Is Modern Music Dead?

06.7.2004 | Jonathan Leaf | Music | 13 Comments

Our long international nightmare is over.

Atonal music is dead. Modern music is dead (or dying). Schoenberg is long dead.

Several recent announcements suggest that the world of music criticism is awakening to this. Two weeks ago the committee that selects the winner of the annual Pulitzer Prize for music finally agreed to consider something other than current widely accepted classical symphonic and instrumental music.

For many years the committee had heard suggestions to make such a move, but it had chosen to ignored them. One reason for this was their belief that other forms — like movie scores, Broadway scores and pop albums — were already being acknowledged by the Oscars, Tonys and Grammys. A second reason the decision had been avoided was the fear that it could potentially open the door for a general dragging down of taste in which the likes of P. Diddy — and other popular singers and rappers not even able to play instruments — would ultimately be being weighed as candidates. These fears are not absurd.

But the music that the Pulitzer committee has chosen in place of considering other forms is ridiculous. Has the best American music of the last half-century been written by composers like Roger Sessions, Elliot Carter, William Bolcolm and Charles Wuorinen?

If you believe this, you can be convinced that fried mozzarella sticks are a health food item. Most of the really outstanding American music that has been written, performed and then applauded in the last four decades has been written for everything but the opera and concert hall. Bernstein’s “Candide” (which also didn’t receive the Pulitzer) was probably the last American classical work of real importance to gain widespread popular and critical recognition. New work that’s been trumpeted in the concert world since should not be anywhere near actual trumpets. Much better can instead be found in — yes, believe it — Hollywood.

While it is undeniable that many of the most effective film scores are based on simple motifs that merely underline or accompany the action, much fine music has been written for the screen that stands up outside the theaters. This not only includes music by acknowledged symphonic composers like Prokofiev (“Alexander Nevksy”), Copland (“Music For the Movies”), Korngold (“Kings Row”), Bernstein (“On The Waterfront”) and Walton (“Henry V”), but also such talented composers as Randy Newman (“The Natural”, “Seabiscuit”), his cousin Thomas Newman (“The Shawshank Redemption”), Georges Delerue (“The Escape Artist”), John Barry (“Out of Africa”), Elmer Bernstein (“The Magnificent Seven”) and Elliot Goldenthal (“Batman IV”). And one might well add to this list such gifted and accomplished film composers as Angelo Baldamenti, Nino Rota, Jerry Goldsmith, Michael Nyman, and, of course, Bernard Herrmann.<>This is not to mention all the great jazz that’s been written by Ellington, Basie and many others and the popular music of people like Nat King Cole, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder and Roberta Flack. Surely this is a far better list of those who are deserving of consideration for the Pulitzer than most of the authors of the avant-garde (i.e. behind the times and by now thoroughly passe) dreck that has been getting recognition from the Pulitzer committee.

That said, much has also been happening in the last few years to suggest that traditional opera and concert classical music is flourishing below the attention level of the mainstream press and the largest opera houses.

What I am referring to should not be confused with minimalism. The press generally interpreted the minimalist movement led by Philip Glass and John Adams as the return of melody to classical music and a rejection of modernism. This is understandable. Minimalism was an improvement on serialist composition, and John Adams’ music can be both exciting and melodic.

But minimalism has been as much a cult as a real triumph. Adams’ “Nixon In China” thrums with energy and builds to some exciting crescendos, but it is not great. It has too little grace, subtlety, delicacy of feeling and the complex working out of themes which lie at the heart of what great classical music is. “Nixon In China“‘s wailing high points have more in common in their chaotic aggression with the climaxes of a rock concert than they do with the ordered, intricate, melting beauty of Mozart.

Two recent composers suggest that they may possess greatness, though.

One of these is West Coast composer Kirke Mechem. His increasingly popular, touching and idiosyncratic opera “Tartuffe” has been gradually gaining adherents.

The other important composer to keep an eye (or rather an ear) on is “derriere-garde” leader Stefania De Kenessey. Her opera “The Other Wise Man” may rank as the best opera since Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites”. Word that she is now planning a satirical opera based on Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities is heartening.

Their time is come. The wicked witch of modern music is dead.



Most of what is claimed to be art is instead political/philosophical statements or gimmicks, consciously designed to appeal to superficial or to intellectual (divorced from feeling) audiences. A great work of music is made up of melodies, usually numerous simultaneously occurring melodies, each of which is singable. If you perform the experiment of selecting a piece of recorded music and singing along with a given melody from within it numerous times per day for months on end you will begin to grasp the depth of that piece of music, if in fact it is deep. Each time you sing it, it reveals another level of depth. If instead you begin to get bored while singing along with those melodies you will have proven that it is not in fact a great work of music. Few people are willing to try this test, and to really do it honestly, immersing oneself in it. Much "modern music" qualifies mainly as background music, and in my opinion it can be quite excellent---as background music. The background to a film, for example. But it is not worth listening to in its own right the way Bach is.
06.7.2004 | Jonathan Easton
Interesting. How do you rank the classical composers then? Is Bach first? What 20th century composers do you admire? Strauss? Prokofiev? Copland? Elgar? Ellington?
06.7.2004 | Jonathan Leaf
Bach will pass that test every time. So will Chopin and Beethoven. Ellington is not a "great composer." If you are referring to the songs he wrote, those are clearly in the category of popular music or folk music, rather than the category of fine art. This does not mean that those songs do not have the power to move people. A great work of art takes the entire spectrum of human feeling and experience (hence the universality of great art), and condenses it into a tiny space. A work of pop art expresses only a thin slice of that spectrum, but it can be a slice that evokes feeling in certain persons. If you are referring to Ellington as a spontaneous improviser, a jazz improviser, he will not pass the test. But you will have to try it to know what I am talking about. There are a handful of great jazz improvisers who will indeed pass the test. Incidentally, Bach, Chopin and certain other great composers are known also to have been great improvisers, which of course makes perfect sense. The explanation of that takes us even further off point, however.
06.7.2004 | Jonathan Easton
Calling Duke Ellington a pop or folk artist while calling Frederic Chopin a fine artist is pretty funny. I'll never understand why Europeans elaborating on their folk motifs = fine art, while black Americans doing the same = folk art. So as to not be accused of mere snark, I would offer the Charles Mingus of the late 1950s/early 1960s as the finest large-scale composer jazz has offered.
06.7.2004 | Tim Marchman
This has nothing to do with race. Charlie Parker's music is at the same level as Bach's and Chopin's, in my opinion, but I wouldn't ever try to convince anyone in the academy of that. Nevertheless, it is true. Ellington's is not at that level, nor is Mingus's. No one will do the test I proposed--that I can guarantee.
06.7.2004 | Jonathan Easton
I wasn't accusing you of racism at all; I see no reason to think you're racist. I am simply mystified by the notion that one could think one of Chopin and Ellington was a folk artist and the other not.
06.7.2004 | Tim Marchman
::Ellington wrote mostly pop, but his serious pieces were undeniably serious, even if not his own best work. Several of his tunes play spontaneously in my mind, decades after first hearing them, so he passes that test of greatness.

The older I get, the more I hear Bach in my head ahead of all other classics. When I was younger it was heavier on Beatles, who yet remain.


::The abstruseness of modern music has been an artistic tragedy of the last century.


::Missing from the list of symphonic greats from the movies: Carl W Stalling, who lifted Warner Bros cartoons into greatness. Inside my head? When I'm tiptoeing, for instance, my internal music cues are all Stalling!


::Got any weblinks for snippets of Kirke Mechem and Stefania De Kenessey's music?
06.7.2004 | David L Steinhardt
Just thought I'd mention that my friend Jonathan Easton is a jazz musician. He loves jazz.
06.8.2004 | Jonathan Leaf
Well, I can put down my pitchfork, then!

This is an interesting question to me, which is why I pose it: Why are European musicians who extend folk traditions in a formal fashion not classed as folk or pop musicians when Americans who do the same are?

To me, whether music is folk, popular or serious is defined more by intent and social role than anything else. Pure folk music, which exists purely functionally- as wedding music, for instance or a source of news-transmission- is exceedingly rare. Serious music is meant for no other purpose than the refined expression of emotion. Pop music exists in some ambiguous between-state, and no satsifactory definition of it exists that does not lean on a Marxist appraisal of the relationship between commerce and art.

I do not believe it can be rationally argued that Duke Ellington was a folk musician. Until the introduction of the LP record he was primarily a pop musician- but how can it be said that the purpose of the film scores, orchestral suites, tone poems and sacred music he began to write in the 1950s is anything other than the refined expression of emotion? There is no social function to any of this music at all; it is only meant to be listened to and concentrated upon.

And Duke's was the last generation for which it could be plausibly argued that jazz served any functional or social role at all. I just don't see any way in which Monk and Mingus shouldn't be classed with Haydn and Mozart; in fact, of course, it is the Europeans whose music was meant not to be listened to in contemplation but in ritually defined social contexts, not the Americans.

Aesthetically I don't think there's any jazz musician to rank with the greatest composers of European art music. But they shouldn't be judged apart, which is why this matters to me as more than a matter of semantics. To put America's greatest musicians apart affects the way we think of them and the way we pass their legacy on to future generations, neccessarily leaves them with a needless taint.

To bring this back to the relevant point, the fact that of the regular Pulitzers ONE has been awarded to a jazz composition (you can argue that Mel Powell's and Gunther Schuller's Pulitzers were given for jazz pieces, but I'd disagree)- and that a tendentious Marsalis piece which won the prize not because of its aesthetic merit but because it was Important- is a frightful embarrassment, much worse than the fact that the great film composers have been similarly overlooked.

(And on a last note toss the great Polish jazzman Krystof Komeda, who did the music for several Roman Polanski flicks, on the list of great and good composers who worked in cinema.)
06.8.2004 | Tim Marchman
Thanks, Tim. As always you've expressed ideas with which I'm in concordance far better than I could or would have.
As to the film composers, I didn't mean that as a complete list, but rather as an introductory one.
I don't know where Stefania de Kenessey's music can be heard on line.
You can definitely find a lot about Kirke Mechem online and, while I don't know of a site that has his music, I know there are some. To read reviews of his opera, go to: http://www.schirmer.com/composers/mechem_tartuffe.html
06.11.2004 | Jonathan Leaf
Mr. Easton's melodically-based definition of "great music" is rather crude, and fails even to apply to much of Bach's music, such as the C Minor prelude from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier and the famous D Minor chaconne for solo violin. Why must we labor over these unwieldy (and ultimately untenable) definitions of "what music is", instead of attending to each work on its own merits?

The anti-modernist triumphalism that is currently in fashion is, for the most part, grounded in a fundamental misunderstanding of modernism as a cultural movement. This triumphalism relies on a spurious straw-man version of modernism-- overlooking, for instance, Schoenberg's strongly conservative strain, which is audible in his music as well as in his writings-- which turns a blind eye to the "grace, subtlety, delicacy of feeling and the complex working out of themes" to be found in much avowedly modernist music, especially of the first half of the 20th century. At the same time as they fail to notice the continuity with tradition in much modern music, writers such as Mr. Leaf also betray their ignorance of the social and aesthetic underpinnings of modernism in the arts, without which it can indeed appear as so much sound and fury. To characterize modern art as "political/philosophical statements or gimmicks, consciously designed to appeal to superficial or to intellectual (divorced from feeling) audiences" is small-minded and dismissive, but it touches on the truth. Much modern art is abstrusely philosophical or outspokenly political. But to oppose such art to a "real" or "genuine" art which speaks a universal language of beauty is to consort with chimaeras. A member of a non-Western "primitive" culture would be just as bemused by Bach as by Boulez.

Modern music is not beyond critique-- indeed, much of it is awful and full of pretense. But the overeager obituaries so common today hardly amount to criticisms. Instead, the bring to mind Heraclitus' mention of "dogs that bark at what they cannot understand."
08.21.2004 | Theodore Welsh

How strange and unusual that my find feature on my IE doesn't seem to be able to find a reference to Steve Reich anywhere. Maybe it's broken? Maybe I've mispelled his name? huh...odd...

01.8.2010 | Chris Congdon

How ignorant this writer is. 'Modern music' (e.i. the works of 'avante garde' classical such as Schoenberg, Webern, etc.) is not any worse than Mozart. In fact, I find it to be better. These arguments in taste are, simply put, childish. If you want to argue that Mozart is some great composer and Adams is not as great (which is an opinion, by the way: Mozart is not, in fact, any better than anyone else), then go on youtube and argue with the other 13 year olds who fight over their favorite bands.

01.30.2011 | A EFic

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