|The Past Frames the Composer Frames the Past
I’ve always told my students ‘you cannot compose in a vacuum’; to me the composition of art music has to be an expression of creative dissatisfaction with something. The European cultural construct of the artist has long been that of a traveller for whom the train of history has stopped too early; alighting, that composer is aware of being short of the destination - but the track has just come to an end! So, like the dog Gromit in The Wrong Trousers, he or she must lay the track ahead, while actually moving forward on it. The transport metaphor is apt in that our travellers will by definition have a sense of whence they came: even falling short of their destination, composers know what route led to that point – the main stretch of a track still to be extended. According to this wisdom, then, a cultural awareness is a bit like a copy of Bradshaw, the Victorian railway guide that charted the iron roads around Europe for the gentleman traveller; the history behind each of us is a travel journal that tells not only whence we have come but, in consequence, in which direction we are now heading. The past is not a burden but a provenance. The past is context; the past is all we have.
I wonder. The above model was fine for the artist belonging to an unwavering narrative of history, the artist with a sense of what it is – but it’s certainly hit the buffers in modern times! For Schoenberg it worked: his composition was part of ‘a good, old-fashioned, properly-understood tradition’ because he had no shadow of doubt what that tradition was, or that it occupied a position of cultural supremacy. Webern later unpacked this, in 1935, in the talks published1 as The Path to The New Music: drawing on examples from Ludwig Senfl through to Beethoven and on to Schoenberg, Webern set out the construction of the train track, mapping the point at which successive composers alighted to take charge of a new stretch. “We haven't advanced beyond the classical composers' forms” he claimed, reassuringly. “What happened after them was only alteration, extension, abbreviation; but the forms remained, even in Schoenberg! All that has remained, but something has altered, all the same…” In other words, the past (whether the historic past or just the prior statement of a phrase 4 bars earlier) is the Pole Star from which we take all our bearings and upon which we elaborate – in the process becoming ourselves part of the past for someone else, ‘further down the track’.
But all this development, this laying of track, has to rest on something we may no longer have – namely that sense of culture as a matter of a consensual history. I’m interested in when, and how, we lost this. As it happens, it still works for me as a composer; but I’m thinking this is not the case for everyone nowadays. For a start, this narrative sense of past can today be personal-individual, rather than as part of a shared movement; you and I cannot assume we share a ‘journey’ just from our both being composers, as once we could, for composition even of ‘art music’ within our culture embraces infinite histories and narratives - or even non-histories, in terms of the old canons of European culture. I remember an American composer responding to the question ‘how do you evolve without a thousand years’ history behind you?’ by countering: “how do you manage to evolve with a thousand years’ history behind you?”
So we are ‘somewhere else’, as we look back over the last century, distinct from any previous period of European art music; for many of us born from c.1950 onward, the cultural route-map has fragmented into tiny branch lines. The reasons are tangled of course, and to do with the new autonomy of our popular and jazz musics, the availability of musics from other cultures and so on - but that’s another story.
Meanwhile I cannot think of a previous time in our culture where significant composers in numbers evolved their identities outside (and in such hostility to) the norms of peers, training and institutions. Even those confirmed radicalists Debussy and Stravinsky, busy renouncing much of what their recent past offered, managed to continue the embodiment of cultural identities that we still recognize respectively as ‘French’ and ‘Russian’. More recently, however, we note a cohort of composers whose well-spring seems located in their very alienation from previous art musics; biographies of figures like Cowell, Scelsi, Partch, Sorabji and Nancarrow (all of them born within about 20 years) begin with phrases like ‘although having no formal training’ or ‘rejecting much of the classical mainstream’. I’m not sure we could find that narrative in previous ages, imbued as they were with a sense of craft and social function more than by the otherness of a new music. That ‘The Shock Of The New’, in Robert Hughes’ phrase2, is a modern priority in art will surprise no one, but the uprooting of time-honoured assumptions that it brings was so extensive that it’s worth revisiting the profound imprint of this on today’s mind-set. To make a start: if this tangled environment, this cat’s cradle of individuated cultural filaments, really is distinctive from its predecessors in this respect, I think one specific trait in the fraying of any mainstream in music will be the disintegration of instrumental ‘medium’ (or ‘genre’) – though this in itself is only a reflection of a wider shift, to ‘the new individuation’ in art.
The creeping loss of instrumental genre in art music to me stands as a fascinating and elusive spectre amid our cultural space, strongly indicative but strangely undiscussed – an eloquent elephant in our front room. Of course, instrumental genres continue to survive among modern composers – notably the symphony, whose adherents are impressively diverse and individual: Vaughan-Williams, Shostakovich, Gerhard, Harris, Henze, Tippett, Maxwell Davies, Nørgård, Rautavaara, Kalevi Aho, Daniel Börtz, Christopher Rouse, Lutosławski – the exceptions are impressive. Nor is canonic string quartet production gone, with the Bartók and Shostakovich being followed by multiple works by Tippett, Britten, Nørgård, Rihm, Harvey, Ferneyhough and Carter, to name only a few. Yet these continuing ‘collected’ expressions are exceptions, even striking ones; it is not unusual for a premiere of a new symphony to be accompanied by a panel on ‘the survival of the symphony’, with a debate over what it continues to offer the composer. The composer of a 5th string quartet will be asked ‘why do you continue to return to this medium?’, as if perpetrating another quartet is like a reckless entanglement in a further, ill-advised marriage (which of course it can be). But questions about ‘the survival’ of the symphony were probably not asked regularly of Brahms, as he struggled to be worthy of Beethoven’s legacy. His doubts, in turn, were about working in the shadow of Beethoven, rather than about the wider validity of continuing with the symphony per se – or so I understand.
So let me invoke a modern neurosis, which I’m going to term genre-panic - around instrumental media. Nowadays, I suggest, the sight of an 8th String Quartet or a 7th Symphony on a programme conjures a suspect image for us: what tweed-jacketed, corduroy-trousered, forest-dwelling, bushy eye-browed, retro specimen can this composer be? External frameworks are just not accepted, as hitherto – being now somehow tainted with the idea of working to a formula; today’s assumptions of art composition prioritize freshness of expression (and form) too much for any sort of communal groove to feel comfortable. That each composer aspires to the building of an individual identity makes the expression of each work personal to itself, and such a degree of individuation makes the production of works in sets problematic for most composers.
In a century blessed by the hyper-facility of neo-classical figures like Milhaud and Hindemith, compositional genre did not age well - sounding warning bells, for our individuated age, about mass-production and ‘sewing-machine music’. In the 2013 BBC Reith Lectures Grayson Perry quoted3 radical artist Marcel Duchamp as saying “Abundant production can only result in mediocrity” – a clear expression of the modernist division between artefact and product, between individuation and mass-participation. Such a division would have baffled the productive Haydn, the prodigious Mozart or the phenomenal Schubert, many of whose works were instantly digestible to their public but still hardly separable in style from their most experimental masterpieces. Even now we feel no genre-panic over Brahms’ 3 trios, 3 violin sonatas, 2 cello sonatas, 3 quartets, 2 string quintets and 4 symphonies, let alone Beethoven’s 18 quartets, 5 cello sonatas, 6 piano trios, 32 piano sonatas – all part of a world of canonic stability, now gone.
Yet the discomfort which, I think, has come to surround the modern equivalents of classical genre output is typified when Theodor Adorno scornfully links such production to the fake coinage among new music4: writing in the 60s he cites “countless concerti grossi and suites, wind serenades and other mechanical productions which would sound, once the superficial glaze of dissonance had been breached, just as old-fashioned and perhaps even more boring than anything by Raff or Draesecke.” The discrediting of composition media in the modern age portends the shifting attitude toward individuation, the concept of the uniqueness of each work – and this to me seems of a part with the wider modernist suspicion of the comforting bounds of an inherited culture: later we will hear Adorno speak of the ‘sacrosanct taboos imposed by listeners’ expectations’. A similar historical rupture in painting is discussed5 by artist Jacob Willer, writing at the present time of the contemporary artist divorced from the past: “He knows he can never attain real painterly fluency by the old standards…The best he can do is to devise a process that works for himself, hence the diversity of modern styles.”
The sea-change in views of ‘the evolutionary in music’ after Schoenberg and Webern is clear if we think of the terms in which the great composers were lauded, or responded to trials and triumphs: “I swear before God that your son is the greatest composer known to me…” said Haydn to Mozart’s father; “my art is winning me renown” said Beethoven, about his arrival in Vienna. Though neither Mozart nor Beethoven exactly lacked a spark of originality, these phrases speak rather of quality, even greatness – but not of shock, ground-breaking change or even individuality. The implication is that the composer practises an art that enjoys stability and ownership, and is recognized, by that ownership, as taking his place within the ranks of that art. However, in this stable order cracks will soon appear: Adorno suggests6 that “since the nineteenth century, shock has left its traces in works of art; in music Berlioz may well have been the first for whose work they [traces of shock] were of particular essence.”
The new disdain for the reassuring continuities of art is famously exemplified, at its extreme, by the young firebrand Boulez in 1951, asserting that Schoenberg was fatally compromised by his sense of the past. I say ‘new’ because as recently as in Webern’s lectures in 1935, we heard the past still enshrined as our guiding star; the late 40s, however, may be the point at which critical opinions crystalized a more radical conception of what a ‘new music’ means.
The thrust of Boulez’ famous polemic, Schoenberg Is Dead, was7 that Schoenberg’s ability to realise his own pure, new world of serialism was fatally undermined by that reliance on classical forms that was exalted by Webern as ‘tradition’… this means not just the outer shell of those variations, Baroque dances and Sonatas of that precious European inheritance but their entire inner periodic framework. “Schoenberg employed the series… to ensure the semantic unity of the work, but he organized the elements thus obtained by an existing rhetoric, not a serial one”. This is well known, but it’s worth highlighting its context: Webern had said almost exactly this, but for him it was a reassurance; almost overnight, though, the past has gone from enabling provenance to hampering irrelevance - this in the slipstream of the impact of Webern’s own work and of Messiaen’s Études de Rythme. Boulez asks8 “What, then, was his [Schoenberg’s] ambition… once this coefficient of security [via the row] had been achieved? [It was] To construct works of the same essence as that of those in the sound-universe he had just left behind…”
Given Webern’s own recent homily to the light cast by European tradition, it is worth noting that it is Webern himself who bears the chalice of purity in Adorno’s vision (published in 1948)9, the terms of which closely prefigure those of Boulez: “Schoenberg “composes” with twelve-tone rows; from his lofty vantage point he moves them about as if nothing had happened” - while by contrast “Webern’s desire is to force the technique to speak” as he “strives to bridge the abyss between the autonomous composition and the material which demands treatment according to the rules.” Adorno is, by contrast with the young Boulez at least, quite sympathetic to Schoenberg’s predicament here, but he says much the same thing as Boulez when writing10 of Schoenberg in 1955: “thematic construction, exposition, transitions, continuation, fields of tension and release etc, are all scarcely distinguishable from traditional, especially Brahmsian, techniques, even in his most daring works.” Adorno goes on (see Fn 20) to analyse the background to the ‘inconsistencies’ that these modes throw up in the new context.
For Adorno’s ideology, ‘the new music’ is thus an experience aspiring to purification of its own past, while even for Webern it was an assertion of continuity; later in the same passage, Adorno is hard on Richard Strauss for the latter’s back-sliding from the cause11: “Even Strauss, whose boldest strokes were genuine caprioles which unquestionably dealt the system a severe blow, finished by reinforcing it all the more powerfully.” If the role of art is ‘to deal blows to the system’, things have certainly changed, not to say become politicized. Of Reger, Adorno then notes that (for all his harmonic side-shifts) “he maintains the traditional system and nowhere violates the sacrosanct taboos imposed by the listener’s expectations.”
It seems, then, that the new music of the age dabbles at its peril in congress with modes from its past; for that past, with its listening habits, is a fatal limitation. Nor is comfortable imitation of fashion a refuge: Adorno is not persuaded12 by those who are “content to produce further examples of various types of compositions established by composers such as Bartók, Stravinsky and Hindemith, without recognizing that these types do not define a space inside of which one can move with pre-established assurance, and that what matters is exclusively the production of new types, or rather new characters.” In another essay13 Adorno echoes Boulez: “If anything has any prospects of survival, it will only be music that is not concerned with safety. The need for security… exhausts itself in tone-row productions which conserve the timbre and harmonics of the experiments of yesterday.” He elaborates: “The avant-garde therefore calls for a music which takes the composer by surprise, much as a chemist can be surprised by the new substance in his test-tube.”
While the radical new outlook cannot be said to have prevailed, 50 or 60 years on, among English-speaking composers, its legacy is surely stronger among groupings in mainland European centres. In 2013 I conducted extensive interviews with some younger Austrian composers, as I did again last week - and probed their sense of connection to, even, the recent historical past; I was struck by the lack of any of that sense – so important to Schoenberg as well as Webern - that you’re connected, taking forward something from your past. By contrast, some of the composers I interviewed explicitly pursued composition as a rebellion against an academic establishment, striking out from what they found fossilized adoration of the Viennese canon and rigid conservatoire attitudes; one was feeling stifled specifically by the regimentation of European piano pedagogy, and turned to composition for its supposed lack of cultural baggage. When I asked another about ‘older music’ as heritage, he replied ‘of course those works are important, like Stockhausen’s Gesang der Junglinge’… Is that as far back as you go? Apparently more remote inheritance, the bit from Bach to Webern, had come to constitute a negative, an empire of commodified art from which to strike out.
Two Austrian composers who, last week, disclosed to me mainstream concerns with phrasing and hierarchies admitted to being self-conscious about their ‘traditional approach’, though the music was to my ears quite radical; none of them expressed excitement with the historical canon, the way that I might revel in Ravel or bask in Beethoven – a back-drop that cannot be taken out of our composer-thinking. One of my composers, working as a freelance performer in Vienna, shrugged and said ‘I cannot avoid the core repertoire as a player – it’s just there’. There was certainly acknowledgement, but not a strong sense of being part of it. I was told ‘Of course one has to study those correct techniques as a student…’: there was a tendency to relegate historical learning to an academic outlook, leaving it thus disconnected from them as composers. We shall return to the reasons for this different outlook; in our modern culture, it seems, different constructions of the idea of ‘past’, the traditional (organic) one and the iconoclastic (disconnected) one, can even exist, in parallel, to inform different compositional environments.
That brings us to the idea that the single journey of musical history has, itself, reached an end to its linear progress: if we may switch metaphors from land to water, a river has become a lake. ‘The new music’ may be a listening purified of its own past, but – the argument goes - the reality is that other musics will continue in parallel, musics that will be historically informed just as before.
In his landmark study of music in the modern age, Music, The Arts and Ideas, Leonard B Meyer14 set out in 1966 the bold thesis that the restless exploratory journey of Western musical history could cease and compositional practice still function; evoking human spheres in which, he claimed, stasis has facilitated continuing activity, Meyer posited a new order of permissive diversity, in which we may actually have stopped ‘laying track’ altogether; maybe now we just choose our place to be. He wrote: “The old has not, as a rule, been displaced by the new. Earlier movements have persisted side by side with later ones, producing a profusion of alternative styles and schools – each with its own attendant aesthetic and history.” Later in the book15 he noted “All these ways of making music are with us, and will probably continue to be with us for many years.”
This situation was for Meyer16 a product of expanding cultural availability, and it heralded a shift from historic to intrinsic value: “For a twentieth-century audience the appeal [of remote times and cultures] is irrelevant: the past is no longer distant, and the distant is no longer mysterious. Today, when the same person may delight in modern jazz and Renaissance polyphony, read Haiku poetry and Brecht, collect action painting and pre-Colombian art, the attraction of past or foreign art lies neither in romance of the remote nor the charm of the unusual, but in significance of form and perfection of result.” He went on “As foreseen here, the future, like the present, will hold a plethora of styles and a plurality of audiences in each of the arts. There will be no convergence, no stylistic consensus. Nor will there be a single unified audience. I find nothing shocking or deplorable in this.”
None of us could deny the prescience of his prediction: we are all cultural travellers now, and – how right Meyer was – the remote and the unusual have certainly suffered a corresponding loss of their caché, along with our once-isolated global localities. Equally accurate is Meyer’s prophecy of audiences fragmenting into minority supporters of different musics, which has clearly come about in globalized culture.
But what is the implication of this new order (if it pertains) for any sense of artistic lineage? Meyer’s relativist view of the here and now seems to legitimize continuity and also discontinuity. Maybe they need one another? Jacob Willer, whom I quoted above, tellingly points out the need for experimentation to have context17: “Of course, some painters have enjoyed devising their own styles. They celebrate their experimentation as if it were the liberation from tradition, because they want an individualistic art. But experimentation cannot be liberating when there is no choice but to experiment. The modern painter is an individualist in art whether he likes it or not.”
So there we have it: composition as tradition; composition as escape; composition as protest; composition as whatever we need it to be. I know that my portrait of recent schisms prioritizes the overviews of a handful of commentators from fifty or more years ago; maybe those better read than I can cite further recent critical views about the modern historical perspective. I believe the pivot of the shift in social attitudes to art is social ownership: Beethoven’s reported comment on settling in Vienna, ‘my art is winning me renown’, embodies a wide ownership of his practice; by contrast Adorno noted, in the same city one hundred years later, the loss of listenership around what composers wanted to do – the schism opening not just with listeners but with deeper historical continuities previously taken for granted; as we have seen, this was at first a de facto splinter (to the dismay of Schoenberg and the others) but was later to be fashioned into a spear of ideology.
I say it was later that the schism became a tenet of modernism in Western culture, but in placing the rupture with the past so precisely between Webern (1935) and Adorno (1948) I risk overlooking the roots of modernism in 19th-century Europe. No less a commentator than Dahlhaus sees this splintering that is our topic today as a facet of Romanticism: in his great discussion ‘Nationalism and Music’, Dahlhaus notes18 that “the preeminent aesthetic principle of the 19th Century was the dogma of originality, an ideal that gave rise to a constant search for novelty. The seal of aesthetic authenticity was placed only on what was unfamiliar: imitation was no longer, as in the past, applauded as a pious honouring of tradition, of what was old and true…” This offers an uncanny pre-echo of my modern schism, in familiar phraseology; maybe it is enough now to note that modern culture, defined by the individuation of expression, began with Beethoven.
As we return to the present to ask ‘what about today?’, I see no reason why music since 1900 should have been required to jump that train-track that leads back to all previous practices – no reason why music that does not leave the track should have been seen as inferior. I certainly want fearless exploration in art, but I want coherence as well. Surely Ligeti expressed this when, commenting on the situation in 1950s Europe, he noted19 that “harmony was in dire danger of toppling over into intervallically neutral and a-harmonic sound structures; rhythmic articulation was in... danger of toppling over into undifferentiated continuous progressions.” In other words, he was bothered by the loss of musical material as perceptible by the listener.
In the spirit of objectivity I must note that another commentator to warn about the sterile disembodiment around serial composition in the 1950s was – to my great amazement - Adorno himself. This is baffling. If I have characterized Adorno as a latter-day Atropos, thread-breaker of our historical life-line, this reflects not only my limited view but also, I would plead, the marked conflicts in Adorno’s own stated outlook: his marvellous essay ‘The Ageing Of The New Music’ (1955)20, for example, counterpoints – no, it contradicts - the strident notions we have cited above - for Adorno, like Meyer, is quickly on the crime-scene to point out the follies of ‘extended (‘50s’) serialism’. Furthermore, to do this he re-asserts timeless musical values of Western art, pointing out how the new movement of extreme serialists fatally replaced humanly-experienced discourse with pseudo-science. They are “intentionally indifferent to whether the music makes sense and is articulated – a consideration that caused Schoenberg’s hesitations – and believe that preparation of tones is already composition as soon as one has dismissed from composition everything that actually becomes a composition. They never get farther than abstract negation, and take off on an empty, high-spirited trip, through thinkable complex scores, in which nothing actually occurs….”As a result21, “..the listener senses with resignation that he has been turned over to an infernal machine, which will run its course mercilessly…”(an excellent, if reactionary, description, some would say, of the products of 1950s serialism – but from what an unlikely source!)
So here Adorno ties what he finds a sterile state of affairs to the break with the past; what puzzles me is that this is a rupture that, as we have heard, he was in other writings busily advancing: yet here he points to “the disappearance of tradition within New Music itself. The innovators, Schoenberg, Bartók, Stravinsky, Webern, Berg, even Hindemith, were all raised on traditional music. This tradition is no longer [1950s] a living part of their successors… There is reason to suspect that those who have not mastered the new material are also unable to control the older, that they cannot compose an irreproachable, 4-voice Palestrina setting, and in many cases can hardly harmonize a chorale. The pedagogical virtues of the academy have been lost without the realm of freedom having been entered.” All in all, it seems Adorno is now firmly on the side of European continuities, and, yes, there appears to be a contradictory element in this. What happened to ‘avoiding contamination’? I’m indebted to Martin Dowling for this directly contradictory quotation from Adorno in ‘Aesthetic Theory’22: “Advice on how to best to compose a rondo is useless as soon as there are reasons – of which artisanal instruction is ignorant – why rondos can no longer be written.” To this is added, from the same source (pp. 19-20): “nothing is more damaging to theoretical knowledge of modern art than its reduction to what it has in common with older periods. What is specific to it slips through the methodological net of ‘nothing new under the sun’; it is reduced to the undialectical, gapless continuum of tranquil development that it in fact explodes.” I firmly believe it is my problem, rather than a failing of Adorno’s, that he seems to occupy these contradictory positions: I am in a state of darkness, not seeing the full picture. But, in Dowling’s words23, with Adorno you cannot have your cake – and if you could, you couldn’t possibly eat it.
Earlier I noted that a ‘disconnect’ with even the modern musical canon is still discernible in mainland European thinking. The received wisdom about this striking and so-influential rupture, which we have traced to the late 1940s and 50s, is that it marked among European modernists of the time a cultural revulsion with the continuities that had culminated in the Third Reich. In his Tempo article24 on Lachenmann, Ian Pace was explicit about this: “The modernistic developments of the 1950s had a special potency for young Germans, distrustful of the conventions of the past, which could be seen to have been tainted by the culture from which they originated, a culture which culminated in genocide” - and I have heard this view echoed by an elderly German acquaintance who was around at Adorno’s lectures. Yet it will not do! The notion cannot validate, however it explains, the standpoint of post-war thinkers that great art is a legacy tainted by its own past. This is not to do with the degree of radicalism but with the denial of context: how is communication with its society possible for an art that is composed in a vacuum? I believe there is no precedent for it in Western culture; to renounce the background information of our culture up to, say, Schoenberg creates an artistic void which we heard clearly exposed by Adorno himself - that the later avant-garde was a movement cut off from the oxygen of its own tradition.
To suggest that everything had to be different after 1930 because of serialism, or the horrors of fascism, seems to me pure cant (with a ‘c’ rather than ‘K’) that has done untold damage to the ownership of new art music ever since – and we have seen that one of new music’s leading polemicists himself attested to the sterility of the 50s path, as later did leading practitioners like Ligeti and Carter. We can learn much about a musical society from its live music, meanwhile: today, for all the progressive trend of dissociation with the past - or perhaps because of it - we as composers now struggle to get a hearing in our own concert halls, that are effectively repertoire museums, and the connection is plain between this ossified concert-programming and the severance of ownership between today’s cultural world and its new music. In bygone times, meanwhile, even while composers were widely informed by historical enrichment the public listening environment was hungry for their new work; I believe that a concert diet, such as ours, that draws almost entirely on music more than 70 years old, would have amazed a Londoner or Viennese in the 17th or 18th century, when new opera and instrumental music was the rage.
It is natural that any kind of artist may feel the proven achievements of that past as a formidable force; logically it even feels nonsensical sometimes to be adding to this body of work. Jacob Willer again25: “The masters may loom over his (the artist’s) shoulder, but, stranded by modernity, he cannot see back over theirs.” I often feel that as composers we are less ‘those who can’ than ‘those who dare’; the art we already have as our cultural heritage has nothing to prove, for its role is enshrined; by contrast our own efforts struggle to win a place in anyone’s life. Not surprising, then, that many artists dissociate their output from the past in the search for a territory. But I still say that you cannot compose in a vacuum.