Y Not 2K?

As the millennium ends, Modernist Music is making a comeback. Why are we suddenly nostalgic for the formerly new?

The music that has constituted the "contemporary music" of my lifetime so far is a music violently opposed to nostalgia. As Pierre Boulez, one of its leading architects, wrote, "If you do not negate, if you do not make a clean sweep of all that you have inherited from the past, if you do not question [your] heritage and adopt an attitude of fundamental doubt towards all accepted values, well!, you will never get any further." And again, "When one has had one's fill of experimenting, there comes a nostalgia for the past. . . . [S]uch nostalgias have no interest for me; they are . . . unable to contribute to a future. . . ." The very music, as written by Boulez, Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt, was structured to defy nostalgia, to defeat memory, to so baffle comprehension that one couldn't even think back to the beginning of a piece from the end of it.

How charmingly ironic, then, to end the 20th century in a wave of nostalgia for that very music. Schoenberg's Moses und Aron, at last trotted out by the Met as though they'd just discovered the 20th century, is reviewed sentimentally by critics who tout Schoenberg the way the Republican House managers touted the Rule of Law— aware that the public isn't really behind them, but determined to act proud of their lonely principles. Boulez is named composer's chair at Carnegie Hall, extending his influence in a city and time ultimately as foreign to him as he is irrelevant to it. David Schiff and Paul Griffiths in The New York Times lament that composers no longer write incomprehensibly complex music. I was drafted to a panel on modernism recently in Los Angeles, where the aficionados got caught up talking about 1950s Darmstadt and couldn't get off the subject even after audience members begged them to.

Serialist music is fun for experts to talk about, partly because it makes no sense. There was no discernible point in writing a dry, unrewarding, unmemorable piece like Boulez's Le Marteau sans maitre, and that's exactly what's fascinating about it. Unlike the music of any other era, 20th-century music, which for most people is still identified with high modernism and nothing else, has always been a Cause— a Worthy Cause at times, a Lost Cause quite often, a Noble Cause, a Hopeless Cause. As a cause it never achieved the big public triumph it sought for decades, and so still seems unfulfilled. It never had the opportunity to become so ubiquitously popular that it overplayed its hand, fell into complacent excess, and made even its advocates finally glad to see it depart. Might as well expect the Irish to just drop their interest in independence from British rule without achieving it as expect musicians who spent their lives fighting for the cause of 20th-century music to move on to something else.

Serialist composer Pierre Boulez: "When one has had one's fill of experimenting, there comes a nostalgia for the past."
Steve J. Sherman
Serialist composer Pierre Boulez: "When one has had one's fill of experimenting, there comes a nostalgia for the past."

And so, just at the moment when one would expect all kinds of hype about the new music of the 21st century, we get— nothing. The turn of the millennium occasions no focus on the new, just attempts to keep the old alive. Newspapers and press releases trumpet the same names that were in the air when I was an undergrad 25 years ago. You wait for all those composers born in the 1920s and 1930s to be replaced in the critical dialogue by the names of those born in the 1940s and '50s. But it never happens. Finally, in the Times a few weeks ago Paul Griffiths, noticing their absence, wrote an article titled "Where Are America's Young Composers?"

Well, I know where they are, I've been to their apartments, they leave messages on my answering machine. But you're not going to hear about them, because there's a moratorium on discussing them except to dismiss them. Young composers are not allowed to climb the ladder that the generation before last climbed.

I have three explanations for this neglect— explanations not mutually exclusive, but that kind of go hand in hand. The first is admittedly a little mystical: it's that an end-of-the- millennium feeling prevents us from looking ahead. There's no point in investing our time and enthusiasm, I imagine people thinking deep down, in whatever's going on musically at the moment, because when the calendar changes it'll be a whole new game anyway. We won't allow ourselves to perceive what's new now with this mammoth deadline just ahead.

The second, more pragmatic explanation is based on hard evidence relayed by those working in the field. Arts organizations are reforming themselves after a corporate model. They have become more bottom-line conscious, which means that they try to make money by programming artists you've already heard of. No one who is not famous yet will be allowed to become famous, because those who are not famous do not bring in a guaranteed audience. Presenters have quit putting their money into artists' fees, and have directed it into marketing and advertising, for which they need recognizable names. The strategy has a forseeable crash point, because some of those famous names— Boulez, for example, is 71— ain't going to be around for much of the new millennium.

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