MODERN ART MUSIC

 

(c. 1900-present)

 

 

 

General Background ON the MODERN ERA

 

 

The Modern Era has been a period of massive technological and socio-political change, sparked largely by the increasingly rapid transit of people and information (via automobiles, airplanes, spacecraft and telephone, radio, television, satellite transmission, the Internet, etc.). There have been more wars and outbreaks of social violence in the past century than in all previous ages combined, including two major World Wars that dramatically affected all aspects of life in Europe and America between 1914-18 (WWI) and 1939-45 (WWII). This era has seen the gradual decline of the worldwide British Commonwealth (which once included India, Hong Kong and other parts of the Far East, much of Africa, Canada, and the British Isles), the establishment of the United States as the major force of the Free World, and the rise and fall of Soviet Communism. The ever-changing delicate balance of economic and political power is now--more than ever--of urgent global significance.

 

 

Important Musical Considerations in the Modern Art Music Era

 

The Modern Era has been a period of turbulent change in musical style and taste. Many modern "art-music" composers have explored untraditional sounds and have based their music on rhythm, texture and tone color, instead of the more traditional aspects of melody and harmony. During first half of the 20th century, the two World Wars led to political isolation that impeded the sharing of musical ideas; however, since c. 1950, there has been a multi-national fusion of styles, driven largely by many great European composers, performers, scholars and teachers who sought political asylum in the US.

Modern technological advances (especially mass media) have caused rapid changes in musical style, and expanded our knowledge of music from other cultures, further accelerating changes in musical taste while providing a wider range of music to listeners, composers and performers. Today, new musical ideas and styles can be introduced almost instantly, allowing large-scale trends to change in months or years, instead of decades. Computer-based technologies, synthesized sounds, and new recording techniques continually add new dimensions to today's music. The commercial music industry, which began in the 1930s, is now the dominant musical force across the world, leaving today's art-musicians scrambling to preserve an audience.

 

 

Important Developments in Modern Art Music

 

The Breakdown of TONALITY

As a result of the gradual disintegration of tonality (key-centered music), various non-traditional modern approaches to harmony have emerged:

 

- EXTENDED TONALITY (Pan-Diatonicism)
The free use of tonal harmonic/melodic sounds, without their usual functional reference to a central key.

 

- POLYTONALITY
Two or more tonal centers functioning at the same time within a musical composition.

 

- ATONALITY
Music with NO TONAL CENTER

 

- SERIALISM
The process of putting pitches into a numerically-ordered SERIES that becomes the basis for all melodic/harmonic material in an atonal work.

 

- MULTI-SERIALISM (and TOTAL SERIALISM)
An approach in which several (or all) aspects of an atonal work are serialistically controlled (rhythm, dynamics, melody, harmony, articulation, instrumentation, etc.).

 

Experimentation with NEW SOUNDS

Modern composers have taken a closer look at rhythm, instrumentation, tone color, form, performance techniques (etc.). Harmony and melody are no longer the sole basis of musical structure. Increased use of percussion, and use of standard instruments in non-standard ways were important developments in this era.

 

The Influence of MULTI-NATIONAL STYLES

Since 1945, the sharing of musical styles and approaches from around the world has accelerated dramatically, due to technological advances affecting mass media and transportation.

 

The Influence of POPULAR MUSIC

Jazz, Blues and other popular styles and technologies have also affected modern art music.

 

 

Selected Composers of Modern Art Music

 

In the modern era, national "schools" of compositional thought gave way to more individual approaches:

 

Early-20th century Composers (active before 1950)

 

France

 

Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
The leader of the French Impressionist movement, known for his piano works, orchestral "tone poems," songs and an opera.

 

 

Austria (The "2nd Viennese School")

 

Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
One of the most significant figures in Western art music. He promoted the revolutionary concepts of atonality, serialism, expressionism and Sprechstimme.

 

 

Russia

 

Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
a Russian-born composer, conductor, pianist recognized as the most influential composer of 20th century "art music." He is known for his ballets, piano concertos, symphonic music and operas.

 

United States

 

Henry COWELL (1887-1965)
An American composer known for his highly-experimental piano works.

 

Aaron COPLAND (1900-90)
A nationalistic-oriented conservative American composer of the mid-20th century. He is recognized for his ballets, song, choral music and orchestral works.

 

 

Late-20th century (active since 1950)

 

United States

 

Samuel BARBER (1910-81)
an American composer of the mid-20th century; a leading figure in the neo-Romantic movement; famous for his operas, songs, piano and orchestral works.

 

John CAGE (1912-92)
an American composer/philosopher of the modern experimental (avant garde) movement. He developed "chance music" and explored non-traditional sounds.

 

Milton BABBITT (1916-2011)
an American composer of the late 20th century & mathematics professor at Princeton University; noted for his synthesized, totally-serialized music.

 

George CRUMB (born 1929)
this music professor at Princeton is one of the leading figures of the modern avant garde movement in the 1960s and 70s.

 

Philip GLASS (born 1937)
one of the leading American composers of the late 20th century minimalist movement.

 

Steve REICH (born 1936)
one of the leading American composers of the late 20th century minimalist movement.

 

Ellen Taaffe ZWILICH (born 1939)
a conservative late 20th century American composer, known primarily for exploring modern sounds through neo-Classic approaches to orchestral and chamber music.

 

 

Hungary

 

Gyorgy LIGETI (1923-2006)
a Hungarian composer (Austrian nationalized) who is one of the leading figures in the "avant garde" movement of the late 20th century. He is known for his use of new vocal/instrumental techniques and tone colors (see WebBook chapter on "Choral Music").

 

Poland

 

Krzystof penderecki (born 1933)
One of the greatest musical innovators of the late 20th century, and the leading Polish composer of the modern era.

 

 

Early approaches to modern art music

Impressionism

 

The first modern style to emerge was Impressionism—developed in the late 1890s by the French composer Claude DEBUSSY as a rejection of excessive Wagnerian German Romanticism. Modeled after the impressionistic art movement, musical impressionism is based on understatement, blurred effects, and the creative use of color.

 

EXAMPLE of FRENCH IMPRESSIONISM

DEBUSSY: Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun (1894)

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Expressionism

 

In answer to French Impressionism, Austrian-German composers developed Expressionism around the turn of the 1900s, as a blatant expansion of Wagnerian Romanticism. Expressionism is particularly associated with three composers working in Vienna in the early 20th century: Arnold SCHOENBERG and his two students Anton von WEBERN and Alban BERG. These three are collectively known as the 2nd Viennese School of composers. (The first "schoolÓ of composers to center in Vienna was comprised of HAYDN, MOZART, and BEETHOVEN in the Classic Era.)

The music of the 2nd Viennese School was designed to shock listeners, with dissonant, intensely colorful, often horrific music based on graphically morbid texts or ideas. The primary reason that this music sounds so harsh is that it is atonal (has no "home" key, and it rejects traditional tonal melodies and harmonies). An important example of musical expressionism is SCHOENBERG's orchestrally-accompanied song-cycle Pierrot lunaire (1912), which features Sprechstimme—an eerie half-sung, half-spoken singing style.

 

EXAMPLE of AUSTRIAN-GERMAN EXPRESSIONISM

 SCHOENBERG: "Mondestrunken" from Pierrot lunaire (1912)

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Serialism

 

By the mid-1920s, SCHOENBERG and WEBERN were promoting a compositional technique called 12-tone serialism, in which the twelve chromatic pitches available on the modern piano are arranged into an ordered "row" that is strictly maintained throughout a work. The "row" can be used forward, backward, or in "mirror image" in either direction:

 

 

EXAMPLE of 12-tone SERIALISM

SCHOENBERG: A Survivor from Warsaw (1946)
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Focus on Rhythm and Tone Color

 

Igor STRAVINSKY, a Russian-born composer who worked in both Paris and the US, was one of the first composers to shift the primary focus of his musical style to rhythm and tone color. His landmark ballet, The Rite of Spring, explores new instrumental colors/combinations, and features harsh, irregular rhythmic accents and ostinatos (short, repeated musical figures) that create massive percussive effects with the entire orchestra.

 

EXAMPLE of a Modern BALLET (Rhythm & Tone Color)

STRAVINSKY: The Rite of Spring (1913)

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Right-click here to watch a YouTube video of an excerpt from near the start of the ballet
This clip is a recreation of the original performance, scenery, and choreography.

 

 

"AVANT GARDE" approaches to modern art music

 

The French term avant-garde ("at the forefront") is used to describe highly experimental approaches "on the cutting edge" of modern music.

 

Non-Traditional Uses of Instruments and Voices

 

One of the most spectacular modern musical innovations has been the concept of using traditional instruments in unusual ways. This avant-garde approach was first implemented by the innovative American composer, Henry COWELL in The Banshee (1925). In this modern programmatic character piece for grand piano, one performer holds down the sustain pedal, while another performer creates a myriad of unusual sounds by directly manipulating the strings of the instrument.

In the 1940s, COWELL's student, John CAGE turned the musical world on its ear—initially through his compositions for prepared piano. In such works, CAGE strategically inserted objects like erasers, screws and nails between the strings of the piano to make it sound like an ensemble of completely different instruments.

 

EXAMPLES of NON-TRADITIONAL USES of the PIANO

COWELL: The Banshee (1925)
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CAGE: The Perilous Night (1944)
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In the 1970s and 80s, the Polish composer Krzystof PENDERECKI, the Hungarian composer Gyorgy LIGETI, and the American composer George CRUMB used orchestral string instruments and/or human voices to create unusual sounds in their collage-like works.

 

EXAMPLES of NON-TRADITIONAL USES of STRING INSTRUMENTS

PENDERECKI: Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960)
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CRUMB: Black Angels (1970)
(Right-click to see the Music Guide for this work)


Right-click here to watch a YouTube video of Movement 7 ("Black Angels!!")

Right-click here to watch a YouTube video of Movement 10 ("God Music")

 

Chance Music

Music composed at random or based on an improvised selection of material is called chance music (in other words, music in which aspects of composition or performance are left up to chance). The major proponent of this compositional approach was the American composer John CAGE. The best-known example of chance music is CAGE's 4'33"—a multi-movement work in which the performer makes no sound at all (the real "sound" of the piece is created by the audience itself, and the noise of the concert hall). CAGE has forced musicians to ponder "What IS a musical work?"—Is it what the composer has written on the page . . . is it the way the performer decides to interpret it? . . . or, is it what the listener HEARS and UNDERSTANDS? Think about it: The same performance heard by two different people can be perceived in two completely different ways. Is silence music? Is there ever really silence? Doesn't every sound heard in the concert hall (noise and music alike) affect the way the piece is perceived by the listener?

 

EXAMPLE of CHANCE MUSIC

CAGE: 4'33" (1952)
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Right-click here to watch a YouTube video of this work
(explained, then performed by the composer)

 

 

Electronic Music

Among the first to experiment with synthesized sounds was the American composer Edgard VARESE. In his Poeme electronique (1958), he created entirely new sounds by using a reel-to-reel tape recorder and electronic filters to combine and modify "natural sounds" (an avant-garde approach called musique concrte).

 

EXAMPLE of Tape-manipulated ELECTRONIC MUSIC

VARESE: Poeme electronique (1958)
(Right-click to see the Music Guide for this work
)

Right-click here to watch a YouTube video of this work
(the artwork on this YouTube clip has nothing to do with the piece)


Right-click here to watch a YouTube video describing this work

 

Computer-based Composition and Performance

In the 1960s and 70s, with computers offering new possibilities for tone colors and complete structural control, mathematician-composers such as the Milton BABBITT (a mathematics professor at Princeton) wrote totally-serialized avant-garde works, in which all aspects (rhythm, dynamics, melody, harmony, articulation, instrumentation, etc.) are controlled by a numerical series. Total-serial works usually require such precise details that they can only be performed accurately by machines.

 

EXAMPLE of TOTAL SERIALISM in ELECTRONIC MUSIC

BABBITT: Ensembles for Synthesizer (1962-4)
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Right-click here to watch a YouTube video of this work
(the artwork on this YouTube clip has nothing to do with the piece)

 

Minimalism

Minimalism—a more recent avant-garde approach first developed in the late 1960s—is based on repetition and gradual manipulation of simple rhythms and/or harmonies, and short melodic patterns, producing an hypnotic effect. Two important American composers who use this compositional process are Steve REICH, Philip GLASS. (Note: Although minimalistic works are based on small amounts of material, such works can be quite lengthy).

 

EXAMPLES of MINIMALISM

GLASS: Einstein on the Beach (1976)
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REICH: Violin Phase (1979)
(Right-click to see the Music Guide for this work)


Right-click here to watch a YouTube video of this work
(this is of a live performance with 4 violins!)

 

 

 

CONSERVATIVE approaches to modern art music

 

Some modern composers have chosen to write in the traditional genres of opera, ballet, symphony, string quartet, sonata and concerto. Even so, most of these works are conceived in untraditional ways, with freer formal designs, unconventional harmonies and melodies, etc.

 

American Nationalism

In the early 20th century, American nationalism was on the rise, as reflected in the Romanticized band marches of John Phillips SOUSA.

In the 1930s, a new generation of US composers set out to establish a national symphonic arts tradition; thus, Aaron COPLAND and others wrote symphonies, concertos and ballets, based on familiar American melodies, images and themes.

 

EXAMPLE of a conservative MODERN BALLET

COPLAND: Appalachian Spring (1944)
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Neo-Classicism (the "New Classicism")

Between 1920 and 1940, many composers began to incorporate traditional Classic/Baroque forms and gestures into their modern-sounding works. The Russian composers Igor STRAVINSKY and Sergei PROKOFIEV were among the first to "update the past" in the style known as neo-Classicism.

COPLAND's "Simple Gifts" from Appalachian Spring is neo-classic in its incorporation of a "classic" Theme and Variations form rendered by classic-sounding gestures in the orchestra. Ellen Taaffe ZWILICH's Concerto Grosso 1985 is neo-Classic in its use of traditional ritornello form and quotation music in which material from an earlier Baroque composition by Handel is quoted extensively.

 

EXAMPLES of NEO-CLASSICISM

 COPLAND: Appalachian Spring (1944)
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ZWILICH: Concerto Grosso 1985
(Right-click to see the Music Guide for this work)


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Neo-Romanticism (the "New Romanticism)

In the 1950s, many composers reacted against harsh atonality and experimentation by returning to a more traditionally expressive compositional approach called neo-Romanticism. This movement has been primarily spearheaded by American composers such as Samuel BARBER, whose Adagio for Strings is a landmark of the style.

 

EXAMPLE of NEO-ROMANTICISM

BARBER: Adagio for Strings (1936)
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The Influence of Popular Music Styles on Modern Art Music

Although most modern art-music composers have intentionally isolated themselves from the popular and commercial influences, several leading European art-music composers including Stravinsky, Milhaud, Debussy and Ravel incorporated aspects of jazz into some of their works. More notably, several nationalistic American composers including William Grant STILL, George GERSHWIN and Leonard BERNSTEIN, made conscious attempts to bridge the gap between art music and popular/jazz styles: STILL's Afro-American Symphony (1931) features Afro-American spirituals, ragtime, and blues styles. GERSHWIN's opera, Porgy and Bess (1934-5), uses blues-based idioms to depict the suffering of American Blacks during the Great Depression. BERNSTEIN's West Side Story (1957)—is a "musical" (short for "musical theatre" work) that adapts Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet into a bitter rivalry between two New York City gangs.

 

EXAMPLES of JAZZ/BLUES INFLUENCED MODERN ART MUSIC


 BERNSTEIN: West Side Story (1957)
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SUMMARY OF MAIN MODERN ART MUSIC TERMS, COMPOSERS AND CONCEPTS