The Music of Life, the Music of Death: In Defense of Contemporary Art Music

By Michael Harris

Six years ago, I made a decision to return to school to study musicology, and in doing so I applied to six different graduate programs spread around the middle portion of the United States—stretching from Indiana to Colorado, and Wisconsin to Oklahoma.  In the end, probably due to a number of factors, I was only accepted in two places: University of Colorado, where I ended up, and University of Oklahoma.  While visiting Oklahoma, I had one of the most transformative experiences of my academic career when I sat in on a 20th century music class given by Dr. Michael Lee in which the music of John Cage was being discussed…this is where I first encountered the terms of Music of Life and Music of Death in relation to how our society treats Art Music, more colloquially known as Classical Music[1].

Disclaimers: I will be making some broad generalizations and this subject is way too large to treat in a single post, but I will attempt to sketch out here some basic ideas on how I perceive our modern society to treat Art Music and what should be done, and what it already being done, to change it.  So buckle up, this is going to be a rough ride.

As Dr. Lee laid out in class—and I cannot remember now if Lee was describing the views of Cage or someone else, or if this was part of his own work, so please forgive me—by mid-century, Cage and others at the leading/bleeding edge of Art Music, we’re having to constantly fight against the calcifying tendencies of the developing culture surrounding so called “Classical Music.” This culture preferred to hear music from c. 1750-1900, with some of the late works of Strauss, Mahler, Saint-Saens, and a few early 20th century composers thrown in for token show.  It was, in effect, an almost religious culture in which concerts were given over to our now familiar ritual of formal dress where the audience sits in almost church-like awe waiting to receive their musico-cultural benediction by the high priest (conductor), handing down the wisdom of the long dead musical prophets (composers).  It was a culture highly skeptical of the new and many times downright hostile.[2]

It is the Music of Death in that it is a culture very slow to change and that eventually leads to its own demise by not changing, not adapting.  We see this process playing out in almost every aspect of our lives and culture.  Religions, governments, artists, film directors, and composers themselves.  Call it cultural Darwinism.  Our current crisis in “classical music” is not one in which young people don’t know the music, but rather is a fault of the culture not adapting fast enough to draw in the younger crowds.  And this fault lies in the fact that so much Art Music culture, the most visible aspects of it—professional orchestras—are locked into this culture of the Music of Death.

The flip side of this is the so-called “Music of Life,” also known as New Music or Contemporary Music or the Avant-garde.  Such music has had a hard time breaking into the wider consciousness for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the resistance to programming such music.  The same battles that Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, and just about any early 20th century composer with an ear at change you can name, fought with those audiences over one-hundred years ago, is still be fought today, and even over the same composers!  The odds of hearing a Schoenberg twelve-tone composition today is probably the same or maybe even less than it was when Arnold was alive.  In my lifetime of performing music, I can count on one-hand the number of times I have performed Schoenberg, but I have lost count of the times I’ve played Beethoven or Mozart.

But why is the newer music the “Music of Life?”  Well, because it is the vital, changing, living part of our musical culture.  It is the part that is constantly changing, adapting, engaging with past, present, and future.  But it isn’t the comforting, known music, the museum pieces that we go to listen to, pat ourselves on the back, and think ourselves cultured.  Of course, I am just as guilty of this as many people, though I do not recoil in horror when faced with challenging or new music.  It is one thing to listen with an open ear and decide if you like it or not, it is another to reject it out of hand.  And it is something else to not even give the audience a chance to make a decision.

Part of the problem is that many people are scared off from even attending a concert with new music because they think they will not like it, so then ensembles do not program it, so audiences don’t have a chance to hear such music, and around and around we go.

But into this gap, certain people and organizations have sprung up to help promote the Music of Life, and one of the most life affirming parts about this is that many of these folks are devoted musicians at heart and have a true passion for the music.  Back in the pre-internet days, these were small artist collectives and also record labels like Nonesuch, which helped to get the music to the people.  Today, the internet has made it even easier for composers to reach out directly to their audiences, and has also allowed small groups to do the same and find their audience.  And with Facebook, Twitter, Kickstarter, Youtube, Soundclound, and Bandcamp, it has created a new digital space that has allowed composers a voice that circumvents the big publishers who are wary of New Music because they can see little to no profit in it.[3]

This new digital culture is part and parcel of our Post-Modern society.  While I have seemed to rail against the old music, the Music of Death, this is not really how I feel.  We need to preserve, cultivate, and find new audiences for it.  It is our past, our heritage.  And modern composers still look to Mozart and Beethoven for inspiration just as often as they do Schoenberg, Cage, Steve Reich, or any number of other composers that you or I have never heard of.  The essence of post-modernism is the ability to look anywhere and everywhere for inspiration, even from the realms of folk or popular music, a trend that has been going on for a lot longer than most people realize.[4]  And this is what terrifies so many people, the merging of our so-called Art and Popular cultures.[5]  But the division of music (and by extension culture) into the spheres of Folk, Popular, and Art is really false division anyway, one made solely for the sake of easy classification and also to create a fabricated cultural hierarchy.[6]

And what’s more, with the (relatively) recent additions of Ethnomusicology and Popular Music studies to the academy, we see the same process that has been going on for over one hundred years in Art Music happening in Folk and Popular.  Ethnomusicology began with the goal of studying and preserving the folk/indigenous/native music of non-Western and rural cultures, but now, in so many schools, it boils down to the same three, four, or five cultures studied over and over in classes.[7]  And Popular Music studies are dangerously close to actually creating a pop music canon akin to the likes of the three “B’s” in “classical music.”  Heck, the entire idea of an “Oldies” and “Classic Rock” music station means that these processes are already in full effect.  How hard is it for new, innovative, musical acts to break into the high levels when all the major companies want to record and promote are the safe old acts that can reliably bring in money, or just churn out cookie cutter pop acts?  There is a Music of Death in Popular Music, and it sound likes the love child of Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus.

And I guess this is my root problem with the Bieber and Miley clones, or one of a number of contemporary “classical” composers: they are not bringing anything new to the table.  Instead of creating the Music of Life, they are preserving the Music of Death, albeit dressed in the Emperor’s New Clothes.  It reinforces the idea of what the masses should like by creating what is safe, though up-to-date enough to have the veil of the “new” and feeding it back to them.  It does nothing to create a new culture, rather calcifying the old which, as I’ve said, leads irrevocably into death.  The same thing is going on in film where 3D presentations and cutting edge CGI are trying to give the veneer of new and innovative to what are essentially the same old, safe films that we have all seen. [8]  Of course, I’m still going to run out and see Pacific Rim this weekend, though not in a 3D showing.

So what is the take away?  What is the point of the past 1,800 words?  Well, one is that we are on the edge of something here.  Much like my previous rant (Temp Track 2.0), our current technology has the potential to fundamentally change our culture, and to a great extent it already has.  And do not misunderstand me, we need to continue to perform, study, and engage with the music of the past, but it must not be to the detriment of the music of the present and future.  We are in a liminal state, where the old are new are thrashing against each other in almost every level of society, music included.  And, unfortunately, so much of this battle is fought in the realm of our old capitalist systems versus our new digital community where content, not the almighty dollar, is king.

P.S. – Don’t think you like serialism?  Well then watch this brilliant and beautiful video by YouTube video maker Vi Hart.

[1] As musicians will tell you, “classical” refers to a specific period in Western Music history, so the broader term of Art Music is preferred, and it also gets to the heart of how this music is treated, as opposed to Folk or Popular Music.

[2] I witnessed this first hand while working in the box office for a symphony orchestra when, many times, I had ticket holders/subscribers call to complain about the little new music that was programmed.  And sometimes this “new” music was not really all that new, having been written fifty of more years prior.

[3] And here I must give a tip of the hat to my friends at Irritable Hedgehog Records, whose success in promoting the lesser known minimalist and post-minimalist composers, along with new music in general, is the inspiration behind many of my long terms plans here at The Temp Track.

[4] Composers of the Medieval and Renaissance eras would routinely use secular popular songs as sources for melodies in sacred works, and vice-a-versa.

[5] Theodor Adorno railed against this fusion of so-called high and low cultures, because of  what he, and others, called “kitsch.”  He is correct, however, in that the bad blending of the two creates art that is lacking, though when it is done well it elevates both to new heights, in my opinion.

[6] i.e., to say that one culture is better than another.  For a great example of this culture war, see this, though I think the take away from the video, and the intent of the creators of the series, is the absurdity of the extremes and how our society today has a tendency to reduce everything to caricatures of the actual arguments.

[7] This would be some combination of Indonesian gamelan, Japanese gagaku, some Native American music, West African music, and Australian Aborigine didgeridoo.

[8] This is also something that Adorno hated, the repackaging of “old wine into new bottles” by the so-called Culture Industry.

4 thoughts on “The Music of Life, the Music of Death: In Defense of Contemporary Art Music

  1. Great piece-and citation of Michael Lee!
    A couple of thoughts in response:
    The calcification of the canon started long before the 20th century; I feel like it’s a nineteenth-century phenomenon. The idea of the quiet/respectful/pseudo-religious concert hall actually started with “art music” before Wagner demanded the same of his audiences (of course I have to throw some Wagner in here). It’s interesting that the dichotomy you identify in the Art of Life and Art of Death is the same tension we find in Wagner’s works and what makes them so compelling, i.e. at the time, and even today, his works are viewed as a spiritual experience and performed in temples of theater, yet he intended to create an art that would appeal to the people by drawing on folk tales and myth. In other words, Wagner’s dramas are both the Art of Life and the Art of Death-looking backward and looking forward. The problem with a lot of “New Music” (quotations, since I’m including the 20th-century canon in this term, though 100 year old music is hardly new) is the exact problem you touched on in regards to kitsch. If artists, like those of the Second Viennese School and later serialists, refuse to create a more populist sound, there are ramifications. Whereas Stravinsky melded the Folk and Art Music aesthetics in his Russian works, and as a result they are among the most performed 20th-century pieces today. Likewise, the most well-known art music composers living today are the minimalists, particularly Philip Glass, who has worked in concert music, opera, and film. The repetitive, usually uncomplicated harmonies of the minimalists is much easier for a lay-person to hear (popular music may even be the ugly cousin of minimalism..or vice versa?)
    So, the question is: Can kitsch save classical music?

    1. Yeah, Brooke, there are so many more things I could, and wanted to say, but the post was already too long! In terms of canon formation, which is another topic all together, it really was a mid-19th century , German phenomenon as another OU musicologist, Sanna Pederson, has discussed in her writings, which are great if you haven’t read them. And the modern concert experience started to come about in the early 19th century with the cult of genius surround Beethoven (primarily one of his patrons, Baron van Swieten), and was codified with Mahler’s activities in Vienna.
      Wagner is an interesting figure in all this because he is STILL, over 100 years late, such a divisive figure in “classical” music, much like the Second Viennese School. Oh, and at least from what I remember of Schoenberg’s writings, he was trying to create a more populist sound by freeing Art Music from the old conventions (and I find it amusing that many people still refer to Schoenberg and others from the earlier parts of the 20th century as “new”). And the minimalists…oh the minimalists. 🙂 I’ll leave that for another day.
      But to respond to your question, can kitsch save classical music? I don’t know, people have been trying and trying, but I think the only thing that can save it is itself. (If that makes any sense at all.)

  2. I agree with you Brooke, especially about minimalism. I wonder if minimalism can serve as a “gateway drug” to further exploration (especially for our generation) of classical music. Ditto film music.

    We need great animateurs and evangelists for this music, no doubt. Yet it seems a big part of this would be fighting this calcification with our own artists as well. Our education system has a way of imparting the idea of music that is okay to like, and not okay to like. And that passes down from teacher-to-student over generations. Regressive attitudes towards classical music by classical musicians is just as much a part of the problem as the audience. Hell, we can’t even explore more interesting repertoire within the classical canon without getting complaints by everyone involved!

    Greetings from your old Colorado Libraries friend, now from Houston.

    1. Danny! Great to hear from you, and thanks for the comment. I totally agree that musicians themselves are just as guilty of this problem as audiences, though I do think that it is okay for us NOT to like something, but not liking is not the same as not appreciating or understanding, at least in my view (wow, there are a lot of negatives in that sentences, hopefully it made sense!). And to me, it is of paramount importance that we teach musicians and audiences alike to understand and appreciate, and then if they still don’t “like” it, then okay, but we have done our job in hopefully teaching them to appreciate it and put it in a cultural/historical context.

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