Friday, June 29, 2012

The World of Modern Music

“Being that music is our life, in that it has given us a 
life—did we make things clear? That is, do we love 
Music, and not the systems, the rituals, the symbols—the
worldly, greedy gymnastics that we substitute for it?”
                                                      —Morton Feldman[1]

To the outside observer, the world of modern music must often seem a House of Horrors. Seemingly drawn by a love of show-offy philosophical shenanigans, the aspiring modern musician passes the threshold and wanders off into the twisty little passages of this sanctum. Moorings are lost and a strange environment envelops him. The warping ellipses of this Purgatory are divided into the cloisters of various sects; each cell seems dedicated to some all-embracing theoretical conceit, each with its own body of curates and disciples, all engaged in the bizarre rituals of their theologies. He tries to decrypt the numeric mandalas of the Serialists, collegiate Neo-Pythagoreans for whom the nature of music is written in the language of set theory; he stays a time with a band of self-denying Cagian ascetics who seek to liberate music from the desires of its composers, then with a shamanic bunch of Free Improvisers who reject the arid intellectuality of notation and compositional structure.

Our newcomer finds his assumptions assaulted on all sides by this panoply of theories; the axioms of his previous musical life are ripped to shreds, and he is pained to discover that he knows nothing of his art. He is confused—yet he does not run screaming for the exits. For, having once entered, the modern musician rarely leaves this asylum; lost in its higher circles and burning with uncertainty, he searches for answers by delving always deeper into its spiral core. The edifice becomes his home; its eccentric residents, his friends; and their religions, the subjects of familiar neighborhood gossip.

On the whole, it is interesting and generally friendly world. Passing over the occasional dogmatist, the residents are for the most part lovable in their nuttiness, and sincere in their pursuit of some Idea of musical truth. Not all of their theorizing is pretentious claptrap, and the vastness of the edifice of modern music permits a creative mind the much-needed latitude to explore the possibilities of the art. Despite this, the danger of losing one's bearings and becoming mired in the depths of this wacky structure is very real. What, precisely, is meant by this metaphor? Simply that it is possible to become so enmeshed in the theoretical and philosophical problems of composition that one loses sight of the concrete reality—the experience—of music. Worse still, the love of that experience—that is, listening—can be ruptured and cracked by obsessive analysis, until it is little more than a pile of arcane debris.

The musician, one hopes, chose his path because of his enjoyment and love of music. Like all loves, the love of music may develop a melancholy aspect if its object, that is, what the musician longs to hear, is unattainable to him within his current sphere of musical understanding; the only remedy for him is to seek to broaden this sphere, and it is this need to attain to the beloved in music that propels him through the doors of the new monastery described above. If he learns within its confines how to find what it is he seeks, very well. But if, after his stay, his love has become no less problematical, he must leave, for to tarry risks worse than to further complicate his desire. The lost soul of modern music no longer experiences love of music in any real sense; his desire has been misdirected, cheated, replaced in toto by a sterile craving after analytic completeness, systematic perfection. These are strange idols to the lover of music, but their icons decorate every surface of this weird edifice; if much sectarian strife swirls round the identity of the True Form of modern music, we may be sure that all the competing ideals express themselves in the language of analysis and theory. These gods claim the laurels of Apollo, yet they are mute and without substance. It is for the musician to grasp the fundamental disconnect between this idolatry and the love and practice of music; for by no other means can he win passage across Lethe, drink from the waters of Eunoe, and ascend far beyond this citadel's wasteland writhings.[2]


1. “In Memoriam: Edgard Varèse”. Published in Give My Regards to Eighth Street, B.H. Friedman, ed.
2. See Dante, Purgatorio, Cantos 31-33.

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