Contemporary Atonal Classical Music

 *******  people don’t really like music, they just like the sound it makes  ***********

 *****   music is “organised” sounds  *****

These two quotes are a very good starting point for this discussion about atonal, arrhythmic, non-melodic, and other deliberately ugly music with which our last hundred years abounds and to which this page is dedicated. The first quote is by Thomas Beecham, famous conductor of the mid 1900’s, while the second is by the composer Edgar Varese (1883 – 1965).

Music is a language of sounds ………….. but does that necessarily mean that all sounds are music ? Can even the ugliest sounds be converted into music simply by being “organised”? A beautiful sound IS music. But, after exceeding a certain (undefined) level of ugliness, a potentially musical sound could be – should be – considered not to be music anymore. If we subsequently banish harmony, melody and rhythm as well as all beautiful sounds, then the “music” that results loses all resemblance to a language and becomes just an unintelligible sequence of unpleasant noises and curious sonic special-effects.

Beecham’s quote – which could easily be the mantra of so many modern classical composers –  goes right to the root of the contemporary music dilemma: some modern composers only SEE their music and no longer hear the (horrible) sounds it makes! In fact, these music scores are often better as works of visual art than of music: their highly elaborate visual forms and structures are both more beautiful and more intelligible graphically (in the score) than aurally.

Most contemporary classical music is a very strange – and revealing – combination of feeling and thinking. The intellectual thinking is extremely complex, highly sophisticated and beautifully elaborate, with careful attention to the minutest detail (as are so many of these composers: softly-spoken, well dressed, polite, elegant etc.). But the sounds, and the emotions they represent, are quite the opposite. Screams of agony, tortured groans, exhausted tremblings, dying gasps, hysterical frenzies, bipolar outbursts with frequent alternations between ffff’s and pppp’s, catatonic numbness, endless autistic repetitions, mechanical scratchings and scrapings, violent shocks: these are the sounds of psychological and physical disintegration, of bodily evacuations, of a Dante’s inferno-type hospital, lunatic asylum or factory, of depersonalized industrial processes, destruction on an industrial-scale, of terror, horror and of insanity. A large part of this squeaks-and-squawks repertoire is more deserving of a psychiatric analysis of our society, rather than of a musical analysis, which is why this article is included in the Psychology section.

These extreme, exaggerated, ugly and utterly primal emotions (sounds) are not only presented with great intellectual elegance, but also require every available financial, human and technical resource. The symphony orchestra for modern works often requires every percussion instrument imaginable, two harps, celeste, piano etc, and we players must not only play the most extraordinarily difficult (often completely impossible) passages and decipher the most unimaginably complex rhythms, but also put our mutes off and on hundreds of times and hit and scrape the instrument in every conceivable way. All this in a desperate (and usually unsuccessful) attempt to create some sort of emotional effect! Never was the expression “scraping the bottom of the barrel” more appropriate. Perhaps Karlheinz Stockhausen’s opera cycle “Licht” (Light) represents the culmination of this megalomaniac tendency: his 29 hours of music divided up into seven operas, require the use of every imaginable musical resource including even a string quartet playing from a helicopter flying above the concert venue ……. From the opposite end of the bipolar spectrum, at the minimalist, catatonic extreme, is John Cage’s “4’33” – exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence, which can be “played” by any instrument or instrumental combination ……..

If modern classical music reflects the world in any meaningful way, then the world has truly gone crazy! In this autistic sound world, there is no beauty, no warmth, no tenderness, no children and no love. What happened in the 20th century to produce in “classical” music such a strange combination of extreme intellectuality mixed with the most primal, infantile, extreme, violent and ugly sounds (emotions)? Is this toxic cocktail a reaction to the horrors of the 20th century or is it just one more of those horrors? Certainly, in the case of Penderecki’s soundtrack to the film “The Shining” by Stanley Kubrick and also his composition “Hiroshima” we can be in no doubt that the deliberate ugliness and dissonance of Penderecki’s music is required and justified by the context: his music providing the absolutely perfect portrayal of the horror and terror of the events that are being depicted.

It is perhaps understandable that most of this ugly “music” started after (and during) the First World War (1914-1918) which, with its 20 million dead and more than 20 million injured undoubtedly must have constituted a cataclysmic trauma and “loss of innocence” after which nothing could be the same again. The “Dadaist” movement in the arts also started around this time and its “anti-art” “anti-beauty”, “anti-meaning” “emotional anarchy” characteristics coincide perfectly with the dominant characteristics of much of the classical music produced from this moment on. It is not surprising that the 12-tone (dodecaphonic) system of serial music also began at almost the identical moment in history.


But why then did 20th century “popular music” not suffer the same fate? Perhaps this was because “popular music” is normally intended to be relaxing, liberating of tension, and there was a huge need for this as a therapy to overcome (or at least forget) the horrors of two world wars, the Holocaust, the permanent terrifying threat of mutual assured nuclear destruction after 1945 and countless other examples of trauma on an industrial scale. After WWI the world needed Big Band much more than it needed Alban Berg (1885-1935) or even Brahms, and after WWII this need for relaxation and escape only became greater. Jazz, country, singer/songwriters and the crooners (gentle singers) in general, all became hugely popular and evolved into pop and rock, helped by the arrival of microphones and amplification. After years of uninterrupted trauma and horror, is it really surprising that the soul-soothing humanity and intimacy of a closely-miked crooner (Ella Fitzgerald, Karen Carpenter, Frank Sinatra etc) might be more therapeutic than the magnificent displays of power and virtuosity of an operatic diva ?  While classical music composition basically shrivelled up and died in the 20th century with a few notable exceptions, all of whom were born before WWI (Elgar 18857-1934, Debussy 1862-1918, Richard Strauss 1864-1949, Rachmaninoff 1873-1943, Ravel 1875-1937, Prokofiev 1891-1953, Shostakovitch 1906-1975), popular music flowered into a multi-coloured, kaleidoscopic garden of creativity. It would seem that all the imagination (melody), beauty (harmony), vitality (rhythm) and “meaning” (lyrics) that disappeared from “classical” music was transferred over to the popular music genres.


Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951) and his students Alban Berg (1885-1935) and Anton Webern (1883-1945) were, like Elgar, Richard Strauss, Debussy, Ravel, Prokofiev, Shostakovitch and Rachmaninoff, also all born before WWI, yet their music could hardly be more different. The curious paradox of their “dodecaphonic” (or “serial”) music, which originated more or less during and after WWI, is that it combines the excruciating ugliness of almost constant dissonance with the use of beautiful “Viennese” sound quality. It would seem that the composers of the 2nd Viennese school believed that the quality of the sounds could override the horror of their harmonies. We could make a metaphor out of this: that of a cruel, sadistic criminal performing his horrific actions with impeccable manners and while elegantly dressed, rather like in a Quentin Tarantino film. In this sense, Schönberg’s expression “emancipation of dissonance” is very similar to Tarantino’s “normalisation of violence”. In fact, this combination of beautiful sounds with horrifying dissonances could perhaps also be taken as a metaphor for WWI with its brutal invasion of Europe, Russia and the Balkans – fully supported by Schönberg – being undertaken by the culturally sophisticated Germanic and Austro-Hungarian empires. Schoenberg himself drew comparisons between Germany’s assault on France and his own assault on “decadent bourgeois artistic values” (among which we can assume harmony and melody were his despised targets). In August 1914, while denouncing the music of Bizet, Stravinsky, and Ravel, he wrote: “Now comes the reckoning! Now we will throw these mediocre kitsch-mongers into slavery, and teach them to venerate the German spirit and to worship the German God”.


Nowadays, in the 21st century, we are a long way from the memory of the two world wars and the holocaust so why are “classical” conservatory-trained composers still continuing with this strange combination of extreme intellectuality mixed with the most primal, infantile, extreme, violent and ugly sounds (emotions)? Could it be that composers of this type of music, during their formative adolescent years, denied themselves a more healthy outlet for their intense emotionality and sensuality? That they, like catholic priests, choose extreme intellectuality as a mechanism to subordinate and control the huge subversive subterranean forces (emotions) they can’t cope with? Unfortunately, repressing an emotion only makes it grow, as so many catholic priests have discovered. Perhaps this type of music can be best understood nowadays if we consider it as a rigidly controlled neurotic outpouring (flood) of repressed adolescent violence and sexuality. The female brain is not only more “feeling” (right brain) and less “thinking” (left brain) than the male brain but also has much better connections between these two areas. All this is not surprising after millions of years of evolution and adaptation to different social roles. Perhaps that explains why the vast majority of “modern classical” composers are male!!

See also: Sound And Thinking-Feeling