Monday, November 3, 2008

Modern music

I'm currently reading the book The Rest is Noise, the chronicle of 20th century classical music by New Yorker music critic Alex Ross. This won't be a review, as I'm not finished yet (and there may never be a review if I can't bring enough perspective to be illuminating on a subject I don't know well - not that that usually stops me).

Ross was in Chicago on Saturday to give a talk for the Chicago Humanities Festival, and the Tribune printed two stories in their Live! section (and the exclamation point really does make the section far more exciting than it would be otherwise). Both were written by Bob Gendron, the one on page four being a straightforward and positive review of the talk. On page 1 is a bullet-point story (and we're seeing more lists and short items featured more prominently in the new Tribune) about how "'difficult' modern sounds permeate mainstream pop culture."

Five examples are cited, starting with the use of Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathrustra in the opening of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Ross also gave these examples: The Shining (music by Ligeti), the Beatles (Stockhausen and Cage), horror movies (Schoenberg), and music clubs, in which various strains of music come together and blur the lines, drawing influences from one another.

With respect to Ross, who is a far more eloquent proponent of modern music than I am a critic, examples like this tend to prove the opposite point to what is intended. That snatches of modern music can be effective to punctuate drama is unmistakably true, but these pieces are intended to be heard in their entirety in the concert hall. For many listeners, including me (though I lean toward the tolerant end, except when I've paid top dollar for someone's experimentation), this has led to some long unpleasant evenings.

When the Lyric Opera tries to entice listeners to Berg's Lulu by emphasizing the story and the sexuality of the title character, they clearly understand the reluctance of the customer to sit through the thorniness of the music. You can tell me, even show me in the score, all the fascinating things that Berg is doing, and I may well appreciate it on the intellectual level, but that doesn't make it desirable on the experiential level. I'll read, about some piece of modern music, "here, he has a passage in C major, then modulates through a 12-tone chord to E-flat minor, which demonstrates the alienation of the main character," which is all fine, and probably has them gasping back in the music school, but can be excruciating.

If you're a lover of modern music, you may think me a Philistine, and I'm not going to be able to argue against that, but I get weary of Prokofiev; I'm always struck by his music as a few minutes of something remarkable followed by 15 minutes of tedium. At any rate, back to my main point, those writers who contend that the use of modern music in short passages somehow justifies the whole thing are missing the point. I'm sure that a minute or two of Lulu is stirring, jarring, emotional, but that doesn't mean I'm going to be thrilled to sit through 3 hours and 50 minutes of it.

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