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Volume 9, Issue 3: Poetics

Music as Bad Poetry

Douglas Jones

Why does so much of modern "academic" concert music beg for ridicule? Here I am thinking of both the modernists before World War I, such as Schoenberg, Debussy, and Stravinsky, as well as the later, avant-garde modernists such as Berio, Varese, Cage, and Crumb.

Earlier periods in the history of music generally built upon many forms and practices of their predecessors, even while rejecting other parts. The brief classical period disliked the limits of the baroque period, yet it still carried over much of the previous tradition. The same thing occurred even in the romantic takeover. But the modernist period is better characterized as plainly parasitic. They wanted to reject almost everything resembling traditional tonality and melody, all the while amplifying brute instrument sounds or tone color. Modernism can only define itself in drab, rebellious contrast to everything beautiful before it. This isn't creativity; it is merely parasitism of the worse sort. Modernism has no soul of its own. It lives as the negation of its ancestors.
Modernist defenders view this sort of response as just purist stubbornness, blind conservatism. And they sometimes take the gnostic, elitist route and suggest that their brutally fragmented melodies are too subtle for vernacular ears. We need to be reeducated in the way we listen to music. Schoenberg spoke of the "emancipation of dissonance," in which dissonant, unstable chords no longer had to be resolved by more stable, consonant chords. Other modernists went further and sought to resolve lower dissonances by higher dissonances. The result is quite grotesque; it sounds like someone left the preschoolers unattended at the piano.
A deeper issue lurks here though. Modernist music is superficially ugly for its boring delight in dissonance, but by rejecting traditional forms and melody it is also bad musical storytelling. What is musical storytelling? I don't mean the sort of storytelling found in programmatic, nonvocal music popular in the romantic period. There composers would provide a little literary pamphlet for the audience, spelling out the story the instrumental music would "depict." Though the music was often interesting and beautiful, the concept was a little lame. But that's not my criticism of the modernists. Musical storytelling is best understood by forms common to much music, such as simply having the same musical theme open and close a piece separated by other musical material in between. This has a deep appeal, and it has a storylike satisfaction--almost creation, fall, redemption. Though often accused of pandering simple music to the new masses, the classical period (Haydn, Mozart, early Beethoven) provided some clear examples of this thematic weaving. The baroque and romantic periods were more subtle.
Perhaps the most blatantly helpful is Mozart's Symphony No. 40. Here Mozart tells a clear musical story in an almost creation, fall, redemption pattern. He opens the piece with a double exposition of his very strong theme and then, in the middle section, fragments that same theme as if he were crushing it and spinning around its pieces individually; the final section rebuilds from the middle fragments and produces the original theme with some slight variations. Modernist music often, not always, rejects this sort of thematic weaving and, in so doing, further debilitates its claim to beauty or interest. Part of the truth here is that modernism, influenced by industrialism and evolution, really has no story to tell. It has no creation, fall, redemption. It is a monotone of survival. Materialism kills music.
Modernistic music proves its ugliness in another way as well--it often doesn't represent, it merely duplicates. Consider George Crumb's Voice of the Whale (1971). This work actually tries to tell a story about the succession of geological eras and seeks to highlight the impersonal forces of nature with minimal human presence. In the course of this work the flutist sings and blows into his flute to produce humpback whale sounds and later the cello screeches just like a sea-gull; at times the pianist bangs on the keys and often reaches inside and plucks the piano strings violently. Now we're supposed to nod our heads and say how wonderfully beautiful this cacophony is, but the fact is it reminded me of terribly bad poetry. Here was music that could duplicate the sounds of nature, but it couldn't or didn't try to represent them. In one sense, this is the difference between straight prose and poetry.
Prose in a textbook can describe the biology of a stream to me, and that has its place. But poetry can give me angles on a stream, represent a stream, in far richer ways than straight prose can. Newspaper prose can plainly describe the crowds standing on a city train platform, but the poet can tell me "The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet, black bough" (Ezra Pound), communicating via powerful representation. George Crumb's whales and sea-gulls are good mimicry and duplication, like a soulless photocopy machine. But modernism is far from the riches of poetry, and that distance adds to its industrial ugliness.
I've been focusing on the worst of the twentieth century, the modernists. But happily our century does contain some wonderfully beautiful works as well. Aaron Copland, the most noted American composer of this century, always dabbled in the modernistic path of his teacher Stravinsky, but he also produced more traditional beauty in works such as his Appalachian Spring. It is both simple and breathtaking. Be sure not to die without hearing it.

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