:: Article

Is the Atonal Hexed?

By Joe Kennedy.

david stubbs

David Stubbs, Fear of Music: Why People Get Rothko But Don’t Get Stockhausen, Zer0 Books, 2009.

Not long ago, a friend of mine was telling me about an afternoon he spent watching the contemporary classical composer Pierre Boulez conduct his own work. Despite his longstanding preference for the aesthetically challenging, he was disappointed by the performance. For some time, he struggled to explain precisely what he had found disquieting about it. Eventually, he looked up from his lunch and articulated the problem as best he could. ‘There was no…window,’ he said. ‘There just wasn’t a way of looking into it.’

That someone equipped with an advanced vocabulary for approaching the abrasive, anxiety-inducing complexities of modernist music should be able to express their frustration towards a concert only by falling back on a metaphor of obstructed sight is intriguingly consonant with the thesis of David Stubbs’s short book on the comparative fortunes of the sonic and the visual in terms of how experimental works have been received since the early twentieth century. According to Stubbs, modernist painting and sculpture have been embraced by the public to the extent that their initially traumatic force has been almost entirely absorbed. Modernist music, however, has remained marginal, resistant to convenient frameworks of ‘understanding’, and subject to popular derision. Although Picasso’s radical break from figurative painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, occurred almost simultaneously with Schoenberg’s tentative shifts away from traditional tonality, attitudes towards innovation in the visual and the musical have subsequently diverged so markedly that, as queues for a new exhibition at the Tate Modern snaked out of the building and along the South Bank, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s death in 2007 was attended by a fusillade of media cynicism posing as good-natured satire. Quips comparing Stockhausen’s output to random clusters of unpleasant sound presented themselves as justifiably unimpressed retorts to elitism whilst furtively opening a linguistic ‘window’ into his unforgiving sound-worlds. With the handle of tonality wrenched off, it seems that, for many, mirth is the solitary space in which the experience of experimental music may be comfortably discussed.

Since the first instantiations of modernism, its detractors have dismissed it on the grounds that its variously non-figurative, dissonant, and paratactic ‘strategies’ do nothing more than lend spurious legitimacy to an apparently inexorable decline in craftsmanship. At best, the experimental is framed as a baffling diversion; at worst, it is pilloried as high-minded laziness buttressing itself with theoretical cant. Modernist music, where the relationship between theory and practice has been particularly intimate – Theodor Adorno, notable for his celebration of Schoenberg, harboured serious aspirations towards becoming a composer – is perhaps uniquely vulnerable to this kind of attack. Early on in Fear of Music, Stubbs sympathetically announces his intention ‘to highlight the overwhelmingly rational and coherent reasons why a number of people have chose to make, and to listen to music which to uninitiated ears sounds cacophonous [and] atonal’. Of course, this raises questions about how one becomes ‘initiated’ and how far this process is related to the forming of a cultural elite, but the initial rejection of the belief that modernism is nothing more than the charlatanry of the contingent is gratifying in the context of a culture which seems increasingly to be shunning difficulty.

Two of the ways in which this apparently cacophonous music has been rationalised stand out in Stubbs’s account. Schoenberg’s decision that the work of his sometime mentor Gustav Mahler could not be developed upon without making some kind of break from tonality is the first of these, and its inclusion in the narrative is significant in that it allows the reader to distinguish between the desire of the Second Viennese School to replenish Western music via a fundamental break with tradition from the more nihilistically-inclined experiments with noise made by the Dadaists and Futurists. Already, we’re being shown how the history of noise and atonality cannot be understood as monolithic: while the Dadaists were known to play Schoenberg pieces at their gatherings, he saw them ‘as faddists and saw no crossover between his own work which only sought to “destroy” the great classical tradition in order to save it, and the anarchistic antics of the Zurich hell raisers.’ The second rationalisation is one with which many have become familiar through a trickling-down of Adorno’s 1938 claim that ‘every pleasure which emancipates itself from the exchange-value takes on subversive features’. Stubbs glosses this idea by noting that modernist music’s harshness made it ‘useless, in the most sublimely useful sense of that word.’ The Nazis could mobilise the eye-catching simplicity of modernist graphic art for their cause, but atonality possessed no populist application; likewise, it would take an implausible upheaval in the common understanding of what is considered ‘listenable’ for Iannis Xenakis to soundtrack a Renault advertisement.

For the most part, experimental music has required some form of dilution in order to meet with public approval. As Paul Morley demonstrated in his strangely esoteric 2003 work Words and Music, Luigi Russolo’s Futurist noise machines are genetic precursors of Kylie Minogue. However, Morley’s collapsing of twentieth century musical expression into a plane on which anything can be celebrated in the same terms is a move Stubbs avoids in favour of maintaining the alterity of the radically experimental. That there is a ‘fear of music’ is, on one level, encouraging, as it ensures a cultural space – effectively evacuated by visual art in the post-Warhol age of the Saatchi collection – in which exchange-value is meaningless. Stubbs doesn’t seek to completely extinguish the listener’s anxiety when confronted with the improvisations of AMM or the intricate structures of Ornette Coleman but to show how these experiments make sense within the cultural landscape of modernity: while this isn’t a demand for a reappraisal of Stockhausen in which his work is, pace the subtitle, suddenly ‘got’, Fear of Music serves as an effectve rebuttal of the idea that music in the modernist tradition is nothing but self-indulgent cacophony.


Joe Kennedy is an academic and poet.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, July 14th, 2010.