September 27, 2008


According to certifiable genius Alex Ross, today is Worldwide Atonality Day, in honor of the 100th anniversary of Schoenberg's lied "Du lehnest wider eine Silberweide," from Das Buch der hängenden Gärten. Alex also noted that this month marked the 50th anniversary of the composition of LaMonte Young's "Trio for Strings," as plausible a birthday for Minimalism as any.

The calendar is unusually cooperative in this case, but fifty years does seem a relatively reasonable tick of the clock for musical styles, give or take. Try these birthdays on for size:
  • Baroque: ca. 1685 (birth of Bach)
  • Classical: ca. 1750 (death of Bach)
  • Early Romantic: ca. 1809 (death of Haydn)
  • Late Romantic/Impressionist: ca. 1869 (death of Berlioz)
  • Atonal expressionism: ca. 1908
  • Minimalism: ca. 1958
I wouldn't face down a firing squad over that chronology, but I don't think it's totally out of bounds. It does seem that every 50-60 years, the historico-stylistic playing field changes.

Which, of course, means that we're due. If you accept Barzun's concept of Decadence, if not his pejorative sense of it, we do seem to be in a decadent period, a transition between stylistic epochs—or, at least, the dawn of a novel one. So if you're in the mood for prognostication—what's the new school/paradigm/category/thing?—what should you be looking for?

Before we answer that, it needs to be pointed out that, especially in the past century, such overarching categorization is ignoring a lot—neo-this and -that, jazz-classical hybrids, various nationalist styles, that whole Hindemith thing, &c. Atonality and Minimalism have just been the most coherent stylistic developments, the ones that were a big enough break from what came before, while being possessed of a repertory of features that made them easily recognized as styles. And one more thing: I think they're both kind of like religious fundamentalisms, in a particularly post-Enlightenment way.

From one of Slavoj Žižek's more recent efforts:
No wonder then that religious fundamentalists are among the most passionate digital hackers, and always prone to combine their religion with the latest findings of science: for them, religious statements and scientific statements belong to the same modality of positive knowledge.... The occurrence of the term "science" in the very name of some of the fundamentalist sects (Christian Science, Scientology) is not just an obscene joke, but signals this reduction of belief to positive knowledge. The case of the Turin shroud is here symptomal: its authenticity would be awful for every true believer (the first thing to do then would be to analyze the DNA of the blood stains and thus solve empirically the question of who Jesus' father was...), while a true fundamentalist would rejoice in this opportunity.
What I think atonality and Minimalism have in common is this similar appeal to science. Atonality built up its own scientific edifice, via serialism; Minimalism rejected that edifice on the grounds that it violated laws of acoustics and neurobiology (it's just not natural to hear music in that way). Does that make the respective practitioners fundamentalists? Both schools do seem to inspire some amount of fundamentalist behavior—Rochberg's "apostasy," debates as to whether John Adams is a "true" Minimalist or not, and so forth. But that's also because (as previously mentioned) the stylistic boundary lines are bright enough to make such judgments.

So if I was looking to predict the future, I'd be keeping my eye out for any category displaying a) a sufficiently clean break with the past, b) scientific justification, and c) some form of circumscribed vocabulary. Spectralism is an interesting case in this scheme: a definite reliance on scientific analysis, but retaining connections of vocabulary and sonic effect with post-serialist atonality—not, in its current form, enough of a break. Straight-up computer-generated music might have a claim—by definition, it relies on positive knowledge, at least of software and engineering—but the vocabulary remains wide open. If I had to bet a dollar, I'd say that the new paradigm will come out of the use of the computer, but I'd only bet a dollar. That's the fun and frustration of living through cultural decadence—it's all up in the air. I don't think we have the clear outlines of that 2058 anniversary concert just yet. For now, a revival of "Anything Goes" will do nicely.


Sator Arepo said...

1) Ah, good old Zizek. The master.

2) Do you think spectralism had a long enough lifespan to be included as a "movement"?

3) Not all atonal music, obviously, is serial; serialism is the scapegoat. What about Ruth Crawford? Her music is totally easy to understand.

Well, to me at least.


Matthew said...

I think that's part of the point about spectralism—in some ways, it's still going on (Saariaho? Peut-être), but it's that "in some ways" that makes it less of an historical force.

And exactly right about Crawford—everyone go listen to more Ruth Crawford Seeger!—but it's the evolution towards serialism that made atonality a lasting movement. For a contrafactual: if atonality hadn't gone past, say, Crawford and Ruggles, I wonder if it would have been perceived as sufficiently monolithic (whether it is or not) to inspire other movements in reaction.

P.S.: I don't find serialism all that hard to understand, either, but I was knocked on the head quite a bit as a child.

Sator Arepo said...


Actually wrote my Master's thesis on Crawford at New England. Second Diatonic Suite, First movement. I love her stuff.

Studying a little Ruggles now. Crawford has too much recently published about her to focus a dissertation on (gotta find room to work!); working on the other between-war American atonalists. Any suggestions?

Matthew said...

Not quite co-temporaneous, but I've always loved Wallingford Riegger.

Sator Arepo said...

Yeah, Rieger, Siegmeister, Cowell, Crawford & co. This is where my sympathies lie. Lay? Whatever.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Sator, how about Arthur Berger? He hasn't been gone that long, and lots of his students and former colleagues are around, such as Harold Shapero.

Sator Arepo said...

I don't know much about Berger, but what I've heard seems to be up my alley, as it were. Thanks!