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posted November 30, 2010



Fear of music?

Alex Ross wrote in the Guardian this week about why avant-garde music struggles to achieve an audience in the same way modern art has managed. This is the same question interestingly posed (but not satisfactorily answered) in David Stubbs’ Fear of Music: Why People Get Rothko But Don’t Get Stockhausen. Ross contrasts the acceptance, even popularity, of Jackson Pollock, TS Eliot and James Joyce with the hostility of some audiences to Harrison Birtwistle and John Cage. David Stubbs is struck by the happy masses at Tate Modern – perhaps Britain’s leading tourist attraction – but the absence of modern music, or books about modern music, in the gallery’s shop.

Both offer a few suggestions for the relative lack of success – of penetration into the general cultural consciousness – of experimental or avant-garde music.  Stubbs’ book spends more time re-stating the question than actually answering it, but he makes a strong point about the fact that music does not exist as an object that can be owned – and therefore bought and sold – in the same way as works of art. (He makes this point political by suggesting that international corporations involvement in buying art, which has inflated auction values in the art world, is part of a campaign either to assuage or distract attention from their guilt for the inequalities of capitalism.)

Ross’s ideas include the physical realities of the concert setting: the audience is unable to escape from something they don’t like in the same way they could in a gallery. This is connected to his observation that people will enjoy avant-garde music as part of a film score, that is, when there are images and actions attached to the music and the audience is liberated from having to ‘understand’ the music in the abstract. Trying to ‘understand’ music intellectually, which people somehow feel they should do with new music, is the surest way to failure. With a painting we are more content to appreciate the colour as colour, without necessarily seeking meaning in a deeper significance.

Ross’s final conclusion is that classical music has, for centuries, lionised dead composers at the expense of the living, a trap art has never fallen into. This idea doesn’t quite hold water as Schoenberg, Webern and Stockhausen are all dead while Picasso, Matisse and Pollock are no longer alive, but their status has not been reversed accordingly.

There is also an exaggerated comparison. For every Damien Hirst there are many hundreds of artists struggling to make a living, and, although they may not be household names, there are many living composers who have found an audience. The argument is not black and white.

My answer for the difficulties of modernist music goes back to the usual source but proceeds in a different direction. Schoenberg’s approach to dissonance is often cited as the chief alienator of audiences, but I wonder if the problem is not so much atonality as ametricality. So much modernist and experimental music eschewed any sense of pulse or metre, and I wonder if this is more important than the dissonance. There is no more dissonant piece than the Rite of Spring, but its rhythmic games give a listener something to hang on to which is missing in, say, Pierrot Lunaire. I suspect dissonance is not as scary to an audience as the feeling of being abandoned in a landscape without any rhythmic reference points.

To complete the analogy with art, we might say that atonality equates to abstraction – and art audiences are able to cope with abstraction. But visual art has clung to rhythm, whether in Pollock, Rothko or Picasso, and this has given it a hook to snare the audience, even when other familiar features are absent.

A simplistic view in some ways, perhaps, but another theory to add to the others.

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