Inside 20th-century music

The purpose of the essays in this series is to treat some of the difficult questions frequently raised about ''modern'' music, weigh some rights and wrongs about it, possibly clear up some mysteries, as well as to look, from where we are, for signs of where we've been.

Change. It's a tricky thing to pin down. It so often catches even the wariest off guard. Within an art like music, keeping track of shifts in creative style is tantalizing, and very much a game of chasing shadows.

Composers don't get together in big colloquia to debate and vote on the changes to come in compositional practice; on which beliefs, which techniques, which of yesteryear's phenomena are to fall by the wayside.

When I was a composition student at a major conservatory, the core of Compositional Truth as I received it was that the music of the future would be serial: presumably like that of Pierre Boulez, mere ''taste'' preempted by adherence to mathematic patternings of pitches, rhythms, and so on. Serialism, at least, was around to stay, in some form. Possibly along with its negative-image cousin, anarchic, musico-theatric ''happenings'' such as Peter Maxwell Davies's Eight Songs for a Mad King, in which the participating musicians rely heavily on sound effects and visual elements associated more with theater-of-the-absurd than with composed music.

Then -- poof! -- descended the late 1970s, and behold, composers such as renowned serialist George Rochberg and lionized avant-gardist Krzysztof Penderecki were offering the public works in major and minor keys. They were giving attention to some of the most elemental needs and stimulations the ear knows. Their worldwide swath of followers, not to mention the seers and prophets , beat a dignified retreat and holed up momentarily to puzzle out what had happened.

What had gone wrong? A major modern piece becoming an A-flat major modern piece! How could such a bizarre idea gain enough heft to make its way to the New York Philharmonic? How did it begin? How much earlier than we thought was it born?

Followers of the stock markets will smile with faint nods of recognition toward what is at work in this kind of creative change. Osmosis and illusion, weak as they are, are about the best words for describing such intangible goings-on.

For, as I said above, composers don't consult and plan the seeming surprises that can rip apart 25 years of dominance by a particular way of thinking and writing. Each composer, if he is a good one, does what his own conscience dictates, according to a combination of his assembled musical experience and his true gift, his ''radar.'' This radar he tunes both to the inner musical language he speaks and, to a lesser extent, to the current music of others.

In reality, common practice (as much as it has ever existed) has always been in the hands of disciples -- followers of the best creative imaginations of the day. But the best creators used forms and styles as tools of expression, and not as ends in themselves. Hence a lot of history as illusion.

Trying to gain perspectives on change or on common practice from hearing works performed by leading orchestras is a bit like forming opinions about a star whose light we are seeing now but which may have been extinguished generations ago. So much is past history about any ''new'' work we hear, once it is performed, or available in a commercial recording. So much time has elapsed in bringing it to that point that very often the composer may have only a kind of nostalgic relationship with the performed piece: he may be off in a very different creative direction.

A good example of this was Arnold Schonberg. In 1913, after having planted his feet in extreme Modernism and atonality, and after many years of rejection, he witnessed the belated but stupendous success of his gigantic 1901 cantata, Songs of Gurre, a gorgeous Mahleresque piece. Schonberg turned his back on the ovation and accolades, saying, ''For years, those people who cheered me tonight refused to recognize me.''

Schonberg's bitter attitude toward the fickle public becomes more poignant when we see what today's musical cutting edge hath wrought, in sloughing off 12 -tone serial composition -- Schonberg's principal gift to Modern music. Until recently, the injunction to Be Serial or Be Ignored ruled music composition for virtually as many (and roughly the same) years as Abstract Expressionism held the reins of painting. Both are gone now as decalogues, and composers are exploring older values like tonality and the spinning of long melodic lines -- though often going about it like archaeologists, ''discovering'' these long-lost treasures, as though human sensibility had ever ceased needing them in the interim.

Popularity is attaching itself, today, to music wedded to texts. But I don't think this is related to the frequent assumption that the setting of words is a good way to begin ''going soft'' on more traditional musical ''vocabulary'' without seeming to. Young composers are, of all things, showing a renewed interest in composing opera and, even more often, music for the theater. How genuine these moves are, only more time can tell. But the fact remains, they have come as surprises.

Chance music, among those items that have found themselves to be on the way out, still exerts a kind of indirect influence. It is well known as the opposite of serialism: a commitment to imprecise, variable improvisation, which looks to the magic of the moment for its effect. Chance techniques are still with us, to be sure, but not nearly in as big a way as they were about 12 years ago. Much of the chance ideal today can be found within the incredibly repetitious, droning music of Minimalist composers like Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Lamont Young, and their entourage. Minimalism, though, is also something that will take its place, alongside John Cage, more as a provoker of thought than as a form of durable musical expression.

I think as the West emerges from the period of infatuation with its interpretation of Oriental mystique, it will begin to realize that baths of droning sound make for neither ensured redemption nor a viably transplanted Western art. The business of looking to the 30-minute repetition of a 4-bar phrase to Bring Us Home will melt away. Then the way will become that much clearer, for composers who can and would, to keep looking for the most need-meeting modes of expression in a vast, abstract language. Music is a language, after all, which whenever it has been spoken with eloquence and durability, from the Middle Ages to the present day, has been done so with the fullest sense of addressing both head and heart.

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