Tough times call for some tougher music

Times Music Critic

Modernism HAD a good run, the historian Peter Gay concludes in his new study of the subject. His estimate is about 120 years, beginning with the simultaneous publication in 1857 of Flaubert’s novel “Madame Bovary” and Baudelaire’s collection of poems “Les Fleurs du Mal.” In music, that span extends through the wild avant-garde experiments of the ‘50s and ‘60s and on to the flowering of Minimalism and the New Romanticism.

“New music is gorgeous again,” writes Scott Speck, co-author of “Classical Music for Dummies,” in the current issue of Symphony Magazine. A new wave of composers who make only nice waves is rising, and these composers have history on their side. When times get tough, as in America during the Great Depression and the Second World War, music gets soft. The times, surveys say, are once again tough, and they’re likely to stay that way. A sustained period of stylistic regression is thus a possibility.

But there is no law that says history has to repeat itself in an endless loop. And something is up that is once again making music unsafe for dummy consumption.


Take this summer’s Salzburg Festival. The music of Mozart will be in plentiful supply, as it always is. But vying for attention as the most-played composer during the monthlong festival of festivals -- with its glorious Vienna and Berlin Philharmonic concerts, its stellar opera productions and princely ticket prices -- will be a 61-year-old Italian Modernist, Salvatore Sciarrino, who explores the edge of audibility and prefers the gritty extraneous sounds that instruments can make to beautiful sonorities.

And if you don’t think Salzburg’s nine-part “Kontinent Sciarrino” would provide enough space-age sounds for one summer, then consider a Stockhausen trek. It could have begun last week in Vienna, where the far-out Spanish theater group La Fura dels Baus staged portions of “Donnerstag” (Thursday), the first part of the Futuristic German composer’s intergalactic seven-day opera cycle, “Licht” (Light). Your next stop would be Amsterdam in June for the premiere of one of the last scores by Karlheinz Stockhausen, who died in December just short of his 80th birthday. Then you could spend the summer crisscrossing the continent and the Channel for major Stockhausen events in Hamburg and Cologne, Germany; Lucerne, Switzerland; Warsaw, Paris, London and Berlin (where Simon Rattle will divide the Berlin Philharmonic into three orchestras for “Gruppen,” played in a hangar at the airport).

You could also book a London hotel for nine days in November for “Klang,” a Stockhausen extravaganza that the Southbank Centre is calling the centerpiece of its extensive 2008-09 season. And you could return in January, when the BBC Symphony will host a Stockhausen “Total Immersion” at the Barbican Centre.

Closer to home, the populist Tanglewood Festival in the Massachusetts Berkshires will, for five days in July, be all Elliott Carter nearly all the time, with six Carter concerts chock-full of what general audiences once complained was incomprehensible, hyperactive music. In Manhattan, meanwhile, the Lincoln Center Festival will kick off the Fourth of July weekend with a major production of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s 12-tone “Die Soldaten,” a poster opera for the ultra-complex, abstract 1960s German avant-garde.

Also at Lincoln Center this summer, Mostly Mozart promises a sampling of Saariaho. But that hardly means the Finnish Modernist Kaija Saariaho, the festival’s composer in residence, will be staying put in the Big Apple. Her grim, deeply serious consideration of the effects of war on women, “Adriana Mater,” will receive its U.S. premiere at Santa Fe Opera.

Pity one of Speck’s poor dummkopfs who stumbles into a Mostly Mozart evening expecting featherweight divertimenti, programmed to make him smarter, only to be confronted by Saariaho’s “La Passion de Simone,” an investigation of the troubled life of the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil, who starved herself to death during World War II out of empathy for the persecuted. Through dark, disturbing music, this staged oratorio, written for Dawn Upshaw, induces listeners to confront some of their most profoundly disturbing insecurities, as Los Angeles Philharmonic patrons will discover next season.


The Atlanta School

WAIT A minute. Haven’t we gone past all this? The 12-tone system is to musicologists what the dodo bird is to ornithologists -- an object of curiosity and study. Atonality has been called by some of today’s leading critics and composers a gargantuan mistake. Electronic music never quite caught on in the big way many once expected. Irregular rhythms imply heart disease.

What’s more, in response to the surge in Modernism is something that has lately come to be known as the Atlanta School. Since assuming the role of music director of the Atlanta Symphony in 2001, Robert Spano has focused on work by young American composers -- notably Jennifer Higdon, Christopher Theofanidis and Michael Gandolfi -- who go in for sparkling orchestrations, diverting tunes, bubbly rhythms and comfortably plush harmonies. Spano has found that audiences react to these composers with pleasure, surprised to encounter music that requires no new experiences on a night out.

The only thing that allows such squishy music to be called modern, however, is a limited eclecticism, one that says different styles need not conflict, just so long as none of them resemble Modernist rebellion. Getting along is the value system. Minimalism and the New Romanticism and folk styles and various aspects of pop are all welcome in the mix. The Atlanta orchestra takes pride in sending its listeners home happy, having been given a big sonic hug and assured everything will be all right.

This is not dissimilar to what was happening in music in the ‘30s and ‘40s, when it was next to impossible to get progressive work programmed. At times, the Atlanta School even suggests a voluntary embrace of the kinds of music that arose under dictatorial regimes that restricted artistic freedom, of the populist demands made on composers by Hitler and Stalin.

But artists must be free to bite the hand that feeds them. A theme of Gay’s “Modernism: The Lure of Heresy” is that rebellious new ways of making art require supportive economic and political conditions. And in a country where polls show that 80% of the people feel we are on the wrong track, where music has been so commercialized that even radio is hardly free and iTunes rules the download universe, perhaps we want composers chomping down hard on the pinkies of Washington politicians, Clear Channel executives and Steve Jobs.

At the moment, Europe remains way ahead of us in the feistiness department. The Atlanta School composers, viewed overseas as pathetically retro, they are not, for the most part, exportable. Even composers as sophisticated as Esa-Pekka Salonen and John Adams have been accused of peddling hand-me-downs. Saariaho was temporarily banned from the progressivist mainstream in Paris, where she lives, when her French computer-driven colleagues in the movement known as spectralism thought that her first opera, “L’Amour de Loin,” was too gorgeous.


Americans, for our part, have staked out a new-is-old philosophy. “The Rest Is Noise,” Alex Ross’ beautifully written book of last year about 20th century music, is far more eloquent when it comes to the sensitive conservative Benjamin Britten than about the rabid radicalism of Boulez or Stockhausen. European Modernist music in America has long meant box-office death. But given a general dissatisfaction with the status quo, that resistance may have begun to crack.

One example in Los Angeles was a recent Monday Evening Concert devoted to music by Helmut Lachenmann, a celebrated composer in Germany but one generally considered too challenging for American tastes. He comes straight out of the tradition of advanced European music of the ‘50s and ‘60s. He breaks music apart into its basic elements of sound and then reassembles pitches and timbres into abstract dramas.

Listening to Lachenmann’s pieces might be likened to attending theater in a tongue you don’t understand. Language itself loses meaning, but everything else gains new significance. You suddenly become aware of vocal inflections, of physical gestures you might not have paid attention to. Theater becomes dance, its meaning that of movement and sound, not the definitions and contexts of words.

The concert was very well attended, and the 72-year-old composer, making his first visit to Los Angeles, was on hand. The hall was abuzz -- with both the sounds onstage and the sense of anticipation in the lobby. Lachenmann had spent the spring in the States, a guest of Harvard University and the Oberlin Conservatory outside Cleveland, where he was reportedly a hit with young composers.

The embrace of Carter, meanwhile, is a lucky break. He is not being programmed for remaining stubbornly uncompromising over the decades but for reasons of good old American sentimentality: He will turn 100 in December and remains active and downright spunky. But his longevity has inspired listeners to pay attention to a composer who insists that music is meant to reflect everything around us in all its delirious complexity, who has never taken the easy route.

Difficult demands

ULTIMATELY, American artists are not likely to discover a way forward from Old or New Europe, however rich the examples that composers such as Stockhausen have provided. In fact, Stockhausen got a lot of his mystical notions from a stint in Northern California in the mid-’60s.


But complexity is not to be dismissed. Our times don’t call for simple answers, and one job of artists is to demand an end to simple answers.

Osvaldo Golijov is an American who has seized that opportunity. Golijov has been lumped in with the Atlanta School because Spano is one of his champions, and he can be wildly eclectic. He is an Argentinian who came to America by way of Israel and studied with the ‘60s American Modernist icon George Crumb.

Yet in his unique mix of styles, Golijov finds sympathetic resonances as well as significant conflict between his brooding East European Jewish and Latin American roots. Similarly, Salonen moved from the hard-core European Modernism of his training to a fresher California sound by becoming more, not less, complex. And Adams, once an almost straightforward Minimalist, keeps upping the intricacy ante in his music.

However much these composers dissociate themselves from Modernism, they are part of a new Modernism coalescing from diverse directions. Call it what you will -- Postmodernism is used up, so is New Complexity. But in its many forms, their movement takes off from a basic Modernist premise: Not upsetting audiences is not enough when what we need is upset.