What you see is what you get?

A long one today.

One of the perennial questions in the culture industry is why avant-garde music has never been embraced by the public to the extent that similarly experimental works in literature and the visual arts have. Museums of modern art thrive, Joyce is still in print, but conceptual post-Romantic music still remains a tough sell. The conventional wisdom on this is that modern music is too modern, in comparison with painting, film, etc.; it’s gone so far beyond the traditional models it evolved from that it’s well-nigh incomprehensible even to otherwise sophisticated listeners. But here’s another possibility: have listeners become too modern for modern music?

The British philosopher Jonathan Rée, in his book I See a Voice, points out that, with the onset of 20th-century ideas of “modernity,” hearing began to be considered an old-fashioned sense; the contemporary world was one in which people saw. Both friends and enemies of the modern bought into this idea. Oswald Spengler, not surprisingly, hated it. As Rée puts it:

The optical mind was the master of mechanical invention, but too fascinated by “static, optical details” to have any sense of the tragedy and mystery of “life”. Vision had cut us off from the ancient wisdom of ordinary pre-theoretical mutuality, annihilating vocality and, with it, the “inward kinship of I and Thou”. Now that modern civilization was confronting its ultimate crisis—a crisis of its own making, a crisis of technology—it was stumbling uncomprehendingly towards catastrophe: twentieth-century humanity, Spengler thought, having lost its voice and its sense of hearing, was destined to “go downhill seeing.”

Rée also quotes Heidegger: “The fact that the world becomes picture is what distinguishes the essence of the modern age.” Heidegger disapproved, but the younger generation, particularly those concerned with various theories of the novel and the new “textual” criticism, thought hearing impossibly quaint. Rée again, summarizing the Bulgarian feminist Julia Kristeva:

Literature, or written language in general, was not the companion of speech, but its opponent, because it belonged to the open world of light, space and the eye, not the closed world of sound, time and the ear. We needed to break out of the ancient prison-house of speech and one-dimensional temporality, and disport ourselves in the multi-dimensional spaces of writing or “textual productivity” instead.

And there it is: time, temporality, the one aspect of music that’s changed the most since the heyday of classicism. Between the time of Beethoven and the time of Schoenberg comes the Industrial Revolution, and with it the mechanization of time: assembly lines, efficiency experts, and mass transit meant that temporal experience became less determined by the rhythms of nature, and more related to the orderly grid we imposed on top of it. At the same time, the classical regularity of phrase and rhythm was abandoned in favor of an organic approach that shaped time more idiosyncratically.

Why should this be a problem? Two reasons, I think. The first has to do with materialism. We’re fairly addicted to the physicality of objects and space, which we primarily experience with the eye. But with the advent of industrialism, our experience of time became almost equally material. Hearing is, in many ways, the least material of the senses, so in the absence of an orderly rhythmic structure, the resultant disorientation would be an affront to our materialist habits. Think of two fairly contrasting composers—Elliott Carter uses metric modulation to continually frustrate your perception of a regular pulse, trying to get you to only feel “downbeats” at structurally important moments; Morton Feldman slows down the pulse and expands the size of the phrase to such an extent that your perception of the music’s temporality becomes detached from the everyday experience of time. In both cases, your ability to estimate how much “real time” has passed becomes tenuous, weakening your grasp on time in a materialistic sense.

Which leads us to the other issue here: power and control. Roland Barthes, one of the structuralist pioneers, is particularly revealing here. Rée quotes him taking the modern world to task for thinking that it is “ushering in a civilization of the image,” when in fact he believes it to be still stuck in “a civilization of speech.” Barthes also talks about music:

There are two musics (or so I’ve always thought): one you listen to, one you play. They are two entirely different arts, each with its own history, sociology, aesthetics, erotics: the same composer can be minor when listened to, enormous when played (even poorly)—take Schumann…. It is because Schumann’s music goes much farther than the ear; it goes into the body, into the muscles by the beats of the rhythm, and somehow into the viscera by the voluptuous pleasure of its melos….
(Quoted by Richard Leppert in The Sight of Sound.)

But all music is a physical sensation—it travels on the air and enters the body through the ears (and more subtly, through the sense of touch, for that matter). For Barthes, listening is inferior to performing because it entails giving up the performer’s control over the experience, particularly the temporal experience. If the modern condition is dependent upon this need to maintain control over the way we feel the passage of time, then all rhythmically asymmetrical music is hopelessly behind the times, no matter how avant-garde.

If we accept these ideas, then the crucial feature of popular music isn’t triadic tonality, but rhythmic regularity and, in particular, predictability—and I think it is about rhythm; listeners seem to enjoy having their harmonic expectations violated more than their rhythmic expectations. (Which, interestingly, would mean that the reaction against atonality is less about the intrinsic properties of tonal harmonies and more about it’s ability to create the illusion of rhythmic symmetry.) I don’t think this analysis is a complete picture, but I think it points the way to a different approach to talking about experimental music, particularly as it relates to a society in which power and control—and especially fears of losing power and control—maintain such sway over people’s everyday decisions. Personally, I adore music that plays with perceptions of time the way Carter, Feldman, etc. do, because I get a charge out of that sort of disorientation, that freedom from the need for an absolute position in the material world. The big question: is it possible to sell that as a strength in a society that currently seems to regard it as a weakness?

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