Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

in the minds of the musicians

re: a climate of fear - a response from jeffrey kahane

January 02, 2008

Part One a response to the post and many wonderful comments on a climate of fear:

First, I want to say a special thank you to Michelle, Lacey and the LACO staff for their wonderful work in creating and maintaining this blog, and to all those of you have taken the time and trouble to send in such interesting and thoughtful posts! Time keeps me from contributing as much as I’d like, but vacation is here and I can’t resist the opportunity to sound off on a subject that is deeply important to all music lovers, and thought I would share some random musings on the issue of new music, composers and their relationships audiences, etc.

I think it is useful to any discussion of new music to make an important distinction, one that is familiar to historians (and curators) of the arts but widely overlooked by audiences, and sometimes even by those of us who are “practitioners” – namely, the critical distinction between “Modern” and “Contemporary” art.

In the music world, there is a good deal of “Modern” music that is in no way contemporary, and vice-versa. In fact, there are several successful composers today whose music would not have been experienced as particularly shocking or difficult by audiences early in the 20th century or perhaps even in the last years of the 19th century.

The distinction I’ve made above is in no way a matter of superficial semantic hair-splitting. Modernism, properly understood, is an attitude, a state of mind, indeed a way of living in and relating to the world. Musically speaking, Modernism encompasses a vast panorama of styles and languages, and would include a long list of composers, many of whom enjoy widespread popularity today, others who continue to be viewed with suspicion if not downright hostility by the majority of listeners: Mahler, Richard Strauss, Debussy, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Berg, Prokofiev, Webern, Bartok, Satie, Shostakovich, Ives, Copland, Messiaen, Poulenc, to name only a few.

For an entertaining and enlightening take on “Modernism” in music, see the opening pages of volume 4 of Richard Taruskin’s monumental “Oxford History of Western Music“, which is devoted entirely to the early twentieth century. Here’s a sample:

“To make an ism out of being modern is on the face of it paradoxical, since if modern simply means “of or pertaining to present and recent time” (as one dictionary defines it), then everyone is modern by default, and always has been, since we cannot live at any other time than the present. To be modernist, then, is more than to be modern. [emphasis mine] Modernism is not just a condition but a commitment…the modernist penchant [is] to celebrate innovation as a mark of vitality. It further implies exclusivity: all are modern, few are modernist. Some live in the present with resignation; others with indifference; still others in a state of resistance to it. Modernists live in the present with enthusiasm, an enthusiasm requiring audacity, high self-regard and self-consciousness…and, above all, urbanity in every meaning of the word from ‘citified’ to ‘sophisticated’ to ‘artificial’ to ‘mannered.’”

(For an equally interesting and thought-provoking discussion of modernism in the visual arts, I enthusiastically recommend the work of the distinguished philosopher and art historian/critic Arthur Danto. His book “After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History“ begins with an introduction called “Modern, Postmodern and Contemporary” which deals with these questions in a deeply probing and beautifully written way.)

Continued in “on audience perceptions of “modern and contemporary music.


Thanks for writing this Jeff! It's exciting to remember what the term _really _means, and it's limiting to use the term "modernism" exclusively to describe trends in 12-tone and serial music. I like Taruskin's definition: to celebrate innovation as a mark of vitality.

Where I have always been cautious is at the juncture where innovation exists only for it's own sake, perhaps to the detriment of communication. For me, it's always a difficult task, writing music which is new and vital but also-- at times and when most effective-- employs the harmonic devices and techniques which have been used for over 200 years but which say better than anything I could invent precisely what I am trying to say.

Anyone want to weigh in on this? I'd love to hear about other composer's encounters with the excitement of newness and the power of traditional practice.

  • —Kevin Puts, January 02, 2008 06:11 pm

  • —Gernot Wolfgang, January 05, 2008 09:49 am

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