A Short Course in
HOW TO TEACH YOURSELF
ABOUT CONTEMPORARY MUSIC
By Christopher Fulkerson
WRITINGS ON MUSIC
At the bottom of this page there are Amazon links to some of the books discussed here.
You will navigate away... please bookmark this site, and return soon!
CLICK HERE For a Testimonial from someone who has found this page helpful
The photograph is of CF at the Grave of Schoenberg, Vienna, 2006
This is a brief outline of a reading course you can give yourself in contemporary Classical music, for a fraction of the cost of a specialized music appreciation class, which probably isn't available to you anyway. And you can take your time in doing it, which no doubt means you will go faster than if you were relying on somebody else to present it to you. It presumes that you don't have a teacher (though that has been known to be helpful) but that you do have the basic skills necessary to find and read books, and can bravely go online or to a CD store and purchase the necessary recordings. It also presumes you have enough independence of mind not to get too drawn into one particular writer's point of view, always a danger in any self-taught study when you don't have the chance to interrogate the teacher. Naturally, I would rather you had exactly my point of view about the situation, but that is not what I am trying to accomplish here.
The single most valuable study of contemporary music I know of is Charles Rosen's book ARNOLD SCHOENBERG, published by the University of Chicago Press. It's quite a short book; you can read it in one afternoon (Rosen said it's "hardly longer than a term paper"). This book is not only about Schoenberg, it's about contemporary music in general, using Schoenberg as the best case study to acquaint the reader with the basic issues, among them the negative reaction of the (still very) retarded press. The book speaks about the efforts made by composers in the Twentieth Century to compensate for the decline in patronage support, and describes Schoenberg's prophetic solution to survival in the modern patronage desert. There is a very helpful section about the musical meaning of dense, heavily chromatic textures (they're cadential, that is, they function as guideposts to the form). These points are explained with the utmost clarity and they do not require musical theoretical knowledge. There are only a very few musical examples so even if you don't read music you can get someone to easily play them for you. If you only have time for one short book, this should be it. It was originally written and published as part of the Penguin Modern Masters series.
If you have time for two books, your next one should give you a composer's view of the world of serious music, and for this purpose there is still no better book than FLAWED WORDS AND STUBBORN SOUNDS: A Conversation with Elliott Carter, by Allen Edwards. It is out of print but available online and many libraries have it. Carter discusses his own experience, which is certainly among the most vast in history, and he makes the relevant remarks about all the pertinent schools of music up to the time of the book's publication. He is very clear about the scandal that is the neglect of contemporary music, especially American music; he has cogent things to say about Soviet music - these are more pertinent than ever, given the increased neglect of real contemporary music and the glut of Soviet music, and similar lowbrow populist items such as "pops" concerts, and "minimalism" on American concert programs. The Soviets have been quite successful at taking over American programming; they rule the day in ballet, and festivals of their music occur in this country where there are none of American music. Carter is considered by many, myself included, to be our greatest living composer. At the time of this writing, he is still composing at age 101.
Then, if you want to have some background to it all and get some names and repertoire, but still wish to avoid academic writing, there is one writer who, though full of journalistic eccentricities, has repeatedly given a lively account of certain aspects of the scene in several books. Her name is Joan Peyser; she was for several years the editor of Musical Quarterly (the leading periodical of academic musicology), and has written a lot of journalism for the New York Times, the newspaper that causes, or perpetuates, most of the problems we have in contemporary music, so she knows how to hold a position in that millieu too. If you have any brains you will quickly figure out she a bit of a gossip and has an ax to grind, but better a gossip with an agenda than an academic with his mind so open that his brains fall out. Her prose style is quite readable, often actually rather fun, always a plus in writing on contemporary music.
Peyser's TWENTIETH CENTURY MUSIC, the Sense Behind the Sound, published by Schirmer Books, gives a journalistic-style version of the early history of modern music, using Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Varese as the focal points. This book was a landmark in the appreciation of modern Classical music, though it has been superceeded by Peyser's later books, partly because they absorb this book into them.
Her next book was BOULEZ: Composer, Conductor, Enigma. In giving an account of Boulez's career to its midpoint, Peyser provides some competence with certain of the trends in postwar music, since Boulez was a leader in most of them. Partly because he is one of the finest conductors of all time, as well as a great composer and writer on music, Boulez is probably the most successful contemporary Classical composer. At the time of this writing in 2010 he is 85 years old. He used to be the enfent terrible of modern music; now he is the vielle terrible, and all composers owe him a huge debt.
But you can skip both of these and go to her most recent book on the topic, TO BOULEZ AND BEYOND: Music in Europe Since the Rite of Spring. It is a compilation of the previous two books, with new material added. I have not yet read this book (I promise to do so soon) but have given it enough of a once-over to see that it is quite similar to her other books that I know. Some of her agendas are more obvious, but I applaud her for some of them, for example, for mentioning Shostakovitch only once (everyone should have the agenda of eliminating Soviet music; I eliminate Soviet music every day); it is instructive that she shows him in a photo with Aaron Copland (regretful poster boy for American Musical Socialism; apparently he didn't catch on to how his ballets for Martha Graham were actually going to be used by people like Leonard Bernstein to push his other, non-Socialistic music out). Her decision to describe Augusta Read Thomas as a "rising star" composer is off base, especially in view of the fact that she doesn't even mention Gusty's Pulitzer-Prize winning composer husband Bernard Rands, who is clearly a better composer than she is. And it is obviously strange that Mrs. Peyser doesn't mention Peter Maxwell Davies, the most succesful living British composer, even once. Despite these and other oddities, I'm sure the book is well worth reading.
For its panorama and sheer gossip value, you might enjoy this next book the most. If you want an alternative discussion to the conventional wisdom about populist postwar "Classical music," there is much to be had in Mrs. Peyser's appropriately muckraking biography BERNSTEIN. When I met Bernstein in 1988 at Tanglewood, I remarked on it to him, and he made the Freudian remark "I promised my children on my knees that I wouldn't read that book." Reading it you will discover why so many dedicated contemporary composers didn't like what Bernstein did to American music. Though Mrs. Peyser doesn't say so, he was a virtual American Soviet Commissar, enforcing Russian Socialist Realism in America; it could be that his position as a de facto commissar was the reason for the choice of his photo for the first paperback edition of the book, which shows Bernstein with a red bandana around his neck. The Socialist configuration he gave American music is still very much with us. The Soviets used the arts as a weapon, beating us over the heads with their plowshares, and the Americans are still too stupid to realize that on the cultural front, America lost the Cold War. When I had dinner with him the night at Tanglewood he visited the 1988 Composer Fellows, very early in the evening before most people had arrived, Bernstein took me over to the side of the room at Olie Knussen's bungalow, away from the other guests, and spoke to me in low tones like a Dutch uncle, saying - this is a verbatim quote - "Now, you tell people your father was Russian..." which of course wasn't true. I have seldom been more flabbergasted than I was in that moment. I wouldn't even know how to implement such a suggestion. It took me years to digest that moment. Apparently if I had been willing to sacrifice my identity, and literally do an act to be someone other than who I am, there might have been room for me in the world of music. Instead, I drive a cab. I feel that Mrs. Peyser's treatment of Leonard Bernstein, that rotten Soviet agent, is more than fair. To bash Bernstein for shallowness and favoritism when he was actually warping American music into a Soviet mold is a bit like the FBI jailing a mafioso for income tax evasion when he is actually guilty of much worse. Nevertheless, because Bernstein was only important and deadly in the politics of music, and because your self-appointed task is not political, but to learn to listen to, and even love, contemporary music, I would put this book last on your list of priorities. As I say, it is the consensus among modernist composers that Bernstein caused a lot of damage to contemporary music. Once, in conversation with the modernist giant Milton Babbitt, I tried to be generous about Bernstein, calling him a "much maligned man;" without missing a beat Milton said "And very deservedly so."
For a general reference work, you should probably get a music dictionary. A good one is the Thames and Hudson Encyclopedia of 20th-Century Music, by Paul Griffiths. This is, for an encyclopedia, a small volume, only 208 pages, but it has entries for all the major composers and topics. Your first task is to get up to speed about the real issues, composers, and politics of the first eighty years of the Twentieth Century. Griffiths is a well-respected critic and librettist (he wrote the libretto for Elliott Carter's opera WHAT NEXT?) and a reasonably straightforward writer. You can read short, paragraph-long entries in a minute that will tell you enough to answer most questions that are likely to arise while reading larger works. Unfortunately it is only current up to its publication date, 1986. But most of the last twenty years have been pretty dismal in terms of modernity - it's a good time to live in the past. Maybe by the time you are really well-versed in real contemporary music, it shall have become popular at last.
There is one bit about contemporary music that I have found simple to impart, and very useful to people who are first becoming familiar with it, and that is its division into two more or less opposing camps ever since the Postwar years. Though this distinction is still with us, I am one of the only ones who still makes reference to it. During the 1950s and 1960s the sections of New York City that more or less housed these two camps began to be used as a shorthand of the two main schools of composition or "composition." Putting it plainly, the "Uptown" composers were those aligned with the concept that a composer was an artist with tones who took full responsibility for every instruction he gave to his performers, in other words, who wrote out all his notes, left nothing significant to chance, and basically wrote scores that were the complete and authoritative documents of their work. The "Downtown" composers were those who, following the example of John Cage and his ilk, began to preach that while they might write what was perceived as works of music, they might not, and that composers were supposedly free from encumbrances deriving from what they put forward as merely conventional ideas about where or why to get forms, pitches, melodies, harmonies, in short any of the aspects or parameters of music that had been previously thought to be a composer's responsibility. While the Uptown composers wrote music informed by Schoenberg's "emancipation of the dissonance," and maintained (and greatly expanded) the values of musical form as an artifact ultimately, through any innovations in material or technique, to be reflective of human psychology and the interaction of the composer with his audience through the medium of the autonomous musical work, the Downtown composers were not equally interested in the new vistas of musical material, preferring to derive their creativity from literary concepts, especially (supposedly) from Asian philosophy. However any student of the philosophies the Downtown composers espoused would recognize them as not, in fact, faithful to those philosophies. John Cage, in particular, preached bad Zen. He was unable to free his followers from his use of Koans, not understood for the "mental testing" they are intended in Buddhism to be. Instead, Cage's disciples mistook his voluminous written and oral texts, full as they are of paradoxes and nonsense, as actual values in a new world of awareness. Eventually the Downtown composers included Aleatoric and Chance composers; Experimental composers; and Minimalist composers, whose efforts defy normal psychological expectations in listeners, and attempt to function as a silent refutation of modern musical materials, or for that matter most musical techniques of any kind, including even periodicity of melodic constuction. It should be evident to all that I consider myself one of the Uptown composers, and disparage the Downtown composers, though there are exceptions to my disparagement, such as the music of Morton Feldman. A perfect example of the working out and implications of one of the main Minimalists is found in my article "One Hour with Opera America," found also in this section of this website. Basically, if a music requires very much programmatic conditioning to "appreciate," I suspect it is not good art.
Getting back to sources of information about contemporary music, there are some interesting things to be found on YouTube, so I suggest you browse there; you might start with MY YOUTUBE CHANNEL. Just enter a composer's name, and don't worry about whether he may have died in the days before film was common; there are sound recordings, and there are collages that include photos. Also, since certain composers were felt to be important enough to merit what was then expensive documentation, some of them were filmed, even though this was not common at the time. Many such documents are available on YouTube. There are several interesting clips of or about Schoenberg, for example, including the film of the ceremony of dedication of his grave in Vienna, which I visited in 2006 (see the above photograph). Please don't hesitate to email me with anything interesting you may find; and don't assume I already know about it! Again, some interesting videos of well-known contemporary composers are at MY YOUTUBE CHANNEL.
There is a study of Elliott Carter's music that is not all that technical for such a work: THE MUSIC OF ELLIOTT CARTER, Second Edition, by David Schiff.
If you are familiar with the issues and if it's not your first exposure to a modern French intellectual you might want to look into Pierre Boulez's writings. The two main books are NOTES OF AN APPRENTICESHIP, a collection of his writings around twenty years into his career, and ORIENTATIONS: COLLECTED WRITINGS. Boulez is an outspoken but also well-spoken polemicist; if he said it, it is probably important in its own right, or important as a key to Boulez.
The most important modern writer about contemporary Classical music is the philosopher and music critic T.W. Adorno, who also had experience as a composer, was a founder of the Frankfurt School of Social Research, and knew many of the modernist composers of his day. Below you will find a link to his ESSAYS ON MUSIC, and you may also check in on my work-in-progress survey AN INTRODUCTION TO T.W. ADORNO. I have a variety of other writings about music which you can find on this web site, at my page WRITINGS ON MUSIC.
Now, go online, find and buy the abovedescribed books, and go play at YouTube to your heart's content. Once you have begun reading the books, you will right away have some good ideas about where to begin your CD collecting, and be off and running toward becoming what the music world really needs you to be, that is, a connoisseur of contemporary music.
The single most important suggestion I have about how to develop your conoisseurship is: always know the name of the composer whose music you are hearing. If you always know that much, you will be able to build your own knowledge, according to your own tastes. The second most important suggestion I have is, try to listen to something modern every day. Your life will use time's arrow to make you modern.
I will be delighted to answer any questions anybody has about the above material. If there is enough interest, I will offer one of my music appreciation courses on it, as I have done before.
Here are Amazon links to some of the books discussed in this Course Outline, as well as some others worth looking into:
Charles Rosen ARNOLD SCHOENBERG
T.W. Adorno ESSAYS ON MUSIC
Christopher Fulkerson AN INTRODUCTION TO T.W. ADORNO
Christopher Fulkerson WRITINGS ON MUSIC
Allen Edwards and Elliott Carter FLAWED WORDS AND STUBBORN SOUNDS
David Schiff THE MUSIC OF ELLIOTT CARTER
Joan Peyser BERNSTEIN
Joan Peyser TO BOULEZ AND BEYOND, MUSIC IN EUROPE SINCE THE RITE OF SPRING
Pierre Boulez NOTES OF AN APPRENTICESHIP
Pierre Boulez ORIENTATIONS: COLLECTED WRITINGS
James Harley XENAKIS HIS LIFE AND MUSIC
Richard Toop GEORGY LIGETI
Malcolm Hayes ANTON VON WEBERN
Update of 7/21/2010.