John Cage: Not playing "4.33"
Modernity in music is a multi-faceted and complex phenomenon. The much-used "modernism" is also a catch-all definition which leaves questions still hanging in the air. It is, like socialism or spirituality, a word that can easily be hijacked by partisan voices that then claim ownership of it and thereafter imbue it with their own narrow, specific, pointed, sectarian and self-justifying aura. It has to be said that a particular kind of modernism, specific to certain places, times, ideologies and forceful personalities, has been sublimated into a paradigmatic position in our own time.
A European modernism, with its roots in the Second Viennese School and developed by a small group of post-war composers in certain European towns and cities, has been given a special place in official understandings of the development of modern music. A message has gone out that composers, and indeed the musical public, should regard this sanctioned path as, not just the way forward, but the way things are and ought to be. State broadcasters, many sharing the aesthetic and political perspective of the composers themselves and their followers, give the oxygen of life, publicity and dissemination to this view of the musical present and future.
This has been especially the case in Germany and France, which are much more controlled by a centralised and top-down view of what high culture should be. A central, pivotal figure in this development is Pierre Boulez, composer, conductor and radically scathing polemicist, at least in his younger days. An Alpha male par excellence in the musical world, a powerful, driven figure, always manoeuvring politically and pushing boundaries imaginatively, he has never hidden his determination to put his biases into operation. It has been suggested that his influence on legions of third-rate imitators over the last few generations has been pernicious. Mediocre acolytes have been bedazzled by the master's encyclopaedic panoply of colouristic subtleties and rhythmic intricacies — so much so, that a lot of modern music is obsessed, fetishistically, with surface detail to the detriment, perhaps, of core profundities.
Nevertheless, Boulez's influence on musical culture as a composer and a conductor has been powerful and meticulously plotted. His choice of repertoire is large and interesting, covering Berlioz, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Bartók, Schoenberg and Messiaen. Others are constantly and steadily added — Wagner, Mahler and some major contemporary figures such as Berio and Ligeti. But the omissions from this list are also fascinating and revealing. There is no Brahms and hardly any Schumann. He compares the latter unfavourably (justifiably so, perhaps) to Mendelssohn as showing "little invention and even little skill". Explaining his priorities, Boulez says: "There are composers who possess this gift of instrumental invention and others who, more or less, lack it...If you compare the symphonies of Brahms with the operas of Wagner solely from the viewpoint of instrumentation...one is not bowled over by his [Brahms's] instrumental imagination."
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