Contemporary Atonal Classical Music

This article is part of the Psychology section.

 *******  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 the modern composer –  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 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 instructive – combination of feeling and thinking. The intellectual thinking is 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, 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 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.

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 normal symphony orchestra for modern works requires every percussion instrument imaginable, two harps, celeste, piano etc and we string players need not only to play the most extraordinarily difficult (often completely impossible) passages, but also put our mutes off and on hundreds of times, and hit and scrape the instrument in every imaginable way. And all this to no emotional effect!

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. The female brain is more “feeling” (right brain) and less “thinking” (left brain) than the male brain. It also has much better connections between the two areas. 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!!

What happened in the 20th century to produce such a strange combination of extreme intellectuality mixed with the most primal, infantile, extreme, violent and ugly emotions ? This toxic cocktail has left us not just this musical legacy but also two world wars, the Holocaust, and countless other examples of primitive violence on an industrial scale. Is this “music” a response to the horrors of the 20th century or is it just one more of those horrors?

Could it be that composers of this type of music, during their formative adolescent crises, denied themselves a more healthy outlet for their intense emotionality and sensuality? That, like catholic priests, they chose extreme intellectuality as a mechanism to subordinate and control the huge subversive subterranean forces they couldn’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 if we consider it as a rigidly controlled neurotic outpouring (flood) of repressed adolescent violence and sexuality.

Have you seen the ultra-violent psychological horror film “The Shining” by Stanley Kubrick? Penderecki’s music provides the absolutely perfect, terrifying soundtrack.