5/19/2005

Discordance

Today's print Wall Street Journal has a piece on its Arts and Culture page about the decline of opera. This is true both in the sense that fewer people are going to the opera in general, and that the operas they are going to are predominantly from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Modern opera is characterized by lavish productions that generally appear for one season and then vanish into the mist.

The author of the piece (I cannot remember his name, but he is the former director of a New York Opera company I think) blamed the music world's infatuation with atonal music. He noted that while the critics applaud atonality because it produces "challenging" music, everybody else just hears bad music. While other art media have had similar styles enjoy great popularity (abstract paintings, for example), music is diffferent. Most people want to hear something that sounds good, i.e. melodic music.

Phillip Glass, the piece notes, was the last modern opera writer to enjoy any prominence whatsoever. His work was unusual, but it was also unusually melodic; though you never knew quite where he was going, you always knew that Glass was going somewhere and that it would be a relatively continuous journey. And for the sin of not writing atonal music, the opera world has buried his works. They would rather put on "challenging" operas to empty houses than abandon their precious atonality. The customer is wrong here, the artist's vision is paramount.

I dislike atonality in general. A few years ago, as part of a college assignment, I went to a performance of works by students of Stefan Wolpe, an atonal composer. I think it was the first musical performance I attended where much of the audience wore tie-dye, faux-Third-World peasantwear, and Che Guevara shirts. (The overwhelming majority of them were over forty.) The other interesting thing was the contrast between the music of Wolpe himself, and the composers of the present generation. I wrote at the time:
I found it intriguing that Wolpe’s music was associated with that of the other composers, for although all of it was aggressively avant-garde and abrupt, I heard in Wolpe’s compositions a subtle structure and framework which seemed absent from most of the later composers’ works…. [M]uch of the later music seemed designed to induce suicidal depression or gastric ulcers in the listener, while Wolpe’s music was whimsical, vibrant and often quite humorous.
Later on, I wrote:
The music did not seem to be building up a progression to an event, but rather setting an evocative tone, a tone which in almost every piece seemed aimed at unease, instability, disquiet, and stomach-acid. The night struck me as a sort of group-flagellation; this impression was bolstered by the members of the audience, who for the most part spoke about the rallies they were attending or international politics and who read “The Voice of the Village.” The music seemed to be narrowly aimed at just this sort of people, antinomian, iconoclast[ic] and restless.
I think this is the problem. The musical establishment is producing pieces by and for people who do not see art as pleasurable pastime, or as cultured refinement, but as an expression of their all-consuming dislike for structure and tradition. Small wonder that modern opera is finding few takers; most people go out to have a good time, and expect to hear music and singing that they can enjoy. For much the same reason, modern "highbrow" classical music is dying off. It is populated almost entirely by the atonalists; composers who want to write melodically have instead been writing sound scores for movies, and increasingly video games.

It is no surprise that when most people listen to classical-style music, they listen either to the old masters or to movie soundtracks. Game soundtracks too are losing their stigma, and are becoming more and more popular. I cannot name a single modern "classical" composer after about the 50's; yet the names of John Williams, Danny Elfman, Hanz Zimmer and Jerry Goldsmith (to name a few) are known and loved by millions.

So the musical establishment is running itself into the ground. All right; wouldn't they eventually get the message? Not when their music has become an expression of cultural angst, rather than an end in itself. Plato complained that the musicians and poets of his day desired so much to please the audience with their music that they broke out of the musical conventions of their day and invented new forms (which to Plato's ear were inferior to the old—though he opposed most innovation on general principle). Modern-day "serious" artists, on the other hand, believe that breaking established conventions is their entire purpose, their raison d'etre. They are unlikely to change just because the unwashed masses think their work is terrible.

As an audience member, I am very displeased. These so-called "artists" have lost their way. Other forms of art can be enjoyable even if they are unconventional or abstract. But music depends on harmony, on the beautiful mathematics of ratios and intervals, on melodic lines building to glorious release. Music is also uniquely connected to the emotions. Harmony is pleasing; disharmony is nervewracking. I know what I prefer to listen to.

1 comment:

Asher Litwin said...

It's interesting to think about it from a slightly different view... with the other art forms that enjoy a certain freedom of expression, as you see it, there are still rules that cannot be broken for it to retain it's pleasing nature to the "common" auditor (is that an apropriate use of the word? dunno, lol). Same with music. The only difference is that with music, it seems that everyone is trying to break the rules that can't be broken, rather than the ones that can.
If that makes little sense, that's fine... it sounded good in my head :-D.