2014-04-01

Some Thoughts On Modernism

Recently I have been immersing myself in musical Modernism. I use the term "Modernism" loosely since I understand that it carries different connotations among different sets of people and different branches of art and thought. So let the reader understand that when I say Modernism, I'm referring to atonal music, serial composition, 12-tone music, and the off-shoots thereof. "Modernism" serves as my catch-all phrase for those areas of music that challenge the listener to conceive of sound differently, as expressed primarily by 20th Century composers like Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky.



Modernism in orchestral composing was bound to happen at some point. The adventurous work of the late Romantic-era composers seemingly leaves no stone upended in harmony. Wagner, as a particularly extreme example, had to invent new musical instruments and new kinds of singing in order for his work to be performed. That composers had begun imagining music that wasn't yet physically possible to perform fully underscores the fact that the late Romanticists had fully tapped the well of their own creativity.

Future composers, then, had a choice: continue the late Romantic period for another hundred years, or create a new era. Keep in mind that the Baroque period, for example, lasted about 125 years and that Romanticism had already been around for about a century. That, combined with the sweeping changes that were occurring politically, scientifically, and artistically throughout the world virtually ensured that Modernism would happen exactly when it happened.

Imagine that you are a potential Modernist composer, but that Modernism does not yet exist. You've heard the shockingly elaborate compositions of Wagner and the delicious rhythmic and harmonic exploration of Tchaikovsky and Chopin. Where do you choose to take music?

It is a challenging question for people my age, because we grew up at a time when the conventional wisdom proclaimed that there will never be a better group of musicians than The Beatles. It has been repeated, over and over again, that everything important about "modern music" was said by The Beatles and Nirvana. Perhaps some would include a few other pop bands. Perhaps the jazzers would expand on the palette to include some jazz favorites. But there it rests, and if orchestral music is included at all, it stops at the year 1900. The few "modern" composers who make it into the discussion are folks like John Williams or Andrew Lloyd Webber; excellent composers indeed, but compositionally innovative they are not.

And yet, somehow, some way, the kids found their way to Modernism. They did this by following an unlikely path: heavy metal. If we wanted to be academic about it, we could probably trace a line from Frank Zappa to King Crimson, then to Fates Warning, then to Tool, then to Meshuggah, and finally to Animals As Leaders.


There's our lineage. And there is no denying the strong Modernist undercurrents in modern "djent" music. 

In the end, the connection is a logical one. Frank Zappa described Stravinski's music as "angry" and "loud," two words that can easily be applied to heavy metal of all forms. Modernism always had a sort of dark aesthetic to it, too. And considering metal's evolution away from blues-based rock architecture and toward the more traditionality of "neoclassical" guitar compositions, it shouldn't be too surprising that metal would follow a similar trajectory to orchestral music.

And now here we are. Djent bands are wandering ever-closer to atonalism. Already the vocalists often eschew toned notes entirely. The instrumentation tends to have a tonal center, but that's often as far as it goes. The music focuses mostly on its aesthetic expression through driving rhythms and intricate riffs, rather than through harmonic development. The really adventurous ones, however, like Animals As Leaders, let harmonic ideas weave in and out of the thematic elements.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that exploring Schoenberg and Varese has given me a better appreciation for the likes of Periphery and Tesseract. That might seem unlikely to those who believe that the two branches of music are worlds apart, but in fact it's not unlikely at all. It's natural.

I hope to have some additional, more coherent thoughts as I continue exploring.