Escape from the Dungeon of Dissonance

by Daniel Steven Crafts
Published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, 1991

While contemporary orchestral and chamber music seems on the verge of a new era, the subject of its dissonance and obscurity remains an ongoing issue with Bay Area audiences and critics alike. Several years ago, after a great deal of grumbling by San Francisco Symphony audiences about the amount of dissonant music being programmed, some of the symphony musicians declared that even they were out of sympathy with the modern works they were asked to play.

Last summer, an article appeared in a local publication lauding a retum to melodic tonality. Robert Commanday, senior reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle, felt called upon to respond with a rebuttal article, using the same tired arguments we've heard for 40 years in favor of a kind of music that audiences have found unacceptable all along. Basically, his patronizing article implied that concert‑goers have to be led kicking and screaming to anything they can't immediately understand.

For nearly half a century, contemporary music (by such composers as Pierre Boulez, Milton Babbitt, Elliot Carter, and Roger Sessions, to name just a few) has been plagued by the principles of formalism ‑- the notion that form (the technical system employed in composition) is of more importance than the expression, or content, of the music. Formalism  came to prominence in the 1950s as part of a general and reactionary social trend toward ahistoricism. To divorce a work from its historical context allows for a complete re-evaluation and re-interpretation cast in the light of dominant social reality, in this case elevating form above content. This philosophy permeated all academic disciplines to one degree or another, and the arts were no exception. In literature, for example, the "New Criticism" asserted that such considerations as the writer's life and society and the ongoing attitudes or social conflicts of the historical period only clutter up a "truly scientific" evaluation of a work.

Most music history textbooks reflect this approach to some extent. Composers are ranked in importance according to the degree to which they were formal innovators. Beethoven, for instance, is important because he expanded the tonal resources of sonata form. Wagner's great contribution was supposedly pushing tonality to its limits. Viewed from this, the wrong side of Alice's looking‑glass, content is seen as a mere by-product of creative endeavor.

Postwar modernist composers, believing formal innovation to be the hallmark of a great composer, chose Schoenberg's (or Webern's) serialist approach (a system of composition based more in mathematics than in music) as offering the greatest opportunity for discovery. Not all were strict serialists, but the result was much the same. Serialism emphasized form over content from the very beginning, despite its protestations to the contrary.

Composers found this technique of applying simplistic forms of mathematics to musical composition perfectly in keeping with the scientific approaches so highly valued by their social era. Thus came the inversion (or perversion) of form dominating content ‑- even of form as content. It's easy to see why this route was appealing: Form is objective and easy to quantify, while content is subjective and messy to work with. Which of the two is more easily studied by a linear scientific approach?

Formalism is, in a nutshell, the philosophic and aesthetic justification for the kind of tedious, ugly music that concert audiences have come to dread. When people ask why contemporary music has to be so dissonant, the answer is that it's written by those who believe that the structure of a piece and its technical resources are of more importance than what the music has to express ‑- whether they admit to that or not.

Another, more straightforward reason that the modernists of the postwar era felt compelled to write dissonant and recondite works was, frankly, to make the serious music they wrote clearly distinguishable from popular or commercial music. Like Sixtus Beckmesser, the reactionary guild‑member in Die Meistersinger, they believed (and still believe) themselves to be the guardians of a great musical tradition, holding the fort against the barbarians. While it's true that music in general has gone through an unparalleled prostitution in the 20th century, the modernists see their own work as the genuine avant‑garde of the classical tradition, following the true path that an ignorant audience, they feel, will ultimately decide to follow. But like the pedant Beckmesser they are in practice the academics clinging to a now wornout style, preventing anything of vitality from getting through the floodgates.

When Schoenberg introduced his new harmonic idiom at a piano recital in 1924, he believed, as have many of his artistic descendants, that music composed by this system would ultimately come to be heard as no different from any abstract music ‑‑ that audiences would come to accept it and it would become part of the standard literature. Nothing of the sort has happened.   Despite volumes of literature justifying, explicating, and  promoting serial or ugly music in general, the style has never caught on. Attitudes have indeed changed, however. When perpetually dissonant music was first introduced, it was considered shocking. Today's symphony audiences generally find it obnoxious or merely boring, like an unwanted relative one must endure for the sake of a peaceful holiday dinner.

While it is true that new developments in art often take time to make themselves understood, the dissonant idiom has been around for nearly 70 years in one abstruse form or another. It has had more than ample time to present its case. The fact that it has still not been generally accepted speaks loudly and clearly: the music does not communicate. It was from its inception an aesthetic miscalculation, based on a system that is by definition artificial.

The conductor Emst Ansermet pointed out long ago that a note is not a single sound, contrary to the implications of formalist methodology. It contains both the fundamental tone as well as the overtone series. In other words, a note implies a fundamental tonality. A composer can use this implication by deliberately playing on it or even frustrating it. But to deny its existence, to seek to eliminate it from the process of composition altogether by simply redefining; the rules is to deny both the nature of sound as well as the ability of the ear to associate and combine sounds. Like it or not, tonality is an inherent property of sound.

Modernism remains not the organic musical development of a culture, but an abstraction without concrete social antecedent. Its much touted formal complexity is little more than complexity for its own sake ‑- surely not for the sake of anything so profound it cannot be said by simpler means. Just as the gobbledygook language often found in business and political speeches is to avoid making a definite statement, here too does needless complexity serve to obscure the purpose. A great artist will attempt at all cost to find the simplest, most direct way of expressing an idea or emotion. The task of the artist is to reveal beauty or meaning otherwise hidden from the world, certainly not to confuse the issue further.

In great art, the content should be complex, the means of expression as simple as it can be -- never the other way around. Modernism in music is a quasi-mathematical system passing itself off as aesthetic structure, reducing human expression to the sounds resulting from a few tedious anagrams and matrix patterns. If a music that has dominated the contemporary scene for nearly half a century still seems aurally alien and incomprehensible, then the fault lies not in the audiences who have consistently rejected it, but in the misconceptions of the music itself. A great many talented composers of recent generations who might otherwise have risen to a prominence beyond the inner circles of the avant‑garde remain obscure simply because of the artificial idiom in which they chose to work.

Even today, some composers choose to set themselves apart from their potential audience.  British critic Gerald Lamer recently said that "composers should take pride in the impenetrability of their music and disregard such lowly matters as politics and selling records." Modernism is music whose time has come and gone without ever having arrived--yet the "hits just keep on coming."

There is also an intimidation that comes into play here, affecting both composers and audiences alike. Back in the 1950s, tonality was declared dead by the theoretical powers‑ that‑be. The system has been used up, they said; only new formal resources could produce anything worthwhile. This, they said, was a foregone conclusion: To dispute it was only to declare one's own ignorance.

Even today, to speak out against academic self‑indulgence is to invite charges of being out of tune with the "avant‑garde." Concert‑goers today are much more timid in expressing opinions than they once were. Having had their noses rubbed in occasional mistaken judgments of the past, people seem almost afraid of openly expressing a negative opinion. And in its own way, that lack of critical response becomes even more destructive than the narrow‑minded audiences of the past.

My arguments against modemism/formalism are nothing new. Back in the 1950s, Henry Pleasants wrote a delightful book titled The Agony of Modern Music in which he presented many of the same objections. The difference is that we've had to suffer through 40 more years of ugly music forced down our throats by the academics as the only legitimate, serious new form of composition. Despite having no audience to speak of and no support from the general body of music‑lovers, contemporary modernists (in the tradition of Milton Babbitt's 1957 article "Who Cares If You Listen?') continue to convince themselves that what they do is of great significance. And they do so at the expense of a living, breathing musical culture.

As a result, music finds itself at a standstill. Audiences refuse to patronize contemporary music concerts because composers aren't writing anything of interest to them. Composers feel that if only audiences were exposed to more contemporary music (that is, ugly music), they'd come to appreciate what great works the composers think they've written. In the meantime, music as a vital expression of a culture dies a slow death. Concert halls become music museums; contemporary music concerts (like the San Francisco Symphony's New and Unusual Music series, --nicknamed “Cruel and Unusual Music”) become conventions of specialists presenting academic papers in the form of compositions. And nobody gets excited about anything.

There is minimalism, of course, but it's only the flip side of the formalist coin. While modernism pushes complexity to its extreme, minimalism pushes simplicity ‑- or rather simplistic‑ness ‑- to its extreme. Neither has much to offer beyond formal design. The only good thing about minimalism is that it broke the choke‑hold of dissonance. Unfortunately, it didn't provide any foundation on which to build, as the minimalists themselves am discovering.

Finally, however, a crack is appearing in the fortress walls: There is a small but growing school of musical thought that is turning away from formalist methodologies, toward less arcane modes. Yet the stigma of contemporary music as obscure, boring, and generally unpleasant to listen to carries over to an emerging generation of composers. We inherit modernism's most notable contribution: an alienated audience. While the pendulum has begun swinging back towards tonality, the great link with the past (especially with regards to teaching) has been lost and contemporary composers find themselves, in essence, reinventing the wheel.

It has been said that a sure mark of a society in decline is the cultivation of the bizarre in the arts. In a very real sense, dissonant music is the ideal representation of the alienation, dissociation, and technocracy we have come to expect in late 20th‑century America. Yet formalist art, far from being a critique of that social malaise, is an inherent part of it. if the principles of formalism ‑- the sacrifice of matter to form ‑- continue to be taken for granted, there is no hope for good music.

Music is a language, and to have meaning it must be a social language ‑- one that can be universally understood, at least in its rudiments. Language does, of course, change ‑- and so it should ‑- but it must change socially. One individual cannot re-define the rules of grammar and syntax and expect such an idiosyncratic approach to be understood, let alone adopted into common practice. Without a common vernacular, music ceases to communicate, and when it does, it ceases to have reason for being. It ultimately becomes mere academic exercise, sterile and pointless. As Judith Weir once remarked, "It's amazing that people should use music, of all things, to punish themselves with."