‘Atonal music is a form of musical terrorism’

Jacques Attali – former adviser to President Mitterand, international banker and would-be orchestra conductor – has been offering his views on modernism.

Je crois personnellement que la musique atonale est une impasse, elle ne correspond pas à la nature même de l’audition, elle a constitué une tentative de « terrorisme musical » qui ne correspond pas à la nature profonde de ce qu’est la musique. En dehors de ça toutes les musiques qui sont à l’intérieur de la gamme, et en particulier la musique indienne, mais avec des nuances tout à fait considérables, méritent d’être prises au sérieux.


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    • The historical implications of a musical quality are not operative in the pursuit by any artist of their intuitive visions. No one can compose what is not intuitive to them, and public acceptance or rejection, or the verdict of history, are vague noises far from the intense scene of creation. Historically, dead ends abound – and we value the fruits of many, as other eras have despised them.

      • One would hope so Benjamin, I don’t disagree with that except for the fact that we are in an era when a certain sector are still trying to dictate what particular musical approaches are acceptable. They are able to do that largely because of the way the art-form is structured hierachically. I’m not suggesting any conspiracy, such theories are of course preposterous, but there is certainly a shared personal interest amongst some persons of influence that runs counter to the interests of music as a whole. I would so much rather that this was not a discussion that we need to have, but sadly it is.

      • One can certainly compose what is not intuitive to them, if they are trapped in another’s idealogy. As Jung said, people don’t have ideas, ideas have people.

        • How long will composers suffer this soft but persistent bigotry in which those whose music is unpopular are seen to be acting “against the good of music as a whole.” It would be one thing if even a single anecdote could be reliably ventured, regarding a composer who was prevented from writing in one approach or another. Instead, what we have are anecdotes in which composers are required — gasp — to communicate about their own intuitions, and some, having no desire for dissent, or pluralism, or even a breadth of reading, find themselves leaving academia for other shores. “Conflict is not abuse.” Those who have left the conversation because they wished not to be criticized, the conversation in which critical thinking and extensive dialogue matters … would be welcome to return at any time.

  • No-one? OK, me then. I’ve struggled with my high school french through just the passage you featured. Yes, this is an apt comparison because the advocates for this form of music have always relied on a fundamentalist rather than an enlightened view of the art-form. Western Classical music is somehow the highest form of music, and we, as the inheritors of the traditions of the great composers of the past, are it’s most advanced practitioners. All others are ‘of no use’. A kind of musical Wahabism. Unfortunately this is what you get when students are rigidly discouraged from questioning their teachers. All original thought is purged. They are fed batsh** crazy ideas like the dodecaphonic method. And at the end of it all they go forth into the world and try to be creative?

    • It’s the usual conformism of music education by ignorati…. there are quite a lot in education, often failed musicians themselves. At the conservatory, I was not allowed to do the final exam because the music was ‘not modern enough’; later-on my commissions could not be paid by the state-monopoly financing system for the same reason. Etc. etc….. In Germany, oldfashioned conformists still feed youngsters the gospels of sonic art, because that signifies them as being on the right moral side of history (Hitler loved Wagner). Once I discussed a proposal for a small conference about new tonal music at a German university and was brushed-off with ‘We don’t want this rightwing stuff here!’ The natural laws of physics are, in music life, highly politicized. But THIS Darmstadt exercise is allright, because morally unblemished:


        • Yes, and this bit of utmost embarrassing information had been kept under the carpet for a long time. Webern thought that his music would be the perfect cultural symbol of nazism.

          • Webern was disappointed and thoroughly puzzled by the nazi rejection of his work. How could they NOT recognize the obvious? – It must be said however, that Webern had not only difficulties with musical reality but also with reality in general. Which is very common among artists. He wrote a couple of beautiful pieces – and, in contrast with his followers, they were very short, for good reasons.

      • Re the Darmstadt video: The Who already did that. So did Annea Lockwood. And centuries of ghatam players in India.

        • So, it is not even new or original. Vandalism is never original, given human nature. But the Darmstadt courses are funded by tax money, are ‘establishment’, and claim to be an enlightened avantgarde gathering, where the newest progressive trends in
          contemporary Western music are presented and discussed. This context makes it a perverse scandal, and a ridiculous shooting in its own foot.

  • Mathematics is not a mere cultural product but a discovery of the reality of proportions. Arithmetics: the same. These are systems based upon natural laws. The same with tonality, and the human sense of visual beauty, upon which the visual arts and architecture are based. Underneath the human cultural products is a level of organisation as created by nature, like the human being is rooted in nature yet creates his own emotional, intellectual and visual world. All art – real art – is atemporal, like mathematics (paraphrasing the well-known archtect Leon Krier).

    Schoenberg’s idea that music, in which the notes are related to each other through the system as given by nature, i.e. the harmonic series (be it slightly adapted), is merely a human construct that could be replaced by another human construct, was wrong. Mr Attali is a bit late to pronounce his verdict; in France there are already quite a lot of composers who have discovered this obvious truth. But critique of the Boulezbian establishment is still countered with fatwas: in 2012 the pianist Jerome Ducros dared to criticize the atonal French establishment in a lecture and provoked a scandal:


      • Clever….. to bring this up! A nice ad interesting piece of sonic art, starting-off with the harmonic series, and then followed with many variations upon the idea of ‘partials’ but then combined in ways, quite different from the natural series / partials. Every episode follows the other without any intrinsic logic, and that is ‘natural’, since the processes are given as such: as colour variations upon an idea. The piece remains on the level of sound, there is no musical psychology / expression involved. With music, the notes form intervallic relationships with each other so that an ‘inner space’ is created, were different types of combinations create the impression of energies flowing through a ‘bedding’. With pieces of this kind, there is only the sound and its colourings as such, and their processes of change in time. This was already invented by Schoenberg in his ‘Farben’:


        With ‘Farben’, there are still residus of intervallic relationships and thus, tonal form. The piece goes gradually to a climax and then fizzles-out. The intervallic changes still work tonally, I would call this a tonal piece, however impressionistic and free. It’s also very beautiful, by the way.

        ‘Vergangenes’, from the same series, is also still tonal, because making use of intervallic relationships and their rhetorical possibilities:


        Compare this with Grisey, and the difference between music and sonic art will become clear…. in spite of the similarities.

    • This is developing into a bit of a two way conversation, but I did want to mention following on from your comment regarding mathematics, that at the time Schönberg came up with his dodecaphonic theory he was a devotee of the pseudo-science of numerology.

      • Is the problem with the dodecaphonic theory simply that chopping the space within an octave into just 12 bits is an artificial product of equal temperament tuning?

        • Perhaps, but just one of the problems. If this subject interests you, the Jerome Ducros lecture (links can be found above) is not to be missed. This, and it’s hysterical aftermath were simply the biggest story in music to come out of France since the Rite of Spring. You do not have to agree with him of course, I don’t in it’s entirety, but he makes a pretty compelling argument just the same. It’s very entertaining and often wickedly funny.

          • Ducros was very dismayed about the reactions from the Boulezbian camp, he had not anticipated that at all, and has since remained silent on the subject – he seems to prepare a larger publication about the matter, but that remains to be seen. You can imagine the tremors being sent through the new music scene in France, since the funding of new music is dependent upon established consensus. Contemporary modernist music in France is occasionally aired in the central performance culture, but more like a polite gesture than out of musical enthusiasm. It position depends upon ideological group conformity and state funding, not on enthusiasm in concert life – apart from a very small audience minority – so, if french sonic art is dethroned from its ‘dominant’, official position, a couple household budgets are under serious threat. That someone like Attali dares to say such ‘terrible things’, will cause sleepless nights in some Parisian quarters, especially since the Grand Old Man is no longer there:


  • “would be conductor” is pretty flattering to what we see of this guy’s direction on YouTube. There is no evidence of either musical talent or knowledge……

  • If you, or any of the other commenters on this thread who appear to disagree with what M. Attali has to say actually have some kind of rational case to put, here’s your chance. All I have ever seen from those who support the atonalist argument has been personal attacks. Such as yours. Is that all you’ve got?

    • Personal attacks are the last resort of the desperate, when there are no arguments left. Shoot the messenger.

    • “The first question I ask myself when something doesn’t seem to be beautiful is why do I think it’s not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason.” John Cage

      It’s simple – you can attach a series of values and requirements to what music needs to be in order for it to satisfy you, and you will dislike or disagree with a lot of things. If you ignore your values and requirements and instead accept the values and requirements within art that a serial or atonal composer subscribes to, you will, in addition to your view of what art is, potentially see their view also. If you don’t want to see that or you don’t want to, that’s fine! Hopefully it’s obvious that the most important thing is that we just let everyone enjoy what they like.

      • Very nice…. but what if we, by being open and understanding, begin to understand very well what the artist’s intentions are, and by patient absorbtion seeing / hearing his work from his point of view, and then coming to the conclusion that it is not very good, the reasons of which emerging bit by bit to the mind: must we agree with the artist? Must we measure his achievement exclusively by his own intentions? Just embrace whatever he dreams-up with? Or should we try to combine openness, understanding, patience, and the willingness to stand in the author’s shoes, with a trained eye, ear and heart? And if so, how do we train these organs? I think: by seeing and hearing as much as possible and trying to discover the laws of beauty and expression underneath every appearance. Openness does not necessarily mean accepting everything, as if anything goes. If there are no disctinctions in art, art itself will disappear. If everything is art (as many contemporary art theories claim), then nothing is.

        The mind of John Cage is quite empty as he himself already indicates, so not the best of examples.

        • Yes, we should always try to embrace the artist’s vision, even when, or perhaps especially when, it is at odds with our own.

          I don’t believe that Cage’s mind was empty. It’s great though to think that one can read so many of his writings and still come to that conclusion.

          And the kind of “everything is art” mentality can be enjoyed at the same time as embracing a sort of Toscanini sized repertoire of “only these things are art”. But again; it doesn’t have to be that way. Your choice!

          (Also I’m sorry to be the political correctness police but artists can be women too; your above post doesn’t imply this…)

          • Being critical because of trying to understand quality values does not necessarily mean shrinking one’s range of appreciation. All-embracing tolerance on this point sounds very sympathetic but easily sinks into egalitarian greyness (as we can see and hear all around us).

            And: in discussions about abstractions, like ‘the artist’, in such context gender is neutral, in spite of linguistically masculine. Female artists are supposed to understand that without feeling disenfranchised.

  • There is room for everything. I don’t think any music is more aligned or against nature. It’s a question of taste. Not a traditional definition of taste but rather the taste of the practitioner. We hire and fire conductors based on their taste and how it resonates with the local public which they are to be serving.
    I repeat, there is room for everything. The “problem” with atonal music is that it has no public. I want everyone to feel free to program it from time to time and get a healthy reminder that no one cares for it, and that no one is cared for it for about 80 years now. I like some of it, but I also like some tonal pieces outside the standard rep which no one cares about either.
    No one can say atonal music hasn’t had its chance to resonate. It simply doesn’t besides a handful of the first few masterful examples within the style.
    This guy isn’t right or wrong, he’s simply expressing his opinion badly because there is no connection between human music and nature: I have been playing classical music for my cats for years and they simply aren’t feeling it.

    • These last sentences are besides the point…. and there are cats who demonstrate a strong sense of musicality:


      I agree there should be place for all sorts of music. The problem with atonal modernism is, (was?), that it has been propped-up as the only way art music could develop, and composers who did not agree were ‘superfluous’ (Boulez). It was a quasi-scientific narrative of history, forgetting that in art, there is no progress, only cumulative extension of means. It became a way of sidelining new music which did not follow the ‘party line’, and in education it became a dominating convention – and completely misrepresenting music history. Richard Taruskin in his monumental ‘History of Western Music’ shot some holes in this ideological narrative, and he got very strong critique from all corners….. which shows that the ideological position is still much alive and fights back. Should we be tolerant towards intolerance?

      • I was actually thinking of Ravel’s L’Enfant but in a slightly different context. Could it be the “Arithmetic” sequence was intended as a slam against the 2nd Viennese School’s mathematics, those cerebral but soulless head games?

        • Possibly… but I don’t think so. The music of that episode is in the style of childrens’ songs, and Ravel had a great interest in Schoenberg, as can be heard in his Mallarmé songs of 1913:


          They are still tonal, and the complex dissonances are used as expressive means to depict utter, dreamy strangeness – no attempt to ‘cancel’ relationships between the notes, as Schoenberg eventually did.

    • “I don’t think any music is more aligned or against nature. It’s a question of taste. Not a traditional definition of taste but rather the taste of the practitioner. We hire and fire conductors based on their taste and how it resonates with the local public which they are to be serving” I think it is a bit more complicated than this. The difference between making use of intervallic relationships to create a musical narrative that can be experienced emotionally, and combining intervals for the sake of colour and nothing else, is not a matter of taste. Debussy used very many different ways of instrumental colouring, but always subjected to a tonal dynamic. The same one can say about Schoenberg until his crazy idea of twelve-tone music. It is a fundamental difference, like the difference between painting and photography, in spite of similarities…. In the 19th century, a discussion emerged among painters about what to do now photography was able to represent reality in such a quick and easy way. But photography liberated painting from the demand of merely representing ‘objective reality’, and we got impressionism, among other things, as a result.

      There is nothing against an art form purely based upon sound and its many different combinations. But it is a serious misunderstanding to claim it’s just another form of music, because that damages the innermost nature of art music, and gives teeth to the philistines who never hear music but only the sound it makes. With consequences for the renewal of the musical repertoire, education, and the funding of new music.

    • Overall we have pretty similar positions. But as JB points out, the problem lies in the false claim of lineage that has been used to supress all dissenting views. Schönberg’s invention is in fact not a continuation of the great western classical music tradition, but an entirely new art-form, legitimate in itself but of very limited appeal. Anyone who possesses ears would know that. Music is after all, how it sounds.

    • Sorry I must disagree. There’s no way you can call for example Boulez (isn’t he always our example), tone deaf. Serialism’s great appeal was the fact that it offered highly skilled and trained interpretive musicians, who had creative ambitions but no natural creative talent (i.e the ability to write a decent tune) a way forward. They should understand that you can’t have everything. Wagner by all reports was a dreadful pianist, and in Mein Leben he tells this hilarious story of being sacked from the 2nd violin role in an amateur quartet.

  • It is true also that a painting should look as much as possible like a person. Yet French museums are full of terrorist art (abstract), pre-terrorist art (cubist), and primordial-terrorist art (impressionistic).

        • But all art is mimetic: expressing subjective experience of the world in aesthetic, stylized ways. VIsual arts: how the world looks, as experienced; music: how the world feels, as experienced. So, music is only ‘abstract’ in the sense that it is not conceptual, it is not ‘about’ something as language can be ‘about’ something.

  • I can’t believe we’re still having this debate…
    What’s next? Jazz is morally dangerous?

    You don’t like atonal music, fine. Move on. Listen to what you like instead.That’s all. I can’t stand Italian operas. Do I feel I have to write about it constantly on slipped disc and try to prove something? Of course not: I have a life.

    You don’t like Boulez? Fine. Listen to something else.
    Isn’t that simple?!?

    • Perhaps if you don’t like the debate don’t comment on it. If you think this is just about likes and dislikes you are completely missing the point. You can’t believe we’re still having this debate, but historically there has been no debate. If you read some of the comments here you might enlighten yourself as to that situation. Someone like Jerome Ducros is a very brave person indeed, perhaps you should find out why. It is great that finally an alternative viewpoint is able to be expressed, even if we do still have a long way to go.

      • Lookie, having one nym was not enough to satisfy our resident-troll’s insatiable ego. Now he needs more “identities” so he can talk about himself in the third person.

    • But jazz IS morally dangerous. We found-out two months ago, when we had a party in the cellars when mr B was away to coach some ensemble in France, and we invited the well-know jazz pianist [redacted] whose contact data we found in mr B’s address cards box. We promised a big cheque so he came along, already half-drunk, so he played marvellously! The Grand moaned under his hands and we never had such a good time as when he began his Herbie Hancock improvisations. Gradually the night deteriorated a bit, with brandy and the like, and when I woke-up the next morning in the hay of the stables I knew something had gone off the rails. We needed the entire day to clean-up the mess and had great difficulties to get [redacted] out of the tree. We had to pay for the cheque out of our own salaries…

    • The problem, Jaypee, is that the avant garde atonalist, serialist community denied the right of musicians even to compose serious tonal music. Apparently they still do in academic circles.

  • Thanks so much for the link to the English version of that lecture, which I found both interesting and very puzzling. Maybe things are different here in the States than in France, but from my perspective it’s hilarious that people are still debating atonality. Here’s my comment from the youtube site:

    My God, we are living in 2016 and we are still debating atonality? No one argues any more about the relative merits of Brahms and Wagner and the battle between atonality and tonality has also been resolved some time ago. And yes, for a while during the 1960’s and 70’s there was a kind of dogma in certain academic circles that did make it difficult for students not interested in the language of Schoenberg, Webern, Boulez and Stockhausen. But that situation has been over for some time now. New tonal compositions are widely accepted, as are atonal compositions, which can now be heard everywhere, including some very popular movie music — and I see no signs of intimidation, except for individuals like our pompous lecturer, who assumes everyone hears the same way he does, and whose whole presentation is intended to both mock and intimidate.

    I’ll add that the lecturer demonstrates his profound ignorance of the current musical scene where all sorts of very challenging practices can be found, from electronic music to minimalism to ambient music to noise music to free jazz, aleatoric music, music of timbres, world music, etc., etc. By focusing on atonal music he dates himself rather amusingly, I must say.

    • “Maybe things are different here in the States than in France…” Talking about ‘ignorance’: of course things are different comparing the USA with Europe. Of course there is great diversity all around, apart from so-called establishment circles of new music in Germany, France, the Netherlands, and the UK (although in the UK the strings are looser). The difference in France, Holland and Germany is that ‘new music’ is funded by the state, so the field is still quite politicized, and discussions about modernism happen clandestinely, not in public space; and when such thing erupts in a public lecture like the Ducros talk in the College de France, politbureau attacks from establishment modernism immediately appear. The happy diversity in the USA will hopefully also arrive in Europe over time, but here, the debate is about politics.

      • The lecture came across to me primarily as an attack on a particular approach to making music, of which the lecturer does not approve. If his point was political that’s how he should have couched his lecture. If in fact the situation in France is such that only atonal music is considered acceptable, then that’s not only an injustice, it’s artistically indefensible. I studied with Stockhausen, Pousseur and Hiller and never felt any pressure to produce their kind of music. I loved atonal music but could never write in that style and that was no problem, I earned my Ph.D. nonetheless. If such freedom is restricted in France or elsewhere in Europe then that sort of dogmatic defensiveness should have been what the lecture was about. Instead he winds up promoting another sort of dogma.

        • Thank you, I find your comment particularly well reasoned and for me, thought provoking. Not that you need my endorsement I’m sure..

        • Also, if you are able could you please post this same comment on the YouTube page? I think it should be read by those watching the video. (I by the way am the troublemaker who posted the English language version).

        • I think you missed the point here. Where people like Stockhausen etc. put no pressure on students, it was because they knew they were in a strong established position. Even if music audiences loathed their stuff, they had their academics and completely false music history backing them up, and their groupies who did not need musical talent to play-act as modern composers, performers or enthusiasts. Around the postwar avantgarde, a whole cult developed, drenched in ideology. And it is this ideology which is still around, at least: in Europe. Ducros is not advocating any ideology, he is just correcting the misunderstanding that music without tonality can exist, he himself being a brilliant pianist, knwoing consciously and instinctively what music is. The correction of an ideological position is not in itself an ideology.

          • When I studied with Stockhausen (and Pousseur) in Cologne, I had the opportunity to attend a performance of his work Hymnen. The performance was sold out, with many enthusiastic young people present, and the work was received with prolonged applause. I don’t think you have any idea of how much interest there was in Stockhausen at that time and how successful he became. You seem to think such success was due to a conspiracy of some sort? In later years the quality of his work deteriorated, in my opinion, possibly due to the ingestion of too much LSD. But during the 50s, 60s and 70s he was a truly vital and inspiring force, who opened the doors to many exciting possibiities.

          • To Victor Grauer: Yes, I know of S’s early successes, but I believe that those young audiences did not react as music audiences expecting music, but were excited by the symbol of cultural renewal. In those days of student revolts (1968) and attacks upon institutions (‘l’Imagination au pouvoir!’), which were in themselves puerile and naive reactions to ‘authority’, fired-up by crazy philosophers like Foucault, Stockhausen’s work seemed to symbolize a new era of freedom and experiment. But where such early enthusiasms in former times led to the filtering-out process resulting in valuable contributions to the existing repertoire, interest in S’s work fizzled-out and his sonic art returned to the corner at the margins where it belongs. It was a historic phenomenon and not much more.

      • Leonard Bernstein’s Norton Lecture series, ‘The Unanswered Question’ covers much of the ground and makes many of the same points as Ducros. And was he ever slammed for it! (e.g. David Hamilton in High Fidelity).

    • Your last paragraph, you must listen more carefully. He dealt with the blurring of the lines and why he was specifically dealing with atonal music. But hey, thanks for the list of currently challenging and therefore acceptable musical styles. (Very sorry to hear that atonalism has dropped from the list). I’ll try in future to conform to one of them. Innovative and ‘challenging’ can just as likely be what you think it’s not…

  • “By focusing on atonal music he dates himself rather amusingly, I must say. ”

    Do you even get how condescending and yes ‘pompous’ that sounds? The real serious point in all of this is not about atonality. It’s about the right of creative individuals to not have their ideas prescribed for them by a bubble dwelling academic elite accountable only to themselves. Especially when you consider that yes in the case of atonality, said elite very clearly demonstrated that they get it utterly wrong.

    • That sums it up quite neatly. The conventional narrative of ‘modern music’ is: Wagner began to underminde tonality with Tristan, Strauss and Mahler blew some bigger holes in it, Schoenberg drew the inevitable consequences, Webern shed the classicist/romantic residus from atonal music, and after WW II the avantgarde took the idea further from Webern. But this line of thinking is wrong: Wagner wrote Meistersinger after Tristan, Parsifal includes diatonal and archaic elements, Strauss & Mahler always remained tonal, Schoenberg had problems with musical reality and was a quasi-academic, Webern’s work was an isolated one-off experiment, and postwar avantgarde created an entirely new art form. The narrative also excludes very different lines in France and Russia: Fauré, Debussy, Ravel; Rimsky, Stravinsky, Scriabine, Prokofiev. There is no progress in music, only cumulative extension of means.

      • The so called Tristan chord, which is really two chords, does indeed clearly lead somewhere though. Let’s not make the mistake of seeing it as anything other than the dark gateway to one of the most wonderful melodies ever composed, (In my opinion). That hardly makes it a likely harbinger of a musical world where melody itself no longer exists…

        • Right…. and when you analyse the first pages harmonically, you find that underneath there is a very strong tonal root progression, very different from what Liszt would have done.

      • As I once heard it, the history of music from the 19th century on could be explained in terms of two very different lines of influence. I’m sure that’s not the whole story, but it does make sense, at least up to a point. The first line is the “mainstream” line from Haydn to Mozart to Beethoven to Schubert, Brahms, Wagner, Mahler and from there to Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and some members of the post-serialist school. The second line begins with Berlioz and continues with the Russian Five, especially Mussorgsky, and on to Sibelius, Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky. With late Stravinsky, the two lines merge and even Webern showed signs of influence from Debussy and certainly also Stravinsky. Post-serialists such as Boulez and Berio belong to the second strain, despite the influence of serialism, while Stockhausen’s earlier serial works belong to the first. After that, all bets are off as music has gone in a hundred different directions, all perfectly fine as far as i’m concerned.

        There are of course many exceptions and problems with this bifurcated view of music history but I find it interesting nonetheless.

        • Yes, it may give some indication of direction. But defining such stylistic changes as lines of development always has the danger of focussing on certain traits and neglecting others, which distorts what really happened. It is like history writing which concentrates on things that changed, forgetting the things which remained the same, while also they define a period. It seems better to not think that music history is made-up of lines of development, but of individuals, reacting to the past and to each other, with lots of cross-references. And on the whole, one could say that the musical tradition spread like a delta during the 19th century and eventually split into hundreds of minor streams. (Lots of them seem to merely fizzle-out on a rocky coast.)

          • I agree in the sense that during the 50s and 60s particularly, the “Darmstadt” school advocated the notion that all historical roads lead to serialism and anything else was an aberration. This was in fact a form of musical “terrorism” that was intolerable, to be sure. But no one that I know of takes this view seriously any more. And if it’s still taken seriously by musical politician-dictators in France, Germany and elsewhere then I find that to be extremely unfortunate, to say the least.

  • A complete waste of time that can be put to better use by listening to whatever music comes one’s way and making up one’s own mind……..

    • Yes. But reality in music life for practitioners (performers and composers) is quite different from audiences, who are fed completely crazy ideas about ‘contemporary music’ and thus, have developed a strong antipathy towards new works – before they have heard anything. Until, say, WW II, new works were anticipated by audiences with great excitement: a premiere was a stimulating adventure. Nowadays, an unknown name on the program means reduced ticket sales. Modernism has seriousy damaged concert life.

      • I’ll agree with John that a premiere by literally any living composer is no longer much cause for excitement. But that has nothing to do with atonality or “modernism” (an out-of-date term for a long time now). There are as many composers writing mediocre tonal music as those writing mediocre atonal music. And in many cases we hear compositions with generous helpings of both.

        • True. But postwar modernism has opened the door to people claiming to be composers but who were nothing of the kind, enter amateurism, however dressed-up effectively. Prewar new music also had its mediocre works, of course, but in general that seems to have been accepted as normal and audiences were curious for the works that stood-out. That attitude has disappeared. Even if a ‘new Beethoven’ would appear, not in terms of style but of creative talent, there would not be any receptive framework to recognize him/her. We live now in a ‘postmodern’ world in which the central performance culture, being a museum culture, has no longer a context for new music. That situation has never arisen before.

  • Attali’s example with the “wrong notes” is perplexing, as it implies that the quality of music is based upon our ability to judge the accuracy of the performer. This seems to be a far more modern, Taylorist lens through which to view music than he’d care to admit. It’s more a matter of familiarity of language. Due to the hegemony of a small cadre of “canonized” composers, most casual music lovers are unfamiliar with musical languages that occupy spaces outside of traditional Western tonal harmony. This, to me, is a great shame.

    One advantage of the age of information is the fact that one can easily explore the margins of musical tradition, like Rebel’s stunning 1737 composition “Les Elemens,” which features one of the most stunning and dissonant “overtures” I’ve ever encountered. Similarly, I would argue that non-tonal music, much like Brahms or Bach, typical requires a fairly careful study to familiarize oneself with their particular language, which leads to great understanding and deep, fulfilling enjoyment. I honestly think that a good faith commitment to non-tonal music can produce similar responses. In my case, this happened with the music of Lutoslawski, who artfully continued the romanticism of Chopin and the incredibly color of Ravel in his works, while also providing fresh perspectives to large symphonic forms.

    To dismiss modernism as “musical terrorism” is irresponsible, and reveals a stunningly dogmatic approach to definitions of beauty and music (which is quite ironic, considering the dogmatic tendencies of high modernism in the 1950s and 1960s). Lastly, the charge that serialism is employed by composers without a creative or melodic impulse is frankly laughable. For me, serialism was a blunt attempt at finding ways to organize music outside of traditional hierarchies. And though its use is less regular and probably less necessary now, it has opened many new ways to write, think about, analyze, and listen to the music of the present and the past. It would be nice if we could retire Schoenberg and Boulez from their positions as musical boogeymen. If you’re looking for their replacements, I have a few suggestions…

    • “Due to the hegemony of a small cadre of “canonized” composers, most casual music lovers are unfamiliar with musical languages that occupy spaces outside of traditional Western tonal harmony. This, to me, is a great shame.” This is the argument of acculturation: hearing very much of one type of musical language, create expectation patterns which lead to rejection of other types of patterns which don’t fit in. But there are numerous classical canon lovers who equally love Indian music, jazz, Congo drumming and the repertoire of the Peruvian flute. And there are as many Peruvian flute fanatics who wholeheartedly detest Machaut, JS Bach and the two Nachtmusiken from Mahler VII. But the point is, that an ideological reading of music history – along a line of progressiveness – has been used as a measure of artistic quality of new music in the 20C, instead of letting quality gradually emerge in concert practice. Diversity is great, but historicist orthodoxy is poison. In the performance practice, programmers of orchestras, who have no personal taste for atonal sound art, often feel obliged to give it space on the programs out of a sense of historic responsibility, following the cues which were presented to them at university or conservatory or some other educational system. It happens that programmers emotionally prefer to have some type of music played which falls outside their learned grid, but rationally reject it because it would be ‘unconventional’. This means that audiences get quite a serving of music types which would otherwise not be performed. In other words; present-day diversity is, behind the screens of discretion, not really diverse.

      “For me, serialism was a blunt attempt at finding ways to organize music outside of traditional hierarchies.” These so-called ‘traditional hierarchies’ were not purely man-made constructs, but the underlying network of relationships as offered by the natural harmonic series. Your argument is just following Schoenberg’s arguments. “And though its use is less regular and probably less necessary now, it has opened many new ways to write, think about, analyze, and listen to the music of the present and the past.” It is difficult to disagree more with this than would be possible. In contrary, serial thinking and theory has closed the minds and hearts of both audiences, performers and would-be composers. Think of the brilliant serialist George Rochberg, who threw all his serialism out of the window when his teenage son died, which led to his rethinking music, and discovering that serialism is merely intellectual, and where it wanted to be expressive, it was unnecessary. He began to write tonal, oldfashioned music, one of the first pre-postmodernist composers in the USA. And as for serialist theory concerning the past: we have the crazy analyses of Alan Forte, who statistically sorted-out classical works, with outcomes which are entirely irrelevant to the music.

    • James makes some cogent and well-reasoned points that deserve to be confronted and argued intelligently rather than being smothered by the likes of John Borstlap’s boorish screed. (Borstlap: You want to be noticed. We GET IT already. Now get out of the way and let adults have a discussion.)

  • John Borstlap & David Osborne…… Who the hell are you guys & why should I or anyone care what you have to say?? This is a serious question. I’ve been wondering for years now. (Borstlap: I’ve tried listening to your own music & can’t take more than 3 minutes (when I steel myself). You have cojones like pumpkins to think you can critique anyone else’s work.) Y’all are one of the reasons I tend to stay away from Lebrecht’s blog. When I happen to wander in (like this time from a tweet) & (forgetting your lurking presence in the shadows) read the comments & find your names & predictable screeds, it’s like the scene in The Shining with Jack Nicholson’s face grinning through the hole he just chopped in the door: Heeeeeere’s Johnny! In ALL of your above commentary triggered by Lebrecht’s link to Attali, as always, you have NOTHING NEW TO SAY BUT YOU CONTINUE TO SAY IT AD NAUSEUM. Give us something original (& hopefully intelligent) or just go away. In the mean time, bye bye.

  • The great shame may be that, as the 20th century recedes further into our past and we begin to see it in perspective, the “avant garde,” atonalists, serialism, the Darmstadt school hegemony, etc. emerge as basically a sideshow obscuring the really great music written in that century by a legion of composers who never really abandoned tonality. Schoenberg, IRCAM, the whole William Glock orthodoxy, shrink to footnotes in musical history, impotent squeaks and white noise in comparison with Bax, Britten, RVW, Walton, much of Tippett, Nielsen, Sibelius, Martinu, Copland (pre serialist), Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Bartok and dozens more. Without Berg, an authentic genius, 12 tone music shrivels in creative importance; without Ligeti (Le Grande Macabre certainly), later “advanced” music is virtually insignificant and even laughable in its sheer futility–as most of the Proms premieres this year have proven. .

    • Exactly, and great list! I was trying to come up with some you’ve missed out, there’s bound to be someone but nobody springs to mind immediately… Oh yes hang on, mustn’t forget Barber…

      • Barber certainly. How about Roussel, Hindemith sometimes (e.g. Mathis der Maler), Janacek, the Ives of the second and third symphonies (and before he kept returning to earlier pieces and adding dissonances to maintain his advanced music “street cred”), Szymanowski, Poulenc, Honegger, and even Messiaen whose Turangalila (one of my favorite pieces, I admit) made Boulez “want to vomit”; particularly the 6th movement I think.

  • And on that note I think I will take another break. I swore never to take another backwards step in all of this debate, but it’s exhausting. I have great admiration for John Borstlap whose arguments are well informed, rational, always delivered courteously and most importantly highly original. I am absolutely disgusted at the personal attacks he has to endure regarding his work, usually from those who make no other argument. Sorry to repeat myself but our artform is either teetering on the edge of revolution or (as currently seems far more likely) oblivion. The fast changing world, the collapse of the recording industry, the seemingly bloody minded lack of capacity for meaningful change, the relentless, white knuckled grip of accademia… it’s all pointing in the one direction. So when the occasional, courageous individual stands up against the tide, show them some bloody respect even if you don’t agree. English pianist James Rhodes recently said and I quote “Classical music is full of arseholes”. Prove him wrong.

    • Yes, and my count was: two people wrote 51 out of 83 comments (an easy statistic using ‘find’), i.e., a little over 60 % of the ‘discussion’ was dominated by two people working as a tag team – and that doesn’t take into consideration the excessive length of their ‘comments’. I believe the term for this is ‘conversational narcissism’. But better in this case is ‘holding court’. Discussions with people like this, on or off line, are neither challenging nor informative — they’re just annoying. As long as they’re still around, I won’t be back to this blog for a long time, which I’m sure will be just fine with these two gentlemen.

      • I know, life is difficult, isn’t it? But this site is not for everybody, it is for classical music lovers, or people concerned about the art form. People who know a thing or two and share them, contribute to the site’s interesting information, and its discussion opportunities reveal that there exist people being attracted to classical music but not for what it is offering. The two ‘commentors’ who have nothing to contribute than ad hominum attacks and mud slinging, should return to their playground, or visit a site more to their liking. There is enough around! Don’t give up hope, and don’t forget to take your medicine in time.

        • I’ve seen my share of arrogant jerks, Borstlap, but I must say that you are in a special category.
          “Conversational narcissim” is a good -and polite- expression for what you do. I’ll call it more simply “trolling”.
          As I wrote before, I find amazing that on one hand you’re complaining about the impossibility for composers like you to be performed and yet, you’re not afraid to show the entire classical music world what a prick you are.
          Ever thought of that?

          • So says the spineless poster hiding behind the pseudonym. Look, if you think you can come on this forum, accuse someone else of trolling, deliver that level of personal abuse without making any serious contribution to the discussion and just stroll away whistling you have another thing coming. John Borstlap has a lifetime of experience of what it’s like not to share the failed, abysmal ideas of those who have brought this art-form to it’s knees over the course of the last century. He offers nothing abusive, nothing other than considered, rational and original argument and no, we are not personally acquainted and by no means agree on everything. Speaking of rational, we can dress it all up with whatever intellectual embellishments we like, but the kick off point for all this insanity, Schönberg’s dodecaphonic theory, has no more rational basis than the ideas of L Ron Hubbard. It’s just some crazy crap some guy made up.

          • …. Funny reaction, fully confirming my assessment.

            (And by the way, I have no reason to complain about performances… my stuff was just a bit ahead of its time.)

  • Never understood how a school of thought, something like 12 tone music or any movement with in the arts could be deemed as “more-than / less-than”. As mentioned it seems like an inevitable reaction to tonal music and of course the struggle with in German cultural identity especially after WW2. For any one to argue that reconsidering music in that way didn’t open the door to what we now consider western contemporary music / contemporary art music is baffling to me – music that *in my opinion* is richer for the lessons learned from conflicting schools of thought. I don’t understand how highlighting a movements importance takes away from it’s opposite as opposed to, in the end strengthening them both.

    That being said – I can’t really blame the 12 tone / serialists like Boulez for their dogmatic approach in promoting dodecaphonic music – it wouldn’t have been taken seriously if there’s wasn’t a real philosophic standard barer and to be honest it helped that he was that “militant”. We’re still dealing with that movement today – an expanded way of thinking about and organizing sound has lead us all down pathways that we would’ve never got to if western music wasn’t challenged like it was. The crime here is focusing a movement that has long been incorporated into the soup of culture and has born fruit – and saying these ingredients used 70 years ago were somehow corrupted. The word “terrorist” has a significant connotation with regards to speaking about an idea, particularly in the arts. It implies more of a dogmatic approach in the person characterizing than the art form itself.

    Just to speak to Brian’s comment above: It seems that we’re just speaking within the confines western classical music – and if that’s the case fair enough – but taking a larger view… The idea the Darmstadt avant guardists were a side show – absolutely disagree with that statement. If this cultural landscape has been conquered by anyone it’s Xenakis and what about Pierre Schaffer (I know he wasn’t an atonal composer but I’d argue his exploration was born from the same strand – vs a tonal model)? Every 12 year old kid has a copy of Ableton on their computer using looping and generative techniques that have been built upon their work. The first thing I think of when I think of tools / process of contemporary music is the computer and sampling. From modern art music to pop music.

    Sorry trying not to make this too long but one more point. The implication that tonal composers were somehow “right” or that the courageously rode out this “atonal fad” doesn’t feel like the right narrative. It reminds me of John Adams speaking to his own mythos about “liberating” tonality from Schoenburgian academia. We understand how oppressive landscape was like in music school in the 60’s and 70’s but the idea that tonality “saved” us reads a little 2 dimensional, and even precious to me. “And then… completely against the grain… we courageously made music everyone loved!” (Music that I myself love – but not exclusively!!!)

    • “……. an expanded way of thinking about and organizing sound has lead us all down pathways that we would’ve never got to if western music wasn’t challenged like it was.” Was deleting the entire dimension of the inner space of music, with its immense range of expression and communication, an expanding way of thinking? It can only be such if one considers art music merely a certain way of organising sound and nothing else. It is like saying that abstraction and concept art in the visual arts liberated the art form from depicting things, as if that had been a limitation. Or like claiming that preparing meals, decking the table, arranging knifes and forks and glasses and decorations, but without actual food, is liberating cooking from the limitations of food (and thus, of shopping).

      I am grateful for this comment, because it demonstrates beyond doubt that there are still people around, who are music lovers – or at least: people claiming an interest in the art form – who embraced all the 20C nonsense as serious stuff. It shows that discussions about new music are still much needed. It also clearly shows, that this thread, inclusing all its abberations, has some importance.


    • That has something to do with his ideas on music? Perhaps the worst, most fiscally irresponsible manager of personal finances in world history in this, or for that matter any other field was Richard Wagner. (Pardon the hyperbole, but you get the point?).

      • David Osborne: Don’t try to be clever. Attali is known as a ‘French economist and scholar’. He’s not a musician. That’s not a charge you could lay at Wagner, even if he was a rotten pianist and a rotten manager of his finances. Attali’s number is up, and there’s no good reason why anyone should pay attention to his puerile views on music, especially on modernism.

        • And George King, I say you are attempting to shoot the messenger by attacking the credibility of someone’s opinion you disagree with, rather than the idea itself. I have no interest in this person, other than that I happen to have some sympathy for what he’s saying in this particular instance.

  • Pseuds corner. Anyone remember this from ‘Private Eye’? Or as Hamlet says…”words, words…”

    • Wait! Are you saying I am NOT in the comments to ‘Music and Musicians’ at Private Eye??? All this time I thought that Lunchtime O’Boulez was just writing under a different pseudonym. This is all REAL???!

      • Haven’t you got films to direct? I’m only wasting time here because Avid Media have stuffed up my Sibelius and I can’t work- Now that’s one kind of hell you don’t want to know about.

        • The glimmer of a sense of humor at last. Right now I’m between oceans. Re Avid Mudia, my condolences. You might try a pencil & ms paper.

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