Whose “Modern Music” and whose “After”?

“…the preemininent introduction to the music of our time.”

Actually, no. In contrast to the publisher’s note, as Paul Griffiths is quick to admit in the first sentence of the third edition of his Modern Music and After, “This is not a history of music since 1945”. Rather, the “modern” of the title is overwhelmingly the post-war European avant-garde, particularly Boulez and Stockhausen, with a bit of time spent on Cage and Babbitt. The “after” refers more to those composers attempting to carry on the post-war avant-garde traditions – call them the neo-avant-garde – rather than “after” in the sense of alternatives to that avant-garde.

There are two kinds of selectivity at play here. The first is that Griffiths has little or nothing to say about music that does not spring from the post-war European avant-garde or a few contemporaneous alternatives that share an experimental outlook. Other musics simply do not exist. The second is Griffith’s overwhelming emphasis on European music. Among the American composers not even mentioned in the book are Harbison, Corigliano, Martino, Shapey, Davidovsky, Zwilich, Tower, Reynolds, Johnston, Kernis, Rouse, Lieberson, Melinda Wagner, Powell, Schwantner, del Tredici, Currier, Mackey, Hartke, Wernick – the list goes on and on. Rochberg is mentioned (and dismissed), I think because the extremity of his aesthetic vision fits with Griffith’s ideal of the avant-garde as all-important. Wuorinen is mentioned as a writer, not even identified as a composer. Oddly, Druckman and Stucky serve as token inclusions. Ashley is mentioned only in passing, as are the members of the Bang on a Can triumvirate of Wolfe, Gordon, and Lang. Crumb is mentioned only to be quickly dismissed – why, according to Griffith, the references to tonal music in Crumb don’t work while those in the music of the European avant-garde are successful is never explained. Adams is treated with snarky condescension. As for more conservative artists active during this period – Barber or Poulenc, are of course ignored, Britten and Shostakovich quickly passed over. Griffiths doesn’t even deal with the Americans who are more closely connected with the European avant-garde he idolizes. You would think he would find a place for Roger Reynolds or Jason Eckhardt, but you won’t find their names in this book’s index. And European composers who do not worship at the high altar of modernism, like Adés and Knussen, are given inappropriately modest space.

Now, it will be argued that you can only fit in so many names in a book of this kind. Then why on earth is there room for obscure and marginal Europeans like Hugh Wood, Bill Hopkins, Rolf Riehm (not to be confused with Wolfgang Rihm) Gérard Pesson, Pierluigi Billone, and Brice Pauset? I actually thought “Bill Hopkins” (you have to admit, it is an unlikely name for a French composer) was a prank, a fictitious composer invented by Griffiths to illustrate some point, but no, Hopkins did exist, and he gets three pages in a book that passes over all the Americans mentioned above. I am happy to make the acquaintance of names that are new to me, but to do so in a book that purports to be a history of post-war music – even of a certain kind of post-war music – and that omits so many important names in American music is vexing in the extreme.

One of the truly absurd assertions Griffiths makes is to uphold Lachenmann as a composer of moral seriousness. This comes right out of Adorno, the idea that “if people don’t like it, it must be good” – and not only good aesthetically but morally. Lachenmann is quoted as saying the ‘all-suffocating barbarism diagnosed by [Karl] Kraus was not overcome through the two world wars [gee, is that why they were fought?] – on the contrary, it came to infiltrate all areas of life in a fatally harmless guise: as a culture of “fun” whose universal, cheapened availability gives rise to a rapid devaluation of all that has been precious to us as artistic experience. We are thus today once again faced with the task of bringing art “to safety”…discarding false securities, and doing this with reference to an innovatively-oriented work-ideal that subjects our experience of music to constant dialectical renewal.” You might expect that that passage had been written in perhaps 1951, but no, it dates from the 21st century. Let’s translate it: discarding false securities means rejecting anything other than the avant-garde impulse, probably referring to any neo-romanticism; “innovatively-oriented” – as though innovation was itself valuable, one of the biggest mistakes in 20th century music. Pound’s “make it new” is a pretty tired old dictum by now. “Subjects our experience of music to constant dialectical renewal” – but why is a dialectical relationship necessary for renewal? Lachenmann is talking about a compulsory state of rebellion that is no less a conformity than the compulsory rebelliousness that supposedly gives pop culture its specious “vitality”. In a sense, Lachenmann’s position is actually very close to that of the capitalist culture he mistakenly thinks he is challenging. The truly rebellious alternative to the conformities of the avant-garde and pop worlds would be an attitude that seeks greater continuity with earlier traditions, honoring innovation but not placing it above all else.

It is telling that two of the mistakes in the book have to do with musical examples. In a discussion of the third movement of Berio’s Sinfonia, surely it is the sleigh bells, and not the snare drum that the percussionist has previously been handling that recall the Mahler 4th in Berio’s Sinfonia. And in an analysis of a passage by George Benjamin, Griffiths states “One may note also that the third of these chords has its outline picked up by the second viola in the third bar…” In fact, the second viola plays the outer voices of the second chord in the fifth bar of the example. The third chord played by the first viola is in the fourth bar of the example, and there the second viola’s sustained pitches are not the outer voices (what I assume Griffths means by “outline”).

Griffiths is a superb writer and you will learn a great deal from him about that which he chooses to discuss. But as a history of “Modern Music and After”, the book is a grotesque travesty.

4 Comments

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  1. Many thanks for the thorough reading – and I’ll check those two music examples. OK if I quote just five words? They’d be the first five of the last paragraph. Best wishes, p

    • Well, this is a gracious comment, perhaps more gracious than is deserved. Thank you.

      Those five words to which you refer deserve amplification. The writing in this book, as in the others of yours I have read, is uncommonly elegant, with fresh turns of phrase and a rare concision. And I did indeed learn a great deal from the book. My complaint, of course, is not with the lapidary prose, but with the contents of the book’s index, so to speak.

      I think most composers believe themselves to be in the center of the mainstream. It’s distressing when that body of water barely finds a place on a map of calligraphic refinement.

  2. Though the very short-lived Bill Hopkins (1943-81) was educated in France (with Messiaen and others) from 64-72, he was born in England and moved back there to take several university posts after his years in France. So, despite the fact that nearly all his compositions have French titles, I really would not characterize him as a “French composer.” (And thus his name seems less odd.) [I most certainly don’t disagree with your point about his relative importance, though.]

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