Monday, February 22, 2010

Dead music, dead issue

It was an eye-catching headline:

Audiences hate modern classical music because their brains cannot cope

This article in The Telegraph by Richard Gray went on to explain the scientific research behind the assertion.

Could this be the reason all of public radio classical stations we've surveyed so far avoid living composers? Because the music's so foreign to the average listener that its incomprehensible?

Not quite.

Reading the article carefully, I quickly discovered that the modern composer brains couldn't comprehend was -- Arnold Schoenberg. According to the article:
In the early twentieth century, however, composers led by Schoenberg began to rally against the traditional conventions of music to produce compositions which lack tonal centres, known as atonal music. 
Under their vision, which has been adopted by many subsequent classical musicians, music no longer needed to be confined to a home note or chord.
But such atonal music has been badly received by audiences and critics who have found it difficult to follow.
So the modern music they're talking about was written by a composer who died in 1951 -- 59 years ago. To put that into perspective, it's like saying people today can't handle hip-hop because Fats Domino is too outré. Or that Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue" (1959) made jazz incomprehensible for 2010 audiences. Or people won't go to movies because Fellini ruined everything.

A lot has happened in the past half century. But you wouldn't know it by this article.
Professor David Huron, an expert on music cognition at Ohio State University, has studied some of the underlying reasons why listeners struggled with such modern classical pieces, 
"Some of the things that were done by those composers such as Schoenberg undermined this cognitive aid for making music easier to understand and follow. Schoenberg's music became fragmented which makes it harder for the brain to find structure.
Makes it seem like Arnold just left us recently, doesn't it?
While traditional classical music follows strict patterns and formula that allow the brain to make sense of the sound, modern symphonies by composers such as Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern simply confuse listeners' brains.
Mmmm, yes. But what happened next? While there are still a few academic composers that continue down the dodecophonic path, many have moved on. What are living composers doing?

Here's an excerpt from Philip Glass' Violin Concerto (1987). I'm hearing "strict patterns and formula" in this 23-year-old work. How about you?

Let's get a little closer in time to what might be reasonably called "modern music." Michael Torke wrote his saxophone quartet in 1995, only fifteen years ago. Do you experience an "overwhelming feeling of confusion" listening to this music? Me either.

Then there's Jay Greenberg's "Four Scenes for Double String Quartet," composed in 2008. Anyone experiencing "constant failures to anticipate what will happen next?"

If you read the article carefully, the "modern" music of Schoenberg is always mentioned in the present tense, creating the impression that this is where classical music is today.

"many people still seem to find modern classical music challenging"

"atonal music has been badly received by audiences and critics who have found it difficult to follow"

Composers speak a different, more accessible language today. Is anyone listening?

- Ralph

And I also don't entirely buy that atonal and/or dodecophonic music is totally incomprehensible. It's been a regular part of movie music since the 1940's. Here's Webern setting the mood for an "Andy Griffith Show" scene.

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant retort to the Telegraph article, Ralph. When I read it yesterday, I kept checking the date on it to make sure it wasn't penned in the '60s. Even then I'd be hard-pressed to agree with the claims and the accompanying "proof." We sell a series on NaxosDirect called Sonic Rebellion that has composers who might be considered atonal - Part, Glass, Eno - and we are proud to distribute modern classical labels like Decapo, Innova, Nonclassical and New Amsterdam, which are often featured on NPR. All of these titles and labels sell well for us, side-by-side with the "comprehensible" Mozart and Bach. Maybe our customers are from Mars, could happen ;)