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A Guide to the Isms

If the 20th century in music was anything--so goes the master narrative--it was wildly diverse, even chaotic. One gets the impression that many musicologists wish this were not so, and long for the good old days when one or two dominant styles got most of the attention, and made musical developments easier to trace. Still, ever on the lookout for ways to categorize diverse phenomena, musicologists have done their job on this century as well. Only a decade since its passing, the 20th century has already been packed away in little boxes in the musicological shoe closet, right along with its predecessors, even if it takes a few extra boxes this time.

If you are a member of John Q. Public, you may be under the impression that the 20th century was a particularly unfriendly time for music lovers, that composers heedlessly disregarded the things that once made music enjoyable, went their own way, making noises that were particularly odiferous. That part of the story is partly true, but, like most stereotypical ideas, it is far from fully accurate. If you think you don't like some musical styles from the 20th century, you are bound to like others--the menu is broad and varied. The following is just a quick startup guide following some of those musicological shoe boxes in which all of those musical developments are often placed:


Right out of the gate, the 20th century looked promising. Not necessarily for composers, who were getting a little tired of writing the same chords all the time, and trying to get out from the shadow of Wagner. However, the public didn't mind them using the same musical vocabulary and communicating the same musical ideas--even today the 19th century is the most widely represented period in the concert hall. But composers often tend to be innovators, and are less content than their listeners to keep to the same thing.  An overarching system of 'tonality' had been developed by the end of the 16th century, and throughout the 19th century, composers kept increasing its vocabulary, stretching its syntax, and seeing what else it could do. By century's end, many were wondering whether it could hold up anymore; whether it had said everything it had left to say. Was there a new system? Or could the old one, like a musical Gladbag, just keep getting stretched and stretched forever?

Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel came up with a solution that has held up well in the estimation of lots of average music lovers. It is a system that subtly challenges the very heart of the old harmonic system, but doesn't throw it out completely.

Much of what gives their music its unique sound is a phenomenon called the whole-tone scale. What the whole-tone scale is missing is the traditional 5th note of the scale--the 'dominant'--which had, in fact, been dominating musical thinking for the last millennium. With it, you could build an entire musical essay around of the idea of sailing to the dominant and back, and little, moment-to-moment musical progressions like this one were the bread and butter of music. Composers as far back as Beethoven had been challenging this idea, but never abandoned it completely. Now, armed with a scale which left that pivotal note out, these Frenchmen were able to make their music go anywhere with complete freedom. It is as if they had discovered zero gravity in music.

Not that their music sounds anti-tonality; this is why they are so popular today. In practice, Debussy and Ravel still pivot their music around a central pitch, usually through repetition and rhythmic accent. A whole-tone scale can be centered on any pitch which receives the proper emphasis--Debussy and Ravel made sure that our ears were still directed toward a point of focus. And they did not use the whole-tone scale, or any other system of notes, exclusively. Some of the ancient Greek modes made their way back into their music, which meant that the dominant might still govern a large portion of a piece of music, since all of those modes (save one) contain the dominant note.

It was a cleverly-devised non-system of mix and match (Debussy once complained that all the modes really should be treated as one single mode with diverse manifestations rather than being chopped up and thought of separately). The music of both men also included sensuous harmonies and exciting florid passages (sweeping runs of notes) which delight the ear (and look great on the page, too, by the way)--all ingredients perfect for making them crowd favorites.

This is music, then, that blurs the traditional picture of note-relations that govern musical structure, but does not attack that framework in an overt or unfriendly way. It was compared with a style of painting which was then enjoying popularity in art circles, "impressionism." Here is a kind of painting which does not seek to replicate its subject (cameras were doing that, and artists were now searching for ways to distinguish themselves) but, unlike more abstract forms of painting, still does represent something recognizable of the world--a landscape is still a landscape, a person a person. Now, however, the painter is less concerned with meticulous detail, and presents the grand sweep with various dabs of paint which intentionally present the scene out of focus.

Debussy, like most creators, hated the category into which he was placed, protesting all the while; Ravel hated the fact that he'd gotten to some of these innovations first and that Debussy had 'stolen' them. The music of both of them not only sounds unique to the individual, but unlike anything else in music. You need only hear a measure to know it.


Serialism is probably the most generally hated kind of 20th century music. If impressionism found a way to breathe new life into an old system without seeming to fundamentally challenge it, Serialism brooked no such compromise. It represents an outright rejection of everything that came before it. Even the idea of having a central note that all the other notes clustered around was rejected. In fact, all notes would be treated equally from then on.

In order to erase any idea that some notes are getting more attention than others, a tone row became the tool of choice. In a tone row, each of the 12 notes of the octave are played exactly once. They cannot be repeated until all the other notes have a chance to sound. Then they all get exactly one turn the second time through, and so on. Think of it like musical communism. There is no central authority--everybody is exactly the same. Everyone shares what they have and we all get along great because nobody is envious of anybody else's brilliance.

And it worked about as well as communism, too. In order to create a piece out of such a rigid technique, a whole raft of new mathematical procedures were invented (bureaucracy?). The tone row could be varied by transposing everything up a step or two, by turning it upside down, playing it backward, and so on (backward, upside down and starting 3 half-steps higher, for instance!). At first, while its creators were slowly figuring all this out, serial pieces tended to be very short. Eventually, though, they too became long and complex.

Serialism's proponents had a long and uphill climb because the music they were writing didn't even vaguely resemble anything that had come before. There was nothing melodious, rhythmically catchy, or harmonically beautiful about it. Serialism's first author, Arnold Schoenberg, gave us the twelve-tone technique described above but did not see fit to radically alter concepts of rhythm. Later composers, however, decided that rhythm, too, should be treated as a non-repetitive element. Eventually, dynamics, too, and the choice of instruments, articulation (staccato or legato) and pretty much every other musical element one could think of, became subject to the same rigorous principle. Did you use a sixteenth note already? Then it is off-limits until all the rest of the note values have been used. Pianissimo (very soft) is only available for one single note in each series.

Serialism developed into a highly controlled series of mathematically informed choices. Notes were put on the page, not because they sounded good in the composer's ear, but because the mathematical manipulations the composer was using demanded they be put there. Almost nobody could recognize those manipulations, unlike those of past centuries, when a tune, turned upside down or played backward, might have been noticeably related to its progenitor. It was even hard to distinguish this highly controlled music from its complete opposite, music which was written with no controls at all, and was generated entirely randomly, divorced from the will of the composer ('aleotoric,' or 'chance' music). By the time composers like Anton Webern and Alban Berg had given way to Pierre Boulez, in the middle of the century, the irony of this completely controlled music sounding indistinguishable from its opposite was evident even to Boulez.


The history of ideas sometimes seems as if the humans who contributed to it were a bunch of inexperienced canoeists; first we over steer in one direction, then, sheer panic overtakes us and we steer wildly in the other. And so on. In art, ideas about strict control often give way to indulgences in wild artistic freedom, form and balance seem to cancel out expression and inspiration, and then in turn be threatened by those very things. If this is a grave oversimplification (and it is) there are always commentators who make sure we will interpret the vast, complex movements of art history in this competitive way.

Those whose music is fed on ideas (rather than on whether it sells a lot of records) have always fought musical duels on the grounds of those ideas--the 20th century has nothing new to contribute to the world of musical vituperation. But if 'the system' was worn out, and practically everyone agreed that things couldn't go on the way they had before, what was the answer? Throw it out? Or start over? Or find a way to breathe new life into it? We have already met with one answer for each alternative. Now we will engage two more.

The term neo- suggests that we are going to revisit the past.  But an artist never visits the past without comment. Igor Stravinsky certainly didn't; he was used to provoking plenty of comment from the musical community as well. And as he entered his middle years he had grown tired of the vast musical canvas on which he was painting challenges to tonality. The ballets of those early years, "The Rite of Spring," "Petrouchka,"  "The Firebird," had all given scandal-loving Parisians something to talk about besides trying to get a grip on the music itself. But Stravinsky now looked for more discipline in his writing, and he found it in a classical sense of proportion and form.

Although the kind of clear phrasing and relatively spare textures that classicism promotes had been part of the European musical fabric as recently as about 1800, a lot had changed in the meantime. Harmony in particular had travelled far from the closed system of Mozart's era. By refusing to ignore the progress of harmony over the last century and a half, Stravinsky created music that might, on first blush, strike one as Mozart with a lot of wrong notes. There is certainly more going on here than that.

One thing that is going on is that Stravinsky is still battling with Classicism's opposite tendency in art, Romanticism. In the middle of the twentieth century the works of Wagner and Brahms were already established as the unchallenged masterworks of the musical canon. And Romanticism in musical art had had such a long and dominant ride that musicians were still trying to shake off its influence throughout much of the 20th century. Stravinsky's personal character, in particular, did not side with the lush lyricism of a vast army of violins, music which exults the individual but requires an increasing number of "musical servants' to bring it about; instead, he wrote pieces for small and unusual groupings of instruments, shorter in length, more contained in scope, and resistant, he thought, to interpretive flights of individual expression. "Why can't you just follow the marks on the page?" he complained of musicians who didn't play his works the way he himself had performed them. This new objectivism, perhaps a new musical conservatism, has never found a home in the hearts of a public enamored with Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff.


In a century in which technology combined with new attitudes and tools of scholarship made looking back at the past more prevalent, re-interpretations of the music of old was inevitable. And if Classicism could go under the knife, why not Romanticism itself?

It was hard, in an era in which humankind experienced two world wars and a depression, to celebrate unabashed the same kind of unbridled songfulness of the century that led up to it; optimism was hardly in the artistic air in the first half of the 20th century. It was easier to be a cynic, to lay over these soaring melodies with a varnish of sarcasm-- and classicism, with its curt cadences and wry rhythms, was a better match for those 'sentiments.'  Perfect, perhaps, for Sergei Prokoffiev, who listed, among his compositional characteristics, the tendency to 'step on the throat of [his] own song'--one moment we are rhapsodically soaring through the high register of our very souls, the next we have been dashed to harsh earth by a brutal chord progression in the wrong key. The militancy of the march drowns out the joy of the waltz.

But in order to comment wryly on such Romantic excess, the naivet´┐Ż of a soul that did not know the depths of which we are capable, one first has to write an expressive melody, and clothe it in splendor. And so, in Prokoffiev, we have the unification of two opposites: a tightly controlled playground for his acerbic wit and wiry athleticism, and the vast expanse of his soul's longing, which is no longer given the free reign of the artistically unaware nineteenth century. We have entered the machine age, and Prokoffiev's music abounds in machinelike effects, but it is altogether human as well.

The melodious expressions of a reborn Romanticism soon caught on with a vast panoply of composers. Once a new vocabulary of modes, harmonies, metric practices, and instrumental resources proved that you could be a Romantic again without sounding like warmed over Tchaikovsky, composers throughout the latter 20th century flocked to it; a few, their biographers love to point out, never left. The banner movement for a new dominance of tonality, the movement at first did battle directly with Serialism and various forms of Atonality; later, it gained the upper hand, as, by the 1980s, scores of composers who had once made their artistic signature of non-tonal works did a one-eighty and returned to the fold, and as exultant Christian bumper stickers like to proclaim that "Nietzsche is dead" according to God (a reversal of Nietzsche's proclamation of well over a century ago), these 'tonalists' have us convinced that atonality in its various forms has proven to be, after all, a musical-historical dead end, despite the surety of its early practitioners that it was to be the salvation of music, and its very future.

That is how it appears for the present. Today neo-Romanticism is so prevalent that it is most likely the dominant language of new musical composition, though, in place of the term, composers and their publicists will tell you that their music is 'accessible', meaning it is ear-friendly, and should not fill you with the fear that modern music has on a wary public, or at the very least that they are 'eclectic', meaning that they are capable of writing in many styles, and you are bound to like some of them!


The suffix -ism seems, in its 20th century musical context, to imply an exaggerated emphasis on something. Among its several meanings according to this online dictionary it denotes "a principle, belief or movement" which sums up the often propogandistic attitude of its creators or their disciples, "a form of prejudice or discrimination" which also describes the attitudes of those who fought duels in words over the validity of each approach and its eventual importance to music history, and the "defining attribute of a person or thing" which probably comes closest to what the creators of these terms were trying to get our ears around, even if it sometimes seems in the process that the 20th century suffered from "labelism."

Perhaps wearied of all the noise and the excess, a few composers decided it wasn't necessary to exult in that kind of musical cerebralism. Things had indeed gotten very complicated. As a reaction to all the sonic clutter, the strained originality, and the sheer busyness of some styles, a few composers decided that the wisest thing music could say was very little. They sought to combine the influences of Eastern, meditative practices with simple tonal progressions, and in the process bridge the by now gargantuan gulf between high art and what the man on the street could understand.

This music proceeded in no great hurry--it might take half-an-hour to say what could have been said in a few measures. There are huge amounts of repetition in this style. An idea, once stated, might be played unaltered dozens of times before any change occurs in the music at all, and then it might only be the addition of a single note; this signal event then starts a new cycle of repetition.

Like all of the isms, minimalism has now had a long history and many practitioners. The early trio of Phillip Glass, Steve Reich, and John Adams have all had commercially successful ventures into areas that traditionally do not bless composers with piles of cash, probably because their music is very easy to listen to--or have on in the background while you are doing something else. It often evokes for the hearer a calm mental state, which is at a premium in much of Western, industrialized society these days.

Unlike other approaches which involved a philosophy of 'letting go' of our need to control life, such as John Cage's 'chance music' which sometimes involved composing music by flipping coins or other methods designed to divorce the will from the act of creation, Minimalism is usually tonal, which is to say it keeps to the same harmonic, melodic, and usually rhythmic vocabulary of the past. Although today it is often influenced by other less simple ideas and styles, it has been, and sometimes still is, music that a four year old could digest (except that your four-year old probably bores easily). Unlike its equivalent in other arts--say, a giant square on a canvas--Minimalism does not typically generate complaints from the average musical consumer the way simple (and large) examples of the visual arts do. You will, however, sometimes hear musicians complaining about playing it.


Aleotoric Music

Technically not an -ism, aleatoric, or chance music, was a musical phenomenon that belongs to the 20th century, thus it belongs on this page. If the master narrative was one of crises, then, typically, the humans who reacted to this state of emergency did so with a number of solutions. All of them involved some form of rejection of what had come before, the question was what, or how much, do you reject?  Like minimalism, the chance composer wanted to radically revise the idea that it was necessary to visit some kind of logical coherence on musical discourse. Where was music always going in such a hurry? Did it have to have a goal? A structure of high points and low points? Couldn't it just simply be? In other words, who needs form, and, for that matter, who needs grammar? Let us go a step further, and suggest that the very determination to control noise, perhaps the postulate at the very heart of music from its earliest days, needs to be eliminated. Rather than creating music by intentionally joining predetermined sounds together, why not flip coins, draw straws, or simply allow whatever sounds happen to be in the environment while the piece is being 'performed' to constitute the composition?

John Cage's name must inevitably come up at this point; he was the most visible of the this school, which seemed a reaction against everything else the 20th century had offered--indeed, everything else that music had ever had to offer.  Perhaps Cage's most famous piece involves a pianist seated at the piano for over four minutes, playing absolutely nothing and allowing the random sounds in the room and those audible from outside to be the 'music.' Some of his others involve radios being randomly tuned to various stations--

Cage began his flight away from predetermined sounds in the 1950s by introducing the 'prepared piano', in which various items are place on the piano's strings to alter the sound. An early 'sonata' seems to be played by a completely different instrument! As his thinking progressed, he seemed more determined to completely divorce his will from the composition process, despite the inherent problems this stance presents. And he wrote several books which communicate his desires not to communicate anything, for example "I have nothing to say and I am Saying it" or "Don't try to improve the world, you will only make things worse." One of them contains an anecdote in which he had read an annoyed quote from Leonardo da Vinci, who had complained about people who didn't work hard to achieve anything but basically sat on their butts and did nothing ('mere producers of dung' was, I believe, his phrase). Cage's friend comments "Maybe they were just good Buddhists!"--A story which may illustrate the difference in attitude between the stereotypical West and the stereotypical East. Throughout the 60s and 70s, when young Americans had grown very disillusioned with 'the system' in general, and could find no solution to their universal disgust than to drop out, this philosophy of letting go of everything had resonance. It is also connected, in the visual arts, with the 'performance art' phenomenon, which gets about as little respect from the man on the street as the music of chance. Challenging the most fundamental assumptions about anything is never an easy road, and, even among its most passionate disciples, it begs the question, where do you go from here? If music is now anything, has it reached its apotheosis? Will there ever be another composer?



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