like this music and be ‘normal’ just as much as you can dislike it and still be ‘normal’. As is probably clear by now, Howard Goodall doesn’t speak for me. And despite his statements to the contrary, he doesn’t speak for anybody else either.


  1. Well, he spoke for me.

    Incidentally, it's "peddling" not "pedalling".

  2. Fair enough. Thanks for spotting the typo.

  3. I got into 20th century music as a teenager before I got into "classical" classical music. I found Rufer's "Composition with 12 Tones" in the local library and had a go! Coming at it that way I've always wondered why other people didn't find good "atonal" music as good as any other good music.

    Incidentally, I've just been watching a great youtube video of Mitsuko Uchida talking about playing Schoenberg's Piano Concerto. Nice to hear someone with a passion for "difficult" 20th century music: http://youtu.be/PmWRttCo7lo

  4. Interesting post. I, too, am abhorred by the recent BBC documentaries' approach to 20th century music and agree with Gavin Plumley on this. One has come to expect no less from Howard Goodall, but, much as I enjoyed The Sound and the Fury, it was such a missed opportunity to promote the music. Instead, the producers obviously felt that they had to give opposition to the genre equal if not more airtime than its supporters. The main point missed for me was quite how much Schönberg, on whom I have written extensively, and his school influenced so many different strains of 20th century music, popular, cinematic or otherwise. Anyhow, please check out my blog on Schönberg's relationship with Richard Gerstl and how this impacted or otherwise on Schönberg's composition of his seminal and atonal op.10, his Second String Quartet (richardgerstl.com).