Ding! Dong! The Witch Is Dead


May I be the only classical music critic in town to welcome the new century with open arms? Hurrah! Hurrah! Twentieth-century music is dead.

Uh-oh: I’ve just denounced what I’m supposed to pledge allegiance to. Of course, there were actually two 20th centuries. The first, symbolized by Stravinsky, Bartók, and Ives, was a dramatic irruption of violent, irrational energy, as music abruptly claimed all those sonic phenomena that earlier centuries had prohibited. The second 20th century, which began as World War II ended, was quite the opposite, a worship of technical devices by people who, in any other generation, would have likely become lab technicians rather than composers. Yet by a quirk of inadequate terminology, both 20th centuries—the lion’s roar and the ferret’s jargon-blurred murmur—became yoked together under the term “modernism.” And by another ironic inadequacy that made no difference until this month, “20th-century” and “modernist” were synonymous in music.

It’s not that the late 20th century didn’t produce great music. Any era that can boast Nancarrow, Feldman, Ashley, and Scelsi can hold its head up with the best. But while bad 17th-century music is merely dull, and bad 19th-century music is tediously grandiose, the late 20th century’s bad music was pervasively ugly, pretentious, and meaningless, yet backed up by a technic apparatus that justified it and even earned it prestigious awards. Twelve-tone technique—the South Sea Bubble of music history, to which hundreds and perhaps thousands of well-intended composers sacrificed their careers like lemmings, and all for nothing—brought music to the lowest point in the history of mankind. Twelve-tone music is now dead, everyone grudgingly admits, yet its pitch-set-manipulating habits survive in far-flung corners of our musical technique like residual viruses.

The effect of the rolling over of the Christian-historical odometer is purely psychological, but nevertheless potent: Post-modern (not “postmodern”) 21st-century music has been around for years, and the last argument for denying its existence has just collapsed. Treating “20th-century” and “modernist” as synonymous was a critical ploy for keeping modernism alive and current-seeming long after the aesthetic had begun to erode in the 1970s. Attendant to that ploy, the uptown critics have pounced on every young composer, no matter how mediocre, who promised to extend the lease on modernism a few more years; John Zorn, Tan Dun, and Aaron Kernis all benefited from that psychology, which now devolves on Britain’s young Thomas Ades, whose music is hailed as “serious” for being merely confused. While early modernism was an honest blow struck for freedom of expression, late modernism deteriorated into a web of pretensions and syllogisms, an insider’s game of careerist one-upmanship.

At the start of this new, still-promising century, let us reiterate some eternal musical truths that the 20th century lost sight of:

There is nothing wrong with simplicity. It is easier to write complicated music than simple music; Beethoven’s sketchbooks show how hard he struggled to achieve simplicity. It occasionally happens that profound music is difficult to understand, but it does not follow from this that music that is difficult to understand is therefore profound. Most difficult-to-understand music is simply unclear. The value of music is not proportional to the quantity or intricacy of its technical apparatus. Like many great composers throughout the ages, Mozart believed in an “artless art” in which the effort of composing is hidden beneath an effortless surface; this is as it should be. The audience wants to be delighted, inspired, entertained, not reassured that the composer is highly educated and worked hard. There is nothing wrong with occasionally writing an ostentatiously technical piece for the delectation of one’s colleagues, but to do nothing but that is to pretend that composers have no obligation to society, and by extension that neither do doctors, politicians, generals, or any other profession. A piece of music is not good just because it is popular, nor is it bad just because it is popular. The music profession has many incentives to bestow fame and honor on certain of its members; the quality of their music is only one of those incentives and never an essential one.

Let’s keep these truths in mind and see if we can create a 21st century less burdened by boring, ugly, pretentious music than the 20th was.

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