Aaron Copland and the Crisis of Modernism

(culled from an essay which first appeared in notes for Music & Arts CD-738)

"For a long time I harbored the pleasant notion that I was a child of the twentieth century, having been born on 14 November 1900. But some authorities claim that the twentieth century began on January 1 1901. I calculate therefore that I spent my first forty-eight days in the nineteenth century- an alarming thought."

Aaron Copland, with these opening words from volume I of his autobioigraphy (publ. 1984 with Vivian Perlis), expresses what is perhaps the primary aesthetic concern of most artists working today: IS my work relevant? Is it MODERN? Heaven forbid that I should dip into the Romantic past or that my work should show any evidence of its excesses. On many occasions throughout his life, Copland, long acclaimed as the populist hero/composer of such works as Billy the Kid and Rodeo, was disturbed that the musical establishment at large would not see him as a major, serious force in new music. The three large piano works- Piano Variations of 1930, Piano Sonata of 1941, and the Piano Fantasy of fifteen years later show the composer at his most adventuresome and selfconsciously avant-garde. The composer's concern, a fear that becomes a pervasive contemporary attitude, probably has its roots in the notion of progress as a necessary end. J.B. Bury, the historian [alluded to in other essays in this collection] develops a thesis that the idea of progress is a comparatively new phenomenon in western culture. "In achieving its ascendency and unfolding its meaning, the Idea of Prograss had to overcome a psychological obstacle which may be described as the illusion of finality." ("Epilogue" to The Idea of Progress). Modern man accepts the ceaseless trek forward with no particular goal in mind, save new and better solutions to old problems.

When this same notion is applied to the arts, a round of ceaseless novelty continues to invalidate its immediate past as the rate of stylistic change accelerates. Tradition is one of the main limits of the artist and a major controlling force of the work itself. But, you may say, what of creativity? Stravinsky, in The Poetics of Music, reminds us that "the creator's function is to sift elements he receives from her (imagination as the mother of caprice), for human activity must impose limits upon itself. The more art is controlled, limited, worked over, the more it is free." (English edition, Harvard University Press, P. 63).

Looking at the century near its end, it seems to me that this increasing rate of change (for its own sake) has produced a disasterous set of aesthetic consequences. Before elaborating on them I must make the disclaimer that I do not think that any artist can reclaim the past, but rather the present reveals a special set of circumstances for each succeeding generation of artists. Borges's Pierre Menard ("Labyrinths") could not really rewrite Don Quixote, but no artist could write a novel today without having been influenced by that book.

In a frenetic attempt to be original, many composers after WW II may have cut the link with a tradition that creates a necessary continuity and an assurance that all works of music have melody, harmony, textural contrast, and a large-scale tonal/structural design. Music which is created as a denial of the past seems doomed to be absorbed as it is denied by the next fashion. The disaster probably began with Schoenberg's development of semi-combinatorial twelve-tone music. Without boring the reader on its details, I would make a few observations about the technique: 1) all pitches are equally important, and 2) connections between sets of pitches are made by mathematical rather than aural means (if the row has two hexachords, A and B, then at some transposition the inversion of the row will produce the pitches of A from the intervals of B and vice versa). These two premises, while not consistently applied by Schoenberg himself, carried to the next generation of composers who saw the mechanism as the next natural evolution of the tonal process (a method of controlling "the total chromatic").

At this point I would ask the reader to try to hum any theme. Notice that some notes are longer in duration, some repeat more, some are on the top or bottom of the melodic curve, and their associations are linked by a perception of harmonic design which groups the pitches independent of the other parameters. It may well be impossible to write a musical idea in which all the pitches have equal weight. Even though twelve-tome melodies might have the same variety of contour and duration, it is the association that the ear makes among groups of pitches that gives a musical gesture its ultimate meaning in the larger context of a phrase, and, ultimately, in the entire piece. Of course, the row only has to be used as aggregates, not necessarily as a melody. Will the problem go away if the material is transformed into pointillistic fragments? In a small way the problem is solved, as one finds in the works of Webern; however, no large sweep of structure is possible, and pieces must remain stunted miniatures. Composers have been writing real melodies for over one thousand years in the West: I see no reason to abandon this activity because of forty years of wrongheaded thinking on the part of a few proto academics.

Connections between different musical ideas in the same piece may be subtle, but they are aurally perceivable, or at least psychologically intuited; and, the tonal contrasts produce the succession of expectatioins of instability and repose that guide our emotional involvement in the work. No single gesture or event in a piece must preempt the total effect of the piece itself. This total effect is entirely dependent on the twin pillars of tonal design and forward motion. Without them there can be no large scale expectations, and, therefore, no large scale emotional effect. The result is that individual musical events become disconnected protagonists in a drama with no third act.

While most composers have given up writing twelve-tone music, and the process has been absorbed into the musico-composition fabric, the flood gates have been opened to topple other mainstays of musical sturcure such as formal design and inevitability. Throughout history, earlier forms have given way to later developments which served the composer with equal success; however, the dissolution or "deconstruction" of musical form that has taken place in sound mass, collage, or minimalist works has not provided a viable replacement for the musical structures of the last fifty years. When Beethoven decides to apply an "antique" form like the furgue exposition in the opening of Opus 131, it is a reinterpretation with much different ramifications and outcomes, much like those Picasso works based on paintings of Velasquez or Goya. The new structure has a few superficial trappings, but it is viable in its own right. Remember, even with Concerto for Orchestra , a late work, Bartok was reluctant to give up Sonata Form; and, The Rake's Progress of 1951, Stravinsky's last overtly tonal work, borrows from Classical models. A more convincing example might be Alban Berg's Wozzeck which still sounds gritty and startling today with its raw edged emotionalism, yet it is made out of a mosaic of traditional small forms, which are identified in the score.

I would not want to suggest that one must look only to the past to preserve essential musical elements. I would refer the reader to the String Quartet No. 1 (1988) of Henryk Gorecki which attempts to fuse propulsive rhythm and cohesive structure by a repetition of rustic, visceral elements. Traditional development gives way to this continuous process. Many writers on music have suggested that the art is in a state of fluctuating stasis, that as the culture nears the millenium the arts will assemble a summation of all the stylistic weight of the past. This speculation is particularly attractive to me in that it suggests that the advantage of writing today is that one may draw on anything for materials and processes (I am reminded of a graduate student now at UCLA who has studied the music which accompanies cartoons as a source for a composition). Two dates should be engraved in the reader's mind: 1951 and 1987. Schoenberg died in 1951; by the next year Stravinsky had abandoned tonality and began to experiment with twelve-tone procedures. A few years later many other composers, including Aaron Copland, followed suit. Quick! Sing any musical idea from a classical piece written between 1951 and 1987. If you failed, you have helped me to make a major point: the abandonment of any tonality proved to be the death knell of memorability and ultimately for the works themselves.

All composers did not march like lemmings to the sea: artists like Vincent Persichetti, Ned Rorem, and Leonard Bernstein stubbornly resisted the avant-garde. By 1987 it was common to find composers writing "accessible" works. Pieces like Mark Carlson's Mass: Christ in Majesty or Dominick Argento's Te Deum, both from that year are large, major musical statements in which there is little evidence of the droppings of the Second Viennese progeny, the Polish soundmassers, or the American minimalists. Yet these works emerge from contemporary experience and are not merely quaint curiosities. I would not begin to dictate to any artist how to write music or to discourage anyone from experimentation: all I ask is that the results be as emotionally satisfying as music already in existence. (I will grant that some composers maintain that the very fabric of music and musical expression has changed and that composers today have different goals. My only wish: Please don't call yourselves composers.)

A last observation on the post WWII disaster: the growing gap between popular and so called art music. In the past the relationship was close, as the same composers often wrote in both areas (George Gershwin certainly excelled in the cross-fertilization between both areas). Popular music is a reflection of the general taste and concerns the man/women in the street; today the emphasis is on text (witness the meteoric rise of rap music) with simple, repetitious phrases; while, until recently, most progressive art music was a textless abstraction, a stark contrast to the largely vocal output of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. The glaring dichotomy between the visceral theatrics of a Madonna and the Apollonian cabalistic surface of Elliott Carter's Fourth Quartet must give the general listener pause for reflection and self examination. Both vehicles exude a wanton self indulgence that obfuscates the kind of pure, direct expression that characterizes art works that transcend an age and tie into human nature in its broadest terms.

Am I saying that almost all modern art, both popular and classical, is no good? Well, yes: that is the sad conclusion. The bright side is that this statement has probably been true for as long as art works have been created, but time a history have allowed the tasteless and inferior works to fade away. What may be more pernicious about today's evolutionary process is that the survival of the works is being decided by the artists themselves. Groups of powerful visual artists sit on boards dictating the next "flavor of the month." Individual composers with powerful residences with the major orchestras dispense commissions like party favors to their friends and cronies.

The natural process of attrition and evolution must occur from outside the artistic community: the musical performer, the art dealer, the patrons themselves assume the positions now occupied by self-serving composers et al. If there is pressure for stylistic change, it must come from the audience (in the most general sense), not from pseudo practitioners ensconced in the academy and oblivious to human interaction.

Dear listener: if you don't like or understand what is supposed to be "good for you," then stick by your guns and trust your innately human responses. Our audiences and critics have been sedated and ultimately anesthetized by art works which serve only to glorify the process and materials rather than the ends, which must be the transformation of the human spirit. A recent conversation with the American composer, George Rochberg, my primary teacher, revolved around the subject of taste. "There is no taste today," he proffered; but whose fault is that, I ask? Do not expect taste from your artists: we expect taste from you.

PR (Revised: October 11, 1996)