Wednesday, February 23, 2011

(Certain) Music and (A Limited Approach To) Modernity

"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."

There is little to disagree with in that opening paragraph from James Macmillan's article "Music and Modernity" (available at Standpoint Magazine). Modernism, especially as applied to music, has as many definitions as authors; in all cases the term needs to be further specified before use. What is surprising and deeply disappointing is that the author then proceeds to preach a prime example of exactly what he has criticised. His sermon is a vindictive rant based on personal slights, rampant nationalism and out-of-hand dismissal of any politics left of centre.

His two main points are that Pierre Boulez was a tyrannical monster and that religion should be recognised as a musical force. I will not argue with either of those, since his point of view is welcome and supported by argumentation. What is bizarre is the way the essay then goes off the rails into a strange series of over-the-top anti-Left Europhobic pronouncements. In doing so, the author is not brave enough to specify his targets, but rather refers vaguely to "the prophets of Marxist-inspired modernism" and "the new Young Turks" before slandering them by reference to the Khmer Rouge. OTT much?

Along the way Macmillan gives props to British composers at the expense of the rest of Europe. True enough, he manages to salvage some remnants from his carpet-bombing of the continent -- apparently so he can congratulate himself on this act. But Macmillan is far from consistent, on one hand accusing Europeans of rampant anti-Americanism and on the other admitting "Europeans have made a habit of turning enthusiastically towards America as an attractive alternative". Whichever way the wind blows, apparently.

What is telling, most of all, is the restriction of scope to those concert music composers who follow a carefully circumscribed institution-dominated path. There's no mention of Pauline Oliveros, Delia Derbyshire, Luc Ferrari, Ryoji Ikeda, Denis Smalley, Thomas Köner, Alvin Lucier, Alan Lamb, David Toop or thousands of others, since Macmillan's idea of what constitutes music is a good bit narrower than he would admit. If he only wanted to target Western "art music" in his definition of modernity, he should have said so.

Macmillan stretches only so far into the outer limits as to consider John Cage, this being for the express purpose of including him in the fold of religious composers. But his knowledge even this far out from central orbit is lacking, as we are treated to the old and tiresome mistake that "4'33" "is 4 minutes 33 seconds of silence". Good grief!

They missed the point. There's no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out. -- John Cage

While I share the author's disinterest in ideological circumferences around allowable musics, I cannot imagine a less inspiring model for this "open, non-dogmatic environment" than the very essay he puts forth.

This is the sound of me.

Walking out.


1 comment:

robin said...

I prescribe 70 minutes of Morton Feldman (say, For Bunita Marcus) to be followed by 70 minutes of Aphex Twin's Drukqs. Repeat until cured.

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