Today, one often hears the question asked — sometimes despairingly, sometimes jeeringly — that if classical music is so wonderful, uplifting, and timeless, why is it no longer being composed? The stock answers are numerous, but unconvincing.
One is that classical music is peculiar to a period of European history dating approximately from the Renaissance through the nineteenth century, and thus is not the “voice” of our age. But that classical music remains valued by so many people in this age belies this assertion.
Another argument claims that classical composition has “evolved” beyond harmony, tonality, and melody to a “new plateau” of atonality. A variant of this argument charges that the public “ear,” so habituated to the traditional forms of musicality, suffers from a sort of evolutional, tonal lag because it has not kept pace with the ever-evolving musical avant-gard, purportedly representative of an advanced species of humanity. Thus, the ear must be trained or “conditioned” to plumb the reputed depths of jumbles of random sounds, or, in some cases, no sounds at all.
This is the complaint of the modern artist who sneers that the public cannot appreciate his abstract rendering of, say, Perseus and Andromeda, as a canvas of blots, drippings, and sprinkled-on metal shavings. The public, with the notable exception of an aesthetically superior minority, is philistine, perhaps even artistically “reactionary”; it is confined to a reificatory, bourgeois aesthetic prison, and insists that art be — Gads! Can you credit it? — intelligible and that music be compatible with its inchoate psychology.
Modern “formal” music, like modern art, is devoted to addressing a “higher” consciousness, using a “logic” that transcends syllogisms, proportion, time, space dimension, sense perception, and other Euro- and/or logo-centric “constructs.” In short, reality. It requires that listeners revise their expectations, discard the “prejudice” of the various centrisms, and passively receive logically ineffable droplets of pure essence, or pure being — or deliberately unintegrated sense data.
Among the many demerits of the politically correct Webster’s II New Riverside University Dictionary (1994), is its definition of music: “The art of arranging tones in an orderly sequence so as to produce a unified and continuous composition.” This definition is a step backward from “The science or art of incorporating intelligible combinations of tones into a composition having structure and continuity,” which is the definition found in Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary (1969). The Riverside definition replaces the key term intelligible with orderly, which can mean virtually anything, and the term structure with unified, which can also mean virtually anything. One can imagine that the next edition of the Riverside will shed the self-conscious air of its ambiguous qualifiers and offer an au courant, fashionably “deconstructed” definition: “The art of arranging tones in a sequence to produce a composition” — which, of course, could be applied equally to Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 5” or to the gruntings and squeals of a pig sty.
A musical composition is an identifiable sum of its parts. A composition that has no structure, that seems to fly apart, or worse, seems to be notes and rhythms randomly flung into the air to fall where they may on a blank music sheet, has no sum, no identity, and no theme but chaos and madness. A composition of jumbled sounds “represents” merely the modernist fixation with pseudo-aesthetics and artistic fraud.
In her explanation of the purpose and demands of music, novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand wrote:
“It is in terms of his fundamental emotions — i.e., the emotions produced by his own metaphysical value judgments — that man responds to music….The theme of a composition entitled ‘Spring Song’ is not spring, but the emotions which spring evoked in the composer….Liszt’s ‘St. Francis Walking on the Water’ was inspired by a specific legend but what it conveys is a passionately dedicated struggle and triumph — by whom and in the name of what, is for each individual to supply.” 1
It was fashionable among early twentieth century composers to write melodic music punctuated by stretches of dissonance. Ralph Vaughan Williams, Aaron Copeland, Charles Ives, and Virgil Thompson all interspersed orchestrated “folk” melodies with dissonance. Even Edward Elgar, in his later work, resorted to the practice. They all helped to make madness and the irrational respectable. Copeland’s “Symphony No. 3,” for example, uses his well-known “Fanfare for the Common Man” as a melody around which he weaves screeches, drum rolls that herald nothing, and other chaotic noise. And none but the musicians who must play it can remember the full score of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio.”
“Don’t set out to raze all shrines — you’ll frighten men,” says Ellsworth Toohey, the critic and arch-villain in Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead. “Enshrine mediocrity — and the shrines are razed.”2 Toohey offers that advice in the course of explicating, for one of his willingly duped victims, his method of inculcating and promulgating collectivism in men’s souls. He could have added: Elevate incompetence, and competence is irrelevant; sanctify the irrational, and the rational is emasculated; praise noise, and music is silenced. The principle behind Thomas Gresham’s law, that bad money will drive out the good, is equally applicable to art and music, especially in a culture that is in a state of philosophical disintegration, and in which the destroyers are blithely sustained by the destroyed. Indeed, the idea that our culture, in its present state of anarchy, could generate classical music, seems almost oxymoronic.
“Doctors have this theory that if you play classical music for infants, they’ll understand complex relationships, like math. They don’t know what effect rock-and-roll would have. Well, we figure the world could do with one fewer accountant.”
This message was spoken by a post-adolescent male voice in a smarmy drawl in an ad for a popular radio station, accompanied by a series of jerky, time-lapse close-ups of a smiling infant rolling its head back and forth on a pillow in seeming enjoyment of the dissonant “rock” being played in the background. The commercial’s message is clear: It is not necessary for anyone to understand “complex relationships like math,” or to develop much skill in any field of mental labor. It is okay to raise a child to be a cognitive troglodyte, unable to raise his consciousness beyond the immediately perceptible, impatient with music that demands conceptual integration or that addresses a soul he may never recognize he possesses, or could have possessed, indifferent or hostile to anything that “makes sense.”
Whether or not there is any scientific truth to the theory that a particular genre of music can aid in (or arrest) a child’s mental faculties, the ad implicitly endorses the stunting of children’s minds. Accountant doubtless is used as a generic pejorative for all professionals who deal in facts, which includes the universe of Western science and technology that allows the intellectually slothful to exist in relative opulence and without having to exert much mental effort. The ad is distinctly anti-mind.
Anyone who regularly attends classical music concerts must be familiar with the practice of conductors or music directors of inserting “new” (or even old) atonal compositions between “traditional” ones in a program. An orchestra might begin with, say, Mozart’s “Impresario Overture,” end with Prokofiev’s “Classical Symphony,” and sandwich in between them something like Peter Warlock’s “Capriole Suite.” The practice ensures that concertgoers hear something of the “new plateau” genre whether they want to or not. And they will hear it, chiefly because most concertgoers believe it would be rude to rise en masse, leave the hall, and return when the noise has subsided. Modern “formal” music is played to audiences held hostage by their own civility.
If an orchestra were to advertise an all-Warlock, or an all-John Cage, or an all-Schoenberg concert, attendance would be embarrassingly thin. Why conductors or music directors continue the practice of subjecting their audiences to aural torture is a matter of conjecture. Perhaps they feel duty-bound to be “fair” to the newer composers; perhaps they feel obligated to play the compositions of government- or foundation-subsidized artists.
The last possibility has some interesting implications. How many orchestras remain wholly supported by private donations and receipts, free of the pressures exerted in by the byzantine mazes of public arts funding bureaucracies? Very few. That they must resort to this brand of extortion underscores the bankruptcy of what they foist upon their audiences.
Surely conductors know the difference between Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Phaeton” and Fritz Kreisler’s “String Quartet.” They must suspect that people attend live performances for many reasons, but that voluntary submission to what amounts to an enervating, auditory Rorschach test is not one of them. Whatever rationalizations have been offered by defenders of the practice, it is as purposeful as art galleries exhibiting kitsch or non-art together with genuine art. The unstated purpose of these exercises is to “enshrine mediocrity,” to subvert and destroy values, to undercut man’s capacity to formulate or sustain values, and to introduce doubt in their minds about the values they do hold.
One regularly exposed to this practice, if he does not maintain the conviction that what is being committed is a fraud, will begin to think: “Perhaps there is something here, something important about these lead pipes welded together to make a stick man. It’s right there next to Canova’s “Cupid and Psyche.” Perhaps I’ve missed the boat, and shouldn’t be so smug (or certain) about these things.”
This individual will not stop seeing the stick man as a bunch of pipes welded together, nor will he begin doubting the artistic value of the Canova, but he may begin to doubt the evidence of his senses, the certainty of his mind. Some part of his implicit certitude concerning right and wrong, good and bad, beautiful and ugly, reality and fantasy, will turn to mush, the certitude progressively softened by the miasma of a subjectivist, value-negating artistic nihilism.
This is an instance of retrogression, of the flaunting of primitivism as merely a “cultural difference.” Among this country’s black youth the results of this value negation have been especially sad. The enormity of the evil perpetrated on them by their parents and teachers defies description. “Cultural separatism” shares the same corrupting end as atonal “formal” composition: to be both A and non-A; that is, to live in a country whose high standard of living is made possible by Western values, but to hold conscious values that are hostile to or inimical to the West and civilized living.
Walter Grimes, reporting on a highly publicized debate between August Wilson, the Pulitzer-winning black playwright and Robert Brustein, drama critic for The New Republic, wrote: “Mr. Wilson tried to explain that his insistence on a black theater was not limiting.”3
“Why is white experience assumed to be universal, he asked, and black experience somehow particular? Why are black artists expected to become universal by transcending race and moving beyond black themes?”4
“Black Americans, Mr. Wilson said, want to enter the American mainstream, but not at the price of shedding their African identity. Black artists have a duty to preserve and promote the thoughts and values of their ancestors, including their African ancestors. ‘If we choose not to assimilate…this does not mean we oppose the values of the dominant culture, but rather we wish to champion our own causes, our own celebrations, our own values.'”5
Mr. Grimes did not broach such questions as: What is a “black theme”? What is it that Mr. Wilson wishes to perpetuate? Is it only black “angst”? It is merely “white” experiences that the playwright wants segregated from the mainstream, or is it Western values in general? Are the concepts of individual rights and independent minds too universal or too peculiarly “white” to apply to blacks? How can one support individual freedoms, yet uphold a tribal (i.e., collectivist) consciousness at the same time?
“Separatism” may be achieved, but an “ethno-culture,” burdened with such phenomena as “Ebonics” in language, will not send probes to Mars, invent open-heart surgery, or grow corn. The great black musicians who contributed to American culture, e.g., Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, and Louis Armstrong, have apparently been disowned in favor of the malevolent “dissing” and droning of “rap.” Armstrong and company are now no more revered among Afro-centrists than are Thomas Sowell, J.C. Watts, Walter Williams, or Ward Connerly among thinkers, economists or educators, black or white.
Composers of film scores inherited the mantle of classical music composers. There is little distinction between what moved the latter and what can inspire the best creators of film scores: a story, a legend, an image, a tableau, a play, a need to express some inner conviction or truth. Once, much film music approached the symphonic or classical level. Many scores by composers such as William Walton, Arthur Bliss, John Barry, and Miklos Rozsa are as evocative and memorable as any opus from the nineteenth century, and can stand alone apart from their original inspiration. Walton’s score for Henry V, Maurice Jarre’s for Lawrence of Arabia, and James Horner’s for Glory come to mind as instances of what is possible.
The best film scores were those written for grand-scale, larger-than-life epics. But such epics are no longer being produced. Great music cannot be written to dramatize triteness, or about psychotics, functional illiterates, criminals, perverts, predatory aliens, whales or dinosaurs. And great music cannot be indefinitely appropriated to accompany and elevate the depiction of the superficial, the witless, the stupid, or the banal, such as in Woody Allen’s Manhattan.
The preferred and broadening cesspool of subject matter of most filmmakers today cannot serve as the genesis of magnificent, or event pleasant music. Popular films have become little more than vehicles for “special effects”; their stories are superfluous appendages, flimsy excuses to exhibit the technological repertoire of their computer graphics artists and incendiary experts. “Serious” films today, such as Love! Valour! Compassion! and Female Perversions (dealing, respectively, with homosexual relationships and feminist existentialism), are not rich material for great music, either. Film scores are written now to be heard and promptly forgotten.
A word about bass in contemporary popular music. Were this a separate article, its title could well be “Technology in the Hands of Barbarians.” The stress on “mega” bass (of 120 decibels or more, crowding the 180 decibel range of a NASA rocket launch) is especially revealing, for it confesses an attempt to compensate for vapidity of content in what passes for contemporary popular music. Bass, once considered a single musical element, has come to dominate “pop” music because this type of music requires the least amount of thought or imagination by either its composers or listeners. Its continual “thumping” — in popular music and even in television commercials — is used to arrest one’s attention, deaden thought, and metaphorically beat listeners to a stupefied pulp. On dance floors and in bars, it imposes a nihilistic gestalt on everyone and everything it touches. It is not joy or happiness or even sorrow that this kind of bass seeks to evoke, but a temporary state of annihilation.
Bass is also employed now as a weapon against civilized existence by those who install expensive “mega bass” amplifiers, “woofers,” and speakers in their vehicles. It is easy to name the motive of the owners of these throbbing machines: pure, unadulterated malice. The blasts that emanate from these vehicles are distracting not merely because of their volume; their peculiar, offensive, intrusive nature penetrates one’s consciousness as a disruptive, often painful force. It is not joy that the perpetrators of the “mega bass” phenomenon wish to share with random passersby or residents, but hatred and the chance to torture without physically touching anyone. What such creatures are saying is: We’re a revolting nuisance, but we’re here, we’re pumping up the volume, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
“Rap,” of course, cannot even be considered as music. Taking together its belligerent tone, its monotonous, metronomic beat, obscene and homicidal “lyrics,” and confrontational delivery, it is simply a species of malevolence.
Students attending the best music schools are no longer taught how to compose “classical” music. These schools, such as the Peabody in Baltimore, the Curtis in Philadelphia, and the Julliard in New York, are turning out talented soloist musicians, but their philosophy of composition is governed — if modern “formal” music is any kind of gauge — by the likes of Arnold Schoenberg, or worse. Consider the spirit of the nineteenth century, and one will understand the reasons why so much great music was written in that era. Consider the spirit of our time, and one will grasp the significance of music as a litmus test of general cultural well-being or decay.
A culture takes its cues from the top — from the universities, from the intelligentsia, from the trendsetters of ideas. And if the message from the top is that anything goes, then all that is good will go. The rubbish, bile, and nihilism that pass for music today cannot be legislated out of existence. Conservatives such was William Bennett, the former Secretary of Education, have proposed silencing the barbarians and frauds and nuisances, but even if they could be repressed or muffled, the appearance of a new Verdi, Brahms or Chopin will not be the consequence.
What is true of politics is true of aesthetics. Just as a free nation will collapse into statism when the most rational elements of the political philosophy on which it was founded and sustained are subverted or negated by elements of their antipodes, the best in aesthetics will vanish when the irrational, the atonal, and the unintelligible are given equal time and equal approbation.
The sad truth is that we should not expect greatness in music to emerge from a decaying, rudderless culture.
* Revised. Originally published in The Social Critic, Summer 1997
1 Ayn Rand, “Art and Cognition,” in The Romantic Manifesto (New York: New American Library).
2 Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1943), p. 691.
3 William Grimes, “Face-to-Face Encounter on Race in the Theater,” New York Times, January 29, 1997, Sec. C, p. 9.