This is the final article in “The Postmodern Temper,” a series which examined the contemporary state of various artistic fields. Publication is made possible with support from the “New Works” Program of the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities, a state agency whose funds are recommended by the governor and the legislature.

THERE is much talk of Post-Modernism in the arts these days, but the tendency has not yet established itself as a significant movement in serious music. At the same time, Post-Modern music has started to show some signs of influence, and I hope it will not be mistaken for a replacement of the essential twentieth-century musical tradition.

The approach most prominently associated with that tradition is Serialism, or “twelve-tone” music, the mode of composition introduced by Arnold Schoenberg in the 1920s as a more rigorous form of the Atonality that had developed in the first decade of this century. Listeners have long regarded Serialism as a modern tendency-modern in the sense of being advanced and problematic. But to their confusion they read now in the daily press that there is such a thing as “the Northeastern academic Serial establishment.” It would seem from this that Serialism is no longer the “new” music they had thought, but rather some staid pursuit better suited to the classroom than the concert hall. Since in this century the term “academic” has generally been assumed to mean composers who persisted in pursuing the well-worn paths of nineteenth-century Romanticism, which posed no challenge to either composer or  listener, it is paradoxical to find the label now attached to composers who do pose a challenge, whose work is less accessible to average listeners than most music they hear. The Serialists are not called academic simply because academe is now a haven for most of them. By throwing in such epithets as “austere” and “arid,” critics leave no doubt that they are giving their impression of the music, as well as pointing up Serialism’s reputation for being cerebral and systematic.

According to the New York Times reviewer, John Rockwell, Serialism is “uptown” music. “Downtown” (New York) is where the action is-the Soho lofts and galleries. You do not find the avatars of “the Northeastern Serial establishment” there. The sentiment downtown is more likely to be that after more than half a century of pulling its weight, Schoenberg’s legacy should be declared dead. While the denizens of Soho may deplore the fact that Serialism dominates the college curriculum, they no doubt find it natural, since Serialism is supposed to be moribund in the concert hall, that it should take the place once occupied by Romanticism as an academic discipline.

The fragmentation and rhythmic asymmetries, the absence of catchy tunes and clear tone centers, the relative novelty of this putative “academic” music offer none of the comforting familiarity of yesterday’s Romantic academics -composers like Daniel Gregory Mason or Howard Hanson. For this kind of reassurance, curiously, we must turn to the much-touted scions of a new faith, the so-called Post-Romanticists David Del Tredici and George Rochberg.

But then, we might ask, why should these latter-day Romanticists represent a new movement when actually they are not very different from yesterday’s academics or from those Romanticists who have been around for decades as part of a well-established line of moderates-composers like William Schuman, David Diamond, and Ned Rorem? At least one explanation for this is that Del Tredici and Rochberg are reformed Serialists, and this seems to give them a cachet that sets them apart. It has even contributed to their being explicitly identified on occasion as Post-Modernists, though the designation is rarely used in music.


POST-MODERNISM is what I assume John Rockwell had in mind when he declared that “Rochberg eagerly embraced the suddenly fashionable notion that modernism had failed.” In the same vein, another New York Times reviewer, Bernard Holland, writes of “Rochberg’s return from the farthest outposts of serial music to the well-settled world of traditional harmony.” Thus, Serialism may be said to be the “modern” that these composers are leaving behind. What Post-Modern art critics say about Abstract Expressionism sounds much like what music critics have been saying for decades about Serialism. Both are considered formalist practices that have been referred to as modern but, so the argument goes, are really no longer modern in the sense of “contemporary.”

Central to Post-Modern thinking in general is the goal of creating art that is easily accessible to the public – a goal so obsessively pursued by Post-Modernism that one would think it were a substantive aesthetic virtue. In the choice of a familiar idiom, the Post-Romanticists have precisely such a goal in mind. For a familiar language they could have had recourse to any period. Why then choose Romanticism? Why not Baroque – for example, Vivaldi, who enjoys a vogue these days possibly because his steady beat renders him a distant cousin to rock? Obviously because this is not the music that dominates programs of today’s large orchestra, opera, or celebrity series. The large orchestra and modern piano are products of the nineteenth century, which consequently supplies the bulk of their repertory. Emulating this repertory will get a composer further than emulating any other music; it is a passport to the big music world.


NOT long ago there was another revival in music revolving around the towering eminence of Igor  Stravinsky. His aims and accomplishments were very different from what the Post-Romanticists are after. Neo-Classicism emerged at about the same time as Serialism in the 1920s and ended in the 1950s when Stravinsky became a Serialist. It attempted to reinstate the Classical structural principles undermined by Romanticism, but it drew upon many sources from the Renaissance to Tchaikowsky. Its procedure was a kind of collage in which the composer’s personality was never occluded. The new was the manner or style, the old was the raw material, so to speak; and the two were superimposed one upon the other. The Post-Romantic composer has no qualms about appropriating(an expression from Post-Modern art criticism) someone else’s style and not revealing himself for minutes on end -which may be viewed as a milder case of the notorious Post-Modern artist Sherrie Levine displaying her reproductions of Walker Evans’s photographs, signed by her as her own work. By contrast, Stravinsky’s method was allusion, commentary on the styles compiled or, as he himself once remarked, a “criticism” of them.

From the purist position of the Serialists, who scorned any gesture to entice the public, Stravinsky’s somewhat more accessible idiom as he moved into Neo-Classicism was seen as compromising the daring innovations of his dissonant, then still-controversial Rite of Spring. But the critics were also antagonistic to Stravinsky’s new direction, largely, I believe, because of his public avowals that he was concerned with structure and because of his imprudent statements downplaying the role of feeling. There were angry cries in the press that it was unnatural to return to the past, that Stravinsky’s music had “no integrity of style.” It is highly ironic that now critics see nothing wrong in a return to the past aslongasthedestinationisRomanticism. Neo-Classicism was the object of a vendetta whose influence in disenchanting the public is still felt. There should be no impediment to the public’s according  Stravinsky’s Neo-Classic works the same hospitality it accords his “Russian” works, or to a warm reception of the American disciples of the Neo-Classic Stravinsky, Harold Shapero and Irving Fine, for example.

The nostalgic devotion of these composers to the past ought to present no problem to listeners ready to embrace the revival in Post-Romantic music. Post-Modernists, however, would not approve of the tension that arises in Neo-Classic music as a result of the way in which the present interacts with the  past. Post-Modern literary critics find this tension unacceptable in T.S. Eliot, and the Neo-Classic  Stravinsky is much like the poet. The Post-Modern attitude towards tension of this kind may be  detected in the pains to which the writer of liner notes for a Del Tredici recording goes to tell us that the composer’s “new tonal writing has been achieved with an enlivening spontaneity, rather than as the result of an agonized ‘rapprochment with the past.'” As the literary critic Denis Donoghue puts it, for Post-Modernism “the past is not a terrible burden to sustain but abox of images to be resorted to for
pleasure.”


AS “proof’that Serialism has failed, critics point to the fact that the public, after having had decades in which to judge, has turned in a verdict against it. This charge ignores some important factors. To start with, it was never a
claim that Serialism would have a wide
audience. In 1933 the musicologist Eric
Blom reported, “Schoenberg was
frankly content with heading a school
of specialists.” Schoenberg was apt to
be compared with Joyce as someone
outside of time, like the sixteenth-
century Gesualdo, whose music still
sounds complex. But unlike Gesualdo,
Schoenberg turned out to be more than fringe figure. His influence in Europe
around 1930, until Nazism brought it
to an end, was strong among young
composers. In the 1950s Serialism rose
again and entered a vigorous new stage,
especially in the United States. At that
time our leading American composer,
Aaron Copland, responded to its
influence and Stravinsky found in it a
way out of his Neo-Classicism, while
Milton Babbitt of a younger generation
carried Serialist theory into rarefied
speculative regions that Schoenberg
would never have anticipated. Babbitt remains a prestigious Serial composer
and is also the guru of a young
following that is legion


ALTHOUGH Serialism is not encountered much at major concerts, its proliferation at the concerts of the composers’ collaboratives (off-off Broadway groups) that have sprung up i recent years makes it hard to believe
that the movement has run its course.
If Serialism’s detractors mean that it
has not become big-time box office,
they should be reminded that there are
other audiences, not at all negligible,
besides the big ones. I was amazed to
find the New York Times critic
emeritus Harold Schonberg declaring
that perhaps it was the music’s fault
and not necessarily the public’s that
Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, a pre-
Serial atonal classic, “had not found a
wide public.” For those of us who listen
to twentieth-century music, this piece
is as much a staple as Beethoven’s Fifth
is for the Lincoln Center audience.
The implication of the Times critic
emeritus that only the large audience
really matters fails to take into account
the changes that mass communication has wrought in the conditions for
artistic success. It is today’s audience
for contemporary music that is more
like Mozart’s educated audience than
the symphony audience now is. Today’s
symphony audience, content with the
“fifty pieces” that Virgil Thomson tells
us form the core of its programs, is a
mass audience that tends to merge with
the audience for popular music. The
background music for TV commercials
is drawn from standard classical con-
cert repertory about as often as from
rock. Programs in which serious and opular music are combined become
more and more common-a Post-
Modern trend, perhaps, since a Post-
Modern tenet is the elimination of the
cleavage between elite and popular art


BEFORE this century people heard mostly the music of their day and earlier music only rarely. Under  those conditions there was less likely to be a time lag between the appearance of a work
and its acceptance. With so much expo-
sure, audiences then had the oppor-
tunity to absorb what was currently
happening. Today even informed listen-
ers are trying to sort out the tendencies
that have prevailed since about 1900.
The whole progress from Atonality
in the first decade of the century to the
most recent Serialism is too often
viewed as a unitary affair. But there are
various strands, and if it is difficult to
distinguish them it is because we are in
the midst of an evolutionary process.
Were we at the end of an evolution we
would recognize the strands and be
able to see them in perspective. It
would be clearer not only that Serial-
ism has developed in at least two con-
trasting directions but that some music regarded as Serial is not Serial at all,
though it may share certain devices and
idiomatic turns of phrase with typical
Serial compositions. The end of a
period would also have brought more
historical perspective. It might be more
evident that the revitalization of Serial-
ism in the 1950s brought changes. In
that period, the method was liberated
from its identity as a product of the intel-
lectual environment of Wittgenstein
and Freud within which it arose. What
had started out as a Viennese tradition,
upheld by Schoenberg and his disciples,
Alan Berg and Anton Webern, was now
an international mode of composition,
with Dallapiccola in Italy, Pierre
Boulez in France, and in America the
efflorescence of what is known as
“total organization,” which broadened
thedefinitionofSerialismfromsimply
twelve-tone music.

Milton Babbitt, who formulated the
systematic basis of total organization,
radically altered the nature of Serialist
theory and composition. The method
involves a mapping of the operations of organizing the twelve tones onto
other parameters: duration, timbre,
loudness. (Babbitt’s choice of twelve
instruments, i.e. twelve timbres for a
work of 1948 is symptomatic.) This
type of Serialism requires considerable
advance planning, so-called precompo-
sition. That so much is stipulated at the
drawing-board suggests to some that
the result must be dry. But suppose this
were so. Do we complain when cham-
pagne is “sec”? Actually, for some
listeners Babbitt even has a swing-
Donald Martino too, who can be sur-
prisingly expressive within the con-
straints of the system.


IN tandem with total organization’s push towards greater rigor there has been one in the opposite direction, and
critics are apt to single out the freedom
of this Serial procedure for special
praise. For example: “Far from suc-
cumbing to the lures of dodecaphonic
orthodoxy,” the Grove Dictionary of
Music and Musicians observes, Leon
Kirchner “shapes his intrinsically dra-
matic compositions with the greatest of
freedom.” Kirchner’s strongly intuitive
impulse puts one in mind of Berg, the
most accessible of the Viennese trium-
virate. George Perle, himself author of
the seminal study Serial Composition
and Atonality, started out as a
doctrinaire twelve-tone composer but
is now another good example of the
freer approach, characterizing his own
music since the late 1960s as ” ‘freely’
or ‘intuitively’ conceived, combining various serial procedures with melod-
ically generated tone centers, intervallic
cells, symmetrical formations, etc.”
At times even an initiate may not be
sure, on hearing a new Serial work,
whether it is strict or free -or whether
it is Serial at all. Serialism is not an
idiom but a constructive principle. It
employs twentieth century common
practice as its language-a constant
turnover of all twelve tones, asym-
metric rhythm, fragmentation, and
often wide spaces between consecutive
pitches. Absence of recognizable tunes
(an analogue of people and things in
figurative painting) suggests abstrac-
tion. This is the language of those
works in the category that is neither
strictly nor freely Serial. The highly dis-
tinguished music of Elliott Carter falls
into this category. Carter sounds to
many listeners just as “modern” as
almost any Serialist; and they might
mistake him for one were he not so
articulate in expounding his learned
organizational methods that make it
plain he is not. Very likely he would compose differently had Serialism
never existed. But according to Virgil
Thomson, “Carter is not far-out in
either theory or practice. . . .Carter is
a conservative composer in the sense
that his aim is to say modern things to
the classically educated.


CONTRARY to any claims that we might be at the end of an era and the start of a new (e.g. Post-Modern) one, it seems to me we are witnessing composers consolidating the gains of one of the most radical shifts in music history-the shift away from tonality. For anything comparable we must go
back to 1600, when monody emerged
to take the place of polyphony. It
required a century and a half before the
implications of that revolution began
to be realized in the time of Haydn and
Mozart.

Not only is there a musical parallel;
there is an intellectual one as well. The
revolution in 1600 was kindled by a
band of savants and noblemen within
the Florentine academies, whose lucu-
brations over the invention of opera on
the model of Greek drama had the
same inscrutability that some people
find in the deliberations on Serialism
in the universities today or in the
periodical of its exegetes, Perspectives
of New Music. Monteverdi was the
central figure then (roughly what
Schoenberg is to us). By 1650, after
Monteverdi’s death, the scene was
quiet. It was a period of waiting for ome significant development of the
experiments of 1600. Several fine
composers kept monody alive, while
others clung to the old polyphony,
ultimately producing a giant who was
so out of style that he was barely
noticed until the nineteenth century.
(You guessed it: J.S. Bach.)


THE point is that, after Monteverdi, composers nurtured the new monody for over a century until it was ready to flower in the wondrous manifestations of the Classical era. This is how we should be nurturing the trends that some disdainfully call “modernist.” Those devoted to Serialism and other
twentieth-century techniques make up
a flourishing group in their own baili-
wick, where they have established a
strongcreativeenvironment-precisely
what is needed for important new work
to develop. New ideas cannot grow in
a void. Even composers who seek more
accessible language would do well to
fashion it out of the extant tradition
instead of wiping the slate clean and,
in the manner of some Post-
Romanticists, proceeding as if this
century had never existed.
Those who are not content with
using the present to consolidate our
gains would probably have been
impatient with the lull around 1700.
For them, music must advance loudly
and naughtily, upsetting one dogma
after another at the rate it did from the
years just before World War I to the
Wall Street crash. (That period wit-
nessed Atonality, The Rite of Spring,
Italian Futurism, Dadaism, the French
“Six,” Neo-Classicism, etc.) After 1930
writings on music were haunted by
evocations of that bad-boy era, some
rejoicing that at last things were back
to normal, others lamenting the
absence of the sensational, until John
Cage came along in the 1940s to turn
things so completely upside down that
he had to admit (to my relief) that he
was really talking about “non-music.


THOUGH Cage was active some time before the rubric Post-Modern gained currency, the Post-Modernists now claim him. It seems to be his use of astiche that accounts for this. (Denis
Donoghue: “Cage’s music is as hospitable to street noises as to silence and Mozart.”) In many ways his contribution to twentieth-century culture is more significant for literature and theatre than for music. Yet its conceptual nature, in the sense of conceptual art (what we read or are told about a painting is more important than what we see), prepares us in some sense for the Post-Modern aspect of Post-Romanticism. An offshoot of the Cage school known as Fluxus is quite explicit in conveying the role of this conceptual aspect. Fluxus was actually designated Post-Modern and is described by one Peter Frank (in Breaking the Sound Barrier, edited by Gregory Battcock) as being dedicated to an off-beat art-and-music work which,

while demonstrably descended from the visual and musical traditions, depends neither on visual nor on musical standards. It does not even have to be viewed or performed; to know it is to experience it, and often just to know of it is to experience it

The aesthetic boggles my mind (doubtless it is supposed to) since I regard all art as presentative and  music as presenting auditory relations to an attentive, unanaesthetized listener
within a given period of time. There is
a touch of pedantry in art works that
depend for their effect on what we are
told about them. Take Cage’s Silence,
for example. How do you know a piece
is in progress if you have not been
instructed that such is the case?
As I have said, musicians rarely use
the expression “Post-Modern,” but on
the basis of a small random poll, I
found that they guessed the term must
refer to the Cage variety of music, since
they considered it reasonable that what
lies beyond Modernism should be more
modern. On the other hand, they were
surprised to hear that an ostensible
conservative like Del Tredici might be
considered a Post-Modernist. They
have not been enlightened by sophis-
ticated Post-Modern notions such as
the distinguished architectural critic
Charles Jencks’s “dual coding”-
namely, “the mixture of meanings,
popular and elite, which could be read
by different groups of people, on different levels,” as he says in The
Language of Post-Modern Architec-
ture. Music, being deployed in time,
presents problems when the two levels
are not conveyed simultaneously. I find
myself seduced by the loveliness of Del
Tredici’s evening-long Child Alice when
I start to listen. But his sensitive
musicianship is not enough to prevent
the lingering pastiche from becoming
tiresome as I wait for the few and far-
between moments where there is any
intervention of the composer’s person-
ality. Rochberg has tried segregating the new and old at times into separate
movements. This minimizes the
chances for their interaction, but it
could be an advantage (if I may sug-
gest) were we free to leave the hall
during the movements that did not
address our level of listening.


ANOTHER Post-Romanticist, Frederic Rzewski, who is better known in Europe than in the United States, has been somewhat more successful in coping with the two levels. In The People United will never be Defeated, the variation form (for piano) provides the conditions for proximity of the
levels and the Chilean tune affords a
sure means of unifying them. But even
so, the forceful musicianship and bril-
liantkeyboardwritingdonotcompen-
sate for a feeling that he is portioning
out his favors-now a variation for the
elite, now one for the workers. Pro-
letarian composers should heed Marc
Blitzstein, author-composer of The
Cradle Will Rock, who warned in 1936
that the mass audience

will have to learn; the hope , that some
sounder and more consistent method of
training will be found than the makeshift
one which has operated on present
audiences.

(The same sentiment inspired that gem of a song by Bertolt Brecht and Hanns Eisler, “In Praise of Learning.”) Post-Modernists would also do well to heed Blitzstein’s warning, since their concern with aiming at the lowest common denominator may not be the most propitious way to reach the public.
Choice of idiom is the composer’s
affair. It is his privilege, if he desires,
to raid the nineteenth century for his
language and impose upon himself the
near-impossible task of achieving
freshness in a style so used up. We in
turn have the privilege of deciding that
we have no need for such music-there
being more of its type in storage than
anyone can absorb in a lifetime. But the
public relations machine is sure to dun
us with testimonials of the composer’s
noble intentions in taking such a
course, of his being prompted by a
disaffection with current musical
techniques. And if I have any
understanding of Post-Modernism,
conceptual factors such as the
composer’s noble intentions, though
not directly embodied in the sensory
relations-i.e., in what is heard-are
supposed to play a part in the aesthetic
experience. This is why I say that Cage
and his firmament prepare us for the
Post-Romanticists- provided, of
course, that we are willing to subscribe
to this type of conceptual listening


LET us turn once again to the Post-Modernist spokesman Charles J.ncks for corroboration of what this experience might be in music:

It is virtually impossible to perceive the
building without knowing about the
notorious “Sydney Opera House Case,” the
firing of the architect, the cost, and so
forth. So these local, specific meanings also
become symbolized in the “extravagant”
shells.

Mapping this mode of appreciation onto Child Alice, I contemplate Del Tredici’s reform or his disarming admission that he slipped into tonality because it seemed “appropriate” to the
Lewis Carroll. Or perhaps there is a
message in the music’s obsessiveness

Del Tredici being even more repetitious
than almost any Romanticist as a
caricature of one of the least endearing
aspects of Romanticism.
I cannot help feeling I am back in
the classroom fighting the tyranny of
the musicologists who insist that we
cannot appreciate a work without
knowing the influences upon it, its
date, the origin of its form, the temper
of the times, and details of the
composer’s life and loves. Providing
things to think about may relieve the
boredom of listeners who cannot keep
their minds on the heard entity; but if
anything exudes the stale odor of the
academy, it is surely this kind of
information-gathering.

There is certain irony in our having started out by questioning the use of the epithet “academic” for the Serialists only to find that the description may be more appropriate for Post-Romanticism. To be sure, Post-Romanticism may have been inspired by a Post-Modern reaction against what is thought to be academic about Serialism and its related approaches-namely, against the difficulty of the music and the effort it demands of the listener. But if Jencks’s prescription for viewing a building is to be taken as a model for Post-Modern listening, such listening-to the degree that it is conceptual-will be so different in essence from what we have traditionally assumed listening to be that I can only hope it will be recognized as constituting a new branch of the arts almost as different from music as dance is. If such were to be the case, we would have no fear of Post-Modernism being next in line to Modernism within the mainstream. Change need not be linear. There is every reason to be confident that Post-Modernism will not replace the grand old twentieth-century music tradition which is still alive and healthy, and which, if properly nurtured, may yet have some surprises in store for us.