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The State of Modern Music

Today's practitioners of what we once called "modern" music are finding themselves to be suddenly
alone. A bewildering backlash is set against any music making that requires the disciplines and tools
of research for its genesis. Stories now circulate that amplify and magnify this troublesome trend. It
once was that one could not even approach a major music school in the US unless well prepared to
bear the commandments and tenets of serialism. When one hears now of professors shamelessly
studying scores of Respighi in order to extract the magic of their mass audience appeal, we know
there's a crisis. This crisis exists in the perceptions of even the most educated musicians. Composers
today seem to be hiding from certain difficult truths regarding the creative process. They have
abandoned their search for the tools that will help them create really striking and challenging
listening experiences. I believe that is because they are confused about many notions in modern
music making!
First, let's examine the attitudes that are needed, but that have been abandoned, for the
development of special disciplines in the creation of a lasting modern music. This music that we can
and must create provides a crucible in which the magic within our souls is brewed, and it is this that
frames the templates that guide our very evolution in creative thought. It is this generative process
that had its flowering in the early 1950s. By the 1960s, many emerging musicians had become
enamored of the wonders of the fresh and exciting new world of Stockhausen's integral serialism
that was then the rage. There seemed limitless excitement, then. It seemed there would be no
bounds to the creative impulse; composers could do anything, or so it seemed. At the time, most
composers hadn't really examined Kemper Profiles

serialism carefully for its inherent


limitations. But it seemed so fresh.
However, it soon became apparent that it
was Stockhausen's exciting musical
approach that was fresh, and not so much
the serialism itself, to which he was then
married. It became clear, later, that the
methods he used were born of two special
considerations that ultimately transcend
serial devices: crossing tempi and metrical patterns; and, especially, the concept that treats pitch
and timbre as special cases of rhythm. (Stockhausen referred to the crossovers as "contacts", and he
even entitled one of his compositions that explored this realm Kontakte.) These gestures, it turns
out, are really independent from serialism in that they can be explored from different approaches.
The most spectacular approach at that time was serialism, though, and not so much these (thenseeming) sidelights. It is this very approach -- serialism -- however, that after having seemingly
opened so many new doors, germinated the very seeds of modern music's own demise. The method
is highly prone to mechanical divinations. Consequently, it makes composition easy, like following a
recipe. In serial composition, the less thoughtful composer seemingly can divert his/her soul away
from the compositional process. Inspiration can be buried, as method reigns supreme. The messy
intricacies of note shaping, and the epiphanies one experiences from necessary partnership with
one's essences (inside the mind and the soul -- in a sense, our familiars) can be discarded
conveniently. All is rote. All is compartmentalized. For a long time this was the honored method,

long hallowed by classroom teachers and young composers-to-be, alike, at least in the US. Soon, a
sense of sterility emerged in the musical atmosphere; many composers started to examine what was
taking place.
The replacement of sentimental romanticism with atonal music had been a crucial step in the
extrication of music from a torpid cul-de-sac. A music that would closet itself in banal selfindulgence, such as what seemed to be occurring with romanticism, would decay. Here came a time
for exploration. The new alternative --atonality -- arrived. It was the fresh, if seemingly harsh,
antidote. Arnold Schonberg had saved music, for the time being. However, shortly thereafter,
Schonberg made a serious tactical faux pas. The 'rescue' was truncated by the introduction of a
method by which the newly freed process could be subjected to control and order! I have to express
some sympathy here for Schnberg, who felt adrift in the sea of freedom provided by the
disconnexity of atonality. Large forms depend upon some sense of sequence. For him a method of
ordering was needed. Was serialism a good answer? I'm not so certain it was. Its introduction
provided a magnet that would attract all those who felt they needed explicit maps from which they
could build patterns. By the time Stockhausen and Boulez arrived on the scene, serialism was touted
as the cure for all musical problems, even for lack of inspiration!
Pause for a minute and think of two pieces of Schonberg that bring the problem to light: Pierrot
Lunaire, Op. 21 (1912 - pre-serial atonality) and the Suite, Op. 29 (1924 serial atonality). Pierrot...
seems so vital, unchained, almost lunatic in its special frenzy, while the Suite sounds sterile, dry,
forced. In the latter piece the excitement got lost. This is what serialism seems to have done to
music. Yet the attention it received was all out of proportion to its generative power. Boulez once
even proclaimed all other composition to be "useless"! If the 'disease' --serialism --was bad, one of its
'cures' --free chance --was worse. In a series of lectures in Darmstadt, Germany, in 1958, John Cage
managed to prove that the outcome of music written by chance means differs very little from that
written using serialism. However, chance seemed to leave the public bewildered and angry. Chance
is chance. There is nothing on which to hold, nothing to guide the mind. Even powerful musical
personalities, such as Cage's, often have trouble reining in the raging dispersions and diffusions that
chance scatters, seemingly aimlessly. But, again, many schools, notably in the US, detected a
sensation in the making with the entry of free chance into the music scene, and indeterminacy
became a new mantra for anyone interested in creating something, anything, so long as it was new.
I believe parenthetically that one can concede Cage some quarter that one might be reluctant to
cede to others. Often chance has become a citadel of lack of discipline in music. Too often I've seen
this outcome in university classes in the US that 'teach 'found (!)' music. The rigor of discipline in
music making should never be shunted away in search of a music that is 'found', rather than
composed. However, in a most peculiar way, the power of Cage's personality, and his surprising
sense of rigor and discipline seem to rescue his 'chance' art, where other composers simply flounder
in the sea of uncertainty.
Still, as a solution to the rigor mortis so cosmically bequeathed to music by serial controls, chance is
a very poor stepsister. The Cageian composer who can make chance music talk to the soul is a rare
bird indeed. What seemed missing to many was the perfume that makes music so wonderfully
evocative. The ambiance that a Debussy could evoke, or the fright that a Schonberg could invoke (or
provoke), seemed to evaporate with the modern technocratic or free-spirited ways of the new
musicians. Iannis Xenakis jolted the music world with the potent solution in the guise of a
'stochastic' music. As Xenakis' work would evolve later into excursions into connexity and
disconnexity, providing a template for Julio Estrada's Continuum, the path toward re-introducing
power, beauty and fragrance into sound became clear. All this in a 'modernist' conceptual approach!

Once again, though, the US university milieu took over (mostly under the stifling influence of the
serial methodologist, Milton Babbitt) to remind us that it's not nice to make music by fashioning it
through 'borrowings' from extra-musical disciplines. Throughout his book, Conversations with
Xenakis, the author, Balint Andrs Vargas, along with Xenakis, approaches the evolution of Xenakis'
work from extra-musical considerations. Physical concepts are brought to bear, such as noise
propagating through a crowd, or hail showering upon metal rooftops. Some relate to terrible war
memories of experiences suffered by Xenakis, culminating in a serious wound. To shape such
powerful sounds, concepts akin to natural phenomena had to be marshaled. From the standpoint of
the musical classroom, two things about Xenakis are most troubling: one is his relative lack of formal
musical training; the other, or flip side, is his scientifically oriented schooling background. In ways
no one else in musical history had ever done, Xenakis marshaled concepts that gave birth to a
musical atmosphere that no one had ever anticipated could exist in a musical setting. One most
prominent feature is a sound setting that emulates Brownian movement of a particle on a liquid
surface. This profoundly physical concept needed high-powered mathematics to constrain the
movements of the (analogous) sound 'particles' and make them faithful to the concept Xenakis had in
mind. There is, as a result, a certain inexactitude, albeit a physical slipperiness, to the movement of
the sound particles. Nice musical smoothness and transition give way to unpredictable evolution and
transformation. This concept blows the skin off traditional concepts of musical pattern setting! Its
iridescent shadows are unwelcome in the gray gloom of the American classroom.
In their haste to keep musical things musical, and to rectify certain unwanted trends, the official
musical intelligentsia, (the press, the US university elite, professors, etc.) managed to find a way to
substitute false heroes for the troubling Xenakis. Around the time of Xenakis' entry into the musical
scene, and his troubling promulgation of throbbing musical landscapes, attendant with sensational
theories involving stochastic incarnations, a group of composers emerged who promised to deliver
us from evil, with simple-minded solutions erected on shaky intuitional edifices. The so-called
'cluster' group of would-be musical sorcerers included Krzysztof Penderecki, Henryk Grecki and
Gyorgy Ligeti. These new musical darlings, with their easy methodologies, gave us the first taste of
the soon-to-emerge post-modernism that has posed as our ticket to the Promised Land for the last
thirty years. It seemed that, just as music finally had a master of the caliber and importance of Bach,
Schonberg, Bartok and Varese in the person of one Iannis Xenakis, history and musicology texts
seemed not to be able to retreat quickly enough to embrace the new saviors, all the while conspiring
against an all embracing creativity found fast, and well-embedded within the turmoil of the
stochastic process.
Alas, Xenakis has been exiled from American history, as much as the powers have been able to do
so! His competition, those in the intuitive cluster school, became the fixtures of the new musical
landscape, because their art is so much easier than that of Xenakis. Ease of composing, of analyzing
and of listening are the new bywords that signal success in the music world. Those who extol such
virtues herald the arrival and flourishing of post-modernism and all its guises, be it neo-romantic,
clustering or eclecticism. The proud cry these days, is "Now we can do about anything we wish."
Better, perhaps, to do nothing than to embrace such intellectual cowardice.
The promise of a return to musical fragrances that walk in harmony and synchronicity with
intellectual potency was precious and vital. It should signal the next phase of evolution in the
creative humanities. The challenge to write about this potential of a marriage of humanities was
overwhelming. No adequate text seemed to exist. So I had to provide one. All that was lacking for a
good book was a unifying theme.
Algorithms control the walk of the sounds. Algorithms are schemata that work the attributes of
sound to enable them to unfold meaningfully. An algorithm is a step-function that can range from a

simple diagram to stochastic or Boolean functions. Even serialism is an algorithm. While they are
important, algorithms take second place in importance to the focus of music: its sound. This
concentration is given a terminology by composer, Gerard Pape: sound-based composition. Isn't all
music sound based? It's all sound, after all.
Well, yes, but not really. The point of the term is to highlight the emphasis of the approach being on
the sound, rather than on the means used for its genesis. In sound-based composition, one
concentrates on a sound, then conjures the way to create it. In serialism, ordering takes precedence
over quality. The result often is vapid: empty sound. Directionless pointillism robs music of its vital
role, the conjuring of imagery, in whatever guise. The other leading practitioner of sound-based
composition is Dr. Julio Estrada. In his composition classes and seminars at UNAM (Universidad
National Autonoma de Mxico), he emphasizes the mental formation of an imaginary, sort of an
idealized imagery. Then the composer/students are directed to formulate a conspirator sound
essence that conveys something of the lan of this imaginary. Only then, once the construct of
sound is concocted, is the method of sound shaping in the form of notation employed. Understanding
of imagery and of fragrance precedes their specification. This is a sophisticated example of soundbased composition.
A curious, special case arose out of the arcane methods of Giacinto Scelsi, who made explicit what
long had been lurking in the background. He posited a '3rd dimension' to sound. He felt that the
trouble with the serialists was in their reliance upon two dimensions in sound: the pitch and the
duration. For Scelsi, timbre provides a depth, or 3rd dimension, explored only rarely until his
groundbreaking work. He devised ways to call for unusual timbres, and evolutions of timbre that
resulted in his focusing on the characteristics of, and the transformations between (within!),
attributes of single tones. Indeed, his Quattro Pezzi are veritable studies in counterpoint within
single tones!
This concept of sound-based composition provided the unifying seed around which a book could be
built. It would be one that could salvage something of the first principles of the union of intellectual
discipline and a vibrant sound context: that is, music with meaning, challenge, discipline, ambience
and something that requires courage and commitment in its conception. Such would be a music that
yields special, beautiful, powerful, alluring fruits, which, nonetheless, disclose their secrets only
reluctantly, demanding skillful teasing out of their magic.
This epiphany revealed a road by which we could reestablish the Xenakian ideal of musical power
attainable primarily through processes that have their basis in the physics and architecture of the
world around us. Here was not only the answer, the antidote, if you will, to the rigidities of serialism,
but also a cure for the sloppiness of unconstrained chance composition. Here was a way out of the
impasse confronting composition in the 1960s. The question should be not what method to use to
compose, for that leads only to blind alleys (serialism, chance or retreat), but why compose? What is
in the musical universe that can open pathways not yet explored, pathways that reveal something
that stir a soul? What is the best way to accomplish that?
If we abandon the search for unique roads and for challenge, we will become the first generation
ever in music to proclaim that backwards movement is progress; that less is more. Yet the very
apostles of post-modernism will have us believe just that! They hold that the public has rejected
modernism; the public has held modernism to be bankrupt. Post-modernists will lure you into the
trap that, because of its unmitigated complexity, serialism promised only its demise. "The only road
into modernism is sterile complexity; we need to root this out, and return to simplicity. We won't
have a saleable product, otherwise." This is the thinking that gave us minimalism, the nearest
relative to 'muzak' one can conjure in art-music. One composer, a one-time avant-gardist, actually

apologized for his former modernity, on stage, to the audience, before a performance of his latest
post-modern work!
There is an inscription in the halls of a monastery in Toledo, Spain: "Caminantes, no hay caminos,
hay que caminar" (pilgrims, there is no road, only the travel). This was a beacon for one of music
history's most courageous pilgrims - a fighter for freedom for the mind, for the body, and for the ear:
Luigi Nono. His example could serve us all well. He exposed himself to grave danger as a fighter
against oppression of all kinds, not least of all the musical kind. It takes courage to create. It isn't
supposed to be easy! Nothing worthwhile ever is. It would seem to me that Nono's example serves as
the antithesis to that of the previous composer.
I examine music history of the 20th century to find clues as to why certain composers generate more
excitement than others. Is it possible that sound-based composition has flourished in an intuitive way
from back into the 19th century? Has it been around a while, but just not codified explicitly as such?
I feel that is so. To some extent the roots of this idea can be found in the so-called nationalism of
such composers as Bartk and Janacek. Nationalism has gotten something of a bad rap due to
folksy, cutesy concoctions usually redolent within its environments. But, upon reflection and
examination, the more rigorous efforts in nationalistic composition yield tremendous fruits. Note
especially Bartk's highly original devices of twelve-tone tonality (e.g., axis positions and special
chords). Less well known, but important as well, are the special folk vocal inflections resident in
Jancek's music. These special qualities spilled over from the vocal to the instrumental writing. So
it appears that we can make a strong case for sound-based composition (composition focused on
special sound qualities) being rooted in the music by the turn of the 20th century.
The process of creation is the focus; not the glorification of the superficial sounds that only mimic
real music. The reinstatement of Xenakis', Nono's, Scelsi's and Estrada's ideals to preeminence was
crucial. The recognition of these trends, in preference to those of the more facile and easily
attractive ones espoused by Penderecki, Ligeti and others, had to be ensured. The easy lure of
cluster music had to be resisted.
If we don't make this distinction clear, all that follows is nonsense. Too many people apply
modernism to anything that resided in the 20th century that contained a little dissonance. That is a
common error. For others, modernism exists in any era - it simply is what's happening at a given
time, and is appropriate as a description for music in that era. This, too, is wrong for its reluctance
to confront the creative process.
We mustn't yield to these impulsive descriptions, for to do so renders the profound efforts of the
20th century meaningless. There is a unifying thread in music that qualifies it to be considered
modern, or modernist, and it isn't just a time frame. Modernism is an attitude. This attitude appears
periodically in music history, but it is most effectively understood in the context of creativity, most
pronouncedly found late in the 20th century. Modern music is the music composed that results from
research into the attributes of sound, and into the ways we perceive sound. It usually involves
experimentation; the experimentation yields special discoveries that bear fruit in the act of
composition. This distinction is crucial; for even though much cluster music, and some neo-classical
music, contains high dissonance, their focus is reactionary. The experimental work of Schonberg,
Berg, Webern, Bartok, Varese, and that of some Stravinsky, is forward-looking, in that the music is
not a solution unto itself: it provides a template for further work and exploration into that area. Even
more so, the works of Cage, Xenakis, Scelsi, Nono and Estrada.
The composers chosen for discussion herein are the ones I consider to be the most exemplary
models in the development of sound based composition. They are as follows:

-Janacek (nationalist inflection)


-Debussy (chord-coloration)
-Mahler (expressionism and tone-color melody)
-Ravel (impressionism)
-Malipiero (intuitive discourse)
-Hindemith (expressionism in a quasi-tonal context)
-Stravinsky (octatonic diatonicism)
-Bartok (axial tonality, arch form, golden section construction)
-Schonberg (expressionism, atonality, klangfarbenmelodie))
-Berg ('tonal' serialism)
-Webern (canonic forms in serialism, klangfarbenmelodie)
-Varese (noise, timbral/range hierarchies)
-Messiaen (modes of limited transposition, non-retrogradable rhythms, color chords)
-Boulez (special live electronics instruments)
-Stockhausen (pitch/rhythm dichotomy)
-Cage (indeterminacy, noise, live electronics)
-Xenakis (Ataxy, stochastic music, inside-outside time attributes, random walks, granularity, nonperiodic scales)
-Nono (near inaudibility, mobile sound, special electronics)
-Lutoslawski (chain composition)
-Scelsi (the 3rd dimension in sound, counterpoint within a single tone)
-Estrada (The Continuum)
There is so much glitter in the world, and so much noise pollution that we are being rendered
incapable of reflection and of creative thought. We become mortified at the thought of a little
challenge. We are paralyzed when faced with the challenge of keeping our evolutionary legacy in
focus. We cannot afford to trade away quality for mediocrity, just because mediocrity is easier and
more enticing. This would not be an acceptable social outcome. To live we must thrive. To thrive we
cannot rest.
Entertainment is a laudable pursuit in certain settings and times. It cannot be the force that drives

our lives. If a composer desires to write entertaining music, that is all right. But that composer must
be honest about his or her motives for doing so. Do not write entertainment and then try to con the
public by claiming this is great music. It is best to be able to discover the key to the writing of a
music that can fulfill a need for tomorrow. By understanding nature, the nature of sound and the
human condition, we can write music capable of conveying something essential. That goes beyond
entertainment. It fulfills music's most crucial purpose: providing a teaching role. What better way to
go through a learning process than to find oneself doing so while wrapped in a cocoon of beauty?
Music can be our best teacher.
It is all right to find beauty in old sources. Even Respighi can be very charming, engaging. It is also
just as good to listen to soothing, euphonious music as it is to write such music. But can't we as
composers do better than this? Why can't we give something besides pleasure to tomorrow? Young
composers today are at a crossroads. They can fulfill a vital mission by helping fulfill a tradition that
carries on a cultural legacy. Today's composers must begin to dream; and then compose.