Why DO we hate modern classical music, Alex Ross?

Alex Ross’s blog is the first  in my list of links over there on the right. That’s because Alex Ross is a god. I never miss his writing in the New Yorker. I’m in the middle of reading his wonderful book The Rest is Noise. I can’t wait to start his next one, Listen To This.

But even Bach nods. And Alex (you’ll never read this so I’ll presume on our slender web relationship and call you by your given name) you’ve taken a nap on this one.

You published a piece in the British paper, The Guardian, on 29 November called “Why do we hate modern classical music?” In it you ask why works of 20th Century graphic art — painting by such artists as Pablo Picasso and Robert Rauschenberg, for example — have become accepted by the general art viewer, but 20th Century music — work by  composers from Arnold Schoenberg to John Cage — is still considered difficult and is not welcomed even by many sophisticated listeners (including, I can add, some of the musicians who perform it).

This is a question I’ve asked often over the years, but, unlike you, Mr. Ross, I’ve come up with the right answer.

You come close. You cite the “sociological explanation” that concert goers are stuck in front of the performance, unlike viewers of art. But then you argue against this by saying, so are patrons of the dance and modern dance has had no problem being accepted by audiences.

Here’s the thing you miss. We can close our eyes, but not our ears. People can turn away from ballet as easily as they do from Picasso or Warhol, but you can’t really block the sound of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. (And covering your ears during John Cage’s 4’33” might be seen as collaborating.)

I don’t mean literally that the challenged balletomane will turn away and that will make all the difference. I’m talking about a fundamental difference between art that enters through the eye and art that enters through the ear. When you venture into a museum or gallery and come upon a urinal, a Brillo box, or a block of Robert Rauschenberg red, you might feel challenged, but the sight does not assault the senses the way a hundred or so bars of music without a tonal center can.

It’s the uninterruptible nature of  music, I believe, that accounts for its difficulty and  explains why we “hate modern classical music.” Or, well, why some of us do.

What do you think, Mr. Ross?

Alex Ross, obviously a prince, was so good as to reply:

I don’t think not being able to close our ears quite explains it, though. As I note, audiences are well accustomed to a high level of dissonance in the movie theater. If the ears were especially vulnerable to non-tonal sounds and liable to be injured by them, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and a thousand other movies would have been colossal failures….

I think the sound is more piercing than the image, and is certainly a factor in the complex situation of modern music….


About charles thiesen

I live in Dorchester, MA with five housemates and a cat named Chat Cousteau. I write novels and ride a recumbent bike, among other things.
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4 Responses to Why DO we hate modern classical music, Alex Ross?

  1. joannehuspek says:

    I love classical music, but I admit, it’s an acquired taste. If I can love it, and I was raised by parents who 1. mom loved 40s and 50s ballads and 2. dad who loved Johnny Cash and Hee Haw, anyone can grow to love it.

  2. mincandeza says:

    I actually kind of hate Alex Ross for his fundamentally unromantic take on music in general, so I’m not exactly unbiased in this, but I think, for you and Ross, the supposed societal hatred of the heavyweight avant-garde composers and their works are sort of a macguffin when trying to answer Ross’s question. I actually think that, in much the same way Picasso and Warhol and all that have become generally appreciated in many quarters, 20th century classical music has as well, in the following way:

    Very few people have seen all of Picasso’s work, or even seen a Picasso in person, but nonetheless Picasso, Klimt, etc are all used to sell coffee cups, posters, calendars, beer cozies, whatever. In much the same way, Ligeti, Bartok etc, and especially the composition techniques and moods pursued in music across much of, and particularly the later, 20th century, are used to sell movies and TV and now games: They provide the soundtrack. Just like a Kandinsky calendar that changes every month that you only look at it passing in the home of someone who doesn’t regularly visit art museums, a creepy sounding tone row or a chromatic string part in a big hollywood movie helps sell the product, but isn’t really the product in-and-of-itself. You get a little of the salient effect, but you’re not exactly sitting through Wozzeck. That doesn’t mean that it (the musical material of much of modern cinema) doesn’t spring directly from the musical advances of the 20th century euro tradition. And people do seem to like it, at least when it’s accompanied by giant spiders or Daniel Day Lewis beating Paul Dano to death, or whatever.

    • ravishd says:

      mincandeza, that’s something I hadn’t thought of and it’s really interesting. I think you’re right. Thanks so much for contributing to the discussion here.

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