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Saturday, January 23, 2016

Whatever Happened To Outrageous?

Philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead held that the European philosophical tradition consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. I hold that musical modernism consists of a series of footnotes to Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire (1912) and Igor Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps (1913). These ground-breaking eruptions convinced many of my generation to become composers, and they remain the benchmark by which subsequent forays into musical radicalism have been assessed (none too favourably at times). One might well ask whether the two great innovators themselves survived the notoriety of their most celebrated creations.

That the debut of these works was tumultuous has long been enshrined in legend, especially in the case of Le Sacre. But have we grasped the true significance of the opening-night disquiet? There are two defining issues here: the extraordinary historical moment that could produce such a revolution, and the preternatural rightness of the music itself.

Virginia Woolf speaks to the first issue evocatively:

On or about December 1910, human character changed. I am not saying that one went out, as one might into a garden, and there saw that a rose had flowered, or that a hen had laid an egg. The change was not sudden and definite like that. But a change there was, nevertheless; and, since one must be arbitrary, let us date it about the year 1910.

As to the the second, Stravinsky called Pierrot, “The solar plexus as well as the mind of early twentieth-century music." For his own part he reflected that, "Very little immediate tradition lies behind Le Sacre – and no theory. I had only my ear to help me; I heard and I wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which Le Sacre passed."

Those initial rioting audiences knew instinctively that their 19th-century worldview was being demolished before their very ears, and it was being done by music that was simply outrageous. It was also the stuff of genius (hence the vehemence of the reaction), the effect of which was to point human consciousness in the direction of a new perception of reality. By virtue of Stravinsky's radicalization of rhythm and dissonance and Schoenberg's radicalization of dissonance and atonality, music had suddenly been wrenched from its traditional role as a contrivance for "singing and dancing." Thus the first-night listeners were reacting to the fact that music was undergoing a process of de-aestheticization and depersonalization. It was being abstracted as a truth-telling energy that sought the shortest route to the psyche, unmediated by codified aesthetic norms or conventional narrative structures. This was music intended to put people in their truth, in a radically non-subjective way. As Stravinsky put it, “There are simply no regions for soul-searching in Le sacre du printemps.” To the criticism of blasphemy in the Giraud poems, Schoenberg responded, "If they were musical, not a single one would give a damn about the words. Instead, they would go away whistling the tunes." I like to think of Stravinsky and Schoenberg from this period as shamans, engaged in an archaic revival of primal musical archetypes: Stravinsky as Siberian shaman, for whom drumming is not "percussion music," but a trance-induced portal to the upper and lower worlds; Schoenberg as desert anchorite, whose ecstatic if tormented glossolalia finds voice in sprechstimme by way of the fractured shadow world of Pierrot.

In the wake of a hundred years of musical "footnoting," where is the New Outrageous to be found? Pierrot and Le Sacre were seismic landmarks in the millennium-long journey of Western music, but what they opened up has by now been processed and internalized. There is a new shift in consciousness trying to be born, which would see human character change yet again, and perhaps more momentously than in 1910.

We await the next revolution and its new music.

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