21 July 2013

Charles Rosen's costs/benefits analysis of modern music

Charles Rosen, a few months before dying, gave a talk on modernism organized by 21st-Century Music in Society. Although he was clearly not at his best and sometimes it is hard to follow his thoughts, he set the basis of a wonderful speech articulating modernism and performance.

I'd like to summarize what I understood from this intellectual journey because I found it particularly interesting. [Readers, all my apologies as I reshuffled a bit mr Rosen's ideas for sake of clarity shared, I hope it does not betray his thoughts.]

Rosen started wittily (he is a funny man!) alluding to Schoenberg who said that there was such thing as modernism, it is just music that is badly played. And this is the greatest challenge, according to him, because to make modern music comprehensible and enjoyable (an idea that he repeated several times throughout the speech), you need an awful lot of rehearsal to make it sounds nice. He gives two funny examples to illustrate this idea:
- Berlioz praised Beethoven's 9th Symphony première in Paris with a director he didn't like, who rehearsed every day for a year after the nightmare of the first rehearsal;
- Rosen saw the 13 show of Boulez' Lulu in Paris that was amazing apparently, after 45 recording session. This is a link to Boulez' rendition in 1974 at Paris Opéra with artistic subtitles in Japanese.

It becomes clear that right at the beginning the focus is on the issue of performance, which is essential to modern art because, he insists, modern art is difficult.

Modernism is difficult because of the decision to abandon what "might be called any idealization of form/material", the idealized material that is not reality but reflect it. For instance, as Rosen adds,  when looking at Degas' paintings, dancers are not really graceful, positions are awkward. But he takes takes something ugly and make a great picture out of it. Traditional beauty is out and the intention is now to tell the truth, which we are usually not ready to hear.

The abandon of idealization may take several forms, like the emancipation of dissonance which happened gradually. The history of dissonance starts as early as Mozart Rosen says with his "Dissonance" quartet or his G minor symphony.  Chromatic saturation became widespread in the 19th (as in Chopin, Wagner) and it probably peaked, according to Rosen, with Schoenberg' Erwartung: every note within the range of the orchestra is played at the same time.  I don't really understand why Rosen did not mention earlier music where dissonance is very important like in Bach, Rameau or Couperin,  or even earlier,  with Carrisimi or Monterverdi (I guess Rosen may understand dissonance as notes that are not part of any harmony, before or after its realization. In  that case I can understand, thought the physicial impact is the same). Here is an example with Carissimi's Jephte.

The emancipation of dissonance takes also the form of melodies written without any explicit reference to the tonic. Melodies and themes used to start defining with the tonic either horizontally or vertically (listen to Beethoven 9th symphony here).

But later, as in Brahms op.111, the tonic is not really defined by the melody anymore (but the accompaniement is tonal). Another example is Brahms op.119 which starts with eleventh whith lots of dissonances though as Brahms said to Clara Schumann: "every dissonance is well prepared and resolved".  Composers start to disobey the rules, sound is enough.

The abandon of idealization also takes the form of a gradual abandon of forms. Artists seem to renounce the basics of intelligibility. Examples of such a tendency are common in the literature. We may think of  Mallarmé's poems or Joyce's Ulysses. Rosen also alluded to Constable's vow of making something out of nothing to clarify this point.

Modernism is difficult also because the experience of novelty is painful. First, in contact with modern works, you usually feel stupid says Rosen, and it is understandable since there is no rule anymore and since artists make something out of nothing. What a mess! We need to understand what is nothing, and then we need to understand what they make of it, and this requires a great deal of effort! This is particularly exemplified by music, and I link Boulez' first Sonata because there are some nice bits of it.

It also painful because we usually you don't want to hear the truth: it challenges our tight perception of the world. Rosen talks about Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal, and also Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Education Sentimentale.  Une Charogne de Baudelaire may illustrate this point (as well with the abandon of idealization) since we have to face a smelly rotten carcass eaten by worms as we read the poem (you can see the entire poem clicking here)

Rappelez-vous l'objet que nous vîmes, mon âme,
Ce beau matin d'été si doux:
Au détour d'un sentier une charogne infâme
Sur un lit semé de cailloux...

My love, do you recall the object which we saw,
That fair, sweet, summer morn!
At a turn in the path a foul carcass
On a gravel strewn bed...

Finally modern music is also difficult because performance is intrinsically hard. You usually need a score to play because memorizing is very difficult. From a technical point of view, performances of such works are evolved and you need a lot of rehearsal and money. Appreciating modern music depends on good perfomances and they are very very rare and usually need to hear it a few times (and time is money again *laugh*) and a great deal of effort to understand it (which takes time, thus money QED *laugh laugh*). In the meanwhile, difficult music has a greater likelihood of surviving, which may counterbalance the costs of listening to music. 

The cost/benefits analysis of modernism, and modern music especially, clearly leans towards the costs side. However, and this is Rosen's conclusion, the greatest achievement of modernism seems to  highlight the importance of performance and the contact with music. He skipped this point as it seems he had no time anymore, which is a pity because it is the most interesting to me. At first, I thought that modernity was some kind of dry walk into abstraction where you gradually focus on the essential element of music - the relationship between sounds and silence (the rythm, length, height, space and volume of sounds and silence) - and you play in organizing them differently. (Here is a really nice video of Cage talking about sounds and silence where he says something similar- "I love sounds and I don't need them to be something else... I just want them to be sounds").

However, Rosen highlights the issue of performance, which is fascinating. He seems to displace the stress from the nature of music to its performance. Modern music is performance. Contact with sounds is key, and good/accurate transmission is fundamental. Some performers understood it very well and I can think of one that I really like, Karim Saïd, who gave a series of recitals around modernism at Southbank this year, where he would talk and show the audience what to listen before performing.

To conclude, here is an extract of Wozzeck, an amazing opera by Berg (actually one of my favourite operas), which can be a good introduction to modern music.

Even though my summary is amazing, you may want to listen to Rosen's speech. Here it is.

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