Music has always been a passion of mine. How music and culture intersect is fascinating. How mainstream culture deals with serious innovation and creativity is even more fascinating. To wit: it amazes me that after a hundred years or so Modernism is still reviled; this, of course, spans the arts, but for our purposes, let’s focus on music.
Before I delved into the complex world of classical music, I was vaguely aware of the Modernists (or 20th century music). Sure, everyone’s heard of Stravinsky–but what of Bartok or Messiaen? One may compile a list of these giants of atonality. The names get even more obscure post-1950s. The argument will be that these names haven’t been time-tested, and perhaps that’s true. It took a very long time before Bach was recognized as a genius. Yet, with the Modernists I think we are dealing with an entirely different animal.
I’ll give you an example (I like examples, as you know). Turn on any NPR affiliated classical music station or any mainstream classical music station for that matter and you will likely hear little of the Modernists. The test? On your commute (if you commute, that is), check out your local classical music station and see what’s playing. More than likely, you’ll hear piano music from Mozart or Haydn. They are absolutely obsessed with Haydn. Of course, Mozart is a very close second. Now, I dig both of these guys a lot. But, you know, there’s more to classical music than this–a lot more. As an uninitiated classical music listener, this is what I thought was the totality of classical music. Sadly, so do many, many people. This is why people view classical music not as a rebel music, which it is, but as background music for rich plutocrats in monkey suits swilling down expensive wine.
Okay, so why isn’t Messiaen a featured composer at drive time? Program directors hate innovative sounds. Granted, Messiaen isn’t exactly new–but apparently he’s just too jolting for listeners. At least that’s what the program directors think. People, in a sense, have been programed to hate Modern music. I agree it takes more effort to enjoy and understand it. But these ossified program directors don’t even allow people to be exposed to it on a regular basis. Yes, I know, they play it–but very rarely. And never when they have a large, captive audience.
Which brings me to my final point. Even after Modernism has come and gone, the arbiters of good taste continue to give short shrift to these reviled atononalists (my word). People are mortified of change–even if said change is a hundred years old. That’s why Modernism in the arts itself has been experiencing a backlash since the Fifties. I’ll expand upon that in later posts. As a culture, we are more and more averse to innovation and anything that’s truly weird and out of the mainstream. When that happens, culture and cultures die.