Music Of The Future Cannot Ignore The Past

Composers who try to create culture in a vacuum will struggle to be heard by a hostile public

As a composer I have always maintained that 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, our composer is aware of being short of the destination — but the track has just come to an end. Like the dog Gromit in The Wrong Trousers, therefore, 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 identity is a bit like a copy of Bradshaw’s, 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 also the direction in which 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 has 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 published 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 four 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 tracks”.

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 this is not the case for everyone nowadays. For a start, this narrative sense of past can today be personal-individual, rather than 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 around 1950 onwards, the cultural route-map has fragmented into tiny branch lines. The reasons are tangled, of course, and relate to the new autonomy of our popular and jazz music, the availability of music from other cultures and so on — but that’s another story.

Meanwhile, I cannot think of a previous time in our culture when significant composers in numbers evolved their identities outside (and in such hostility to) the norms of peers, training and institutions. Even those confirmed radicals Debussy and Stravinsky, busy renouncing much of what their recent past offered, managed to continue the embodiment of cultural identities that we still recognise 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; the 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’s phrase, 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 is worth revisiting the profound imprint of this on today’s mindset. 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  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 fifth 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.

So let me invoke a modern neurosis — which I’m going to term genre-panic — around instrumental media. In a century blessed by the hyper-facility of neo-classical figures like Milhaud and Hindemith, compositional genre has not aged well — sounding warning bells, for our individuated age, about mass production and “sewing-machine music”. In the 2013 BBC Reith Lectures Grayson Perry quoted the 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.

Yet the discomfort which, I think, has come to surround the modern equivalents of classical genre output is typified by the celebrated philosopher and writer on music Theodor Adorno, when he scornfully links such production to the fake coinage among new music: writing in the 1960s, 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 Draeseke”. 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 piece 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 discussed by the artist Jacob Willer, writing in these pages in 2014 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 recognised, by that ownership, as taking his place within the ranks of that art.

The new disdain for the reassuring continuities of art in modern times is exemplified, at its extreme, by the young firebrand Pierre 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 1940s, however, may be the point at which critical opinions crystalised a more radical conception of what a “new music” means.

The thrust of Boulez’s famous polemic, Schoenberg Is Dead, was that Schoenberg’s ability to realise his own pure, new world was fatally undermined by reliance on classical forms — yes, that continuity exalted by Webern as “tradition”; this means not just the outer shell of Schoenberg’s variations, Baroque dances and sonatas of that precious European inheritance but their entire inner periodic framework. “Schoenberg employed the series [his ‘12-note row’] . . . to ensure the semantic unity of the work, but he organised the elements thus obtained by an existing rhetoric, not a serial one.” This is worth highlighting for its context: Webern had said almost exactly this, but for him it was a reassurance; almost overnight, though, the past had gone from enabling provenance to hampering irrelevance.

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. Adorno is hard on Richard Strauss for the latter’s backsliding from the cause: “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 politicised. 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 now a fatal limitation.

Nor is comfortable imitation of fashion a refuge: Adorno is not persuaded by those who are “content to produce further examples of various types of compositions established by composers such as Bartók, Stravinsky and Hindemith, without recognising 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”. 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.”

Such imagery, with its talk of chemists and test-tubes, is in fact strangely prophetic of confused tendencies within modernism (even today) to appropriate quasi-scientific language and quantities. While the radical new outlook so startlingly drawn by Adorno here 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. During recent Soundings Festivals promoted by the Austrian Cultural Forum in London, I’ve conducted extensive public conversations with some younger Austrian composers, and probed their sense of connection to even the recent historical past. I continue to be struck by the lack 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 interview have explicitly pursued composition as a rebellion against an academic establishment, striking out from what they found to be fossilised adoration of the Viennese canon and rigid conservatoire attitudes; one reported feeling stifled specifically by the regimentation of European piano pedagogy, and had turned to composition for its supposed lack of cultural baggage. Two Austrian composers who disclosed to me mainstream concerns with phrasing and hierarchies admitted to being self-conscious about their “traditional approach”, though their 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 backdrop that cannot be excised from my composer-thinking. Among my Austrian colleagues there was a tendency to relegate historical learning to an academic outlook, leaving it thus estranged from their practice as composers. We shall return to the reasons for this different outlook; it suggests that, in our modern culture, 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 reality is that other musics will continue in parallel — those that will be historically informed just as before, in defiance of the orthodoxy of Boulez and Adorno.

In his landmark study of music in the modern age, Music, The Arts and Ideas, Leonard B. Meyer 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 book 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 Meyer 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-Columbian 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 cachet, 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 globalised culture.

But what is the implication of this new order (if it pertains) for any sense of artistic lineage? Jacob Willer, writing about painting, echoes what I said above about the modern priority of individuated expression; tellingly he points out the need for experimentation to have a historical backdrop. “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 believe the shift in attitudes to art mirrors its 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 100 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. This, at first a de facto splinter (to the dismay of Schoenberg and the others), was later to be fashioned, as we have seen, into a spear of ideology.

I say it was later that the schism became a tenet of modernism in Western culture, but while placing the rupture with the past so precisely between Webern (1935) and Adorno (1948) I should not neglect the roots of modernism in 19th-century Europe. The musical historian Carl Dahlhaus sees this splintering that is our topic today as a facet of Romanticism: in his great discussion “Nationalism and Music”, Dahlhaus notes 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 a pre-echo of my modern schism, in familiar phraseology, but locates it a century earlier; maybe it is enough to note that in many ways modern musical 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. I noted above that a “disconnect” with even the recent 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 an article on German composer Helmut Lachenmann published in Tempo in 1998, 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 some who were around at Adorno’s lectures. It is surely true, and understandable, that horror at the recent historical outcomes lay behind these startling disconnections — yet revulsion cannot validate, however it explains, the subsequent disorientation of artistic progression induced by that full-throated denial of traditional connection. 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 musical handbook up to, say, Schoenberg creates an artistic void — an avant-garde movement cut off from the oxygen of its own tradition.

To suggest that everything had to be done differently after 1930 has done untold damage to the ownership of new art music ever since — disproportionate damage, given that this was far from a general viewpoint: leading younger composers like Ligeti and Carter saw clearly at the time the pitfalls of this mid-20th-century trend. 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 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 largely 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 again: “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 still dissociate their output from the past in the search for a territory. But I still say that you cannot compose in a vacuum.

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