Modernism — Peter Gay

The great danger of a book as broad as Modernism is also its strength: breadth. In trying to cover a gigantic, multifaceted movement that lasted, by Peter Gay’s definition, from the 1840s into the 1960s, one risks a superficial treatment of so many topics as to make the entire book superfluous. But Gay avoids that fate in all subjects save film, which is the weakest section of a book that I otherwise would call “magisterial” were that term not so overused. He also uses his best tool in writing a history of all the branches of modernism well: adept comparisons abound, which show the parallel developments in visual art, books, music, and architecture and the interplay among them. Modernism ruled in some fields more than others; architecture, which, by its nature, is a rich person’s sport, sees much less modernism than, say, literature, which requires only inexpensive writing instruments. Music sat between architecture and literature, and it’s also hard to describe because it split in many directions—the rise of modernism occurred concomitantly with that of pop music. Technological developments helped cause classical music’s share in the average mind grow with the birth of radio and shrink as time progressed.

This is a small example of the idea that Gay reiterates well: that modernism was experienced by a relatively select few even as it influenced the many. It’s even true today, when, as he notes, about half of all paperbacks sold are small-r romance novels and the literary fiction covered by most major print outlets only receives a tiny slice of the market’s dollars. This is not to start a tedious genre debate, though no romance novel I’m aware of has broken from its pigeonhole, as many science fiction, fantasy, horror and detective novels have, and I suspect few owe much to “The Wasteland.” As Gay says on page 459 (of 510), “The question just whom modernist novels, or movies, were intended for was one that had been difficult to answer for decades” (there probably should be an “of” between “question” and “just”). Indeed! But such modernist works receive a share of critical attention far out of scope with their readership or waters.

Maybe the key tenants of modernism inherently limit its accessibility, especially given the definition Gay establishes for modernism: “the lure of heresy that impelled [the modernists’] actions as they confronted conventional sensibility; and, second, a commitment to a principled self-scrutiny.” The case for using this, as opposed to other definitions, is an excellent one, and in reading Modernism I cannot help but feel that his ideas about what makes modernism modernism have been wandering about in my mind, unrevealed to me prior to this book. And yet, as Gay’s comments about romance novels demonstrate, he keeps his sense of proportion among the tectonic shifts in art and thought that occurred over the period he covers. Modernism has influenced nearly all avenues of thought, but some aspects of culture and emotion have been more touched than others, though probably none in Western culture remain unmoved.

The writing helps: Gay has many wonderful passages, including one I have already quoted and many more I would like to. A scholarly subject came surprisingly alive, like math taught by an enthusiastic teacher with a contagious sense of play—in other words, the one I never had till after I graduated from high school. But I digress: the point is that Modernism is having almost as much fun as its subjects, and perhaps implying that, even if some of its criteria are wrong or that modernists are not all that important, so what? It is an implication that I suspect modernists would agree with.

Still, the book can slide into academicese: “The indifference and hostility of conservative tastes and the ideological objections of powerful institutions often limited, or delayed, a positive response to aesthetic innovators.” Yes, I agree after Gay’s persuasion, but I’m still thinking that he traded ease for brevity. Elsewhere, he says “Much like the stream of refugees from Nazi Germany who signally enriched American and British culture, Italy, too, had its share of enforced cultural transfer […].” Wait, “signally?” What does “signally” mean here? I have no idea, but, minor issues are passing clouds in an otherwise sunny sky.

Sometimes Gay’s wrong notes do not seem part of an atonal scheme, but just an example of the elegant variation:* “On April 30, 1945, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin, an irrevocable exit that would release worldwide rejoicing.” To my knowledge, suicide is always irrevocable, making the fussy phrase “irrevocable exit” redundant redundant, but he certainly gets the “rejoicing” aspect right. For the most part, Gay’s flawless prose operates on many levels:

From [Strindberg’s] subjective vantage point, he argued that human nature is not cast in bronze, but open to the most disparate pressures, some from social demands and others, less easy to trace, from inner urges. Nor can desire and anxiety escape the conflicts that contradictory impulses arouse in the individual. In a hysterical period—and Strindberg insisted that his culture was helplessly mired—contemporaries necessarily display an unsorted patchwork of qualities old and new that prove vacillating and are given to self-contradictions.

Wow: an argument about art, internal versus external manifestations of thoughts and feeling, society’s role in those manifestations, and Strindberg’s thoughts on them and his society. That I wrote “is it really, or did modernists make it so?” in the margin now seems churlish. He makes statements that are, at times, too strong or unsupported, as when he says we live in a “post-Christian” age—did no one tell America’s presidents or its legions of church-goers?—but in most ways he is just the professor you wish you had: knowledgeable, considered, devoted to correctness and willing to see many sides of a thing or idea.

He also reminds me of how far we’ve come: when I pass blank canvasses and other such foolery at the Seattle Art Museum, I just yawn and walk by. The frequent modernist cries in attempting to rip the veil from reality or “declare their [Van Gogh and Gauguin] innermost selves without bourgeois reticence” are themselves examples of veils or reticence. Such paradoxes, oxymorons, and the like might be another of modernism’s defining characteristics, and Gay shows many examples of them; I have not found a better curator.

* As defined by the eponymous blog:

The Elegant Variation is “Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do.”

Alex Ross in Seattle

Alex Ross, author of The Rest is Noise (see my initial comments), visited Seattle to “curate” Icebreaker IV: The American Future, a Seattle concert and festival of young composers. Before the main show, he spoke about The Rest is Noise and how it’s targeted especially at those who have interest in but know little about classical music, as well as how the lives of composers were interwoven with history, society, and culture. As I wrote before, he is “telling the story of music in the most tumultuous century along with its politics and art. Or does it cover politics and art through music? You can’t entirely tell, which must be intentional in a book lively and quick as a gliding melody.” Right: and it goes from the last years of what Ross calls the “marble bust” society through today, covering transformation in art and life.

Perhaps the most important thing Ross stressed was plurality: in approaches in art and music as well as how there isn’t a single path toward progress. Different composers worked in different modes, and what appeared stodgy to many critics—like Sibelus, who with Shostakovich is toward the book’s intellectual heart—became seen as more innovative, while revolutionary music like Stravinsky’s eventually became part of the dominant mainstream. The matter just behind plurality in importance how Ross sees classical music is a great 1,000 year old tradition that is still alive and evolving. Modern composers, performers, and others should realize this emphasize the emotional dimension of music and not just its intellectual dimension.

At first Ross seemed nervous, wringing his hands and shifting his weight, but as he spoke passion and confidence emerged, growing as he talked about the excitement in the classical music world. Ross said his “whole task as a writer has been to draw attention to composers,” and I would extend to the classical and other kinds of music in general. This is a particularly important task because he says classical music is underserved at the media level (sound familiar?), which no longer tracks composers. True enough, as I didn’t recognize most of the names after 1960, and the same problems plague writers. But Ross isn’t “doomy” as many are, due in part because of the aforementioned excitement.

And it’s hard not to get excited at The Rest is Noise, which he says is divided in three sections. The first is devoted to the changes in the early part of the twentieth century, with new sounds, a diversity of approaches, the rising power of pop music, and modernism all arising. The second part most explicitly discusses politics, with World War II and Communism affecting composers the world over, who struggled to survive like many others. This is where he most “use[d] music to write [… an] alternate history.” Finally, the third section, which seemed the weakest and least cohesive to me, he says is “wild” and all over the place. “You can’t write history about events that are still unfolding,” explaining why that section appealed less to me. To be sure, the third section was weak only relative to the strength of the other two, as it still surpassed most writing in general.

Then came the concert, with seven pieces by seven composers; the pieces ranged from ones for a pure quartet to others that incorporated electronic music to those that demanded a larger group to one that was described as being built around bits from Michael Jackson songs (and I enjoyed the pastiche.) Afterwards the composers spoke. They didn’t resemble the stereotype that first leaps to my mind when I think of “composer,” which bears a striking resemblance to the guys in stipple portrait on dollars. Rather, they were more akin to the hipsters I’m used to seeing at bars, reflecting the way their music ranged across modes. They answered questions akin to the one I hate most at readings. My favorite answer was glib when he said that, “I take walks till I’m ready to start,” then he hits his head against his computer, then takes more walks as he composes. Other people asked “questions” designed to show the erudition of the questioner instead of elicit information. Overall, though, it was a good session, even if I couldn’t tell to what extent the composers were trying to describe their artistic process and to what extent they blew smoke.

I keep drawing parallels between literature and music because throughout the evening these parallels were so apparent, and the language used to describe phenomena in both mediums so similar. Much of what I wrote above concerning change, styles, and influence could apply equally well to books and literature, and probably to other artistic and even scientific forms as well. The Rest is Noise is extraordinarily deep and yet malleable. This also makes it hard to define: it is about classical music but also music in general, as well as history and art. Only infrequently does one find a book that does so much while being so much fun to read. The book, like Ross’s talk, shows so much contagious enthusiasm that I can’t help catching it.

The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century

Finding a book that lives up to expectations and ecstatic reviews is too rare, as many books don’t. The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century is an exception, telling the story of music in the most tumultuous century along with its politics and art. Or does it cover politics and art through music? You can’t entirely tell, which must be intentional in a book lively and quick as a gliding melody.

Many of his Ross’s descriptions about musical culture could as much be about literature as music; in Weimar Republic of Germany, he writes: “every violent act or image seems to foreshadow the catastrophe to come. But it is too easy to write the story of German culture from 1918 to 1933 as the prelude to the next chapter.” Elsewhere, the same point is made about modernism, about audience acceptance, about difficulty, and about politics. One point in particular can be said about literature, and it’s a paraphrase of Theodor Adorno: “[…] modernism can bring forth its own kind of kitsch—a melodrama of difficulty that easily degenerates into a sort of superannuated adolescent angst.” That’s especially true if you can stretch modernistic tendencies of the ones Adorno describes out to today, as A Reader’s Manifesto attacks exactly this idea.

The critical acclaim I mentioned is real: see, for example, Steven Johnson and Maud Newton’s excerpt. I think The Rest is Noise inspires praise because it is learned but not pedantic, historical but not dull, even-handed in its descriptions of musical stylistic and political warfare, and, above all devoted to music itself, rather than to numbing ideology. In an early section, Ross writes about Richard Strauss’ Guntram, the hero who, at the end of the opera, leaves his order, his beloved, and “the Christian God.” Strauss’ mentor was alarmed, but Ross describes why Strauss wrote the opera as he did: “Guntram’s order […] had unwisely sought to launch an ethical crusade through art, to unify religion and art. This was Wagner’s mission, too, but for Strauss it was a utopian scheme that contained ‘the seeds of death in itself.'” The theme of extremes goes on toward the middle of the book, when composers accused each other of fascist tendencies in each others’ music, and by the end Ross shows examples of modern critics who berate pop or classical music for pop’s supposed emptiness or classical’s supposed beauty. But if Ross has a main thesis it is that music is music, regardless of labels or dogma.

Throughout The Rest is Noise, Ross almost shudders at the divisiveness in all its manifestations, from the beginning when he writes that “Fin-de-siecle Vienna offers the depressing spectacle of artists and audiences washing their hands of each other, giving up on the dream of common ground,” to the masterful first sentence of the epilogue, “Extremes become their opposites in time.” Instead Ross unifies common themes and idea while still being able to judge, making a strong case that in music, as with all art, ceaseless miscegenation strengthens rather than weakening the end product.

EDIT: Alex Ross visited Seattle, which I wrote about here.

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