Whose 20th Century? or, Boulez Poisoned the Well

I remember the first thing that the composer Leon Kirchner said upon arriving on the UCLA campus over twenty years ago for a visiting professorship:"I think that the whole 20th century may be a mistake." To a green academic, fresh from the hallowed east coast artistic fortresses, this statement seemed an oblique, heretical condemnation of Schoenberg, Mann, and Picasso, many of my patron saints. I have thought of his casual but deliberately provocative remark many times since then, explaining it in at least a dozen different ways, depending on the stage of my stylistic evolution. Like all the other composers of my generation, I was continually insecure about the "direction" of new music, or if it even had a direction.

At present, I see direct conflict between those composers who would completely redefine the basic structural materials and parameters of contemporary pieces and those who would subsume any new developments under the larger umbrella of tonal tradition. The situation is similar to that in physics at the advent of Einstein's explanation of the behavior of atoms according to Max Planck's quantum theory, an explanation which seemed to contradict classical Newtonian mechanics, which assumed point masses at specific coordinates in space.

The analogy between music and physics, however, breaks down when we consider that music, as the art of sound is not replaced by a newer and "better" music. The historian, R.G. Bury articulated the comparatively modern Western obsession with progress (The Idea of Progress, 1931), and the onslaught of an economy, driven by technology, has confirmed the rightness of the paradigm of the "software upgrade." Great transcendental art can be meaningful for anyone willing to accept its premises, and art from a very distant past can still speak to people of today. I contend that the subtext of Kirchner's remark implies that we have confused art with research, with disasterous results. The following extended passage from Boulez on Music Today (P.27, transl. Bradshaw & Bennett), a polemic of 1963, will make my point:

"Harmonic functions for example can no longer be thought of as permanent; the phenomena of tension and relaxation are not established on at all the same footing as before....Figuration itself...can no longer be generated by the classical canonic formulae.... From now on the two dimensions of classical (horizontal and vertrical) polyphony are linked by a kind of diagonal dimension, whose characteristics figure in each of them, in varying degrees. The laws which organise structures of duration have absolutely no connection with classical metre...

If we are to take Boulez at his word, no music with dance rhythms, obvious repetitions, "antique" figurations, or any link with the recent or distant past is "allowed." From the vantage point of 1992 it is precisely this kind of dogma, handed down from the throne of academe (or pseudo academe as in the case of Carter) that all but killed the spontaneity of new music and lost its audience in the process. [ From the standpoint of late 1996, from which is speak in this revision, a piece like my new Trumpet Concerto is blasphemy, with its imitation fugues, ritornellos, and tinfoil chorales.]
I am not merely trying to suggest that composers should only write triadic tonal music. If we look at (now) long line of minimalist music, which consists almost exclusively of triads, we can find a negation of traditional structural devices as described by Boulez [An ironic twist on all this is the insistence of those minimalists that they are travelling in the well worn footsteps of Vivaldi and Telemann, as masters of sequential figuration]. Since the long range expectations which imbue tonal works of the past with their sustaining power are lost in minimal or deconstructionist pieces, the effect is the same. In an similar vein, Stockhausen's conversion from serial to aleatory procedures in the late 50's is, therefore, essentially a continuum of the negation of the traditional use of recursive musical structural elements.

One could select a very different list of important composers from this century, and a very different view of the panoply of important influences emerges. Without the driving progressive force of innovation (novelty and opposed to invention) many composers like Holst, Bloch,
Prokofiev, or Kodaly produced incomparable masterpieces, equal to the hallowed and approved works (Rite of Spring and Wozzeck are good examples). Quick acquaintence with Bloch's Piano Sonata or Kodaly's Duo for Violin and Violoncello easily demonstrates this point.

Both Bloch and Kodaly wrote music on their own terms and carved out musically challenging and distinctive styles, but the music never threw away the great traditions of the past. We see a similar embrace of the past in the work of Picasso after World War I with a return to more rounded organic forms (such as in the "Yellow Christ") after a detour through the severe, ritualized depersonalization of form in his cubist works. If what I am saying about the most of the new music of the past generation makes any sense, how, then did things go so wrong? I would say that a number of factors contributed to the muddled state of classical art music 1) the partial or complete rejection of the musical elements described above by major composers, 2) the simultaneous decision or orchestras, soloists, and other groups to concentrate on standard repertoire rather than the new pieces as the bulk of concert fare, (as in the last century), and 3) the mass exodus of would-be composers to universities wher they were immune from the normal processes of cultural attrition. This move freed composers to pursue experimental music [not a bad thing in itself, but not a solid base for a repertoire], a purpuit which subsequently became equated with scientific research, an illogical step given my earlier observations..

In universities the teaching of Music History (particularly the 20th century) was tailored to promote the avant-garde scenario, and composers who did not "fit" (like Holst, Bloch, etc.) were ignored. The musical mainstream, which has always embraced some tradition, was pushed aside for a discussion of the pseudo novelty of musical experimentation. Also, academicians quickly discovered the easy slickness in the rational explanation of serial or twelve-tone, or soundmass processes. There was plenty to talk about, because processes like these were relentlessly obvious in execution. They also gave a whole generation of no-talent academics a new "creative" lease on life.

In the four years since I first penned the early version of this material for the booklet of Music & Arts CD-757, I have seen a greater corrective trend in the parvenu work of my students. The boundaries between concert and film music, popular and "high" art, pure and impure cultural identities have been further obscured with beneficial results. Serious concert music as a large-scale cultural force will probably not regain the kind of visibility that it had in the last century. We should remember, however, that this kind of music often resided in remote monasteries and private palaces: most people never heard the stuff. A single copy of the Florence ms. Was enough to change the history of music, and the 300 million dollar boxoffice success of a cinematic anachronism does not guarantee it immortality.

PR October, 1996.